Zen in the big city

This article has been published…read it here or at China Daily:

Some readers have noticed my writing absent from these pages over the last month. I took a small hiatus from the keyboard to immerse myself in another passion – yoga.

Over thirty days, I took forty-eight hot yoga classes (that’s ninety minutes each in a room heated to forty degrees) and attended over one hundred hours of lectures on anatomy, philosophy and history. To cram this much yoga into that many days, I was up at six AM and in bed long past ten PM daily to bend, stretch, and memorize. By the end of week one, I had taken to calling the program “yoga boot camp.” Luckily, “boot camp” wasn’t set on a military training ground, but at a luxury resort on the southern coast of Thailand.

Before I left for Thailand, most friends were encouraging of my ambitious undertaking. But a few said it like it was:

“Are you crazy?”

“Why would you spend the money to go work? Why not just relax on the beach?”

Why did I do it? To find Nirvana, I jokingly explained to the friends who questioned my sanity. But on a more practical level, I wanted to be certified as a yoga instructor, so I could come back to share what I enjoy with more people.

Sure enough, during the month of intense exercise and soaking in of yogic principles (while eating an immensely healthy diet of mostly vegetables) I was cool as a cucumber, a big change from my usual hot-tempered Beijinger alter ego. Daily reading of pithy aphorisms on life that the sages wrote down thousands of years ago helped me “still the fluctuations of my mind.”

Anyone who has been to a yoga class has seen that besides incredibly toned arms, yogis also sport a bewildering calm. They seem to float on a happy cloud high above petty daily problems. Now I know their secret – they owe their Zen-like state to a true understanding of the meaning behind these arcane statements:

“From the practicing of contentment the highest happiness is gained.”

“When the breath fluctuates, the mind fluctuates; when the breath is still, the mind is still.”

“Think not of internal object, neither of external object. Abandon all thinking. Think of nothing, not even thinking itself.”

When I was in Thailand, it was easy to pretend that I grasped the profound meanings and emulate the calm of long-time yoga practitioners. After all, I was living in a sunny paradise with room service and a saltwater swimming pool. Besides the cushy amenities, there were also few distractions at “boot camp” – just sun, sea and books. Alcohol and tobacco, along with other unhealthy elements, like fried chicken, were banned from the ultra-healthy premises. Although each day was busy, the two-minute strolling commute from my room to the classroom could hardly rival Beijing’s rush hour traffic. Put simply, there was little to stir the fluctuations of my mind, my moods, while I was away.

When I stepped off “boot camp” grounds to return to reality, my yoga was put to the test. You know what I’m talking about, those little trying instances that upset us each day in Beijing. Someone cutting in front of you in line, on the sidewalk or in a lane of traffic. People walking through doors you’ve taken the trouble to open with the nonchalance of hotel guests gliding past a doorman. Having to shout and wave your arms wildly just to get a waiter to come take an order.

So, the real challenge, I’m discovering, is how to maintain the calm of a yogi in the bustle of the big city? I caught myself halfway as I started launching into a snappy retort to a taxi driver who grilled me on which route to take less than twelve hours after touching down in Beijing. (How am I supposed to know? He’s the one who’s paid to drive!). Over the last week, as I settled back into my metropolitan life, I’ve been extra mindful of my reactions. Whenever something tempts a rise out of me, I ask, “Why is this bothering me so much?” Most of the time, just pausing to question myself is enough to make me realize that whatever the thing is, it’s no big deal.

Perhaps this will be the way forward for me: it’s impossible to stay cool all the time, but as long as I put a little thought into my words and actions, I’m getting a step closer to enlightened bliss.

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3 thoughts on “Zen in the big city

  1. so well expessed Qi,
    yes i agree with you, like i wrote in my email,
    I feel like I am on sedatives, amongst the
    chaos in my life…….does it really matter?
    my car window was open whilst doing a yoga class,
    and it started pouring, and I just thought,
    oh well the car will be wet,,, and then at some point when the sun comes out it will dry!!!
    so not my usual self!! I hear ya sister

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