A Tale of Two types of Dumplings...

The date is February 17, 1982.  Time?  Who knows!  In my family, everyone is born at 12pm and this was the response I would get when I asked my parents what time of day I was brought into this Earth.  To many, this may seem strange - that a family can be so apathetic and nonchalant about what may seem relevant, especially to a child.  

In the Chou family, however, we dismiss conversations that do not seem to foster and nurture a level of relevance relating to financial success.  We forego conversations about spirituality and replace them with discourse about grade point averages, mathematical expressions, college applications and academic status.  

So it should not come as any stupefaction that I am still unsure what time of day I was born.  My tutelage never placed any leverage on this subject matter and even though I can easily obtain my birth certificate from my parents, or contact the hospital where I was born, I have no interest in doing so…

The great all American Icon, Popeye, once said, 

I am what I am, and that's all that I am

 

and this has really got me comtemplating about my present moment in life and how the decisions I have made in this lifetime have led me to where I need to be.  With that said, this quote also made me discern that the challenges I face are completely of my own making and this reigns particularly true the more and more I teach yoga and interact with my students and my peers.

For the first week after the New Year, a lot of my students have come up to me articulating their goals for 2014 and I loved hearing every single one of them because the goal setting process speaks wonders about the person, and without them realizing it, paints a portrayal about how they lead their quotidian lives.  With that said, I started telling everyone, especially myself, that New Year's resolutions always end up failing.  The ironic thing is, people are very much aware of this, yet they still continue to make New Years Resolutions!  Why??? Personally, I find the "resolution setting" process has now become this grandiose task where you know you are bound to fail so you end up setting extreme GOALS so the journey towards "resolution" becomes stunted before ever ascertaining momentum towards change.

This does beg the question - can people change?  Can I change?  After all, I am what I am and that's all that I am., right?

Well, my story officially started on New Year's Eve.  I woke up starving (no surprise there..I am always hungry) but because I had a long day ahead of me, I barely had time for breakfast so I made my protein shake and rushed out the door.  3 classes later, plus a meeting with some friends, I found myself barely having eaten anything.  I arrived in my apartment, lurking like a tiger in the trees, scrounging for food so I can come back to that place of wonted.  Barely seeing anything in my fridge, I called my favorite local Chinese restaurant to order food………it could have gone in one of two ways…...

If you have ever watched the movie "Slider Doors" starring Gwyneth Paltrow, which is a fabulous tale about a London woman's love life and career and how they both hinge, unknown to her, on whether or not she catches a train.  We see it both ways, in parallel which makes the movie fascinating…ANYWAY….not to steer too far away from the point…

Every time I call up my favorite Chinese Restaurant, I HAVE my "Sliding Doors" moment.  Do I order the steamed chinese broccoli with brown rice and braised tofu, or do I order fried vegetable dumplings, a side order of lomein and a diet coke?  Clearly, one will leave me and my body feeling great.  The other will leave me bloated, heavy, and errant that I exercised little restraint…I would stand there, in my apartment with no food, seeing my life as if it was Sliding Great Wall, the Chinese remake....

me: "Hi I would like to place an order for delivery"

Chinese restaurant: "what would you like to order?"

me: " I would like……………..ummmmmmmm…the fried vegetable dumplings, vegetable lomein, and 2 diet cokes…"

Ok, I seemed to have made the choice that would leave me feeling guilty, but as I am sure many of you can relate, while ventilating the plan that will lead me on a road of guilt and chagrin, I already made a proposal in my head that for 2014, I will no longer eat Fried Dumplings…so because I made this my intention setting for the new year, I falsely made myself feel good about ordering something that I know I would regret ordering later…

Here is the problem with goal setting, especially for New Years, and why it inevitably fails.  I am a big believer that:

I am what I am, and that's all that I am

 

and to be honest, that quote defines and explains the TYPE OF GOALS WE MAKE.  The reason we fail has nothing to do with WHO WE ARE…rather, we fail because it has everything to do with OUR HABITS, which we have nurtured as a result of our upbringing (i.e., I could care less what time of day I was born because it never mattered to me growing up).

