Thinking back to the moments that made up 2016 makes my heart swell because they were filled with adventure, laughter, travel, family, new experiences, delicious food, friends, and all of the things that make my soul happy. Kim and I were lucky enough to start our third year living abroad as I continued to teach High School Art as well as starting as a Technology Integration Specialist at the elementary level of an International School in Yangon, Myanmar. We spent the first half of the year in our apartment we shared with two dear friends, then I spent the beginning of the summer becoming a certified yoga teacher before sharing the rest of the summer with my family in Maine, and returning to Southeast Asia in the fall, traveling in bits throughout the whole year. I still enjoy going back to visit my 14 Adventures of 2014 blog post as a little peek into that year of exciting changes so I thought I would return to the idea and create another reminiscent post for 2016. So here it is, 16 Epic Parts of 2016:
Kim and I woke up on the first morning of 2016 to the sound of the ocean lapping against our boat as we cruised through Halong Bay, one of Vietnam’s most beautiful landforms. The limestone crests jutted out of the water to every side of us as we peacefully sailed along into the new year. After that we found our way up into the mountains of Sapa and spent days motor biking the chilly twisting mountain roads. What a way to start out the year!
15. Biggest Buddha in the World
When we do my dream road trip across the US I am going to have to plan lots of extra time because I am a sucker for “biggest in the world” things. Let’s be honest here, who isn’t? Okay, maybe it’s just me. Nonetheless, when we visited the quiet Myanmar town of Hpa-An I heard that there was the biggest reclining Buddha in the World just a short ways away and I was sold. Of course we HAD to go see it. I also thought it was a great idea to take the scenic route which ended up being a very long, very dusty, dirt road. Our motorbike was not impressed (nor was the driver – Kim). Just as the sun was setting we managed to pull into Win Sein Taw Ya and it was quite the spectacular site. This paired with a weekend of cave exploring and motorbiking with friends made for a memorable time.
14. Our First No Plans Trip
10 days and no plans, that’s how our trip to the Philippines started in April. With nothing booked besides our plane tickets, we backpacked our way through the Philippine island of Luzon where we hiked to see hanging coffins, ate empanadas on the cobblestone streets of Vigan, and enjoyed to waves of Pagudpud. Although it was not the “perfect” vacation that I could have neatly planned, it was worth it in so many surprise ways.
13. Solo Art Exhibition
In May I completed one of my top artistic goals, to host my first Solo Art Exhibition. The body of work was a series of digitally manipulated (glitched) photographs of Myanmar culture. Since this country is still not completely free (earlier this year a man was imprisoned for using an image of Buddha in a bar advertisement), I held the show in a private location as invitation only. The completion of the show was also intended to model the process of exhibiting your work as a working artist for my advanced art students who also had to host similar shows on their own.
12. Yoga Training in the Indian Mountains
I’m not sure how to summarize the life-affirming experience of yoga training in one simple paragraph so please head over a read the long version of my month in India learning the traditional and modern approaches to yoga. After a month of practicing, learning anatomy, questioning everything through philosophy, and more practicing, I accepted my yoga teacher certification as a full fledge yoga instructor.
11. Megan’s Nashville Bash
Directly after yoga training I flew from India straight to Nashville, Tennessee where the beautiful Meg was parting away with her fantastic gang of girls. It was a weekend of cowboy boots, honkey tonks, and tons of drinking. Unfortunately for me it also included catching some sickness on the plane and being in bed for a good chunk of the time. Nonetheless, it was a time to remember, cowboy hats and all.
10. 2 Weeks (2 Short) in Maine
Such a short amount of time but in just two weeks I squeezed in SO much love, laughter, and memories. For what felt like a blink of an eye, I was surrounded by all of my favorite people and just thinking about the long summer days we spent camping, BBQing, lounging around, and just hanging out fills me with so much happiness.
