Health

Yoga – On the Home Stretch

When I moved here from the UK over six years ago, I asked myself which of my leisure activities would migrate with me to my new life in “the far east”. A major geographical move is an obvious time for re-evaluation and resolution – not simply of personal belongings accumulated over the years, but also of how we spend our time and what constitutes life. Unwanted old cutlery and threadbare bed linen jettisoned during the packing process at home, a parallel spring cleaning of my pastimes remained to be tackled on my arrival in the tropics. After a month of driving to work, sitting behind a desk in my new office and consuming a few too many calorific hotel buffet breakfasts, I realised that it was time to dust off the cobwebs. A moment of reflection reminded me that yoga had been part of my life to some degree since I had the good fortune to participate in a short introductory course during high school. Never one to excel at competitive team sports and a bit of a loner by nature, yoga had fascinated me as much for the possibility of a mystical inner journey as for the outer physical practice itself. Could my transfer to Malaysia be the catalyst to re-spark my yoga practice where surely an authentic and rewarding experience would be only a few steps away?

Many people know that the word yoga stems from the Sanskrit word “yuj” which translates as “union”. Yoga means union of the Individual Self with the Universal Self. It represents one of the six systems of Hindu philosophy and is also represented in early Buddhist meditative practices and Jain beliefs. The concept of yoga was first documented by the Sage Patañjali in “The Yoga Sutras” during the 5th century BC (now generally referred to as Raja or Ashtanga yoga). With the explosion of so many different contemorary styles of yoga in recent years, finding a class faithful to the origins of the tradition would take some exploration and experimentation. After eliminating an unfulfilling gym-based class which seemed to exist more as a post-exercise afterthought than as a dedicated practice, I started looking for specialised yoga schools. One regrettable experience saw me (the newly acclimatising expat), as the only student in a “hot yoga” class where the studio was heated to an unbearable sauna-like 40°C, being put through my paces by an acrobatic and unrepentant instructor – not exactly my cup of tea. Fortunately business trips occasionally do have an unexpected silver lining, and during a flight to Singapore I happened to read an article in The New Straits Times featuring an Iyengar yoga teacher named Parul Mehta. I tracked her down in KL and joined one of her regular evening classes, at that time held at a Bangsar condominium. Finally, I felt that I fitted in and experienced an affinity with what was being taught.

Iyengar yoga (www.bksiyengar.com) is an inclusive discipline and is suitable for all ability levels. The methodology developed by the living legend BKS Iyengar (now 92 years old and still going strong) helps students unlock the wisdom encapsulated within the somewhat mysterious yoga sutras. His school of teaching is particularly renowned for its precision, attention to detail, careful sequencing and use of props (such as wooden blocks, belts and blankets) to help achieve the desired alignment. Inevitably classes of all levels tend to focus on the physical practice of asana (posture) and students learn a range of standing, sitting, supine, forward bending, back bending and twisting asana, eventually progressing to the often feared but immensely beneficial range of inversions. Regular practice develops strength, balance and flexibility – a powerful combination for health and wellbeing. The props mentioned above also provide useful work-arounds for students with a physical limitation, imbalance or injury. The benefits of a regular practice are readily apparent. The mobility and grace that yoga can impart are closely associated with a youthful radiance. Intensive yoga workshops are a fantastic learning experience if you have the time available. Comprising extended classes on consecutive days for up to a week, it becomes possible to immerse yourself in a deeper study of yoga asana and pranayama (rhythmic control of the breath believed to bring stillness to the mind – the gateway to meditation).

Many of the types of strongly physical yoga now popular in gyms and studios (including Iyengar yoga) stem from the broad tradition of Hatha yoga. Repeated practice develops considerable stamina and this is achieved primarily through holding static postures for increasingly long periods. Vinyasa yoga is an alternative style with a greater cardiovascular component. It is a more dynamic activity which links the yoga asana together in a flowing sequence. The most common and well-known sequence is probably the “sun salutation” where each position is held for a single inhale or exhale and the transition between postures is prioritised over the pursuit of perfect alignment in each. It is energizing, liberating and a great way to start the day!

A perfect opportunity to sample a taster of the many different types of yoga now on offer is the International Yoga Festival held every March at Rishikesh in the Indian Himalaya (www.internationalyogafestival.com). This week-long gathering in a spectacular setting promises to be an eye-opening journey – one which I look forward to making next year. Closer to base, you can even experience “laughter yoga” and become a certified teacher at Nomad Adventure’s Earth Camp in Perak (www.nomadadventure.com)!

Throughout the fluctuations and changes that seem to characterise our existence here as expats, I can truly say that yoga has been the one stable, unwavering element of my life in Malaysia and enables me to broaden my definition of “home”.

Source: The Expat May 2011
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