My yoga story

I first encountered yoga at university in California in 1999. For ten years, I “did” yoga here and there, going to class once a month, following instructions to get into the postures with funny animal names (seriously, Downward Dog?), sometimes breaking a sweat and occasionally (maybe) remembering to breathe.

In 2009, everything changed – love, death, life. After doing a weeklong fasting retreat on a desperate whim, yoga finally “clicked” with me. Breath, meditation, flexibility, and the quietness of being, it all started to make sense. Shortly after, I quit my job, opening up the mental and physical space that led to unexpected adventures. Yoga was my constant throughout.

Inevitably, I began to walk on which many yogis serendipitously find themselves. I wanted to share yoga with others. So I received my 200-hr teacher training at Absolute Yoga in 2010 and I’ve been teaching vinyasa classes in English and Mandarin since. I travel frequently for work and for leisure, always finding my way in a new city by visiting local yoga studios. I feel instantly “at home” on my mat wherever I set it down around the world.

Beyond physical postures, yoga has brought music, philosophy, art, and creativity into my life. I can better balance the cerebral with the spiritual and emotional. I’m better at my day job because I practice yoga. I’m a better friend, wife, daughter, and colleague because of my practice.

Now I get it: yoga isn’t something I “do.” It’s a way of a life, a platform for discovering the world around me.

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What does music have to do with yoga? What’s kirtan?

Kirtan is the practice of call-and-response chanting most often performed in the bhakti yoga tradition. The singing of mantras, accompanied by instruments such as the harmonium and tablas, helps you tap into the energy of your heart, and of the universal vibrations around you. Ever been to a party and danced yourself “high” to a DJ’s awesome mix? That’s kind of what kirtan is like, except it’s sometimes a party held in a yoga studio room without any alcohol.

Qrious playing the harmonium

Qrious playing the harmonium


In modern times, kirtan has been popularized by western musicians like Jai Uttal. Many modern yoga teachings, such as at the Jivamukti Yoga School in the US, also artfully use music to bring students into meditative moods or high energy states, leaving you with the ultimate “yoga high” at the end of class.

Think you’ve never sung a mantra before? Think again. “Aum” – or “Om” – is the most popular mantra in the world. If you’ve chanted three times at the start or end of a yoga class, then you’re already a beginner kirtankar.

Below is an excerpt from Jai Uttal’s “Invocation” track on the album “Kirtan!” that explains more about this practice. Hope to see you on September 8 at Chaoyang Park for some kirtan along with our yoga practice!

Nowadays most people think of yoga as a system of exercise. But it was much much more than that. The yogis of old recognized that one of the big components of human beings is the heart, the center of emotions. We can tune our body like crazy, we can become super smart, but what about the emotions? They seem to rise and fall. They seem to go like waves of the sea. We never know what’s going to happen with our emotions. We try to control them, we try to suppress them.

But the old yogis knew that that wasn’t the way. They knew that these emotions were a crucial part of bringing a human being to divine consciousness. They knew that these emotions weren’t a mistake. They said, “Rather than get rid of them, use these emotions. These are your fuel. These are your energy.”

Western kirtan master Jai Uttal playing

Western kirtan master Jai Uttal playing


They created bhakti yoga… Kirtan is the repetition of the many many names of god…[It] doesn’t matter which name we chant, which mantra we sing. It’s all a vessel for our unspoken prayers to sail into the river, to the source of the river, to the divine infinite cosmic source. The music has changed, but the words of mantras have remained the same for centuries.

Most of us are not used to singing. Most of us are self-conscious about singing. Most of us are inhibited about singing. And likewise, most of us don’t really know how to express our emotions. We have a limited range in our lives that we have been conditioned to feel comfortable with. But, wow, we have so much inside of us. And the more that we express, the more that we open up, the more that we release, the richer our lives are, the richer our hearts are.

At first you’re a little shy…then you get into it…and the window opens, the feelings open… the more we can give up our inhibitions the more we can give up our self-judgment of what we sound like, the deeper and more profound the experience can be.

Try it. Make it an experiment. Put the analytical mind outside for a minute. Just sing a little bit. The most important thing is to not critique your experience… Put your hand on your heart and feel the vibrations the heart makes at its center. I put my hand there and it wakes up a little bit more and I sing outward. Sometimes I also sing inward, very softly, into that place, into that great great ocean of divine feelings inside of me.

Stop judging others so harshly, and you’ll stop judging yourself so harshly…

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The things we did when we were younger…

We, in our twenties, made elitist jokes about “retail bankers.” People who don’t work on Wall Street don’t get the punch line. Thank goodness they don’t. Because the world doesn’t need this much presumption.

