Highway 1, my favourite drive, wrapped around the California coastline
I found yoga at the University of California where I was doing my graduate studies in Sociology.
Years of Experience: 20
Workshops taught in USA, Sweden & Singapore
200-HRS (Absolute Yoga, Thailand)
500-HRS (American Yoga School, Sweden)
I never planned to be a yoga teacher.
My dream was to be a professor and spend the rest of my life reading, writing and teaching undergraduates.
At the end of my first semester of a PhD in California, I fell very ill and had to be hospitalised for two weeks. It was the first week of January that I found myself back in my campus apartment. My body felt utterly drained. Everything around me seemed too loud and bright. My chest tightened when I realised that I would have to be back in full-time study, in addition to new undergraduate classes and students to teach.
My new classmates who had known me all of four months were my angels. They banded together to take care of me, scheduling visits and food drop-offs. During one of our seminar breaks, one of them suggested I do yoga. I hesitated:
Yoga was not for me.
I'd done a few classes in Singapore and found the whole experience messy and disorganised. There were too many students packed in the room, I couldn't see or understand the teacher--I didn't get what it was supposed to be about, other than some random stretches on a mat.
"It will be good for you," my friend urged. "It's offered as a P.E. class for students and faculty. It's held at the Martial Arts Studio--you can walk to yoga class!"
A few weeks later, I took that walk in the cold, biting air to the other end of campus, pushed a door open and stepped into a bright sunlit room with high ceilings. I was the first one there. Minutes later, a tiny, blonde person stepped in. Although her tanned complexion was weathered, her blue eyes sparkled and she immediately broke into a smile.
Her name was Julie Kimball, and she changed me--and my life-path--from the moment we met.
I travel regularly to the US and make it a point to visit Julie every time I am in California. This picture was taken in her home.
In her youth, Julie had studied with BKS Iyengar at his studio in Pune, India. On occasion, she would pepper her classes with brief anecdotes about his harsh style of discipline. As I later learnt, this austere style would go on to be a trademark of Iyengar yoga teachers.
Thank heavens Julie had absorbed the best parts of his teaching--the attention to detail and personalisation of each asana (posture) to the individual student--but never once did we feel fear or intimidation with her.
She embodied gentle wisdom.
Upon returning to California, Julie went on to study Traditional Chinese Medicine, qi gong and meditation. She was also a swim coach and would teach her swim class before coming to yoga with us.
I was always the first in the studio; my body enrobed in the warm, cocoon quiet of the morning before Julie's welcome arrival would break the silence. She would kick lightly up into a headstand which she held steady as a rock, until the room began to fill with the rest of the students.
Twice a week, we practised for 3 hours a day, with a view that overlooked the Pacific Ocean. In class, she was alternately mischievous, playful and thoughtful. Her teaching style was her personal blend of qi gong to warm up the body, followed by classical Iyengar asanas.
I was so weak then that I was unable to do half-moon pose, even with blocks and wall support. But she never pushed or pressured me, simply offering another pose, trusting that I knew best for myself.
THE FIRST LESSON she taught me:
Yoga is less about the shapes we were making with our bodies, but the quality of the energy that we embodied while making them.
While other students were in half-moon pose, myself and a few others would be in a supine leg stretch--different asanas, but we were all sthira sukham asanam, steady and comfortable in our asanas.
No one was performing for anyone else--it was never an asana competition. When class was over, I always felt deeply calm and energised at the same time. My practice gave me grounding and stability at a time in my life when I really needed it.
My yoga practice filled me with a sense of safety that I was able to rely on once I'd left the studio. Her voice stayed in my heart and reminded me of my own resilience.
Before I returned to Singapore, she asked me out for tea. I can't recall the words we exchanged that day, but I will never forget her parting gift. As we stepped out of the café into the street, she handed me a huge bag of Meyer lemons. "I know you love these," she said, with a soft smile. They were from the tree in her garden.
THE SECOND LESSON she taught me:
Anyone can memorise and recite the instructions to get a student into whatever asana.
But if that were indeed true, we could just play tape recordings of those instructions for every yoga class.
What makes the difference? The teacher makes the difference.
It was her presence and energy that transformed and elevated our time together into a practice that soothed my nerves, renewed my spirit and prepared me for life outside the studio.
She remains the best thing that has ever happened to me.
As she gave of herself to me, so do I to my students.