Yoga camp aka Life camp

I’ve been doing yoga on and off since I was 18. I’ve abandoned it for weeks, months, sometimes years, but I’ve always come back to it. I guess mostly for the savasana. I’m not sure I would ever say I was good at yoga. I certainly never looked like the bendy Instagram photos we all aspire to when I practice. As I’ve gotten stronger physically with marathons, pilates, spin and etc, I found myself coming back to yoga because it challenged me in new and different ways. Yoga requires a unique combination of flexibility, strength, and focus and I feel so calm after a class. So when I had time this summer, I decided to do my yoga teacher training. Why not? I have the time and worst case I’ll get better at yoga.

I quickly found out that there are a million options when it comes to yoga teacher courses. My criteria for the training was a month-long intensive, I wanted to be immersed, somewhere beautiful that I haven’t been before, and in July or August time frame. After evaluation options by cost and reviews, I ended up with the 16-day 200-hour training with Yandara in Sweden.

I entered yoga teacher training with expectations and objectives. I expected yoga bootcamp, where I was physically doing yoga for 6 hours or more a day and meditating between sessions. I had a list of poses that I wanted to conquer: handstand, crow, side crow, splits, etc… I planned to meditate on my career’s next steps and come to clarity and a decision.

At the end of the month, I didn’t end up “conquering” my checklist of yoga poses, and I didn’t make a definitive decision about my career. But I got exactly what I needed at this time in my life: a chance to re-set from my day to day, a chance to learn to listen, and a chance to evaluate my choices.

To imagine what my days are like in Sweden. Here’s a typical schedule.

  • 7–9AM morning yoga class
  • 9–10AM silent breakfast
  • 10–1PM yoga philosophy
  • 1–2:30PM lunch
  • 2:30–4:30PM teaching training
  • 4:30–6 alignment and pose workshops
  • 6–7PM dinner
  • 7–9:30PM mantra and singing or restorative yoga

We’re only really doing physical asana yoga 2 to max 4 hours a day, but we were in class for 10–12 hours a day.

Here’s what I didn’t have:

  • Constant internet access: we had ~60 mins a day during dinner time but I had to choose between eating and internet sometimes :).
  • Privacy: Rooms are hostel style shared with 1–2 other people with shared showers/restrooms down the hall.
  • Animal Protein: Diet was vegetarian close to vegan diet (occasional cheese, milk, butter).
  • Coffee or alcohol: herbal tea and water were the liquids of choice.

This routine and environment was unlike any other for developing relationships and learning about myself. When I left Sweden at the end of August, I felt more aware and comfortable with myself than I ever have. Here’s a bit of what I learned.

I am not my habits, preferences, or resume.

A huge of part of my identity was what I did for work. I’m an engineer, I’m a product manager, I’m a tech person, I’m a startup person, I’m a Googler, I’m a Facebooker. Then I identified myself with details of my life history, I’m Chinese, I’m from the midwest, etc. I even identified myself with my preferences: I’m not a morning person, I’m a foodie, I’m a traveler, I’m a mountain person, I’m a dress person, I’m a reader, etc. But what Christopher, our yoga philosophy teacher asked me was: when all these things go away, who am I?

The answer is much harder to sum up in words and to be honest I’m still working on it. But the important thing is I like who I am without all the labels. Here’s what happened when I realized I am not my habits, my preferences or my job.

I can change my habits and patterns.

Here’s one example. For my entire life, I’ve hated mornings. I loved sleeping in and could never imagine myself waking up early voluntarily. For 20 days in Sweden, I woke up at 6:30AM every morning and went to bed at 9:30 or 10PM. To my surprise, I loved it. I continued this trend for weeks after I left yoga because I realized that having ~2 hours to myself in the morning when the world was quiet and dark was amazing. And I realized that I hated mornings because the mornings were never for me. It was always about work or school or some other obligation. So I am reclaiming my mornings. It is definitely harder now that I’m back in SF and staying up later in the evenings and adding alcohol back in my life, but those are my choices too. I’ve learned to listen to myself and really understand why something makes me feel a certain way.

I can form deep, meaningful friendships.

As I got older, it’s been harder to make friends. But when I stop talking about people’s resumes, conversations quickly get more interesting and more intimate. Within a couple of days, I had deep personal conversations about my fellow yogi’s hopes, dreams, and insecurities. Within a week, I could talk about the 20 yogis in Sweden in terms I usually only describe dear friends who I’ve known for years. Here’s one example.

Kim is the sister I didn’t know I wanted. She is smart, thoughtful, and brave. She understands me in a real way because we’ve internalized similar pressures from parents and society. I’m so proud that she stepped away from corporate law to take time for herself and she’s brave and vulnerable enough to be honest about it. I love how curious she is about life and how much exploration she’s done with philosophy and yoga before camp. She’s also an amazing yogi on the mat who could would give me Instagram envy except she’s just so excited for me to play and master poses with her.

I could keep going… The funny thing is by the end of 20 days, I didn’t know what everyone’s jobs were or how old they were or even where they lived. But I’ve seen them laugh and cry and I knew such intimate details about how they feel, what they love, and what they fear.

I can enjoy more of life without my preferences.

The first time that my teacher asked me who I would be without my preferences. My answer was fear, don’t my preferences make up my personality and who I am? Then I realized what he meant.

I asked myself these questions: who would I be if I didn’t prefer sun to rain? If I didn’t prefer evenings to mornings? If I didn’t prefer chocolate to fruit? If I didn’t prefer perfection to messiness? My preferences stop me from being open minded and going with the flow. I can enjoy life and what’s in front of me more if I let go of those preferences.

