Travel, Yoga

When Life gives you Lululemons

It took me a really, really, really long time to get into yoga.

For years I always thought of it as a series of odd stretches and a whole lot of awkward breathing. Getting into and holding the positions made me feel silly, and for the most part of the trial classes I attended, I alternated between looking at the instructor upside down between my hands and legs, and trying to process by listening which limb I was supposed to be moving. Here I was, flailing like a drowning spider, and everyone around me seemed to be coming out of these classes with an afterglow and a ton of fitness inspiration inspo hashtags. Friends swore by the mental benefits yoga offered. Encouraged by their testimonies, I persisted in different studios and under different instructors, and I still found myself confounded, bored, and hardly ever breaking a proper sweat. It felt like a much more productive use of my time to use the allocated exercise block to hit the ground running or body-pump at the gym.

Sometime in late 2016, a colleague invited me to join a private group class. It was only then that I finally came around. The solution to my years of yoga doubt couldn’t have been more obvious or simple – I just needed a good instructor.

And boy, was she good. All it took was one hour and she had me slipping on my puddles of sweat and struggling to lift my aching body out of bed for a good 2 days after every class. Getting your body into the right alignment made a world of difference. Some tiny adjustment here and there – a squaring of the hip, a tucking in of the ribs – and I finally understood what I was supposed to be feeling. It reminded of the times I got fitted for my prescription glasses; when the optometrist clicks the correct glass into place in those giant owl-eyed metal frames, and the letters and numbers on the chart magically come into focus.

When done correctly, yoga can give you a better workout than most machines at the gym. And more importantly, it has become both a mental stimulant and tranquilliser. Several years ago I asked a friend who smoked cigarettes continually throughout his waking hours how the very same thing could possibly keep him sharp and alert during the day but yet enhance the intoxicating effects of alcohol at night. He claimed that smoking his cigarettes heightened his concentration, and that allowed him to both focus better, be it contemplating a difficult problem at work, or intensifying that alcoholic buzz. I never got into smoking myself, but I imagine my post-yoga high to be the closest thing to this feeling he described.

These days, whenever I travel I always make it a point to look up yoga studios and to pop in for a class when I can. I have a strange habit of enjoying supermarkets, convenience stores, pharmacies, and bookstores wherever I go. I have found that these are often the best places to observe the local inhabitants going about their everyday errands and living out their daily lives. It’s almost like a National Geographic documentary on the behavioural patterns of the native wildlife in their natural habitat. I like seeing how their cereal and fruit differ from the ones back home, and how much meat and vegetables cost. I like knowing how different people all over the world medicate themselves and self-soothe (homeopathy? salves? drugs?). I love spending hours browsing in the shelves of blockbuster bookstores and small independent bookstores, even if the titles are all in a foreign language I can’t read. The Strand in New York City; Eslite in Taipei; Shakespeare and Company in Paris; City Lights in San Francisco; Daikanyama T-Site in Tokyo; Livraria Lello in Porto… everyone’s got their own Disneyland.

Visiting a yoga studio in a foreign land is a much more involved activity than popping into a grocery store. You can never get away with being a spectator, and there is always a risk of participating and looking stupid. I am excitable and loud by nature, and I always walk into a new studio feeling apprehensive, like a Bull surrounded by fragile gluten-free pieces of china. I always half expect everyone to be levitating visions of calm and enlightenment – people who have generally figured out the secret that is life and gotten their act together. I’ve now come to realise that most people are drawn to the mat not because they’ve gotten their lives lined up in orderly perfection, but rather because they’re desperately trying to do so. Yoga must be to the anxious mind what Christianity is for the despairing and the downtrodden.

In my short time as a yoga practitioner, I’ve practised in a village resort in Canggu (Bali), in the middle of the jungle in Malapascua Island (the Philippines), in a swanky neighbourhood in Sydney (Australia), and in a cozy studio on a small street in Seminyak (Bali) tucked away from the commercial madness it has now become. Desa Seni (Canggu, Bali) has been my favourite to date, with its sprawling grounds and hushed tones. The classes are held on open-air wooden villas with panoramic views of the surrounding greenery. It’s hard not to feel connected with nature in a setting like this, even for someone like me, who remains resistant to the spiritual element of the practice. It has been more than a year, and I still cannot bring myself to chant or even say namaste with a straight face. My cousin on the other hand, regularly plays the handpan drum in yoga sessions, and manages to get into the juju even without getting on the mat. We had trotted down to the yoga studio in Seminyak the morning after our cousin’s wedding and walked in to join a Vinyasa class. He boldly asked the instructor if he could play during her class and she unsurprisingly hesitated. The rest of the class grudgingly agreed and my cousin, completely unperturbed (as he has been his entire life), sat down and started to play. It took him only a minute or so before the entire class fell into a celestial haze by the ethereal sounds of the instrument. By the end of the class, the instructor had invited him back to Bali to play his handpan drum for her yoga retreat.

