The Path To Bodhichitta

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

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Location: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Friday, February 22, 2008

Island Of Indulgences

So much for waxing lyrical about yoga on the beach. I didn't get round to doing even a spot of asana, save for a spontaneous headstand at a quarter to midnight. The few glasses of wine allowed me to hold the asana for a nanosecond before guiding my body into a horizontal variation. Of course, I blame the pure white, lumpy beach.

So what pulled the brakes on my lofty ambition? In no particular order of importance - a studio no one had ever heard of, a lousy yoga teacher in a five-star hotel, too much good food, too many delicious books, too much glorious sun, lengthy conversations with a long-time-no-see friend and of course, Langkawi's famous duty-free wine. I only polished one bottle off over a span of 3 days, but this body ain't like it was before! That's a story for another day, though.

I returned relaxed, wistful that it had ended so quickly and eager to plant my feet on my mat again. And couple of adventures here and there have propelled me back to journaling again.

Most importantly and unexpectedly, I found myself hooked on Langkawi. Cenang Beach, in particular. It was different than I remembered it to be four years ago. It was as though it grew up. From being a sleepy stretch of beach, it now plays host to throngs of enchanted guests. Its party is light, fun and incredibly laidback, without the hard glint of commercialism that Patong or Kuta has suffered.

That got me thinking...maybe I would like to live there someday.

P/S: I also had my first coffee in 5 weeks at the Breakfast Station. It was like returning to an old lover.

Friday, February 15, 2008

All My Bags Are Packed

5 gloriously hedonistic days of soaking up golden sunlight, sipping sundowners, devouring saved-up-for-holidays books, practicing yoga to the sound of the waves and losing track of time and day. After 8 straight months of work, this little break is like that spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down.

I have always enjoyed Langkawi. I do not love it the way I do Phi Phi (pre-tsunami), Bali or even Krabi, but I am fond enough of it to return to its charms every now and then.

The last time I was there, I hadn't yet given my heart to yoga. This time, I have already done my research and found a promising little shala tucked amongst nature and paddy fields. It has receieved highly acclaimed reviews online, so I am eager to explore its offerings. The other yoga class is held in a 5-star hotel, in which a friend is part of the spa team. Could be commercial, could be the exact oppostite.

So I'm off and will return with stories (and depending on my dubious photography skills, pictures too)!

From Here To There

Yet another issue has cropped up in my practicing the seated sequence - the lack of alignment.

In between trying to jump back without crashing and keeping my ragged breath steady, there is no room to check if both my shoulders are parallel or if my back in rounded. In fact, just as I get a sliver of comfort in the asana, it's time get start moving again. Furthermore, ashtanga doesn't offer a platter of modifications for each asana. Can't reach yoru feet in paschimottanasana without rounding your back? Then round it and do it anyway. As a hatha practitioner, this bothered me greatly.

It isn't in my yoga DNA to move through asanas without immersing myself deeply in each one. Alignment is crucial to me and when I was still teaching, I would refuse to allow a student with bad knees to sit in virasana without sitting on a pillow. I am a firm believer that a body should be moulded into an asana rather than forced into it. So as my back rounded, chest caved in and knees popped up in a few of the seated asanas, my dissatisfaction grew.

I called The Teacher for advise and this is what he said:

"You must first understand the philosophy behing ashtanga. It is not to create flow like vinyasa or perfect alignment like iyengar, but to retain heat in the body. If you cannot accept that and find peace in this style, then perhaps it is not for you."

But I have grown to love ashtanga for everything else it offers. Yet sometimes I felt like I was doing the asana for the sake of doing the asana and thus, diluting the essence of yoga. The Teacher disagreed immediately.

"The ultimate aim of yoga is to reach the Truth. Nothing to do with asanas. You cannot document yoga like that. Each style has its own beauty and flaws. But yoga is personal and you must find what works for you. Yes, each style has its guiding principles but it's only meant as that - a guide. Don't confine yourself to something that you know doesn't resonate with you. I am from the iyengar school, yet my personal style is a blend of iyengar-vinyasa. Another teacher I know teaches hatha-ashtanga. The essence of yoga cannot be diluted merely through asana, as asana is only one way towards realising the Truth."

So if I want to move deeper into a pose, I can hold it for 8 breaths instead of 5?

"Yes. Ashtanga purists may dispute this, but if you cannot find a connection between your body and your mind during your practice then you have to do one of two things: find a way to get that connection or try a different style."

