Category Archives: Musings

Flower Petal Blooming

Happy New Year friends!

And so it begins again.  A new year.  A new promise.  A new resolution.

Last year, I resolved to write a blog post once a week.  I was doing well for  a few months but eventually that goal became surprisingly unmanageable.  So much of my life changed last year as result of both choice and serendipity.  My husband lost his job about a year ago at this time.  I voluntarily left my comfortable job in September to pursue my dream of becoming self‑employed.  If you described to me my current life at this time last year, I would have labeled you certifiably mad.  Yet life has a beautiful way of unfolding itself at precisely the right time.  What was once a seemingly unimaginable road became the only viable option in the end.

As I started blogging more seriously in early 2011 about my travels, about culture, and about my home – New York City, and more specifically, the borough of Queens – I discovered joy in the act of writing and in the act of sharing what I knew with others.  After a few weeks, I was getting recognition for my work.  In July, I attended my very first conference for travelers and bloggers in Vancouver.  People at the conference encouraged me to do more.  The seed that I once planted years ago about self-employment began to flourish and grow.

When I hopped on that plane to Los Angeles in September, I had no idea what 9 weeks of full-time Bikram yoga teacher certification would be like.  All I knew was the conviction I felt in my heart that I was doing the right thing even if it was unconventional.  Those 9 weeks challenged me physically, mentally, and emotionally.  All of my strengths and weaknesses were made bare for me to face with no place to hide.  As trainees, we were encouraged to “trust the process” even though our hearts screamed out, “F*$K the process!!!”  Breakdowns happened gradually as did the breakthroughs.  By November, I came out a changed person, shedding layers of myself that no longer served me.

In Bikram yoga, the first of the 26 postures is half moon pose where students bend to the right or left creating a crescent shape with their bodies. As a teacher, my job is to remind my students of proper alignment as they hold the posture. In half moon pose, I instruct them to adjust their shoulders so they can “open up their chest like a flower petal blooming.” This tiny adjustment leads to a gradual opening of the upper body where the chest lifts up exposing the heart, the piece of ourselves we shield and protect the most.

Half Moon Pose at LAX: My Love for Yoga & Travel Intersect

Life is like that flower petal blooming. Change happens so incrementally that often we don’t notice it has happened.  Only when we look back and see the distance traversed do we marvel at its occurrence.  So here’s to the accomplishments, the failures, the struggles, and the discoveries of 2011. Together, they form the stepping stones to the unwritten events of 2012. Wherever life leads me this year, I am going to trust the process.

Without judgment and without attachment, I accept that I did not achieve my blogging goal for 2011. Yet once again, I have set a goal that I will write more and blog regularly.

“Never too late, never too old, never too bad, and never too sick, to start from the scratch once again.” ~ Bikram Choudhury

Forgiveness, Courage, and Leaps of Faith: Why I Left My Job

Nelson Mandela is one of my heroes.  As leader of the newly formed, democratic South Africa, he rejected anger, revenge, and violence despite decades of suffering incredible injustice. Instead, he turned to reconciliation and encouraged both the former oppressors and oppressed of his country to work together to do the same. In the movie Invictus, he offered this advice to his black bodyguard who had trouble working with newly assigned white colleagues:

Forgiveness liberates the soul.
It removes fear.
That is why it is such a powerful weapon.

I was drenched in sweat. My face turned to the right, my entire left ear pressed against the soaked towel. I lay on my belly, body and mind still. My Bikram yoga teacher broke the silence in the room and said, “Time waits for no one. What are YOU waiting for?” Her words slapped my face and seeped through my every pore. The clarity I sought for years suddenly came rushing forward out of the fog of uncertainty and fear. That moment propelled me to listen to what my heart had been saying for so long.

Eight years earlier, I felt directionless and burned out. I left my job and took a leap of faith by backpacking for four months through Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Portugal, and England with someone I loved. As I lived through this life-altering experience, I had no idea that the travel bug would bite me so hard. When I came home to NYC rejuvenated, I promised myself that I would see at least one new country every year.