Today I woke up and the day was gray and I slept in too late. My first reaction was to lament all those things. Then, I took a deep breath and said to my love: “Isn’t the day nice and cozy? I’m so glad we slept in, our bodies clearly needed it.” It helped.

I’m in control of my life and emotions.

We spent a lot of time studying the Yoga Sutra, which is a set of guidelines for living a meaningful life. There’s one sutra that really resonated with me: Svadhyay, which roughly translates to self study.

Through our discussions and meditations on Svadhyay, I’ve come to believe that everything I feel is mine and that’s the only thing that I can control. Everything else is someone else’s work. And I know that everyone and everything in my life is there to help me grow.

The trigger: aka the bank teller moment.

We’ve all been there, we’re waiting in line at the bank and when we get to the front of the line, the teller tells us in an impatient tone: “Um…did you see the sign? You need to fill out that form. Go to the back of the line.” The immediate reactions are whoa why are you being so rude? Should I push back? Maybe I should talk to his or her manager. We don’t go to the bank in person all that much anymore but replace this with when an Uber driver being rude or when someone cuts you off in a meeting and I think you get the point.

There are these triggers in life that make us feel intensely frustrated, angry, upset, and sometimes it’s hard to shake off those feelings. They stay with us for hours or even days rather than minutes. They can build up over time and make us pretty miserable. Why is that?

The truth: What I feel is my shit, what everyone else feels is their shit.

The truth is what I’m feeling is all me and has nothing to do the bank teller/Uber driver/colleague. I am choosing to react that way based on my past experiences and my preferences. What triggered those reactions? Is it because I hate being publicly embarrassed? Is it because I’m insecure about my role at work? Reminding myself of this fact has been extremely challenging since I’ve left the safety of yoga camp. But taking ownership over my emotions and reactions is the first step. So maybe next time, when the trigger comes into my life, I won’t tense up and just react. Maybe at the very least, I will pause and take a couple of deep breaths.

The work: getting curious about our triggers and learning to exhale.

Christopher told us a story about his teacher. They were having dinner and the waiter tripped and a giant glass of ice water was tumbling towards his teacher’s face. And in that moment he exhaled. When I first heard the story, I didn’t really understand why it was so extraordinary. Then I realized this man has learned to let go of his natural fight or flight instinct. He’s trained his body to relax in a moment of tension. Imagine a world where we make all our decisions from a place where we are calm and centered rather than from that tense, back against the wall feeling.

If we get curious about our emotions, we can learn to get beyond the triggers…eventually :). Even Christopher admits he’s still working on this. It doesn’t mean I am passive in life, but it means that I can go from gut reaction to a thoughtful action. It means that every time those intense negative emotions come to us, we realize we have work to do. What is the root cause of those emotions? Where does it come from? How do I take ownership over those emotions? Then maybe say thank you to the other person for reminding us we have work to do.

I am perfect just the way I am right now.

Finally I won’t lament this. We are are own worst critics and we need to stop. It’s not helping.

Stop judging.

Try this exercise: listed all the things you mentally thought about yourself in 24 hours. Now read those back as if your significant other or roommate or friend said those things to you. Would you want that person in your life? The answer is probably no. When I stopped identifying myself by old habits, I stopped judging myself when I didn’t meet my old expectations. If I couldn’t hold my headstand without a wall, it didn’t mean I was terrible at yoga and should stop trying. If my hamstrings didn’t want to cooperate for the day, I didn’t lament that my parents didn’t put me in dance early in life. Probably more important, when I accepted I was more than my work, I stopped judging the fact that I’m on sabbatical and started enjoying it more.

Start loving.

I was raised to believe that constructive feedback is the only way we learn and grow. I had a moment the other day. I was in voice class and we were rehearsing for midterms. There’s a woman in class who is generally a bit negative. For example, when she found out I was engaged, her response was “Well, it’s a nice ring, if it doesn’t work out, you’re going out in style.” Yikes right? She went on stage to sing and struggled with the song. Her voice cracked and she was having trouble with the high notes. We were giving each other feedback and Eddie, one of the best singers in the class said to her. “You are radiant when you sing. Did you know that?” In that moment, she was radiant. That one comment made her realize that she loved to sing and that it’s ok to struggle when you’re learning. That comment is going to stick with her every time she goes on stage now and it’s a gift. The world is full of constructive feedback. So what would it be like if we were a bit kinder to ourselves and everyone else in our lives.

Find the balance between effort and ease.

One of the ultimate truth about Yoga is that to perfect a pose, it is a combination of effort and ease. For instance to have a beautiful warrior 2, I have to find ease in my hips while finding the effort to hold that bend in my quads and extension in my back hamstrings. I knew that from my work on the mat, but now I’m trying to find that balance off the mat: in my daily choices, in my relationships, and in my work. I have a feeling this is going to be the work of a lifetime.

Life after yoga camp.

I had an amazing time at yoga camp. I am trying to carry forward the lessons I’ve learned. Some days, I succeed, other days I don’t. But I keep trying :). When people ask me what I’m doing right now, I still struggle with a clear answer, but I think the real answer is I’m working on me.

I wrote this post mostly because I wanted to document this experience while it was still fresh but I hope sharing this helps you in some way. It goes without saying, but I highly recommend this experience with Yandara whether you plan to teach yoga or not.

If nothing else you’ll make an amazing group of yogi friends.

P.S. If you do want to work on your yoga practice, I am offering private or small group yoga lessons .