Ashtanga: A Personal Evolution

Approximately 9 years ago, I stepped into my very first Ashtanga class. Nine years later today, I am still practicing in this lineage, albeit with a different purpose and concept.

I used to be competitive, a perfectionist, and still am, although I have since let that part of me gradually subside in the past 3 years or so, and along that, my image of a “perfect” Ashtanga practice.

I found yoga through my curiosity. I was young, fit, and flexible. I gained strength and flexibility relatively fast that one of my first teachers recommended that I attend an Ashtanga class to feed my exploration of yoga asanas. I started out with led Ashtanga half-primary series about twice a week, then four times a week, and soon graduated to attending afternoon Mysore classes. I was hooked and onto something. I felt so alive after every class. Never did I thought I’d be the one religiously practicing the sequence 6 days a week, excluding moon days and ladies’ holidays, at 6am every morning. But it took me just another few months to become part of the Ashtanga “cult.” I was a complete fanatic, and prioritized my practice over anything else. In a way, you can say yoga ruined my life.

I was on the fast-track into the Intermediate Series. My pride and ego inflated, and along with it came my injuries. From hamstrings attachment (the “yoga butt” and wrist pain, to knees and SI joint, to low back, then back to hamstrings, you name it. I’ve probably gone through all the common yoga injuries you can think of. And yet, I persevered in my practice with little modifications. Heat was building up in my body, my skin started breaking out, I was anxious and angry at little things. Although I always felt rejuvenated and strong after my daily practice, I’d become tired and sore later during the day. Going on a hike in the afternoon after I burnt myself up within 2 hours in the morning was always out of the question.

Until one day I realized, it’s not supposed to be like this. My asana practice should give me strength and vitality all day, not just an hour afterwards.

I started to question the incentive of my practice: Was I doing it just to show-off? Was I practicing for the sake of “looking good?” What exactly am I gaining by being able to get both legs over my head, and in exchange, hurting my back and neck?

I also started to panic: What would my teachers say? Would they think I just got lazy? Would I not be considered an Ashtangi any longer? This 6-day-a-week strong practice, it was rooted in lineage and research, was it not?

I have allowed Ashtanga to become such a big part of my identity that it was almost unbearable to think of it actually doing more harm than good to me. I have fallen into the trap of attaching my identity to the fruits of the practice, the exact opposite of what Patanjali said to do: abhyasa-vairagya-abhyam tan-nirodhah (The state of yoga is attained by persistent practice without attachment.)

“Falling off the Ashtanga bandwagon” actually didn’t happen by choice. I just started teaching more. And with that I naturally had to make some sacrifices in terms of my schedule and energy. At first I was a little upset that I couldn’t squeeze in the entire Primary series or the entire Intermediate series everyday, but then I came to accept it.

I started feeling like a “normal” person. I started sleeping-in on days I didn’t have to teach early in the morning and not feeling guilty about it. I picked up running and walking more. I can do my asana practice in the morning and still have energy to go hiking or kayaking or play volleyball in the afternoon.

Nowadays, my practice each week looks like this: 1-2 longer sessions (and by “long,” I mean at most 2 hours–no more 2.5 hours!) and 3-4 shorter sessions. I might not be “progressing” the asanas as quickly as I used to, and probably not as strong as I used to be, but who cares? I don’t think I’m gonna become enlightened by being able to do an arm-balance with one leg behind my head. Instead, I focus on how steady my practice is nowadays, and how I have a purpose for each practice rather than the mindset of I-just-have-to-do-it-because-I’m-an-Ashtangi. I use props (yes, what a horror as an Ashtangi) on days I feel like I need the extra nurturing, and on some days, my practice becomes more of a restorative one after a few sun salutations.

The purpose for the practice is to feel good, and not feel I-am-so-drained-from-yoga-that-I-can’t-do-anything-else-for-the-day (of course, the same goes for any other types of activities, whether physical or mental). The practice is supposed to help us juggle the stressors in our daily lives, and not add stress to it.  As I slowly realized over the course of the past two years, part of the practice is finding balance.

What is your purpose of yoga?

Karandavasana in progress

I initially wanted to film myself working in the pose, telling myself and others who see it that it’s okay to be imperfect in the pose, that every asana is a work in progress, even if you think you have “achieved” it.