We, as teenagers, joked about certain “tomboys” at school, based on their pixie haircuts and devil-may-care attitudes. Our Danish friend’s artist mother admonished, “Girls, don’t label people so.” That was the first time we knew we had learned to judge.

We, nine years old in the back of the car, nodded apprehensively when the adults up front turned the corners of their mouths down to discuss a single mother, an unwed thirty-something female, and other disapprove-able characters. We pretended to know what these life choices meant. But inside, a little question formed: “Who decided these things are ‘wrong’?” And a fear too: “What if I grow up ‘wrong’ without meaning to?”

 

As we grew up, we carried these thoughts, labels, frameworks, expectations around with us. To far away places. To different times. To instances where they no longer made no sense (if they ever did make sense). Little by little, and then a lot by a lot, we judged everything and everyone around us. And most of all, we judged ourselves. We decided this was “good” and that was “bad,” not because we knew but because we never thought to question. Then the life cycle of judgments really took off. We derided other people’s choices, because they made us feel better, more secure, about our own.

We can go through life like this. Or we can choose to stop for a moment, think for a while, and step outside the walled garden of judgments we’ve built around ourselves. Think about it, if you stopped calling others “ugly,” might you allow yourself more ways to feel beautiful? If you stopped calling others “weak,” might you give yourself more room to fail? If you stopped calling others “poor,” might you ease the pressure of building up riches on yourself?

So, stop, think, and step outside. Who knows what may lie out there for you, in a boundless world where everything is considered “good” because nothing is considered “bad”?

For this, I run…

If we’re Facebook friends then you know I’ve been running up a storm of late. Why do I run?

Because I now can (couldn’t run for 10 minutes on the treadmill without getting side stitches before)
Because I love breaking a sweat in the morning
Because listening to Black Eyed Peas is even more enjoyable when I can pace to the beat
Because I now wake up with a purpose (5k –> 7k –> 10k)
Annnd, because running has helped with my yoga practice

I’ve been practicing arm balances for a while. I love the freedom of “flying,” and the childish delight I get at the tipping point. When my toes leave the mat I still squeal a little “wheeee!” to myself inside (every single time). My asana goal this year is to master the handstand. Surprisingly, running is really helping me build up my core strength and has become a good precursor to my handstand practice.

This video has made the rounds, but I love it so much I want to share it here. Yes, it’s an ad for a commercial gym; yes, it looks a little like soft p*rn; and, no, I have no idea what the sleeping guy has to do with all the amazing postures Briohny is doing. But, it’s pretty darned cool.

Watch it! I hope, some time not too far into the future, to make my own gravity-defying video.

Thoughts on “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body”

This provocatively titled NYT article has been making the rounds online and friends of mine have asked me for my thoughts. So, here they are, my rudimentary typed-in-a-hurry-because-I-should-be-working thoughts on a vast vast subject…

The article would be more aptly titled “How YOU Can Wreck your Body”, not “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.”

For precise reasons outlined in this article I have – wait for my sweeping statement – had “issues” with the “boot camp” school of yoga often practiced in North America. Now that’s a huge generalization, as there are plenty of teachers, studios and schools that don’t emphasize the “impressive / acrobatic / supposedly advanced” postures. But, overwhelmingly mainstream yoga in America is about adrenaline, gravity-defying feats, and pushing yourself hard. Case in point, Bikram is popular in America and I find the Bikram style of teaching a little like beating your (stressed out white collar) students into submission. I have walked out of Bikram classes because the teachers felt like “yoga Nazis.” Who apart from the student himself is to know when is the right time to take a break, drink some water, or stop following the sequence all together? It’s supremely egotistical of a teacher to think that he sets the pace 100%.

Another example, walk into a “beginner” or “intermediate” level class in NY and you’ll find people springing into hand stands all over the place. When I first moved to Asia I was surprised to find very “advanced” students spending a lot of time just holding a Triangle pose and never getting into any inversions at all. But this is what yoga is really about. As Black is quoted saying in the article, “awareness is more important than rushing through a series of postures just to say you’d done them.”

If you’ve truly embraced yoga then you know better than anyone else that it doesn’t matter what you look like, who’s looking, and who’s impressed. I haven’t gotten there yet, but I try to remind myself of why I practice yoga. It’s not to look good, not to be cool, and certainly not for the nice glossy photos (which I do enjoy) that I post on Facebook. It’s for my inner calm, my physical health, and happiness which I can share with others.

