This video about Hayao Miyazaki’s work came up as I was browsing YouTube today. I’ve been a huge fan of his movies for years; they speak to me as deeply as they did when I was 10 years old, but in different ways.
As I travel, I’ve been trying to figure out how I define success as a yoga teacher. What I’ve seen is: marketability + popularity –> success. And that frustrates me because that’s not how I define it.
But as I watched the video, it inspired me to define success for myself, much like Hayao Miyazaki did as he told his stories. Maybe success isn’t a rigid definition at all, but a journey carving out bit by bit as I go.
I am doing my first Vipassana (silent meditation) retreat this January! I’ll be at the Dhamma Simanta retreat center in Lamphun, Thailand for 10 days to practice this ancient form of meditation passed down from the Buddha. It’s a pretty intense schedule: 4 am wake up and 10 hours of meditation a day. Silence is part of the practice, so that means no talking to co-meditators. Furthermore, no reading or writing, much less surfing the web. Phew. Dress code is loose, comfortable clothing and light meals and accommodation are provided. Oh, and it’s free!
But far from a free vacation, I’m looking forward to this time of deep reflection. I mean, there will literally be no distractions. No alcohol, drugs, sex, or even exercise beyond taking a stroll on the grounds.
I started training for the retreat this morning by meditating for 45 minutes, a good 20 minutes than my usual. It wasn’t that bad. Actually, knowing I’d be in it for awhile allowed me to relax into it and not think about whether I was getting close to finishing. Confidence boosted 🙂
I’d been pretty terrified of the idea of being stuck with my thoughts nonstop for 10 days, but as the days draw closer the fear is not so daunting and there’s excitement and hope for the experience that I’ll have.
I wrote this post while sitting on a bus from Ben Tre to Can Tho in the Mekong delta. Rain is pouring and we’ve stopped at the beginning of this journey to load at least 2 dozen boxes of stuff. There are also two woven handbags with live chickens, who I’m surprised aren’t more agitated in a dark confined space. Have I mentioned that the buses in Vietnam also double as delivery vehicles? Lucky for us, there’s A/C.
So we spent three weeks in Northern Vietnam based in Hanoi. M had enough Hilton points that we could stay there for free, and it was a great launching point for checking out the beautiful landscapes in the region.
But this post is about the next part of Vietnam we saw.
We did this via the local night train. There’s a significant distinction in quality between the local and express trains; more on that later. Tickets were 1.5 million Dong for 2, or about $65 USD. The train left at 7:30 pm and we arrived in Da Nang at around 5:30 am. Though food was served on the train, our online research told us that it wasn’t very good so we opted to bring a few banh mi on board, which cost about $4. Bonus: we picked up a bag of Munchies from an international food shop for $6. Treat yo’self!
The train ride was fine, though not very pleasant. It was full of locals smoking and chatting loudly, so it was basically a moving Vietnamese street experience, minus the motorbikes trying to squeeze between you and tables of people having dinner/drinking coffee/smoking cigarettes. The A/C was either blasting or off, which led to alternating between sweating and chills throughout the night. The bathroom in our car had toilet paper (hallelujah!), but only for the first couple hours. After the roll ran out, you were on your own. The custom of spraying everything down with water after you finish is alive and well here. There was a dirty mop hanging in the corner that the employees would “dry” the floor off with. All the surfaces of the bathroom looked like they could use a good power washing.
Each berth has 4 beds, which were fine comfort-wise. The bottom bunks are definitely better because they offer more head room to sit and chill when you’re not sleeping and also a table to set your things. I never felt unsafe sleeping with two strangers, though for Western standards there wasn’t much sense of personal space.
A beach town/the Vietnamese government’s pet city, it was an unremarkable experience for us. It was raining the two days we were there, and I was recovering from a cold that started on the train. The locals seemed to enjoy early morning swims. This is also where we watched the 2016 US presidential election results go down, which gave it a bit of an otherworldly experience for me.
