How Yoga Can Save Your Life

“The conundrum of body is the starting point in yoga from which to unravel the mystery of human existence.” – B.K.S. Iyengar

In the past year I’ve discovered that yoga is one of the best things I’ve ever done, and continue to do, for myself. What started out as an enjoyable way to stay fit turned into mind, heart, spirit, and body conditioning towards an all-around sustainably better metaphysical existence.

Since I completed the introductory teacher-training course in Rishikesh, India, I’ve been on an incredible yoga high that never crashes. To say I’ve learned so much from that course sounds weak and insufficient. Yoga has taught me self-deliverance.

I’ve experienced huge benefits from regular, sustained practice. I’m calmer and more conscious. My body is stronger and leaner. I’m generally a happier, more balanced person. I honestly feel that many of the world’s problems could be solved if we all just dedicated a little bit of time to yoga everyday.

Indeed, it sounds simple, but I’ve discovered some key life lessons by maintaining a regular daily yoga practice. And they’re too good to not share. If you’ve ever felt a little less than on top of life, factor a bit of yoga into your day and save your spirit.

Perfect balance is closer than you think.

I often take my night time asana practice outside where the light is dim. I stand on my mat, working my way into Vrksasana (tree pose), from the core through to the tips of my limbs. Every night I feel unsteady and I compare it to my morning practice that is strong, solid, on fire. Not like this limpy leaf stuff. I once considered chucking out nighttime balance poses altogether until I realized how planned and pessimistic that would be. My tree won’t get stronger unless I give it something to help it grow, right? So instead, I chose a drishti (focal point) that is closer, something still and right in front of me to help me stabilize. Focusing my attention on something too distant is a little like constantly looking towards the future. And something that is not completely still trips me up and steals the energy I’d rather use in other ways.

Strength is a core value.

When I stand still and every muscle and nerve is in one stationary pose, I feel my strongest. And I picture the powerhouse behind it. An image of a warrior. Sometimes my strength comes when I flow from one asana to the next in constant motion. Either way, I always have the choice to feel strong or weak, active or passive, or somewhere in between. Regardless of what I’m doing, where I am, with circumstances I can’t always control, when I respond from the core of my energy I am always strong.

It’s impossible to fall off a yoga mat.

The number of times I’ve brushed my yoga practice aside when I’m tired, hungover, sad, heartbroken, angry, or simply apathetic are too many to count. And they are all the same reasons I get choose to get back on my mat in an attempt to acknowledge those states, observe them, suss them out, and relieve myself of them. It’s not a big task. Whenever I fall off the mat, it’s a mere 1/4 inch to get back on. If I only get as far as laying my mat down on the ground and lying in Savasana (corpse pose) it’s a start. Allowing yourself to fall and lie down for a little while and rest, not from the fall of the high but from the high of the fall, is always a good thing.

The hardest and most worthwhile thing to be is still and present.

When I first started getting serious about my practice, I would inch a little further into every position, every few seconds, with each breath. I never stopped long enough to feel the stillness that emerges when I cease all movement, until recently. It was always about more, further, better, sooner. Lately, I’ve begun allowing myself to sink into an asana for three, four, sometimes ten minutes. I stay as long as feels right, to the point where I don’t even notice my own body anymore, like the ground just absorbed it. A parallelism to life. Where life happens doesn’t matter as much as where I am when it does. Here? Fighting battles in the head? Striding towards a future that never materializes into what it was supposed to be? Walking backwards? Limping forwards? Calm and aware of the divine precise moment? Like the seed in winter, deeply underground, stillness is where all the real work is happening even though it doesn’t appear that way.

Holding your breath won’t kill you.

Like yoga, life is unsustainable without breath. We literally can’t live unless we breathe. We typically think of breathing as a continuous series of inhales and exhales. But retention is a part of breathing, just like silence is sometimes part of the song. That’s where the peace is. It’s like climbing the mountain and pausing to enjoy the view before continuing forward.

A rubber yoga mat absorbs sadness better than a tissue.

My mat takes it all–my sweat, my tears, my dirty feet and my filthy heart. Every energy on every given day, and the transformation of that energy as I move across my mat each morning or night. I can dissolve or create whatever energy, mood, feeling, or thought I want on the space of that mat. Ultimate power, control, and consciousness in a slab of recycled rubber. I can cry my way through yoga just because it feels good to do so, never sad like when I cry into a tissue. I can laugh out loud or sing or dance. My mat is my platform for life, materialized. A space I can create whenever, wherever I am.

Don’t just let go. Fully and consciously release.

Breath is the centre of yoga, and yogasana has taught me a lot about how to breathe properly so I no longer have to grit my teeth through each challenging position. I’ve learned to inhale fully and without haste, to hold on when appropriate, and to release fully and slowly, until my lungs are deflated and there is nothing left. It has taught me about non-attachment. Accept, hold, release, and let go. Holding onto anything longer than necessary, longer than productive for self-growth deprives us of energy and depletes our life force. We are allowed to–meant to–fully release anything that prevents the steady flow of life that always involves loss and gain.

Yesterday’s expectations are today’s disappointments.

I always try my best, but my best changes from day to day depending on many different factors. How I slept, what I ate, my physical health, the emotional baggage I’m packing around. Progress is not always a step ahead. Sometimes it’s a limp backwards. Sometimes it’s a leap forwards. It doesn’t matter, as long as my heart and attention are involved in whatever I’m doing, regardless of whether it earns me a trophy. 

Truth is patient.

