The beautiful act of Devotion

In December, as the year was wrapping up, I tasted the Ashtanga practice for the first time.

The first practice was over two hours. It was tough. I left exhilarated. My teacher gave me a chart of the Primary series, which today I recognise as one of those gifts that could go to the thrash or have a profound impact on you forever.

Throughout practice, she said repeatedly: The first act of devotion is to remember the postures. I did not think much of it, but it stuck with me.

In the month that followed, I included parts of Ashtanga primary series in my self-practice. And thus started the self-discovery of the Ashtanga journey hundreds of thousands have threaded before me. 

There were days where I referred endlessly to the postures card, had to break constantly from practice to look up how to get into a posture, battled much confusion about transitions. 

There were days my body showed me how simply doing the work daily is a thing of wonder.

There were days my body reminded me it shows when you lapse.

There was the day I realised I had committed to memory the standing sequence - wow!

The first time I held Marichyasana D and then the days after where I struggled. 

The days I recognised how each posture was carefully curated in sequence. A systematic process that is experiential. 

There were days I was excited to start and more often, days where I did not want to begin. Those were the days I promised myself just 5 Surya Namaskara A and 3 Surya Namaskara B. Upon the completion of the Salutations, it did not matter whether it then led to my full practice or transitioned to a gentle Yin or flow of my own, for I had showed up. 

There were days I let life take precedence over practice and soon I was feeling scattered and the tinges of loss and sadness. Loss of what? Loss of peace, loss of the beauty and promise of showing up, loss of devotion to the practice, which is to myself.

Devotion is a beautiful word that I had never given much thought at all until it was delivered into my consciousness by my teacher. And then I was able to put into words, that I had been on the receiving end of devotion, especially in the past 12 months and have now settled enough into myself to start a practice of devotion too.

To be devoted, to be committed, disciplined, loyal, to stand for something, to show up when it gets hard, and it will get hard.

Yesterday I went for class after the break over the festive period. My teacher told a fellow practitioner: When you put in the work, it is visible. You may not be able to do a posture yet, but it's always so clear when the work has been done.

I had only seen her three times in practice and thought she would have forgotten where we left off. Instead, midway, she came to me: Have you been memorising and practising at home? Yes? Good. The first devotion to the practice is remembering.

Everything in life eventually balances out. Ashtanga is available to all - who will put in the work every day? Love, joy, happiness, abundance, truth, clarity - it is available to everyone too.

I have chosen to devote myself to my beloved, to my practice (the physical manifestation of what's inside my self). Over and over again I will learn and relearn and continue to devote myself to the simple and endless act of devotion. 

Let 2019 be a year of devotion for us all.

Sugar-free Blueberry Bliss Balls

Lately we have been experimenting a lot in the kitchen. I am not a good baker and prefer simple recipes that also make sense to us nutritionally. After checking out a bunch of recipes for bliss balls, I decided to create one that had:

No refined sugar
Minimal sweeteners (no honey, dates etc)
Slow digesting carbs
Moderated fat
Protein boost

These would make a good breakfast or mid afternoon snack.

This recipe is essentially another way of presenting what we have for breakfast most days - a combination of oats and berries, with some protein powder and fun toppings such as nuts and seeds. We are creatures of habit and prefer snacks that closely follow our usual diet and are nutritionally controlled.

Carbs
I wanted something that was a good tummy filler, so I opted for slow digesting oats that are a part of our everyday nutrition and easy on our tummies. Berries are low in calories, GI and high in antioxidants, and also a part of our every day diet.

Fats
I did not want snack balls that were too high in fat, whether healthy or not. Thus, instead of adding the hemp seeds and coconut flakes into the processor and either 1. risk losing their taste completely since I was using such small quantities or 2. adding a lot more in order for them to stand out, I used them as a fun coating. 

Protein
Since moving to a largely plant based diet, we are always on the lookout for ways to have more protein, so I included a scoop of protein for a boost. For this, I used Bob's Red Mill plant protein, vanilla flavour. It is sweetened with monkfruit which meant I didn't need to include additional sweeteners such as honey or dates. You can substitute with coconut flour or more oats + more cinnamon to taste. Blueberries have a natural sweetness so if you're used to a low/no sugar lifestyle, it won't be an issue. 

To make the balls, blitz the following in a food processor:

3/4 cup oat bran
1/4 cup rolled oats
1 package of fresh blueberries (125g)
1 scoop protein powder of choice (I used Bob's Red Mill vanilla)
Pinch of cinnamon 

Roll into whatever sized balls you like. I rolled them to fit the little paper holders I had on hand and ended up with 7.