I worked at a private, philanthropic foundation helping give away millions of dollars annually to colleges and universities. I was ambitious, driven, and pushed myself to the limit. I asked for (and got) more responsibilities, pursued a Masters degree part-time, got married, bought a house, and still managed to travel for three weeks to my new country of choice. But soon I would learn that my go-getter attitude was not sustainable. My body eventually rebelled and broke down gradually, cracking under my self-imposed physical, mental, and emotional prisons. Medical doctors only offered me prescription drugs and surgery to help me deal with the severe, chronic pain I felt throughout my body.

Desperate for an alternative, I turned to an Eastern healer and Bikram Yoga. I channeled the same hard work, focus, and determination that put me in this mess to get myself healed. Working to heal myself was hellish and grueling because it was an irritatingly slow process and went against everything that our pill-popping, quick-fix culture teaches us.

In every Bikram studio, students are instructed to look at themselves in the mirror for the entire 90 minute class. As a beginner, I could not look at myself without unceasing criticism. You’re too fat. You’re too injured. You’re not flexible enough. You’re not good enough. Each time I looked in that mirror, I confronted my own worst enemy: me.

The intensity of the heat magnified the challenge of the yoga poses. Many times, all I wanted to do was collapse, give up, or run out of the room screaming. Magically, my teachers knew when to offer me the compassion I needed to back off. Johanna, stay still. All you have to do is breathe. They also knew when I gave up too easily. You fall out, you jump back in! Johanna, what are you waiting for?”

To survive in that hot room required only a calm breath. Surprisingly, even that seemingly simple act was the most challenging. The classes where I struggled to “just” breathe were the ones that dealt heavy blows to my ego. Patience, compassion, and forgiveness were forced to set in because there was little room for self-criticism, judgment, and attachment. The salty tears and gallons of sweat chipped away at the protective walls I built so long ago against hurt and pain. It no longer mattered if I wasn’t good enough, quick enough, pretty enough, or smart enough. All that mattered was that I do my best. And when I fell down or fell out, all I needed to do was jump right back in.

As counter intuitive as it may seem, acknowledging my humanity afforded me the freedom to access my inner strength. Only when I forgave myself could I allow myself the chance to start again.

In the 2½ years of practicing Bikram yoga, I no longer feel the weight of the world.The chronic debilitating pain I once felt, is completely gone. Today, I am the healthiest I have ever been in body, mind, and spirit. I have learned to live my life the same way I practice yoga. I tackle each challenge and uncomfortable situation with a calm breath, a focused mind, and a compassionate heart. I have learned to be okay with uncertainty, fear, and discomfort knowing that these feelings ­shall pass. I am still learning.

Last Thursday, I said goodbye to my colleagues of eight years at my secure job. I venture now into uncharted territory. Yesterday, I arrived in Los Angeles for 9 weeks of full-time certification to become a Bikram yoga teacher. I have always dreamed of becoming self employed, doing things that I love most. Leaving my job and becoming a yoga teacher will make room for my greatest passion: writing travel stories and making travel videos with my husband. I feel that my mission in this post 9/11 world is to promote cultural understanding and healing. As a yoga teacher, I can help others who seek redemption. As a traveler, I can tell you stories about the places I visit and the people who live there. As an anthropologist, I can provide a unique insight to these cultures.

Every morning we awake, we are given another day for the chance to start anew. That journey always starts with the decision to forgive. I’ve learned that forgiveness first begins with ourselves before we can bestow it to others. Only then can we become courageous. Only then can we aspire for greatness. Only then can we inspire others to do the same.

Evacuate, Escape!

As the protests in Egypt continue, my heart goes out to the people.  What must be going through the hearts of Egyptians as their country remains embroiled and embattled?  What will be the outcome?  Will a new Egypt emerge out of these demonstrations?