Nothing works properly in my body if I’m cold. When I indulge in a slow warm up at the start of my practice my limbs become buttery, my spine bendy, and everything seems to grow with little effort. But I need time to create this heat. It’s the only way I can move forward in my practice on a cold morning without injury. If I spring right into a backbend because I’m hasty to get on with it, to push myself into something I’m not quite ready for, I end up hurting myself. The point is, yoga can teach us the truth of our limits in situations, whether we like it or not. It can also teach us the truth of our power. Both take time, self-trust, and perseverance.

Thought can be your worst enemy.

Iyengar writes, “…thought cannot solve the problems caused by thought…”. Yoga allows me a space to shut my mind off and feel my way through my practice. When I start thinking about what I’m doing, those thoughts stymie my ability to feel and I get very critical and demanding of myself. This is not the point of yoga–to fracture the spirit. Sometimes I have to just make up my practice as I go, just as we have to make life up as we go, to feel our way through it rather than starting with a pre-planned sequence. And I learn to trust the decisions I make, without qualifying them as right or wrong, good or bad. Following a feeling rather than a thought will always lead to a good place.

Pain is the best guru.

Yoga can be a bit painful because the body is a storehouse for emotion. When you start opening up parts of the body that have been closed a very long time, pain will occur, either physically or emotionally. Most pain is mind-made but some pain is as real as the sun. Stop trying to escape pain and instead find comfort in discomfort and let pain teach you. Feel it and then move through and beyond it. Pain is necessary for growth, it can teach us compassion, it can deliver us “ultimate emancipation” (Iyengar) if we allow ourselves to go into it instead of avoiding it. This is not an exercise in masochism. Rather, it’s about accepting that pain is present in nearly every part of life, even the sweetest parts. It is only our response to pain that will either intensify it or relieve it.

Space is essential for growth.

Of the five elements, ether–or space, is necessary for all the others (air, water, fire, earth). Nothing can exist without space. And nothing can grow unless there is space to accommodate it. Not trees, or love, or relationships. Yogasana is not about becoming more bendy and moving our bodies into pretzel like positions. It’s about removing a few unnecessary attachments every day to create space so the body can grow, the mind can expand, the heart can contain more. And with every practice I create more space in my joints, my muscle fibres, my organs, my lungs, my experience.

Inquiry is always the right answer.

Remember those math problems in high school where you had to come to the answer via one specific formula otherwise it was wrong, even if the answer was right? Well, yoga is a little bit like that. I’ve been to a lot of classes where people look around at each other to compare their position, more concerned with how a pose looks rather than how they got into it. Yoga teaches us healthy ways for achieving an end position, with the focus being on how to get there, rather than just then end state. Breathe, stretch, twist, align. The method for achieving a perfect asana deserves way more attention than the end result. One step at a time I move my way through each increment of the position. Step by step, little by little, asking those questions of myself and my practice, making micro adjustments as I go. If I jump right into an asana I not only risk injuring myself but I also miss all the learning along the way.

Trust starts with self.

I used to put a lot of faith in the mirror and the disappointment or pleasant surprise it showed me on a given day, in the context of both my yoga practice and simple acts of vanity. I’ve been around this world long enough to accept myself as I am… mostly. I’ve been practicing yoga long enough now that I can trust how my body feels in each position to know that my practice is healthy and correct. I don’t need a mirror or external point of reference to know what feels right or wrong. When I really listen to my body, it tells me everything I need to know.

“The light that yoga sheds on life is something special. It is transformative. It does not just change the way we see things; it transforms the person who sees.” – Iyengar

I was hugely inspired by the following book. If you want to take your spiritual yoga practice to next level, read this book:

B.K.S. (2005). Light on Life: The Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom. Rodale Publishers.

Photo: In “The Beatles” ashram in Rishikesh, India

The Upside of Divorce

Sixteen years ago I walked into this little house in Toronto’s Beaches neighbourhood after meeting my mother-in-law to-be for the first time. She frightened me to be completely honest, because she was confident, outspoken, and the mother of the man I loved. I was quiet, shy, and had an ego about as squash-able as a baby bumble bee. I had to make a good impression on this gregarious woman who’d birthed that beautiful man in my life because we all know how much mamas love their little boys.

I tread gently and cautiously through those first days, as I did through most aspects of life, trying hard to be likeable, doing everything in my power to avoid burning their house down, which actually almost happened when I tried to make a cake! I tripped over my words constantly, stared like a deer in headlights in response to long dialogues about British history around the dinner table, and fidgeted as I waited for my love to finally arrive. Two days alone with his family for the first time ever was about as comfortable as wearing Spanx when you’re constipated. I longed to hide out behind him as I got to know his family.

My relationship with the woman who became my mother-in-law and subsequently, my ex-mother-in-law several years later might be one of the most precious in my life, partially for its unconventionality, partly because she became one of my best friends over many years. We separated from our men about the same time, about four years ago, mine by choice and gross human error, hers by death. She never judged me for separating from her son. She also didn’t stick her nose into the very private business that is a dismantling marriage. She accepted the situation for what it was and loved us just the same.

Now here I am many years later, staying with her on my third annual visit home since the separation. We room together like college kids. Last night we blasted broken-heart tunes whilst I swigged back whiskeys and she augmented everything from Taio Cruz to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers with her drum set, which sits impressively in place of a kitchen table, like it should in any respectable home. We sew, cook, share books, TALK, and tap, tap, tap away on our respective keyboards, little squirrels cracking open nuts of thoughts and spewing them onto virtual paper. We’re kindred writers, inspiring and motivating each other’s work and wisdom.

