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.

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…

Image

 

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”?