How do you read a book? That probably seems like a silly question. You read the beginning, middle and then the end. Right? I have this bad habit of reading things out of order because I am impatient and cannot deal with the uncertainty of not knowing. I read the beginning, the end, and if the book is compelling enough, the middle.
How would you live your life even if you knew the ending? Knowing that in the end, we end up being recycled back into the earth one way or another – does it liberate you or does it scare you? Are you ready to write the middle?
I recently was fortunate to take a journey to the end of the world, literally. I took a boat to Antartica, our southern continent. This blog post isn’t about the amazing things I saw (although, quick shout outs to the thousands of penguins I saw, and dozens of Orca and Humpback whales.) This is about the opportunity I had to truly disconnect.
There was actually internet on the boat – at the cost of about $100 for 100MB or something ridiculous like that. I wasn’t sure how I would be without the internet, but it turns out that no Internet is livable (versus slow Internet, which is just a tease… like “Hey! I’m sorta loading this page. But not. Internet time out. Just kidding! Loading again!”)
I feel like people always tell you to disconnect so that you can connect with people face to face. I still chose to sit in my cabin and read a lot of books. I spent plenty of time walking around on the deck, getting fresh air and checking on the birds following our expedition boat. I joined the daily lectures (when I wasn’t battling dizziness due to sea sickness) on seals, whales and penguins and sat amongst the other passengers. But, during my time on the ship, I completed 5 books on my list. I wrote daily in my journal and just contemplated on all the amazing things I see.
The thing about constantly being connected to the world is that I always felt like I was missing out on something – another country to visit, another thing I wasn’t doing or excelling in. Instagram was filled with images of beautiful people doing Cirque du Soleil level yoga poses, people traipsing around the globe every weekend without being tied to their heavy mortgages, luxury jobs, luxury planes, luxury lives.
To be fair, this isn’t the fault of social media completely. Part of it is due to my own personal will and the constant need to push myself. I’ve met many people who are type A and are completely functional. As a reformed type A person, a part of me still feels the need to strive for more. But a part of me needs to realize that comparing myself will never make me happy. A part of me needs to just enjoy the things that I have. There is nothing wrong with self improvement. Nothing wrong with looking to others for inspiration. Nothing wrong with having goals in life. But when it comes with a caveat that I will not be happy until I am there, then I will forever remain unhappy. This is a constant struggle for me and I just need to remind myself that I am where I need to be.
[Photo credit: Minty, a Singaporean friend we made on the expedition ship. Standing at the top of a hill after a 30 minute hike up Neko Harbour, Antarctica.)
I’ve been trying to write this blog post for over a year now. I have jotted down half thought out ideas but never really sat down to ruminate over them.
Why has it taken me so long to get here?
I am of a generation with little to no attention spans. A generation constantly addicted to the rush of dopamine from every ping and vibration of our cell phones. Sitting down and writing something remotely meaningful requires the arduous task of focus. It requires dedicating myself to a set block of time to translate the garbage in my head into a coherent strings of words. It requires time to format, find photos, research relevant items, etc.
Who has time for that anymore? Who has time to sit down and read a novel? To have deep meaningful conversations with friends? To spend time doing nothing?
People wonder why I “exercise” as much as I do. In all honesty, I probably spend about 1 hour a day doing something. One hour where I leave my cell phone out of sight because it serves no purpose for me in that moment. It is probably the one hour of my day where I am forced to stew with my thoughts or the (weakness/strength) of my body – to focus on how much my core is shaking in megaformer, to focus on my alignment in yoga, and to focus on plummeting to my death in rock climbing.
I’m not even good at paying attention even then – my mind wanders, I have injured myself plenty, and I have fallen many times.
The secret is this: the moment you notice that you are no longer present is the moment that you become present.
Photo credit: Fernando took a photo of me taking a photo in Lapa, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil circa 2014. I had no cell service in Brazil (except for emergency purposes) so we were forced to plan how to get around, and then wing how to survive since we had no idea where we were going or what we were doing. Lack of cell phones meant we were forced to engage in marital small talk and live in the moment.
