Friday, May 28, 2010

Yoga Thought Bubble 3: Location, location, location

I am generally a non-confrontational little yogini. I am more comfortable bathing in the light than embracing the shadow. I am frequently attached to my rose-colored glasses.

As such, I am often hesitant to speak my mind when I perceive that what my mind wants to speak might be disagreeable in the slightest. Partly it's my desire to play peacekeeper; partly it's my insecurity & fear in speaking my truth.

This is all particularly true when I am in teaching mode.

I remember one of the very first classes I taught at Pure Yoga. It was a Hot class in the combined studios 3 & 4 in Causeway Bay, for those of you familiar with the location. For those of you unfamiliar, this is a fairly big space that fits 60+ mats (although by Santa Monica standards, we'd squeeze in at least 100 mats). At all Pure Yoga studios in Hong Kong, the mats are already laid out for you so when you come in, you just pick a mat and plop down. On this particular day, the side that is studio 4 was pretty full, and the side that is studio 3 was pretty empty and people had randomly chosen mats that created funky gaps and scattered energy in the room. There was one woman in particular who was way over yonder, and I asked her in a friendly manner if she would like to move in closer, assuming that she would respond as I would if I were the student. To my utter shock, she simply, firmly, and audaciously shook her head NO.

Oh. Ok.

I walked away with my tail between my legs and later told my colleague Janet about the incident. She told me that next time, I should just make the student move. I was befuddled! That would be so confrontational. But she insisted that I ought to insist. I am the teacher afterall.

Over the next two years, I luckily did not have similar incidents occur (or perhaps I subconsciously chose not to see them). On the one hand, the students got to know me and there's always a certain amount of trust and respect that grows in time. On the other hand, I became more self-confident. Rather than hiding behind my fear of seeming disagreeable, I learned to more clearly stand in my truth.

Fast forward to a packed Hatha class one Saturday morning. We were on hands and knees, flailing our way into Bryan Kest's infamous Awkward Airplane pose: one leg out to the side at an attempted 90 degree angle at hip height and the opposite arm out to the side at an attempted 90 degree angle at shoulder height. After a 10-year relationship with this pose, I'm still more "Awkward" and less "Airplane". I think it is probably pretty challenging for almost everyone. As such, I noticed that half the room wasn't really in the pose, and I teased the class about it, "I know you're all pretending you suddenly don't understand my accent..." or something like that. Most people chuckled, but one woman blurted out, "It's not because we don't want to do it, it's just too crowded in here, there's no room!"

The less self-assured me would probably have turned beet-red, apologized, and stammered my way through the rest of class. But my actual response was to tuck myself in between two students and do the pose by lifting my leg over one student's hip and by lifting my arm over the other student's head. As I was demonstrating, I said, "If the conditions are challenging, find a way to make it work!"(or something else of absolute brilliance, I'm sure.)

I then went on to talk about the classes I attend in Santa Monica, where we squeeze in twice as many mats. Bryan's classes have been known to be so crowded that mats overlap and someone practices on the landing of the stairwell; Ally Hamilton's classes often overflow into the second room and she has to stand in the doorway between the two rooms in order for everyone to hear her. I said, "You all have about a foot of space circumventing your mats. This is not that crowded." (Hopefully they weren't still in Awkward Airplane as I was rambling on, but I can't be sure of that.)

After I finished my mini-lecture, I felt really bad. I thought maybe I had lost my temper. I was afraid that that student would go and complain about me to the front desk (like the time a student complained that I was text messaging for 40 minutes of a 60-minute class, a completely preposterous claim) (I was only texting for like 5 minutes) (Just kidding! I have never used any mobile device in class!). But to my surprise, at the end of class, that student came up to me and introduced herself. She said that she really enjoyed class and that it was exactly what she needed. I was so surprised! And relieved.

All of this makes me think about our attachments and expectations when it comes to our practice space.

I took Wendy's class at Pure Yoga in Central today. When we stood up from Uttanasana, I brushed hands with my neighbor yogini. During a supine spinal twist, my extended arm rested on the mat next to mine. Is this really that big of a deal, worthy of complaining? For someone who comes from the crowded studios of Santa Monica where I have gotten hit in the head by someone's foot going up in Dog Splits, no, it's really not that big of a deal. And actually, if you think about it, it's a pretty beautiful thing that so many of us have all come together to share space, breath, and energy. What a blessing to be a part of this union, this yoga.