I grew up eating fried dumplings and overeating in general.  Growing up in the restaurant business in conjunction with the fact that I had two extremely hard working parents, it left little conversation and ACTION towards a diet and lifestyle that was healthful and sustaining.  If a decadent diet absent of portion control and balance was what what I was constantly exposed to, then those foods, in my present life will always serve as my "comfort food".  I will always gravitate towards it when my life gets a little out of balance.

So, what I have been telling all my students when I hear them express, through vehement excitement, their New Year's GOALS,,  is to embrace the practice of resolution setting not through goals, but through the institutional framework of ACTION SETTING instead.

What I have realized, as a yoga teacher, and someone who my friends would describe as having an extremely healthy and active lifestyle is this:

Continuous repeated actions eventually form habits…nurturing those habits, over time will eventually manifest into a person's CORE VALUES.

It took me a really long time (about 10 years) to reshape my core values as it relates to healthy eating and a more balanced lifestyle.  Honestly, it is still a work in progress!  But my core values have changed and it did not evince by me stating it such alone.  I needed to prove change through the actions and decisions I made. Eventually, those decisions become as fundamental and valued as everything else you deem important in your life.

Go ahead and make those New Year's resolutions.  They can be powerful and life changing, but rather than articulate the end goal by itself, we are better suited if we hinged the actions that can lead us to the end goal instead.  Actions, done repeatedly, will ultimately converge and sprout new behavioral patterns, making new years resolutions a thing of reform as opposed to a short lived reverie of little to no accountability.

Sooo sorry Popeye, but I am an even bigger believer that: 

You are who you are, but that is always changing since it's about who you want to be.

Before I hung up the phone with the Chinese restaurant, I said:

me: "can I get half the dumplings fried and the other half steamed?"

Chinese restaurant: "NO!"

me: "ok, i'll do steam dumplings instead"

See, I am who I am, but that is always changing.

My order came…I put the 2 diet cokes away, looked at my 8 dumplings that were perfectly steamed….

While I ate my lomein, I may/may not have taken out my skillet and fried 4 of the dumplings myself……...

Namaste.

Can you tell me how to get to Times Square from Downward Facing Dog?

Once upon a time, a fellow yoga teacher and friend told me of a brief and almost disparaging conversation she had with a yoga teacher who was honored with a coveted spot on the teaching schedule at a New York City Yoga Studio.  Here is how the conversation transpired:

Friend: "Congratulations!!  I heard that you were offered a few classes at (insert studio name here)

Yoga teacher: "Thanks!  It isn't a big deal.  It's only basics"

Ok, the conversation was epigrammatic and brief, but personally, the response "It's only basics" left me utterly speechless and slightly aggrieved that there are yoga preceptors in positions of 'offering' who marginalize a "Basic" Yoga class to something insignificant.   I often times think back to this particular conversation each time I take a brilliantly sequenced Basics class because being able to teach and introduce yoga to an absolute beginner defines, to me, a remarkable and sensational teacher.  There is a fundamental element of poise and power that a Basics teacher has when he/she steps into a room full of newcomers to the yoga practice.  I never thought I would ever say this in any realistic application, but like Peter Parker's Uncle's articulation in Spiderman, "With great power comes great responsibility".

What defines a remarkable teacher, in my personal opinion, is his/her ability to unleash the almost innate desire in all of us to yearn for a yoga practice that encourages us to catalyze a lifestyle that is balanced, healthful, and overall, less distressed - and regardless of the student's intention in stepping foot into his/her first yoga class, the teacher must realize that the novice is inevitably asking for guidance to safely get them to a place where they can contemplate yoga as their h-OHM-e base.

My friend also said it best - a beginner to the yoga practice is synonymous with a foreigner visiting New York City for the first time.  The visitor does not speak the language, and has picked you out of a crowd of millions of New Yorkers to ask you for the best way to get to Times Square from their present location.

To me, I learned that there are a few ways to answer the foreigner.