So I’ve fallen off the wagon in the last few months. While traipsing around the world (some for leisure, but some for work) sounds like magical fun, it comes with a lot of side effects. My sleep was disrupted in so many ways, I ate lots of unhealthy things to survive long meetings, and I pretty much reduced my exercise down to nothing.
And it shows.
I don’t meant to say that I got fat (because I didn’t.) But I got cranky, I got moody, I got sullen. The protective barrier that I put around myself after many years of yoga was taken down due to bad lifestyle choices. Most of the mental deterrents were no longer there and I found myself consumed by anxiety.
I started this new year stressed, unhappy and tired. [Someone once told me how you start your new year is pretty much going to set the tone for the rest of the year. Thankfully, I’m Chinese and I still have lunar new years to give it another shot.]
But I know that I am lucky in other ways. I am not complaining about the opportunities that I had during those last 4 months – I did get to see and do a lot of amazing things. I am lucky because I know that I can get back to the way things were. Exercising comes naturally to me. (I know, I know, I’m weird.) I’ve spent my entire life doing some sort of physical movement (mostly dancing and hiking) so it’s never been off for me to do something every day. I know that I have to start somewhere.
The first day back to yoga and I definitely could not stretch as far as I used to. First day back in megaformer and I felt weak. First day back at rock climbing and I was back at 5.9s. But I know what I am fully capable of. In a few months time (or even sooner) I can get back to where I was before. I know I’m lucky because my body will remember.
For those that are starting off, you have to start somewhere. I know some people who started exercising from ground zero, and now (a few years later) it’s so ingrained in who they are that they are (healthily) addicted to some physical movement. It’s a discipline that you build into your body and becomes a habit. Somewhat like brushing your teeth. Sometimes you really want it (especially when your teeth feel grimy or fuzzy). Sometimes it’s just routine. Sometimes you take it for granted… until you spend 1 week in the desert with no running water and can’t brush your teeth.
[Photo credit: Me! This was our second time riding a camel through the Sahara Desert. The first time was in Egypt near the pyramids. This time it was an hour long ride. Things are always different the second time – you’re a little more comfortable and you know what to expect.]
Well, it happened. I injured myself big time in yoga. I’m not quite sure exactly what happened, but I think it happened while I was doing ahandstand during a vinyasa. I was engaging my left oblique too much and I felt it snap/pop or something very unpleasant.
The next few days were unpleasant since I was dealing with post-nasal drip cough on top of the rib.
Cough + strained rib = lots of pain.
I went to see a doctor about the pain and she said that regardless of whether it was a strain or a fracture, the recovery process would be the same, although a strain might heal faster.
A week later I was feeling better and decided to play ping-pong at the company birthday party.
I cough. My rib popped even harder this time and I was left curled up in the fetal position since standing/walking and breathing was hard. You take for granted how often your core is engaged in simple activities (like walking, driving over speed bumps, lying in cough potato asana on the couch.)
Following day I spent on the couch in 1 of 2 positions that I could tolerate (slumping or lying on my injured side). Day 3 redux I attempted to walk in the mall at a slow motion pace before retiring to the couch.
A few takeaways I want you get from this:
I know a lot of people complain about being injured doing yoga, but people also get injured doing most sports (running, basketball, soccer), as well as everyday things (walking, climbing stairs, tying your shoes.) I wasn’t doing anything I haven’t done before I got injured. I hope injury doesn’t deter you from trying. Life isn’t fun in a bubble.
Taking it easy can be hard sometimes. I am surrounded by people who love exercise. My housemate tore his meniscus playing basketball and had it surgically repaired with a cadaver meniscus. It took a lot of willpower to keep himself from exercising (although, he did defy doctor’s orders and started early.) My husband sprained his MCL while kicking in soccer. He went back a little earlier than he should have and his knee remained sore and strained. I probably should not have played ping pong. (But, c’mon! It’s ping pong!) Some lessons are learned the hard way, but they will be learned.
