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.