Thursday, December 20, 2012

Goal for the holidays: try to relax

Hot yoga has been really awesome. I really love the strengthening aspects of it, and the heat.. sweet sweet heat (plus the asana sequence of course) warm me up internally and externally in this perpetually snowy weather. When a pose is held, the pose actively makes me tense up everything, so that in rest poses, I relax and let the blood circulation rush to areas where I normally permanently hold tension all day long. In a yoga class when I lie on the floor I can really feel that it is one of the few moments when I am relaxing as opposed to most of the other moments during the day. I'm lucky that the studio happens to have an American teacher with amazingly well enunciated crystal-clear instructions that kicks me in the butt and gets me through the two hours trying my best. The other day the tram was delayed 20 minutes due to too much snow and I went to a class with Swedish instructions instead. I didn't understand a thing, but it didn't matter. The teacher had a voice meant for gentle hatha or restorative yoga. I couldn't hold still for most of the challenging balancing poses. I guess manner is everything for a Bikram teacher, Japanese ham sandwich or not (I'm pretty sure that phrase got taken out of the Swedish instructions). In the moments of savasana in class, I felt pretty close to total relaxation. But I still miss my yoga studio back home in Vancouver dearly, as it is a really special, heart-warming space with lots of compassion and care.

One of day of "work" and it'll be holiday time for moi! Was still really uptight the second last day of work because every day I don't feel like I get enough accomplished (most of the time I'm just figuring out how I should do things rather than actually doing things). As I mentioned in the title: I need to try to actively make myself relax over the holidays before I die of cortisol overload!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Still not mindfully settled

Back to Europe, just in time for the Nobel prize buzz. It was very exciting seeing newly minted Nobel laureates who have dedicated their life to science to humbly describe what they did to deserve this prize. In addition, a public discussion forum was held, with something like 50 prominent scientists, many of whom were past Nobel prize winners, to discuss about the future of genomics. It was a very exciting event. Sadly though, in a lecture hall packed with people (mostly young, bright-eyed students), I knew not a single soul in the room; not my boss, not my colleagues. I found out later that my Swedish coworkers no longer get excited about Nobel prizes. Maybe they got used to it since this happens every single year. They are also not all that enthusiastic about their (science) jobs either, which seriously dampened my uplifted spirits for the rest of the week.

I've only been working at my new job for a little over two months, but it feels like I've been at this for a long, long time. I still feel like I am completely under-qualified and shouldn't have been hired for this job. It feels like I've learned a lot over the past 2 months, but I don't learn nearly fast enough to master my tasks. The coldness and darkness gets to me. I do notice the gorgeousness of the city every single day on the way to and from work (parts of the city looks like a fantasy white Christmas land), but I am also hit hard by a severe sense of loneliness that I don't have anyone close who shares my sentiment. It feels like the people here appreciate the job, health, and human rights securities provided by their government, but they are sorely  lacking in feeling a sense of passion about anything in life.

I am also having trouble dealing with culture differences and socially awkward scientist colleagues and  roommate. I am feeling totally out of place and insecure at the moment. Too many people around me also feel insecure. We can't really read each other's intentions because our background cultures are so different. It's probably just a culture misunderstanding, but I feel like some people I have to interact with every day just seem overly polite about the most casual things and totally rude at other times. If it's one person then I can dismiss him/her off, but I feel this way about 3-4 people around me, which makes me start to doubt myself, whether I'm the one who's acting all socially inappropriate and being impolite. I'm just completely off my center and unsure about every thing I know. It's like I made a huge mistake coming here. But I don't think I will feel any better getting the same kind of job anywhere else in the world.

Hopefully I will be able to ground myself over the Christmas vacation. It's pretty sad that I feel the desperate need to take a break only 2 months into my job, but the perk for coming to work in Europe is that I get an obscene amount of vacation days. I should put them to good use and try to save myself from feeling completely lost and confused.

p.s. I signed up for a hot yoga class, because I needed to heat myself up from the persistent coldness that's with me at all times. Boy did it feel good. Will slowly find my way back to Ashtanga when I get the chance and find the right studio.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Facing uncertainties in life

I only have a few days left here before I head back to Europe. I'm filled with very mixed feelings. The nature parts of Japan provide me with a great sense of peace. Tokyo downtown (Shinjuku, Shibuya, etc.) brings me rushes of excitement and literal headaches at the same time. I quite like my colleagues here. They are more outgoing and sociable than my colleagues back in Europe. However, people here are quite stressed out, whereas coworkers in Europe are a lot more laid back. Since I get easily influenced by other people's stress levels, it is much healthier for me to work in Europe than in Japan. At a social level though, here in Japan people rush to help me out if I am in need of something, and it is very easy to find people to hang out in the evenings and weekends as most of the guys at the office are single. In my European office, most people have partners and children so I am on my own after work hours.

It's not like I get to choose to stay here anyways, but I felt like I made some friendship that I would like to keep, but I have no idea if I'll ever meet these people again. I don't know when's the next time I'll get sent here and how many of the coworkers will still be working here by next year. There is so much instability (not all bad ones) that I'm struggling really hard to stay centered and grounded. All the yoga philosophies and calming techniques that I've been studying over the past 2 years have come in handy to help prevent anxiety attacks right now. The asanas really are secondary to breathing and focusing techniques at the moment. There is so much uncertainty in life, even when times are good. I have a few really good friends who keep reminding me over the phone, Facebook and email to stay grateful and surrender to the impermanence of life. Learn to let go of the control freak tendency and try not to panic when I don't have total control of how my life will turn out... I've done what I can to get me onto a good path. The rest will unravel on its own... try not to be too anxious about it. Definitely easier said than done though.

I have a lot of friends who have stable jobs, are married, have a house and kids. I envy how settled they are (don't need to figure out what's the next country they'll need to move to get the next job contract), but at the same time, I know that I'll be unsatisfied with the jobs and the life that they're living now. I guess I'm greedy and want both stability and constant excitement in life.. I don't think life works quite that way.

I need to learn to be braver about life and about the unknowns ahead of me.

Sunday, November 25, 2012


Before I came to Japan, I told my friend from high school who lives and works in Tokyo that I would be here for a month. He mentioned that we should hang out, but I hadn't heard back from him. A couple days ago he messaged me and asked me if I want to go to pick vegetable on his friend's farm in the mountains this last weekend. Of course I couldn't say no to that: I couldn't wait to get out of the concrete city and into the countryside for some fresh air and nice scenery.

Japanese maple

Gorgeous view of the mountain and open-space, something not found in Tokyo downtown
I had no idea my friend currently works at one of those massive American corporate companies and this was actually an unofficial company trip for his colleagues from Tokyo and from offices abroad. I was the tag-along sloppy academic. The Japanese girls were so put together and dressed so nicely that I felt self-conscious the entire weekend. I've been living out of the same suitcase for the 2 entire months I just feel all the clothes I own seem smelly, worn-out and wrinkly. I mean I do my laundry every week, but my clothes just constantly absorb all the odor on busses, in trains, and in restaurants (smoking is allowed indoors in Japan. Also, because I was told that I was going to a farm, I just put on my old jeans and t-shirt and headed off to meet up with my friend. I didn't realize girls in Japan are dressed nicely at all times, even when going to farms. Everybody brought one of those carry-on stylish suitcases with nice change of clothes, and fancy full-sized carrying bags (made in France) of skin care + make up products. There I was with my old camping backpack and minimalistic toiletry gear (tooth brush, tooth paste + something to wash face with, and maybe a lip balm). I felt like such an inadequate female.

I must have appeared to be very stand-offish the entire weekend because I was super conscious the whole time of how badly I smelled and looked. I felt ugly and dirty next to them; I just left my long hair loose as is (lots of fly-aways), while their hair were all neat and pretty, with bobby pins and fancy hair clips. I admired their fine autumn leather boots while my trail runners that I've been wearing every day for months reeked like I haven't taken them off for hundreds of hours. It doesn't help that they all seem to carry very nice smelling hand creams (from L'Occitane) that they re-apply constantly on their hands throughout the day while I had nothing. I tried really hard to enjoy the scenery, but the anxiety of inadequacy was with me the whole trip.

When I checked the photos just now I actually looked okay (but probably still stinky - no way to double check that objectively). My skin was healthy enough that I didn't look unbearably horrible next to girls with full mascara + carefully powdered faces. However, inside my head I felt like a mentally disturbed woman for the past few days, shameful of  myself and worried I've shamed my Chinese ethnicity as well.

I guess this is what happens when I get sent to a country without knowing before hand what the local culture is like. Doesn't help that scientists (students and profs), both male and female, tend to be a lot sloppier than the average population, regardless of nationality. I definitely have a lot of mental and spiritual work to do. Being in Japan definitely exposes (too?) many shadow aspects of my mental state.


