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…



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”?

“Super leftover girl”…Super Shengnv!

Photo art credit: ROSEANN LAKE, LEO LEE, AND RYAN MYERS @ The World of Chinese magazine

Photo art credit: ROSEANN LAKE, LEO LEE, AND RYAN MYERS @ The World of Chinese magazine

“It’s a girl… It’s an old girl… It’s ‘Super Old Maid’!” My book-writing friend RL has teamed up with the magazine I used to edit and put together an awesome comic series about her personal superhero, Super Shengnv! For those of you who don’t know, “shengnv” is a single girl heading into “old maid” territory, which poses a big headache to The All-China Women’s Federation and our population planning honchos. Read more of Super Shengnv’s adventures here!

For the a more thorough look at China’s gender imbalance and preponderance of singles, check out RL’s article “Bachelor Padding” in Foreign Policy magazine.

Best story to come out of China this holiday season: rent-a-boyfriend

Chinese New Year is just around the corner (new year’s eve = Feb 9)! Department stores are slashing prices, the city’s armies of courier delivery boys have hung up their electric bike keys and gone home (what a tragedy to discover last night that none of the vendors on Taobao will deliver my bunny’s pet food until after Feb 15), and everyone everywhere is talking about “grabbing train tickets” (some Chinese news reports said that the day holiday tickets went on sale ticket sales websites crashed within a minute from all the people logging on).

Oh, and the air has been much much better. We’re still hovering around 150-250 AQI readings for PM2.5, but we’ve seen a couple of days of blue skies. Ever since I read about the government shooting down rain clouds to clear the skies for important national occasions (like the 60th anniversary of the founding of the nation) I’ve become rather suspicious of clear days that coincide around sensitive times. Could the latest streak of visible skies be part of an elaborate plan to keep us Chinese citizens dumb and happy as we head into the most important holiday of the year?

Speaking of keeping people happy, with China’s population imbalance (120 boys : 100 girls) you’d think there wouldn’t be a shortage of boyfriends to bring home to see the folks. In fact, my travels around the country pretty much convinced me that men are throwing all of their (and their parents’) resources at winning over wives — typical middle class dating starts with a woman reviewing a potential suitor’s credentials (parents buying you a house? a car? other goods?). (Read more on China’s demographic woes at Next Big Future and Economist).

Think again. The best story I’ve read in Chinese media this week is the “boyfriend for rent.” Check out this dashing entrepreneur, selling himself as a fake boyfriend to appease worried parents (what? 25 and single? that’s a sin for a young Chinese woman). He bills himself as a “rental boyfriend, cooks and cleans, capable conversationalist, willing to drive long distances.” For the auspicious price of RMB 388.88 you can rent him for a day, or pay RMB 2588.88 for 8 days. Hurry ladies, he has had 57 transactions in the last 30 days!

It is China after all, so where there’s a good idea, somebody’s bound to copy it (and undercut prices). Here are some more rental boyfriends…Looks like there might be enough to go around for every single girl, if you’re willing to pay!


Political parables: talking around the censors

Perhaps one of the quintessentially Chinese qualities is making best of the worst. (Hey, you kind of learn after 5000 years of trying and still not finding one stable system of self-governance!). So, the Chinese part of me got to thinking this week that the upside of all the media censorship (which feels tighter, judging by regular interruptions to my Gmail access, with Xi at the helm) is the political humor. Cultural-linguistically, we Chinese have always been fond of riddles, metaphors, and parables. We don’t like to say what we mean directly. In “New China” (since 1949), that fondness for dressing up literal meaning has been reinforced by Big Brother listening to everything we say.

Photo credit: Kim Jong Ill Looking At Things blog

Lately, there have been many “political parables” – little stories that can pass off as children’s tales or other kinds of jokes – circulating on Weibo and Weixin. The velocity with which they get forwarded around and readers’ comments to them give me a glimpse into what my countrymen and -women think about the current state of domestic and international affairs.