I also often hear the complaint that people don't have space in their apt to practice. Considering how small and squishy HK flats can be (cool, relevant video here), I do understand that it's challenging. But I have practiced in a 250 sq ft apt that I shared with my friend, where I was completely surrounded by furniture. It is doable.

Bryan once said it best. When I was his assistant, I would answer emails on his behalf. Once there was this question: "How much space do I need to practice yoga?" Bryan told me to reply, "The amount of space you need to unroll a yoga mat." So true. So simple.

Of course it would be ideal to have space in abundance, and no one wants to be whacked in the head by someone's foot (especially a sweaty one!). But sometimes these external conditions are out of our control, and what we think is ideal is not a present reality. How will we choose to respond to this? How can we dance gracefully with all the so-called challenges in our practice and ultimately our life? If we're being difficult and attached to what we deem to be our righteous space when we're on the mat, what's happening off the mat? This is especially relevant for all of us living in crowded cities where our bodies and energies are constantly overlapping with others. Does it really serve to race each other to get to the showers first? Is it really necessary to cut people off on the freeway? Can we try to be more generous and compassionate?

Let's be more focused on creating space in our heart, and less attached to external conditions.

Let's remember what a blessing it is to even have a studio or home to practice in and a mat to practice on. What a blessing it is to touch the hand of a fellow yogi as you both reach up towards the sky. What a blessing it is to know yoga at all.

And look, next time you're in a crowded class, in a space-demanding pose like Awkward Airplane, just rest your floating (read: floundering) leg on your neighbor's hip. I'm sure they won't mind. ;)

Friday, May 7, 2010

Yoga Thought Bubble 2: How do I become a yoga teacher?

This is definitely one of the most FAQs I am asked, and I love it because the more people we have in our world really dedicating their lives to sharing and spreading the yoga, the better. As with all things, there are many different pathways you can take. I'll share bits of my own ever-continuing journey, offer some additional suggestions, and include some other related thoughts.

I think it's pretty safe to say that first things first: practice. For me when I was first preparing to teach, this meant an asana practice for at least a couple hours a day (with an occasional, sometimes reluctant day of rest, insisted on by my teacher), reading lots of books (from the ancient to the current) and a daily (often less than super successful) attempt at meditation. I also enrolled in a Yoga Studies program at a nearby university (UC Irvine), which served as a wonderful introduction to various yoga-related subjects including philosophy, subtle energy, Sanskrit, and Buddhism. I was so fiercely in love with my practice that I saved some money and quit my job (at the time I was in investor relations) so I could just do yoga all the time. I loved my studio so much that I started volunteering there (sweeping the floors and emptying the trash), which eventually led to working in the retail store, managing the studio, and becoming Bryan Kest's assistant. Talk about "immersion".

Next up: find a main teacher that you can practice with on a regular basis (addressed in Yoga Thought Bubble 1). This is particularly true for those on the teaching path. Again, it doesn't mean to only ever study with one teacher, but having one main teacher will be immensely helpful. She will get to know your physical practice and be able to guide and support you better. For example, I had a major fear of Tripod Headstand. I couldn't even figure out how to approach it. After months of shying away from it, my teacher helped me after class. She didn't physically support me, but just through her words and because of my total trust in her, I got into it and was laughing at how much easier it was than I'd imagined. And, ask your teacher what his yoga journey has been like, and discover which of his footsteps you'd like to follow. Dare to ask beyond "Who have you studied with?" because I bet there is so much more to why he is the amazing teacher, yogi, and person that he is.

And of course: attend a Teacher Training. I urge you to put a lot of thought into the Teacher Trainings you will attend (yes, trainings plural, as there will likely be more than your first one). Know that TTs are a huge business within the yoga industry, and oftentimes you're asked to commit thousands of dollars and hours upon hours before you'll be deemed worthy of using their brand name, and this almost never comes with any real guarantee that you'll find teaching jobs. I admit that I am biased when it comes to the so-called official certification process, but rather than get into it right now, I will paste the words of Bryan Kest (, who addressed this brilliantly in a recent newsletter:

"We are not associated with Yoga Alliance. If I were to follow their guidelines I would not be able to follow my own guidelines. Their guidelines have no place in my training and should have no place in anyone’s teacher training other than that of their own. I am not an advocate of systematizing the dissemination of love. Yoga has always been passed down freely from teacher to student, in any format the teacher chooses and according to the teacher’s experiences and how the teacher feels they can best give their knowledge to the student. This beautiful practice, that has been happening for 6,000 years, does not need Yoga Alliance’s blessing or anybody else’s.