People do into injuries while practicing yoga and it often happens when you’ve pushed yourself too hard, or a “bad” teacher has pushed you too hard. Remember, if you’re doing it “right” with the “right” people, then you shouldn’t be getting hurt. The first and last lessons I learned at teacher training were to pay attention to student safety and to let people go at their own pace. We all need to be reminded, but in many North American classrooms we aren’t reminded, and yoga becomes just another part of the mainstream corporate culture of “go go go!”

So, these are my thoughts – happy to hear others’ on this controversial topic!

A little bird named…

…Josh D brought me some happy images this morning. (And boy did I need some cheerful thoughts after biking around -10C Beijing at 8am trying to deal with China’s Social Security system, of which I am now woefully a member). Check out the Wokaishi.com yoga mock-up pages below. Never mind that the headings are just dummies for now, but soon we’ll see “Qi yoga” videos in action! Melikes!

Sun Salutation A video mock-up

Yoga page mock-up

Apparently I’m a cliché

My good friend and fellow yogini WH sent me this link today, which really burst my yogic bubble. And all along I’ve been thinking I was special and finding The One Truth! (This awesomely funny yoga humor is copied from Lee Anne Finfinger’s article on Elephant Journal).

The 10 things you’ll do once you start yoga (that have nothing to do with yoga)
…presented here with my annotations

1. At least once, you will force yourself to try to be vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, gluten-free (insert any over-zealous diet here)/ drink Kombucha/ buy bottled water before class and pour it into your sustainable water bottle before the teacher/students/Whole Foods cashier next to you sees. (If you’re craving meat, just eat it! On your deathbed, will you really be glad that you didn’t have that steak on your 30thBirthday?)

Check. Just did all of the above for 10 days, round 3 of 2011.

2. Your iPod will now include a heavy serving of Kirtan music that you will listen to on your very long commute to your yoga studio (It’s cool; if you want to listen to Kirtan occasionally, go for it! When you start listening to it while driving and falling asleep — time to go back to your old playlists. Do NOT switch over to NPR!)

Jai Uttal is all over my iPod, even though I don’t have a long commute for an excuse.

3. You will pretend not to notice that your ass now fits in a size 6 instead of an 8, but you’re secretly thrilled. (When you get down to a 4 though, watch it. People will talk.)

Hate to be a skinny b*tch here but I was nevr a size 8.

4. You will go back to your natural hair color/ remove your hair extensions/ cut your hair short in an attempt to stop paying so much attention to your vanity. (Try not to cut it too short — the growing out process is a bitch and then you’ll just need more hair extensions. I did.)

Definitely stopped doing things to my hair and have let it grow wild from time to time, before trimming it to stay appropriate at my day job!

5. You’ll attempt to read the Yoga Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita, or the Upanishads while your stack of fashion magazines calls to you from the next room. (Really, why can’t I like Rachel Zoe and yoga? Now that I’m thin enough to actually wear her clothes, why should I pretend I don’t want to?) (See #3.)

Check. Check. Check. How many bookmarked yoga books do I have sitting on my night table?!

6. You will take a retreat. Hello, Kripalu! (It’s ok — those other people probably are weirdos. So are you. Eat your breakfast and shut up. No really, shut the fuck up – it’s a silent breakfast.)

Um, I know what Kripalu is and I have taken a retreat, just not there…yet.

7. You’ll start taking photos of yourself in yoga poses. Often. And you’ll think that other people care. It’s like the modern-day version of the vacation slideshow. No one gives a shit, but they’ll pretend like they do so that you do the same when they whip out their own photos.

Actually, I get professional photographer friends to take photos of me in yoga poses. Even better!

8. You will at some point wear mala beads, which will break all over the floor of your 6:15am class. (Basically, it’ll end about as well as when I wore my Grandmother’s rosary beads to dinner at age 6. Silver Lining: The company was kind enough to re-string them for free, and now I just wear them like a really cool wrap bracelet. It’s very hippie chic. Thank you September Vogue.) (See #5)

Good to know that as I keep practicing and teaching there are new heights to scale — haven’t worn mala beads yet except at teacher training graduation, and as part of a costume.

9. You will become a cheap date. Remember, you just dropped two sizes and you continue to spend at least an hour a day sweating and twisting and breathing. You’ll be buzzed from one drink!

Always been a cheap date, and getting cheaper by the day!

10. You’ll get over yourself. If you teach yoga, you’ll hope that people show up because they like taking class from who you really are. If you practice yoga, you’ll keep showing up and you’ll realize that the other shit doesn’t matter.

Truth. See my “11 Unexpected Things in 2011” post, item # 3.