And through all of this I wonder if the the universe delivered to me my now ex-husband partly because he came with an additional offering of solid, wholesome support in the form of this incredible woman I would need for when we would decide to take separate life paths. It’s a weird, wonderful, and inarguably nontraditional relationship. Thankfully she’s inspiring me to comprise a “Fuck It” list so that anyone who judges our friendship on the very basis it came to be can go down to the corner street-dog stand and eat rancid sausage on a furry bun (because why would I curse anybody by wishing them to masturbate or kiss my precious ass?!).

So cheers to and thank heavens for my most trusted MP (Mom-Pat). She inspires me to let go, heal, live like I’m moving to the music, and pursue everything that makes me exactly who I want to be. Who needs a man for that? We decidedly agree! Every woman needs a mother-in-law like this, even if it takes a divorce to find it!

“The world begins where the road ends”: Realizations after a travelling for a year

Travelling abroad is an exciting venture into the unknown. It has exquisite appeal for the adventure junkies, the global philanderers, the foodies, the culture curious, those who just want to check out what’s happening on the other side of the world, those who wish to take a long hiatus from what’s happening on their familiar side of the world. For whatever reason you choose to fling yourself out into the exotic wide open, there is always a dose of reality that awaits you at the end of your sojourn because we all end up coming back home at some point, even if we don’t choose to stay. The return home can feel like an anti-climatic end to a life-changing experience and it is often the most challenging part of travelling that evokes all kinds of feelings.

I’ve had a few realizations upon my return home again, described below through my interpretation of the poignant words of Eddie Vedder, one of my favourite musicians. Recognize these songs? If you’ve ever travelled abroad for an extended time or are thinking about it, read on. It’s a trip into the wild…

“There’s a big hard sun, beating on the big people, in a big hard world…”

Each year I return home I feel a little bit more like an alien walking the same old streets, driving past the same old shops. I’ve been affected by everything I’ve touched, every person I’ve met, every temple I’ve visited, every mountain I’ve climbed. And I always start my visit home thinking that I’m the only one who’s changed, that everyone and everything is exactly the same, but it’s not the reality.

I always feel the residual effects of travelling during the first couple of weeks at home, especially when I compare everything to what I’ve seen and experienced abroad. This is when non-judgemental eyes become most important and I must step outside of my own experience to recognize my old environment and familiar people in a new light.

I’m not the only one who’s changed. In some cases my changes have been broader or perhaps more obvious, but home and all its people have also changed in ways I can’t immediately see. There have been shifts in priorities, goals, pursuits, and perspectives–things not evident until I’ve spent time re-integrating myself into my family and friendships.

At the end of the day I realize that my travel experiences have not influenced me any more or less than sitting in traffic or starting a business or weeding a garden have influenced someone else in their own life context, they’re all just different experiences, different choices. We’re all under the same sky, affected by the same sun and the same moon, feeling a similar rain and a similar wind, changing and evolving within the context of our own lives.

“Empty pockets will allow a greater sense of wealth” 

I was brought up to value money, to scrimp and save for what I wanted, but it wasn’t until I stopped working and hit the road that I learned to properly manage my money, simply because I didn’t have very much. For the first time my bank account was “exit only” and I watched in horror as my savings dwindled to an all-time low, without much material evidence that I’d spent any money at all. You can’t see or touch experiences after all.

About a year into my travels I stopped wanting so many things. Having designer jeans, expensive face creams, and the latest gadgets was less important than ever. Having less money and possessions than I’d become used to over a lifetime truly showed me how unimportant material things are and how extravagant my material life really was. Having less things allowed me more time and taught me to make do with and appreciate what I had instead of always wanting to add more to my increasing pile of stuff. Admittedly, my pockets have never been completely empty of money but they’re full of stories.

“It’s a mystery to me…”

When I came home after my first year abroad I walked into Costco and fell into a fit of frustration trying to select a tube of toothpaste, a loaf of bread, a box of razors, maxi pads. The options were ridiculous and testament to a level of mass consumerism and bullshit marketing that is beyond the scope of my understanding. And, I wonder why people buy and drink bottled water when some of the cleanest water in the world flows from our taps?

“Who I was before I cannot recall”

Frolicking around the world for a year (or five), seeing things I’d never have believed possible has irreversibly altered my worldview. It’s a getting up from the comfortable couch of the ignorance (using the best definition of the word) and crossing over to the experiential 12-hour rice-sack bus ride of the great big world out there.

There are vistas broader than the imagination. Families sustaining themselves on as little as the cost of a monthly mobile phone plan. Ancient architecture beyond any realm of understanding. Crushing poverty, stray livestock inhabiting the city streets, people seemingly from the heavens, people from the dark side of the world. A totally different night sky and the fullest empty horizon you’ve ever seen.

And then you come home and realize that a fundamental part of yourself has changed, that parts of who you were before you set off are almost unrecognizable. It’s aging through experience rather than time because throughout a year of travel you’re pummelled with new people, a gazillion different perspectives, and adventures that test your limits, tolerance, patience, convictions, and personal ethics–all in a foreign land. How does this not change a person? Long-term travel causes a reconsideration of yourself, at least on some level. If it doesn’t, maybe your eyes aren’t open.

“The world begins where the road ends”

This is basically about getting lost. The world begins where the road ends if you choose to keep moving forward in spite of fear and uncertainty. It’s okay to take off for a year and have no idea what you’ll do when you return, or if you will return. It’s okay to book a one way ticket to nowhere and figure it out when you arrive. Much more interesting things happen when you don’t plan every step of the way, when you allow yourself to get lost. It’s okay to lose your sense of material security and to feel like you’re losing your mind. Both are, arguably, necessary for growth.