I am actually not sure why Yoga Alliance exists. Maybe their intentions are benevolent but the result is a fucking bureaucratic mess, tons of red tape and loads of unnecessary paperwork, not to mention more money!"

So I'm just saying to choose wisely. Listen to your gut and intuition as to what is most right for you. Are you really inspired by the teacher leading the TT and are you really interested in learning more about that particular style of yoga? Or are you more drawn in by the number of hours and credibility the TT boasts? Just make sure it will serve to nourish and nudge you forward in your practice.

As for when you're ready to attend your first TT, it's really personal. If you don't know Tadasana (Mountain Pose) or if you haven't yet experience the bliss of Savasana, it might better serve you to practice a bit more first, just so that you can get more out of the TT. But don't worry about not being able to stand on your hands or levitate (yet).

I started doing my own home practice after my first TT (with the magnificent Erich Schiffmann), and it really helped me to understand how to sequence, how to verbalize the body's movement and experience, and how to access my own voice. I enlisted (ok, maybe coerced) my loved ones to be my yogi guinea pigs and taught them classes in my living room. I practiced eliminating "uh" and "um" and "oops, sorry!" and nervous laughter.

For me, all of this was the perfect foundation for teaching. With the help of my teacher, I got my first job at a gym, and I kept expanding from there, to other gyms, small studios, private clients, and my home studio. I said YES to every teaching opportunity that came up, and in a few months time, I was teaching 25 times a week. It was great practice and got me into the groove of really becoming and being a teacher. But that many classes proved not to be so sustainable, so I pared it down to about a dozen (only to move to HK and teach an average of 18 classes a week, half of them in a heated room, which I swear makes teaching 1 class feel like 2!). This again is really personal; you'll figure out what's perfect for you.

Finally, know that there will always be more to learn and be open to all of it. I have dabbled in different styles and I attend lots of workshops and trainings with different teachers. Since moving to HK, I also make it a point to go back to my yoga home of Santa Monica once a year and snuggle back into my roots. It is all "continuing education", a beautiful process of always learning, receiving, practicing, and then offering it back out.

So, in short: practice, find a main teacher, attend a TT, do your own practice, teach loved ones, and say YES!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Yoga Thought Bubbles

Inspired by questions from students and friends, here I begin a series of musings on various things YOGA, from the practical to the mystical. It's an enormous subject matter, that is enormously subjective, so please take my Yoga Thought Bubbles with many heaps of sea salt if you choose to read on.

And please feel free to send me your questions, and we can share in this digital dialogue together.

Yoga Thought Bubble 1: How do I find a good teacher?

I thought it appropriate to begin this blog series with the question of how to find a "good" teacher, as the teacher is usually your foray into the yoga world. I put quotes around "good" (and would use quote fingers if I were speaking to you about this in person) because how you feel about your teacher is so personal. As with all relationships, it is ultimately about your personal connection. Does the teacher say things that stir your spirit, that feel like she simply must be talking specifically to you? Do you feel like you learn and grow in some way, every time you take his class?

I suggest that if it's possible, read the teacher's bio or check out his website prior to attending class. The bio usually serves as a helpful introductory blurb to who the teacher is, not just how deeply he can bend backwards. To me, more important than the level of physical achievement a teacher has reached in her own practice is whether her philosophy / perspective of yoga (and of life, really) speaks to you. Of course the physical aspect is important as well; the practice is physical, after all, and in a yoga class, the teacher is using the language of the body, whether demonstrating or offering an adjustment / enhancement. But permeating the physical will be his energy, and whether it is vibrating on the same wavelength as yours. It's very much like how it would be to listen to a lecture in a language you understand versus a lecture a foreign language.

