In my everyday life in Vancouver, yoga plays a major role in my identity. People know me as yoga classmate, colleague, teacher, and blogger. People whom I’ve never met know me as YogaSpy; my blog is our connection.

In contrast, my closest family members rarely mention my blog! They’re positive about it, but it’s not our main point of connection.

Even my yoga teaching, which looms large in my Vancouver life, seems to fade away. Visiting my parents at home, I do wear my yoga teacher with my dad, to improve his flexibility and posture (whether he likes it or not!). But my mini sessions with him never seem half as effective as my real classes.

American Girl dollsBefore a real class, regardless of my prior state, I gather myself together. I banish any distractions and I arrive with high energy and a smile. At home, I might be ensconced on a sofa, reading a book or typing away, deep in thought, when my dad says, “Okay, I’m ready for yoga now.” It’s a rare and fleeting opportunity, so I always take it. But it’s hard to switch gears in five seconds.

In a group setting, my teaching style is firm and directive, but tempered with humor. One on one I might come across as bossy–at least to my dad. “You don’t talk to your students like that, do you?” he once said.

In class, I’m stricter with students who can do more, gentler with those who can’t. Maybe I’m too insistent with my dad because I’m personally attached to him; I want him to do more.

A brief session squeezed in before dinner is adequate. But it’s no comparison to a full-length class that includes Savasana. I always feel rushed and abrupt. The balanced arc of a good yoga sequence is missing. But there’s never enough time or the right moment for a class during family visits.

I’ve sometimes felt unseen as the yoga teacher I am in my other life. Unseen as the current me. But I’ve also realized that to my family I’m not primarily a yoga teacher and blogger. Whatever I do in the yoga realm doesn’t matter if I’m a mediocre sister, daughter, or aunt.

Amulet 1-3 setOur karma in the moment

Around the New Year, I traveled to my sister’s home in California. My parents also flew in, and the visit was all about family. I gave my sister a few yoga tips, but otherwise did no teaching or blogging (and the barest minimum of practice).

Instead I read my niece’s Amulet books (a riveting graphic novel series by Kazu Kibuishi), spent two hours at an American Girl store, told nightly made-up bedtime stories, played Pictionary, staged adventures with dozens of Schleich animals…

I got to thinking about karma yoga and our “duty” in each circumstance of our lives. It’s a mistake to cling to one role, the role you might consider your most important, most successful, or most impressive. In a job interview, it makes sense to highlight one’s achievements, but I’ve seen people listing their degrees or name dropping their connections when it doesn’t matter a bit.

In contrast I’ve seen people who relate to others appropriately in the moment. They relate to peers as peers, to a child at the child’s level. Even to cats as if as cats, dogs as if as dogs. This is what it means to be empathetic and intuitive.

In my professional life, I’ve always known my roles and responsibilities. Sometimes, in my personal life, the edges are fuzzier and my expectations broader. In this New Year, I want to be clear on my karma in each situation. If I’m attached to my Vancouver identity when I’m with my family, I’m catering to my ego. That’s not karma yoga, no matter how much yoga I might do.

Nara,_mount_Omine_2005I once read about Ryojun Shionuma, a Shugendo Buddhist priest who achieved two grueling feats of physical endurance. First, for nine years during the May-September trekking season, he hiked 30 miles daily, navigating an elevation change of 4,000 feet. Every night, he would wake at 11:30pm, shower in an ice-cold waterfall, dress in white robes, and hike from his base on Mount Yoshino to the summit of Mount Omine by 8:30am.

His only food: two musubi (rice balls), which he would eat before hiking back to Mount Yoshino by 3:30pm. After tea and rice, he would sleep at 7pm and wake at 11:30pm to repeat the journey. If he stopped his continuous hiking for any reason, he was under oath to commit suicide.

ShionumaIn nine years, he completed Omine Sennichi Kaihogyo (One Thousand Days Trekking on Moun Omine), which only one other person has done in the Shugendo sect’s 1,300-year history.

