Thursday, October 31, 2013

who needs yoga?

I often meet ladies who tell me that they cannot 'do yoga' because their bodies are not flexible enough.
Some of them tried yoga in the past and quickly became frustrated, others associated yoga with the most extreme contortions and concluded that it wasn't safe for them. They invariably felt that their lack of flexibility stood in the way of practicing yoga.

I think that they way yoga is taught in many studios and gyms contributes to this fallacy. Often the teacher seems solely interested in impressing students with his/her flexibility; many yoga classes are "multi-level" which means beginners are seldom catered for; sometimes competition among students is encouraged by teacher's comments rather than dissuaded.
The marketing of body-hugging yoga gear through the use of young, extremely flexible yoga models on glossy yoga magazines fuels this erroneous perception.
As a result too many people wrongly assume that you need to be young and flexible to practice yoga.

In fact, anyone can practice Yoga, and the less flexible you are the more there is for you to gain!

Actually, if you were naturally hyper-mobile, that is very flexible, you should be strengthening the muscles that support individual joints, rather than over-stretching them. The teacher should choose a sequence of  poses that target core stability, poses that engage stomach and pelvic floor muscles to help stabilise the lower back rather than doling out compliments.

As i often repeat in my blog,  yoga is best learned on a one-to-one basis, or in  a very small and homogeneous group of people. Everybody can benefit from yoga as long as poses are carefully selected to suit their level of flexibility and fitness, emotional and physical needs, desired outcome.

Nobody should be intimidated by advanced poses when alternative poses can be selected. There are hundreds of yoga poses to choose from, and in my experience the more challenging the pose, the more tense the student. Which defeats the purpose of yoga!

If a student feels intimidated by a pose, it means she is not ready for it. It also means that the teacher hasn't been able to gauge the student's mental and physical readiness for that pose.

For some of my students addressing insomnia or depression is far more important than lifting a leg up to their shoulder. Quietening the mind, stimulating the endocrine system, or learning  how to cope with stress through gentle, restorative poses, breathing exercises and meditation techniques is a far more desirable outcome than learning how to do a Scorpion pose. Scorpion is a beautiful pose, and many experienced yoga practitioners can perform it safely and derive many benefits from it. But it's also out of reach for the majority of people who take up yoga in their middle age. So, should we aim for poses that are 'beautiful" or poses that make and keep us healthier and more balanced?

You may enjoy swimming but certainly you wouldn't feel frustrated if you couldn't break an olympic record.
So, approach yoga in the same way.

Being able to rest your forehead on your shins is not a requirement and shouldn't stop you from practicing yoga. The best practice is the one YOU benefit from.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

On a long sabbatical

As some of you may have noticed, lately i haven't been very active on this blog: the last post dates back to May!
The reason why i haven't written for such a long time has everything to do with my changed circumstances.
I have finally quit my teaching position and left Hong Kong. Some may call it a "sabbatical", but technically speaking it's not. I have no intention to resume teaching in my department (explaining my disillusion with institutionalised education  falls beyond the scope of this blog). When and if i return to Hong Kong, i  will look for other ways to support myself.

Leaving my job and the city where i had lived for 17 years wasn't an impulsive decision. For a long while i had been concerned about the health impact of living in such a fast-paced, crowded and polluted city. Some family matters that required travelling for a few months to another country provided the perfect spur to finally address those concerns. Leaving the comfort of home and the security of your job isn't so hard when the price you pay for it is poor health and stress.

My  "journey to the West" has already provided me with a treasure trove of enlightening experiences, insights and discoveries. Of course it hasn't all been plain sailing. Life never is. I am dealing with a different type of  challenges, obstacles and disappointments, but it would be naive to expect them to vanish the moment you set sail.
I have also taken a break from computers and mobile phones. Occasionally I still need to go online to book tickets and accommodation, but  Internet surfing, blogging, social networks and email have been curbed to a minimum. I have been to beautiful places where an Internet connection is not something one should rely on...and it feels good! Being offline frees up a lot of  time that one can devote to healthier pursuits. The lack  of distractions make it possible to establish a deeper connection with those who are physically present, and think of those who aren't. By default, the "here and now" takes precedence over the "there and then".  .
Some friends have questioned my decision to leave HK, others have expressed admiration for doing it.
They have invariably asked me "how did you manage to do it?"

Many factors have made it possible. Being perimenopausal and approaching 50 certainly strengthened my resolve to change my circumstances; having no dependants and leading a rather frugal life enabled me to save money; practicing yoga gave me the emotional force to take the leap. I really believe that both yoga and hormonal changes brought about by perimenopause played a positive role.

At 50 one starts to contemplate her own mortality, there is little room left for compromise and procrastination. If one doesn't live her life to the fullest now, one may never do. If one doesn't try to know and understand her Self now, there may never be another chance.

I am not suggesting that traveling is the best way to follow the Delphic precept "know thyself". So many paths lead to self-discovery. Personally i felt that living in a natural environment was a necessary condition for living a more balanced life and reflect upon its essence. The horrible pollution in Hong Kong had started to take its toll on my body. I was constantly sick ...and tired of being sick. When the body is thrown out of balance by illness, what hope is there for the mind? What's the point of a daily pranayama sequence when the air that fills your lungs is toxic? When the food you eat is laced with pesticides?
I knew that going to work wearing a face mask was not the kind of life i wanted. No matter how financially rewarding that life could be. Don't we all deserve clean air and water? When has a blue sky become a luxury? 

This was the right time to leave. I can just about carry my heavy backpack, surely it would feel heavier in a few years time. I can still spend a sleepless night in some airport waiting for a 6:00 am flight, or embark on a 3-day long train journey where comfort is a cup of hot tea. But in 10 years would i be able to enjoy traveling on a shoestring (with all its discomforts) and socialising with backpackers who are half my age? Probably not.
Practicing yoga asanas while staying in a hostel dorm or in tiny room in a cheap guesthouse isn't easy. Luggage restrictions on budget airlines also mean i had to leave my yoga mat behind. But one can do many yoga poses without a mat! I spend a lot of time in lotus pose on trains and buses. And nothing beats tree pose in a forest!
Hiking for hours can do wonders for your mind and body. And so does lying on a deserted beach tuning your breath to the waves.
I have a feeling that my 'sabbatical' will be a very long one!