Monthly Archives: December 2014

..and this is the wonder that is keeping the stars apart

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Time is rather fascinating, from hours, to months and years – one can’t help but wonder what life would be like without any concept of time? Without any regard of time there will be no such thing as New Years no? But the concept of time, amongst its many other function serves as a tool of reflection, consolidation and integration of experiences into something meaningful. Because man is always out to find and attach meaning to everything that happens to them, Viktor E. Frankl certainly got famous from it, and I am not far behind in agreement.

This year has been nothing short of magical. Cliche I know, but it is one word that I can use with all honesty and still feel that it falls short of encapsulating the essence of 2014. Since it is also the end of my twenties, that “defining decade”, it feels really good to be exactly where I am today, to look back on all the big life decisions I have made to bring me here, and to feel a sense of excitement entering into my thirties.

If there was a word I could use to sum up my entire year it would be blessings. I am infinitely blessed and for this I am endlessly grateful to the Universe and the Higher power that governs it. From the opportunities that came in a steady stream and watching Mind Body Breath grow from strength to strength (with the 2 coolest thing to happen to it was the appearance on TV3 Berita Utama and coverage in Her World magazine), the kindness of strangers, the meeting of beautiful souls and mind blowing connections that transcends all my understanding of what it means to really and truly connect with another person, and ultimately the expansion of a group of people I hold close and dear in my heart.

Delivering a report and having a Vietnamese translator by my side (and discovering that having your presentation translated actually gives you plenty of time to calm that public speaking nerves – woohoo!), appearing on their national news, embarking on this teaching thing full time, sharing my written thoughts with others and seeing on it print, sharing what I love and what I know to others and watching them experience similar benefits and positivity, that maiden trip to India, falling in love with Saraswathi and her energy, discovering the value of parampara, falling head over heels with the entire practice and discovering an entirely new world around it, kick starting a business partnership with a person who is so similar to me in values yet so utterly different in certain worldviews and looking forward to the kind of boundless beauty that will result from this communion.

There were a couple of lessons that became really clear to me which affirms some of my understanding of the world or whatever it was that I may have read from before. I understood the concept of making space by first releasing the things that doesn’t serve you anymore. Magic happens in those spaces. They really do 🙂 I understood every quality that which we love, admire, hate or detest in other people are merely the reflection of the exact same qualities within ourselves, shedding an entirely different light and meaning on my understanding of ‘one-ness’ and the self. And I have also come to understand that the Universe awards you with many, many gifts in different forms and that you would only have to be present and aware when it happens to fully appreciate it. Of the biggest lesson in this though, I have learned that sometimes this gifts are not meant to be kept, sometimes to be let go as immediately as they came, sometimes to not be owned but appreciated as they are, and on other times, to be experienced and then to allow distance from it and to admire it from afar. The challenge that remains for me at least is to learn not to grow attached to any of these wonderful gifts.

Equally as the affirmation occurs, so too did the disintegration of certain beliefs that was accompanied with a lot of questions that was really uncomfortable leading to days of unease and sleeps underlined with meaningless nightmares. I am still questioning a lot of things but I have managed to find comfort in this very uncomfortable process, to make peace with certain things that remains unknown and to embrace fully my ability to question the very foundation of my faith and trusting this entire process in and of itself. Certainly these questions arise from within for the mere purpose of drawing one closer to the self.

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
E.E Cummings

Why Do You Feel?

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I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it, or fade it, or fix it. – The Invitation (Oriah)

This morning’s conversation began somewhere around Dandasana. His touch was alternating between firm pressure and cautious sweeping of his fingers on the area that has been responsible for an uprising of many introspection and emotions and a perpetual discomfort when it comes to breathing while lying down.

“Go easy with your practice. I can feel some tiny tears,” to which the hypochondriac in me instantly kicks into overdrive “but practice the way you are doing now. Exactly as you are doing now”, and that little child in me is quickly pacified though what really means are modifications, removing jumpbacks, jumpthroughs and chakrasana, and employing a version of half chaturranga that makes me feel like I have just taken 2 huge steps back in my own practice.