Hiking 30 miles might seem doable, but consider the circumstances: solo, in the dead of night, every 24 hours for almost four months, regardless of illness or injury, in the mountains, amid vipers and bears, facing landslides and typhoons, with no medical care. When was the last time you were away from all humankind even for a week?

Shionuma’s next test was only nine days long. But during those nine days, he was not allowed to sleep, eat, drink, or lie down. What! Apparently half of those who attempt this feat, Shimugyo (Fourfold Renouncing Practice), die trying. Shionuma found the lack of water to be the most painful test, physically and mentally, of the four.

In these tortuous tests, I see a few commonalities:

  • He did it alone. Having a good teacher and community is invaluable, but actual growth comes only independently. In yoga, “home practice” is a baby step in this direction.
  • He survived extreme discomfort and pain. Even with less radical endeavors, a struggle of some kind is perhaps required for progress. If one’s yoga practice is only for relaxation or only predictably strenuous, physically and mentally, that’s probably not enough.
  • He had no creature comforts. While elite athletes and fitness fanatics might similarly push themselves to the max, they have the benefits of doctors and trainers, massage, nutritious food, high-tech gear, and deluxe beds and pillows. What if the little luxuries associated with modern yoga were stripped away? Would people flock to “yoga spas” if they lacked fancy furnishings, saunas, and tea lounges? What’s happened to renunciation of material things in today’s yoga?
  • He faced death. The biggie, this is the ultimate test that probably catalyzes transformation. Most of us have no firsthand experience with this test, which is ultimately both the most unpredictable and the most predictable event in our lives.

NemotoI’m reminded of another Buddhist priest, Ittetsu Nemoto, featured in a fascinating profile in the New Yorker. He specializes in helping suicidal people and thus confronts death and suffering all the time. During his torturous Rinzai Zen Buddhist training, he was pushed to the edge of collapse. At the moment he thought all was lost, he felt a sudden rush of energy. He came to “believe that suffering produces insight, and that it is only at the point when suffering becomes nearly unbearable that transformation takes place.”

What is the role of hardship and difficulty in a “practice”–and in life generally? While only the most serious and extreme practitioners would undertake a Buddhist monk’s training, should a practice—or any experience—nudge us beyond our habitual end points? Or should it be pleasant and comfortable? Which do you typically choose? The hard path or the easy?

Note: If you are fluent in Japanese, see Shionuma’s TED Talk.

Images: Mount Omine, Wikipedia; Shionuma, shionuma-ryojun.com

Eyes of Dr TJ EckleburgSeveral months ago, I was standing in the pool locker room, preparing to leave after my swim. I was late, busy, and filled with free-floating exasperation. Suddenly I noticed someone wringing a sopping swimsuit into an ominous puddle on the floor.

“You should do that over the drain,” I said, sharply. “Then you won’t leave such a mess for the next person.” I gave her no opportunity to answer, but immediately spun around toward my locker.

She was only a university student. But in the moment I conceded nothing: She was an adult, not a nonchalant child. The locker room is squalid enough without water poured everywhere.

It wasn’t so much what I said, but how I said it. She was making a mess, but I could have approached her with civility, even friendliness. So, before leaving, I decided to apologize to the young woman. My reaction, I knew, resulted as much from my state of mind as from her messiness. But she was gone.

On my way home, my first thought was, “Glad no one caught that on a cell-phone camera.”

Gatsby_1925_jacketMy second thought was, “God sees everything.”

Bizarre. I’m neither Christian nor God fearing. Maybe I was channeling a quote in the news or that very line in F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsy.

By “God sees everything,” I meant that my conscience sees everything. When I behave badly, it doesn’t matter if no one notices (or captures it on video). I know.

When I regret my words or actions, I come face to face with my yoga practice–and I’m not talking about my headstand alignment or my hamstring elasticity. Ideally yoga practice should refine our interactions with others, so that we don’t lose patience or speak carelessly.

Is it possible to conduct ourselves unimpeachably, every day of our lives? According to Mark Twain, “A clear conscience is the sure sign of a bad memory.” Perhaps. But through constant vigilance (and restarts and second chances) we can probably reduce our regrets

I recently caught a CBC radio interview with twin sisters Lisa-Kainde and Naomi Diaz of the French-Cuban musical duo Ibeyi. They have roots in France, having grown up in Paris, and in Cuba, homeland of their late father, well-known percussionist Anga Diaz.