But there are other people to think about too.  Foreign journalists in the last several days have told audiences around the world that they have been harassed, attacked, and detained.  And of course, there are other foreigners:  the tourists, the expats, the students, the volunteer workers.  What has happened to them?  What happens when events within a place occur without a moment’s notice and the decision between staying or leaving becomes extremely urgent?

The New York Times recently wrote an article about stranded Americans in Egypt.  The United States State Department created a public service announcement (PSA) and tweeted evacuation instructions for American citizens wishing to leave the country.  I travel overseas at least once a year and as I prepare for my trip, I always pause to consider registering my name with the US Embassy in the country I am visiting.  Then I usually shake my head and shove the idea aside because really, what could possibly go wrong that the embassy would need to know my presence in country X?

Well, Egypt has reminded me of the reason why I should do so.  It is an extreme case of what is possible.  Highly unlikely, yes.  But possible nonetheless.  Besides political unrest, I can think of other instances when the need to escape while traveling becomes compelling.

Natural Disaster: In 2004, an earthquake in the Indian Ocean caught people completely by surprise along the coasts of several Asian and even African countries.  Devastating tsunamis struck and killed hundreds of thousands of people, most of them in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand.

Mechanical Difficulties: US Airways Flight #1549 departed from NYC’s La Guardia Airport and shortly after take-off collided with a flock of Canadian geese that resulted in a loss of thrust in both engines.  Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger successfully landed the plane in the Hudson River.  All 155 passengers and crew survived.

Disease Outbreak: In 2003, an outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) began in mainland China and spread to other areas such as Hong Kong and Vietnam.

Acts of Terrorism: Sadly, this is the reality of the world we live in — the 2004 train bombings in Madrid, the 2008 coordinated attacks in different parts of Mumbai,  and just last month a suicide attack in the Moscow airport.

I am so blessed and very grateful that I’ve not yet found myself in a situation where I’ve had to evacuate.  The closest I’ve come to civil unrest was in La Paz, Bolivia in 2003 when my bus was re-routed because a group of strikers blocked the roads.  Despite these possibilities, it has not deterred me from traveling.  In fact, it can be argued that these devastated places are precisely the ones we should travel to because they could benefit greatly from our tourism money.  I recall the Kenyan safari companies encouraging all Westerners to visit after ethnic violence erupted in 2008 due to the controversial outcome of the presidential election in December 2007.

In your travels, were you confronted with a circumstance that required you to decide whether to stay or leave?  What happened and where?  What factors led to making your decision?  Please share your story in the comment section below.  I look forward to hearing them.

My First Overseas Trip

Where you live should not decide
Whether you live or whether you die

-U2

I grew up in NYC.  My family immigrated to this country in the 1970s and I arrived on my mother’s arm when I was one.  My parents restarted their lives with practically nothing and worked hard the moment they arrived.  We never ate out, we never took trips.  We just couldn’t afford it.  When I was 7 years old, I was shocked to learn that my mother was planning a trip to the Philippines to visit our family.  She missed them so she decided to go home for Christmas and take me with her.

When our plane tickets were booked, mom prepared and shopped for gifts to bring home to our family.  Our suitcases were packed full of American goods to give away.  The plane ride was long but uneventful…I think I got a pair of plastic wings from the flight attendant.  Twenty four hours after we departed JFK, we emerged out of Manila International Airport to the tearful greetings of our family.  I only knew these family members from letters, greetings cards, and occasional conversations on the telephone.  Suddenly their words and voices transformed into flesh.  It was strange to know them yet not know them.

We got in the van and my first observations of the country were the weather and the people.  It was hot.  And tropical.  In December.  “Isn’t December supposed to be cold and full of snow?” my seven year old mind wondered.  I watched the people walking the streets.  They wore t-shirts, shorts, and flip flops.  And then I noticed that they all looked the same: short, brown-skinned, black-haired.  They all looked just like me.  Everywhere.