I started on Karandavasana (Karandava = Himalayan duck) a little over a year ago. Besides eka pada sirsasana, it is one of the hardest poses for me. Well, actually, it’s a tough river to cross for mostly anyone. My back naturally wants to bend backwards, so it has always been difficult for me for bend strong forward aka flexion. My ribs just don’t want to tuck in.
For the past year, however, I’ve gotten more and more control of my tucking and flexing, and a few months ago I was finally able to descend with some sort of control. Who knew, as I was filming myself the other day as a memorandum of my progress, that my knees magically locked in place on my upper arm for the first time ever. I didn’t even notice until all of a sudden I found myself resting almost comfortably on my upper arms. For so many months I had been fighting this pose–just fighting, fighting, fighting. But what came at that moment as my knees locked was a sense of ease, comfort, and steadiness. Sthira sukha–the ultimate goal of yoga asanas.
I’ve let myself release. I’ve let myself surrender to the intelligence of my body and of the pose. Of course, there is the second part of karandavasana, which is lifting the legs back up, and all laws of physics are broken.


And in case you’re wondering what the whole thing looks like, here is Russell Case, an authorized Ashtanga teacher residing in San Francisco, demonstrating.

In memory of B.K.S. Iyengar

Dec 14, 1918 – Aug 20, 2014

Yoga Guru, friend, teacher of thousands, and one of the torches carrying the legacy of Krishnamacharya. But his torch will live on in the many lives he had touched, imparted his knowledge towards, and shone light on.

108 quotes to know BKS Iyengar by. Plus, video of Guruji in his prime.

Judith Hanson Lasater on her teacher, BKS Iyengar

 “[A yogi] accepts death happily and believes in rebirth as he strives to be finer and finer in his way of thinking and acting. When seeds are sown, the plants come up, and when the plants are mature they give new seeds to sow for the next crop and the next harvest. Thus the yogi develops the quality of his life so that a good seed may emerge, and his next life may bring the harvest of spiritual fragrance.”
–B.K.S Iyengar, The Tree of Yoga

“In yoga, physical movements alone are unimportant. Yoga is an all-around development, where we have to bring the body, the senses, organs of perception, mind, intelligence, consciousness, and conscience–these are the various vehicles of this human system.”

What is a “yogi diet”?

There are a lot of controversies around what constitutes the “yogic” diet. Actually, there are a lot of controversies regarding what to eat in general. Period.

We have the hardcore, raw, vegan yogis who support animal rights and believe in the power of raw, plant foods.

We have the vegan yogis who also support animal rights, but consume some cooked plant-based foods.

Then there are the vegetarian yogis who might just consume eggs or milk, or both.

We also have the gluten-free or grain-free folks who may be vegetarian, vegan, raw/vegan, or none of these, but just avoid gluten or grains.

We have friends who follow the Ayurvedic diet religiously.

And let’s not forget our paleo friends who praise the health benefits of eating as our ancestors did before the age of agriculture.

Then, of course, there are yogis who also eat a little of everything, including chocolate, caffeine, sugar, simple carbohydrates, meat, dairy, eggs, and alcohol.

Over the past decades we’ve gone through major shifts in what constitutes as the “healthy” diet. In the early 1900s, Crisco was invented to replace lard. At that time, people was queasy about the idea of ingesting something that was made from the labs (we can definitely learn from them, huh?), but Proctor & Gamble made sure to hype up the benefits of having Crisco in the media, and antagonized lard. Since then, the popularity of hydrogenated vegetable oils climbed. The popularity of hydrogenated vegetables continued throughout the mid- to late- 1900s, a time in which margarine also became very popular. Then came the low-fat diets and the Atkins diet in the 1970s, Jenny Craig in the 1980s, Zone diet in the 1990s, all of which are still followed today, although vegan, gluten-free, and paleolithic diets are definitely taking the current spotlights.

As you can probably see now, the “right” diet is just like any other trends and fads that come and go. One minute butter was evil, and the next minute we have health experts defending the benefits of good-quality animal fats. It’s no wonder we are always confused. We don’t know what’s right for our own body anymore, but allow the society to determine what is “good food” and what is “bad food.” We’ve lost that connection with our bodies over time.

Years ago, I was myself a vegetarian, and even dabbled with vegan every now and then. I felt great for awhile, and felt proud of myself because I was doing the right thing as a yogi. I was following the principle of ahimsa, or non-violence, of reducing pain and harm caused upon the animals for our own consumptions. I was more or less following what constitutes as the “yogi diet” (whole grains, dairy, ghee, legumes, some cooked fruits and vegetables), as you would read in yoga books written by sages and gurus. This particular diet supposedly keeps your body “clean and light” as they are more easily digested than animal meat.

