The Path To Bodhichitta

You start where you are, the practice will meet you there.

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Location: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Saturday, December 30, 2006

What I Learnt In 2006

1. Your first three gurus should be your body, mind and soul.

2. You don't teach to be patted on the back. But the pats will come if you teach with your heart. And to grow, you will have to forget that your back was ever patted.

3. Being present is half the battle won.

4. There will always be students who are better than you. You must not be intimidated or envious of them. Instead, delight in the beauty of their asanas. Likewise, there will always be teachers who are not as good as you. You must neither scorn nor pity them. Instead, respect their individual rhythm of growth.

5. If you hesitate before attempting a challenging asana, it’s not your body that is holding you back, but your ego.

6. Satya (telling the truth) clears the mind and heart of toxicity.

7. You must follow your dharma (destiny) even if it means going against the grain. There is no reason to be afraid for a Higher Power is always guiding you.

8. The practice of pranayama (breathing) is more challenging than that of sirsasana (headstand).

9. If you falter, there is no shame in starting over.

10. True yoga cannot be practiced. It must be lived.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

When I reached the legal age for a driver's license, a middle-aged man was engaged as my driving instructor. He spoke only when necessary and never lost his cool. By now, I've settled into my own driving style and have forgotten almost everything he's told me...except one piece of advice.

"In an accident, never say you're sorry."

"But what if I hit someone?" I asked.

"Don't say sorry!" he insisted. "If you do, you're admitting you're in the wrong and you'll have to pay for the damage."

It was a peculiar bit of advice, but I didn't want to argue with him so I nodded. I've carried those words with me for years, wondering if he handled every situation with defensiveness.

Last year, someone reversed straight into my car and shattered my right indicator light. We both inspected the damage, then he turned to me and said, "It's my fault and I'll pay for it."

I was so glad he had a different driving instructor.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Do They know It's Christmas?

It's Christmas time,
There's no need to be afraid
At Christmas time,
We let in light and we banish shade
And in our world of plenty
We can spread a smile of joy
Throw your arms around the world
At Christmas time

But say a prayer,
Pray for the other ones
At Christmas time it's hard,
But when you're having fun
There's a world outside your window,
And it's a world of dread and fear
Where the only water flowing
Is the bitter sting of tears
And the Christmas bells that ring there
Are the clanging chimes of doom
Well tonight thank God it's them
Instead of you

And there won't be snow in Africa this Christmas time
The greatest gift they'll get this year is life
Where nothing ever grows
No rain or rivers flow
Do they know it's Christmas time at all?

Here's to you raise a glass for everyone
Here's to them underneath that burning sun
Do they know it's Christmas time at all?

Feed the world
Feed the world
Feed the world
Let them know it's Christmas time

This is one of my favourite Christmas songs. Penned by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure in 1984 to raise money and increase awareness of Ethiopian famine, its tune is catchy and its medley of famous voices a pure delight. But it was only a few days ago that I got hold of the lyrics. And my heart broke.

I love Christmas. I love putting up the tree, choosing gifts, coming home to a house filled with the aroma of freshly baked cookies and the works. I knew not everyone shares the same memories but to think that some people's worlds forever remain untouched by Christmas was unfathomable. I pictured families with little children waking up on the morning of December 25th and going about their daily back-breaking work, unaware that they were living through the most beautiful day of the year. I thought of the destitute, the sick and the elderly who lie alone on this glorious morning, while the rest of the world celebrates in blissful oblivion.

I felt overwhelming sadness. I felt helplessness. I felt I had to do something, anything. Then I remembered Auntie May.

Auntie May would be celebrating Christmas alone. She has no immediate family. She has no friends. She has no memory of what happened five minutes ago. She would be living Christmas in the darkness of her mind and the emptiness of her heart.

I didn't have to go halfway across the world to open my heart. This year, Auntie May will be celebrating Christmas with us.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Yoga On Ko Phangan

I just returned from a 10-day trip to Ko Samui, an island in south-east Thailand. On the third day, we hopped on a ferry and arrived in the infamous Ko Phangan 40 minutes later. Phangan is renowed for its monthly Full Moon parties and more recently, its offerings of yoga classes, retreats and teacher's training courses. These two polar opposites are what make Ko Phangan one of the most commercially-drenched islands in Thailand. Unfortunately, I only realised that when I had two feet firmly planted in its pale yellow sand. But that story is for another day, place and time.

Aside from being shamelessly ripped off by arrogant tuk-tuk drivers and bored hawkers, I had a lovely time. In between reading, eating green curry and lying on the beach, I made it a point to sniff out the island's many yoga centres. Most were located in the north. Hardly surprising. The parties were held in the south.