And if that is not sufficient enough for this ego that sits within me, the real sense of dread and fear for the upcoming seated postures, the Marichyasanas variations started as soon as I stepped on my mat and stayed with me all throughout. How does one avoid the inevitable? A clear example of humans being humans and demonstrating their aversion to pain. At home, during a self-practice away from the watchful eye of a teacher, perhaps it is always that much easier to press on for a couple of breath, sigh a little, struggle a little, grunt a bit more and then give in to that feeling of “fuck it, let’s just go to closing from here”, but in a Mysore room and a teacher that seems to hover around when he knows you are struggling the most, giving in to that feeling is akin to exclaiming out loud in a class full of other students that you’ve finally had enough, rolling up your mat and storming out of the room. Never. Going. To. Happen.

At Marichyasana C, I was teetering on the grey but very real line between practicing with awareness and the actual fact that I could really hurt myself. The kind that would usually send many PTs and Osteopaths shaking their heads at your own stupidity. But I caught my fingers and thought that is enough for today, at least in this posture. At Marichyasana D, that was when I felt like I am standing in front of an emotional water-dam that is brimming with tears. Partly not knowing if I should keep moving through the discomfort and complete the pose, partly feeling the full effect of helplessness and struggle, and fully thinking “OK so how FAR should I take this to??” while questioning every angle of this concept of surrender.

The entire time he was hovering close of which I am pretty sure exercising his superpower abilities of listening into every thoughts I had going in my head at that moment. And then he suddenly appeared, sat down, straddled close to assist me and said “Don’t identify with the pain. Just try. Slowly”. And when I caught my fingers he added with a smile “next year, it will be gone”. Next year it seems is less than a week today. I wonder if it will come that soon.

Later at the reception outside, he pointed out those tears weren’t new, that they were ‘old’ and it is just surfacing up to release itself. Now thinking back, few conversations in the last few months seems to make sense. Like that time when S was going on and on about blockages stored in parts of your body, and Akash talking about his Thai massage that made him cry (and in his own words “like a baby”). I have ABSOLUTELY no idea what kind of old injuries I’ve done to myself or unknowingly stored and equally as clueless why it is surfacing up in the form that it is now. Frankly I much prefer if it was just traded into 1 hour’s worth of sadness, so I could cry it out, and get it over and done with. It’s not a matter of patience and waiting to ride this out, but rather the discomfort that is opening up all sorts of introspection that is leaving me quite overwhelmed.

Why do you feel? What is the purpose of all these sensations and feelings? I’m not too sure myself – maybe next year I will find out.

Moving through the pain

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Pain, when it comes to yoga practice always presents itself as a topic of inquiry that leads to endless debates and opinions. What is a safe yoga practice? Is it normal to be experiencing pain during or after a yoga practice? Does the presence of pain indicate injury? and if so, does it mean that yoga should not be practiced at all?

A widely consulted physiotherapist and an advocate of myofascial trigger points in Mysore whom I had met and learned a few things from during my last trip addressed the last question succinctly – “Yoga in and of itself does not lead to injury, it is the individual that comes to the practice with his or her own pre-existing conditions, imbalances and tightness without first being aware of these that leads one to eventually experience some level of pain and injury”

I have always approached my yoga practice with a lot of awareness to a point sometimes it borders toward cautious rather than trusting the process itself. My belief was pain during and after practice is unnecessary. These feelings are meant to be heeded by easing off or backing off, resting during periods of prolonged pain until it subsides before resuming your daily practice ultimately acknowledging and honouring the sensations and the limitations of your body.

My views on this however are changing. The more I begin to observe the 6 times weekly practice, the more I talk to other practicing Ashtangis and their own experienced challenges in the practice, and as I begin to lay down my hands on more texts, opinions and views of long-term authorized and certified Ashtangis, there is another worldview that is opening up to me of this thing we call pain.

Gregory Maehle even has different categorisations to pain of which I feel could be information that is largely hard to digest and wrap the head around for those without a consistent yoga practice. This week I have somehow managed to end up with a persistent pain on the left shoulders – the palm sized area around the infraspinatus and somehow, i don’t know how this is even possible, a sensation that wraps around from behind to the front pectoralis. My suspicion is leaning towards rushed chaturangas, falling out of the correct alignment in an effort to maintain breath to movement and a botched, i’m-still-working-on-it chakrasanas.