Over the course of the years, however, through my self-study of Ayurveda, nutrition, and my most current adventure at the Bauman College of Holistic Nutrition, I learned that just as no two people have identical sets of fingerprints, even identical twins, no two people in this world could digest and assimilate the same food in the same way. As the Ayurvedic saying goes, “What is one person’s food is another person’s poison.” While one might take delight in a regular consumption of quinoa, another person might become sick from it (yes, even quinoa). Some people might thrive on a vegan diet, while others suffer and become weak from eating only plant-based foods and need to switch back to consuming animal products. I’ve met people who have all sorts of food allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities, and they take food and eating as an experimentation deduce what building blocks they could use in which certain combinations that will give them health and longetivity. Just as all our DNA codes are slightly different, so are our personal food codes.

After three years of being a vegetarian, I switched to a pescatarian diet as my own yoga practice became stronger and I was starting to teach. The occasional fish and seafood gave me the additional strength I needed to both sustain my own asana practice as well as teach throughout the day. Here you might think I am selfish and greedy for encouraging the killing of sea creatures so that I can be stronger. But let’s return to the core meaning of ahimsa for a second. Not only does it mean non-violence to others, it also implies non-violence to yourself. We live in a fine balance of harmony with the rest of the Universe. This food was provided to us by Mother Nature, and the least we can do to give back is to express gratitude and discourage further destructions of our planet. Take good care of yourself first, then you’ll have the strength to complete your mission in this world and lifetime. (Just in case you are curious, the seafood I purchase are all wild-caught, locally-sourced, and line-caught.)

In summary, one should take diet trends with a grain of salt. We should not label what kind of eater we are nor follow a particular “diet” religiously (that said, I fully respect those who are eating certain ways due to religious or spiritual reasons). If we only eat what this certain diet dictates us to eat, how do we know whether or not we’re depriving ourselves of the most crucial food that our body exactly needs? What is most important is becoming aware of how certain foods make you feel. Do you feel alert, focused, energized after a meal of certain foods? Or sluggish, sleepy, and unfocused? Just like a physical yoga practice, eating incorporates both the mind and body. Make sure what you are eating does the body and the mind good. If it only makes your mind feel great but the body no good (for example, sugar can make a person feel great and happy for an hour, but later takes a toll on the body as the energy levels crashes), then perhaps that particular food isn’t well suited for your unique body type.

Don’t know where to start? How about starting with eating real food? The food that your grandma made, or the food you can easily make in your kitchen without having to purchase special chemicals from a science laboratory. Foods that are fresh, unprocessed, and whole. In truth, eating should be very innate, very simple, because your body already knows what it needs, and all we need to do is listen. But our modern environment has distracted us from listening to our body’s intelligence. Yoga helps us recover this intelligence, and also helps us recover our connections with food, where they came from, and feeling grateful for the food we have. Overtime, you will become more in tune with your body as you evolve with your yoga practice; there will be a deep awakening of your body’s innate intelligence.

An exciting FREE Online conference!


Join me for the 2nd Annual Online Eating Psychology Conference!
Sponsored by the Institute for the Psychology of Eating
with Marc David

Are you ready for an approach that honors all of who we are as eaters – body, mind, heart and soul? I’ll be participating in a truly one-of-a-kind online conference with over 45 fascinating experts. We’ll explore leading edge thinking in the fields of eating psychology, nutrition, and personal transformation. Get inspired by speakers from a variety of disciplines who have something unique and innovative to share. We’ll be enlivening the fields of eating psychology and nutrition by creating a truly holistic approach.

Now more than ever, we need a whole new understanding of our relationship with food. The fields of eating psychology and nutrition are at a profound crossroads. Medical science has finally recognized the important role of diet in optimal health, yet something is clearly missing. Obesity, overeating, body image concerns, emotional challenges with food, and diet-related health issues are with us more than ever. We have abundant access to nutrition facts and information, but need to search long and hard for true healing wisdom.

That’s why I’m participating in this amazing FREE online event July 21 – 26. And you can sign up for FREE here:

Speakers include Dr Mark Hyman, Dr David Perlmutter, Paul Chek, Dr Hyla Cass, Amy Pershing, Dr Srini Pillay, Dr Frank Lipman, John Robbins, JJ Virgin, Tom Malterre, Dave Aprey, Dr Tom O’Bryan, Jon Gabriel, Dr Susan Albers, Sayer Ji, Donna Gates, Dr Alan Christianson, Jessica Ortner, Daniel Vitalis, Emily Rosen, Meghan Telpner, and many more!

