When you bring up yoga these days, it seems to refer to the pursuit of physical fitness. People want a workout, they want to sweat it out. Amidst the trend for healthy and active living, all sorts of newfangled yoga have surfaced – Beer Yoga, where you get to chug an ice-cold bottle of beer in between poses, a celebrity-driven Hip Hop Yoga, and an exclusively safe haven for bros at Broga.
Yet, in the race to try all these hyped forms of yoga, have we neglected the basics of yoga?
Yoga is more than a physical workout. It's moving meditation, which trains both mind and body.
Eight limbs of Yoga – Yamas the morals, Niyamas the behaviour and attitudes, Asana the physical practice, Pranayama the breath, Pratchyahara the mind withdrawn from the body's senses, Dharana the single focus, Dhyana the deepest meditation, and finally Samadhi, oneness.
Since conception, yoga was intended as a neural training session. In 400AD, a scholar called Patanjali wrote Yoga Sutras of Patanjali — the single-most defining text for the practice.
"Patanjali believes there are eight limbs of yoga. The first is the Yamas, [then] the Niyamas," Dawn Chan explains, founder of The Yoga School. Yamas is the bedrock, a set of moral values, like principles. Niyamas is a deck of behaviours and attitudes. Both comes before the third limb, Asana, which is the physical practice.
Chair pose, a move for strength and endurance, also the third posture of Bikram Yoga. Dawn Chan advises, "Literally like you're sitting on a chair – knees above the ankle, and your arms stretched out."
The mind has always been the foundations beneath the physical act of yoga. First, you train your mind, then bring your righted state of mind to the yoga mat. If you haven't got Yamas and Niyamas straight, it would be akin to mindless yoga.
"How do we practice yoga mindfully? How does it train my mind?" I ask Dawn Chan.
She brings up the Iyengar Yoga classes at The Yoga School for example. Iyengar Yoga was devised by the late B.K.S. Iyengar. There's a repertoire of 200 fundamental poses and 14 types of breathing techniques. What Iyengar does, is to revisit foundational moves, realigning and refining Yogis' forms and postures. It seems to challenge individuals to reconsider their quotidian habits and familiar things in life, in a bid to better them.
The Yoga School
The Yoga School is perched on the 39th floor of the OCBC tower in Raffles Place. Classes are held in this studio, overlooking the city skyline.
In another class called Forrest Yoga, it forces practitioners to face insecurities head on. Created by Ana T. Forrest, it's a fluid practice that constantly evolves and changes. Basic yoga poses are slightly modified over time, so you never grow familiar or too accustomed to the sequences.
Throughout the Forrest class that I attended, the instructor Ming Li constantly reiterates, "How will you deal with that?" Like when the blinding rays of sunset got into our eyes, she gently reminds, "If you find the sun getting to you, close your eyes. Will you allow that to affect you?" Or when the poses advanced and our bodies quivered, our legs threatened to give way, she said in a small voice, "Find a point of balance, and steady yourself."
While you're forced to hover on the edge of unfamiliarity, you're trained to deal with uncomfortable and uncertain situations – these things, you can bring out of the studio, into your daily family and work life. "In the yoga community, we say 'On the mat' and 'Off the mat'. Take what you've learnt on the mat, off the mat," Chan adds.
The Tree Pose, a balancing act. "For me when I fell over and hurt my ankle, I did it a lot to strengthen my ankle," Dawn Chan adds. She recommends fixing your gaze on a Drishti, a focal point, to keep your balance and you'll forget you might fall.
At the end of the day, what you want is awareness. You want to know the nuances of the sequences you're practising. You need to be aware of how your mind responds to each pose as you go along.
Chan draws an interesting example – Bikram Yoga. It has been enduringly in trend, and wildly popular for the past couple of years in Singapore. And there is a reason behind Bikram Yoga's longevity in Singapore – the mind.
Bikram Choudhury was the man who designed it. He fixed a 90-minute set of 26 sequences and two breathing techniques, practised in a studio brought to 35-42°C. Chan explains, that Bikram's unchanging sequences were a timely and necessary response to the high-stress, rapidly changing work environments of Singapore. People don't realise it, but if you were to read closely, Bikram's undying trend is because it meets our needs. We Asians crave stability.
Legs up the wall, a posture that works with gravity. "Reverses blood flow to the upper body, face, brains, and arms. It's very soothing. I do that when I'm super tired. Before bed, I put a pillow under my hips, and [put my] legs against the headboard. You're completely supported and you can just rest." Do it for a minute.
"The beautiful thing about Bikram – there is so much uncertainty in life. And [here] you know what is going to come up [next.] It's a time for pure certainty," Chan quips. Bikram Yoga is an especially grounding and steadying 90-minutes for its practitioners.
Yet, beyond Iyengar Yoga, Forrest Yoga, and Bikram Yoga, there is another state of mind that runs through all forms of yoga – acceptance and perseverance.
The Yoga School
Dawn Chan had a taste of yoga when studying in university in England when she was 20. It's her 17th year in the practice.
In her 17 years in yoga, Chan has completed 500-hours of instructor training – not including her personal practice. "Some poses I find challenging. I could do it last week, but today I come to class and I can't do it. I get frustrated and I question, 'Why is it gone?' I panic, 'When will it come back?' Then you also have to realise that it's acceptance. It's also an awareness that your body changes from week to week." On days like these, Chan takes a step back and accepts. The mind, body, and life around us is a dynamic equilibrium, it's always ebbing and flowing. But that doesn't mean to leave your problems be. Revisit them with a quiet mind, "[have] perseverance and keep going." And when you finally have a solution and accomplish what you need to, "you'll realise it's all in your mind."
Dawn Chan is the founder of The Yoga School.
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