“When I took to leave her I always stagger back again”

I’ve thought about just staying in Canada many, many times. But I’ve travelled abroad for a long time “out there” becomes almost like an elite, privileged club to which I’ve earned membership, that has served up secrets and insights I wouldn’t otherwise have. I love the security and familiarity of my home country. I love that I can see my doctor for free, drink water from the tap, breathe some of the freshest air on the planet, and have my family close by. But the yearning to be with “her”–to be back out there and travel, to move freely around the world and choose from one month to the next where I want to be trumps any creature comfort or feeling of security. Travelling incites an itch that doesn’t go away when I scratch it, it just exacerbates the itch and makes me want to keep moving.

“I know all the rules but the rules did not know me”

Let’s not look at rules in their literal sense, but rather as those restraints created by society and ourselves to ensure we live a safe, healthy, secure life. They’re also the opinions and judgements of other people who, similarly, have our best interests at heart. But who actually knows what our best interests are? Certainly not the social constructs of marriage, parenthood, home ownership, or age, and sometimes, not even the people closest to us.

Spending a year in unfamiliar places negotiating your surroundings causes a reconsideration of values because it makes all of those institutions that we tend to fall into so naturally more obvious. It’s hard to see what is right in front of you. They aren’t traps to be criticized or resisted for the sake of being free of rules out in the great wide open. But being away from such institutions and expectations certainly causes you to regard them more critically. Travel incites you to ask why more often, and the answers are not, unfortunately, blowing in the wind.

 

How to stay healthy, safe and aware when travelling abroad

One of the first things I remember about planning to travel the world before I left to do so many years ago was mentally listing all of the things I was afraid of. They were numerous. Would drug smugglers hide illegal snuff in my backpack at the airport unbeknownst to me? Would hand-sized spiders eat me in my sleep? Would I be able to get by without knowing the local language? Would I get lost, alone, late at night? Would slick, tattooed, leathered men kidnap me and try to sell me on the human trafficking market (a fear immediately alleviated by my ex-husband who assured me such men are only interested in younger women–phew, one of the many benefits of aging!), would there be more than chicken’s feet, fried noodle, and deep fried unidentifiable sentient beings to eat on any given day? Could crunchy peanut butter still be a regular part of my life?

I was attached to material securities, as we all are, as we have been conditioned to be, as is absolutely necessary for living above ground most days. I was also attached to intangible securities, like security itself: knowing where I was going, how I was getting there, and what I would do once there. Well, a lot has changed in the past five years. I’ve gone through a massive metamorphosis in nearly every aspect of my life but I’ve become aware of one in particular lately. I started out travelling scared in a hypochondriac kind of way–I was actively searching for things to fear. Then I went through a period of disregarding all rules and cautions in the name of “freedom”, mistakenly defined but temporarily enjoyed as being able to do what I want whenever I want. Recently I’ve crossed a threshold into the land of rationally calculated caution, also known as growing up (wink wink). I’ve discovered that whilst having fun and feeling free and breaking the rules are still hardcore personal virtues, some things just aren’t work the risk anymore, especially when living a life on the road. This change is not owed to fear but to a conscious decision to live within certain boundaries in order to stay alive and feel good doing so.

Following are a few tips for staying healthy, safe, and aware, whether on a week-long holiday or a life-long jaunt abroad.

Eat the street food. 
Different bacteria abound in South East Asia, sometimes they agree, sometimes they force innovative ways for releasing the contents of the stomach and the bowels simultaneously. Eventually the body adjusts but that takes time and astute food-seeking skills. Look for clean food places that use fresh rather than reused oil, and that keep perishables refrigerated. In Thailand, many street food stalls are labelled with “Clean Food, Good Taste” signs to ensure an acceptable standard of cleanliness and food preparation. Elsewhere, like in Indonesia, some warangs may serve tempe fried in oil with the unhealthy addition of plastic to make the soybean cake appear crispier and shiner. Scout out good, clean street food by hitting up the stalls that are busy, that keep perishables cold and covered, and always start with test-sized portions to ensure intestinal agreeability.

Keep hydrated. 
The tropics will make you sweat a lot. Drinking three to five litres of water a day is recommended, particularly if you’re active, spend a lot of time in the sun, or drink alcohol. Sometimes rehydration salts are necessary. Recently I spent a month in northern India practicing yoga for four hours a day in 45 degree heat and three litres of plain water wasn’t cutting it so I added rehydration salts to my water and they made all the difference. Heat exhaustion and dehydration often begin with a headache, lethargy, and tight-feeling muscles. Don’t wait until you feel like shit. Start your day by drinking water and keep sipping throughout the day. Coconut water is also an excellent option. Some research suggests that it is actually more hydrating than water and an added bonus is that buying a fresh coconut instead of a water bottle cuts down on environmental waste.

Wear a helmet and sensible footwear when riding a motorbike. 
I’ve spent plenty of days out on the open road with the wind in my hair and a pair of flimsy flip-flops on my feet. But it’s unwise, not because motorbike accidents CAN happen, they DO happen, especially in South East Asia where laws regarding road safety are looser than a pimp’s morals. I’ve seen feet turned shredded wheat from driving with sandals or worse, totally barefoot. Be careful with your helmet selection too. Especially in Vietnam, the helmets in South East Asia are often akin to a plastic bowl upon the head that slips back the minute you push 40 km/hour. Insist on a properly fitting helmet that covers your entire skull. And if one is not available, you can buy one for about $20, a small price to pay in exchange for head protection. Save the risky business for the bedroom or other travel adventures but don’t take any chances on a motorbike. There is a fine line between reckless negligence and freedom.