Friday, November 16, 2012

Falling back into old bad habits

I've figured out why I am so displeased with myself. The Japan experience resembles my old life when I was a research assistant in Taiwan just after I finished my BSc. I was really ambitious at the time and I thought going to the government's top research institute would get me somewhere. I was sitting long hours in front of the computer every day, stressing myself out unnecessarily, eating unhealthily, not exercising, snacking on yummy sweet snacks that were too readily available at all the convenient stores at every corner in the city.

Now I'm at Japan's government research institute, whose buildings look extremely similar to Taiwan's research institute buildings. With the availability of yummy unhealthy junk food around every corner, I'm again choosing to snack on candies and chocolates instead of granola bars and carrots like I've been doing in Canada. Ever since I started yoga, I've been cutting way down on meat consumption and ramping up veggie consumption; but here in Japan the food selection is heavily meat-based. In Vancouver, despite me being the lazy girl who lived on sushi, pizza, and take out food (still lots of low meat high veggie options), my yoga buddies would hold parties which served quinoa salads, hummus, super nutritious salads and other veggie delights (ie. good influence on me), here my colleagues are heavy ramen (high in calories) and deep fried pork chop eaters (ie. eating the mainstream diet of Japan and many of today's modern societies). As the push-over girl, I conformed to the mainstream life style here and have thrown the carefully built-up habit of regular exercises and healthy diet out the window. So that's why I'm upset with myself.

The OECD Better Life Index scores Japan's health at 5 and work-life balance at 3, while Canada's Health scores a whopping 9 for health and a work-life balance score of 6.5. Sweden gets a health score of 8.5 and a work-life balance score of 8.2 (see why I chose to get a job there?) . Taiwan is not an OECD country but probably scores similar to Japan in these two areas. When I returned to Canada to pursue grad school, I vowed to not place myself in the same position again (I really didn't take good care of myself at the time), and here I am back to a super similar situation where I had been nearly 10 years ago. Life can be quite unexpected sometimes.

Perhaps I shouldn't be so obsessed about maintaining a pristine diet and exercise schedule, but this time around I should really try to eat better and take better care of myself. I need to try to take better control of my life rather than let my job position decide 100% of my life style. I also need to kill my college kid eating habit, which is quite difficult because bad food are just so conveniently available EVERYWHERE, but it's necessary for my health to snap out of it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Alternate reality

For 6 years, I spent most of my days glued to the computer screen, only pausing at lunch to eat and chat with my colleagues. For 1 month in Nordic country I got called to coffee breaks twice a day in addition to lunch time to socialize with colleagues. The rest of the time I stayed silent and did my work in front of the computer. Now in Japan I'm in a bigger office with a lot more researchers and the place is way more lively than I'm used to: people chat with each other all day long. Suddenly I realized I am totally anti-social. I bump into colleagues on the bus and I don't know how to talk to them; I stay at work for long hours but nobody knows what I'm working on, not even myself. I feel the need to learn everything that's available, but the scope of the project is simply too broad. Must pick and choose only the relevant things to learn. I feel overwhelmed most of the time, even though nobody is pushing me to do anything. There's just too much going on, not to mention as soon as I step out of the institute buildings, nobody can speak English any more.

I feel like I live in this strange dimension everybody's super busy, so I feel the need to act busy too, but I'm a totally useless being here. I'm getting paid by a European institute; however the money is  guarded by a bank with way too many security checks to allow me to access it from Asia (I didn't manage to finish all the security steps including receiving my bank card before I got sent to Asia). So I'm currently living on borrowed money, in a totally foreign land, interacting mostly with foreign people who are not from the Asian continent (most of the Japanese don't really interact with the foreigners at work).

How did I go from an unemployed bum who spent her days rolling yoga mats, cleaning bathrooms and wiping floors at a serene yoga studio in exchange free yoga classes, to a dazed foreigner in a hyperactive research facility, where everybody takes on too many projects and the work mantra seems to be "get it all done; make it all work, no matter what it takes"?

Sorry if this post does not make sense. But I'm in a place where things don't exactly make sense. There are some smart phones out there that has a gazillion functions, but it's hard to the few basic features that most people would need are not all that user-friendly. Then there are the iPhone/iPad products which do not contain every single cool features that Android phones/tablets have, but are instead designed in a way such that the basic features that everybody needs are super user friendly. I kind of feel like I got dropped off at the company that creates smart phones with way too many features (and keeps pressuring its employees to cram in more features for the phone) and I'm supposed to "learn as much from these guys as possible".

It's definitely a better opportunity than being a jobless bum. As awesome as the yoga studio volunteer position seemed, the most it would have led to would be a receptionist position where I would get paid slightly better than minimum wage. Right now I've been suffering from a cold for more than 2 weeks; I don't eat that well (Japanese food is surprisingly salty); and I have no time or space for yoga. Why I'm compromising my health for this position I'm not sure. I guess I'm counting on the fact that I'm still young enough that my body can handle it. I don't hate my current situation; it just feels really abnormal. I don't understand how people can live their entire lives like this (guess it explains the drunks sprawled out on the floor of a train station at 10pm on a week night). The alternative would have been to take up a much crappier job back home, where work would suck, but life outside of work would be much more normal. Everything would be in English; the work hours would be more regular; food would be more familiar; I could keep my established weekly yoga routine + weekend snowboarding..... Gee that sounds pretty nice right now.

Except that yearning for a better job would always be there. It's funny I'm not even that ambitious about my career any more. I will just take this as an interesting life experience, and hope I don't get a massive reverse culture shock when I return to Europe in a few weeks.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Thoughts that come up when living in a foreign country

Being so far removed from family, I am feeling the effects of how much I got stepped all over by almost all members of my extended family all these years. Since I'm the youngest in the family, ever since I could remember, parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, sister + brother in-law have been offering me endless advice + suggestions on just about everything, from how to tie my shoe laces to how to dress myself to how much education I should get to when to get married. As a child I just assumed everybody knew better and took it all in. As I got older and got educated in the west I was totally surprised parents allowed their young children to choose their own outfits. Before the age of 10 I had zero say in what I could wear for any occasions to go out of the house. I absolutely despised my mother's taste in clothes. I guess sometimes the dresses would look fine on a more feminine looking girl but not on a tomboy like me with the ugliest hair cut in the world.

I grew up to become a total pushover. Whatever I decide about my own life can be super easily changed by a suggestion that my mother or my relatives. If my mother says I needed a haircut I'd suddenly become all insecure about how I look (turns out my mother's the insecure one, always telling me to dress nicer when I'm about to meet with this rich aunt, or when Chinese New Year is around the corner). It's amazing that for many years I believed that people offer me advice because they are looking out for me, not because it satisfies their own ego to offer their "words of wisdom" to the youngest one in the family.

Not saying I'm amazingly organized on my own. It's just that if I'm late, I experience the consequences for being late. When I was at home, my mother would take extreme measures so I am not late for some casual dinner with relatives. She'd tell me the wrong start time (6pm dinner when it actually was a 7pm dinner), tell me to be home by 5pm and then chain call me if I didn't make it home. If I did get home by 5pm she'd make me wait and do nothing for an hour, just so I wouldn't be late. She thought she was trying to build a habit of punctuality in me, but instead she just created resentment each time she did this (and this has happened countless times).

A couple of months before I moved to Europe, my mother tried to tell me how to pack in minute details. She also set a totally arbitrary packing schedule for me, which would only work if I woke up every single day and packed for 8 hours and didn't see any friends during the whole time. That totally did not happen, and our relationship just kept getting worse the last couple of months we spent together.  Right now I have no desire of meeting up with family any time in the near future. The thought of getting together with family brings up stressful feelings of everybody racing to tell me what's wrong with me, how I should behave and what I should do with my life.

I know that my family means well and they give advice to try to be useful. The thing is, first of all, I am not centered enough to objectively only take in advice I need and politely ignore the less useful suggestions. Secondly, I have to step back and objectively look at their lives. To be honest, none of them have lived a life that I envy, nor have they made personal choices that I wish to emulate. I used to think that because I should listen to their advice and learn from their mistakes, but in reality, I should only look to learn from role models, because they have also made plenty of mistakes, but whatever they did right got them to where they are right now.  I should never learn from people whose lives I don't want to emulate because either they never follow their own advice, or they've tried their own advice and failed, but somehow expect that piece of advice would work on me instead.

What got me started on this piece is that I've been meeting a lot of interesting people lately. Some have led successful lives and some have been more "experimental" with their lives. While I would definitely not recommend anybody to follow their paths, I'm happy for them that they weren't strongly discouraged to try different things (or maybe they were but they didn't oblige). I think as long as people practice "ahimsa" - do no harm to others and to oneself, one should be free to live the life one chooses (this is only possible for those who were lucky enough to be born into a liberal society).