In the interview, the sisters commented on how everyone sings in Cuba. Singing is not restricted only to performers or to professionals. Maybe it’s because kids don’t have other things to do, they said. No PlayStation and other material things. In contrast, in other countries and cultures, little kids might all sing, but soon separate into singers and non-singers.

An offshoot of singing is chanting, another vocal act that’s a specialty in modern Western cultures. Chanting came to mind since it’s done in two disciplines that I’ve explored as an adult: yoga and Zen Buddhism.

I didn’t grow up chanting, although I was tangentially aware of it, growing up in a Buddhist family in Hawaii. For example, chanting is integral to traditional Hawaiian culture, which had no written language until the 1820s, when Christian missionaries arrived. In modern Hawaii, chanting is done ceremonially (including in secular federal and state functions) by Hawaiian priests and artistically by musicians and hula dancers—while most of society are spectators.

In the Shin Buddhism that I was born into, the priests chanted, but the congregation generally didn’t. Our family also identified with Shinto, Japan’s native belief system that exists side by side with Buddhism: When I was little, a Shinto priest once came over to bless our house. My family gathered around and he began chanting in a reverberating monotone. The strangeness of the sound so amused my sister and me that we ended up holding our breaths, struggling to stifle our laughter—and finally racing to the farthest bedroom to avoid an LOL outburst. Poor Mom and Dad.

invocation_roedSo, chanting was not second nature to me. In Iyengar yoga, the Invocation to Patanjali is often chanted at the beginning of class. Sometimes teachers chant together with students; other times, the teacher does “call and response,” chanting each line first. For an excellent primer on chanting the Invocation, click here for a few articles published by the Iyengar Yoga Centre of Victoria.

Chanting as a group has a different flavor depending on the teacher, on the students, on one day versus the next. The cadence might be faster or slower; the articulation, more staccato or legato; the pitch, higher or lower. Once, I attended a class taught by a male teacher doing “call and response.” I expected the pitch to match my preferred lower register (a high pitch veers too close to singing and harmonization). But the group comprised only women, all who must have been sopranos. I kept silent that day.

With a bunch of Westerners chanting Sanskrit words, pronunciation is inevitably questionable. Once, I attended a workshop in San Francisco taught by Bangalore-based HS Arun. During the call-and-response invocation, he repeated the line “Pranamami Patanjali” a second time. Then a third and a fourth… We repeated that line at least a dozen times before he proceed to the final “Hari hey Om.” Later he explained that “Pranamami” is not “PranaMOMMY.”

For me, chanting initially felt silly, rather like play acting or trying too hard to adopt a practice not innately mine, using words I barely understood. Now, more familiar, it is a link from one Iyengar yoga class to another around the world. Mostly I appreciate the basis for chanting given by Geeta Iyengar*:

We chant so that at the very beginning that feeling of sanctification comes from inside, with the feeling of surrendering oneself, because nothing can be learned in this world unless you have the humility to learn. So the moment you think of the Lord [Patanjali] at the beginning of doing a practice, you know that you are very small in front of that greatest soul. Once that is understood then the other problems which always arise while practicing, mainly concerned with the ego, will be affected. You know that you are “coming down” to learn something. And you can’t learn anything unless you come down; if you think you are on the top and you know everything, then you are not a learner at all. In that sense, the chanting helps.

*Interview conducted by Margot Kitchen at the 1992 Canadian Intensive in Pune, India.

Image: “River” video, Ibeyi, YouTube; Invocation to Patanjali, BKS Iyengar Yoga Centre Copenhagen

yoga-journal-mirror-studioAt my sister’s home in Santa Cruz, I do a brief yoga practice before breakfast with my niece. In my bedroom, there are large mirrored closet doors. I typically face away from the mirrors. During my last trip, however, I ended up doing Sirsasana (headstand) facing the mirror. A sofa blocked my line of sight, so all I could see were my lower legs, from shins to toes.

