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Urban Ashtangi : Li Chang

Li Chang headstand

Li Chang’s yoga journey began almost six years ago and started her regular ashtanga practice a year ago. Off the mat, she works as a research analyst in an agribusiness trading house. A typical day would be sitting at her desk for long hours looking at supply and demand data of commodities.

1. How did yoga seed itself into your life?

I can’t really recall what exactly pushed me to sign up for the first yoga class, only that it was at a small and chic yoga studio on Yong Siak Street. After walking past it countless times on my evening stroll I simply walked in one day and registered for a trial, completely on a whim. And the practice has stayed with me ever since.

2. What motivated you to start practicing yoga, and how has that motivation evolved over time?

For a very long time, yoga to me was a form of exercise that is both functional and enjoyable. I like the types of movements it involves, that allows the whole body to reset from its heavy duty during the day, as well as the mental serenity that comes with it. At times the one hour of practice is the only moment during the day when I manage to offload all random thoughts and truly “be present”.

Maybe because of that I’ve never been overly obsessive with asana. Don’t take me wrong, like most yogis, I’ve dreamed of standing on my hands, awed by the seasoned yogis who could execute advanced poses effortlessly. But I didn’t feel bad about myself for not being able to do a proper chaturanga or push into Wheel pose, even after years of practise. 

3. In what ways do you incorporate yoga principles into your daily life beyond the mat?

As I spell out these thoughts, I realize it is the non-utilitarianism of the yoga practice that has made the mat a safe place for me. In real life we are all driven by social goals and expectations. Things we do often come with a deadline and an appraisal form that can exhaust and stress us out. For that brief moment on the mat there’s no space for me to think how good I look or when I would unlock the next asana. I practice for the sake of practice and I cherish every progress I’ve made with the conviction that, given time, things will come eventually.

I guess everybody would have their challenging yoga moments at a certain point in time. Mine happened earlier this year when I was attending my first YTT, at the end of which I injured my rib cage while practicing Wheel pose. This is probably the most stressful and wearing period in my yoga journey thus far. In all honesty, I enjoyed every bit of the learning and time spent with the class, but it also brought out one thing I dreaded the most, which is the expectation that you need to achieve certain things within the three months. 

In the end I did graduate from the course with a sense of achievement, but also with fatigue, tension and two broken ribs. Fortunately, it didn’t take me very long to walk out from the dreadful period. For that, I’m grateful to have met wonderful people, teachers like Shirly and Adeline, my chiropractor and friends who accompanied me in the healing process. 

Looking back, I could almost call it a blessing in disguise, as somehow I feel I’ve grown a bit stronger out of it, externally and internally. I’ve realized that the body could hold immense tension from physical postures as well as mental state, which is probably the biggest antagonist in my yoga practice. What is needed instead is “relaxed concentration”, which is a fancier term of Shirly’s rubber band metaphor (for those who are interested, you could read Timothy Gallwey’s “The Inner Game of Tennis:: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance”). 

Here is my simple adaptation in yoga terms: let go of unnecessary thoughts – thoughts of fear, of the desire to control, of self-judgment, focus on breathing, and allow the body to take control. It would be exaggerating to say it works wonders on my practice, but sometimes it surprises me how easy it could be to get into the poses by letting go. And once you get used to that mental state, you will realize it is a switch that could be turned on any any occasion in life.

4. What advice would you give to someone who is just starting their yoga journey?

Can’t say I’ve made much progress in achieving “relaxed concentration”, but everything takes practice. I’m simply glad that I’ve made it back to the mat, regained the gratification in yoga practice, found more ease on and off the mat by relaxing a little more. At the end of the day, I’m probably going to walk out from the year’s ups and downs as a small winner.

If I could offer some advice to those who are starting their yoga journey, know that everyone is different, everyday is different. So acknowledge and accept how your practice looks and feels at that point of time, just keep going with it. Yoga is the best manifestation of “trusting the process”, try that on the mat, and take it beyond the mat. 

May you walk into the new year with more peace and strength.

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