What Busted Elevators Taught Me about My Mind

Photo by: Gideon Tsang

Photo by: Gideon Tsang

My throbbing calves and sore thighs have prompted this post. I hope it takes less than a test of physical endurance for me to blog more.

You see, all four elevators in my apartment building broke down this weekend and residents had no choice but to use the stairs to get to their respective pads. Men, women and children – able-bodied or not – had to climb up several floors to get home and go down the same route to exit. The building has 52 floors; my flat is somewhere in the 20s. I’m luckier than some residents and some were luckier than me. That’s the way the world works.

Years ago, my default reaction to events like this would be to scream bloody murder. I’d make a scene, show everyone how pissed off I was, threaten a few people to make myself seem superior – even though there’s little to be done about the situation. I had a very active ego and it would use every opportunity to flex its nonexistent muscles. I did manage to get things done through this chest-thumping method, but it also caused undue stress to myself and the people around me. Was I able to get people to do stuff for me after that? Yes, but they probably wanted me to eat crap and drop dead while they were doing it.

So, I surprised myself yesterday when this tendency to throw a fit lasted mere seconds! Perhaps, the fact that I had a yoga class to teach within the next hour had a lot to do with it. I didn’t want to infect my students with my anger and therefore had to observe the internal dialogue I was having with myself as I put one foot in front of the other in the fire exit. I was also thinking that the technical snafu would be fixed at the end of the day, which made my mood lighten somewhat.

Of course, it didn’t get fixed that night. This time around, I was tired for various reasons and wanted badly to lie in bed and vegetate. Realizing that I had to slog through dozens of flights of stairs before I could do all of that made my blood boil. The poor security guard I asked information from probably heard me cuss between gritted teeth and began to stammer as he talked. That’s when I noticed my old cantankerous self coming back. The guard was bearing the brunt of my anger when none of this was his fault! I then took a deep breath and thanked him before starting the arduous climb. He seemed to relax after that.

Hours before, at my aunt’s place, I caught a BBC documentary of avid runners participating in a weeklong marathon in the Sahara. I was fascinated by the lengths some people would go to test their physical limits, even paying US$6,000 and traveling thousands of miles to tire themselves out and risk dehydration and serious injury in the middle of the desert somewhere in Morocco. And there I was grumbling about climbing flights of stairs.

My mind then wandered into more serious territory: My issues are laughable compared to what others throughout the world are experiencing, wherever they may be. It’s never right to try to make oneself feel better at the expense of others and that’s not what I was doing. I was putting things in perspective.

It dawned on me that I was getting better at making internal choices. I was slowly but surely becoming more and more aware of my thoughts. Although they still had the power to control me at times, that power is waning. I hope the progress continues.

After two days, technicians were able to get one of the elevators to work. By not going ballistic and keeping calm as I climbed up – even returning the building staff’s smiles when we crossed paths – I did not add tension to the already unsavory situation. I wasn’t saving the world but I sure wasn’t adding to the emotional grime that’s already going around.

Plus, I got one hell of a workout.

Flight

Photo by Louie Pilapil

Photo by Louie Pilapil

Why do people travel? What makes us pack our bags, get on a vehicle, and spend hours or even days on the road or in flight to be somewhere else? What are the virtues of transporting oneself to a place where all vulnerabilities could be exposed, buttons could be pushed, and fear could set in? Why risk getting lost or looking stupid, especially when working ticketing machines? Is it worth all the expense and physical exhaustion to be in situations where you are rendered clueless?

I travel because I want to unzip myself and be vulnerable in ways that the familiar won’t allow me to be. As for the last question, my answer is an unequivocal yes. I like it when my ego gets slapped around witless by the need to ask a stranger for directions or help with my massive luggage. On trips to faraway places, I feel myself becoming contracted – getting really quiet, putting on a mask of indifference, or burying my nose in a book to avoid conversations are just some examples – and I find that I have to expand emotionally and open up in order to navigate new territory. If I don’t, bonne chance to me.

It is wonderful to know that strangers near and far are almost always kind and helpful, like the man who carried my 20-kilogram luggage down three flights of stairs, the woman who stopped jogging to give me detailed directions, the store clerk who explained in all honesty the pros and cons of buying a gadget I was eyeing.

I also discover that, in all of my travels, there are friends who are more than happy to welcome me into their homes. They cook for me! Some drive for half a day to be with me for a few hours. Others take days off from work to accompany me and show me around. I get introduced to their friends who are just as welcoming. The generosity I encounter in every trip is astonishing.

And then there is the utter freedom to explore. I love traveling with companions and having people to talk to and laugh with on the road. Nothing brings people closer together than shared experiences and the occasional tiffs about where to go and what to do next. You get to know people intimately and see their idiosyncrasies while you let them see yours. It’s discovery of a different kind and there’s nothing like it.

