Saturday, January 22, 2011

Google search trends for "yoga"

I am a geek so I find this interesting: I checked out Google trend for the term "yoga".  What do you know? The trends correspond almost exactly to the trend of volumes of people who show up to my yoga studio over the year! Check this out:


The number of searches for the word yoga peaks at the beginning of each year (New Year's resolution - let's Google and find out what the heck this "yoga" business is all about) and then gradually decreases until the middle of the year, when it climbs again (panic for the bikini season? Better do some exercise to get rid of that winter fat... what's this thing called yoga again? Time to Google it), and then dips again until it reaches the lowest point around December time (mad holiday shopping and festive eating season. Forget about yoga. Time to pig out!).  The whole cycle repeats itself again when the next year comes around.  Over the last 6 years, the overall volume of searches for "yoga" does not seem to have increased by much (though 2011 peak is looking higher than all the previous peaks).  Media coverage of yoga however has been increasing, with a significant jump at the end of 2007/beginning of 2008. I wonder what's the reason for that? 

Hmm, looking more closely at the graph, Dec. 2008 and 2009 dips have been lower than all other years. I wonder if it's related to the recession (cut spending on non-essential activities such as yoga, or time to look up job searching websites rather than yoga studios)?

I also looked up trends for the search term "ashtanga".  This is what it looks like:

Sadly, looks like Ashtanga is slowly losing popularity over the years. That's okay.. I'm usually not into the most mainstream activities anyway. The media was all over Ashtanga when Guruji passed away, but then news reference volume dropped to back to default again after that. Interest on "power yoga", however, is on the rise, at least for 2010 and the beginning of 2011:

Adding Google trend for "Anusara" at Nobel's request:

It's gained popularity in 2010 (when New York Times published an article about John Friend) but I don't see an upward growing trend for it yet. We'll see how this branch of yoga continues. 

There has not been enough search volume for Google to generate a graph for "Curvy yoga". However, search volumes for the word "Curvy" itself have been steadily rising:

I can play with Google trends forever. You can play with it too at

Just thought I'd share my mini-finding with y'all. You can go back to your daily activities now :)

Friday, January 21, 2011

Holding grudges for how we were raised, and how yoga and Buddhism can help

(Sorry about the length of this post.  I just can't keep seem to keep my posts succinct.)

Arturo mentioned about an article by Amy Chua, a Yale Law professor called Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior, which fueled a lot of online and media controversy.  Some readers felt bad about their own parenting skills after reading it; others call Chua's parenting style child abuse or human rights violation. Some Chinese readers got defensive and pointed out that not all Chinese parents raise their kids in this extreme way, while other non-Asians stood up and declared their parents were just as tough as what Chua had described.

Below is a partial list of things that Chua said she did not allow her daughters to do (the whole list looks pretty tongue-in-cheek to me, but generated outrage and shock for many people nevertheless):

- be in a school play
- complain about not being in a school play
- play any instrument other than the piano or violin
- not play the piano or violin

For me, one group of responders of the article really caught my attention: people like Lac Su, who have achieved success on the surface but have below-average self-esteem and struggle to find peace within themselves. Now my mother is nowhere nearly as strict as Ms. Chua. In fact, I'm one of the few rare Asians of my age who has never taken a single piano lesson (gasp!).

A major problem with strict parents (I'm going to use "strict" instead of Asian) is that they grant conventional subjects more importance than they deserve (eg. piano, math, science).  Another problem is that some conservative parents are prone to deciding everything for their kids, from which school to attend to what extracurricular activities to pursue, whether the kids like them or not. I was surprised (and jealous) when I heard my Canadian friend lets her 5 year old daughter pick her own outfit sometimes, however funny the result may turn out; I wasn't allowed to pick my own outfits until I was quite old, like 14 or something like that.  Kids raised this way get so used to not being allowed to decide what's best for themselves that they don't feel comfortable about making their own major decisions when they are finally allowed this freedom at adulthood. Because they haven't had much practice, at this point they don't really trust themselves any more, so some people try to make decision based on what they think their parents would like for them.  I think this is where the permanent sense of inadequacy and self-doubt comes from. I thought my sense of self-doubt and despair came from the fact that I didn't listen to my mom and pick the right major that would easily land me a professional job (like medicine or accounting, for example). A fancy job where the salary matched my education would make me feel much better about myself right? From reading Lac Su's article and some of the comments for Chua's article, I am learning that even with a successful career and a happy marriage, it's still possible to posses low self-esteem and to feel inadequacy with life.

