My Yoga, Your Yoga

Thirteen years ago I stumbled into my very first yoga practice. It was at my local gym in Malaysia where the room was air-conditioned to be almost freezing and the teacher was jumping from one pose to another. In my second class with her, she got us to do drop-backs with a wall. The next day, my lower back felt really tweaky and uncomfortable. Needless to say, I never went back to her and resigned myself to the gym.

I am of the hyper mobile, super flexible variety of human being, whose primary physical activity in my youth started with dancing and cheerleading. I have sprained my left ankle about four times, my right one three times and have a dodgy right knee. Anyone who performs or does competitive sports would know that the nature is, if it’s in season and you get injured, you keep going. As a result my left leg is still prone to injury and my right knee has days of protest. It didn’t get easier as I got older. By my late twenties, I had a pretty back lower back and my right shoulder was pretty mangled.

Then someone suggested I try yoga. Due to my fear of chiropractors, physiotherapists and doctors in general, I gave it a go. It was a bit of a shop around to find something I could stick with. I tried Bikram, and although I loved the heat, hyper-extending legs did not work with my ankles and knee. Not only that, my fiery personality seemed to get even more so, which really doesn’t bode well when work requires you to interact with people a lot.

It was only by chance that I looked on Google and found a different studio near where I worked. It started with an Introductory Pass, which at the time was $25 for two weeks. It blew my mind! There was still the element of heat but being told not to hyper-extend anything made everything about a hundred times harder. I would go into this place with carpet that smelled horrible and big classes, and by the end of the classes I wouldn’t know which way was up and which was down. Shavasana came as a relief. By the end of two weeks, I was hooked.

This was Vinyasa.

It was in no way easy and every time I got one move down there was something else to learn. Then there were these teachers who would give me the shits by asking me to get out of ‘my spot,’ and on occasion move me to the front. Sometimes I would even cry in class. For the first time in ages though, my body felt good. I loved that no two classes and no two teachers were the same. There was personality in the practice. There was heart.

At first I practiced like a mad woman. The harder and hotter the class, the more chaturangas, the more I would push myself through it. What happens however, is when you get tired you lose form. I was tired in every way possible and one of the teachers sat me down and told me to take a break.

So I did, and went to do a week of Iyengar.

It was hellish! Sitting still was not my forte and I got really impatient with all the props involved. I would get into a pose and fidget like someone coming off hard drugs, but the precision of Iyengar is amazing! After a week my back felt fabulous and I went back to Vinyasa with all the new alignment points I’d learned.

Then three years ago something called me to do my first 200 Hour Yoga Teacher Training. All I wanted to do was know more about this practice but the seven months of training were priceless and surprisingly, I came out wanting to teach. In December 2012 I finished Teacher Training, in January 2013 my father passed away and by February I had boxed my high heels and left the corporate world.

On the 12th of April 2013 (my 33rd birthday), I taught my first Community Class in BodyMindLife.  Two years later, I am still there.

It was in no way the ending of a journey, but a beginning. In a world of blond, 6’ handstanding vegan yoginis who like kale smoothies I am most definitely different. Being more mobile than strong means that arm balances come very slow and one moment of not being aware means an injury. Flexibility is a great thing, but needs to be balanced with strength. My continuous work is in not going all the way into bendy poses just because I can and not to practice injured as it brings about other injuries. It is a lesson I seem to have to keep learning again and again. As I type this, I am recovering from two displaced ribs, and a hamstring and a wrist injury. Note, trying to lift a scooter is probably a bad idea on any day.  After all my resistance, I am working a physio and have magically found the most amazing CrossFit coaches at CrossFit Black to help my strength conditioning.

Yet yoga continues to be my first love and as I teach and learn, I’ve discovered that yoga is not just asana. My practice has changed through the years. I still love those hot sweaty classes with 50 students breathing together, but I also love waking up in the morning and losing myself in an hour of ground based, deep Yin. Just about a year ago, I started meditating and even within that it keeps changing.

This practice has taught me compassion and love, and being peaceful in joy and sorrow.  It has taught me acceptance and that it is OK to not be strong all the time.  It has taught me that drama is just a distraction and a good life can be lead without the fluff.  It has taught me that the tendencies I have on the mat are often the same ones I have in my daily life.  It has taught me that things end but that doesn’t mean you discount what happened, and that new beginnings happen.  We are ever changing beings and more than learning poses or how to sit still, we are constantly learning about ourselves.  Within this practice I have found family, community and connection, and the realisation that between the blacks and whites of wrong and right, there are they greys of the in between.