After reading the bio and choosing a teacher, try to take that teacher's class at least a few times. As with all relationships, there needs to be a period of getting to know the other person. Sometimes it feels like love at first sight, where you feel really wowed and inspired and changed forever! This might blossom into a long term relationship, or it may not withstand the test of time. In other instances, it may take more time before you energetically warm up to the teacher, so it's probably best if you don't immediately write anyone off because you weren't that impressed or moved during the first class. Speaking from the teacher's perspective, sometimes it may just be that you caught us on an "off" day.

When you do find a teacher that you really love, you'll probably find it helpful to maintain a fairly consistent practice with that one teacher. This isn't to say that you should only go to one teacher. That would be unnecessarily limiting, because you can and will learn something from everyone. I can honestly say that I have either learned or been really touched (not in that way) (well, except for that one time...) by every single teacher I have ever taken class with. But to have one teacher who really knows your practice and who you are as a person is an incredible gift. Whether recognizing when you're ready to advance in a given pose or when you're in need of a shoulder to cry on, your main teacher will become your yoga foundation, your yoga roots, your "mentor", so they call it. This will be someone who is truly interested in your growth and evolution as a person, a depth that can only be reached if you really open yourself up to him/her.

I am infinitely grateful for and humbled by mine.

And not to worry: your relationship with your yoga teacher isn't expected to be a monogamous one. I asked my teacher about that once, because I felt guilty (thanks, Catholic upbringing!) about wanting to attend someone else's class. She laughed and thought it was sweet of me to be concerned about her feelings, but as the yoga practice is about detachment from the ego and one big love, she encouraged me to go on and sow my yoga oats. She said, "It's totally fine and great to take other teachers' classes as you'll probably get something different from them, because we're all teaching from our own personal experiences. But you'll probably find that you have your home that you always go back to."

For me, this has proven to be very true. I now live half a world away from my teacher, but no amount of time or distance has really separated us (especially in this wonderfully modern age of technology!). As the years have passed, and time zones and zip codes have changed, and babies have been added into the mix (hers, not mine), she is still my yoga home.

So, to me, finding a so-called good teacher is a pretty big deal. I daresay it's akin to finding your life partner. Do a bit of due diligence, have an open mind and an open heart, and feel for that intuitive pull in your gut that will always ultimately guide your way.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Flying to Sydney || 24 November 2009

I think there are few experiences in life that are more inspiring and invigorating than travel, especially traveling to a brand new part of the planet. I’m in the air en route to Sydney. This is my first time venturing south of the equator, and I feel like a child on Christmas Eve.

What is it, exactly, about travel that is so enriching and simultaneously unraveling? For me, it isn’t sightseeing or the usual tourist activities. In this day of Google Earth and travel shows, it’s too easy to virtually visit various worldmarks. I’m not interested in seeing the generic or the generically-deemed sacred. I’m interested in visiting the sacred within myself. Just as different people bring out different aspects of us, different places serve as reflections uncovering inner truths that perhaps otherwise wouldn’t be coaxed into awareness.

In this way, traveling is a deeply spiritual experience for me. Sure, it’s fun and interesting, and oftentimes delicious. But so much more important than all of that is the opportunity to get to know myself better. And to me, that’s what it means to be “spiritual”…it is having a relationship with yourself, making a conscious effort to understand all your layers, to own and embrace every part of you that is “good” and “bad”, and to then earnestly serve the world from this place of truth and clarity.

As I gaze out the plane window at the magnificent sky, the sun shining its ever-present light on layers and layers of clouds, I am filled with awe for this breathtakingly beautiful place we are blessed to call our home, our Mother Earth. And I am reminded of how small I am in the context of the planet…not small in a self-deprecating way, but in a way that overwhelms me with respect and reverence and, perhaps most potently, gratitude that I get to be a part of this amazing project of Life.

I am also reminded of a notepad I had as a child. This notepad had cartoon, personified potatoes on it, and the caption read: “In the big scheme of things, we’re all just small potatoes.” At the time I bought that notepad, I actually had no idea what that saying meant. I’ve never been particularly good with American clich├ęs, as we didn’t use them in my family. So I assumed it was nonsense, like the nonsensical sayings you often find on Asian stationery (ex: purple blooms fancy in the morning bear). But now I understand that what seemed to be silly gibberish was a rather poignant and layered lesson. We are all small potatoes rooted in our shared Earth and supported by Mother Nature, with the not-so-small purpose to contribute to the flourishing of all forms of Life. And all of our seemingly enormous yet ephemeral problems themselves are small potatoes when considered in the context of all things, in the big scheme of love unconditional and life so abundant.