I met a couple friends in their early/mid-20s who are currently grad students. They tell me that most of their friends are married with children. Depending on the size/location of the towns they're from, one tells me most of her friends didn't even go to college. Another tells me that her friend's parents strongly discouraged their kids to go to college and advised them that the most practical thing to do is to get married and have children as soon as possible after high school. This is the complete opposite of Asian cultures. I wonder where I would be if I were in their positions (would I still have been a pushover and complied?), and I wonder how these grad students I met managed to push through peer pressure and continue their educations.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Culture shock

Being immersed in a foreign culture always shocks all my systems: both the body (I've been battling with a nasty cold and jetlag for the past couple of days) and the mind (cognition overload when customs and languages are so different I don't exactly know how to act in so many situations).

So I am in Japan hanging out with a bunch of very interesting expats from various countries all over the world. I usually have no trouble handling this type of situations when I was in Canada, in Europe, and even in Taiwan. But here in Japan I must say it's kind of overwhelming. Japan's got such an interesting/strange simultaneous existence of extreme modernness and ultra-conservative demands on the society that it takes a certain type of personality for a foreigner to want to stay here for long term. I thought I was a master at handling complex and diverse cultural differences but I have to admit that I am in overload mode right now. No wonder Japanese invented zen gardens and zen meditation. I could use a huge dose of daily meditation from day 1 until the end of my stay.

I'm totally not saying I'm having a bad experience here; the experience is just so "foreign" to me that I'm having trouble putting my thoughts into coherent writing (although I generally have trouble with that anyways). People here are really nice. I can read kanji (Chinese characters) so even though I don't know Japanese at all I am not completely lost. Perhaps it's just been a really long week and I can only handle so many novel stimuli at once. One thing is for sure: a large western yoga studio/meditation center in the middle of Tokyo would probably make huge bucks because of the high level of stress people experience here. People here don't complain about their life style though; as a Japanese one must maintain an upbeat manner, politeness and friendliness at all times.

Let's see if I get over the initial cultural shock and can settle more into the Japanese working life style next week. Happy for this unexpected opportunity of learning experience but at the same time also glad it's only for a short term period.


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Importance of Laughter in Life

Enjoyed a really fun night of laughter with a bunch of European students I've met for the first time in my life and many of whom I will never see again after this week. We spent a long day listening to what felt like a million academic talks, 2/3 of which I understood nothing; 1/3 of which I was too tired to absorb intellectually. When the torturous sessions were finally over, a couple of locals (by locals, I mean foreigners who have spend a few years here in Japan) took us visitors to an okonomiyaki restaurant for dinner. All of us sucked at cooking these Japanese pancakes things, but the dishes still tasted great even when burnt :) We had a great time laughing at how badly the food looked in our awkward hands - hands that type well, could create complex computer programs and perform advanced statistical analysis, but could not hold metal spatulas properly to save our lives (or preserve a delicious pancake), and I was noticing how all the stress hormones seem to wash away as I chucked hard every 5 minutes. It's kind of freaky how rare I get to laugh so hard for such a long period of time (the dinner lasted like 2 hours because we were so clumsy at cooking). It makes me a little sad that my regular life involves laughter so infrequently, but I am very grateful for the opportunity to bond with a bunch of strangers in a foreign city in the name of science.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Spiritual beings having a soulful experience

Awhile ago, I was reading "Many Lives, Many Masters", which talks about this woman he called "Catherine" who suffered from terrible nightmares and anxiety attacks. As Dr. Weiss, an American psychiatrist, try to learn about her childhood traumas using hypnosis, he was shocked that she spoke about previous reincarnations with striking details. As she disclosed these details to the doctor, Catherine's symptoms started to ease off in her day-to-day life. There were so many details she gave that began to convince Dr. Weiss that what she was describing were real, rather than made-up stories. What was more, some sort of "masters spirits" would talk through Catherine to Dr. Weiss about spiritual lessons.

I don't know about the literal truth of this story, whether we are all somewhat haunted by past reincarnations, that our current soulfulness is the result of an accumulations of lessons we have learned in our past lives, but the idea is interesting. Even if it's not literally true, this "Catherine" could have manifested the abstract anxieties in her brain in the form of these past live stories under hypnosis. By expressing her anxieties as stories, she was able to digest and accept her issues and let go of the symptoms.

Catherine, the poor woman, went through many many reincarnations (either real or perceived by her) as a slave, a maid, or a servant. Sometimes she spent  entire life times just being angry about her existence as an oppressed being of a bottom level social class; sometimes she learned something from her existence. According to her stories, groups of souls tend to reincarnate together. For example, Dr. Weiss had been in her life before a few times, usually as her teacher and guide. Her mother and father's souls have also repeatedly reincarnated with her.

Some key points I've picked up from spiritual teachings of Dr. Brian Weiss and Seane Corn:

- We are all spiritual beings coming into a human body to have a soulful experience. Everything we have experienced in our lives, especially the most negative/terrible ones, are meant to teach the soul a lesson to transcend it to a higher level. 

- The group of souls that reincarnate together repeatedly are meant to teach each other important lessons. For example, if my mother and I have some serious issues with each other, we should really try to resolve it in this life time. If we just leave it as is, the same conflicts will just repeat itself again in a future life time. 

- Sometimes we meet beautiful beings with the terrible sufferings: for example, a child with severe mental retardation, a sibling with cystic fibrosis and does not live past the age of 25 -- these are actually advanced souls taking a short trip into the world in order to help inspire and advance other souls around them.

I talk about all this because I'm trying to interpret what I experienced today. This evening, I enjoyed a really nice Japanese dinner with a big group of researchers from different parts of Europe. It seems like for many European graduate schools, the PhD program is only 3-4 years, and one is required to publish 3-4 papers during this time. What this means is that the majority of Europeans can get their PhD in their late 20s, and with a bunch of publications in hand, they would not have trouble advancing to the next level in their scientific careers. 

Contrast this with my experience, where I spent 6 years, published next to nothing, was on the verge of quitting science all together and actually seriously considered becoming a yoga teacher instead (and maybe pick up a side job to supplement income). Many of my Canadian colleagues (and perhaps Americans as well) share similar experience with me (except not the yoga part).

It's not even about how far I get in my career; it's about how much damage the 6 years of unproductiveness does to the self-esteem. I'm trying to figure out why I (plus a whole continent of grad students) had to go through this long path while others in the world can cruise through their academic careers. What am I supposed to learn from this? How do I figure out what I have learned, and promptly let go of my negativity and bitterness? Catherine clung on to negative experiences in her previous life times without being able to enjoy the present one until she got help from Dr. Weiss; I seem to have the tendency to cling on pretty tightly to my negative past experiences of this life time. Can I learn from her stories and try to let it all go? 

This week I am supposed to network with a lot more researchers from different parts of the world and learn a ton of geeky science from them. But somehow I feel the more important lessons I have to learn from them is not the technical science stuff, but to pick up tips on how to live life from such a diverse group of people I normally will never get to meet if I hadn't taken up this job. Oh by the way, did I mention I am in Japan?

What an amazing opportunity and tonight I couldn't seem to let go of my past. I have to find a way to stop holding on to bitter memories and embrace the precious present moment.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

New job, no yoga practice

I meant to blog so many times but it never happened. It's what happens when I have to learn so much new things on a computer.. no desire to do non-work stuff on computer after I go home. Having no internet connection at home also discourages blogging.

I'm working in Europe right now. Getting paid less than local PhD students. So I'm the cheap foreign labor.... now I get a taste of how immigrants from 3rd world country feel like moving to a 1st world country (a mixture of gratitude, awe, homesickness, and some bitterness). So why did I sign up for this job? Well, the project is much bigger scale than most of the research I've seen in Canada. I am given the opportunity to work on something "hot" in the field for which I have very little hands-on experience. How could I resist? The upside to my job is that the office is super fancy, with those ergonomic chairs that can be adjusted in 100 different ways.  I get a giant computer screen and a fancy MacBook. I will just pretend that a gigantic part of my salary went to pay for these fancy items, and that's why my pay check is so tiny at the end of the month.

I went from dreamy-eyed "oh my gawwwwwd everything is so pretty in this European city" in the first week to an anxiety attack today, angry why the locals weren't more helpful (coz they don't know how it feels like to move to a foreign country and they were expecting the new colleague to be an expert, not a total rookie who needs step-by-step instructions on how to use the computer). It's kind of fascinating how I've been thinking myself to total happiness, being super thankful for getting this job, and to have a boss who actually cares about his employees. Today on the way home I managed to think myself to tears, because I thought I lost my wallet, and then I thought about how I've been having so much trouble applying for a local residence permit, how I don't have the same rights and benefits of EU citizens so wtf am I doing in Europe; how everyone here seems to be so happy with friends and family while I'm all alone, that it's too cold for October, etc etc ( you can see the negative vortex of dark thoughts dragging me deeper and deeper towards misery). I'm not sure why my brain does this to me, even though my actual situation hasn't changed much since I arrived here. Perhaps it was because of the unproductive struggle I had with the computer server today.

