Adventures of Life in Beijing

Exercise

Staying Flexible: Yoga in Beijing

 

So we finally took the plunge and joined a gym. Winter is coming and with it the promise of frigid temperatures and worsening pollution. I wanted a place to keep up my exercise routine despite the climate and was excited about getting back into yoga again.

Like every new endeavor here in Beijing, including simply crossing the stree, going to yoga made me a little bit nervous. There are language and cultural barriers at every turn.  “What do people wear to yoga class?” I wondered.  Should I bring my brightly colored pink yoga mat or use one from the gym?   Will I be able to understand the instructor?  I have a hard enough time keeping my chaturanga and savasana straight in English. How will I manage in Chinese?

But I gave myself a peptalk and headed to the gym. Lunchtime is busy and the yoga studio was already halfway full. (Yoga is called Yujia in Chinese in case you were wondering).  There were a lot of empty mats spread around the room so I grabbed a spot and started stretching.

Instructor Ken, with his tatooed shoulders peeping out from his muscle T-shirt, looked at me and wagged his finger. “Those are for people,” he said, indicating that I should find a different spot. Ok then. I grabbed a mat and staked out a spot in the back, hoping I could blend in with white walls. I was the only waiguoren (foreigner) in a room of 28 svelte Chinese ladies in black leggings and one lonely guy in the front near the door. “Smart,” I thought. He can make a quick exit if things get too intense.

We start with some basic moves:  cat and cow stretches, Downward Facing Dog and Cobra.  I do my best to follow along by watching the people around me. (I quit watching the lady in front of me because she was showing off and doing headstands  when everyone else was in forward fold.  I think she was the teacher’s pet).

I understand a few words here and there,  and there is a little bit of English sprinkled in, like In-Hall and Ex-Hall.  But then instructor Ken keeps saying something that sounds like “Mama Hoochie” and I just want to burst out laughing,  which made it hard for me to hold my Standing Tree upright. I found out later after consulting my dictionary he was saying “Man man hu qi” which means breath out slowly. That makes much more sense.

I am holding my own until  we start with the backbends.  I haven’t done a backbend in about four decades but as I look around, 2/3 of the class is in perfectly poised curves, navels to the ceiling.  Some started on the mat and pushed up into a wheel;  others started from the standing  position.  The instructor circled the room to help each one up, leaning his body over hers and rising to the standing position together like an exotic dance.

There’s a lot more touching going on here than I’m used to as Instructor Ken comes around to adjust our hips, straighten our shoulders and push our stretches deeper.  As he heads my way, I’m frantically trying to think of how to say “don’t touch me. I haven’t done yoga in six months and my white bones just don’t bend that way” in Chinese.

All I can think of is “Bu Yao”  which is the Chinese catchphrase for “don’t want”  which is a handy way to fend off aggressive sales people in the markets and to tell the street vendor not to add copious amounts of chili peppers to my lamb skewer.

Thankfully the instructor passes me by so I’ll save “Bu Yao” for another day.  I watch from my mat and I’m amazed by the collective flexibility of the ladies in the room (the dude in the front is pretty good too). Did I accidentally enter the Acrobat Training class instead of Universal Yoga?  I can’t help but wonder if thousands of years of tai chi and Kung Fu has somehow seeped into their genes, offering a natural flexibility that we waiguoren don’t have.  Or is it something in the food?  If so then there’s hope for me yet,  because I’m a big fan of the local cuisine, as you know if you’ve been reading along.  More than likely it’s their active lifestyle of walking and biking everywhere that plays a big part.

We moved from backbends to warrior poses and I’m back in the game again. “Yi. Er. San. Si. Wu,” instructor Ken counts as my legs start to quiver.  At least my Chinese is good enough to know how long I have to hold the pose.

Another 20 minutes and I need a rest. Focusing on balancing, breathing and translating in my head at the same time is exhausting. Kind of like trying to rub your tummy, pat your head and count in Spanish all at the same time. I take a quick break in child’s pose, dropping to my knees and tucking my head between my arms. I feel like a turtle that has momentarily retreated safely into its shell. I think of all the times I wish I could do this when I’m out running errands and frustrations arise.

 

I glance at the clock. We’re almost finished so I rejoin the group, looking forward to Savasana, the restful pose that comes at the end of the class. That’s the payoff right? Where you get to lie down, close your eyes and dream about your happy place before returning to the real world.

Except the Savasana never comes. Instead Instructor Ken gives a mini-lecture as we sit in lotus position.

He’s gesticulating with his hands (unusual for Chinese), making big circles with his arms and stretching his neck to a fro as he talks. Everyone listens attentively. I imagine he is explaining various relaxation techniques we could use throughout the day to keep our Zen, but he quite easily could have been talking about what he was going to make for dinner, illustrating with big stirring motions. Suddenly there is a short burst of clapping and the class is over.

Living in China has stretched and strengthened me in ways I never could have imagined. Muscles have been called into action that I didn’t even know I had. Who knows? Perhaps I’ll even be able to do a back bend  before we move back to the U.S.