One can say:

(1)  "Take the 2 train until you get to Times Square"

or

(2) "Hop in a cab and tell the cab driver, 'I want to go to Times Square' "

or

(3) "You need to walk north, which is straight ahead, until you reach 18th street and 7th avenue.  From there, locate the 1 train and make sure you enter the 'Uptown and the Bronx' entryway.  If you have a metro card, swipe your card at the turnstile.  If you do not have a metro card, you need to go to the kiosk and purchase a ticket for entry.  Once that happens, you will wait for the uptown train and take it 4 stops until you've reached 42nd street.  Exit out the train and follow any 'exit' sign which will bring you out to Times Square"

I WILL UNCEASINGLY gravitate towards a teacher who would rejoin with the awareness, tone, and unequivocal "know how" demonstrated in Option 3.

Here is a little bit of advice, my friends and fellow yogis…

In a basics class where the answers to your questions are like option 1, the teacher unfortunately, is probably not teaching a fundamental/foundational class.  He/she is calling out shapes and not directing you into the posture safely.

In a basics class where the answers to your questions are like option 2, the teacher has given you the easy way out and will get you to Times Square, but you've barely learned anything about the journey.  You will end up paying all this money on cab fare without understanding the subway system or the city for that matter.

In a basics class where the answers to your questions are like option 3, you may be overwhelmed with all the information at first, and chances are, you would be more partial to an answer like option 2, but if you allow the direction and clear instruction, eventually, you will find yourself in a place where you are equipped to explore the city and all it has to offer.  You will also become self sufficient and know how to get to any destination safely and on time!!  

I've learned so much from my friend who shared that story with me.  It allowed me to summarize my love of basics in the following way:

  •  As a teacher, I am constantly inspired by anyone who can creatively put together a yoga class that is thought provoking, allowing the student to walk away feeling proud of what was ultimately executed and most importantly, leaving wanting more.  
  •  As a teacher, I also have to tell myself when I teach to a room full of beginners, "Every shape is new so tell them how to get to Times Square", so I try not to take for granted the complexities of any shape.  For example, downward facing dog, in my opinion, is HARD!!!.  It can take years of practice to be able to say,"Damn, down dog feels good!"
  • Most importantly, as a student, and for anyone looking for a great basics teacher, seek out the teachers who can find inspiration with every shape in the practice.  Be cautious of anyone who ever utters the words, "it's just basics"

In the years I have practiced yoga, my body and mind still necessitate a basics class once a week, and I lionize that by exploring the city, in my own way, to find a basic class that gives me better insight into what the mainstream of people desperately wanting to get into yoga need so they can continue to come back to ask for more.  

To be perfectly honest, I do not take a basics class weekly to help me become a better teacher.  I take it once a week to remind me of how powerful a basics class is to make me FEEL empowered in my own personal practice.  What I end up offering my students becomes, in a way, a side effect from my empowerment.

Finally, the art of basics will always serve as a unceasing reminder that inspiration has no limits, and if we allow ourselves to fuel the yen or desire and seek out the infinite wisdom that yoga supplies, then we will always be capable of getting to the proverbial "Times Square" , no matter where we are, who we are with, or how long we've been apart from New York City.  We will always find the right portage to get us to the destination that we can be contented in calling h-OHM-e.

Namaste.

 

Yes, I will have another Diet Slut!

"On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree"

"On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, two turtle doves and a partridge in  a pear tree"

I try not to use the word hate, but I really loathe this particular Christmas Carole.  Personally, I find it to be the Holiday equivalent to "99 bottles of beer on the wall" and the purposeful repetition and overly dramaturgical "counting down" in the lyrics leaves me slightly nauseated and uninspired.

With that said (haha), the Holidays are upon us and despite your religious affiliation, one can appreciate this time of year because it marks an incredible feat in human generosity and compassion which often times lends itself to an exploration of gathering, discussion, and in my opinion, a deeper propensity for open-mindedness.  

This past Friday, I was blessed to be able to spend some quality time with a few friends, so the exploration of gathering and discussion was not the issue.  In fact, in pure ABC Cooper Chou fashion, quality time with friends actually meant overbooking and agreeing to multiple get togethers on the same day.  It started with a late lunch with a yoga teacher at Grey Dog's (a place in my opinion has the hottest wait staff…..check it out and uou're welcome), followed by an early dinner with a friend who was going through a terrible loss, and ended with a late dinner with another yoga colleague and friend.  Late dinner followed by a night cap and 3am later, I found myself in my apartment ordering tofu stir fry and lomein (this yogi craves Chinese food at obscene times of the night) from the only Chinese restaurant that was open.