Believe it or not, that truncated view was nevertheless informative. I noticed that, while my big toes were joined, my anklebones were too far apart. Was I over-rotating my legs inward? Regardless, I appreciated seeing that cropped shot of my pose from the outside.

In Iyengar yoga, mirrors are not used. We learn by teachers’ corrections and by our own internal proprioceptive awareness. In contrast, in Bikram yoga, the mirror is considered essential: Students are taught to gaze into their own eyes in the mirror. This drishti (focal point) is meant to cultivate concentration and self-acceptance.

Do you think mirrors are useful in yoga practice? A few thoughts:

cat-mirrorImprove form and alignment Observing yourself in a mirror gives instant feedback and can be a learning tool–by making you the teacher. In a class setting, the teacher cannot monitor every picky detail, such as anklebones in Sirsasana. A mirror can help you catch little things and take responsibility for your practice. Therefore, while I don’t advocate mirrors in yoga studios, occasionally using mirrors elsewhere (at home, at the gym) can be revealing.

Of course, it’s impossible to view your mirrored reflection from the side or back (and you might tweak your neck trying to do so). Thus I recommend occasionally asking a friend to photograph you in poses. You might be shocked and amazed. Seeing is believing.

Increase alertness When you stand before a mirror, you cannot slouch or roll your eyes. You cannot “hide” in the back row. Here, I’m reminded of one of my favorite Prashant stories:

After listening to him exhort us to pay attention to the breath, pose by pose, moment by moment, I was silently wondering whether I should be trying to control, or only observing, my breath. As if he could read my mind, he said, “If you pass by a mirror and see your reflection, you act differently. You might change your expression or fix your hair. You are affected simply by seeing your reflection. Likewise, if you watch your breath, it will change.”

Prashant was not talking about asana and mirrors, of course. But his point is applicable: we act differently when face to face with ourselves.

man in the mirrorForced self gaze I’ve read that new Bikram yoga students often find the de rigueur “self gaze” very uncomfortable at first. Indeed, eye contact is a powerful act, whether with oneself or with others. I can hardly imagine taking or teaching an entire class facing a mirror.

Mirrors might also exacerbate self-consciousness about physical appearance. While one is on display regardless of any mirrors, seeing one’s body amid others might cause some to criticize their own.

Emphasizing external over internal awareness By their nature, mirrors reflect what the outside world sees of us. Shouldn’t yoga be cultivating our internal awareness? Bikram yogis would argue exactly the opposite: by staring at oneself for 90 minutes, they say, you have no choice but to come to terms with yourself.

Ease balancing poses This could be an advantage for those who struggle with balance poses. For the majority, however, balancing might become too easy and overly reliant on visual cues. When I read Jane Brody’s “Preserving a Fundamental Sense: Balance” back in 2008, it spurred me to practice “blind” balancing, standing on one leg with my eyes closed.

Images: Yoga Journal; cat, Getty Images; “Man in the Mirror” lyrics, Quotesgram.com

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IYISF StreetVisiting San Francisco last summer, I took a few classes at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco, within walking distance from my friend’s house. “Have you done Iyengar yoga before?” a front-desk staffer asked me when I arrived. “Yes,” I nodded and smiled, but said nothing more.

IYISF ShrineAway from home, I look for yoga classes not only to boost my practice, but to get to know a place. If I’m a repeat visitor (or if I return to Berkeley), teachers recognize me. But, if not, I might reveal only the bare minimum about myself. “I’m visiting from Vancouver,” I said that day.

Entering the studio, I recognized nobody. Yet it was an altogether familiar scene. Shoes at the door. Hardwood floors and walls lined with ropes. Shelves of matching bolsters, blankets, blocks, and mats. Students stretching or gathering props in silence.

While I enjoy chatting with my classmates back home, it can be a relief to be anonymous. To an introvert like me, the social aspect of yoga class is both gift and distraction.

There, people knew me only by what was observable: my expression, my handling of props, my yoga poses. It crossed my mind: Does my yoga practice speak for itself?

