Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Santa Paradox

A few days ago, Australian comedian and columnist Catherine Deveny published this article online. I think it's hilarious - a nice piece of satire on the media among others. But it also highlights one of the most disturbing elements associated with modern-day celebrations: consumerism. In Deveney's fictional article, "soft drink giant Coca-Cola is negotiating branding the proposed ''Christmas'' with a character called Santa, an elderly obese bearded man who lives in the North Pole and has elves who make gifts for good children who follow the teachings of Christ." [NB I say fictional because of course Santa is the descendant of the early Germanic character St. Nicholas, who still descends chimneys in Germany to place gifts in children's shoes.]

It seems that everywhere we go, Christmas is surrounded by a consumerist haze. Advertising for Christmas goods saturates all the media. We are encouraged to buy big, expensive gifts. Can't afford one? Buy it on credit! Because everywhere the message is the same: Christmas is about giving material gifts. You can measure your love in dollars and cents, the bigger the better, and of course, nobody you love will really be happy unless you find them the perfect (biggest, most expensive) gift. [Aside - uh oh... if you buy your gift on credit with no down payment, then maybe you don't really love me because you didn't actually spend anything!]

We are all victims of this mentality in some way or another. Have you ever found a lovely gift and rejected it on account that it cost too little? Ever found yourself buying something probably useless because you feel obliged to give a material gift on account of the season? Ever felt ripped off when your spouse/sister/parent/child didn't spend as much on you as you spent on them?

Consumerism, that Western child, is also alive and well in Asia - and so is Santa Claus. His white face and white beard is plastered everywhere across the capital city, where the shops are filled with cheap Chinese goods. Under his watchful eye, dusty stuffed toys, cheap plastic dolls, cars and airplanes, plastic footwear and t-shirts with misprinted English slogans are sold from every little stall and street vendor. The quality of these items is so poor that some of them have actually fallen apart while still IN the boxes, and yet they are sold at prices that for the local economy, are exorbitant. On the days leading up to Christmas, the shops of the capital were packed, mostly with women, spending precious dollars on this badly-made junk. In a country where most of the population lives hand-to-mouth, it is a bit shocking to behold this pocket of consumerism. Yet there is the hallmark of the emerging middle class - the luxury to shop is a sign of social standing reserved for the economic elite.

The truth is that for the majority poor in this Catholic country, Christmas is actually still a religious holiday. How astonishing that seems in our modern, material world. Yet across this tiny nation, the population (yes, all of it - or about 98% of it) flocks to 3 or 4-hour mass to celebrate the birth of their faith. Christmas is a time for prayer, not presents. If you're fortunate, you will celebrate by going to sleep with a full belly. If you're really lucky, you might get a new shirt for Church. Only the rich would expect a shiny new toy. And so that, therefore, is what everyone aspires to.

The seeming paradox of a fat, white Santa in Asia in fact makes all too much sense. He represents everything that people dream of: a full belly, a long life, luxurious clothes, and high social standing (white skin, long beard, gifts for everyone). And so in this town, in the poorest country in Asia, Deveney's article is in fact not too far from the truth: in the creche scenes that are erected all over the city, watching over Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, standing taller and prouder than the 3 wise men, is Father Christmas - Santa Claus.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


As most of you probably know, December 21 - 22 is the solstice. For the northern hemisphere, where I am from, it is winter. For the southern hemisphere, where I currently live, it is summer. For the tropics, which I am right in the middle of, it hardly matters.

We don't have the same seasons here as those who live in the higher latitudes. The tropics move to a different beat: hot-and-wet, hot-and-dry. At the moment, we are in the middle of the wet. Every day, the humidity is 100%. In the mornings, the sun beats down. In the afternoons, the grey clouds move in and hang heavy over us until hopefully, finally, they break, and with a fit of thunder send their downpours crashing to earth. Rain on tin roof, that terrible din! Rain floods the streets, turning every pothole to a massive puddle, every garden into a paddy. In the tropics people don't hide from the rain - young boys play football (soccer) in the streets, gleefully splashing.

Last night, due to a mix-up with the conference room we use, I taught Yoga outside in a child-care space. From that sweaty, crowded space, you could hear the rain coming down softly amid the hum of engines and the shouts of children. As it grew dark, I lit candles to teach by. It was one of those classes where about 8 new people show up and you can see them struggling to keep up with the regulars, and it was hot outside, so I paused often and in one of those breaks we took a short seated meditation. I mentioned that it was the solstice and asked people to reflect on what it meant to them, and to think of all the things that may have happened or changed during this year, and things that they would like to have achieved or changed by this time next year.

Which gets me thinking, of course. So here are a few answers of my own.

*What does the solstice mean to me? The passage of time. I also like the solstice because it is a day humans have celebrated for thousands of years, since long before any of today's major religious holidays came to be celebrated at around the same time.

*What has happened/changed during the last year? This has been a big year for me! Getting my teaching certification was a huge dream that I had wanted to pursue for years. Re-connecting with my Ashtanga practice. Starting to teach regularly again. Finishing a job that I enjoyed and felt satisfied with. Moving on to a more free (self-employed... for now!) lifestyle that lets me make my own schedule. It has also had its share of sad events, with deaths both expected and unexpected, and happy events, with many new babies coming into my extended family of relatives and friends. And so the cycle continues. :)

*What do I hope to achieve by this time next year? To keep up my yoga practice and my teaching, and add more classes to meet the needs of the growing yoga community here. To hold workshops (already in the works for Jan/Feb!) and retreats. To keep my self-employed lifestyle while still managing to keep my bank account balanced!

