It took me a really, really, really long time to get into yoga.
For years I always thought of it as a series of odd stretches and a whole lot of awkward breathing. Getting into and holding the positions made me feel silly, and for the most part of the trial classes I attended, I alternated between looking at the instructor upside down between my hands and legs, and trying to process by listening which limb I was supposed to be moving. Here I was, flailing like a drowning spider, and everyone around me seemed to be coming out of these classes with an afterglow and a ton of fitness
inspiration inspo hashtags. Friends swore by the mental benefits yoga offered. Encouraged by their testimonies, I persisted in different studios and under different instructors, and I still found myself confounded, bored, and hardly ever breaking a proper sweat. It felt like a much more productive use of my time to use the allocated exercise block to hit the ground running or body-pump at the gym.
Sometime in late 2016, a colleague invited me to join a private group class. It was only then that I finally came around. The solution to my years of yoga doubt couldn’t have been more obvious or simple – I just needed a good instructor.
And boy, was she good. All it took was one hour and she had me slipping on my puddles of sweat and struggling to lift my aching body out of bed for a good 2 days after every class. Getting your body into the right alignment made a world of difference. Some tiny adjustment here and there – a squaring of the hip, a tucking in of the ribs – and I finally understood what I was supposed to be feeling. It reminded of the times I got fitted for my prescription glasses; when the optometrist clicks the correct glass into place in those giant owl-eyed metal frames, and the letters and numbers on the chart magically come into focus.
When done correctly, yoga can give you a better workout than most machines at the gym. And more importantly, it has become both a mental stimulant and tranquilliser. Several years ago I asked a friend who smoked cigarettes continually throughout his waking hours how the very same thing could possibly keep him sharp and alert during the day but yet enhance the intoxicating effects of alcohol at night. He claimed that smoking his cigarettes heightened his concentration, and that allowed him to both focus better, be it contemplating a difficult problem at work, or intensifying that alcoholic buzz. I never got into smoking myself, but I imagine my post-yoga high to be the closest thing to this feeling he described.
These days, whenever I travel I always make it a point to look up yoga studios and to pop in for a class when I can. I have a strange habit of enjoying supermarkets, convenience stores, pharmacies, and bookstores wherever I go. I have found that these are often the best places to observe the local inhabitants going about their everyday errands and living out their daily lives. It’s almost like a National Geographic documentary on the behavioural patterns of the native wildlife in their natural habitat. I like seeing how their cereal and fruit differ from the ones back home, and how much meat and vegetables cost. I like knowing how different people all over the world medicate themselves and self-soothe (homeopathy? salves? drugs?). I love spending hours browsing in the shelves of blockbuster bookstores and small independent bookstores, even if the titles are all in a foreign language I can’t read. The Strand in New York City; Eslite in Taipei; Shakespeare and Company in Paris; City Lights in San Francisco; Daikanyama T-Site in Tokyo; Livraria Lello in Porto… everyone’s got their own Disneyland.
Visiting a yoga studio in a foreign land is a much more involved activity than popping into a grocery store. You can never get away with being a spectator, and there is always a risk of participating and looking stupid. I am excitable and loud by nature, and I always walk into a new studio feeling apprehensive, like a Bull surrounded by fragile gluten-free pieces of china. I always half expect everyone to be levitating visions of calm and enlightenment – people who have generally figured out the secret that is life and gotten their act together. I’ve now come to realise that most people are drawn to the mat not because they’ve gotten their lives lined up in orderly perfection, but rather because they’re desperately trying to do so. Yoga must be to the anxious mind what Christianity is for the despairing and the downtrodden.
In my short time as a yoga practitioner, I’ve practised in a village resort in Canggu (Bali), in the middle of the jungle in Malapascua Island (the Philippines), in a swanky neighbourhood in Sydney (Australia), and in a cozy studio on a small street in Seminyak (Bali) tucked away from the commercial madness it has now become. Desa Seni (Canggu, Bali) has been my favourite to date, with its sprawling grounds and hushed tones. The classes are held on open-air wooden villas with panoramic views of the surrounding greenery. It’s hard not to feel connected with nature in a setting like this, even for someone like me, who remains resistant to the spiritual element of the practice. It has been more than a year, and I still cannot bring myself to chant or even say namaste with a straight face. My cousin on the other hand, regularly plays the handpan drum in yoga sessions, and manages to get into the juju even without getting on the mat. We had trotted down to the yoga studio in Seminyak the morning after our cousin’s wedding and walked in to join a Vinyasa class. He boldly asked the instructor if he could play during her class and she unsurprisingly hesitated. The rest of the class grudgingly agreed and my cousin, completely unperturbed (as he has been his entire life), sat down and started to play. It took him only a minute or so before the entire class fell into a celestial haze by the ethereal sounds of the instrument. By the end of the class, the instructor had invited him back to Bali to play his handpan drum for her yoga retreat.
It is with no little irony that I found the class in Sydney the most ‘authentic’ as yoga classes come. The instructor had insisted on using only the Sanskrit names of the poses, and as a result I found myself twisting my neck to watch her while stuck in the most uncomfortable of poses, trying to figure out an Uttanasana from an Ardha Uttanasana. I did however end up purchasing some #activewear handcrafted from organic and ethically-sourced fabric – Anything to get me closer to that Adho Much Vrksasana right?