Ultimate Energy Cleanse || Follow-up || 11 November 2009

I am nearing the end of Day 2 since I finished the Cleanse (or perhaps it’s Day 10 of my new way of eating!). Amazingly, I have not yet had coffee or a bagel! What?! I simply haven’t felt like it. I haven’t been able to eat as purely, freshly, and healthily as I would like, because I had to do some lunch and dinner meetings that I had postponed during the Cleanse. That is probably the most challenging part about this new way of eating: having to eat out / being on the road. I need to accept that, and to be okay with doing my best, especially as I am approaching a month of travel to commence in a few days.

My body craves and prefers fresh fruits and veggies, even if it means I have to go down to the market, come home and wash, prepare, and cook everything myself. It definitely feels like eating is more of a whole body nourishment now, rather than satisfying these demanding little taste buds of mine. The body is more intelligent than the mind as far as what is good for the body, and it’s like the Cleanse gave the body a proper opportunity to speak up and strengthen its voice over the chatter of the mind.

During the Cleanse, when I would go to the grocery store and see junk food, I was able to see my mental processing of the junk food. I saw the kettle chips placed strategically near the cash registers. The usual mental dialogue I have is something like this: “Mmmm, kettle chips. Should I get some today? No, I know they’re bad for me. But mmmm they will taste sooo good! No, I’m going to be disciplined today.” Of course every now and then, I succumb, and I might allow myself one of the smaller snack-sized bags (which usually end up just being a tease). During the Cleanse, however, the mental dialogue was much simpler. I had my rules, and I was committed to following them for the 7-day period. So as I was looking at the chips, instead of being caught up in wishing I could eat them, I was aware that I was wishing I could eat them. And it was like I was able to see the desire, and once I could see it, it didn’t have as strong of an effect on me. I didn’t need to talk myself out of buying it. It was so simple: why would I want to pay for and eat something that is not good for me??

Mindful eating really is a practice in self-awareness!

The ladies of the Ultimate Energy Cleanse (who again, have been soooo helpful with their responses to my barrage of questions) say that the foods from the Cleanse will serve well as a “foundation”, but that it’s probably important to add more protein into your regular diet. I definitely agree with that, especially since I am a fairly active yogini. I’ve also started to reconsider the Eat Right for Your Blood Type Diet, which I came across several years ago. I googled some information on that, and I’m going to apply as much of those guidelines as feel right for me.

All of this has deepened my understanding of and appreciation for food and for my body. And even though it takes more planning and more effort than calling in for a pizza, it feels so much better. In the short run, I don’t feel bloated, heavy, or tired after eating, and therefore I have a lot of fresh and happy energy and I don’t feel the need to caffeinate myself. In the long run, I reckon there may be bigger benefits to my health and wellness.

We’ll see!

Let me know if you have any questions. With BIG DELICIOUS LOVE! Leah xo

Ultimate Energy Cleanse || Day 7 || 9 November 2009

Wow! I just had my last serving of Chinese Herbs and I am nearing the end of my official Cleanse.

I celebrated with a Mango “Daiquiri” this afternoon, and dinner was a cold salad (Avocado and Sprout Salad) and a warm salad (Asparagus and Arugula Salad with Shallot Vinaigrette on Quinoa). After I digest (at least 1 hour after a small meal; 2 hours after a large meal), I will probably treat myself to apple slices with chai spice chutney. ALL HOMEMADE FROM SCRATCH!

I am really very grateful to the ladies behind the Ultimate Energy Cleanse. I so appreciate their enthusiasm for healthy living and their belief in this Cleanse. They have well-prepared the kit; I’m particularly grateful for the stellar recipes they suggest. Each one I made was honestly so delicious! Also, I probably sent them an email every day asking one question or another, and they replied to each and every one in a timely manner. Great product; great service!