What about you? :)

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Seat of a Teacher

All the discussion online and elsewhere about regulating teacher training programmes has got me thinking: what, really, is a teacher? How do you become one? Who are the best teachers?

I became a yoga teacher by accident. No, really! Out of the blue one day I was asked to lead a small group of yogis, after our teacher left. So I did - and I found that I loved it! Three years later, I finally decided to pursue a teacher training. I guess I did this for two reasons - firstly, to challenge myself to take my yoga knowledge and practice to the next level. And secondly, out of a realisation of responsibility towards my students - especially the responsibility to their safety.

When you put yourself in the seat of the teacher, people innately trust you. In a yoga class, people get into the flow of following instructions. They try things they wouldn't normally (like touching their toes!). And everyone's body is different - I can do something without pain that might injure another person.

So a teacher is someone you trust. In Yoga, you trust your teacher physically to guide you safely through the postures. There is also an ethical dimension to this: you trust your teacher to be professional, to touch you appropriately, to make you feel safe and respected.

A teacher should do this because a teacher is someone who is there for YOU. S/he is not there to hear herself speak. S/he is not there to do her own practice or to show off her asanas. S/he is not there to judge you, gossip about you, or flirt with you.

A teacher is someone who shows you the road, gives you the keys, but lets you drive there at your own pace. A teacher wants you to succeed for your own sake - not for how it will reflect back upon them. A teacher gives you a map but doesn't just hand you the treasure.

Teachers are a gift, and sometimes a surprising one at that. They appear in your life out of nowhere, sometimes staying only a moment, sometimes staying with you forever. If you are open to it, almost anyone can teach you something. :) And maybe without even knowing it, you are teaching people all the time.

So, what does it take to sit in the seat of the teacher? Honesty. Courage. Faith. Humility. A sense of humour!

Please add to this list...

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Tips for the travelling yogini

Well, it's been a while since I blogged, because I've been travelling.

For the yogini, travel poses a different set of obstacles. More and more of us are travelling in this day and age, for work or for pleasure or both. And like everything else in our world, travel today is faster than ever before. 100 years ago, it took weeks or months to travel from, say, Europe to America. Now it takes only a few hours. And as anyone who has experienced jet-lag knows, this puts a heavy strain on our body and our metabolism. Our sleeping and eating habits are disrupted, and our bodies can be confused by sudden changes in climate.

With all this going on, maintaining an asana practice while on-the-go can be very challenging: jet-lag, busy schedules, cramped hotel rooms and smelly old hotel carpets are only a few of the limitations! All this assuming that you are able to practice on your own, away from your favourite classes and teachers.

Here are a few things that I've found helpful along the way, maybe with the holidays coming up and many of us preparing to pack up and go, some of these will be helpful!

Before you Go:
- Pack yoga-light. Unless you're going on retreat, realistically you'll only need one set of clothes for your holiday practice. Think about the climate where you are going - it may be different to where you came from, so you may want to pack a yoga outfit that you can layer up or down.
- After years of travelling with a cumbersome yoga mat, I have discovered the skidless yogitoes "yoga-towel", which to me is the perfect compromise. It's not perfect, but laid out on a hotel carpet it's fairly grippy and a lot easier to pack. Plus, easy to wash! [I also bet "yoga paws" would be great to travel with but I've never tried them].
- If you don't have a regular home practice, it will be worth spending time to write down a sequence you can practice while you're away. Use your favourite book or DVD, or ask your teacher to help you - I would advise aiming for a 45min-1hour sequence.

While you're there:
- Be prepared to modify your practice and accept that you probably will not be able to practice as much as you do at home. A rough guideline based on my experience when travelling as a tourist is half as often, and 3/4 of the usual length of practice.
- Travel can be stressful to your body, and we all carry it in different places. Be prepared to listen to your body's needs and modify your practice accordingly. If you are carrying heavy bags, you may want to focus on poses that loosen up your back, neck and shoulders. If you are doing a lot of hiking or walking, you might want to go easy on the standing poses and practice a sequence of restorative forward bends. Feel uprooted? Try solid, grounding standing poses that open up your hips and, hopefully, your mind.
- All the new sensations, sights, smells and tastes you encounter when you travel to a new place can be overwhelming! Try to make time in your busy schedule for meditation or a restorative practice, or keep a journal of your trip. Whatever works for you, give yourself some you-time to process all your new experiences.
- When it comes to asana on holiday - practice non-attachment! Yoga is much more than just doing your asanas. Engage in the Yoga of action as you see new places and meet new people. Allow yourself to be open to the other types of transformation that a voyage opens up in us.

When you get home:
- Sometimes it can be hard to get back into your regular routine. My advice: start straight away (or as soon as jet-lag permits)!
- Sometimes, returning from a trip is also an ideal time to start a new routine, maybe something you've been meaning to do or let slip along the way. Again, the best time to start is as soon as you get back, before you get swept up again in your old routine.

Those are a few things that I've gleaned from my travels - as always I would love to hear if anyone has anything to add! Namaste everyone and enjoy.