Head Over Heels

When lockdown turned his world upside-down we found balance on the mat.

By Daven Wu

Aug 1, 2020

IF YOU’D ASKED me a year ago about my yoga practice, I’d have shrugged and said it was fine. I mean, I wasn’t a beginner. After years of haphazard attendance at assorted classes and showing up diligently for morning yoga at resorts, I could touch my toes and achieve a middling headstand. But that was about it. If anything, I regarded yoga very much as an exercise—a health regimen to stay fit and mildly limber–and knew barely anything about its spiritual underpinnings.

Then, in April 2020, Singapore went into an extended lockdown. Overnight, the world closed in to, literally, the four walls of my apartment.

And like everyone I know, I began to struggle with cabin fever and a vague sense of dread as, inexplicably, the days evaporated. With no appointments and dwindling work, morning shifted into night with almost no pause: I would wake up a little anxious about the rent, and suddenly it was time for bed.

Then, one evening, while cyber-surfing, I came across a YouTube clip of John Scott’s Ashtanga Primary Series at Purple Valley, which Google said is a bucolic yoga retreat in sunlit Goa. I bookmarked the page, and the next morning, with nothing in the diary, I rolled out the yoga mat in the living room, and pressed play on the laptop.

What happened next had the cinematic quality of one of those orchestra-scored montages in The Karate Kid and Rocky, where the emotionally and physically puny lead starts training for the big match at the end of the film.

I lurched through that first class. At one stage, it got to be too much, so I just sat and watched the on-screen students go through their paces. The next day, still battered and sore, I quietly rolled out my mat again and took another Purple Valley class—this time with Laruga Glaser, a Spandexed yogi who looked like she might have accidentally wandered into the shala after training the Amazons. She went through the set considerably faster than Scott, but I fell hard for her, as much for her no-nonsense pacing as for the steely contralto of her commands.

There was something about Ashtanga that immediately chimed with me. On the surface, the practice comprises an unvarying sequence of set postures whose movements are linked by rhythmic breaths that are counted aloud in Sanskrit. There’s no rest as, over 90 minutes, one posture blends into the next. Which doesn’t sound like much, until you realize just how much core work, balance, and leg and arm strength are involved.

Within days, I was deep-diving into the fundamentals of yoga, its purpose, history, and anatomical underpinnings. I learned to count in Sanskrit, which made following classes much easier. I took all the Purple Valley classes, whether by Joey Miles, David Robson, or Petri Räisänen, but, on most mornings, Glaser was my go-to teacher. Soon, the interior of Purple Valley’s vast shala became as familiar to me as my own living room.

I also watched all the retreat’s tutorials—filmed next to an attractive pool fringed with thick vegetation— in which yoga legends like Maty Ezraty and Mark Darby dissected asanas and philosophy. Unconsciously, I found myself memorizing the entire Primary Series, which, along with its Sanskrit count, I mentally replayed as I drifted into sleep.

The practice didn’t get any easier, even as I felt my muscles lengthen and my flexibility deepen. Each posture has its demon, whether it’s the breath or its sheer physical demand. But because the sequence is unrelenting and disciplined, you can’t linger or nurse a bruised ego. You move on, driven forward by the Sanskrit count and the counted breath. Stay present. Focus on the posture. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. I found myself counting in Sanskrit even after practice. My body became a physical metronome.

Then one day, about a month later, I suddenly realized I wasn’t stressed. That gnawing feeling of dread and impending doom was gone. As was the cabin fever. And the listless sense of helplessness. In their place was… calm.

I knew at once it was the yoga. What I’d long regarded as “just” exercise had, somehow, evolved into something altogether unexpected. Precisely what that something was, I didn’t yet understand.

Courtesy of Yoga Goa

By this time, I had started a shy fanboy thread on Instagram with Laruga Glaser who has taught a two-week retreat at Purple Valley every year since 2015. She was unsurprised by my interior change. “The true definition of yoga is simply, ‘stilling the mind,’” she texted to me. “Stillness is what we ultimately crave. This can be especially powerful when faced with experiences and challenges that are out of our control.”

In times of confusion and doubt, Glaser added, this reaching for stillness—and its harvest of inner strength and clarity—makes a daily yoga practice even more important. “So, even though we use the body as a tool for this broader awareness, yoga is truly a healing balm for the mind. It gives us the capacity to find peace inside, even when there is external chaos. In a sense, it’s like sitting inside the eye of a storm.”

All of which has left me more than a little determined to book the next flight out to Goa. As I write this, Singapore is slowly emerging from its lockdown and the idea of attending a retreat at Purple Valley is a siren’s song. “When it comes to quality yoga education in a retreat setting,” says Glaser, who is prepping to lead a one-month retreat there, “I feel it is one of the best in the world, because they invite top-notch teachers who are leaders in their field.”

Meanwhile, the rigors and discipline of the daily practice of Ashtanga have left me in the best physical—and in many ways, emotional—shape of my life. I still can’t finish the entire Primary Series without stopping several times, but I am serene in accepting that. For now, every day, I roll out my mat, press play on the laptop and immediately I’m in that shala in Goa, Rocky theme and all.

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