Da Nang train station
Da Nang–>Hoi An:
Since I wasn’t quite at 100% yet, we took a cab directly to our homestay in Hoi An. A comfortable 30 minute ride for 300k Dong ($15 USD).
Many travelers we met spoke highly of Hoi An. Known for their UNESCO-grade Ancient Town, the city had its architectural and historical charms and was veer foreigner friendly. A little to touristy for our taste, but it was nice that more of the locals understood English. The town is also known for custom made clothes and accessories, and I got a tailored cotton dress at Bibi Silk for $35. Pretty damn good. I was going to get a bridesmaids dress made there, but they didn’t have the colors I needed. M got a custom made leather iPad case at Friendly Leather Bags for $38. He was very happy with their work. Both of our pieces took about a day to make, which was great for our travel schedule.
The place we stayed at, Pham Gia Boutique Homestay, was very nice and reasonably priced (though I paid with travel points). We had a big room with a sizable private balcony and hot showers. Breakfast was great: eggs your way and fresh baguette or toast, and plenty of fresh local fruit. Drip coffee and Lipton tea was also available, which is pretty standard in Vietnam.
We backtracked and took a bus back up north to Hue. Because there’s no train station in Hoi An, going back to Hue allowed us to take the train directly to Ho Chi Minh City afterwards.
The bus was arranged at one of the many travel agents in Hoi An. Tickets were 100k Dong or about $5 USD each. They picked us up by motorbike from our homestay and took us to the bus station, where we boarded a pretty standard bus. The ticket guy pushed us foreigners to the back of the bus and seated the locals up front, which is apparently not uncommon but it was the only time I personally experienced it here. It was a smooth ride.
Hue was cool for a launching point to the Vinh Moc tunnels, a series of tunnels the Vietnamese people made and lived in during the Vietnam War. We stayed at Hue Serene Palace Hotel, a highly rated hotel on Trip Advisor (paid with points again) that was located in an alley right by all the bars and restaurants. This was the first city where motorbike taxi drivers openly solicited us for weed, and we soon found out why: there’s a decent party scene here, with many restaurants and bars turning into clubs after dark. Promoters stood outside waving over groups of girls, and buses of young backpackers got off in front of the restaurant we were at and joined the river of imbibing foreigners. We had a drink at the aptly named DMZ Bar after dinner, complete with camouflage furniture and grenades used as trim.
We visited The Citadel, another UNESCO World Heritage Site (how many are there in Vietnam??) and enjoyed the Chinese architecture and ponds of colorful fish.
Doing a tree pose with the trees while our GPS was updating
Just outside the Citadel
Our main attraction was the Vinh Moc tunnels, about 100 km north of Hue. We rented a motorbike for $20 and took turns driving there and back. The drive itself was an adventure; it was our first time driving in Vietnam. It was exciting, exhausting, and we saw some breathtaking views of the countryside and the ocean. The back seat was pretty uncomfortable after 15 minutes, so we switched off driving. Other than Hue, there wasn’t much traffic, though it became clear that roads here are used for more than transportation. It’s where life happens: people taking a stroll, children play, dogs and chickens and cows hang out, rice is laid out to dry, snacks and drinks are sold, coffee is had. A way more happening place than a busy Manhattan street.
Pit stop on the way up to Vinh Moc. Beautiful, sunny, and completely empty
View from the exit of one of the tunnels. A chance for those living in the tunnels to see daylight and maybe hope for a better future.
A reminder of war
Entering the tunnels
The tunnels are a must see. It’s 40k Dong/$2 USD per ticket and includes a small museum with photos from the war and a map of the tunnels. It includes a guided tour of part of the tunnels too. Our guide was a friendly guy in his early 30s who didn’t understand much English but knew enough to point out the different uses of each part: bedroom, kitchen, meeting room, ventilation, toilet, hospital. Most of the tunnel requires ducking, and some parts were wet and a bit slippery. But it was pretty awesome to see how people survived the war.