In the past 2 days it has greatly intensified perpetuated by the fact that I still have to demonstrate these poses in my own classes that I lead. For the first time in all these years of practicing various systems of yoga asanas, I have decided to show up on my mat, however intense the sensation is. Mostly out of curiosity, like volunteering myself as the lab-rat to my own experiment on my mat. What happens if I allow myself to move through the pain instead of identifying with it and cooling off for a few days? What if this is an opportunity to turn inwards further and refine my own understanding of body awareness and limitations?

Before everything else though, there is a clear disclaimer here that I draw the line on the above approach only to myself. And under no circumstance would I ever push such ideals, or even worse my own curiosities to other people who are new to the practice or anyone that comes to me to learn yoga asanas. These are obviously just my own pondering of which I have yet or ever will draw any clear conclusions from.

And so it is, this idea of moving through the pain rather than just sitting with it. Yesterday’s practice was horrible. Today’s painful. Let’s not even talk about how many times I woke up throughout the night every time I needed to turn or move. It is humbling to be assisted into postures that I have never needed help in. Even more interesting to coax past the initial body’s reaction to tense up at the first tinge of pain. And yet the most surprising discovery out of the last 2 days was that my headstand was lighter, less cautious and that much more stable. Perhaps it is the heightened awareness to move through my chaturangas, sometimes modified, sometimes slower, to skip the jump backs and jump throughs and take the beginners version. (And I believe this is where the grey area lies between introducing modifications to minimise further aggravation of those irritated muscles and tendons, or bulldozing your way through the pain with complete disregard of what the heck it is you are actually doing to your body). Perhaps it is the energy reserved through less jump backs and jump throughs that gives me enough at the end of the practice to almost effortlessly come up (to stay up is another story by the way).

But it occurred to me that pain and ease are really two sides of the same coin. I love the Quranic verse that says “Verily, with every hardship there is ease” (94:5) In its simplest form what is implied is that ease comes after hardship. But what if they both exist together, at the same time? And without one, the other cannot be experienced? Or that both are meant to be experienced together? That verse used to imply hope, the temporality of what is, the idea of ‘this too shall pass’. But today I am awarded with a different perspective. Sitting with it implies stagnancy, moving through it on the other hand implies quite the opposite. Moving through the discomfort of pain allows for lightness to be experienced, and when it comes it is that much sweeter.

A love affair

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I woke up this morning with a clear thought, it felt like someone was actually narrating to me in my head out loud. “Do not force anything to happen, you will injure or hurt yourself in the process”. And of course that incredible feeling of me getting into a supta kurmasana on my own during yesterday’s self practice washes through followed by a dull discomfort on my right hip rotators. Achievement not to be seen as one, pain not to be understood simply, and practicing through all of these as it rises and fall is something that I am beginning to relish more and more.

I had been sitting with this topic for a little while, to allow it to simmer and gain further depth before attempting to put it down into words. Reflecting on this growing love affair that constantly surprises me with delightful insights, like little candies found in the most unexpected places, my relationship and journey into Ashtanga yoga has been to a certain extent predictable given the company that I have grown close to in the second half of this year, but the intensity of which was completely unplanned. Sometimes I catch myself thinking how different my classes would be, my views of teaching, my commitment to a daily practice – how different my entire daily structure of life – my world would be without my current practice.

And that sounds really drastic doesn’t it?

Last night’s dinner with some good friends from high school, the ones that I have walked with through the better and worst part our twenties, made me realise that I am currently inhabiting an entirely different world. A world that seems both removed yet a part of reality. As soon as I sat down on the table of 4, I knew I had stepped into a different world where conversations would be different, not any better nor worse, but just different. Like the different perspectives of 2 different person looking at one single painting. Same subject, different ways of interpretation and understanding. I love these 3 people equally, when they hurt I feel their pain, like that time when A cried while relating a personal story to us right in the middle of Rasta while having dinner. But I also realised, the capacity of understanding each of our unique experiences are limited to the extent of what they know and have experienced themselves. And hence, trying to relate the story of that deepest backbend I got into last Friday (which is a BIG deal for me) felt at best a feeble attempt of trying to describe to them the taste of an exotic food that neither of them has ever tasted.