There’s something equally special about exploring the landscape alone, however. All your senses are heightened and you are attuned to every sight, sound, smell and movement. You get to conquer certain fears – such as looking dumb – and observe people, places and things in the quiet of your own mind. Yes, it does get lonely sometimes especially when you see something particularly curious and you start thinking how great it would be to share that experience with someone (other times, a particular someone). But, all in all, exploration by your lonesome could be akin to a spiritual experience. We seek something out, something intangible, and make the journey. There is tiredness, isolation, a little bit of fear, and much excitement. When you get there, exhilaration! And then… you begin again.

I know there are people where I’m from who see travel as frivolity, especially in these hard times. I even thought about not pushing through with my recent trip because of the changes I have made in my life. But the decision to go ahead was the best I have made so far because it has reinvigorated me and filled my soul with hope. Travel reinforced my belief that everything will be all right, that I am supported by the Divine. Seeing what I have seen, having had the conversations that I’d had, and being transported to a place of wonder and character, I am inspired more than ever to live in the moment and to trust that, wherever I land, there is joy.

This is my life

holsteemanifesto

When I was still part of the conventional working world, I taped a printed copy of the Holstee manifesto (the image you see above) onto my office cubicle. I realize now that it wasn’t one of my brightest ideas. It probably gave people the impression that I’d rather be somewhere else. Of course, they’d be right: I’d be sitting there, typing away, trying to craft a coherent sentence, but my mind would be out among people, trees, stars, seas. I’d daydream about teaching yoga full-time, being among practitioners and leading them into calmness, health, and a happier existence. At the time, I’d been teaching several yoga classes before and after work, and loving it despite the lack of rest. My journey towards teaching was fraught with trepidation and even injury that when I finally got my certificate, I was filled with both happiness and dread. Was I ready to teach? What kind of teacher would I be? Could I make a living doing what I love?

Months after I quit my office job and plunged head first into teaching, I’m still waiting for the answers to those questions.

I wish I could tell you that all is peachy and bright in my world after I decided to go down this path. I wish I could say all my cares and woes dissolved after every exhilarating session I attended or taught. I wish I could say that most days I feel more courageous than stupid. On different times, I think my life is either a sitcom, drama or an episode of the Twilight Zone. Every time someone asks me “How’s it going?” I have taken to replying “I’m living by the grace of God.” Dramatic, yes, but true. I also know that each of us is living by God’s grace every day, not just when things are perceived to be great.

I suppose part of the dilemma is the newness of it all. Transitioning from a salaried cubicle dweller to a levitating yogini without a steady revenue stream can be terrifying for anyone. Trying to make a spiritual endeavor into something commercially viable while keeping it authentic and true is a delicate balancing act. And doing it at a time when the number of yoga teachers doubles every year makes it more daunting than ever.

Moreover, years and experience added to one’s life pave the way for a change in perspective. While I can still plow through projects that feed my body but not my soul, I can only do it for so long. Call it blind idealism or stubbornness, but what I do now has to mean something to me. When I was younger I could hack it by faking it – all the time. Now, I can only do that some of the time.  My hope is I get freed up to do the stuff I really enjoy: teaching yoga and taking on writing and editing assignments about projects, programs and people that make a difference in the world. I can’t prevent climate change, stop pillages and rapes, or eliminate poverty but I can make people feel good about themselves one person at a time. I also hope I can pay the bills and not worry about my finances while I’m at it.

I believe that money is merely energy changing hands, relationships made tangible. Despite the struggles, I want to report that, all things being considered, I’m doing well. Not as well as I imagined I’d be, but well enough to still think clearly and make plans. I’m lucky to be surrounded by supportive family members and friends as I navigate this brave new world. (Special shout-out to my mom, her siblings, and her friends. My own friends are awesome, too. If you’re reading this, you know who you are.) The Universe has been very kind to me by linking me up with people and transporting me to places that give me strength when it is waning. I stumble upon books that resonate with me, written by authors who are living authentic lives. I’m currently reading “Outrageous Openness” by Tosha Silver and found this quote:

“Why worry? What is meant for you is always meant to find you.” – Indian poet-saint Lalleshwari

I believe you, Lalleshwari. I truly do.

And, of course, there’s the Holstee manifesto. That piece of text that has become my North Star. I’d like to send good vibes back to the writers of the manifesto by pointing you to their website and inviting you to look at what they’ve got.

Do what you love and do it often. See where that will lead you.

(If you have trouble viewing the video, click here.)

‘How long before I lose weight?’

scale

Photo by: Dani Lurie

A woman asked me this a few days ago after finding out I was a yoga instructor. It’s a perfectly valid query as most people go into yoga for its physical benefits (“yoga body”, “yoga butt”, “yoga tummy”, “yoga whatever”) so this is not the first time I have encountered this question.