Some topics include:
A Deeper Dive into Body Image
Neuroscience and Personal Change
A Holistic Approach to Eating Disorders
The Healing Power of Embodiment
Mindfulness based approaches to overeating
Sexuality and the Psychology of Eating
New insights into Weight
Culture, emotional health and metabolism
Hormones, Eating and Inner Health
The Gut-Psychology Connection
Spirituality and Nutrition
The Hidden Politics of Food
New Approaches to Nutritional Health
And much more…

Dates: July 21 – 26
Price: FREE
Where: Online!
Sign Up Here:

Diaphragm–The What, Where, and How

The diaphragm is a big, dome-shaped sheath of muscle hugging just underneath our ribcage and separates the thoracic cavity (chest) from the abdominal cavity. It serves as the primary breathing muscle (note: NOT the lungs!). At rest (e.g., not breathing), the diaphragm creates a dome. Before inhaling, the diaphragm pulls down and flattens out to creative negative pressure inside the body, hence drawing the air in. As the diaphragm presses down on the abdominal cavity, our digestive organs are pressed down and out, hence the protrusion of the belly.  


If you were to observe a baby breathing, you’d notice that he is breathing into the belly. It is our innate nature to stimulate the diaphragm, but overtime environmental stressors have caused us to breathe more shallowly. Contrary to the common notions of breathing, where we breath mainly into the chest, activating our diaphragm to retrieve air is much more efficient. Not only do we draw in more air and maximize the amount of oxygen going into the bloodstream, when we contract our diaphragm we also stimulate the vagus nerve, which controls the parasympathetic nervous system to promote relaxation. The downward motion of the diaphragm also gives our digestive organs a good massage. There have even been studies showing that some cases anxiety, stress, and depression can be resolved by deep-breathing exercises. 

So why do we want to breathe deeply in our yoga practices? Well, first of all, many of us probably came to yoga to find some sort of relaxation, to promote calmness, to get away from the craziness and stress of life. Breathing is one of the critical factors to stimulate relaxation. Second of all–and this applies particularly if you are attending a strong vinyasa class–if you are breathing shallowly into the chest while trembling in your Warrior II pose, your body will kick into stress mode. By taking in deep breaths in more difficult postures, you are focusing the mind on the breaths rather than the fatigue in your thighs, you are transporting oxygen in the bloodstream to feed your muscles to support the asana, and your mind won’t think that holding Warrior II poses harm to your life. 

In my Vinyasa classes, I constantly remind my students to keep breath as the priority. Allow the breath to initiate the pose, allow the breath to guide you into a suitable modification of the asana for you today, and allow the breath to take you safely out of the asana. Breathing is the key doorway to yoga. As the modern father of yoga Sri T, Krishnamacharya said: “If you can breathe, then you can do yoga.” If you are putting your body into difficult and seemingly impossible postures but not breathing, then you are not doing yoga, but rather only doing gymnastics or calisthenics. If you put the breath, hence awareness, into every movement, even if it’s a simple arm wave to one side, then you are doing yoga. You are uniting your movements with your breath, and this unity is what helps remove blockages along your body’s physical channels (e.g., blood vessels, lymphatic systems) as well as your body’s energetic and subtle channels (e.g., nadis). In the yogic language, you are essentially allowing the prana to flow. 

So next time you are feeling waves of negative emotions coming up, try taking a few deep breaths into your belly and see what happens. Here is a story that demonstrates that even a four-year-old understands the concept of deep breathing:

I have a friend with two adorable little ones, a boy aged 6 and a girl aged 4. On a typical weekday afternoon, the boy had caused some trouble and my friend was on the verge of taking her anger out. The little girl who was watching the whole thing, said to her mom: “Mommy, take 3 deep breaths and you’ll feel much better.” 

These were the words of a four-year-old, and if she understood the effects of breathing deeply into our diaphragm and spreading that energy into all our limbs, then so can we. As grown adults, we just need to return to our primal state of breathing. And yoga is one path to achieve that.

Easy At-Home Breathing Exercises 

The following exercises are great done early in the morning to give yourself a calm start, anytime during the day you feel the need for a little reboot, or at night before bed to calm the nervous system.