IYISF StoreIt got me thinking about how people immediately define themselves. I’m from _____. I’m a _____. I graduated from _____. In Japan, people hand out business cards to establish social hierarchy. Where I grew up in Hawaii, people are curious to know who is kama‘aina or local.

If I had walked in and immediately mentioned that I’m certified or that I’ve studied with so-and-so, wouldn’t that somehow have affected the dynamics? The human mind is quick to categorize.

Of course, sometimes credentials matter. If I were practicing law, I wouldn’t hesitate to name my law school to my advantage. That by itself would give me instant credibility. Likewise, connections can get you that special discount or prompt medical consult.

What about yoga? As a teacher, it makes sense to provide details on my training and experience. As a student, however, why should I advertise my background?

If I end up talking with the teacher after class, my background, including my own teaching, does emerge. It might further connect us. Nice. But I can also appreciate that pure, fleeting moment of anonymity.

“You are what you do, not what you say you’ll do.”

If Carl Jung is right (and he probably is), I haven’t been a blogger lately.

Smile coverI had high hopes to post frequently in August. After all, I had a few weeks’ break from yoga teaching. (In contrast, last summer in Pune I was immersed and extra alert (first time at RIMYI, first time in India). But I averaged a mind-boggling (for me) three posts per week. Then and there, I was compelled to write.)

When I don’t write and my blog stagnates, I feel a bit guilty—as I do when some of my New Year’s resolutions remain undone. With only four months left in 2015, I got to thinking about what I have done, what I have not done, and what motivates me.

Stuff I do if left to my own devices

  • Reading Reading is like breathing to me, but was my proposition to finish two books per month doable? Almost. Since January I’ve read 15 books and thus have a fighting chance to catch up. (I admit that my list includes two of Raina Telgemeier‘s graphic novels, discovered through my little niece: I couldn’t put them down!)
  • Yoga While traveling, my practice might be minimal, but I never fall completely off the wagon (cf. blogging). It’s hard for me to skip more than a day because my body feels it. But have I fulfilled my resolution to vary my home practice more? I could do better. I keep hearing the old running adage in my head: Vary the terrain. (Probably likewise with asana and with life in general).

Stuff that is challenging, but rewarding to me

  • Blogging The inherent difficulty of writing? First, it’s creating something from nothing. Second, it’s putting myself out there. A tall order.
  • Iyengar yoga assessments After practicing with fellow teachers preparing for Intermediate Junior assessments, a sharp-witted colleague said in jest, “Well, that was demoralizing as usual!” I had to laugh out loud. She was joking (we are super supportive of one another!). But this highlights what candidates face: performing for peers, hearing criticism, confronting bad habits, being forced to rethink. Still, we choose to do this. Why? Because the learning is invaluable.
  • Work My work as a yoga teacher and as the managing editor of a peer-reviewed urban planning journal is a given, a commitment. So it always gets done.

Sisters coverStuff neglected, but important to me

  • Keeping in touch My family is far flung. With the Internet and cell phones, keeping in touch could be easy, but I’m an irregular communicator. FaceTime? Not into it. Facebook? No. I agree with New York Times columnist Frank Bruni who, in “The Myth of Quality Time,” wrote, “There’s simply no real substitute for physical presence.” In August I did return to Hawaii and to California—to see family and friends. But I could do much better with email, texts, calls, and even handwritten letters (enchanting to receive nowadays).
  • Gardening In theory, I like to garden. In reality, I’m an unreliable—let’s face it, negligent—gardener. My seasonal bursts of planting and pruning are insufficient, I know.
  • Clutter clearing Instead of a major paper/clothing/junk purge every few years, I must simply avoid accumulating unnecessary things. What about computer clutter? Passable, except for my teeming email Inbox, possibly a lost cause.

Stuff that others enjoy, but not me

If a resolution remains undone, month after month or year after year, maybe it’s time to forget about it. Take camping: I’ve never gone camping in a tent. Never. I like to imagine that I’d like camping. But, if so, wouldn’t I be an avid camper by now? We are what we do.