Monday, January 31, 2011

Time to Be Irrational

"You came up in our reading. There was a card where a young woman was bound and blindfolded and surrounded by a broken gate. It meant that someone close to me feels very trapped right now, but since the gate is actually broken there IS a way out of the woods for you. The reader told me that the best way to help you is to lead by example, NOT by telling you what you should do since that would just be adding another gate to you."

-email from my sister dated 1/29/2011, regarding her tarot card reading

I went to see the new Javier Bardem movie, "Biutiful," yesterday. I couldn't help wondering again why people are constantly drawn towards darkness. When given a choice between a dark drama such as "Biutiful" and a light, fluffy, romantic comedy like Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher's "No Strings Attached," why do people choose 2.5 hours of suffering and misery? Is it pure voyeuristic tendencies? A secret longing for pain? Or a more "noble" desire to see the truth of how the other half lives? I'm sure those who can afford a $10 movie ticket are rarely in the same boat as "Biutiful"'s Chinese immigrants who were inadvertently gassed to death in an overcrowded basement, or Senegalese workers who were deported for trying to make an extra buck selling drugs. Why the interest?

Maybe it's the same reason behind piercings and tattoos. Finding some sort of external manifestation (physical pain) and socially-sanctioned cathartic release for emotional trauma or existential paralysis encountered through everyday living.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Metaphorically Speaking

It's really insightful these days to be doing "nothing" and to be "nothing" for once. The world is indeed proceeding along its merry way, and I can just enjoy and be a part of it. I went to high school in a school district that is somewhat TigerMom-esque, I suppose. I realized that I'm so used to having people size me up by my GPA/test scores/resume, that it's really odd for me to comprehend that people can be liked as they are, for who they are, and not what they do. I think deep down that's all we want though, and working for all that frilly resume stuff is just for the sake of a little more happiness, isn't it? Things go a little haywire when the frilly resume stuff becomes the goal in and of itself though, and the bigger picture is forgotten, or worse, denied to exist. It's insightful to see who sticks around through the thick and the thin too. In fact, part of me is so glad that this is all happening, because it is so clear to me now who is a true friend, and so apparent to me how much my immediate family members love and care for me at the end of the day, all former grudges and resentments set aside. I remember in college when I'd get a bunch of phone calls right before a problem set was due or before the day of a midterm. It's so unnecessary. Real friends are hard to come by.

Part of me is nervous about my impending travels, but part of me is excited!! This will be an opportunity to experiment a little with the concepts I've been toying with these past years, such as "living in the present"! I have been reflecting on how traveling is a metaphor for life. To paraphrase Don Draper from "Mad Men" (the TV show I'm currently catching up on), you're born alone and you die alone, and a bunch of rules are dropped on you along the way to make you forget that fact. Life is about the journey and not the destination, hm? After all, if the destination was the point, we might as well all go take savasana (corpse pose) now. In terms of productivity, traveling outwardly appears like one of the most frivolous things a person can do! You leave home with bare necessities, shuttle around the world, walk around everywhere, and what have you got to show for it? A much subdued bank account balance, materially speaking. Oh and maybe some cheap souvenirs (an attempt in vain to hold onto a transient experience). But in a way that's kind of how life is. You're born, you do some stuff on Earth, and then it's all over. You can't even bring any souvenirs with you.

To quote Guruji: "Why fear?"

Friday, January 28, 2011

Back on the Mat

I practiced today, finally, after more than a week away from the mat. I remember that the way T.K.V. Desikachar (son of the legendary Krishnamacharya, the guru of B.K.S. Iyengar, K. Pattabhi Jois, and Indra Devi) teaches emphasizes "start where you are." Of course I've always known that in my rational mind, but I think I was far from doing that in practice. It always seemed to me there was a better, more perfect ideal to reach, in every aspect of my life. Today, with my stress-stiffened joints and overextended muscles, I am outwardly no longer the flexible practitioner I was just a few months ago, but my internal practice is just beginning to take shape. I am doing yoga for myself for once, not to teach others, not to become a better doctor, not to be a "better me," not to please my teacher, not to be in shape...not for any reason other than it feels good and right. I used to always gravitate towards "hard" teachers - the disciplinarian ones that push you and adjust you and really put you in your place and feed my tendency to believe I'm never good enough - until I began realizing that these teachers are the external manifestation of what I tell myself.