I’m even convinced that the uber expensive products are worth it. (If you’ve never tried grade b organic maple syrup, you absolutely must.) My father has always said, “You get what you pay for!” and I constantly find validation for this statement. When I was living in Santa Monica, it was relatively easy to go organic for everything. Even though organic products would still cost a bit more than conventional ones, the difference was usually nominal. Here in Hong Kong, however, organic is much more expensive. On top of organic normally costing more, most of our produce in general has to be imported. I haven’t done the research, but I bet the majority of our produce is imported. There aren’t many Hong Kong companies that manufacture organic body products either. So, nearly all organic products are imported. But I sincerely believe that organic tastes better because it is better...more love, care, and consciousness has gone into the final product. You might even say an organic apple has better energy than a conventional one!

That said, I am concerned about the carbon footprint factor. Ideally, one would eat organic and locally grown foods. For me, that isn’t feasible, so I wonder, while I am putting better quality foods into my body, what about the global body that I’m affecting negatively?

The best that I can do is balance all these factors out. I try to buy as much organic produce from China (although, who knows really what their standards are, right?!), and I try to be mindful about staying within my budget. I certainly don’t want to be living on the street because of my attachment to organic foods!

All in all, the entire process was way less challenging and way more exciting and delicious than I expected. I feel very light, clean, clear, and energized. I truly see the value and necessity of incorporating tons of fresh fruits and veggies in my diet. I think that’s the biggest realization (aside from the amazing realization that I’m not a terrible cook): that even though I was eating some fruit and some veggies everyday, I can do with a much greater percentage of it. I can’t imagine not taking most of the newly learned practices into my everyday life!

Of course…plus (organic) coffee…at least every now and then.

Ultimate Energy Cleanse || Day 6 || 8 November 2009

Good morning to me (and you, of course)! All week I have been waking up, pausing at the foot of the bed for a moment of gratitude, and looking out the window to be face-to-face with the day. Then I walk over to the kitchen to start preparing my nourishing and nutritious meals. This morning I made my herbal tea with raw honey, juiced carrots/celery/parsley/cucumbers (which is actually much tastier than I thought it would be), and prepared a fruit platter of Japanese grapes, blueberries, and strawberries. So great!

Ever since I was about 11 years old, I have been health-conscious. Back then, though, it came from fear of getting fat. In fact, compared to all the girls I was seeing in magazines and movies, I thought I was already fat; in reality, I was a typically small little Asian girl. My family would tell you that I had very healthy eating habits. But of course at 11 years old, I wasn’t that informed on what was truly good for my body, so I usually followed the latest diet trend (that undoubtedly some celebrity credited as having given her the body she now had). I remember doing Cindy Crawford workout videos, and then eating a bowl of plain lettuce, which I didn’t know actually has very little nutritious value. I mainly looked to avoid “fat”, even steering away from nuts, avocados, and coconuts, which offer the “good fat”.

Looking back, I can now see that I wasn’t so much health-conscious as weight-conscious, and this mindset culminated in college. I was in a TaeBo class at UCLA (those were my favorite because I’d read somewhere that you can burn 800 calories in an hour) when I started to feel sick with dizziness, nausea, and a cold sweat. My heart was pounding in my chest, threatening to burst through my sternum. Luckily a friend was taking the class with me, and I told her I had to leave. She drove me home and tucked me into bed, and called my roommates to let them know that something was wrong. No, it wasn’t the exertion of TaeBo, but rather the diet pills I had taken before class. I unfortunately can’t remember what these diet pills were called, but they were advertised in all the magazines at the time. I am pretty sure I bought them without telling anyone, because my gut knew that my loved ones would surely talk some sense into my misperceiving mind. I stopped taking them immediately after this incident, but couldn’t bring myself to throw them out right away. This was my attachment to 1) wanting to lose weight and 2) not being able to see that I didn’t need to lose weight in the first place.

That isn’t to say that I was perfectly fit or that there wasn’t room for self-improvement; there always is. I was just thinking and going about it all the wrong way.

Soon after, I found yoga, and my focus and perspective on so many things started to change. In a nutshell, I stopped trying to change myself or to achieve an external ideal. I honestly stopped caring about losing weight or even getting rid of fat. My efforts turned to self-acceptance and self-love, the idea that everything – including me – was already perfect exactly as it was, and overall wellness and balance of body/mind/spirit. From this internal shift, the outer/physical changes I had been wanting started to happen naturally.

Naturally. I think that’s how Nature intended us to be, eat, and live.