That suits me fine. I still practice according to the ashtanga guidelines, but I slow down and take my time moving into challenging asanas so I am a little more aware of my alignment. And during my hatha practice, I spend a little more time refining those asanas so that my body knows exactly how to move into them during my ashtanga practice.

What really got me was The Teacher's reminder that the purpose of yoga is ultimately to realise the Truth and not about which style we're practicing or how perfect our handstand is.

We forget that sometimes.

Friday, February 08, 2008

A Gut Feeling

Does anyone else have a issue with their belly during the second ashtanga sequence?

When The Elder first taught me the seqence, I was huffing and puffing too much to focus on that soft bit that never seems to go way. But when I practiced in the quiet of my yoga room, that bit of belly was the only thing that stopped my chin from touching my knees. Sure, the hamstrings and back muscles also played a part but all my eyes could see was that litle bit of belly. And the further I got into the sequence, the more unslightly it grew. By the time I reached janu sirsasana c, I was almost in tears. My ego had turned mild dissatisfaction into full-on disgust, and I couldn't continue practicing. I hated the sequence and that bit of belly.

Later that evening, I texted The Elder telling her what had happened. She replied, "I told you ashtanga would bring up strong emotions. Don't worry about it. We'll talk about this over lunch soon ok."

Our busy schedules have kept us from that lunch date, but since then I've tried to move beyond that severe self-criticsm. The last three times I practiced, I breathed into that bit of belly, cajoling it to soften and relax. It's a painfully slow process.

I still don't like the seated sequence for its complete disregard for my physical insecurities. I still get upset with that bit of belly and struggle not to scowl through the rest of the practice. But perhaps the more I practice, the more I'll have to face my least favourite part of my body and the closer I'll get to overcoming the emotional attachment towards it.

If anyone has a similar experience, I'd love to hear it!

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Truly, Madly, Deeply

Two weeks.

Two solid weeks of practicing the same sequence over and over again.

Just two weeks, and my new ashtanga practice had me counting the hours to my first samasthitti of the day. A gob-smacking revelation for someone who has spent all four years of her practice avoiding Mr. Jois' cheoreography.

Seriously, I never thought I would connect so deeply with ashtanga. For years - and I confess this with deep humility - I always viewed it as an inferior practice, in that it focused solely on the body. Being brought up in the hatha way of life, I couldn't stomach that myopic vision. And being a Vata-type, the rigid sequence made me shudder. Two years ago, I took my first public ashtanga class with The Elder and it underlined my dislike for the style.

So why did I do an about-turn two months ago?

My home practice was flagging. I would dutifully turn up on my mat every evening and spend half my practice clawing through magazines and books for inspiration. By the time the hour was up, I felt that I hadn't even scratched the surface of a proper practice. I tried planning my sequence for the day or selecting one from Yoga Journal, but either it didn't fit with my mood or I lost interest half-way.

Ashtanga put a stop to all that. Despite my distaste for routines, I discovered that my body responded better when it knew exactly what was expected of it from the word 'Om'. (I later discovered that the sequence - although flowing - created a form of structure which was needed to keep my dosha in balance.) The ujjayi breathing kept my focus completely on my breath and body. And after watching John Scott's Primary Series DVD, I learnt the meaning of moving in powerful grace.

Each practice rewarded my body with an internal spring-clean. I would begin with my mind still filled with the day's events, but by the time I reached trikonasana, all that I was aware of was my Darth-Vader-breath and my body alignment. That inner quiet was soon followed by a wonderful sense of groundedness. In reaching savasana, I literally felt more alive. The beads of perspiration running down my spine and cooling on my skin, my muscles tingling and my breath softly bellowing a steady rhythm. The physical sensations pave an avenue for me to tap deeper into my mental and emotional sensations. And I have fallen in love with that feeling.

Ashtanga has also instilled a sense of discipline in me, that I once despaired I would never possess. For the first time in a long, long time, I have practiced every single day (bar the new moon, full moon and ladies' holiday). Even better, this disipline has also spilled over into my work life.

It has taken me four years to give ashtanga a chance, and even now I'm sharing only half of what I feel, because certain things have to be experienced to be understood.

But it has been and still is a struggle. I have had days when I'm almost in tears, when I am mad at Pattabhi Jois for making unreasonable demands on my body, when the movements are just too fast too furious...and I will share every single one of those struggles in this blog. Yet, like a repentant lover, I return to ashtanga the next day because I know that beneath its apparent brutality lies a benovelent soul. And also because I believe Pattabhi Jois when he says, "Practice and all will come."