I like Patanjali's Yoga Sutra 2.16: heyam duhkham anagatam (translation: but future suffering can be avoided). There is no reason to suffer for the sake of suffering. If anything, suffering is often held onto with pride because one fears the possibility that happiness cannot exist.

Didn't someone say: "don't let the perfect ruin the good"?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

It's Not What You Do, It's Who You Are

And they say..
She's so Lucky
She's a star
But she cry cry cries in her lonely heart
Thinking, if there's nothing missing in my life
Then why do these tears come at night?

Lost in an image, in a dream
But there's no one there to wake her up
And the world is spinning and she keeps on winning
But tell me, what happens when it stops

-lyrics from Britney Spears' "Lucky"

I'm trying to wrap my head around the fact that people can possibly like you for who you are, not based on your achievements or what you can do for them. Growing up, I felt like my identity was very much tied with what I "do" and my parents' love and affection for me was intimately linked with how well I perform, be it in school, in music, or in anything in life (manners? proper behavior?). My sister and I just had the best weekend of our entire LIVES - I went down to Los Angeles to celebrate her 21st birthday with her - and at times during the weekend it'd really shock me that my sister would enjoy being with me despite me currently being "nothing" on paper. I told her about this and she asked me why I loved her - it's nothing that's on her resume!

I feel like my dad is trying to change, too. I realized now that he's not trying to control me and I'm no longer trying to please him, we can have a much more genuine, trusting, and real relationship. That being said, I still need time to adjust to all of this and build trust again, but at least I foresee a brighter future ahead.

I got my first tattoo over the weekend! My sister got an identical one on her side, whereas I got this on my left shoulderblade:

We were just saying that five years ago we'd never imagine we'd be doing this together (we semi-hated/resented/disliked each other at that time). It just goes to show how unexpected life can be.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Ephemeral is Eternal

"While studying as a medical student, Wolfgang Laib became dissatisfied with modern science's mechanistic treatment of the human body. He turned to art to explore the universe through its life-giving essences (pollen, milk, rice) and its substantial materials (stone, beeswax, resin)..."

-placard viewed in an exhibit of modern Buddhist-inspired art at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City

"Osamu Tezuka (1928-89) is the godfather of Japanese manga comics. He originally intended to become a doctor and earned an M.D. before turning to what was then a medium for children. His many masterpieces from that period include the series known in the U.S. as Astro Boy..."

-cover jacket introduction to the author of a comic series about the Buddha

"My animation professor said that he was 'on track' to be a doctor until his mid-20s, then realized he was trying to live someone else's life and went into film. At break, I asked him if he had any advice for someone going through the same thing. He said that he wished he knew how common this abrupt left turn (away from medicine or engineering or law into art and humanities) is actually quite common, especially amongst bright people. He said that it's too easy for smart people to go into medicine because people see that they are smart and just push them towards med school. So basically, he said not to worry too much about what's going to happen next. Many people have gone on from med school to succeed in artistic fields."

-email from my sister, a film production major at USC, dated 1/15/2011

THERE IS A WHOLE WORLD OUT THERE. I'll be leaving for India on February 7th, arriving in Kolkata on February 9th.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


I used to read compulsively. I'd have a stack of textbooks and stack of "fun" books, and as I studied quantum mechanics or glycolysis, I'd take frequent study breaks to read my "fun" books - books on Christianity, on yoga anatomy, on yoga philosophy, novels, myths, Asian American studies, name it. I realized this was a way of distracting myself, in a way - of escaping and making the present moment (studying things I don't really like) more bearable. I thought this was superior to using food, computer games, shopping, or TV to distract myself. Sure, it sounds a bit more scholarly or intellectual to be escaping into books, but isn't it a distraction all the same? It is a way of avoiding the present moment, and keeping from acknowledging what I am really experiencing.

What makes books like "Eat, Pray, Love" so successful? It's a great adventure story - one can easily live vicariously through Elizabeth Gilbert as she hops from one continent to the next on her own journey. It's a great way to avoid journeys of our own, both the joys and hardships of finding our own paths. It is safe and easy to read a book like that, whereas truly setting off on an adventure or questioning whether we are living honestly can be unsettling and difficult and depressing (at times).

I realized that escapism, or borrowing and imitating others, are no longer options for me. The word "vipassanā" (a word in Pali, the language of the Buddha) means to see things as they really are, insight into the nature of reality. To truly practice meditation means to not use meditation or yoga as "drugs," forms of dulling the senses and escaping from reality into an unreal "happy place."

