Higher education just got higher

by Naseem Salila Gulamhusein

As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world, as in being able to remake ourselves.

– Mohandas Gandhi

While finishing a degree at UBC, I dreamed of a curriculum that included yoga and wellness. I had already completed a degree at Langara College and I was well aware of the stress and pressure placed on students to succeed. I also questioned the logic of having to take some of the classes deemed “mandatory” to obtain a degree and I thought colleges and universities would be wise to include a six-credit course in yoga and holistic health. This way, when students got into the “real world,” they would have some valuable tools to deal with the changes and challenges of life.

In 1999, I was heading down the path to depression; life was taking its toll on me and sadness consumed my heart. I remember leaving campus one day after seeing a psychologist who had recommended I go on Prozac. I knew this was not an answer to my problems. Walking away from the institution, I was aware that I needed to make a choice between a path of suffering (where I was getting great marks) or embracing a path towards peace. In that moment, I remembered a quote my uncle had written in a yoga book: “When you surrender to emptiness, you will find happiness.”

The Centre for Holistic Health Studies at Langara College states its purpose as follows: “…to re-evaluate how health is created in the mind, body and spirit by expanding a client centred healthcare model that awakens the body’s innate healing potential and opens the path of the Heart.” After selecting the centre from a long list of potential workplaces that would be a good fit for my skills and passions, I was called in for an interview for the position of program coordinator.

During the interview, we talked about a number of things in relation to the programs. I spoke about wanting to share my passion for teaching yoga, and the interview changed into a larger discussion about creating a yoga teacher-training program at Langara. It would be vital to create a balance between the art and science of yoga and program development; and conversations with the Dean and others helped clarify how we could accomplish this in a college setting.

Spirituality and religion have always been a part of my life. Growing up, I was exposed to a diverse cultural and religious background. My father is Ismaili Muslim, born is East Africa, and my mother is Catholic, born in Northern Ireland. As a little girl, on Friday nights I would accompany my father when he went to the mosque. On Sundays, I attended church with my mother. Hearing the words of God, Allah, Jesus and Mohamed, I would think to myself how similar they all sounded; the meaning and message were about living by one’s virtues and helping those in need.

My mother and father struggled to find a balance and I soon came to understand why people fight over religion. Because of their interracial marriage, my parents were on the fringe of their own religions, providing me with a rich, cultural experience. In my teenage years, my father took me to my first yoga class, where I met my first teacher, a woman named Joy who suggested that one day I teach yoga. In saying that, she sealed my destiny.

My yoga-training journey brought me many blessings and the honour of studying with four great teachers: the first of which are my parents, who have taught me patience; the second, Yogi Bhajan (Kundalini yoga), taught me courage; the third, Gurumayi (Siddha yoga), taught me to follow my heart, and, to this day, Baba Hari Dass (classical Ashtanga and Raja Yoga) teaches me selfless service and devotion.

In 2001, I ended up in New Mexico with a backpack and a small tent, which would be my only possessions for the next six months. I couldn’t help but ask myself, “What am I doing?” but I knew there was no turning back. I had a strong desire to burn off the karma of sadness and suffering and my days consisted of chanting every morning at 4 AM, yoga, meditation and working in the gardens and the office. On the first day of our yoga teacher-training, Yogi Bhajan advised, “You are going to work through your stuff now!” and he made us hold our arms in the air for what seems like hours. After I completed my stay there, he admonished me to go and teach the world.

After travelling and teaching yoga full time for several years, my life took a dramatic turn. Having just spent more than a year in service at the Mount Madonna Center in Northern California and the Salt Spring Centre of Yoga in BC, I received news that my beloved mother in Ottawa had breast cancer. The prognosis was not good – she had three to six months to live. My reality crashed around me as I fell to the ground in deep sadness. Only a few days before, I had talked with a close friend about what it would be like to lose a parent. I was not prepared, but bolstered with the support of community, I headed home to do my duty. Initially, my duty to my family took me to Ottawa, but it was my love for my mother that kept me there. Hospitals, chemotherapy, painkillers, nausea, cooking, laughter, forgiveness and tears became our day-to-day reality. Having lived independently for so many years, I was once again a daughter, living at home.

I have heard that the greatest test of anyone’s practice is to move back home with parents and continue to remain in a state of shanti (peace). Three to six months turned into 18 months and I was honoured to be by my mother’s side during the process. In the summer of 2006, the cancer consumed my mother’s body, the battle was over and all that remained was to surrender. In the face of death, all I knew to do was chant. Both the Catholic priest and the Mukhi Kamadia from the mosque gave the Last Rights and I chanted the shanti mantra so that peace would prevail.

I was graced by watching my mother live and die without fear. She offered all of her suffering to God and forgave those who had trespassed against her. In her final hours, I watched the true meaning of life unfold. We come into this world on an inhale and we literally leave on an exhale. Everything in between is an experience that brings us closer to our inner truth and divine consciousness. Life is pairs of opposites seeking balance and union (yoga). Balance arises when we give up suffering, negativity and fear.

In the face of fear, there is always love and this is what guides me to live in the world. I choose to live and love through the path of devotion and action. After my mother’s death, I travelled with my beloved teacher Baba Hari Dass to India. For two months, I lived at Sri Ram Ashram, an orphanage for 68 destitute and orphaned children and school for 500 children. It is also a charitable medical clinic. It was there that my feelings of gratitude for having the love of a mother became more than I can ever express.

All these experiences brought me back to Vancouver in the fall of 2007, where I was led to Langara College to follow my dream at the Centre for Holistic Health Studies. Langara College is the first college in Canada to offer a 250-hour, experiential yoga teacher-training certificate program, which offers students the opportunity to study and practice these ancient teachings, which can bring about personal transformation, as well as allowing them to develop a daily at-home yoga and meditation practice.

One of the foundations of yoga is a regular daily practice (sadhana). Through meditation, self-affirming thinking and developing a positive approach to life, students learn how to solve personal challenges and promote peaceful change in society. They also gain the knowledge and skills to effectively teach mindful yoga classes and deliver workshops to diverse groups.

It is our life experiences that make us great teachers. We can only teach people from where we have gone before. Teaching yoga is a life journey, which begins with cultivating awareness of one’s mind, body and soul and a strong desire to free oneself from the bondage of suffering. When we are free, life becomes a joyous dance with the divine. The heart opens and blossoms, providing beauty and light to all.

Naseem Salila Gulamhusein is the Yoga Teacher Training Program Coordinator and Teacher Trainer at Langara College. She has taught all levels of students internationally and has instructed for yoga teacher training programs in Canada and the US. ngulamhusein@langara.bc.ca,
www.holistichealthstudies.com

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