Mysore Yoga for Beginners

On Day Two of my sabbatical in Shanghai I attempted Mysore yoga (which as it turns out is the DIY of yoga for advanced yogis) led by a militant yoga sergeant – I would say instructor but she wasn’t instructing – everyone was on their own mat flowing and breathing and binding at their own pace. So I thought I’d take a deep breath and see what I could recall from what must be at least 100+ hours of yoga in my lifetime. Not a whole helluva lot it turns out. The sergeant was quick to pick up on this and immediately placed me and my neighbor (who was looking good I thought) on a strict regimen of Sun Salutation Ones (the first nine postures in the pic below), with lots of corrections. This was welcome instruction for me as I quite like correcting my form but my neighbor turned to me and hissed “I didn’t sign up for this shit, I’m outta here.” “No don’t leave me” I whispered but she had stashed her mat before I could say chataranga. The sergeant intercepted her at the exit “You finish?” ” Yes, I paid to come to a class, I can do this at home” she said and stormed out defiantly. Ouch.

I made it through about 50 Sun Salutation Ones before graduating to Sun Salutation Two (postures 10 to 19 in the pic below and really not so different from Sun Salutation One…) and after about 50 more of those and thinking my wrists might be about to snap, I too snuck to the door. “You finish?” “Yes thank you” I said and, thanks to my pioneering neighbor, exited unscathed.

While, OK, I hadn’t signed up for this either, it was an enlightening conformation that I really didn’t know what I was doing. While I’d been considering some home yoga with the help of YouTube to save some mula on my travels I now had new motivation to educate myself on the basics and make myself a self-sufficient member of the yoga community. When Mysore hits NY, I’m going to be ready!

Images showing the Mysore Asana series in the Ashtanga tradition. Try the first two rows at home for free 🙂

48hrs in Shanghai

As an avid traveller I’m sick of saying “Oh I’ve never been to China” so I was very excited about this little Shanghai stopover of 48hrs (or 53 to be precise). You can now not get a trasit visa for short stopovers in major Chinese cities if you spend under 72hrs there. I’ve learnt that 24-48hrs in a big city can be plenty more than enough so my plan for Shanghainwas to tourist on day 1 and chill on day 2.

I arrived on a Wed night at 7:30pm on China Eastern Airlines – I’m baffling at how they snuck into the global airline club that is SkyTeam.  Advice to future passegers is to carry your own food and minibar and don’t ask questions – the servious is attrocious and food indedible but hey, I’m on sabbatical and embracing all experiences.

I checked into this cute Airbnb apt in the French Concession that evening, a very convenient location and more interesting than staying in amongst the skyscrapers I thought. The cleaner was nowhere to be seen for check in but my nice taxi driver made some calls until she arrived on a scooter. Phew. First travel obstacle surmounted.

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Day 1:

Morning Yoga

I was up early with locals to Pure Yoga, Shanghai (making a strong start on sabbatical goals). Very chic studio in IAPM shopping mall filled with Prada, LV and other luxeties. Good bilingual teachers and a great way to stretch off the 14hr flight cobwebs. Must be expensive for locals though, with NY style drop in rates of nearly $20 a class. At least for this price you get spotless showers, hairdryers and everything you need to make you tourist ready.

Breakfast in the French Concession

Next stop breakfast at a street stand in the French Concession with a local granny staring at me while I muched on fried pork dumplings with pork fat oozing out of each bite, washed down by hipster coffee at Café del Volcán next door. Fuelled by Jiaozi and caffeine I motored towards the Shanghai Museum, heading generally north on Xiangyang S Rd and East along Huaihai Middle Rd.

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The great firewall side note: Google doesn’t work in China. I knew this before I left but I don’t think I really believed it. This means to Gmail, no google maps and downloading a serch engine like Bing or Yahoo. Yikes. I had downloaded an offline Shanghai Google Map that worked pretty well but trying to navigate listing and locations without Google was a challenge for me. The Shanghai Subway App on my phone was another lifesaver but if I go back to China, I’d probably buy a guide book.

Shanghai Museum and People’s Square

On the way I stopped off in local delis where people were lining up for fresh mooncakes for the Autumn Harvest Festival and strolled through the Yanzhong Park with its pretty ponds and young couples holding hands on benches. As you near the Museum and the river the buildings grow taller and you realize you’re in a city but I never got the sprawling, overwhelming, congested feeling I’d expected. For a first time visitor, the city is easily navigable mostly on foot.

A brief stop in the gardens of Peoples Square and then the iconic Shanghai museum, with anciet Chinese artefacts and a good temporary exhibition of Russian historical relics. Depending on how you do museums, you can get through this one pretty quickly. I spent lots of time on the floor dedicated to the cultural dress of China’s minority ethnic groups, which makes it sound like ethnic relations with the Governmnet are just hunky dory – no mention of Tibet or that they are in ongoing conflicet with the  Uighur people of the Xinjiang region in the Northwest.