It got me thinking, what is it about Ashtanga and the practice that feels like I am walking through a ring of fire in which at the opposite end is an entirely different view and understanding of the world around me. Why do I do the same sequences over and over 6 times a week but never once has it felt the same as yesterday? Why do I keep diving into it further and further without a clear sight of an end nearby? I don’t know if this time next year, I would even be saying the same things about the practice. I don’t know what to expect or even if there is a need to have any expectations at all from the practice. Going into this, I remembered thinking – cool now I have a set of tried-tested and proven sequence I can memorise,  and do this over again instead of feeling like I’m plucking random yoga asanas out of thin air and do it when I feel like it, or do it because that famous practitioner on IG does it and it looks beautiful. There are 840,000 yoga asanas known to man, like come on – certainly there has to be some logic and reasoning to performing these asanas. The Type A in me is tickled and pacified currently with the Primary series.

And perhaps, this love affair is fuelled by a sheer feeling of wonder, curiosity, novelty and awe. Much like how most other relationships begin. But there is an additional dynamic to this. It goes both ways. Just as the practice and commitment of others floors me, so too the transformation that I am observing within myself. The physical changes are obvious, but these I believe are only the secondary benefits. J. Krishnamurthi’s explanation on relationship seems to have shed an entirely different, better and brighter light to my own understanding of it. His articulate thoughts have put into words everything I knew and understood of this thing called ‘relationship’, in all perspectives, romantic, platonic, with a person, an idea, a system or whatever else that allows one to ‘relate’ to the other. The idea of communion. Of falling into the one-ness, when the observer and the observed disappears, and all that remains is the present moment. The moment that is neither being experienced nor being process into an experience, a memory.

It is exactly this that I feel has been the construction of my world lately. When I step onto my mat, heels and toes together, palms in front of my heart just before uttering the opening mantra. The moment I close my eyes and bow down, the physical world around me slips away. And then it is just the breath, the movement and the occasional awareness of others around me. Of course on days when focus seems non-existent, there are conversations going on with the Self, or wandering drishtis. Similarly outside of practice, it is when I enter into an engaging conversation, a topic that I genuinely identify with or passionate about, the moment when there is an indefinite locking of hearts and mind, when thoughts arise not only from logic, but understanding that comes from the heart. That, I believe are one of those beautiful, rare but entirely possible moments of communion. It is a world that I am much happy to be pulled into deeper and deeper, though it is also a world which has left me wondering if I am able to reintegrate back into ‘the other world’ where the majority idea of ‘drop back’ is literally being physically dropped back to ones house from another location. And if I can’t, what would it mean to my existing friendships and social circle?

It feels painfully familiar, like discovering the similarities and amazing connection with a person of the opposite sex and being so incredibly enchanted by it that you want to allow all parts of your life to be entirely drawn into this world, to be lost in its wonder, and at the same time to have the parts of yourself be revealed like turning over the stones from the bottom of a river one by one. It is not so much the experience of ‘falling’ in love, but rather ‘drifting’ into this strong pull of love and allowing all previous understanding of yourself to be unearthed, burned, and renewed. And perhaps this is one of of its valuable lessons, to allow myself to be moved by the pull, without resistance, without force, without wanting something to be a certain way at a certain time, but rather to allow more moments of being absorbed into the present, engaged, aware and at ease. With ease there is openness, and when one is open, magical things happen like moving into that one asana that you once thought was completely impossible. And that I believe is the essence of all romantic, poetic love affairs, on and off the mat.

The cold-pressed juice wagon

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It is a fad that was already slowly and quietly bubbling under the surface of general consumerism in Malaysia. If ‘bootylicious’ made it as one of the most used word that awarded it self-deserved place in the Oxford dictionary, ‘cold-pressed juice’ I believe should be somewhere in the list of most-used, most-marketed word and product of the year 2014. Probably not a place to be reinvented in the Oxford dictionary though, because the 2 words exist in its own right with its on standalone meaning but hey, when you place it together – what a wave it has resulted in! Obviously it didn’t just came about overnight as some would attest to the larger cold-pressed juicing companies that existed in the market as early as 2009 and 2010. Back in the days when a Hurom is not just a car-ride and a AEON supermarket visit away.

While I am all for efforts and advocacy made towards a healthier nation through easier and more widespread access of healthy food, the uprising of this trend is also somewhat disturbing. The fact that anyone with a decent income can own an equally decent cold-pressed juicer is great, what is not so great however is the fact that these days it seems anyone with a decent cold-pressed juicer also thinks they can become champions of the power of juicing by selling their own versions of cold-pressed juices bottled in glass jars.