Recovery is a lot like starting from scratch (but not really.) It starts with baby steps and knowing that you CAN get to the level where you were before. It’s slow. It requires dedication. It requires breaks, rest and recovery.
[Photo: Visvamitrasana on the shore of Reykjavik mid-March 2015. The sky was so beautiful there. I have been unable to do this pose since I strained my left oblique.]
My mom purchased my first yoga mat at a Marshall’s that came with a free yoga DVD. It was a blue, thin little thing from Bally’s Total Fitness that provided minimal padding – but that’s okay because I didn’t need anything special for Bikram Yoga. This was 12 years ago in 2003 when I decided to invest in my first Bikram class at BYSJ.
My second mat came when I walked to Funky Door Yoga (Berkeley, CA) for a Bikram class and realized I didn’t bring my mat. Since it was a nearly 20 minute walk from my college apartment, I decided to finally upgrade my mat to a pink Wai Lana mat with hibiscus flowers. (I think this was sometime in 2006.)
This mat held over until 2011 when I started vinyasa yoga. I started investing in many many many Manduka eQua towels for the slip and slide that inevitably developed on my sweat drenched mat. I spent too much money on towels and realized that I should actually invest in a good mat.
I then tried out the Jade Yoga mat (on a loan from a friend) and suffered the same slip and slide. Many of my friends lauded it for it’s grippy-ness, but I sweat like a fat pig in a sauna. Others told me to try the Manduka, but mentioned that the towels will still be needed for a slipper practice. I still have a Manduka Pro Light that I use at home for a non-sweaty practice + global travel.
But many of my teacher friends had The Mat from Lululemon. *Cue the angelic choir.*
The Mat has been my hot yoga practice savior. I own a few that I use on rotation (except for the one my dog pooped on. I’m not sure when I’m ready to bring that back into the fold.)
Why I like The Mat:
For most sweaty betty’s, it’s grippy enough to survive most hot vinyasa classes. [I know a few guys who still sweat more than me and require a towel. Just a few.]
There are multiple lengths and thicknesses. “The Big Mat” is available for the taller folk. “The 3 mm Mat” is for those who don’t require so much extra padding.
Excellent durability. I alternate mats only because I have to air them out after practice to dry out. I’ve had my pink one for over 3 years and it definitely has a lot more mileage left.
Things to note about The Mat:
It smells when you first buy it. Air it out for a long long long time and it will go away.
It’s a heavy mat. It doesn’t bother me at all, but just thought you should know.
Do not clean with oils (tea tree, lavender)! I scrub with soap and water and sometimes vinegar.
Buy a black or very dark mat. My pink one looks extra nasty and it’s hard to scrub the dirt marks out.
Air out after a sweaty class.
Photo: I almost always bring my Manduka ProLite mat with me on my global travels. My hotel had promised yoga class, but alas, there was none. Did yoga by myself on the balcony overlooking the water instead.
[Nobody endorsed me for this post. This is solely from personal experience. I really do sweat a lot – many of my teacher friends have noted that I sweat on par with many guys.]
At my last job, during one of my performance reviews, my manager said that I needed to learn to push back against people who ask me to do too much. He says I have a habit of trying to take on more than I should. I never thought that it was a bad thing to want to do more, but I’ve come to realize that it’s a fast track to burn out.
I have spent the 2014 saying “yes” to more (yoga) sub requests and social engagements than I probably should have. I was perpetually glued to my phone and overstimulated by social feeds, news and emails. Towards the end, I started to cringe at the thought doing things that I used to look forward to – just doing yoga, rock climbing with friends, talking with students/friends/people.
At the end of the 2014, I took a trip to South America – land of beautiful landscapes and crap Internet. With the lack of Internet, TV and many modern conveniences, I was forced to unplug and just enjoy being. Enjoy being in nature, biking in the moment, laughing at jokes and suffering through some uncomfortable situations (yes, even those are enjoyable.)
I’ve noticed since I’ve been back I have a lot more enthusiasm to do the things I was once dreading. I’m happy to talk to people again and be social.
In lieu of waiting for my future meltdown (insert references to many celebrity meltdowns), I’m going to spend the next year saying “no” a little more liberally.