Yoga doesn't seem all that popular here. I suddenly miss home, where there are a million activities available, including a new parcour gym that just opened up, not to mention other fun activities like Zumba, the Bar Method, Jazzercise, Acroyoga, my lovely studio with all my yoga teacher friends and fellow yogis. I don't really know what people do here besides jogging and and biking to and from work. North America seems much better at profiting from people's desire to try out new things to get a good work out. Too bad there are no decent jobs in my field back home where I live. Other colleagues from my field are all struggling to find work or they put up with less than ideal job positions. I guess one must choose to either strike a balance or put more weight on either career advancement or life comforts. I chose the former while my friends/excolleagues chose the latter. Nobody can be 100% satisfied all the time I guess.

Will try to blog more frequently about my life musings. In the mean time, I will keep struggling with waking up on time (I've been a depressed, unemployed bum for 9 months and it's been difficult adjusting to the 9-5 life styles again) and making progress at work.

Also, I really need to snap myself out of it whenever I think myself into a hopeless, bitter, depressing corner again.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

My experience with an anti-depressant while practicing yoga

In my previous post, I wrote about how I had these crying spells despite the fact that my life situation was going quite well. I was trying to make sense of why I was acting so immaturely and hating myself for it. Since then I had gone to my family doctor, who diagnosed this situation as a major depressive episode (ie. being utterly depressed for no apparent reason). He prescribed me anti-depressants, which I took because I was convince there was something seriously wrong with me ("chemical imbalance", as the doctor said).

I had wanted to blog about my experience with the anti-depressant, because it was quite unlike any other drugs I've taken (granted I've only taken pain-killers, antibiotics, muscle relaxants, and maybe some anti-histamine). Before I decided to take the drug, I went through forum discussions and some blogs of SSRI users, and found that many people have been cycling through various anti-depressant SSRI drugs for decades. Some people describe how the drugs have changed their lives for the better (a dark cloud that had been over their heads all their lives has been lifted); others talk about how nothing really works; the side-effects are shitty, but they keep accepting new prescriptions when a new anti-depressant/anti-anxiety/anti-psychotic drug comes out in the market.

My experience was unlike what the doctor/pharmacist had described. Instead of taking 4-6 weeks for the drug to become fully affective, I thought it was the most effective in the first 2 weeks. I could sleep through the night for the first time in years; I was brightly alert first thing in the morning, and whenever a depressing thought arose, instead of tears + the whole crying mechanism kicking into gear straight away, I experienced a lag, and the the tears just didn't come. It was fascinating.

However, the downside was that in my yoga practice, I got dizzy all the time. For those who access my Yoga Dizziness post (this is the most accessed entry of all my blog posts), please check if you are taking SSRIs or other drugs that act on your neurotransmitters. When I took that pranayama course with the great Srivatsa Ramaswami, I was dozing off in the class (a side effect of the drug) even though I desperately wanted to hang on to every word he said. The drug made me feel like I had an electric current running through my body. Well, doing pranayama exercises made me feel like an over-charged battery.

My life situation was improving even more during the period I was on the drugs. Previously, I was dreading the job hunting process because none of the job posts that I felt qualified for had descriptions that excited me. I got an interview for a job that I thought was WAY out of my league. During the interview, it was revealed to me that the nature of the job was much more exciting than what was written in the job advertisement, and it's located in a super exotic location. Even though I felt like I totally bombed my interview, my interviewer (soon to be my boss) wrote an email a couple days later to say I got accepted for the position.

On top of that, I started volunteering at my old yoga studio, which was actually the most healing experience I could ever prescribe for myself. The people there, be it my supervisor, the guest services people, the massage therapists, yoga teachers, and every single customer who walks into that studio, were just ridiculously nice. If I didn't go through this whole grad school thing and if I didn't get this incredible job, I'd probably just apply to work there forever. Who cares if they only pay like $12/hr? The happiness and job satisfaction made me feel like a million bucks.

So I went back to my family doctor, beaming and all bright eyed, saying I didn't need to take the drug any more. I didn't mention that the SSRI was ruining my yoga practice experience but that's the main reason I wanted to get off of it. Plus the initial effects were wearing after 1 month. I started waking up in the middle of the night again, and I would have small crying spells again over arguments with mom. The doctor was very reluctant to let me off. He attributed my 180° change in attitude (The last time I walked into his office and bursted out crying when he casually asked "how are you?") to the drug. I would say it's a combination of my life situation and the drug, but the whole dizzy thing made me feel like the drug was making me sick in a whole different way.

So he halved the dose and told me to take it for 7 days and observe what happens afterwards. So a few days after I stopped taking the drug completely, I started feeling like a leaky battery. When I was a kid I once licked one of those small batteries. It tasted like acid and the yucky feeling permeated my whole body. That's what stopping the drug felt like. It negatively affects my yoga practice in a different way, in that I no longer feel like blacking out or dizzy, but sometimes I feel I don't have full control of my muscles and that I might lose control and fall (I don't but it feels like I could collapse any time). So I have to take another 5mg pill when that happens. It's stretched to one pill every couple of weeks now. I'm running out of the drug and I'm about to move out of the country for my new job. Let's hope this withdrawal period ends soon. 

I don't regret trying out the anti-depressant. It allowed me to realize that the whole physical sensations associated with depressing thoughts can be decoupled. It makes me empathize with those who have to take stronger psychiatric medications. The new-generation SSRIs are pretty mild and harmless, and I already don't fully feel like myself while on it. I can only imagine that drugs designed for schizophrenic/bipolar/serious anxiety attack patients would have way stronger side effects. Doctors may feel that it is essential for these patients to stay on these drugs than for them to act out and seriously harm themselves and/or those around them, but sometimes the acting out feels more familiar, more like the "self", whereas the drugs make one feels like parts of the automatic body mechanisms are being disrupted.  It's hard to distinguish the drug's actual effects vs. placebo effects on mood. I found the drug had significant effects on my sleeping patterns and my appetite. I was sleeping through the night better, but I would dose of at random times of the day, which was annoying. It also decreased my appetite, which decreased my desire to munch on sugary junk food and helped me lose some weight (major plus)! Mood-wise, I felt a lift in the first two weeks, but I also felt like I had a shot of caffeine in my blood stream and walked around with eyes so wide they felt like they were propped open by long toothpicks). So the drug acted more in an indirect way rather than directly made me happier. Now that I've been off of it for nearly a month, I threw some major mood tantrums again, but I don't plan to get back on it, because again, the body sensations during yoga + pranayama sessions told me that being on this drug is not the body's natural state. Now, apparently people's reactions to the drugs vary wildly,  and I know for a fact that these drugs have positively changed many people's livs for the better, so don't take my words for your case. I would say I am the atypical case, because I never wanted to be dependent on the drug in the first place. I sometimes take pleasure in wallowing in sadness (the "playing victim" syndrome). I chose to try the drug for self-experimentation purposes. I would say that if you are seriously suffering from depression and your doctor offers you a prescription, you should give it a try; just don't expect it to miraculously fix everything. It's more like an assistant, just like yoga practice provides assistance but does not guarantee life-long happiness.


Monday, July 9, 2012

Waiting for my inner 2 year old to grow up

I haven't blogged for quite awhile because I've been in a mental mess the past couple of months, despite the fact that on the surface it looks like I've been just chilling and enjoying my time off doing nothing. I had the fortune to attend two great teachers' workshop lately. One was Srivatsa Ramaswami's pranayama/meditation/chanting weekend; the other was Sean Corn's Three Realm of Consciousness. Both workshops were absolutely amazing. I felt like I was meeting one of the world's most knowledgeable yogi who speaks good English during the weekend with Ramaswami. He gave yoga philosophy and theories straight from Krishnamacharya and from the ancient texts. With all the western teachers whose classes I've taken so far, I feel like everybody took the liberty to creatively reinterpret and expand on the original yoga philosophies. Nothing wrong with that, but I found it useful for me to hear the less "packaged", "feel-good", more of a "dry" version of the traditional yoga teachings. I signed up for Seane Corn's class because I needed some inspirational words; I needed to be reminded that everything that happens to me, especially the downers and the exceptionally crappy moments, are meant to be lessons to help the soul grow. ie. I will be able to look back on this period of extreme low and be able to learn from this.