Now some people don't mind having their parents planning their lives out for them.  In fact they're quite thankful while living out the career and perhaps with the companion that their parents had chosen for them. Others put up with it but have already secretly planned out their own life agendas in their heads; the minute they're given the freedom to make their own decisions they proceed happily with their lives according to their own plans. Perhaps it's the ones who disagree with their parents making decisions for them all the time but never did anything more than having verbal arguments with parents who end up holding the most grudges. I'm talking about myself here.

I'm not going to criticize Chua's way of raising children because I think it works for some kids.  For other kids it may cause permanent emotional scars.  The "soft" western way of raising children may bring up some brilliantly creative geniuses, some not-so-highly achieved but happy beings appreciative of themselves + satisfied with their lives, and some under-achievers who wished their parents had given them a push or honest constructive criticisms instead of endless non-constructive praises + euphemisms.

I'm going to try to tie it all to yoga again.  As I mentioned previously my mother is a pretty anxious person and whatever she's worried about would make me concerned as well, in addition to a long list of issues I already worry about. When I finally started choosing my own paths, whenever things didn't work out, I would really doubt myself, like I'm not fit enough to make decisions for myself. Is my life sucking because I didn't follow what my mother suggested? What should I have done instead? If I could turn back time, how should I do things differently? I tried so hard to not waste time; why do I still feel like I'm so behind? Why is everyone else so content with their lives and I'm so miserable for no reason?

So I constantly feel crappy about myself and like to lash out at my family for no reason. My mother even asked me to go see a shrink, but I don't see how it would help, because I can't think of any instances when I was abused during childhood; I'm not suffering from financial hardship or relationship abuses; my grad school experience is comparatively better than so many other grad students I know; nothing's visibly wrong with my life. I'm just a whiny brat who can't stand any sort of setbacks or deviations from dream outcomes in life and should learn to count her blessings. Somehow knowing that still doesn't make me feel better.

... until I encountered yoga and Buddhism philosophies, which RECOGNIZE THE MIND LIKES TO TORMENT ITSELF!   Is this the best-kept secret of the modern world or what? Why don't public schools teach about samskaras and problems with the ego liking to tell frivolous stories? I guess the teaching of "Jesus loves you no matter what" works to heal some people, but just doesn't do it for me.  What helps me is learning that whatever happened in the past, no matter how major or how minor, has formed grooves in my mind (samskaras) and in my body as well. I have a locked-in way of thinking in a certain pattern (feeling sorry for myself, being too critical, etc). There are these yoga and breathing techniques that can help me diminish or "burn off" these grooves, and allow me to learn a new pattern of positive thinking. These emotional imprints are real, not imagined, because sometimes doing certain yoga asanas will cause me to burst into tears for no reason (pretty common in yoga classes actually).  How do I heal? Get in touch with myself by paying attention to body sensations, sensation of the breath. Eventually get back in touch with my intuition, which knows what's the truth, what I want and what I'm meant to do (this has been suppressed for a long time). Recognize thoughts as these things that come and go and not as "me".  Oh and go to yoga classes where yoga teachers shower students with loving kindness and attention.

I'm having trouble wrapping this up again.  Basically, I don't think there's a single "right" way of bringing up a child. All the people criticizing Amy Chua - I doubt that they're perfect parents themselves.  Will Chua's children grow up with emotional issues? Who knows. They might be happier if they were given more freedom to think for themselves and make choices on their own. I think the academic and  financial successes or even happiness of offsprings are not the only indicators of the superiority of parenting skills.   I think exposing more people to the philosophies of Buddhism will help save the world more than making your kids get A's at school, but that's just me.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Finally a post about yoga practice

This is supposed to be a yoga blog and I haven't been talking much about yoga, since I haven't been doing much yoga lately.  I finally got back into my yoga practice last week and this is a report on how tough it has been after a 4 week break from yoga.