What do you plan for the new year?
Photo: Playing with perception on the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia. Quite literally blowing things off. Seemed suitable.
For Thanksgiving week, I was lucky to be able to work remotely in Taiwan so that I could spend time visiting family. However, I’m not as young as I used to be and jerking myself from one time zone to another extremely disparate one was a bit jarring for me.
I soldiered on. However, one night at my in-laws place, I slept on one of those contour pillows incorrectly (due to exhaustion, I passed on out it with the large contour digging into my shoulder blade. I woke up with such extreme pain in my neck and shoulder that I wasn’t able to move my head in any direction without tears coming out of my eyes (no joke.) My head felt like a bowling ball and tilting it in any direction made it weigh that much more. (Here’s an article talking about posture and how tilting your head puts nearly 60 pounds of pressure on your neck.)
Even though I brought my yoga mat abroad, I was unable to use it.
And then came the plane ride. Eleven excruciating hours with an immobile neck. Luckily my father-in-law provided me with some Toricam gel that I slathered on my neck that made things slightly more tolerable.
It took almost a week after I came back from my trip before I felt okay enough to do yoga.
And then I got a cold.
I am still suffering from the repercussions of the cold nearly a week later, which has progressed into a sinus infection. Somewhere between hourly sinus irrigation, pei pa koa, pseudoephedrine and copious amounts of rest, I’m slowly recovering.
What has this taught me? I think it was just a reminder to slow down. I had worn myself out to the point where I sleep in awkward positions and wear down my immune system.
It has been deeply frustrating not doing yoga, flipping around in aerial or even going for a simple walk (without being breathless.) Sunday was the first day I was able to take my dogs out for their usual stroll. Monday was a sorry attempt at yoga, but an attempt nonetheless… and I was happy. Happy to just be doing something even if it didn’t look that great. Happy and grateful that my body was able to recover and I could do some semblance of movement.
So this week I’ve been going along with the theme that sometimes we need to slow down and appreciate where we are. Don’t take for granted the things we are capable of doing until it’s gone (or temporarily absent.)
Photo is of Mount QiXing. No exotic yoga photo this post since I was relegated to no yoga on this trip.
Last week I slept with my contacts on for a night and gave myself an eye infection. Woe is me. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time that I got one. Two years ago I got one for wearing my contacts on a plane after staying up almost all night for a wedding in Chicago.
So now I have to spend 2 weeks wearing my ultra-thick glasses. How thick are they? -750 thick. To put this in perspective, to be considered legally blind, you have to see greater than -1000 with glasses on. I can’t wear glasses during yoga because they constantly slip off and fog during a warm vinyasa class. This means I see -750 in class.
Last time this happened, I spent most of the class flopping and struggling to balance. I spent so much time being self conscious about how unstable I was, not just in balancing poses, but in simple things like knowing where to put my hands and feet in dog dog. I had become so dependent on the visual cues of my physical practice that I hadn’t quite built the intuition to listen to what feels right for me.
This time around however, after a few more years of yoga + teaching students to do yoga with their eyes closed + learning to trust myself more while rock climbing, I find blind-ish yoga strangely awesome. I can’t look around class at all. I’m fairly certain I was doing something different sometimes because teachers would mis-cue poses or mis-name poses, but it didn’t matter. My balance felt great because I trusted my feet, my core, my stability. Dancer’s pose, handstands, downdog all felt natural.
If you’ve never done this before, put on a blind fold or take out your contacts for class – it will change your perception. Maybe you will doubt yourself at first, but you’ll build on it over time. Fall a few times or fall a lot. Get up, brush yourself off and try. Trust yourself or learn to build the trust.
[FYI, someone in class asked what cankles were, which caused an outbreak of laughter, toppling over a few students. I apologize for those who may have fallen from laughter.]
I won’t go into a speech about the benefits or contraindications for inversions because I’m not a doctor. Plus you can probably find better articles written online. I just find them fun + it channels my inner kid who wants to run around doing cartwheels. 🙂 Isn’t that a good enough reason?