The Yin and Yang of Yoga in Chiang Mai
Walk-in Yoga Classes in Thailand
Rain pummels against the corrugated roof of a Chiang Mai yoga studio. The rain is a blessing. Temperatures in North Thailand climb into the late 20’s even during winter and the humidity can be stifling – especially when exercising.
August is rainy season and today we are lucky the heavens have opened a little later than usual. It’s 6pm and I am about to take my third class with Neil Jefferson at NAMO.
Neil hails from south England, but has not lived on GB island since 1997. When he can earn a reasonable living in the relaxed climes of Chiang Mai, Thailand, why would he!
It is not only the clement weather, low cost of living, and relaxing lifestyle that is more appealing about settling down in Thailand, but working is South-East Asia is more enjoyable too.
“I have an old school friend in Sheffield, and from my conversations with her, it sounds like teaching yoga there is tougher. She goes to cold community centres in the evenings, and in mornings before people go to work,” Neil tells me. “Here, we can teach outdoors when it’s a little cooler in the morning.”
Neil is touted as the best yoga teacher in Chiang Mai. I don’t have anyone to compare him with here, but he is certainly the best yoga teacher I have practiced with.
Having received his yoga tutoring in India, his lessons combine classic yoga and Iyengar yoga with hatha yoga, blended with a few tweaks he has developed himself to benefit students of all levels.
He is also aware of the spiritual side of yoga and the health benefits it has on both body and mind. Not that he pushes this on to his students.
“Some people are intimidated by the word meditating,” he says. “I prefer to use the word, concentrate, or focus.” They are all one and the same thing.
English yoga classes
Despite practicing yoga for a year, I still consider myself a novice. My previous lessons have been in Spanish and Italian, and I am not fluent enough in either language to understand phrases like “warrior pose,” or “cobra posture.” At NAMO the lessons are in English.
Another yoga weakness I have is that my joints are not supple, so struggle to refine postures and maintain balance. But despite my ineptitude, I appreciate the health of benefits of yoga on both a physical and mental level.
My understanding of many yoga classes in the west is, they not always designed to strengthen the mind of students. The postures have been watered down and marketing has stylised yoga as an exercise. It’s all about the physical and the mental is dismissed. Yet for me, that’s the most important element.
One of the most important benefits you could and should be getting from yoga is the ability to still your mind and improve focus – a mental skill which enables you to perform better in all other aspects of your life.
After my first lesson at NAMO, I knew Neil understood this valuable side of yoga as well. Being able to keep the body still, enables you to still your mind, and vice versa. It helps to do something as simple as relaxing.
When I asked Neil about the relationship between yoga and meditation he says, “Yoga is a compliment to meditation. They are like brother and sister almost.”
He makes a good point. The male and the female aspects of human personality provide balance in body and mind and are the nucleus of creation. We find this concept in symbolism. Yin and Yang. Boaz and Jachin. Sun and Moon.
This coming together of opposites is how you can learn to understand and control the endless knot spoken about in Buddhism. Two worlds we live in intertwine without us realising. It’s a mystic concept easily, and often, dismissed.
Focus on balance
Neil starts his class slowly to give students time to limber the joints and bring their breathing in line with movements of their body. This intertwining is another important aspect of yoga and meditation.
A few minutes to “concentrate on your breath” is followed by a little freestyle warm-up exercise to help the natural flow of bodily movement, and to get “in touch with your animal instincts.”
Classes at NAMO are strenuous and relentless, but without pushing participants further than they can go. Neil is not a strict teacher, but recognises the benefits of putting students through their paces. Expect to break a sweat.
Between postures we return to the “grounding” position to take a breather. Neil has a preference for “down dog” which still puts a strain on your arms, although helps me to find balance and equally distribute my weight.
This is a recurring theme in Neil’s lesson plan. There is also a significant focus on postures that require balance; this helps to develop focus. When you concentrate you still your thoughts and bring body and mind into balance. Zen sages say this is the path the Absolute Samadhi.
Neil like his classes to flow. He will choreograph two or three moves that follow on naturally and help students keep their breathing in sync with movement. Even beginners can do this as the instructor talks you through move by move with precise detail.
After around an hour, if not before, I begin to feel the strain. The muscles in my arms and thighs burn and I have to keep relaxing posture and easing myself back in. Otherwise I would collapse.
But Neil is conscientious of damaging students and attentively wanders around the room making slight adjustments to your posture so the weight is evenly distributed and the muscles you are working are not overloaded.
In yoga, like in anything else, the body has a memory and will naturally fall into the position it is trained to move into.
The wooden-clad studio is airy and cool, and on a rainy day, is a perfect environment for yoga – fresh enough to breath, warm enough to make you work up a sweat and cleanse the build-up of toxins in the body.
In this weather, yoga in Chiang Mai is comfortable enough. I didn’t feel the need to drink water. During high temperatures however, water is essential. Even though yoga in heat can be tough, it is even more beneficial.
When I lived in Spain, I practiced Bikram yoga which involves a strenuous 90-minute session in a purpose-built studio heated to 40 degree Celsius. After every session, I slept like a puppy!
Neil winds the class down even more slowly than he starts. Or so it seemed to me. We were instructed to lay on our backs and notice our breathing. This is a typical vipassana meditation technique used to encourage mindfulness – being at one with the moment.
Without even trying, I drifted into Samadhi, a Zen expression to describe the state of consciousness when the mind goes beyond your surroundings on the physical plane.
We seemed to lay in this position for a long time, but I actually do not know how long the class takes to wind down. In pure conscious, space and time do not exist.
It wasn’t until I hear the sound of Neil’s voice that I realise I am still in the yoga studio. And this is how a yoga class should end, with the student falling into reverie, the product of “exercise” interwoven with the “focus” of the mind.
In esoteric symbolism throughout Asia, you find many works of art featuring the intertwining of dragon’s tails. This represents the locking together of two worlds, the ida and pingala energies that spring from the awakened kundalini, the conscious and the subconscious minds, male and female attributes of personality. And during transcendental mediation, the physical mind in the astral body.
Yoga and meditation are the Yin and Yang of two worlds merging into one – and when collapsed it paves the way to pure consciousness. This is where understanding the ‘endless knot’ of consciousness begins.