  1. Find a quiet space in your home where you can lie down comfortably without being distracted.
  2. Lying on your back with the eyes closed, place one hand gently on your belly where the navel is, and the other hand on top of your chest.
  3. Take deep, slow breaths all the way into your belly. You should feel both the chest and belly rise as you do so.
  4. Keep the inhalations and exhalations equal in length. You can even try counting the length of your inhales, then match your exhales with the same count. This induces a meditative quality as you focus on your breath.
  5. Continue for at least 20 deep breaths, then move on to Method 2.
Method 1
Method 1


  1. Flip over so that you are now lying on your belly. Fold your arms in front of you so you can rest your forehead or your cheek on the hands. Alternatively, you can rest your head on a small pillow.
  2. Repeat the deep belly breathing technique here. On your inhalations, feel the belly pushing into the floor (or the surface you are lying upon).
  3. Continue for at least 20 breaths, then rest for a few minutes.
breathing 2
Method 2

A moment of Samadhi


via Google search
via Google search


According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, samadhi is a state naturally and organically reached by sustained single-pointed concentration and meditation. I am lucky to say that I have experienced at least once during my asana practice, when my breath, movements, and mind were all aligned in time and space, that everything about my body and its actions just seemed easy and light. Everything seemed to make sense. It seemed almost like a trance, as my body moved about on its own will, and I felt like my big “I” was experiencing all these sensations from without. In this state, you are, more or less, detached from the material world.

However, I also believe that samadhi can be achieved when your entire being is so immersed in the worldly happenings around you that you feel as if you are experiencing all these sensations as part of universal fluxes. I believe that samadhi can happen any time, as long as your entire being is whole and fully present.

This very morning, as I finished my last vinyasa of my practice and chanted the Closing Invocation, I suddenly felt a wave of heightened senses and sensations that comes by only occasionally. I was in a small, empty room in the yoga studio on the top floor. It was a warm day in San Francisco, the windows were propped open, and a light, cool (not the frigid SF wind) ever so subtly brushed across my skin. I wasn’t alone, and it wasn’t quiet. The usual hustle and bustle of the city at 8:30am  traveled to my ears, but this very morning, this very moment, it seemed to come in harmony with the birds chirping in the background, welcoming the warm day. I felt the sunlight shining through my closed eyelids, and my body seemed so light, so free of blockages.

At that moment, my senses had completely immersed themselves into the world and its happenings. I felt like there were no barriers between me, my body, my sensations, and the world. I was grateful to be present in that very moment, I was grateful to be alive to experience it. And I knew at that moment, that I had entered into a brief samadhi.

 “Samadhi is the state in which we no longer experience reality through a grid; instead, we experience reality directly…Samadhi is the state in which you are aware on a cellular level of the underlying oneness of the universe.” –from Yoga Journal Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi

Note: after a bit of Googling around, I found a similar article written by Judith Lasater on Yoga Journal

What I am learning from teaching high school girls


I have recently picked up another teaching gig at a public high school in San Francisco. Though I am only paid a small stipend for teaching once a week for the entire semester, I jumped at this opportunity when it was presented to me. Why? Not that I don’t have (outrageous) bills to pay for living in a highly-desired city, but because I believe in changing people’s life through yoga. And at their vulnerable age, they need the tools yoga can provide even more.

The class is 50 minutes long, and for now kept only for girls. (Imagine the snickers and sneers from the boys when we all come into downward facing dog). Yoga itself can already be a little scary for most teenagers because they are feeling sensations in their bodies they’ve never felt before in these already confusing times, so we try to keep the class a safe space for the girls to feel like themselves. At first, I thought they would click more with faster-flowing classes to keep them from the distractions in their heads. But after the first couple of classes, I realized that they actually need the opposite.

I taught a variety of postures in my first class with them. My second class I led a mellower class with longer holds and focused on breathing. By their votes, the mellower class won. A couple girls even requested to throw in a few minutes of meditation at the end. Who would have thought!

So while they might look like ADD kids flicking back and forth between their smartphones and their peers, but in reality, they crave quiet. It’s their only time and space to give themselves the permission to sit still, to be quiet, without any judgement.

I have also found that they really enjoy backbends and anything that involve the hamstrings. While men tend to struggle, women tend to be more flexible in the spine, so backbends help these girls release the tension they keep in their hearts and on their minds. Their hamstrings are also generally more open than that of guys, so of course they pick poses that suit their stronger feats. They like asanas that makes them feel empowered.

I have never gone through any sort of training on how to work with teens, but I am learning something new every time I teach this class. It helps that I myself was a teen less than a decade ago and that I started yoga at approximately their age. Yoga has helped me tremendously on my self-esteem and self-confidence. Especially during college, when everyday I was surrounded by potential Nobel prize winners which made me feel stupid in Biology, even though that was my major. I was pretty good in biology, but yoga, it was something I kind of rocked, and eventually it became something I was more passionate about than biology.

John O’Connell High School is also one of the only two schools in San Francisco that leads meditation classes. Now, won’t you agree all high schools should implement this kind of program into their curriculum?