My answer remains the same: The emotional and mental changes are almost immediately felt that when the physical changes do come after some time, they usually seem more like bonuses.

With that, the curious would-be yogi would either light up with excitement or get deflated because they didn’t get the specifics they wanted.

Countless yoga blogs have dealt with how ubiquitous the so-called yoga body has become in the media so I won’t go into that. I don’t see the need to get riled up about it too much as it inspires people go to the studio or seek out a yoga teacher. After all, as BKS Iyengar points out, the spiritual journey begins with the body.

The yogi knows that the physical body is not only the temple for our soul but the means by which we embark on the inward journey toward the core. – BKS Iyengar, ‘Light on Life’

By being curious about the physical benefits of yoga — which include better sleep and circulation, detoxification, and, yes, weight loss — people embark on the journey of a lifetime that, more often than not, continues into the emotional, mental and spiritual nature of the practice. If they choose to stay on the purely physical level, that’s fine, too, but I doubt that often happens.

What I and many yoga observers fear is the obsession with physical perfection. I am guilty of this sometimes because I, too, am inundated with images of sinewy, lithe and attractive celebrity yoginis doing handstands in ads for yoga apparel. So, on certain times of the month when I get all bloated and pimply, I get stressed out. Yes, it happens even to yoga teachers. Haha. We’re human after all. But I now recover my composure pretty quickly and go about my business without fuss, unlike before, when I’d obsess about how crumby my body and face looked.

And while I generally maintain healthy habits, I’m prone to eating junk from time to time. I’m not proud of it but it happens. And I don’t rush to the studio to “sweat it out” afterwards because yoga is not just a work out for me. It’s my time to go inward and get to know myself better, to get connected to the Source of all energy and life. A growing number of people are starting to think this way, too, and that’s wonderful.

Now, about weight loss. Of course, yoga is a calorie burner. If you don’t perspire buckets during class then have your sweat glands checked. Within weeks or months of regular practice, which is normally three times a week, and proper nutrition (I’m taking about a plant-based diet, and, no, potato chips are not part of that) you will see the inches and scale numbers drop and your muscles get toned.

You might ask: You can make this happen with any exercise program so what makes yoga different? Here is my simple take on that. Yoga instills a love of self. That self-love is the fuel for everything else that you do for your body, whether it’s choosing not to pick up that piece of tripe from the kare-kare your mom made or surrounding yourself with people who will not call you a loser if you order orange juice instead of beer. That self-love will push you to go to yoga class even when you don’t feel like it. It’s also this self-love that will sustain the healthy habits, and prevent the so-called yo-yo effect that dieters often complain about. Yoga targets the heart and mind through the body, which makes the effects more lasting.

That self-love will also make you appreciate what you see in the mirror more than the yoga bodies in the yoga magazines that are scattered all over your yoga mat.

Your neighbor needs you

Storm

Photo by: Jiří Zůna

This raging storm has once again submerged most parts of Luzon. While many of us are sitting dry in our homes and monitoring events on television, others are out there being moved to higher ground, displaced, hungry and cold. As we take care of our own needs by stocking up on food, charging our cellphones, and staying indoors until the flood waters recede, let us also start thinking about how we can help when we are called upon to do so.

This is the best time to practice yoga at home, too. Let the inner teacher guide you or go online.

——–

The torrential rain reminds me of the love and deep friendship between neighbors: my grandparents and Isidro Salenga, who was laid to rest on Sunday after a lingering illness. Tatang Sidro was like a son to my late grandfather though they were not related by blood. On stormy days like this, Tatang Sidro, along with my uncle Gil and aunt Mich, would see to it that my lolo and lola were safe in our family home in the province, had all the food they needed and the assurance that they would be taken care of if waters rose. We, the relatives in Manila, who would be rendered helpless and immobilized by the storm, were also assured that all would be well.

He prepared my grandmother’s favorite dish, grilled tilapia, every day — yes every day — until she was taken to live in Manila after my lolo’s death.

As testament to their closeness, Tatang Sidro happened to be at my grandfather’s bedside when he passed on. He was there with me and my grandmother — all witnesses to my grandfather’s peaceful transition. And before he himself passed away, he would constantly ask about my grandmother and implore people to tell her he was thinking of her.

Tatang Sidro’s devotion to my grandparents, the elderly couple who lived next door, reminds me that membership in a family is not determined merely by genealogy.  It is by the love shared.

How about you? Are you friends with your next-door neighbor?