Be aware that robberies can happen anywhere, anytime.
Don’t carry everything with you, or walk alone late at night in an unfamiliar place. But don’t think that being out in the middle of the day is safe either. Robberies can happen anywhere at anytime. Is it safer to leave your things in your room locked up or to bring them with you? Depends on who you ask. I opted once to bring my valuable belongings with me out of fear that they may disappear from my room and I was robbed in broad daylight whilst driving on a main road. Take pre-cautions and always operate with a safety-first mindset. If something, somewhere, or someone doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not.

WATCH OUT FOR MANHOLES. 
Two people I know have fallen into these street traps, which are sometimes covered haphazardly with unfixed concrete, and other times are wide open holes. Always watch where you’re going.

Travel with insurance. 
There are tons of travel health insurance plans out there that have reasonable monthly and annual rates. Personally, I hate feeding these giant, cash-hungry corporations for a service I would never want to be in a situation to collect anyways, but it beats bleeding your entire life savings to a hospital should you get hurt.

Travel with cash. 
Sounds counterintuitive but it’s about balancing risk with convenience. Travel with small amounts of different currencies, especially US dollars, enough that you are comfortable losing and don’t have to hit the ATM for the first couple of weeks. This will cover transportation, SIM cards, a few meals and nights of accommodation. If you’re travelling longer term, find a cheap banking plan to avoid or lessen international ATM charges. Most ATMs will ding you a few dollars for a small withdrawal and your own bank will also charge a fee.

Bring nutritional supplements and condoms. 
If you’re concerned about getting adequate vitamins and minerals, many supplements are hugely overpriced in South East Asia so you’ll either pay a small fortune or risk feeling a little malnourished if you’re sketchy about available food options. Western meals abound in heavily touristed places and there is never a shortage of clean, healthy food, but you have to pay for it. As for the condoms? They’re like many of the market apparel–“free size”, meaning one size fits all. I think we all understand how problematic and sometimes disappointing a claim this is.

Check for understanding. 
Ask the same question three different ways even if it makes you slightly uncomfortable or feel like a seemingly difficult person. And ask around the question too. If you want to know about the sky ask about the earth. Ask about everything related to your question to get a fully informed answer, especially if it is a serious matter like when dealing with the police or doctors. Information is not readily given. If you want to know something, you have to ask.

Take trusted taxis either by referral or otherwise. 
An acquaintance of mine failed to ensure the taxi ride offered had legitimate signage. She ended up being robbed and sexually assaulted by the driver. Wait a little longer or pay a little more for personal safety.

Meet lots of people at an arm’s length. 
I have had more problems with other travellers than with local people. Be selective about who you accept a ride from, go home with, or even just smile at. Trust that inner gut because intuition always knows first.

Keep your masturbatory activities private. 
Once upon a time there existed a law in Indonesia that anyone caught masturbating was subject to decapitation. Although not the case anymore, you may have to give several years of your life to an Indonesian prison simply (sometimes necessarily) for beating the meat. But really, showing your stuff in public does not fare well in South East Asia. Whilst the beaches are acceptable places for bikinis and topless dudes, the street is certainly not. Know where you are and its social mores. Kuta Bali’s reputation is not synonymous with Balinese or Indonesian culture and its acceptable modes of behaviour. Fully tattooed breasts are not a stand in for a bikini top!

Have fun but don’t confuse it with ignorance. 
Travelling around South East Asia sometimes feels like being a kid in a giant, unexplored playground, but danger lurks in unusual places. Be aware that there are plenty of unknown dangers in an unfamiliar place, whether they are actual physical dangers, such as venomous creatures, or socio-cultural dangers, like showing anger in public. Be aware of where you are by observing the environment, acting consciously, and reading the local news. Limit your use of plastic, your accumulation of trash, and your use of water. And don’t put toilet paper in the toilet because the septic systems can’t handle it, and please don’t be a littler bug.

Enjoy freedom but avoid reckless behaviour. 
I see many Westerners, people from First World countries doing things that are socially unacceptable at home or downright against the law. You don’t have to go as far as you can go because there are no laws in place.

Let it be. 
A contradictory statement of advice to sum up this list of cautions? Not really. Shit happens even if we’re as careful as can be. One of the most useful mantras I carry with me has actually served to remind me that the world is not as scary as we think it is. Dangers, bacteria, manholes, and assholes exist everywhere. So do politically incorrect terms and honest people. Don’t not go somewhere because the water is dirty, or the traffic is scary, or because the news warns of flesh-eating butterflies. Being aware is one of the most important behaviours you can practice whilst travelling. Know what’s important to you and let the other stuff be. Weigh possible consequences with fun and social responsibility to determine if certain actions or inactions are worth the risk. If something bad happens, reflect, learn, and move on.

How I travelled Asia for a year on a kindergarten teacher’s salary

Teachers don’t make a lot of money, especially early childhood teachers who, arguably, have a an important job towards creating a harmonious society. The foundation of well, everything happens in early childhood, so dedicated, patient, and well-trained early years teachers are necessary to incite a love for learning, for laying the groundwork that leads to a child’s later personal engagement with education.