We had lunch afterwards at the little food shop before the entrance. They had instant noodles jazzed up with veggies and your protein of choice (beef or egg), which held us over just find for the 3+ hour ride back to Hue.
That wraps up part II! The third and final part to Vietnam will be Saigon and the Mekong delta. We are leaving tomorrow on a 4-5 hour ride to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, so there will be down time to write. Woohoo!
I’m sitting in a hammock in Ben Tre, Vietnam, a small town in the Mekong delta. After an afternoon of exploring the neighboring island by bike (the ferry across was 10 cents!), it feels good to relax with a beer after giving my legs a nice workout.
Rain is pouring and I’ve yet to make dinner plans. And that’s fine by me. This trip has been about the practice of enjoying the present, exploring my individual yoga practice and finding my way as a yoga teacher. So far, so good.
Nature is awesome. It never fails to bring me closer to the present. When I practice yoga in nature, it’s like getting a zen boost. Chris Burkard really captures the AWE-someness of being surrounded in it. If you can’t make it out there yourself, this is the next best thing.
Check this out tea lovers. Macro photography always has an otherworldly quality to me. Zooming in on the details, the big picture is obscured. Then it’s up to the observer to make sense of what they’re looking at. Sound familiar?
This afternoon, I was revisiting a lesson in my online compassion course and came across some solid advice for increasing self compassion (which falls under the yogic principle of ahimsa, or non-violence). Two words: slow down.
Since I started my one year of travel this August, I’ve had a lot more time to notice who I am, how I communicate (or don’t), what I do with my time, and when I get excited or happy about something. And also when I get upset, frustrated, or lose patience with something. A big challenge to getting over being upset or angry is wanting to speed up, get angrier and louder. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for getting it out of your system and not holding on or pushing down what you’re experiencing. But I think slowing down might be the golden ticket to getting it out of your system AND being productive.
1. Slowing down means taking a pause, taking a break. It gives you time to clear your head and cool off.
2. Slowing down doesn’t mean stopping. It means coming back to the issue after giving yourself space and empathy towards your current state.
One way to practice this is coming up with a phrase to say to yourself when you feel yourself getting upset. This is where Drake comes in. He inspired my phrase: “hold on, we’re going home.” It reminds me to pause and bring things back home to the stillness that resides deep within. Thanks, Drizzy.
Arm balances can be intimidating. They require building strength in your core, shoulders, and arms. Many poses require flexibility in the hips, glutes, and lower back. They all require trust in your upper body to hold you up and also being open to (literally) change your perspective while you’re in the pose.
Bakasana (crow pose) is a pose I’ve been working on for awhile. There were two classes where I popped up into it without hesitation at the teacher’s cue and thought “wow, I could hold this pose forever!” But most times I tentitively hop onto the toes of one foot, then the other. I realized I was doing this out of fear: what if my arms give out? What if I fall on my face? What if I hurt my neck? While all these things could happen, focusing on them has prevented me from progress. Until yesterday.
During some downtime in my hotel room in Hanoi, I rolled out my mat and placed a big fluffy pillow on it and began practicing coming into the pose. The first few attempts didn’t work. My knees slipped off my upper arms and fell to the mat, my face hitting the pillow. So I tried again. And again. I felt the familiarity of not being able to do it, and then I realized I was expecting failure. I was expecting that my arms would not be able to hold me up, expecting that I would hit my face against the pillow and that my knees would slip from my upper arms. So I took a few slow breaths and reset my expectations. This time, I didn’t expect to fail, nor was I eagerly wishing for success. I just wanted to try it. Up I went, and for 2.5 seconds, it felt great! I was in balance, on my hands, feeling weightless! Then disbelief and fear crept in and I came down with a thump.
I practiced for a while longer, one more time catching that weightless effortless feeling. It was awesome.
Yeah, yoga is about more than achieving difficult poses. But what goes into practicing a challenging pose is exactly what yoga is about: using strength without forcing, using flexibility with stability, and staying curious with the process. Oh, and going for gold 🙂