It's funny. It feels like I haven't blogged for months, but it's only been a little over 1 month. It feels like I sent out hundreds of resumes and sadly, received no replies. But in reality I've only sent out something like 6 applications. You don't need to tell me that this doesn't sound like hard core job search efforts.

However, to me it's as if the past couple of month there was a time warp and reality warp. I feel exhausted as if I've been maxing out my energy every day, when in reality I barely do anything each day. I have been totally unmotivated to get myself on the yoga mat and complete a primary series practice on my own. I've been having crying spells; I'd nap all day long; I'd snap at my family even though they hadn't said or done anything wrong. We avoid each other now because they don't want to be around a time bomb and I don't want to be set off for no reason and I don't want to be an out-of-control agression-freak.

My external situation has actually been amazing in the past week. It's been raining forever but now the sun shines brightly; I got 2 job interviews out of the pathetically few jobs that I've applied to; I have several socially, academically and professionally successful friends going out of their way to coach me about how to get through this period and how to interview for jobs. The teachings from the yoga workshops should have provided me with enough wisdom to see through my dark moments and recognize my blessings. My rational mind recognizes and understands all the blessings around me and that situationally I'm in a really good place compared to, say, 3 weeks ago. Yet my inner two year old doesn't seem to be finished throwing her tantrum. It's like my internal state that's not controlled by the rational cognitive mind is still playing victim (the universe has wronged me) and refusing to believe that my life has never been that crappy in the first place and it's getting better now, if I can just pull myself together and follow the incredible step by step instructions given my friends who have brought themselves to success (people usually pay big bucks to get this kind of coaching).

This morning I had yet another uncontrollable crying spell while talking on the phone with a friend. It was as if I was testing my friendship or something. Sure enough, the friend remained totally patient and comforted me for what must have been an hour before I would calm down. Again, what a blessing it is to have a friend like that? But why the hell did I get into that in the first place? I'm not the type who cries to friends over the phone regularly.

I've read books which explain a lot but not everything that's going on with me:

The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live - And How You Can Change Them by Richard J. Davidson


I don't know if I just need to wait it out or muster more will power to reign in my emotional beast. Maybe there's some sort of emotional cleansing going on by itself. Maybe I'm just not disciplined enough. Maybe I've overloaded myself with too much information I can't process them properly. I just want the bratty, acting-out self to grow up and move out already so I can live a more sane life. Wish me luck!

Monday, May 28, 2012

The problem of suppressing emotions

One of the biggest problems I have is not being in touch with how I feel. There is a virtue highly regarded by the Chinese culture (and maybe Asian culture in general) that is not even a common concept in the western society. I was trying to figure out its translation, and I found the Falun Gong wiki entry translates this virtue as "forbearance". This virtue included the restraint of acting out as well as the suppression of negative emotions when facing hardship or unreasonable demands from authority and those who are older than you. One of the positive outcomes of this virtue is that when one bears the hardship during tough times, one builds character. My mother even taught me this Chinese saying: "When hardship hits you so hard that your teeth are knocked off, swallow the teeth along with all the blood generated from the impact."

In Chinese it's just seven characters/syllables and this is the first time I translated it into English and boy  does it sounds messed up. Who the hell teaches such a concept to their daughters? And you know what? Not knowing any better, I accepted this concept. I don't know why, but I've always wanted to be the most virtuous person I can be, so I practiced forbearance a lot. I practiced suppressing my feelings, thinking that emotions are totally irrational. Anger is bad. Shyness is bad. It frustrates me that I don't have a good grip on my emotions. That I could suppress my anger towards an action or a person I don't like for awhile, and when my patience runs out, I would explode. I hated that about myself. My family suggested that I don't try hard enough, that I must practice even more restraint to prevent exploding anger. This actually makes me even more unpredictable. Practically anything my family says can make me spazz at them, and it's gotten to so bad that I don't even have to meet my family face to face. The mere thought of my mother and some family members can trigger angry feelings. I feel like I need to check myself into a psychiatry unit.

It wasn't until I started taking yoga classes that I learned that when you suppress a negative feeling, it doesn't just disappear into nothingness. It gets stored as tension somewhere in your body. I don't usually believe a statement like that without any evidence, but I don't know how else to explain the fact that I would tear up in the middle of an asana practice. When this happened, the pose I was holding was usually not especially challenging, nor was I recounting a piece of a sad memory. Supposedly asana practice works out energy channels in the body, relieving physical and emotional tensions (knots) in the body, Deep tissue massage can also achieve similar effects sometimes.

It seems to me that a feeling is not a single thought or a single item. It's a combination of a bunch of stuff happening in my body. The stomach tightens, the heart pumps harder, the skin pores widen, major muscles tighten a little bit. Instead of me being aware of 20 things happening at once in my body, my brain interpretes these 20 events as one single feeling. Combo ABCDEFG = anxiousness; HIJKLMN = fearfulness; OPQRSTU = anger, etc. When I order myself to suppress a feeling, what happens is I'm ordering my conscious brain to ignore all these signals in the body. Well, the body is actually trying to communicate something to the rational mind. Instead of making the feeling go away (which I can't, because it's not one single thing), the brain simply ignores all the signals. The next time an emotional trigger happens, the signals become stronger, but again, I say "suppress these bad feelings", my brain tries to ignore the signals, and I become oblivious to all the change in my pulse, the muscle tensions, the inflammation, etc. Over time my brain learns to ignore all the signals/alarms in my body, which means I become oblivious to my feelings. Then one day the alarms reach above a threshold, bypass the rational brain, and I snap at some innocent person like a bitch.

Step 1 is getting in touch with my feelings. Step 1.1 is to take deeper breaths. I totally thought I'd get this down after 2 years of yoga practice, but it seems like I've still got a lot of work to do to improve my breathing skills!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Obsession with weight loss

The other day my parents’ friends visited and I had to socialize with them. One of the males offered me some sweets, which I politely declined because I didn’t feel like having some sweets at the time. He said with a smile, “I understand. Young women are always watching their weight.” I tried to protest his claim but he just laughed it off as if he was 100% confident he had read my mind.

Another woman asked me, “Oh my god you’ve lost so much weight since I last saw you! How do you do it?” I've actually gained 95% of the weight back since I've returned from my India trip, but I told her about my daily Ashtanga practice (back home then and now I only practice a few days a week) + eating only 2 meals a day (brunch and early dinner) + not snacking on junk food + a bit of food poisoning.  A tan also provides a visually slimming effect. She nodded, stayed silent for a while; about 20 minutes later she abruptly declared that yoga must be easier for me because my mother took me to dance lessons when I was a small girl. I said I didn’t go to India to practice yoga just for weight loss. My aunt, who was also present at the scene, missed the negation word and asked loudly, “What? You went to India to practice yoga just to lose weight?”

I have trouble staying calm whenever these older adults mention about me and weight loss and wouldn’t give up on the subject. A rush of anger uncontrollably arises and I always have to suppress it with all my might, but they seem totally oblivious of it.

I’ve been reading up a lot on psychology lately. It seems that the reason I get worked up so easily with my parents and their friends is that I keep getting invalidated. If I try to express how I feel, they would tell me I shouldn't feel that way. When I honestly express my reasons for doing something, they can't accept my words for what they are, but instead they come up with explanations for me and conclude that they are correct. If we're debating public issues or religion or culture, then fine, everybody has their own opinions. However, we are talking about my actions and my feelings. Being invalidated and dismissed cause serious  damage to my feelings and my relationships with these people.

Because they grew up with the cultural belief that feelings don't matter and their personal believes that old people cannot change their ways, I need to change my way of thinking/dealing with them before I go insane. So if I put myself in their shoes, I guess they are struggling to understand what's going on in their children's heads. The Taiwanese media portrays young women as 100% dedicated to nothing but  looking good, maintaining youth, and losing weight. The commercials, the talk shows, dramas, and even the news seem to spread the same message. Not only has the TV, magazines and newspapers successfully brainwashed most of the young people, the older generation seem to have concluded that these superficial goals are the only things that young women care about these days. Weight loss and staying pale (skin whitening = looking good) are two ideas simple enough for them to grasp and understand. Somehow it got through to them that I don't care about whitening, but weight loss is something that they kind of shove down my throat (because my body frame is larger than the average Chinese woman) and they believe I deeply care about.