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Walking Food Tour

At 4pm I joined a a Shanghai Foodie Walk by Intrepid. It was just me and the guide and we spent a pleasant early evening strolling around the Jing’an Temple area sampling things that were not too trying for my Western tummy. I consider myself more daring than the average foodie but I’d been burping up pork dumpling all day so this may have affected my curiosity.  I also don’t eat offal or dried blood, which, as it turns out put numerous nibbles off limits. Luckily my guide was understanding and we stuck with a lot of veggie and black and red bean treats. Pork is hidden everywhere, even in seemingly desert-like pastries, identifiable by that slightly salty sweet taste. We strolled around a popular fresh foods market, where apparently live chickens were for sale until bird flu put a stop to it.

More interesting than the food was my guide’s stories of her life in Shanghai. The same complaints as many other urban societies: the cost of living is high, property prices outlandish but also some things I don’t hear every day: the government profits from our savings while we suffer, I have to import diapers from Japan and baby formula from France if I want quality. We talked about the one child policy a bit and she seemed to think that people would continue to have one child to give them a good education, even if they are now allowed to have more.

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The Bund
After the tour at around 7pm I forced myself to head over to the Bund to see the starry lights of what was swampland until the 80s when global financial services swept in. It’s an impressive display of lights and action but aside from the view there’s not much to do besides have a fancy drink in a hotel bar or if you’re the South African dude and his dad I met, head to Hooters and TJIF on the main drag for some action. For me, it was time for club duvet.

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Day 2:

Mysore Yoga:

This time I tried a new yoga studio, Y+ Yoga, in the heart of the French Concession and a ‘class’ called Mysore. I’d never heard about it before but MySore seems popular in Shanghai. Technically its of the asana tradition but the best way to explain it is DIY or yoga at your own pace, with light instruction from the teacher, so definitely not for beginners. My British neighbor, also a newbie to Mysore actually stormed out mid-class and when I saw her in the street afterwards she complained that a) she wanted a proper teaching experience and b) that the class seemed available online but was actually packed: “It’s typical of the Chinese – they can’t be bothered to book anything.” To me, her commment sounded like such a typical expat thing to say, implying taking advantage of all the great expat benefits while passing scathing judgements the locals (in this case they’re too backward or lazy to use technology)

Chillaxing

I softened towards the expats when I found this Aussie owned treat: Baker & Spice, at 195 Anfu Rd, serving delicious coffee and the best of breakfast, lunch and dinner that kept me going back for all my nourishment that day, breaking only for shopping and a massage at Zen Massage. Zen is a good option for traditional treatments in a modern setting without paying hotel spa prices. HOWEVER, I would say, that when they ask if you mind having a male or female therapist, you should definitely opt for female, UNLESS you are very comfortable with a man massage ‘professional’ very liberally touching your butt. That will be the last time I am massaged by a male, ever, in any culture.

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Rush Hour

By 4:30 pm it was time to start heading to the airport. My internal ultra tourist forced me to stop in the historic district at Yuyuan Old Street (with my backpack!) before getting the subway to the airport. In hindsight I would say skip – it’s full of hangers onners who want to help you part with your money, tatty jewellery markets, and a few random traditional Chinese temples and pavillions. It felt like an unsuccessful attempt to preserve ancient Chinese heritage in a city long since modernized.

The sardine subway in rush hour was mayhem and took a lot longer than expected. If you do take it at that time of day be prepared to be absolutely crushed and fight for every inch of space. Forget about a seat.

I had really enjoyed my visit but was quite happy to move on after my 2 days. Shanghai would be a great place to do a 3 or 6 month stint, or longer if you fancy expat life, but as a tourist I wasn’t interested in extending my stay. It had been a nice tame intro to the country and next time someone asks I look forward to saying I’ve been to China (or Shanghai, for 53hrs).

Sabbatical Itinerary

After some months of careful crafting (budgeting, flight booking, convincing clients they don’t need me anymore and parents I am not abandoning my wedding) I am officially on a three month sabbatical.

It feels amazing! I was a bit stressed and emotional pre departure (sorry LOML) but I am on the road now and it’s as if the world of work has totally evaporated and been replaced with real life.

The Itinerary:

Day 1 (8 Sept): flight to Shanghai

Day 2-4: 53 hrs in Shanghai

Day 4: flight to Thailand (sleep in airport hotel)

Day 5-11: Hanoi and Halong Bay, Vietnam with my sister (also on sabbatical but in Sandton)

Day 12-14: Train journey from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh with (2 nights on train broken up by 1 night in Citadel city of Hue inbetween) I am writing this from the train so as usual I’m a few posts behind my actual movements – will catch up soon and write in real time I promise. 

 

Day 15-20: Sydney, Australia with my girls

Day 20-25: Road trip up to Byron Bay and back with the realjessharrison

Day 25-27: Back to Sydney for one last w end

Day 28-33: Bali for solo time: beach, yoga, raw + not raw food ( Wedding day approaches)

Day 34-38: More Bali or silent retreat in Thailand (tips for 3-4 day silent retreats in Bali or Thailand welcome please)

Day 39-49: Back to Harlem for LOML time

Day 50-75: South Africa for family time pre wedding

Day 75-81: week in SA on ‘safari’ and in Cape Town with friends and family pre wedding

Day 82: Wedding!!!