Lightly dust unsweetened coconut flakes and hemp seeds (I used under a tablespoon of each in total). Chill for at least an hour to firm up.

Tip: Since we typically have our oats cooked in water or soaked in almond milk, I would be sure to drink a lot of water/tea with these so it mimics the way we usually eat and fills us up. 

Nutrition approximation:
544 calories. 30g protein. 93g carbs. 17g fat. 

Notes: *There is nothing inherently bad about honey or dates, and we would include them if we were to design a bliss ball that was meant as a pre-workout energy snack. **I would not call these protein balls as they are mostly carbs. You can play around with oats/protein ratio as you like.

Transitioning to a meatless kitchen as a couple- tips on what we've learned!

Two months ago, P and I decided to include more veggies in our diets. I never liked the taste of veggies and could not stomach raw greens. The only way for me to consume veggies was to cook them into a mush. For years I harboured a secret envy for people who could crunch down on raw carrot sticks! P enjoyed salads but many of his meals were utilitarian (think chicken breast, brown rice and broccoli). But a documentary here and a delicious vegetarian meal there led to the decision to eat more greens and lo and behold, we've gone from one serving of greens every other day to at least five servings a day every single day for the past month!

We wanted to eat more plants for a multitude of reasons, with the ultimate aim of being happier. Whatever your motivations are, here's what we've learned.

Tips on how to get so much more greens in

1. Commit to one serving per meal, consistently

If like us, most of your meals comprised of meat and carbs, start with just having one serving of greens per meal. Initially, P and I made sure to add a serving of greens to our dinners and boy did we applaud ourselves each time we shovelled that down. We started off with sauteed spinach which took literally 3 mins to cook and was palatable for both of us. After a week or two, we realised how much better we felt with the greens and how sluggish or heavy we felt when we went without. Voila, you have a habit of eating greens now!

2. Make veggies the focus of your meals

Eatings greens can get old fast if you're only thinking salads. Instead of an afterthought, create a delicious dinner that's based around veggies, just once or twice a week. You will start to realise you don't need lots of meat or carbs like rice, bread or noodles to feel satisfied. We started off with Vietnamese spring rolls (cabbage, carrots, beansprouts, spring onions, tofu with a little bit of egg and chicken). I cooked everything into a slush and it probably wasn't the most nutritious but the important thing is we enjoyed them and had them again and again, getting used to the feeling of being filled and satisfied by veggies. 

3. Try new tastes

My month trying out Yogshakti's training programme and vegetarian lunches was a game changer. Chickpea and sweet potato fritters, cabbage salads, dhal, stews... Suddenly I was trying out all these new flavours I never knew existed and would have crinkled my nose at if not for the fact this was the only food available. And then I was dubious - could veggies taste this good without added sugars and other hidden nasty flavourings? I grilled the chef incessantly on the ingredients. 

One day it clicked: just like how fruits now taste so sweet to me naturally, veggies have lots of wonderful flavours too. It just takes the taste buds time to acclimatise and the month of vegetarian lunches taught me to appreciate the natural goodness and flavours of veggies raw and cooked. For me, knowing how delicious vegetarian food could taste also helped when I was trying to recreate recipes myself. Which brings me to...

4. Spices, flavours and seasonings

Many veggie recipes call for a long list of spice and herbs and you may be tempted to skip just this or that. The beauty of veggie dishes, however, are the subtleties of flavours and textures. A stew could go from so-so to out of this world with the addition of a single passionfruit or half a teaspoon of paprika (true story in both cases). You don't need to go all out and spend a bomb on twenty different spices at once, but having a pantry stocked with some basics will allow you to get creative and go from there. Basics for me that I've gone back to time and again the last couple of months: lemon, smoked paprika, salt, pepper, cumin, coriander, peanuts, sesame. 

5. Yes, you can learn to eat -insert whatever veggie you hate-

Things I detested: cucumbers, peppers, celery. Even the smell of those foods made me wanna throw up. I read that if you eat something enough times, you may learn to tolerate it, and so P bravely set about hiding those foods in salads for weeks. Now, after a couple of months, I am happily crunching down raw carrot bits while chopping them up and can munch on cucumbers and peppers and taste the flavours for what they are, without aversion. Cutting up foods really thinly or spiralizing them is a HUGE help, I cannot recommend a spiralizer enough! You don't need to go straight into the foods you dislike, but I had a huge aversion to common veggies so I wanted to get that sorted a couple of months into this lifestyle.