Last week I did a Rocket yoga class, which is like an Ashtanga-remix of poses from the primary, intermediate and advanced series.  Developed by Larry Schultz in the 1980s, its slogan boasts that the routine "gets you there faster!" Gets you where faster? Perhaps to the point of exhaustion, a feeling that fitness fanatics associate with the satisfaction that they've worked out enough for the day? I don't mean to be snarky; my teacher actually never mentions this slogan. I really quite like my enthusiastic teacher who is seems to be bursting to share her passionate love for this sequence with everyone.  And lots of students are loyal followers of this teacher.  Perhaps I'm not strong enough yet, but I don't find the sequence flows that well with my body.  I still prefer the traditional Ashtanga series but at the moment I'll attend whatever classes that'll fit into my schedule.

After 4 weeks away yoga, I find that my overall strength has taken a step back.  Chaturanga feels difficult again.  In fact, after the Rocket class, my shoulders were sore for 2 full days.  I also couldn't hold Warrior II with the same kind of ease I did last year.   I guess yoga was helpful for building stamina for a week of snorkeling, but snorkeling doesn't really help with yoga.  I found that I need to back off rather than push forward in my yoga practice, especially for this Rocket series. In fact, I think I might have re-aggravated the neck muscle strain that I had around Christmas time. I need to listen to my body rather than the teacher, who is very encouraging. Her encouragement are perhaps meant for conservative people who are unwilling to try moves that their bodies are ready for. As someone who is used to obeying everything any teachers say to a T, it is difficult for me not to following every word I hear. As part of my yogic practice, I need to learn to be mentally stronger and listen to myself.  It is my practice, after all.

My first hot yoga class of the year felt just like my first ever hot yoga class (described in my very first blog post)! I felt like I was about to pass out 1/3 of the way through the class, again! This time however, I was not ashamed to take child's pose while everyone else was still doing their standing poses.  I thought the dancer's pose (Natarajasana) was supposed to be the peak standing pose and then we were supposed to move on to the sitting poses, but the teacher moved on to more standing poses like Warrior III.. I thought I was going to collapse from dizziness and muscle exhaustion but I pulled through, and it felt great afterwards.

I'm so happy that my Ashtanga teacher is back from holidays this week! First Ashtanga practice of the year went really well (luckily no headstands today).  So glad to get my body through the primary series again.  Things felt very different at this practice.  Muscles that normally had no reactions during my regular practice last year were acting up today; on the other hand, I had no problem with some poses that I expected to have  problems.  I experienced tightness in totally different sets of muscles than I was used to too. It's as if I have acquired someone else's body for the New year. Time to reacquaint myself with my body again!

Sorry this is not a very interesting post, but this is the first time that I've been away from yoga for an extended period of time so I find the results of this mini-experiment quite interesting.  Perhaps this post can serve as a useful note for anyone who plans to take a break from yoga.  I'm not worried at all though. As long as I fall back into a practice routine I'm pretty confident I can get my old yoga prowess back in no time :D Cheers!

Monday, January 10, 2011

New Year's Reflection

2010 was the year that I found yoga. I completely immersed myself in this activity, practicing 2-5 times/week for the entire year, trying out various styles (Hatha, yin, Anusara, Ashtanga, Power yoga, Hot yoga, pilates, etc. etc. etc). I read yoga journal articles and yoga books almost daily (often at school); I went to yoga workshops and even attended a yoga conference. It was a lovely experience by the way.  Senior teachers are such lovely people, and the experience taught me to pick alignment principles that fits me personally rather than adhering to a certain yoga style, since different styles often have directly opposing instructions for certain asanas.  I also started looking at other activities related to yoga and wellness - using myself as a guinea pig to try out acupuncture, chiropractic, various styles of massages, sound therapy (Tibetan singing bowls / harmonium / chanting), meditation, and everything science dismisses as "alternative", ie. "that which has not been shown consistently to be effective". Can you say obsessive compulsive? I had so much fun doing this though, at the expense of neglecting my thesis.