Day 83-89: recover from wedding

Day 90: Let’s not talk about it

The goals of the sabbatical: 

Active goals:

  • Be fit and healthy: Do yoga every day, eat fruit for one meal (currently loosely in observance):

  • Blog regularly (currently in observance)
  • Develop the habit of reading more (currently at 7% – too many other fun things to do):

Passive goals:

  • Have one or more life revelations (but don’t think too hard about the meaning of life while on sabbatical)
  • Absorb elements from travels to incorporate in daily life when back in New York/find inspiration

Overall, my objective is to enjoy the experience of travel and to appreciate all new things ‘in the moment’ (very yogi lingo, sorry), initiate good habits that can be maintained when back to normal life and spend special time with family and friends, especially my parents, sister and family who are normally so far away.

Thank you world, LOML, sister, friends and fam for supporting this adventure. The objective I’m doing the best at right now is enjoying every moment in the moment!

Enough boring lead up and more fun travel stories to come next time.

Five Minutes of Mindlessness

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I can’t remember the first time I officially came across the concept of meditation. I think I originally thought of it as my favourite part of Bikram yoga. The part at the end where you lie down on the mat and do nothing:

savasana sketchThere are lots of official schools of meditation but for me the simplest way to describe it is the act of emptying your mind to create space for thoughts that are bubbling beneath the surface. Another description I like is one by the great meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, who says meditation is ‘training our attention so that we can be more aware’. This kind of mediation is often referred to as ‘mindfulness’ (making you more mindful and aware of yourself and others).

I actually prefer to think of it mindlessness. I like the idea of actively trying to think about nothing. It sounds hard but I think it could bring a lot of calm to a modern way of life that has us rushing from the moment we jump out of bed in the morning clasping our iPhones, to the moment we collapse back into bed at night

When I started asking yoga teachers for advice on how to meditate, the response was varied. Some people advised practicing on a noisy train and others suggested taking a class. I knew I would need a group to keep me disciplined so I asked the teacher at my local yoga studio if she would volunteer her time to teach yoga and meditation in our Community Garden. It turns out there was more demand for yoga so we started offering that on a Friday, but that’s how I was able to trick myself into doing five minutes of meditation on my own in the garden every morning before work. I must confess that I didn’t stick to it for very long but long enough to get a first hand sense of how it should feel and what some of the benefits are.

Here’s how I did it:

  1. I set a timer for 5 minutes on my iPhone. I recommend calming frog chirping sounds to ease you back into the world at the end.
  2. I crossed my legs in a Buddha pose and tried not to think about the passers-by staring at me through the fence. The experts say you don’t have to be in a Lotus pose but your posture should strike a balance between alert and relaxed.
  3. I closed my eyes and focused on breathing in and out of my nose. Other techniques to help you focus include counting or concentrating on an object.
  4. As banal thoughts like doing the laundry crossed my mind, I recognized them and then dismissed them. As deeper thoughts and emotions crossed my mind, I again recognized and then dismissed them. The experts say we shouldn’t be frustrated with ourselves when we get distracted by silly thoughts or emotions. We should take note of the experience and then return to focus on our breath.
  5. I sometimes ended my session by telling myself things like ‘You are Beautiful’ and ‘You are Powerful’. While I’m not sure this is officially recommended by the experts I don’t think it can hurt.

What I experienced:

  1. Observing my thoughts go by from a distance gave me a sense of perspective
  2. I’d sometimes have a good idea pop into my head like a lightening bolt, probably because I’d freed up some space for it
  3. If something had been bothering me, I’d suddenly become aware of what it was
  4. If unforeseen drama erupted later that day I was less likely to be swayed by it
  5. I emerged feeling much more focused and in tune with what was on my mind

Other people might have different epiphanies from meditation but all practitioners agree that it brings a keener sense of focus and calm. On days that I hadn’t meditated and disaster struck I found myself wondering if my reaction to the situation would’ve been different if I had spent five minutes in the garden that morning preparing myself for the world. I’m convinced I would’ve responded with less frustration and been less personally affected. I think that while we can’t dictate what the world throws at us, we can control our reaction to it. That way we can preserve our energy for the things that are important to us.

Now that I’ve convinced myself (and hopefully you) of the benefits of regular meditation sessions, all that remains is the actual doing part. I’m not sure why I slipped out of my morning ritual but probably because, like most rewarding things, it requires a bit of effort and discipline. But as Spring is here and it’s time to de-clutter, I commit to starting my day in half lotus pose again:

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I highly encourage you to give it a try. None of us can say we can’t spare five minutes a day…

Further reading:

An Antidote for Mindlessness – the New Yorker

Meditation transforms roughest San Francisco schools – SFGate

In Silicon Valley, Meditation Is No Fad. It Could Make Your Career – Wired

Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program – Susan Salzberg