One popular Weibo writer I’ve been following is purportedly Choi from Pyongyang. I want to say he writes satire – a kind of text version of the website Kim Jong Il Looking at Things – but sometimes his adulatory comments on “highest commander Kim” and all the authentic (-looking) photos of North Korea that he posts make me wonder if he isn’t a Chinese-fluent North Korean agent living somewhere secret. I’ll translate here a recent posting, which brought on >1000 comments from Chinese readers and 1500+ forwards:

A 6-year-old boy likes to throw rocks at birds, but he never gets them. His neighbor Big Brother Park taught him how to aim and he got the bird, just like the adults can. The boy was very happy but the villagers started to worry that they would get hit with his rocks. So they had a meeting about locking up the little boy in a dark room. Big Brother Park quickly raised his hand in support. But every adult knows that the baddest person around isn’t the boy, but that guy Park. My story is finished.

Maybe a Western audience wouldn’t think twice about this story, but 2500+ Chinese readers got the point. The blogger is talking about China, North Korea, and the UN/international community. While a few comments laud Pyongyang Choi for his creative writing, most Chinese readers comment by extending the parable:

They’re all bad birds… (Bravo for going nuclear, and down with Western imperialism?)

Big Brother Park is a bad egg indeed, two-faced…The little boy is also bad, never thinking about moving forward but always going against the tide, trying to take the village hostage, lying everyday. Why doesn’t he learn from his neighbor in the south but always taking lessons from that brother in the east? (We have a pro-West liberal on our hands it seems. This guy admonishes China and North Korea, and looks up to South Korea).

That’s because Big Brother Park later learned that the little boy is psychotic. He’s afraid it’ll infect all the other little kids. (China’s afraid of North Korea’s brand of conservative madness spreading to radical conservatives in China).

Just a sampling of the three reader comments above gives you an idea of the spectrum of political opinions among Chinese netizens. Skimming through the 1000+ comments, I have to say a significant portion seem to be “pro-China.” Readers aren’t naive, they know it’s a dirty game in international relations. But at least they’re sympathetic to the quandary their Big Brother Park is in…

Choice political humor and Chinese people’s assessment of domestic politics to come…

What is “middle class” in China?

The article “What Is Middle Class in Manhattan?” in the New York Times took me back to my thoughts on the middle class in China last year. Maybe China is kind of like a blown up version of the Manhattan portrayed in the NYT article, in the sense that nominal income alone won’t tell you much about how someone lives, what their values are, and how their life will turn out, because rapid inflation, especially in real estate prices, have thrown everything out of whack.

This argument below taken from the NYT article almost echoes exactly my thoughts on China, based on extensive travels to China’s mega-cities, suburbs, townships, counties, and even villages in 2012.

An intriguing definition of what helps a person gain entry to the Manhattan middle class was ventured by Jonathan Bowles, the executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, who issued an in-depth report in 2009 that examined the city’s changing class dynamics. “Understanding who is middle class, in New York, but especially Manhattan, is all about when you got into the real estate market,” he said. “If you bought an apartment prior to 2000, or have long been in a rent-stabilized apartment, you could probably be a teacher in Manhattan and be solidly middle class. But if you bought or started renting in a market-rate apartment over the last 5 or 10 years, you could probably be a management consultant and barely have any savings.”

What I found in China last year is that a couple that each makes RMB 6000 (call it $1000) a month in China living in a small city where their family is from probably had their parents buy them a home years ago (no mortgage), free baby care and housekeeping from their relatives (this could run up to $90k a year if you live in a city like San Francisco and have a legal nanny), a car that they might not have paid for themselves (it’s customary for men’s families to provide all the “hard goods” in ordr to attract a serious girlfriend / wife in this day and age), and other communal / cultural non-monetary subsidies. This couple could spend as little as 10-20% of their income on life necessities and has more room for disposable spending (say on imported cosmetics or relatively “expensive” clothing / accessories) than their wages alone suggest.