6. Surround yourself with positivity

While this may sound like a bit of a crock, this tip was essential was for me. I was fortunate to meet some long time vegetarians who did not impose their lifestyle on me or lecture me on the virtues of a plant based diet. That would have very quickly became a debate. Instead, they simply lived that way and only shared more information and tips when asked. They were also very realistic about common issues such as cooking for more than yourself, bloating or deficiencies. If you don't know any vegetarians, I've found Youtube to be a great help.

7. Don't label yourself

Just because you're eating more plants now, does not mean you need to become a vegetarian or vegan. P and I decided not to cook meat (chicken, beef and pork) at home anymore, but we still eat these meats when we are out. We decided on this together and only after we enjoyed weeks of tasty, realistic (preparation time and nutrition wise) meals. There is also no issue if I decide to have fish in my dinner tonight and P decides to have an entirely plant-based meal. Don't impose any rules on the other person or make them feel like they've failed. Food is very personal and P and I have vastly different preferences taste wise and goals nutrition wise. We have made many mistakes but each time learn more on how to make things work. Enjoying time at the dinner table is more important than eating 'perfect' food. Plus, people are gonna want to know if you're going to label yourself as a vegetarian or vegan and there is bound to be outside judgement, so let's not judge ourselves.  Are we flexitarian, pescatarian, what are we? P and I had dozens of conversations about this topic. The words of Pollan sums our (his) eating philosophy up: Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much. 


Flying crow: the journey of arm balances and trust

I struggled with crow pose for years.

When I first started my yoga journey with a haphazard smattering of classes, I had no expectations of myself coming into the pose. I was aware that I had little strength in my arms and core. 

In 2016, I started circuit training: pushups on knees, wonky commandos, planks. In 2017, I was convinced that I needed to work on my core and triceps. In early 2018 I became obsessed with building strength in my biceps, and then shoulders. Teachers looked at my planks and chaturangas and expected me to be able to lift. But why was it so impossible? Every time I tried to bring my feet off the ground, I felt like I was pitching forward and my wrists were a second away from snapping.

I became terrified of crow. 

Often perceived as the 'easiest' arm balance, crow does not get a lot of air time, unlike more advanced arm balances like EPK. Few yoga teachers dedicate time to breaking down the pose even in basic classes. Generic cues like "squeeze your elbows in, chaturanga arms", "keep leaning forward" or props such as squatting on blocks seemed to work for everyone else but me. 

And then in one of my classes, where we were working on tripod headstand and one legged crow, my teacher Erica said: Squeeze, lift, lean forward and hope for the best. You have to be willing fall in order to fly. Arm balances can be incredibly humbling. 

I realised it was my unwillingness to fall, my fear of smashing my face into the ground, my refusal to try and be humble over and over again meant I was at a stalemate. No amount of strength work was going to help me at this stage. This is why I loved yoga - there is no escaping. Something is missing if you do not get the sum when you've seemingly mastered all the parts. 

A few weeks later, another teacher Aishyn was teaching crow in her 7am basics class. For the first time, I spoke up and asked for help instead of avoiding it. Alignment corrections, modifications, props. Plaintive whining: "I don't want to break my nose in the ground." 5 minutes later, I was tentatively lifting both feet, barely an inch off the ground - but there it was that lightness. 

Did I get crow instantly after that first time? No. I practised at home with blocks a few minutes each day, my partner cheering me on endlessly, always ending the session with a 'successful' attempt where I felt that lightness. Over the next few weeks, I requested crow time and again in her classes. With her encouragement and progression cues, I started feeling confident in my crow and the attempts that saw me trembling or falling to the side simply became flukes in my head. In my last week of classes with her, I amazed myself by demonstrating a passable crow to the class. Such pride, when she said: A few weeks ago she was still struggling to fly. 

Sometimes we need someone we trust to believe in us. Watching us, looking over us, giving us their full attention and energy. If they think we can, then perhaps we actually can. And if we fall, they're there to catch us. And then we believe in ourselves. And then the times we fail become flukes, and so we don't even hesitate to try again. And that's how we succeed. 

Last week I lifted into 8-angle watching a video breakdown, and this morning I found a second of hang time in EPK, which felt so head-scratchingly impossible just a couple of months ago.