“WHERE AM I?” I asked myself.

As we crawled through Manila traffic, we approached a group of young kids on the side of the road.  The car slowed down and eventually stopped.  The kids scattered and systematically approached every car with their arms outstretched and one hand up.  I looked at them, confused and amazed.  A young girl appeared and looked inside the car.  It was as if I looked into a mirror.  Our eyes locked.  We were identical:  the same age, the same hair, the same skin, the same almond shaped eyes.  But then I noticed her tattered clothes, her disheveled hair, and her solemn eyes.  She carried a baby on her hip.  My uncle, driving, shooed her away.  I turned to my mother and asked, “Why are there so many children begging on the street?”  I couldn’t understand why they weren’t playing.  “Because they are poor and probably hungry,” my mother explained.

The girl could have been my playmate but instead she asked for money.  I realized then that even though we were the same, she lived in a world so different from mine.  She didn’t play all the time, she probably didn’t have as many toys as I did, and she wasn’t always going to bed on a full stomach.  How did other children in other places live?  Like me?  Like her?  Or some other way?

My fascination with different cultures  can be traced back to this defining experience at a young age.  It started with traveling back to the country of my birth, a place that was simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar.  Growing up bicultural trained me to vacillate easily between two cultures and taught me that life is far more nuanced than we often realize.  Traveling all over the world showed me that despite our differences, people essentially seek the same things:  peace, happiness, a livelihood to support themselves and their families, and the opportunity to improve their lives.

In the intervening years, I haven’t given much thought to the girl I locked eyes with so long ago.  As I write, I wonder.  Where is she now?  Is she living in poverty or did she manage to lift herself out of it?  Is she a wife, a mother?  Is she even alive?

This post was inspired by the organizers of “Travel Talk on Twitter“.  Join like-minded travelers every Tuesday at 0900 0930 & 2100 2130 hrs GMT as we answer 5 questions, 1 question every 10 minutes.  The first #TTOT will kick off this January 25 with the topic “Your First Journey”.

A Goal Without a Plan is Just a Wish

– Larry Elder via Cory Booker

He challenges himself to lose weight and live a healthy lifestyle, publicly proclaims it by writing a post on Facebook one day last week and then later that afternoon, writes a second blog post and posts regularly every since?  Aaaaaaack!  And here I am trying to post once a week on my blog?!?

::pause::

::deep breath::

Momentary panic attack now dissipating…

I once read a brief insight written by Jill Koenig, a motivational coach,  called “Running Your Own Race” (short read:  3 minutes, tops).  It brought home the idea that I really can’t compare myself to others because my goals, my capacities and limitations, and my starting point are unique.  So instead, I choose to be inspired by Mayor Booker’s incredible enthusiasm and his ability to bang out a post despite his busy schedule.

There are some true gems in his second post that deal with strategic planning in order to achieve your goal.

Not surprisingly, it starts with the mind.  It starts with a thought coupled with desire.  But a thought without action is useless.

So, he enlists others.  No person is an island.  Introduction to Anthropology 101 at Mount Holyoke taught me that humans are first and foremost, social beings.  Creating a network of people, a support structure is indeed important because we need someone to cheer us on, advise us along the way, and encourage us and make us feel like we are not alone when it gets rough.  I certainly could not have completed last year’s 101 day Bikram Challenge if I did it alone…and I certainly would never have even considered taking it on by myself.

He plans the work and works the plan. Years ago, I got this advice from a good friend after I described how overwhelmed I felt at work.  I think the key to this strategy is flexibility because the unexpected always comes when you least expect it.  Be like a bamboo in the wind:  strong yet flexible.