Everything begins and ends with you

alone

Photo by: Keoni Cabral

I noticed that the times I felt most powerless were when I feared what a person or a group of people would think about my decisions and choices. Will he, she, they be okay with this? Will I be ostracized for this? Will I be cut off? I later realized that telling MY truth and being true to myself first and foremost was not only the best course of action for me but also helpful to other people who want to be truthful and more thoughtful of their circumstances. In the process of being straightforward, however, I have had to learn to communicate my needs in a way that allowed people to choose HOW they could help me, and even opt out and not help at all. I’m also now very aware of the importance of boundaries, mine and others’. Before I act, I ask myself “How do I feel about this?”, “How should I go about this?” or even “Why does this not feel right?”

During my people-pleasing days, I would not think twice about sacrificing my own needs for those of others. I thought I was being a good person, a wonderful and flawless human being, for offering all of myself and all that I have. When I became aware of my doormat tendencies, the pendulum swung to the other end and I became utterly selfish, refusing to budge even a tiny bit because I didn’t want to be vulnerable to others’ ability to “take over” and run my show. In both cases, I was out of the picture. I let other people determine how I lived, helped, not helped, thought, felt, and acted.

Awareness is always the first step to dealing with a situation. I became so miserable because of the state of affairs that I had to find a way towards the center. In everything there has to be balance, harmony and a respect for the ebbs and flows of emotion and thought. As my yoga practice deepened, what became clearer to me was this: How people regard me is beyond my control. I had to pause and look at a situation from the outside in order to make a decision that felt right to me. Sometimes, in the process of being truthful, someone gets hurt. That is an unfortunate event that I try to avoid but often just need to accept. Sometimes, or oftentimes, the person in pain is me. (I try to avoid inflicting pain on me, too, because I’m done flogging myself.)

I find that when I respect my inner voice and let it speak for me, it allows people to do the same.

Give up or keep going?

success

Photo by: Tracy J. Trost

We all get to ask this question at some point in our lives, especially when everything seems to go haywire. There are times when we genuinely don’t know whether we should give up on our dream/relationship/job and move on… or stay on. And you know what? That’s fine. One day, after being internally quiet and all becomes clear, you will know what to do. Let the mental and spiritual chaos pass, listen to your inner voice, and then act.

Alan Watts – Let go of control

Lessons in falling

headstand

Photo by: Lauren Nelson

I just finished reading this article about headstands and it made me think about my own relationship to the “king of asanas” (shoulderstand is supposedly the “queen”). I love doing the headstand. It allows me to focus like no other posture and I come out of it feeling lighter. Perhaps the rush of blood to the brain is the cause of that sensation, or simply being able to conquer my fear of standing upside down was enough to instill a sense of accomplishment, no matter how fleeting.

Learning to master it, however, was frustrating at best. Like the author of the article, I relied on the wall a lot in the beginning but realized it was a crutch. I moved away from the wall slowly and that’s when the falls started happening. There was one instance when I couldn’t control how I fell and landed knee first (ouch!) when I toppled over towards the direction of the wall, which was, by then, too far to break my crash landing. (Falling is natural, by the way. In “Light on Yoga”, BKS Iyengar writes: “To topple over by learning the headstand is not as terrible as we imagine.” Still, care has to be taken when attempting this posture and beginners must do it in the presence of an experienced teacher to gain the necessary confidence to do it on their own.)

I didn’t get hurt, thank goodness. My knees were okay and I was ready to get up and try again. It was then that a voice inside me said “Maybe you’re trying too hard.” It was only then that I realized I was exhausted. I had been upside down for quite some time but didn’t notice because I was too determined to get up and stay up.

So, I stopped.

And I didn’t try again for months. I went from being too aggressive to being completely defeated in a matter of seconds.

Eventually, I mustered enough courage to come up again, this time armed with more anatomical knowledge and clear-headedness that I figured was needed. This time I was able to stay up for two breaths, which increased in number as time went on. No falls. I was able to prevent a fall by coming down quickly and landing on my toes. Nice.

One breakthrough, however, came during teacher training. It was a low point: I couldn’t get my cues right, I was messing up the sequence, etc. In short, I was physically tired and frustrated with myself, which was a normal process to go through when doing something life-changing. And, when during one yoga session, we were told we could come into headstand, my feet went up despite my exhaustion. My mind was swimming in a million and one thoughts and my core was as jiggly as Jell-O. In no time, I felt my legs and torso start to shake. I was about to crash again and memories of that initial plunge in my room months back resurfaced in a heartbeat. I knew I was scared but, as soon as I realized this, another thought flashed in my overdriven mind: Let go.

And let go, I did.

I fell, but with a difference. I didn’t feel the compulsion to control the fall or stop it from happening. In the process, I landed with not as strong a thud, but a thud nonetheless.

After that, everything changed. I got my sequence right. My fear of public speaking diminished and I could teach with utmost concentration and more confidence than in the previous disastrous days.

All because I let myself fall with grace.

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