Needless to say, the late dinner with my friend sparked a conversation that left me pondering the idea of open mindedness and whether or not I struggle with it, and in particular, in its relation to the art form of yoga.

…….it started when I convinced my friend to have dinner in Hell's Kitchen, at a place called 44 1/2.  Not sure why, but I often times find myself taking friends to this place for dinner.  Maybe because I know the menu, enjoy their creative drinks…plus, the ambience is perfect for me - warm, quiet, and sterile (lol).  We were greeted by my friend who owns the establishment, Scott, and were seated.  I opened the food and beverage menu and in a overly dramatic form of hysteria, my eyes bulged in disbelief as I realized that the entire menu has changed.    

As my eyes glued to the menu of new beginnings, the waiter came over and asked if we wanted anything to drink.  As my friend ordered his red wine, I turned to the waiter and asked if they still made a drink that I often times would order at this place because it was festive, silly and doltish.  Additionally, the name for the drink was absurdly comedic with ingredients for the drink, upon reading, would result in an immediate exclamation of "What the Fuck!?!?!"

I can never remember the name, but distinctly recall the drink having Crystal Light Pink Lemonade, Sprite, and Tequila.  This ridiculousness was served in a sugar rimmed frosted martini glass (which I often times conjecture if it was intended to appease the wretched since ordering a drink with Crystal Light Pink Lemonade can only be a slippery slope to thinking Sliders at White Castle are iconic).

I mentioned the ingredients to the waiter and said, "OHH, and I think there was the word 'Slut' in the drink title", to which he replied, "Yup, we can still make that for you"…..Ahhhhhhh, Namaste

But alas, the drink actually gets better.  Because I am a fitness professional, I went ahead and amended the drink order to omit the sugar rim and replaced the Sprite with Club Soda, the Tequila with Vodka.  I turned to the waiter and said, "so pretty much, a Diet Slut, please".

Over dinner, a casual conversation between friends manifested into a dialogue very much similar to the parody on Youtube, "Shit Yogi's Say" and all of a sudden, I was obsessing over the brilliance of B.K.S Iyengar and his dialogue revolving rooting the big toe into the ground and its relation to feeling the sternum lifting.  Oppositional forces in yoga exists, and it can even be felt through the big toe and sternum relationship.  AMAZING!

The conversation deepened (i.e., my Diet Slut nurtured the desire to ponder the wonders in life, why we are on this Earth, etc) and the topic shifted towards teachers who teach the same thing in each class versus the teachers who enjoy the creative aspect and offer something different each time.  

Nothing of precipitance, but I fall under the coterie that each class should be distinct and contrasting, and I started to ask myself why.  In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and in particular, the Portion on Practice Sutra 46 talks about Sthira Sukhamasanam, which literally means "Asana is a steady, comfortable posture".  For some reason, this Sutra kept on surfacing as I started to explore the idea of Asana and Sequencing shapes in class.  I never gravitated towards a teacher who offered the same thing repeatedly, and I blindly assumed it had everything to do with the inability or desire to be creative.  But I realized it takes a strong willed and "flexible" person to be able to offer the same thing recurrently.

Let's take a look at this a bit more closely, shall we...

Looking at Sthira Sukhamasanam in more depth, the philosophy goes beyond a comfortable posture.  The intention is to utilize postures in Yoga Asana to help expel toxins from the body that exists.  Hatha Yoga was essentially created to aid in the betterment of the human body and mind.  For example, forward bending, like Pascimottasana, can be used to help cleanse the liver, spleen and our intestines.  The shapes, as a result, are finite, but like the Yoga Sutras, despite the finite teachings, the permutations and application of the teachings can seem infinite.  Hence, the yearning for each of my yoga classes to be dissimilar is a naive way of thinking that the asana shapes are limitless, when in fact, they not.  