Monday, January 10, 2011

Kübler-Ross Model

The Kübler-Ross model (a.k.a. the five stages of grief) was originally developed regarding people suffering from terminal illnesses, but was later applied to anybody dealing with a personal loss of some magnitude. My doctor had actually mentioned it to me when I visited him for an appointment during the holidays. I'd laughed it off then, and said I was fine (denial?). I remembered the conversation just now and looked it up on Wikipedia:

1. Denial—"I feel fine."; "This can't be happening, not to me."

Denial is usually only a temporary defense for the individual. This feeling is generally replaced with heightened awareness of positions and individuals that will be left behind after death.

2. Anger—"Why me? It's not fair!"; "How can this happen to me?"; "Who is to blame?"
Once in the second stage, the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue. Because of anger, the person is very difficult to care for due to misplaced feelings of rage and envy. Any individual that symbolizes life or energy is subject to projected resentment and jealousy.

3. Bargaining—"Just let me live to see my children graduate."; "I'll do anything for a few more years."; "I will give my life savings if..."

The third stage involves the hope that the individual can somehow postpone or delay death. Usually, the negotiation for an extended life is made with a higher power in exchange for a reformed lifestyle. Psychologically, the individual is saying, "I understand I will die, but if I could just have more time..."

4. Depression—"I'm so sad, why bother with anything?"; "I'm going to die... What's the point?"; "I miss my loved one, why go on?"

During the fourth stage, the dying person begins to understand the certainty of death. Because of this, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time crying and grieving. This process allows the dying person to disconnect oneself from things of love and affection. It is not recommended to attempt to cheer up an individual who is in this stage. It is an important time for grieving that must be processed.

5. Acceptance—"It's going to be okay."; "I can't fight it, I may as well prepare for it."

In this last stage, the individual begins to come to terms with his mortality or that of his loved one.

Apparently the steps don't always occur in this order, and not all of them do actually occur or sometimes people go back and forth between various steps. And this process should be allowed to take place naturally, neither rushed nor lengthened, until the final stage (acceptance) is reached.

Knowing my impatient personality, it was good to realize this. It is hard for me not to push myself too hard (even with getting over things like this??!)!!

But to be honest, sometimes I look back on the past six years of my life and wonder what I was possibly thinking. And I remind myself that it is better "late" than "later," and better "later" than "never."

Breathing Practice

Still wasn't ready to get back on the mat today. It feels like if anyone pushed me I would probably crack. Realized I need to be gentle with myself right now. It hurts to walk sometimes, and I need to be easy on my muscles. At least I think I'm recuperating somewhat.

Heading back to California on Friday. I need a break. I need some warmth, both literally and figuratively. I have the tendency to beat myself up over things, and sometimes it still feels surreal to me that this is all happening. I tend to try to keep myself composed...but I've had two teachers remind me that I'm human, something that I tend to forget (along with forgetting to breathe, lately).

I dream about moving to Berkeley someday and adopting a kitten. These days I question whether I'm living life in reverse.

Saturday, January 8, 2011


I'd like to amend the previous post. After a hot yoga class today, my Ashtanga teacher (who happened to be at the studio) came over to talk to me. She asked me about coming back to practice, and I just broke down crying. I told her that everything hurts, that my hamstrings, hips, back, everything's tight. I lost my flexibility over winter break when I was at home and got stressed out. I can't even bend forward that well anymore. She told me to breathe. And to just. Let. Go. I guess I blame myself for so many things, and am struggling so hard to find my footing right now. To be honest, I feel overwhelmed and it's like the world is spinning. Things aren't easy right now. I wasn't breathing. We talked for a long time. About how the practice is not just a physical one. About how it is something that I have that can ground me during this difficult time. She reminded me of when she was in the hospital (the same one where I go to medical school, incidentally!) - I'd visited her there between classes, when I first started studying with her. After her hospitalization, she had to start over, not comparing her current practice with how it was before. She asked me why I push myself so hard. I push myself hard in every aspect of my life. Why is it that I have to force myself to do things that I don't like? There is no reason for that. I told her I had been doing that for my entire life. That I felt like if I didn't do the right things then people won't like me anymore. She reminded me that it's about doing things that are true to myself and loving myself for who I am and being with people who love me for who I am, not for the things I can do. I told her about wanting to go to India, and asked if she had suggestions for places. She said to just travel, because I'll make myself go crazy right now if I try to practice there. I told her that I'm so bad at doing nothing. That I can't just do nothing. I don't know how to do that. Everything always has to be for a reason. She told me to take my mat with me to India, and the beauty of Ashtanga is that it can be practiced anywhere, by myself.