Aishyn: Many people call crow an easy arm balance. But it is not. It is just the basis of the other arm balances. 

I believe the basics are the hardest. 

It is tempting to think my journey into arm balances started just last month with crow. But it really started years ago, from every plank, every bicep curl, every time I feared and fell, every teacher whose words touched me in some way, every teacher whose cues I felt were completely useless and is now starting to make sense, everything is coming together. Practise and all is coming. 

Crow cues that worked for me:

1. Keep wrists parallel to ground. Place blocks behind wrists and keep your wrists touching them lightly to keep this alignment. You do not need to lean forward so much that your wrists are at a strange angle! In fact, I was afraid to lean forward because my wrists already felt like they were gonna break. 
2. You barely need to bend your elbows, even one inch will do. Your elbows do not need to be 90 degrees! Your face does not need to go close to the ground! Sometimes you need to take a step back and recenter. I had a huge fear of falling flat on my face ironically because I was already leaning forward so much - my elbows were bent so much that my face was only inches away from the ground. 
3. Have your knees on the outside of your triceps squeezing in if that works better than knees on triceps or into armpits. Whatever makes you feel safer. 
4. Work to get the feeling of lightness - you don't need perfect alignment, fly a little first and work on deepening the pose later. 

Five habits that make my every day life better

1. 4:30am start
This is a relatively new habit; I am only on week 4 of this. I used to crawl out of bed at 8.30 or even 9am after having hit snooze a dozen times. After coming back from Portugal, my partner and I took advantage of jet lag and finally implemented this routine of waking up at what I like to think is a pretty hardcore 4:30am.

Benefits: so.much.time. And with that, the sense of being in control of your day. I get my workout done and have cleared my inbox by the time people start trickling into the office. I've always struggled with falling asleep and that too got better with this routine.

2. A glass of water every morning
I down a glass of water within minutes of waking up. At the beginning, forcing down water first thing in the morning was an exercise in endurance. I started off with a big mouthful, then half a glass and by about two weeks moved to a full glass. Now, I sometimes drink a good 500ml and it feels like my morning hasn't started right until I've hydrated myself. This habit is especially important for those with a caffeine habit.

Benefits: all the benefits of being well hydrated. For me, in the morning, this translates to less sluggishness, a clearer throat and more radiant skin, especially if I've had a rough night. 

3. Daily inspiration
You must find your reason for the daily grind and remind yourself of it every day. For me, having role models help so much. Some of the people I look up to: Kayla Itsines, Valentina Lequeux, Hannah GypsyOn. I admire their dedication to fitness and their relationships, their attitudes toward food and happiness. And of course, my partner, who inspires me through action every day. Imagine a man who gives all at work for the majority of his day, then heads home and cooks his own dinner and at 10pm, after all of that, goes under the squat bar. There is no excuse to choose the lazy way out when you witness that. 

Benefits: Let the strength, discipline and actions of others uplift you, so you don't feel so alone or even crazy in your journey, so you don't forget the reason you started something

4. Daily training toward your goal
Every day, I strive to do something that contributes to my ultimate goal: the freedom to a long and fulfilling life with my partner. To me, this means a balance of being strong, agile and fit. Over the years, I've played around with bodybuilding (strength), yoga (flexibility and balance) and circuit training (cardiovascular endurance). Recovery is equally important and I try to get 1-2 rest days in a week, whether that's a yin yoga session or taking a nap. Your goals may be different, but the same theory applies.

Benefits: Better mood, higher energy level, being able to lift heavy grocery bags, walk loads on vacations and still feel like you're having an easy day, clothes fit better, appetite is great, you can do so much more, you are unconstrained by the excuse of passage of time. You appreciate sitting on the couch or taking a nap so infinitely much more.

5. A work uniform
Men get by with wearing a white shirt and dark pants every day. Many successful people wear an iteration of the same outfit to work. Over a year ago, I purchased four identical black knee length dresses, but only implemented the practice 5 months ago. My work uniform looks more corporate than my workplace demands, and I definitely received a fair share of blighted comments, which I do not mind, because for me, the office for me is simply not a place for fashion forays. Since I've started this, I've never been under dressed for any client meeting and I love how this frees up my mind for things that matter more to me. 

Benefits: saves you precious time every single morning, never have to worry about looking out of place for any professional situation, now when I decide to dress up, I enjoy it so much more

I am not a disciplined organised person by nature. But I find that prioritising is the key to owning your life, and these habits have helped me greatly in my journey toward that.