So I hate interacting with the older generation because I feel like they keep assuming I'm constantly trying to lose weight. However, they are merely trying to be friendly, and losing weight is the only topic they think I'm interested in that they feel they can discuss with me. This is sad but I feel like the elderly are completely out of touch with the modern world. They went through a time of war, so their whole lives were about obtaining security by getting married, having a family, finding a stable job and stay in it until retirement. They are very confused about young people today pursuing countless hobbies, picking jobs based on personal interests (and switching careers when they get bored of what they're doing), realizing personal dreams, and attempting to be in touch with personal feelings. The Internet, human rights, fair trade, global warming, energy issues, recycling, gay marriages, etc. did not exist during their times, and they seem to have trouble wrapping their heads around these topics. Weight loss is one issue that they can understand, so that's what they'll talk to me about because they think they can connect with me this way (and avoid talking about any of the topics I mentioned above).

So weight loss with family friends = weather small talks in western culture. I should stop getting so worked up when they bring this up with me next time. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

A lesson about my mind through sky diving

Yesterday I jumped out of an airplane. Well, not quite. I showed up, paid a large sum of cash, signed some legal waivers, stepped into a funny full body suit + hat + goggles, allowed someone to put a body harness on me, voluntarily walked into an airplane, which went up to 10,000 feet, and sat on the ledge of an airplane with open doors. Just as the feeling of panic and fear started to arise, the tandem instructor  leaned forward, lo and behold, I was out of the aircraft and free falling from the sky. No jumping actually happened on my part.

It may have seemed like an excessively expensive approach to experience 4 minutes of adrenaline rush, but I felt like I got many important life lessons out of it.

I feel incredibly lucky to live in an era when I can jump out of airplanes and survive without knowing a single thing about how parachutes work and techniques to sky dive. The availability of commercial tandem sky diving is a pretty recent phenomenon. Before the availability of tandem sky diving, I would have to learn how to release and operate the parachute, all the emergency manoeuvres, not to mention actually perform my own jumping and landing. According to this article I would have to do 6 static line jumps before I would be allowed to experience 3 seconds of free fall. I didn't even know the difference between free falling and parachuting. Now I can let an expert with lots of training plus >5000 jumps under his belt to take care of all the technical aspects of this activity, and just focus on the experience of floating in the air. I dreamed about free falls and flying many times. I have to say, free falling in dreams feel way scarier. I often felt like falling into the abyss and would literally experience a drop and land with a thump, all while laying perfectly supported by my bed.

My brain went totally RETARDED when in the air. It was my first time being in a small plane. It felt weird that I didn't need to strap myself into to a seatbelt. I was cramped up in a small space with 3 friends and four slightly bored-looking sky diving instructors who didn't really introduce themselves (they just landed from their 14th jump of the day 5 minutes ago). We didn't talk much because the plane was loud and we didn't know what to say. The four of us kept smiling stupidly out of sheer excitement and nervousness. One guy opened the airplane door (since I've only ever flown on commercial jumbo jets before this act just looked and felt wrong), and before any of us knew how to react, one of our friend was out of the airplane already. The rest of us obeyed instructions like sheep ("swing your legs to the ledge of the airplane"), and one by one the instructors took us into the open sky before we had time to panic or protest. Once I was in the air it felt like all common sense and logic also went out the window.  Logically, I should panic, and maybe regret this action, but I am already in mid-air, falling at 120 mph. It's too late to feel sorry, so I'll just feel stupid instead. However, there's a guy with cool sunglasses strapped to my back. If anything terrible happens to me, it could happen to him too, right? So I'll let him take care of it all.

Did I mention my brain sounds like a dumb ass in high elevation outside of an aircraft?

Free falling from 10,000 feet, strangely enough, does not feel as scary as one of those free fall rides in amusement parks. It might have something to do with the air cushioning or reaching terminal velocity before my brain could react. Supposedly the free fall lasted about 45 seconds, but it felt more like 5 seconds before I felt this yank, and went from horizontal to vertical when the instructor opened up the parachute. From then on it felt like smooth cruising in the sky with a human navigator attached to my back, showing me around the gorgeous scenery for about 3 minutes. I was a bit nauseous from the turning and spiralling, but then again I get dizzy and nauseous from standing forward folds and drop backs in yoga classes. Because the gliding part felt so smooth and easy, I actually asked the dumbest questions: "How long have you been doing this?" "21 years" (a sense of relieve from my part). "Do you ever get bored?" "No, it's a bit different every time I jump" (I was completely oblivious to the amount of skills and knowledge it required to perform the tandem jump, glide, navigate and land so smoothly and effortlessly). I landed on my two feet, with two weak knees and limp legs. The instructor stabilized me so I didn't fall backwards, and then practically sprinted off to receive the next group of customers.

When I was in the air my mind desperately wanted to grasp and put the moment on pause. I didn't have thoughts of danger or dying, but my mind was screaming: whoa whoa whoa this is happening too fast! Slow down! Why isn't the instructor giving me more verbal instructions? Am I doing this right? Am I doing anything that will endanger myself (ha ha ha)?  Am I supposed to be doing something right now (put arms in better positions or whatever)?  Free fall gave me the direct experience of how time is literally slipping away every single second of the day, and we can do nothing to slow it down. It also showed me how my brain is completely useless in unfamiliar situations. Why would I ask someone if they get "bored" of their sky diving job when this is one of the most intense experience I've ever had? Although it didn't show, but I remained stunned and somewhat dumbfounded for the rest of the day, still thinking that experience went by way too fast, and wishing I could have relaxed more while gliding in the sky.

After an evening of rest, I've come to the conclusion that bring a tandem sky diving instructor's job lets him opening up people's minds each time he takes a customer to sky dive for the first time. If someone can tandem sky dive for a living (16 times a day! Holy cow!), why do I give myself so much restrictions on what I can and cannot do with my life? I also realize I can't be responsible for other people's lives because I don't even trust myself with my life. I'm thankful that I live in a country with good enough safety standards that I can just show up to one of these places and do a jump without thoroughly checking their business reputation/history (I did look at their website before I went). This is not a privilege that everybody has. I feel very humbled and grateful for this experience.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Elevator Musing

In the elevator yesterday, I bumped into this older Asian gentleman, who always talks about wanting to try out yoga every time he sees me with a yoga mat going to or coming back from yoga class. I haven't seen him for quite awhile, and this time I was again with my yoga mat, coming back from Mysore practice at my friend's place.  He looked at me incredulously and said, "This is incredible! It's been two years and I can't believe you're still doing yoga! You should think about becoming a coach or something (I'm sure he meant yoga teacher)". 

I'm actually down to practice once per week only, which I'm not proud about, but to this man, the sheer fact that I haven't moved on to some other fad exercise is amazing. He also admits to never having tried yoga once,  despite talking repeated about it over the past 2 years and even though there's a studio 3 minutes walk from our building. It's possible he's always just been making conversations rather than actually wanting to try yoga.

I think the hardest part for starting something new is the "starting" part. If you want to try something new, bite the bullet, fight your nervousness, get your foot in the door, try it once just to get it over with, and then you're free to decide if you like it or hate it. 

Also, most people don't get it that becoming a yoga teacher means less practice time for the teacher, not more. But I guess they wouldn't know that if they've never tried a yoga class themselves.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Is blogging a form of unproductive procrastination?

I should really be working on refining my resume and submitting it for job hunting purposes. Instead I've been cleaning my apartment, playing sudoku, and trying to maintain this yoga blog, where many of the entries aren't even about yoga. If I were an actual yoga teacher, I would shut down this blog and start up something more professional looking, remove all the self-pity bits and complaints about my life, maintaining only inspirational sayings and informational bits about yoga. Such a yoga blog would be beneficial to me if I were to pursue yoga as a career. However, at this moment I am not considering to pursue a career teaching yoga. So.... is my urge to keep pumping out blog entries (many of them end up being totally unrelated to yoga) completely irrational and a total waste of time?

So far, my blog entries have often being non-coherent. Sometimes they are in the form of a diary, journaling about the day's yoga practice and other happenings. Sometimes I try to discuss a topic and often go astray and end up talking about things completely unrelated to the original topic. Sometimes I start blogging about an idea I wish to share with the blogosphere, but half way through I run out of steam and can't complete the entry (many of such entries sit in my "drafts" folder). I can't help but think that, if I have so much trouble writing light pieces about distinct, coherent yoga topics, how am I going to survive in the professional world, where I would need to submit reports/documents about whatever it is I am working on, which would also need to be coherent, expressive, and persuasive?

For this reason, I believe my blog entries are not a total waste of time. I am working on my written communication skills that may be useful towards my future career, whatever that may be. In case you're wondering WTF am I trying to say, well, I spent the whole day writing a blog entry but it read like I was brainstorming 5 topics all at once rather than producing one piece of writing. I am feeling guilty I spent so much time blogging instead of working on my resume.

This is me trying to justify the usage of my unemployed hours.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Focusing on the breath is the way to go

I am damn lucky to have a friend who organizes Mysore practice sessions at her house on Sundays. It forces me to practice the primary series at least once a week. Also, fellow Ashtangis' long ujjayi breathing helps remind me to stop breathing like I'm trying to catch a bus.