Don't get me wrong; I still believe in the value of science.  In the alternative therapy/holistic wellness world both practitioners and patients / customers / students seem to have a lot of difficulty distinguishing between the effective aspects from the completely BS aspects.  It's just that being so rigorous, a scientific study first has to reduce any problem into a simple testable situation where all variables except for one are controlled. Not all problems can be simplified this way, especially with alternative therapies, where results are based on subjective patient experience.  Neither the problems (say, chronic discomfort/pain) nor the solutions (a reduction in some aspects of the discomfort) can be easily measured by an instrument.   In many cases, the simple fact that the practitioner paid attention to the patient / customer / student and/or simple human touch can reduce discomfort.

So, uh, why was I doing this again? I think I just got really sick of the BS in academia.  Also, studying a single topic that no one around me cares about (both in every day life and even within my lab/school) became hell three years into my studies. I was in serious depression for a long time, while my family just thought I was a spoiled brat acting up. Once I found yoga, the amount of available reference materials, company and support made this activity seemed like a 7-star all-inclusive resort, and I hurled myself at it.  People who don't practice yoga still didn't care about my new-found passion, but at least there's a classroom of people + an online community that shared my obsession.

Yoga provided comfort and pampering when I was feeling emotionally isolated and helpless. But it couldn't help me focus on my project. It took this grand trip to provide me the motivation to really want to finish my grad student way of living and move on with life. It was really hard to focus toward the end of last year. All I could think of all day long was my evening yoga classes. I hope this year I can actually focus on my thesis during day time and only think about yoga during the actual yoga classes. Nobel mentioned about energy levels being low on days without yoga practice.  My energy level hypes up after yoga in the evening, but if I practice yoga in the morning, I often need a nap afterwards. I noticed that while I was traveling, my energy level and alertness could be quite high throughout the day for many days in a row.  I think it's because of all the stimulations of new surroundings, plus the fact that the tour leader took all the stressful factors  (finding transportation and accommodation, planning the itinerary, considering safety issues) out of my trip.  I was so "awake" and so receptive to new sights, smell, and hearing for such a prolonged period of time at once, it was like being on drugs without the side effects.

Now that I am back home, I feel re-charged and ready to tackle the last bit of my thesis project.  I hope the new found energy level is strong enough to carry me through to graduation.  After not doing any yoga for 3 weeks, it'll be interesting to see how it feels once I start it again.   I am looking forward to establishing a routine once again but am hoping for new thoughts about my old life.  I'm a greedy person I guess.. greedy about new thoughts, ideas and sensations.  It's what keeps me going :)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Thailand - land of smiles and unforgettable kind souls

Happy New Year everyone!

I recently went on an Island hopping tour in Thailand, with the intention to get away from family, who were too eager to show their hospitality to the point of overwhelming me. I just wanted to lie around doing nothing on gorgeous Thai beaches for a week.  Turned out the itinerary was so packed, I visited something like 12 beaches in 7 days. Instead of lying around, I ended up snorkeling, swimming, fishing, hiking, boating, and was exhausted every day.  However, my normally over-critical/analytical mind got a nice break. My thought process, often stuck in a habitual way of thinking, also got refreshed with new perspectives, so I call this trip a success.

A few examples of gorgeous beaches I visited
The beaches were as pristine and beautiful as expected. However, knowing that Thailand is an ultra-popular tourist destination, I was somewhat expecting an over-commercialize trip with local vendors trying to sell me stuff everywhere I go and scam me every chance they get. By the end of the trip I felt like I've never been pampered so well in my life and seriously did not want to go home.

The highlight of my trip was a 2-day camping trip on a remote island, with a pristine beach but a campsite full of mosquitoes, monitor lizards, and bathrooms with no hot water.