But, although necessary, that shout-out to early years teachers is beside the point. Even with this huge social responsibility upon our hands, teachers, in general, don’t typically earn an impressive salary. My monthly income as a full-time preschool teacher in Toronto was just shy of $1800 USD. And when you consider the average cost of living in Toronto, without a partner to share living costs with, I might have had a couple hundred left over after rent that I could use either for public transit to get to work, or to purchase enough boxes of Kraft Dinner to inspire a complexion that rivals a jack-o-lantern’s.

I wasn’t quite ready to give up on teaching all together though just because of the modest income, so decidedly, I moved after a couple years exploring some different life options. I took my Western education and teaching experience to Indonesia where I committed to a two-year contract as an early years English teacher. In regards to finances and life experience it was one of the best things I’ve ever done. (If you’re interested in teaching abroad, see some exciting opportunities at https://www.esl101.com/esl-jobs)

The salary I earned teaching in Indonesia was more than what I made in Canada, and as per the conditions of my contract, the school I worked for paid my living expenses like rent and utilities. I had a disposable income comparable to that of a person earning roughly $50K per year, who also has a mortgage, car payment, etc., etc., so my leftover salary at the end of the month was pretty average. Instead of spending it on things, I used it for awesome travel escapes and otherwise saved much of it for the proverbial rainy day. As it turns out, I’ve had a year of rainy days now hopping around Asia, taking some courses, trying out some new experiences, and my two-year Kindergarten teacher cushion is still supporting me.

So, what’s the secret? It’s not just about being a good saver or living frugally. Here are some ways you can stretch your earnings out like a juicy wad of Bubblelicious bubblegum in order to travel for a long, long time.

Stay in one place a little while.

Not only does this give you a deeper sense of one place and greater insight into a culture, you can negotiate less for accommodation if you are renting long-term. Compare the average nightly cost of staying in a budget but decent hostel or guesthouse in Chiang Mai, Thailand at about $10, versus an apartment with kitchen for $150 a month. Also, I’ve discovered that getting to know a place makes it feel familiar, a bit more like home, so I’m less tempted to buy a bunch of meaningless trinkets as symbols of having been here and there and everywhere. And I feel a bit more like a local than a tourist when I rent long-term. Check out Airbnb for great long-term rentals, use Couchsurfing for the added social bonus, or take a look at networks like Workaway or HelpX that may provide room and board in exchange for work. If you’re the kind of person who likes to be on the move constantly, consider combining your travel and accommodation costs by taking overnight flights, trains, or buses to get from one place to the next.

Set a budget and record your spending.

Maybe this sounds a bit obvious but it’s tougher to keep up with than you’d expect, especially at the start when your bank balance is dotted with an attractive number of zeros. Spending is easy and sometimes automatic because everything costs money. Everyday, every time you grab a meal or a coffee or throw in a juice at lunch instead of taking advantage of free water you’re spending and it adds up quickly. Then, use the first few days in a new place as a point of reference for your average daily cost of living and stay within that limit.

Choose what really matters to you.

Experiences? Food? Comfortable accommodation? Material tokens of your travels? Whatever is most important to you is likely where you will deposit most of your money so know this off the hop and reassess it from time to time. Recently, I’ve begun spending more money on better accommodation and healthier food because a better night’s sleep and a clean body better support my health so I can continue to travel for a long time and do all the things I want to do. But of course, all this means I have less money in my budget for other things.

Stick to WIFI.

Although in most Asian countries you’ll find easy access to a SIM card and cheap data, it’s still an expense and every little bit counts. Using the free WIFI offered at cafes and restaurants means two expenses in one if you grab a coffee or juice at the same time. An added bonus is that you starve what can so easily be an addiction to your phone, and a distraction from the gloriousness of the present moment.

Eat at the local markets and BYOB.

In Asia, you’ll always find the best variety of food at the best price in the local markets–local prices that also apply to tourists! Restaurants always charge more than markets or street food stalls, and some even add on a percentage for gratuity. And, if I want to have a few drinks out one night I could easily spend $20-$30, which could get me a gazillion local bus rides or 90 bowls of the best noodle soup. So, I keep a flask filled with my favourite spirit and bring it along with me. I order one drink from the bar and keep it topped up with my own stash, always being aware of my limit and drinking responsibly of course!

Opt for the flex package.

Travelling puts you in a space where you really don’t know what will happen from one day to the next, even if you’ve planned your days for months in advance. If you’re flying, unless the flight is really cheap, add-on the flex benefits for an extra few dollars. Time and time again I’ve booked my flight in advance either because I had to in order to gain entry to a particular country or because I am simply impatient. Time and time again I’ve cancelled flights because other adventures have presented themselves and I opted to take advantage of them instead of commit myself to old plans. And I’ve lost money doing this so recently I started adding on the extra $20 or so for the flexibility that I may just change my mind… again.

Think about it.

It’s not about how much money you have but how far you stretch it. Besides saving hard and limiting my spending during those two years I worked in Indonesia, I adjusted how I travel. In short, it’s not about where I’ve travelled as much as how I’ve travelled. I’ve been to some amazing, remote tropical islands, the kind with those gorgeous turquoise and white sand beaches depicted in travel magazines. But I don’t camp out in luxury resorts drinking $20 cocktails or taking taxis to get from one place to another, I keep it comfortably simple and treat myself even once in a while.

A year-long goodbye

In Hinduism, when a person dies, a year-long mourning period takes effect in which the family does not participate in any celebrations. On the one-year anniversary, Shradda is recognized with a memorial service, in which closure is brought to formal mourning with traditions similar to many other religions: the reading of scriptures and of course, food. So I’m not Hindu but I am in India at the moment learning about some of the customs practiced by the local people. And learning about this year long mourning period leads my thoughts to someone the world lost this time last year, someone who changed my life in the most beautiful, if subtle way.

