Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Last Empress, savoring every drop of practice and life

This morning's practice was very interesting. I got up feeling very sleepy, and did not feel like getting on the mat. As I went to the bathroom before starting practice, it suddenly occurred to me that there are people in this world who quite literally have no time to themselves, let alone a couple of hours in the morning to do yoga. Two examples came to mind:

(1) A few months ago, I was chatting with a colleague. He told me that during the first year after his daughter was born, she fell sick a lot. He and his wife had to get up many times during the night, and bring their daughter to many doctor visits. Between going to the doctor, getting up to feed her and/or change her diapers, and work, there was barely even time to sleep, let alone do anything else. He told me that at one point, his wife only had time to go to the bathroom once during an entire 24-hour period. I'm not sure what his reaction would have been if I had told him that I spend up to two hours every morning doing nothing but breathing, contracting my anus, and bending myself into funny shapes on a yoga mat.

(2) These past two days, I have reading The Last Empress by Anchee Min. It is a historical novel about the life and times of the Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi, who effectively ruled China for close to 50 years during the nineteenth and early twentieth-century by serving as regent and advisor for two successive young emperors. For much of the twentieth century, historians have painted Tzu Hsi as a power-hungry, corrupt woman who would stop at nothing to secure as much power and wealth for herself as possible. Indeed, I remember that in high school, people would often use the term "Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi" to describe somebody (usually a woman) whom they see as being power-hungry or even just bitchy.

In recent years, however, scholars have dug up new evidence to suggest that this picture of Tzu Hsi may not be an accurate portrayal of her as a person. For one, they have discovered that many twentieth-century historians rely almost exclusively upon either dubious second- or even third-hand accounts of western journalists or diplomats (who have a motivation to paint her as a power-hungry despot in order to justify the imperialist agenda of the western powers) or the accounts of Chinese politicians and thinkers (who also have a motivation to paint her as a power-hungry despot in order to justify overthrowing the feudal system she is seen to represent). These scholars have also come across court records of the time and accounts written about her by people close to her, that suggest that she is just a person who is trying her best to rule a country as best as she knows how, and to balance the conflicting demands of many citizens to modernize and industrialize China, on the one hand, and the demands of her xenophobic ruling family, who basically want to keep western influences out of China for as long and as much as possible, on the other. Given all these conditions, and given who she is (a woman in feudal China), she had to do the seemingly ruthless things that she did.

Gee, I just gave a big historical account here without intending to :-) Anyway, in her novel, Anchee Min paints Tzu Hsi in a sympathetic light, giving us an account of a woman who is trying to balance her roles as a mother, widow, and the effective ruler of a country that is wracked by many problems. Her day-to-day life is spent juggling all these roles, and it is only when she fell sick and had to rest that she had the leisure to get up when the sun has already risen (i.e. sleep in). Again, I wonder what her reaction would be if somebody had come up to her and told her that the best way to solve her country's problems (and her own) is to take a couple of hours and do nothing except breath, contract one's anus, and bend oneself into funny shapes on a yoga mat...

Anyway, that was a major digression. I had meant to say something about my practice! So I'll say a couple of things about it here. After these thoughts occurred to me in the bathroom, I realized how privileged I was to be able to have a couple of hours to practice. So I decided to do what I can, and do my best to savor every moment on the mat. The practice started slowly. I was feeling quite sore and tired. But my body warmed up as the practice got underway. And I actually somehow managed to land the duck in Karandavasana on my first attempt, despite my supposedly tired and sore state. Isn't it funny how sometimes what you think is a "bad practice day" actually becomes one of your best practices?

Anyway, speaking of savoring one's practice, Kino recently wrote a very beautiful piece about Sharath's views on savoring the practice like a cup of coffee. She writes:

"Sharath actually likened the practice to drinking a cup of coffee. He said that he looks forward to that first cup of coffee in the morning and makes a conscious effort to relish and enjoy it. The practice, he said, should be just like that too. You shouldn’t just do the practice just to do it and get it done, you should enjoy your practice every day. My takeaway from this speaks deeply to the mind training of the Ashtanga Yoga method. You can go through the motions of the practice just like you can chug a cup of coffee in the morning because it’s part of your routine. Or you can consciously choose to savor each sip of your life. You can choose to train your mind to enjoy every moment of your practice just as you can choose to focus on the positive elements of every life experience. Sharath quoted Yoga Sutra 2.48: Tato Dvandva-anabhighatah, that states that when the yogi’s mind is strong peace is maintained in the face of opposites such as pleasure and pain or attachment and aversion. In order to avoid getting hooked into the cycle of suffering the equanimous mind is a crucial development along the spiritual path of yoga. If you are always running towards pleasure, running from pain, fighting against aversion and fighting for attachment then the very motion of your actions will fuel the wheels of karma and further bind you into conditioned existence. But if your mind is strong and you consciously choose your path as appreciation, joy and gratitude for every sip of life, then your freedom is already evident in each moment both in your practice and in your life."

You can find the full article here. Well, got to go prepare for class now. May you fully savor whatever it is you are doing now, whether it is drinking coffee, practicing, reading blog posts, or working ;-)


  1. I love this post. It's so hard to get on the mat. I have a little girl, and a very good husband. I have the luxury to go to mysore in the morning, and he takes care of her, but still, if she wakes up and sees me going, she cries, and many mornings I stay home with her if this happens. And if I'm practicing super regularly, she asks this question a LOT: "Is tomorrow a Moon Day?" There are times I don't go--like the day after her horrible bus incident on her first day of kindergarten. It seemed really important that day to be able to be home when she woke up. I also don't go to Mysore every day--for her really.

    But for 3 days a week, I do try to go. I'm a better mom when I do yoga. And she sees me have a full life, which is important. Still, there are weeks I don't make it to class 3 times. In the past, I was so amazingly regular. This is life I think. And I am luckier than most people my age. There are not many people my age at mysore in the morning. The full week will be there when my child gets older, and hopefully, the money will still be there. We are really lucky!


  2. Thanks for sharing, Tara. It's so fortunate that you have such a wonderful husband. And your daughter is very fortunate to have somebody like you who cares so much about her, and has her interests deep at heart. But I also think (as you do) that it is important for your daughter to see that you have a full life, that over and above being her mom, you are a person in your own right. We model the characteristics that we want our children to have: I think that if your child sees that you have a full life, she will also grow up with an understanding of the importance of having a full life.

  3. Hey Nobel, what a lovely post, especially I love the quote by Kino MacGregor. The coffee metaphor hit the nail on the head, I should really be savouring my practice like I savour my coffee. I wish I was better at that, and now that I've been reminded I've been trying to enjoy things more while I'm doing them, whether it's drinking coffee or studying Urdu or practising. Thanks for the reminder! :)

  4. Cool, Bibi. I really think it is easier to savor the practice (and probably everything else in life) if we take things breath by breath, moment by moment. But I guess we often forget that in the heat of things ;-)