Contrast that with elite white collars in Beijing, say at an ad agency, making ~RMB 20-25,000 (~$4000) a month. If they’re not from Beijing they’re probably paying rent to the tune of at least RMB 1000 per person, eating out a lot at overpriced restaurants if their parents haven’t moved from the hometown to come help with babysitting or housekeeping, and the possibility of ever owning a home (heck, even neighborhoods around the 5th Ring Road are considered unaffordable now) in the big city seems very remote. On paper, this tier 1 city office worker should be doing better than the small city worker, but reality is more nuanced than that. After all, the terms “yueguangzu” (zero monthly savings) and “daotie” (reverse subsidy, by parents to kids) didn’t come out of nowhere!

What I learned in rural areas was most interesting. Because many rural residents were allocated land in the land reform process over the last few decades (urban Chinese don’t own the land, even if they buy the apartment it’s just a leasehold), some have done quite well, by selling land early to developers and reinvesting in property, or buying into other small businesses, like taxi licenses (whose prices have gone up 7x in the last 10 years in one small city I visited). I know there are countless cases where land ownership and land sales haven’t worked out fairly for peasants, but given how much coverage these issues get I think it’s fair to point out the other economic reality too. That timing and property or land ownership can make or break one’s class status in China today.

Instead of assessing “class” on the basis of nominal income or people’s place of residence – as most China watches do – I have started thinking about Chinese people as being either part of the new “have’s” camp or the “have’s not” camp. You’d be surprised at who falls into each camp! This partly explains the mystery of why my old neighbors from the village where I was born started asking me to bring back Dolce & Gabana handbags worth a few thousands dollars from overseas in the 1990s and why I, living in Beijing and working an “elite” white collar job, still feel like those luxuries are unaffordable (or incongruous with my middle class values).

That’s the income bit of the “class question” for now. As for values, I think I’ll address that in a separate post. More on this topic to come…

The trouble with taxis in Beijing…

…is that you can never find one!

I used to get annoyed at people who complained about getting taxis in Beijing when I first moved here in late 2009. I was, of course, coming from Singapore and New York, where fares were way high (my average commute in those two cities were $8-10 vs. $3 here) and cabs were hard to find. Try hailing on the corner of 45th and 5th at 6pm on a Friday night! I resorted to crashing other people’s taxis and offering to pay the whole fare many times…

But, this early in 2013 I have noticed that it has become increasingly hard to get any kind of transportation (unless you count the death traps that are public buses and the subway system at rush hour). Here’s a simple summary of my experience:

2009: never had a problem finding taxis

2010: “black cabbies” (not taxis but private individuals making a buck driving a passenger vehicle around town) start entering my phone book. I resort to taking them at 1.5-2x the fare of official taxis.

2011: black cabbies tell me to start booking them in advance, and I often couldn’t get one because they all had regular bookings from commuters

2012: I resort to taking tricycles (aluminum boxes on wheels), also unlicensed and illegal, during rush hours

2013: last week a tricycle driver gave me his business card and said, “Book in advance please”!!!

Instead of getting mad at the cabbies, I’m annoyed at the system. Cab fares have been flat since almost 10 years ago. And what has inflation been in the meantime? If you were a cabbie consistently for the last ten years, your quality of life has deteriorated beyond repair. Agenda Beijing did a great job with back of the envelop calculations on how unprofitable cabbies are.

So, instead of picking up rides cabbies sometimes 1) hide out in a corner until traffic gets better, 2) call it a day and go home, 3) refuse to pick up desperate hailers on the street, 4) or don’t run the meter and see who gives them the best offer.

Yesterday was a snow day and I was late to teach my morning yoga class. I knew I was screwed as soon as I got onto the street. So I ran into an intersection during a red light and told the cabbie – who was getting ready to refuse before I even got close – I would give him RMB 50 (~$9) for a RMB 20 ride. He agreed.

We chatted and I asked him if a typical RMB 10 (starter fare, short ride) ride is profitable and he said, “If there’s any traffic, not at all!” He seemed embarrassed to take my high offer but did anyway. I told him not to worry about it – we’re all victims of strange policy and inefficient pricing mechanisms in this market!