Today would have been my great uncle Ray’s 94th birthday. Just over one year has passed since he died. I know, I know, who hasn’t lost an old great uncle, right? People die, especially old people. They shorten and wrinkle, their eyes yellow and glaze over, their toenails thicken, their skin becomes spotted with time like the drippings of a well-steeped tea bag. Their hair thins and lightens to cigarette ash, or like snow for the lucky ones. The chin seems to simultaneously jut forward and droop, like it’s persevering against gravity. The skin under the chin sags like a deflated balloon–a remnant of a party long finished. We can’t see them but the bones soften and become more brittle, to signal resisting and relenting not just to time but to nature, as all sentient beings must.

Old people are like nature’s leftovers, leaves fallen from a tree as new life pushes through. Gorgeous perfect shapes marred with dry lifeless edges and dark veins. They quietly exit to make room for fresh new lives making their way into the world. We’re all part of a cycle of birth and death, spring to summer, fall to winter, to always come back around again. But then when the body is gone the spirit can, incredibly, live on. Why? Because we hold fast to memories, touchable objects–an old sweater, a pair of dentures, a favourite CD? A record of a laugh, a birthday video, a photograph so faded and creased it’s hard to even distinguish the subject–ah, but we know who’s there. We know that person from a now past life.

In India, when a person dies, the body is cremated and the ashes are given to the Mother Ganga, the massive holy river that both rages and seeps through the country, simultaneously giving and taking life. And there lives the spirit. I suppose belief is what activates the spirit. I have memories, certainly, but there it ends. And in a way I’m glad for that. To make a legacy of skin and bone seems, to me, to resist letting it be, letting nature take its sometimes exquisitely painful course. An active betrayal of the inevitable laws nature, rather than a passive acquiescing to it. Perhaps a soul exists and lives on in spite of an expired body, I don’t know.

All I have of my Uncle Ray are recent memories of a man who became, quite unconventionally, one of my best friends when I was going through one of the toughest times in my life. I knew him only the past few years of his time alive. For me, he was only ever an old man, but the youngest old man I’ve ever known. I have an image of him walking down a sidewalk in Leslieville, Toronto, a buoyant, toe-to-heel shuffle, in good shoes, his dry-fit golf shirt properly tucked into his belted slacks, a smart, collared jacket. He approached a swivel chair left at the curb–someone’s trash, and promptly sat down and began to, well, swivel. This 90-year-old man with age spots and thinning white hair and eyes that danced like bonus-round stars, spun himself around and around in this office chair on one of Toronto’s busiest streets, not a care in the world about what others might think. A joker-like smile claimed his face and he leaned back and enjoyed the thrill of random self-engagement for no other purpose than to make himself laugh. Most five-year-olds won’t even do this, already victims of social mores. Most 90-year-olds physically can’t do this because they’re burdened with bad hips and arthritic joints, or are already dead. And as I watched him play I thought, shit, when does this happen? When do we reach the point where we finally get over ourselves and everyone else and sit the fuck down wherever we happen to be and just spin? Why do we have to get old to discover that kind of youth?

My Uncle Ray was full of knee-slapper humour and squeaky-clean fun. His favourite joke–and he always forgot that he’d already told me a hundred times–was I hope the rain keeps up because then it won’t come down, always delivered with a wink and a look that suggested being privy to a juicy secret. He was quite proud of his clever jokes. Maybe he knew he’d already told me that one and was just testing my tolerance. He was a bit of a cheeky old bugger that way. And I tested him too. I once dared him to join me in lying supine on a field of grass in the middle of a park to kick his legs and throw his hands in the air and laugh as loud as he could, to engage my “laughing dying cockroach”. He accepted the challenge like I’d asked him to put the milk back in the fridge. We sang afternoons away to Eric Clapton and Edith Pilaf, The Beatles and Frank Sinatra. We even rendered vocal accomplishments of classical pieces, our favourite was Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto #2 in C Minor, one of the saddest and most delightful melodies ever composed.

He delivered health smoothies to my doorstep everyday for a week, served in a wine glass. Thick green sludge kissing the rim of a crystal glass and dripping down its side so when I lifted it to my mouth, my fingers tasted it. Banana, spinach, broccoli, walnuts, an apple, frozen blueberries. I don’t know what else. I loved every bit of it. It was the gesture of an old man taking care of a young(ish) woman. An old man who loved with an energy of heart of which few people are capable. A man who experienced the endless, dragging hours of limited days and nights–the paradoxical, almost-cruel culmination of a long life–with acceptance and spirit.

And then he started to go. I could sense it even from the other side of the world. His eyes started to look confused, hollow, lost, searching for something unknown to him. He talked a lot about his long-dead wife, her beauty and spunk that matched his own. He started to forget. He left food out, sent incomprehensible emails, forgot all his passwords. But he never forgot the words to Penny Lane and My Way. He knew without knowing that it was time to go. His mind was preparing even if his body wasn’t ready to quit. But it did just days before his 93rd birthday.

I suppose his spirit is the source of his heart’s energy. For that reason I can consider that there is one part of the body that never dies along with skin and bones, whether that body is given to a river or the earth or consigned to an urn upon a mantel. For a while that spunky, youthful spirit was contained within a body that started young, became old, and eventually just stopped. A body that spun itself around in discarded office chairs in public spaces, that danced in the absence of music, that weathered life gracefully but never claimed his heart, his spirit. That now belongs to belief, to memory.