Yes, I totally understand the idea of capitalising on market opportunities. It is all economics right? The general public now have more access to information on the internet. They can’t be as easily duped by a full page spread in the newspaper telling them that a carton of Tropicana Orange Juice (with REAL orange pulp added!) is any where as superior as a smaller sized fresh, cold-pressed juices that comes in a BPA-free plastic bottle or even better a shiny glass bottle. People want fresh. People want wholesome, raw, active juices. Because cold-pressed juices promises vitality, health, rejuvenation and a bang for your buck. Yes it costs WAY more than that carton of orange juice, but if it’s suppose to cure ailments, make you feel better, wipe out your wrinkles and make you look 10 years younger, spending double and sometimes triple the price of a conventional juice becomes an easy afterthought.

If there is supplies to match market demand, and this is a demand that is pointing towards a change for the better than it is well and good isn’t it? Not so.

Here’s a scenario. One day you woke up and decided to pay a visit to your doctors. Annual health examination. A few days later the results came back and your doctor delivers you the grim news that you had better get your blood sugar level under control because your reading awards you a comfortable place within the ‘pre-diabetic’ category. Or perhaps, more likely these days, the doctor circles a random number on the result paper and tells you that you should watch your cholesterol because by god, those hash browns and McValue meals aren’t really adding much valuable nutrition to your body but rather accelerating your path to the nearest cardiac surgeon office.

So while you are driving home, all these numbers and facts circling in your head and a real concern that something has got to change, your food intake or your physical fitness or your entire approach to life, and you get hungry. But no, there can be no more McValue meals for you, and someone told you recently a juice-detox is a great way to kick start this new resolution for a healthier lifestyle. So you stop at the closest available cafe that you know sells great cold-pressed juices. Along the counter sits many many beautiful, delectable sounding cakes. Cakes, that without a doubt contains an eye-popping amount of butter (even worse, margarine!) and a truckload of white sugar. What happens next? There is a possibility that your better judgement kicks in, you pay for your juice and off you go. But there is also that equal amount of possibility that the ‘naughty’ side of you will try to justify by thinking “If cake is bad and juice is good and I take both at the same time, the good will neutralize the bad right??”

The human mind will always find novel ways to justify anything that it wants. And before you know it, oh the poor consumer who thinks he’s doing good by drinking all that juice everyday and sometimes rewarding himself with that cake is referred to the endocrinologist office instead because his blood sugar level is soaring and his body has decided that it is much too taxing to be processing ALL that sugar coming from both the cold-pressed juice and the cake.

What disturbs me is not the fact that this health trend is picking up traction but in the way that cold-pressed juices are being marketed by the people who are advocating its benefits. Would you go to a doctor who is sick? Probably not. But many of our doctors are overweight, smokes a pack a day and battling their own health issues. The reason you still visit them is because you don’t know what goes on in their personal lives. But what if it is all out there for you to see? What if “buy our cold-pressed juices” photos is posted on instagram next to a bowl of Magee mee? Or photos of people enjoying a plate of KFC with the tagline “buy our family bucket and get 6 bottles of cold-pressed juices free!” would you still be willing to pay the same premium? Probably not. Which is good for the consumer and their wallets, but it does nothing to educate them about the healing power of food.

So here’s the deal, drinking a bottle of premium cold pressed juice to wash down that butter cake/magee mee/[insert food that contains high cholesterol, preservatives, sugar and other unnatural products disguised as food] won’t make you any healthier than the next person who decides to wash it down with a Vitagen or a conventional carton juice or even a can of Diet Coke. It does however, make that next person slightly more richer than you though. That I am pretty sure of.

So before you buy, discriminate. Question. Most importantly on the ingredient, the freshness, and the cleanliness. Was the vegetables and fruits washed properly before being juiced? If it uses orange and lemon rind, was it organic (because lord knows how much wax covers the standard, non organic version and can you imagine ingesting them in that RM15 ringgit bottle of juice?) and of course there is also the question of “Is the lifestyle of the person whose business you are supporting the same that you would buy into?” Not as important as the initial questions, but remember, what you buy also supports the lifestyle of its makers.