Today I decided to ease off on refining the asanas and placed primary emphasis on the breath. Best decision ever. I've always enjoyed the primary series because it allowed me a 90 minute period to pay attention to lengthening my breath. While I also need to work on my chaturangas, long breathing is what calms me down and makes me feel good for the rest of the day. I think I should lay off on perfecting my vinyasa and just focus on breath for the next little while.  Hopefully that'll rekindle my passion for the primary series.

The best part? Suuuuuuper yummy food that my amazing friends prepare for us after the practice sessions. Now that's the perfect way to spend a Sunday :)

p.s. I also found out recently that my body prefers me drinking coffee in the evenings than in the mornings. Guess caffeine's useless for me in turns of making me awake and alert.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Where's my yoga practice headed?

Ever since I've returned from India, I feel like I haven't been the same. Surprisingly, I feel a lot less attached to my asana practice these days. When I first started practicing asanas, the physical attributes really got to me. I sweated buckets within a few minutes into a yoga practice. My muscles couldn't stop shaking as I held a pose; bunched up fascia were being opened up. I felt dizzy from breathing too deeply or getting up too quickly from a standing forward fold. I have been steadily gaining strength, balance, flexibility. I begin to be able to observe my thoughts, reactions, and feelings from a third party point of view. It has been an amazing journey. But while in India, the asanas just didn't seem to do it for me any more. I still tried my best, and all these shaky sweaty dizzy stuff still happened to me; I got stronger, and learned lots, but the practice felt more like a chore than something fun and magical.

When I think about the most precious moments I had in India, I think about the times when I sat quietly with an Indian friend. This happened with a few different people actually. I wasn't really thinking about anything, nor was I bored. I was just short on words that was all. Back home this would be considered as rude / socially inappropriate. Usually people would get bored or anxious; they would immediately pick up the conversation by nervously crack a joke or change topic. One or two people would even take out his or her smart phone and do something with it to divert anxious attention. Then I would feel bad about myself, the fact that I made the other party uncomfortable. I have such terrible social skills. I'm a horrible person. I felt incredibly grateful and relieved that these Indians were allowing me to just be, whether I was happy or moody, confident or confused. It's possible that these were merely a cultural misunderstanding (they didn't know what to say either so they just smiled quietly instead). Nevertheless, these moments of comfortable, shared silence felt like what yoga and meditation techniques aim to achieve. For so many years, I have been feeling like I lack the skill of picking up the last sentence of another person's line and say something funny back to keep the conversation going non-stop. I've been subconsciously feeling deeply inadequate for way too long.

People ask me what I do these days. Many assume I would be doing a ton of yoga (asanas) - come on, this girl went all the way to India to take an entire month of yoga class. She must be signing up for yoga teacher training any time now. I really did go to India with the intention to get stronger and improve my asanas. I had no idea I'd end up in this weird mental place where I don't feel like going to yoga classes, or do my own Ashtanga practice, or apply for a job, yet I'm not depressed either. I don't completely understand what's going on with my mind right now. I guess it's a shift from focusing on the physical to the mental aspects of yoga. Seems that my Chinese upbringing has tried to teach me how I should act/feel in each social situation and ignore/suppress the feelings/emotions that naturally arise in a human being. North American culture has emphasized the importance of staying positive and doing whatever we can to get rid of negative feelings right away (retail therapy, exercise, go to a spa, drink a beer, make a joke; just feel good and be happy!). Too many years of schooling has made my brain stuck in constant analytical mode.  Maybe it's time for me to let go of some of these culturally conditioned constraints and get back in touch with myself again. Maybe asanas are not as important right now, at this stage of my yoga journey.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Primary series kicks my ass again

Before I went to India, I was getting pretty comfortable with my primary series. Sure, bhujapidasana could use more work; jump back/jump throughs weren't happening; but for the asanas that I could do, I was pretty happy with them. The practice itself felt enjoyable and rewarding. I was ready to expand and move forward with my practice. First week of class, my chaturanga was corrected. Apparently I have been doing fake ones where my elbows bent at ~110 degrees rather than 90 degrees, with my butt sticking way up in the air. With that single correction my entire practice became 10 times harder. For the rest of the month I could barely push up from real chaturangas into upward facing dogs. My down dog and up dog got corrected. That made my sun salutations feel totally awkward. I had trouble "flowing smoothly" from one position to the next. I was never given tips on the fancier stuff like bhuja or jump back from the supta kurmasana exit. Instead, all my standing postures got fixed (mostly just take a wider stance, which changes everything actually). With these changes added to my practice, I could barely get through the standing series before I felt totally exhausted. Back home I used  to love my teacher's led primary series practice. In India I hated it. I thought I might drop dead at any point during the practice. Back at home I was really pampered; we had pose modification options, small jokes thrown in here and there, often laughter filled the room when 80% of the class couldn't do something and the teacher brushed it over before we moved on. Here, the led class was the real deal. The counts were strict; no going into a pose before the proper count was uttered; I've never had to hold shoulder stand for so long (it's the real deal!); normally I never had problems doing 3-4 urdhva dhanurasanas, but one day I just collapsed in total defeat when called to do a 5th one. I never used to believe Ashtanga yoga was designed to discipline 14 year old boys, but in that led class I believed. I totally felt like I was in a bootcamp/military training for young boys. None of this bliss out / be jolly stuff. This was the "real" Ashtanga: how it was taught by Pattabhi Jois.

I was so angry. My ego was completely crushed. I thought I was good at Primary series, but I've been faking it all these years. Doing it the "proper" way sucked. I got tired so easily during the series. Savasana did not restore my energy. Sometimes I fell asleep during savasana (this never happens to me back at home) and still woke up tired. I would often have a nap in the afternoon, and wake up feeling groggy. Sometimes I'd nap after breakfast. A couple times I went back to bed right after practice. I really did not enjoy this. This practice is supposed to energize me, not drain all my energy for the rest of the day. I started doubting myself and doubting the Ashtanga practice. When the month-long practice was over I happily slept in and did not practice at all for an entire month. Not even basic sun salutations.

I tried to figure out what exactly happened. When I finally returned home, the first thing I noticed was the ultra-crispness of the air. That must have been it. The heat and the humidity really took a huge toll on me, not to mention the fact that my digestive system wasn't always happy to process all the spices and curries. I wasn't sleeping through the night for the first couple of weeks, perhaps due to crappy mattresses and an unfamiliar surrounding. Also, I normally practice in the evening time back home; switching to a 6am practice probably made a difference in my flexibility  and energy level. On top of all this, I was attacked by multiple mosquitoes during practice, and the incense in the shala often made me feel nauseous. The combination of all these would made my practice a lot harder than it does back home even if my asanas didn't get corrected at all.

So I take this trip as a sort of a "kung-fu" training, where I practiced the primary series with the temperature cranked way up, with (what felt like) lead blocks strapped to my wrists and ankles, and deadly (okay maybe just hungry) mosquitos released into the training room, all with the purpose to strengthen my body and my practice. My ego had to suffer because the training wheels were taken off the tricycles.

Now that I am back home, I've only done two full practice so far. They felt okay. Still tough, but not nearly as draining as I felt in India. One strange thing: my muscles never felt all that sore in India even with all the corrections designed to make my muscles work harder; only my energy levels were deeply affected. Back home I am easily sore for days after each practice, but my energy levels are fine. I have no explanations for why this is the case. Does a dip in the ocean after practice a couple times a week help with the soreness?

I am humbled by the experience and grateful for the teacher for showing me how difficult it is to do primary series properly (not to say my teacher back home taught anything wrong; he just wasn't on my case all the time for cutting corners in my vinyasas and for being lazy in my warrior II lunges). I just need to slowly ease myself back into the practice and hopefully one day feel good about it again after incorporating all the corrections.

Friday, April 6, 2012

I'm back

I've been back from India for awhile now but I found it difficult to blog about the experience. The trip was incredible in so many ways. I had anticipated the chaos, flight problems, crazy traffic, prices jacked up 10 times for the stupid tourists who don't know how to bargain (that would be me), food/water not agreeing with my gastrointestinal system, too much heat/sun, etc, etc. I got ripped off quite a few times by taxi drivers, tourist shops, travel agents and more. That was no surprise. What was totally surprising was the hospitality, friendship, and a deep sense of empathy that the locals warmly shared with me.

When I was in Taiwan, relatives would keep pushing hospitality gestures at me, even if I bluntly declined. I got used to just accepting whatever they offered me, and they always looked pleased if I accepted the offers. It seemed like nobody was capable of noticing the dismayed look I had on my face, or if they did, they pretended they didn't notice, probably thinking in their heads, "How rude and ungrateful of this girl for not happily appreciating my efforts! I'm just going to do the appropriate thing as a host and serve it to her anyways, whether she likes it or not".