I’ve realised now that it doesn’t need to be any one way. Some days you need that practice that challenges you physically and other days you just need to do the simple stuff and reconnect with your breath. Some days practice is easy and without resistance, and other days you go in with all this stuff and practice is a nightmare. Some days you go into practice and you’re laughing all the way and other days, you are a ball of sweat and tears at the end of the practice.  But you don’t have to be any one way to practice, not a certain body type, or weight or age.  You come as yourself on that day, in that moment and whatever you do is perfect.

More than the teacher, my practice is based on how I am on that given day.

And this in itself has been a journey. It is discovering that yoga is not one thing. I’ve had the privilege of learning and practicing with some of the best teachers in Australia and Internationally, and at the end of it, yoga is a journey of self-discovery. You learn from the different teachers but the magic is in finding your yoga. As a teacher I have learned that what I do and what I offer might vary. It is not my place to tell students about their practices, bodies or beliefs but to share what I know so they can explore. All we can do is try as much as we can to meet students where they are and move with them to wherever we can go together.

I still believe that there is magic in the practice and it is still my first love, but the journey continues and is ever evolving. As I teach, I am also learning and as students are learning in my classes, they are also teaching me. I am ever grateful to my teachers and to the students who light up my classes, and most of all my community for being there. I’m hoping that my learning never ends.

Next stop, Prana Flow in Greece, June 2015.

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How the Fuck are YOU Doing?

We always know when people ask “how are you?” if they mean it or not, but nowadays it is very seldom that people ask the question as a question instead of a greeting. Really, who asks a question as a greeting? Well, a lot of people apparently. So much so, that I’ve given up on answering most of the time.  However, a few people I know are driven insane by my always asking things like, “how are you?” and “how do you feel?” Pregnant friends often get the latter. Sure nobody stops to wait for an answer anymore but call me crazy, I actually expect people to know how they are feeling. And not only do I ask, I’m quite happy to sit there and enquire not just of the big stuff, but of the tiny little changes like a niggle in a shoulder, or a slight change in appetite.

Do you know where you are right now? How are you feeling?

Honestly, ask me three years ago, and I would have had no idea how I was doing. The thing is, between greeting everyone else, and not waiting for an answer (because time is money and it’s all about how many people you can greet instead of the quality of your greeting) how many times a day do we check in and ask ourselves how we’re really doing? Is it hard? As Bryan Kest would say, “it’s simple, but it’s not necessarily easy.”  You see, sometimes checking in with yourself is the hardest thing to do.  Sometimes, you might not like what you see, or rather, that bit of you that’s known as the ego, constantly judging and raising an eyebrow, might not like it.

Les Leventhal in his classes often ask questions like, “how’s your breath?” and “how’s your life?’ Obviously in a yoga class you wouldn’t pipe up with an answer.  Well some people might, but after the fifth time when you’re sweating buckets you give up even trying.  However, in the silence, when you’ve got your foot in an unlikely place and an arm in an even more unlikely place, and you’re pretty much stuck there, you have no choice but to answer the questions to yourself.

I used to wonder why yoga instructors asked these questions, and to tell you the truth, it used to annoy me. I mean, how the hell was I supposed to know what I was feeling? Why the hell are we holding this lunge for so long? What rubbish is this hippy talking about? Converse with my body? How in fuck’s name would I do that? How the fuck would I know if my breath is speaking to me? Bodies don’t speak! Oh yes, a lot of pretty dialogue was going on in my head back then.  There was a lot of shit that I carried with me on to the yoga mat.  To be honest, I still carry some shit into my yoga with me today, but I think I’m conscious of the shit now so it’s manageable.

It takes a while (and occasionally your instructors go blue from repeating the same thing over and over again) but at one point, you get it. Nobody knows how you’re feeling apart from you (duh!).  Your instructor can tell you to put your hip somewhere and your arm somewhere else, but they don’t know how you’re feeling.  When do you start speaking to your body? When you pull back instead of pull out.  When you stop pushing yourself so hard that your heart is falling out of your chest.  When you know that line between pain and discomfort, and you just dance within discomfort. When you can actually smile instead of wanting to punch your instructor. When you start feeling instead of thinking.  When your ego decides to shut the fuck up.

Now that I’ve started trying to teach, I am always asking how this feels and that feels, where they feel the stretch, how their breath is doing.  Yes, I am the one instructing and teaching, but the best teacher is your own body.  Your body knows where it can go, and where it can stay.  It’s not your brain going, “yes, go deeper in the pose.” Stop. Feel. Muz would say that it’s like stepping into a hot bath. You don’t just jump in and scald yourself. You test the temperature slowly, and feel if it’s a comfortable before you lay back.  Sometimes it’s a smidgen too hot, but slowly your body temperature adjusts to it.  It’s all a habit of starting a dialogue with your body and with your emotions. At some point, you get used to asking yourself these questions, and you continue asking yourself through the day.  So please, stop, breathe, feel and consider – how’s your breath? How’s your life? How’s your heart? How the bloody fuck are you doing?