It is with no little irony that I found the class in Sydney the most ‘authentic’ as yoga classes come. The instructor had insisted on using only the Sanskrit names of the poses, and as a result I found myself twisting my neck to watch her while stuck in the most uncomfortable of poses, trying to figure out an Uttanasana from an Ardha Uttanasana. I did however end up purchasing some #activewear handcrafted from organic and ethically-sourced fabric – Anything to get me closer to that Adho Much Vrksasana right?


A Toast to a Travel Legend

“It’s an irritating reality that many places and events defy description. Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu, for instance, seem to demand silence, like a love affair you can never talk about. For a while after, you fumble for words, trying vainly to assemble a private narrative, an explanation, a comfortable way to frame where you’ve been and what’s happened. In the end, you’re just happy you were there — with your eyes open — and lived to see it.” – Anthony Bourdain (1956-2018)

I hardly ever get weepy about celebrity deaths. In many ways it made me feel like a hypocrite, mourning the loss of someone I never knew or even met. How can you actually lose someone you never had? Over the years I’ve come to realise that you don’t actually need to have known or met someone for them to have touched your life.

There was something oddly moving in the words Anthony Bourdain left behind, no doubt crystallised during his pursuit of travel; international culture; cuisine; and at the heart of it all, the human condition. In the same way, I feel almost funny looking back at the posed smiles and frozen tourist attractions in travel albums, because it’s mostly the moments I miss rather than the places and the sights seen. I think of Rome, and I have difficulty recalling the names of the many coin-bloated fountains or describing the immensity of The Colosseum. I instead recall the surprise stalks of roses at the foot of the Spanish steps, and the night we ate two dinners (amazing wood oven pizza and good ol’ bolognese) because us four starving students were so unequivocal in our dissatisfaction at the first one that we justified the expense on a second meal. I think of Athens, and I remember us hunched over our luggage bags, struggling to wheel them over cobbled streets because the stupid hostel got our bookings mixed up. I think of Santorini, and I remember that beach from another world. I think of the Lake District, and I remember us huddled in the tent for warmth, shivering in our shorts in the single digit weather because we ruined all our warm clothing after we fell in the mud. I think of New York, and I remember sitting in Bryant Park, reading and writing with the sprawl of green and glass before me. I think of Barcelona, and I can still smell the pigeon poop left splattered on my entire family after a particularly vicious flock of birds flew overhead during our walk in a park. I think of Venice, and I remember the incredible balcony which we sat and had our home-cooked dinner and talked and bared our hearts for hours. I think of Paris and I remember cheese, more cheese, wine, and the strums of the musician’s guitar outside the sacre-coeur. I think of Whistler and I remember being towed down a slope with a pulled hamstring, and learning how to identify the Big Dipper for the first time. I think of Montreal and I remember bagels and lying on that giant mossy hill where everything smelled sweet. I think of Miami, and I remember the giant frozen margaritas and the Pornstar posse we met at that nightclub. I think of Rio and I am filled with saudade for my Brazilian host mothers and the random acts of their kindness that will stay with me for life. I think of Sydney, and there I am again, sleeping out under the stars in a giant makeshift campsite with hundreds and thousands of others. I think of Hong Kong, and I remember many sleepless nights and somehow always ending up at Tsui Wah. I think of Sri Lanka, and I remember dangling my legs over the edge at World’s End. I think of Boston, and we are frantically trying to cook dinner in a thoroughly impractical apartment mysteriously filled with absurd animal art sculptures and Friends Box DVD sets, without a single pot in the kitchen. I think of Capri, and I am eating freshly-plucked blueberries along the Path of the Gods. I think of Norway, and I remember high-fiving my best friend at the top of Preikestolen and looking out at the fjords. I think London, and there is simply too much. I remember the different occasions, the different company, the different emotions, the different hopes and dreams that I had with each different visit.

It’s so cliched but all too true – I live not by days, months, or years, but by experiences, moments, memories, lessons.

“As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life — and travel — leaves marks on you.” Anthony Bourdain (1956-2018)