I was staying at the same small beach in South India for a whole month, so I ended up seeing familiar faces every day. After a few days, people would tell me that I looked nervous when I first arrived and now I looked more relaxed. Or they would point out to me that I seemed unhappy.. why? Sometimes I didn't realize even I was tense or thinking unhappy thoughts until they pointed it out to me.  Even people who didn't know me at all, say, a waiter of restaurant that I visited the first time, would have concerned look on their faces if I looked like I was having a bad day. What's more, people would also express to me if they felt I looked happier the next time they saw me. Most of the time I also didn't recognize that until they told me, so I did a internal scan of how my body felt whenever people noted my emotional "aura", kind of like in a yoga class. A couple people I became friends with even told me that I always mechanically answered I was doing well when they asked me if I was okay, but they could tell from my body language that I wasn't doing okay at that point in time. This made me realize how mentally ill I have been to not be able recognize my own emotions and current state of being. For as long as I can remember, my family have purposely ignored how I feel and made me do things I didn't want to. Since expressing how I felt didn't change the outcome in most situations, I eventually learned to ignore my feelings when possible, to make the situation easier. I have always been unsuccessful wiping the reluctant look off of my face though, and this always made the elders unhappy, even though I did what I was told. I realized that everyone else in my family would put on this exaggerated act with unnaturally big smiles, loud laughs, tell jokes that made everyone else laugh loudly, but their body language unmistakably tell me that they are actually unhappy too. I know you want to hear about all the crazy stories of India, but the biggest lesson that I learned from my trip to India is that there is something really wrong with my extended family. I wasn't sure before, but when I went back to Taiwan after my India trip, I started noting some behaviours of certain family members as OCD. The purpose of OCD behaviours is to try to alleviate underlying anxiety feelings, but if one chooses not to acknowledge the feelings, then the anxiety will only be temporarily suppressed but never fully go away. Unlike me who has been actively trying to figure out what's wrong with me, everyone else has been trying with all their might to pretend that they are okay the way they are right now. Any slight suggestion that they might not be doing well sets off a landmine, as they furiously maintain they are all right, that something's wrong with me instead. And I believed them without noticing their own issues.

Recognition of my problems is only step one. I was kind of being pampered in India because I was a paying customer to most people whom I interacted with. ie. People didn't just note that I looked a bit moody. They would actively try to do something to make me laugh and feel better. A few of them treated me more like a guest from abroad than a customer, and went out of their ways to make me feel at home. I am deeply grateful for their hospitality and friendship. In fact I kind of wish I was back there right now, LOL. Seriously, now that I'm back to reality, I have to deal with my issues and get on with life again.

What about the yoga, you ask? Well, I'll have to say I think of yoga, especially Ashtanga yoga very differently now. Let me start by saying that most Indians don't do yoga. Many can't afford the yoga classes. Some just don't feel like learning it. The idea that yoga is for women only seems to be prevalent in India too, to my surprise. A lot of them don't know that much about yoga but like to offer me their opinions about it anyways. Some see it as solely as a means to make money. So please don't go to India and randomly sign up for yoga classes with any Indian teachers (as a lot of tourists seem to do on this beach). Some may have only done yoga for a few years (or a few months) but already offer teacher training programs to poor tourists who don't know any better. "When you go back to your country, you can open your own studio and become rich!"

More about yoga in another post.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Run, run, run away

It's so ironic that yoga is supposed to help me be a calmer, nicer person, but I am becoming a super bitch the longer I stay at home in Taiwan.

I have a confession to make: the only reason I am staying in Taiwan for so long is because I am waiting to go to India for a month of yoga study. I don't know why I was so stupid and didn't finish all the errands before I came back to Taiwan. I naively thought that Taiwan is developed enough that I can do a few simple things once I get here, like confirming my flight schedule, exchanging/transferring some money, printing a few things, etc. I called the airline in Taiwan and the customer representative was totally useless. I went to a bank and the teller doesn't know how to wire transfer money to a non-western country. Nobody told me banks are closed for the entire week during Chinese New Year. They just assume I should know about it. Any time I ask a question, friends and family would eagerly tell me they can help me, or they have a friend who can help me, when in fact neither they nor their "friends" know much about what I am asking for. I wish I could just be referred to professionals, but I don't live in a very convenient place and it seems very important for my family to try to solve my questions "for" me by asking the wrong people rather than admitting they don't know what I I am talking about and let me find information myself over the Internet or call a professional to find out. If I want to purchase an item, they would insist they know the cheapest place to buy it. It would take from hours to days just to get something simple like an alarm clock. I think I end up saving like 50 cents more, when everything is already cheaper in Taiwan than in North America. This whole time everyone keeps showing hospitality by offering to show me around. I ended up feeling more stressed out than entertained when I got dragged around to way too many tourist locations in one day. Today I spent hours and hours in the car, where I was taken to bakeries, restaurants, junk food stores and night markets quite a ways from where we live. Luckily I have already visited this place (Yi-Lan) before, or else I would be seriously bummed to have the chance to visit a place known for its gorgeous sceneries but never get to see any of it.

I am sad to say I was not a very nice person today. I have done nothing but eat way too much food for the past 2 weeks. I realize I should be grateful for all the kindness, but getting me to try out delicious local delicacies when I am already full is torture rather than enjoyment. Walking up and down crowded night markets for hours where every vendor screams at you to buy their stuff is not a relaxing exercise. I can't take deep breaths either because air quality is terrible in crowded places with too much traffic. I really hate the way I am right now. I exude terrible energy and I know I make people around me unhappy. I desperately want people to leave me alone. I think I can go back to my calm self if they stop offering me things (eg. food and "help"), but they seem to double their effort in their offerings the more frustrated/bitchier I get. Stop feeding the angry beast!

I don't know why my family brings out the worst in me. I am never like this around anyone else. It's not just a matter of control. Nobody else generates such strong negative reactions within me. Probably because nobody else would repeatedly force me to do things I don't want to do, even if the forcefulness/strong insistance come from kind intentions. Meditation, deep breaths, gaps between thoughts, all that go out the window. I feel like a train wreck unable to shut up, just politely decline and get away.

It's only a couple more days before I head for India. It's not going to be an easy trip because I bought a ticket with way too short of a connection time, transferring at one of the crappier airports. I am sure there will be plenty of challenges for me to somehow make it to my destination. I was pretty nervous about it before I arrived in Taiwan, but my family managed to make other supposedly easy errands over-complicated as well, so I can't even discuss about this with them. Somehow I still think the chaos in India will be easier to deal with than my current situation. I will let you know otherwise. The yoga itself will undoubtedly be awesome. I wonder how much things will change afterwards. Not expecting magic bullets but I hope the yoga will help.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Cold practice

It was about 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahreheit) this morning indoors (no heater at home). First time doing yoga practice in such a cold environment. I did the full primary series practice in long sleeves, and barely broke a sweat. At my yoga studio I usually start sweating in samastitihi, right when we are about to start chanting. Practice certainly isn't easy in this kind of environment, but it's "safer" for me since I can't collapse into poses and over-stretch when it's so cold.

I watched what I could in David Garrigues' video about breath and receptivity (reviewed in Nobel's blog). Couldn't watch the whole thing because I'm "borrowing" neighbor's wi-fi with my iPad and the connection is not so great. Took me 10 minutes to watch 3 minutes of the video. David mentioned that there should be a balance between effort and receptivity. He also said that the breath will do its own thing depending on the body condition and environment. Well, my breathing in sun salutations were done in slow motion today (I am known to rush through the whole series in 60 minutes). I guess in the cold the body's too stiff to rush through the motions. My mind wasn't awake enough to dominate my natural breathing pattern, and it wanted to take its time to heat up the inner body. Cold practice sucks for the ego, but is good for my body and breath.

It's bizarre to be practicing yoga in an environment where everyone else barely cares about their bodies (or they try to eat their way to health - diet supplements sell really well here). My sister has a haunch back so severe, I've only seen such a curved spine among really old people. She refuses to do much about it. I don't understand how she holds herself up. Last year when I saw her, her back got much better since she had a massage therapist friend who manually adjusted her and really improved her spine, but now it's back to an old lady spine. Her son and daughter also both have haunches, non-severe ones but nobody says or does anything about it. One cousin tells me she has lower back pains and unknown foot problem such that she can't walk for more than an hour at a time. As far as I know, no one's conditions are completely hopeless, but everyone seems to choose to let the body worsen rather than doing something to improve it. I guess in a culture where watching TV and eating are the biggest national hobbies, as long as the mouth and eyes still function, the rest of the body parts don't really matter.