The desire for divergence has nothing to do with the shapes, but ones ability to creatively put together something that allows for me to experience something different each time.  That is a true mark of a great teacher because quite frankly, Warrior 1 will never change anatomically, but how I feel about Warrior 1 can refashion daily, so to effectively capture the shift in feeling and bring about the notion that the structure of it can offer a plethora of possibilities makes a seemingly static shape into one that is explosively dynamic.  THAT IS WHAT I CRAVE!.

Can my teachers offer that to me?  More importantly, can I offer and reckon that of myself.

To better answer that question, I decided to start on a 40 day journey, what a yogi will refer to as a 40 day sadhana and all sadhana means is spiritual PRACTICE.  The 40 day practice originates from the concept that our habits can either be broken or sealed into our core values if 40 days of committed ritual is engaged.  At a certain point along the 40 day journey, a steady commitment of exploration (regardless of the task at hand) can bring about a better sense of ease and understanding.

The understanding I needed to explore is whether or not I can feel something different and paramount each time I practiced an asana sequence that does not change.  Sthira Sukhamasanam to me can mean just that and Patanjali says it best - "Although Hatha Yoga is several thousands of years old, it never becomes outdated.  The truths of it are always current".  

Overall, the conversation opened up my mind to the possibility that I can begin to appreciate a teacher who teaches the same things over and over again.  The challenge, however, is whether or not he/she (including myself) can offer it up in a way to allow for the student to have a transcendent experience every time.

So next time you take a yoga class and start to say to yourself, "this teacher is teaching the same thing again", I encourage all of us to take a step back and assess why.  Is the teacher lackluster and apathetic?  Or is he/she intending to facilitate a dialogue of infinite possibilities through Sthira Sukhamasanam - Asana is a steady, comfortable posture??  Heck, it may be the case that the teacher is lackluster…if that is the case, our practice of yoga needs to take shape and we have our own fiduciary responsibility to ensure that our asana practice serves a greater purpose in bringing us to Sthira Sukhamasanam and it can start with leaving expectation and judgement at the door with our shoes :)

Dinner with my yoga friend was pretty amazing and I am glad that it got me thinking about repetition and how the unchanging world of yoga can still be brilliant and evolutionary.

Our waiter came over and asked me if I wanted another drink…

I sat there, looking at my empty martini glass, raised my eyebrow and realized that repetition and unchange can happen now, so I smiled at the waiter and said:

"Yes, I'll have another Diet Slut"

And boy did I feel something different after….

Namaste.

Namaste....

After almost 10 years of Investment Banking, I decided to walk away from the high stress, cut throat, unforgiving, relentless and malicious environment to embark on a world that teaches us to be compassionate, forgiving, service oriented, honest and authentic.  For the most part, those teachings ARE entrenched in the ever growing, ever changing, and rapidly engulfing life that is yoga.  What I found and still find fascinating, however, is my past work life circumventing and almost encapsulating my world of yoga.

Let me explain....

Not too long ago, I came across a phenomenally written piece by Kelly MacLean entitled Surviving Wholefoods.  For those of you who have not had the liberty of reading her piece on the Huffington Post, google it and I assure you that it will leave you in tears (from laughter!) and will doom you to a lifetime of weird looks at Wholefoods because you will find yourself laughing (by yourself) in certain aisles wondering how you could have missed out on the disorientation of her experience.

Not to digress entirely, in the piece, there were a few references to the word Namaste, which is derived from Sanskrit and is a combination of two words, "Namaḥ" and "te". Namaḥ means bow or, reverential salutation and te means to you. Therefore, Namaste literally means "salutations to you" or in some cases, I have even heard it to mean (in a more poetic way), "the light in me bows to the light in you".  Suffice to say, the reference to the word Namaste in the piece and how she could have sworn it meant "Go Fuck Yourself" based on her experiences at Wholefoods can pretty much summarize the unfortunate and dynamic world of Yoga. 

Despite the wonderful teachings, human elements seem to get in the way turning what one may think to be an untainted industry into nothing more than Investment Banking in Downward facing dog.  And if you are not careful, you can end up like Kelly MacLean wondering how you can spend $313 just to find out you are ugly, have a yeast infection, and the sentiment that Namaste is actually Sanskrit for "Go Fuck Yourself".

