Self-discovery through Yoga: my early years

Yoga Mandir
Yoga Mandir

by David Leong

Yoga has had a profound influence on my life. I remember that, even though this was not my intention for starting Yoga, my first class instantly broke a chain of sleepless nights during a period of stress.

For a while I became a ‘Yoga junkie’, seeking out the tranquil buzz that lingers on after asana practice.

However as this honeymoon period wore off and I became more familiar with the poses, I began to recognise that there were some favourite poses I would ‘hang out’ for, hoping that the teacher would call them. Conversely, there was also an anticipatory sense of dread that began when the teachers called certain poses that I didn’t like. Even before entering the pose, hearing its name called was already an unpleasant experience!

This awakening to attachment and aversion was an important turning point for me. It allowed me for the first time to understand that happiness and unhappiness didn’t just ‘happen’. Rather, they are conditioned responses to external cues.

Aversion is a form of attachment, even though it sounds like it should be the opposite. What I mean is that we can be committed to always avoiding situations we find unpleasant, or to our negative reactions to something that we don’t like. So in this sense, aversion is the attachment to escaping from something unpleasant. For the rest of this article, the term ‘attachment’ refers to aversion as well.

Attachment is a fundamental cause of suffering. But when one lets go of attachment, the mind quietens and equanimity (mental balance) results. We can see things objectively without the emotional ‘baggage’ that usually clouds our perception. When I put this into practice, I found at times of interpersonal conflict I could remain evenminded, choosing emotional restraint over aversion and in doing so I was able to avoid getting caught up in the fight.

However before long I began to realise that I was not only turning my back on attachment, I was also withdrawing from experience. I was disengaging from day-today living, just watching events go by without participating. I was also distancing myself from my emotions. One day I woke up to realise how insipid I had become.

True equanimity is neither indifference nor detachment. It’s not about being a pokerfaced doormat and fading away from society. Rather, it is the ability to connect fully with the moment, yet without clinging or possessiveness. It empowers us by allowing us to live fully, free from the bondage of attachment. Practising equanimity is about finding the delicate balance of engaging with the moment without getting entangled by it.

Practising Yoga should not be a form of escapism. Asana on the mat can be much more than a place to chill out and escape from life’s ups and downs. It can teach us how to approach our lives differently. We will still encounter barriers such as pain, fear, apathy or fatigue, at varying times during practice as we do in life. However if we learn to face them with equanimity, we start to realise that we can watch our experiences from an objective window. With continued practice we find that our experience of the same pose changes over time.

My first encounter with long timing forward bends is an example of this. Having tight hamstrings, I hated forward bends. In this particular class, the focus was staying in forward bending poses, which didn’t sound particularly difficult until the teacher forewarned that we would be building up to a five-minute paschimottanasana!

Just like the other forward bends, I dreaded paschimottanasana. My hamstrings used to hurt from the stretch as soon as I entered the pose, and all I could do then was to wait impatiently for the teacher to call the end of the pose. So on that day I did not know how I was going to stay for the full five minutes. After a few easier poses, the time came to do paschimottanasana. Entering the pose, I felt the usual pain in the hamstrings.

Like previous experiences, the pain intensified as I held the pose, and after a few more moments my mind started frantically thinking of ways to escape the pain. Time became painfully slow as I waited out the torment. The teacher continued to encourage the class to just ‘be with the sensation’, softening the breath and senses. Initially nothing changed – only the fear of embarrassment kept me in the pose. After what seemed an eternity, I began to give up on the hope that this pose would be ending any time soon.

Interestingly, as soon as I surrendered to the idea that I had to stay in the pose regardless of its difficulties, the torment started to disappear. After a few seconds all that was left was the physical sensation of tightness at the back of the leg, plus mental calm.

This experience was another powerful turning point in my understanding of suffering, of how much unnecessary emotional energy we can spend around a sensation of physical discomfort to create an experience which we call a meltdown. I began to realise how many of my daily experiences could be coloured by my biases and the memories that arise around them. As these biases have accumulated over a lifetime, they remain outside our radar of awareness until they are challenged, as they were that day. I left the class with a strong sense of mental unburdening and empowerment as a result of this very personal experience.

My Yoga journey has taken me from pleasure-seeking experiences, to asana becoming a powerful internal instructor. The mat has become a safe place to identify, study and resolve my inner conflicts. Off the mat, I can recognise the same conflicts in my daily life that I am continuously learning to resolve during practice. Everyday life then becomes an extension of asana practice, the tough moments become challenges to strengthen my understanding of Yoga philosophy and nothing ever gets boring! As the singer Sting wrote in his forward for the book Yoga Beyond Belief (Ganga White, 2007, North Atlantic Books):

…it’s become an intrinsic part of my whole life, permeating it to such an extent that I don’t really know where it begins or ends. …what may have begun solely as a physical practice can evolve into an integrated and holistic approach to all aspects of one’s life.

…my chosen profession of singing has morphed into Yoga and Yoga into singing.