A monitor lizard. These guys are HUGE and like to hang out at the entrance of lady's bathroom  at night.

Despite all this, the people who ran the campsite absolutely won my heart. They operated the long-tail boat, carried our luggages, took us fishing and snorkeling, cooked us delicious breakfasts, lunches and dinners, and at night time, they laid out these nice straw mats for us to sit and relax on the beach. Then one of the whipped out a guitar, and started playing Thai folk music. One of the boatmen started to sing, and then all the others joined him. It sounded like heaven. The guys were shy at first, but after a few drinks (cheap Thai Whiskey), they were singing their hearts out like choir boys putting on their best performance and genuinely showing their joy on their beautiful faces. The only other times I got to see this kind of sincerity were maybe at elementary school performances.  As the night went on they started offering us what they were drinking and smoking. I felt like I was at their home and they were doing everything they could to make us feel more at home.  It was a magical experience I will never forget.

I was on this boat for quite a few days. Loved every minute of it.
The guys who ran our boat during the day. Later on more guys came out and formed a nice choir

It's really hard to organize all the intense thoughts and feelings I have about this trip. Below are a few points I wanted to mention:

1. I feel so blessed to have had the opportunity to spend a few days with these people, who were gentle, polite, smart, observant, hardworking, highly skilled at their jobs, and carried such gorgeous smiles. They went out of their ways to pamper and entertain us every day. Even though they did not speak much English, and I spoke zero Thai, I felt like they could often read my mind (really good hospitality skills maybe?), and they really enjoyed what they do.

2. Drinking and smoking: I know that these habits are bad for the body and normally avoid them, especially smoking. However, at this particular occasion, I felt that since I didn't speak their language or know their songs, sharing a drink with them was the best way to connect with the locals and I have a feeling they really appreciated it.  To be honest, they live a much healthier lifestyle compared to us anyways: getting up at 6-7am every morning, doing labor work, swimming every day, developing superb balancing skills running up and down the simple long-tail boat, eating freshly caught fish all the time, and living a low-stress life.  Actually, when I declined the cigarette they offered me (I was afraid I'd cough and tear up and make a fool of myself), they paused, looked at each other, withdrew their offer, and said to me, "Good to not smoke. Smoking bad for you!"  I thought that was really cute :)

3. Did I do any yoga during this trip? No. It just didn't feel right do bust out some yoga moves on this remote island (although many islands did offer yoga classes for the same price as back home, which is a total rip-off, compared to the prices of everything else there). However I felt on this trip I received every benefit that yoga has to offer. I got 2 Thai massages within 9 days. The first one fixed my tweaked neck which had been bothering me for days since before the trip. The second one fixed my achy hip flexors. Thai massage is also known as "Lazyman's yoga" so I got my asana and stretches in for the week. For exercise, I swam and snorkeled 7 days in a row. The last time I went for a swim was November 2009, so this was quite a feat for me. In a way snorkeling is a great pranayama exercise. I found when I didn't maintain rhythmic breathing, I got tired very easily, not to mention salt water splashed down my throat. Only when I finally got a breathing rhythm established, could I really feel at peace and fully enjoy the beautiful view of underwater sceneries. One thing I love about yoga is the connection I make with yoga teachers and fellow yogis. Yoga teachers go out of their way to pamper students, while the yoga community consists of many genuine people striving to support and connect with each other (shout out to the cyber yoga community!). It's pretty bizarre but awesome at the same time to experience the same level of connection and kindness from a bunch of young boys who fish and drive boats for a living. I was also fortunate to be traveling with a group of lovely travelmates from all over the world as well as a superb Thai tour leader who also took great care of us and got us from place to place smoothly.

The year 2010 was a time of my intense obsession with yoga. I am thankful since it was what I needed badly at the time. This trip cured my OCD and showed me that while yoga is a wonderful thing, there are alternative things in life that could offer me much joy too :) I am so lucky to get the chance to travel to remote places in order to gain new perspectives and am grateful to all the beautiful souls who showed me examples of goodness of mankind. There is hope for this world yet :)