In New York, there are a lot of people calling themselves yoga teachers, and I am sure they are certified to teach yoga.  But let me fill you in on something.  Unlike Universities like my Alma Mater (Penn), most yoga schools offering a 200 hour program will admit you into the program despite your level of practice, your desire to teach, and quite frankly, your intention.  From a business perspective, there is nothing wrong with that.  What keeps a studio in business is their ability to turn out Yoga School Curricula multiple times a year.  With that said, the reason why the world of yoga has become saturated and why there is now a 3rd degree of separation between you and someone you know who is a yoga teacher is the need for yoga studios to stay in business.

This fact alone, in some way, epitomizes why yoga is encapsulated with the foundation of Corporate America, and more specifically why I can see more similarities to the "dog eat downward dog" stigma.

You allow anyone to enter into your 200 hour program and also tell him/her that he/she can teach yoga may be sending out a false message and contributing to the world of saturation.  And to be frank, there doesn't seem to be a saturation of great teachers, just a saturation of those who want to teach (again, nothing wrong with that).

But sometimes I wonder how the industry would be if the curriculum was just designed to deepen a student's practice, with a separate program designed for those who have the potential to teach..huh....sounds reasonable, right?  Well, unfortunately, REASON, in this case is another word for bankruptcy....

I have been practicing yoga for some years but did not get too serious about it until I found myself getting into a relationship with one of my teachers....THAT WILL BE ANOTHER POST ON ANOTHER DAY, MANY MANY YEARS DOWN THE ROAD (I have a lot of opinions on why there should not be a teacher/student relationship, but again, not to digress).  Needless to say, what my teacher did for me was open my eyes to the possibility that I can be happy in the life of yoga.  My teacher inspired me and told me that I can leave the world of Banking behind and pursue a happier life with yoga being the forefront of my service to the world.

So I took a sabbatical and went to yoga school and it changed my life.  I went in thinking I will graduate, maybe take on a few classes and find a 9-5 job to supplement my life as a yogi.  The opposite happened.  My full time job became teaching yoga (still thankful for all my blessings) with a side job managing a yoga studio to supplement my income.  I WAS COMMITTED

However, it was not long before I saw the industry for what it is capable of and why I am constantly pulling back and looking at "things" from the experiences of an Investment Banker. 

There is one teacher, who will remain anonymous, who has constantly said some hurtful things to me as a fellow teacher.  Here are some examples:

(1)  In response to me having 20 students in class versus her 5: "Must be nice to be a good looking man in yoga" - she thought this was funny.  In my mind, I was wondering, who is good looking??  

(2)  When I ended my class right on time (but I thought I ended class too late): "me: Sorry, we will be out of the room so you can have it for your class"

Her response : "You are fine.  You ended on time...only Senior Teachers end late".  Ouch.  Well, if being a senior teacher requires me to not be considerate of my student's time, I'll take junior teacher any day

Earlier in this blog, I categorized Investment Banking as a high stress, cut throat, unforgiving, relentless and malicious environment.  What I did not realize was the Yoga Industry CAN be the same way.  I say it CAN be because I hope I will hold onto my zeal and intuition so as to not allow myself to get sucked into the chaos that will tarnish the teachings, devotion, and compassion that is yoga.  The practice is healthful, is giving, is rewarding, and is most definitely community focused. 

The constant struggle, which I now find elaborately beautiful, is not getting myself caught up on the politics and business of yoga (if the business is not my own).

I am here to serve, here to teach, here to learn and be in the presence of those who want to share in the same ideology that yoga is a path of enlightenment and freedom (not to sound preachy or overly philosophical 'cause that aint me either).  It is designed to guide me and everyone else to lead a life less suffered and more enjoyed.  That is all I will ever want and this blog is dedicated to my experiences as a student first and foremost.  You may call me a teacher, but I will always be the student with an offering.

My aim is to call it out as I see it and will do my part to keep the integrity of the practice as authentic as my teachers have made it apparent to me.

Namaste - and NO, it does not mean "GO Fuck Yourself"