I realized yoga is not about pushing. It's about letting go. Why is it that people say Ashtanga is intense or competitive or too hard or aggressive? It's not the practice that's too hard, or intense, or competitive. We make it that way with our egos.

Back to the basics.

"Let go."


And the amazing thing was, as I breathed, let go of all the tension and expectations and worries and concerns, I felt my muscles relaxing. As I sit and write this now, I am feeling significantly less pain. I was crying all the way home on the subway and in my room, got some strange glances along the way Uptown, but it was so necessary. It's as if the good cry and talk and just breathing has changed things. I hadn't even allowed myself a truly good cry after making the big decision, and I guess everything just came out.

This was a good lesson for me to learn. My teacher told me that too many people are afraid to change, and they'd rather just continue on the same miserable way. Twenty years down the line, it's even harder to change, and it doesn't get any easier.

The practice has taught me courage, for sure.

Be back on the mat on Sunday, learning to let go. I'll be hopefully practicing in a gentle way, a slower way, and a way that is not perfectionistic. The beginner's mind...

Friday, January 7, 2011

Ashtanga Teachings

It's snowing outside, here in NYC! I haven't seen it snow this hard before, and I keep staring out at the window in amazement! Anyhow, here are some Ashtanga illustrations that I saw online. They're very cute. I like the pasasana one in particular.

I learned a lot from regular Ashtanga practice over the course of last semester. Ashtanga is like a mirror. It allows you to observe yourself and see yourself as you are. But that's only if you dare to do so. As one of my fellow work-study students at the studio remarked, "There's so much ego in that room!" It's easy to look at one's neighbor and compare practices, when in actuality, who gets a medal for completing Primary Series, starting Intermediate Series, or reaching Advanced Series?

Ashtanga taught me to turn my gaze inward, and see myself. It taught me to listen to my own body, mind, and spirit. There are real consequences when I don't, as I'm experiencing now. I realized that I let so many people push me beyond my capacity all these years. I allowed that to happen by not listening to my own voice and not standing up for myself. I became a disciplined automaton, taking on discipline and achievement for its own sake, rather than as a means to an end, sacrificing my sense of happiness.

On January 22, it will be three years since I took my first Ashtanga yoga class in PE at UC Berkeley. Yoga, in general, has changed my life more than anything else, and has given me hope that change - make that change leading to freedom - is possible. I write this now as I decide consciously to step away from Ashtanga practice for a while. I realize that I may have overindulged in this practice over the course of last semester, but that in itself has taught me something. I'm not closing the door on returning to this practice in the future, but for now, I need to do something gentler, something slower, something that doesn't feed into my rigid disciplinarian tendencies. I realize that no one method of yoga is THE method. There are right seasons for each and every practice. Part of practicing yoga is to know which is for when.

I'll close this post with one quote that I learned through Ashtanga practice: "Why fear?"

Courage, and the willingness to try and risk. Vande gurunam!

Thursday, January 6, 2011


In today’s world, people experience two types of poverty: the poverty caused by lack of food, clothing and shelter, and the poverty caused by lack of love and compassion. Of these two, the second type needs to be considered first—because, if we have love and compassion in our hearts, then we will wholeheartedly serve those who suffer from lack of food, clothing and shelter.

-Mata Amritanandamayi Devi (Amma)

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Checking Out

I've been running around the school getting my checkout papers signed. Everyone sort of glances at me awkwardly and politely signs the papers without further questions. Only the bursar acknowledged the situation, and asked me what I'm doing next. I said I don't know (I have ideas, but no concrete plans), and he told me it's so common for people to leave med school. It was the first time a staff member at school had told me that, and I must have had a look of disbelief on my face (who leaves med school? Every day there are 10-20 interviewees practically begging to be let IN!). He readily reconfirmed what he'd just said, and told me he'd had countless jobs throughout his 20s and 30s too. He told me the below quote:

"Optimism is the true moral courage" -Shackleton

Which I guess means - if you don’t believe in what you’re doing, you will fail, because you will not have the strength of mind or body to succeed.