I visited at least three of them. The rest were too expensive and only offered month-long internal cleansing courses or meditation retreats. The last centre was the most promising. Named Agama yoga, it offered classes every morning and evening and even had an evening lecture. And the first class was free. I was there the next evening. Not because the class was free (I must hasten to add!) but because the teacher had to be good to make such a generous offer.

There were 15 people in class. I underestimated the travel time from my beach hut to the studio and arrived during the first sun salutation. It was different. Each sun salutation was done with great awareness and precision. After each round, we were instucted to stand in Tadasana (Mountain pose) to feel the effects of Surya (Sun). After the fourth round, we did another three more, this time to mantras dedicated to each of the 12 poses. I liked it. It made it easier for me to focus on the current pose instead of on flowing into the next pose.

The next half hour was spent on warm-up exercises. As we did neck rolls, eye movements and uddiyana bandha, he walked around making sure everyone knew exactly what to do and how to do it. Then we moved on to the asanas. Each asana was held for a minute. This time, however, he practiced alongside us. Many people had obviously never done yoga before and were doing the asanas with their limbs at alarming angles. I had to close my eyes to fight the temptation to rush over and correct them. Again, after each asana, we sat in silence to absorb its energy on the corresponding chakra.

Then things got a little strange. The sun was setting and shadows began falling across the room. The teacher turned on the lights. They were ultraviolet and suddenly every slice of white in the room was glowing. An unusual effect, I supposed. It was time for a spot of meditation, he annouced, so we settled in a cross-legged position and waited. He instructed us to focus on our vishudda (throat) chakra. Then he turned on the music and my eyes flew open. It wasn't chants or even new age strains. It was trance music. For the next ten minutes, I felt like I was part of a Star Trek episode. Initially, I told myself to keep an open mind. Perhaps this was a technique I could learn from and maybe introduce in my own classes. Then I peeked at the guy next to me. His eyes were closed, his spine was erect and his head was gently bobbing to the beat. OK, maybe I won't try this in my class.

By the time we got to final relaxation, the mosquitoes were out and ravenous. Instead of focusing on the 'gentle rise and fall of my belly with each inhalation and exhalation', I was stifling screams of frustration. To add to the agony, the ultraviolet lights seemed to have gotten brighter and the glow was no longer interesting, but eerie.

15 miunutes later, when the teacher said, "Ok, that's enough for now" (a phrase he used throughout the class to instruct us to come out of a pose), I couldn't get out fast enough. And I never went back.

But I learnt something from that class. That if you pause a while after making a move, stillness steps forward like a shy child and you not only see where you're going, but also where you are. Kinda' like chess. Kinda' like life.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Way It Makes You Feel

It always amuses and surprises me how kakasana (crow) is capable of eliciting a myriad of reactions from the students. Last week, as the vinyasa sequence drew to a close, I beamed at them and announced, "And now for your favourite pose. The crow."

Some chuckled.
Some sighed.
Some rolled their eyes.
Some fiddled with their clothes.
None moved.

After a generous sprinkling of enouraging words and pointers, they reluctantly pushed their palms onto the mat and hesitantly raised their rear ends. For the next few minutes, the studio was reverberated with thuds, thumps, frustrated mutters and annoyed groans. Despite me repeating that the effort mattered more than the result, they remained entrenched in their pursuit for perfection. Naturally, they fell short of their own expectations.

After the class, J approached me, a frustrated frown still etched above her brows and a deep desire to know exactly why she couldn't stay in the pose for more than a second. We worked on her alignment for a while and she soon understood what she needed to do. As she rolled up her mat, she suddenly turned to me and said, "But what does it feel like? I think if I knew what it feels like I could do it."

For a moment, I didn't know what to say. No one had ever asked me that before. How do you explain what a pose feels like? Weightless? Graceful? Strong? Gravity-defying? Would she understand how it felt if I described it that way? I doubted it. So I told her, that how it feels would be up to her.

The emotions that emerge from achieving a pose depends on your perception of it and your approach towards it. If you think sirsasana (headstand) signifies power and superiority, then you would only be aware of your swelling ego when you're finally upside down. If you approach paschimottanasana (seated forward bend) with gritted teeth, then you will feel triumph when your chin finally touches your knees. And if you are completely relaxed when you fold over into halasana, you will feel peace when your toes touch the floor.

No asana comes with a list of specific emotions. Instructions and benefits yes, but never emotions. That is for the practitioner to discover in his or her journey into the pose.

That is the beauty of yoga.