Yoga in India: What your body is trying to tell you

Photo: Me with my friend Franck on Arambol Beach in Goa at the end of one of our self-led sunrise yoga sessions. One of the best ways to start the day.

Whenever I’m starting a new training course, which is frequent these days, I always feel a bit daunted. I’m given a stack of fresh new books wrapped in plastic, and as I crack their spines (love it!) and open them up I’m delighted and overwhelmed at the same time. I wonder, how the fuck is all this knowledge going to make its way into my brain, in a month?! How will I memorize all those funny sounding, foreign words that translate to how I bend my knees and where I place my hands?

Recently, I began on a month-long yoga teacher training course in Rishikesh, India–THE place to learn yoga. I will later give all the juicy details of this fabulous experience so far but for now I am just being introduced to this amazing metaphysical space that gives me the time, support and opportunity to know myself and my body better. It is so much more than learning how to do a perfect downward facing dog.

When I took my Thai massage course last year I ended up with about seven textbooks for a 10-week long course. I learned about anatomy, contraindications, the names of bones and muscles, where to place my hands, how to place my hands, why to place my hands, about the body’s energy pathways. But like everything, there was something that couldn’t be taught, something I couldn’t learn through rote methods, something not mentioned in any of the textbooks, something the teachers could speak about but something I could only learn by myself for having a passion for and true interest in what I was learning. Something learned through self-education, experience, patience, discipline and love. That was how to listen to the body. And I still don’t really know how to do this; I haven’t had enough practice yet.

Knowing how to listen to someone else’s body is difficult when I am only just learning to really listen to my own, after years of forcing my body to do things that didn’t come to it naturally, for the sake of physical fitness (read: a flat belly and an ass you could bounce a quarter off of–which never actually came to fruition anyways, but was always a goal!) I’d push and push and push myself with little regard for what my body actually needed in favour of what I wanted, what I thought was good for my body. Running, for example because I knew it was a good, fast, effective activity to get into and stay in good physical shape, even if it left me with stiff, achy joints, even though I knew it was one of the worst activities for someone with a bad hip. But oh the endorphin rush! It was like emptying an entire packet of M&Ms into my mouth all at once washed down with several shots of rich, dark espresso. And at the ends of each of those drug-like runs, I would promptly smoke a cigarette before my heart rate even returned to normal.

Now think of your body as a house. Not your house specifically but one that you borrow for a little while in order to experience some time alive on this planet. Like an Air BnB rental. Are you the kind of guest that leaves a big mess? That smokes inside and extinguishes her cigarette on the coffee table? Do you leave the drapes closed and dusty, a pile of dishes in the sink? A stiff pile of laundry sitting in the corner? Do you slide your dirty, used dishes under the sofa for someone else to clean up later and then check out, leaving the place a disaster? Or do you clean up after yourself, put out the trash, change the toilet paper roll, wipe the counters, collect the soiled linens and leave the place as you found it? Your body is no different when it comes to respecting and caring for the environment that you are in. For some people this comes very easily because they understand that the body is a synergistic temple of energy affected by what we feed it.

I was 28 at the height of my running addiction–because that’s what it was. All I heard in my body was, yippee–if I keep this up I’ll have that quarter-worthy ass in no time! My throbbing hip and starved muscles were relegated to the back corner of my mind, ignored and abandoned, like a pile of old, stiff laundry that only grows larger by the day. That was physical fitness for me in my “youth”: coffee shots and cigarettes and hard core runs whether my body desired it or not. A disrespect for my body born out of a superficial desire to have a nice-looking body. I was thirsty for a quick fix rather than patiently doing the work required to understand my body and give it what it needs. We all too often wait until it is too late to make changes and then wish we’d not been so careless.

I don’t know if it’s the body work training I’ve done, the fact that I’m getting older and thus my physical body having developed an ability to scream in my face when before it merely whispered from across the room, or something else, but I’ve started to appreciate and respect my body more than I ever have before. I’ve stopped fighting it to cooperate with my desires. Not because it is my ticket to a longer or shorter life–I’ll go when I go–but because what it tells me about what’s happening inside me is so interesting. I’m finally starting to slow down and connect the dots and see all that is bubbling under the surface, and whether I have killer abs or buns of steel makes no difference if my spirit is in trouble.

This yoga training is not just about my physical body and making it more bendy or about finally learning how to stand on my head or open my hips. This course is about learning to listen to my body so that I can better understand how it functions, why it functions the way it does, what affects it’s ability to function well. How it responds to everything in my immediate environment, the greater environment, the cosmic world, and most importantly, the thoughts that I feed–or don’t feed–it all day long. It tells me when my heart is broken before I even know with an visceral emptiness that craves cigarettes and alcohol. It tells me when I’m insecure about the next transition in my life with a fever and a penchant to overeat. It tells me when I’m grieving with a nagging ache in my hip. And it can be inverted too, work from the outside in. The ache in my hip may dig up old griefs. Too much alcohol and tobacco will exacerbate my broken heart. Overeating may very well cause me to feel insecure about my seeming lack of control over my life and what is happening next. The body becomes what we feed it and responds in kind.

One of the most important but oh so simple things I’ve learned in the first two days of this course is how to stand with my feet firmly connected to the ground. Try it. Stand with the mounds of your big and small toes and the heels of your feet on the ground and connect. Power, right? I’m pretty sure this is where the term “grounding” comes from. If I can stand with my feet firmly planted on the ground then I will surely make it in this course, this body, and this life just fine.