So, here’s my plan for my 2011 Challenge:

  1. Write it down. Now I understand why writers carry a notebook.  Inspiration hits at any moment.  I need to write down my ideas when they come.
  2. Brainstorm. Inspiration may be great but it is not always present.  Collect insurance by coming up with ideas.  No idea is wrong or silly.
  3. Dedicate time. Based on my schedule:  Sundays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, (and possibly) Fridays are good days to get up early and write.  Perhaps Sunday will be the start of a first draft, and then a few days of percolation, Wednesday for crafting, Thursday for polishing and publication.
  4. Set realistic expectations. It is so easy for me to do the opposite!  When I write, I feel like I have to write an exposition, a treatise, a thesis.  No!  This is a blog.  It is a space for coherent musings that hopefully will encourage others to respond and initiate a dialogue.  It doesn’t have to be perfect because it will never be perfect.
  5. Plan ahead. Start writing other posts and save drafts so that when time is scarce, it will be easier to polish it than start from scratch.

My goal is to form long-term habit of writing but I need to take it one day at a time.  Looking at the big picture, I often get overwhelmed at the huge task before me.  Last year, in the first week of my bikram challenge, I was struck with paralysis.  With only less than 10 classes under my belt, I wondered how the hell I was going to get to 101?! Then, I recalled the words of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Take the first step in faith.

You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.

The 2011 Challenge

Last year, I participated in a worldwide Bikram 101 Day Challenge, organized by lovely bloggers The Missus, theDancingJ, and bikramyogachick.  That’s right.  I committed to practicing bikram yoga daily for 90 minutes a day for 101 days straight.  Start date:  January 1, 2010.  Me and hundreds of other yogis chronicled our daily progress individually on our blogs and collectively on the official Bikram 101 blog.  After a bumpy start and a subsequent reset, I began the challenge in earnest in New York City on 9 January and completed it in Johannesburg, South Africa on 18 April.

As I look back on 2010, my goal was to take care of me and and heal myself.  In particular, I wanted to heal a knee injury that subsequently required surgery 18 years ago.  Over time, it caused such chronic and debilitating pain that I lost all strength and mobility in my leg.  It eventually prevented me from having an active lifestyle (running and eventually, even power walking was out of the question)…and from wearing high heels!

That was then.  This is now.

Ever since I started blogging in 2004, I resolved to blog more with every new year.  I wanted to write about topics that fulfill my spirit:  travel, culture, food, my hometown of New York City, and yes, yoga.  For the last six years, I’ve fallen short.  This year, my resolve is stronger because several factors in my life have come together to make it so.  I love to write.  I love the process of crafting words together, connecting ideas, and putting together my musings into something coherent and thoughtful to share with the world.  More importantly, I absolutely love exchanging ideas with others, getting into a conversation and hearing what others have to say.

I take strength from the lesson I learned on April 18, 2010 as I sat sweat-drenched in that Johannesburg studio after the final breathing exercise when the teacher announced that I had just completed my 101 day challenge.  There were gasps of astonishment at first and then…claps…then…cheers from 40+ yogis in the room.  I will always remember that moment and relish in the glow of feeling accomplished.  After that moment, I realized that I can achieve anything ANYTHING when I insert 110% of my focus and effort.  It also requires discipline, sacrifice, and accountability.

So today, I am proclaiming to the blogosphere that I am participating in the WordPress Post-a-Week-2011 Challenge.  I am going to post something on my blog at least once a week.  Today, I was particularly inspired by Newark mayor, Cory Booker, who very publicly and eloquently set a personal challenge for himself.  No more excuses, no more waiting for the time when things are “right”, no more self-imposed obstacles.  I’m not going to sit back and dream.  I’m gonna do…I mean, write.

Guest Blogger at Bikram101 Blog

Day 79

Hi everyone!
I wrote a post for the Bikram 101 blog, which you can find here. Stop by, look around.  Enjoy.

My life is insane but my daily practice has kept me grounded.  I am so grateful.  I miss you all and I promise, when things aren’t crazy, I’ll be back to blogging…but probably after this challenge is over.

I’m proud of all of us as we get closer to the finish line!  I’m happy we did this all together.  Namaste!