09. Meatless Me
Okay, this one is not one moment in time but it is HUGE and deserves a slot; half way through the 2016 year I decided to no longer eat meat. It is something that I have considered for some time for many reasons, health wise, ethics wise, and environmental wise. It has had its challenges but for the most part has been rather easy thanks to the goddess that is my wife who has taken on my vegetarianism as inspiration and is constantly concocting delicious new meatless creations. Mainly I feel like I am living less in duality now, that my beliefs match my actions, and that makes my soul happy.
08. Maine Island Clam Bake
Cabbage Island is a small piece of land just of the coast of Boothbay harbor, Maine. It is also the location of one of the oldest Clam Bake traditions in the North East. Kim and I spent an afternoon with her family, Robin and Steve, sailing about the coast before enjoying lobster, clams, corn, potatoes, onions, and other goodies that were cooked under a blanket of seaweed. Nothing tastes more like Maine than that!
07. Road Trip Around Israel
What is better than a summer road trip? How about a summer road trip with three of your favorite people!? How about a summer road trip with three of your favorite people discovering a new country!? On our way back to Southeast Asia in July, Kim and I stopped in Israel to visit my sister Amanda and her husband Josh (who were there while Amanda completed a summer program and internship for her Law degree). Our short visit brought an overflow of fun as we road tripped around Israel. We explored the city of Tel Aviv, walked through the streets of Jeruselum, stopped to ride a camel in the Judaian desert, awed at the mini grand canyon in Ramon Crater, and took a mud bath in the dead sea. I don’t think there were another four days this year that were filled with more fun, exploration, exciting new things, adventure, or love.
06. Meandering Through a Japanese Garden
I did not expect to find peacefulness when I went to the giant city of Hong Kong for a work conference in September, actually I didn’t expect to like it all that much. Fortunately, both of those were way off. Hong Kong is a fascinating city with so much uniqueness, all of which I enjoyed very much. My favorite part of it though was not the huge shopping centers or the bustling streets, but rather a quiet little park called Nan Lian Garden which echoed that of a Japanese Tea Garden. I had learned about these in my college Asian Art History class. The pathways are twisted and uneven to purposefully induce slow walking. Landscapes are created to produce the most picture perfect views with every branch and stone as an intentional brushstroke in the most stunning painting. Water is trickling and soft music is drifting through the leaves adding to the meditative atmosphere. Asian gardens are not manicured pieces of land, they are living art work experiences.
05. Snorkeling in the Andaman Sea
With such an exciting year, Kim and I decided to take our “fall” break and chill out on some of the best beaches in the world. Lucky for us these are found right next door in southern Thailand. We spent the week snorkeling off Koh Phi Phi, enjoying the sunset on Railay beach in Krabi, soaking in the natural hot springs, and adventuring around. The most memorable time for me being the spectacularly turquoise blue waters that were so stunning in color it was almost unbelievable.
04. Half Marathon Trail Run
Sometimes I get some crazy idea in my head and it just sticks. I’m trying to go along with my life and it is sitting over in the corner of my brain tapping its fingers, waiting for me to pay attention to it. This was one of those ideas. On a warm November morning I spent 3+ hours running 13.1 miles through the mud on trails in the Myanmar mountains to complete my first ever half marathon. My legs were shaking but my smile could not have been bigger when I crossed the finish line to a greeting of friends and congratulations. It took a lot of hard work, early mornings, and focused training, but I did it!
03. Yee Ping Mass Lantern Release
When I first decided to move to Asia I began a list of interesting places to visit and three years later I have forgotten everything on that list except for this one. It took a few years to manage the timing and to get ahold of tickets but it was worth the long wait. On the November full moon I joined hundreds of others on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, Thialand, in a mass release of sky lanterns and it was the most breathtaking sight I believe I have ever seen.
02. A Month on the Indonesian Islands
I didn’t have a lot of expectations, or plans, when we got on the plane for our winter vacation in Indonesia but by the time we left three weeks later I was head over heals about the string of islands. Starting off on Java we adventured to the highest peaks at the top of Mt. Bromo, an active volcano, then down into the blue lake Ijen Crater to view the blue fire alight from the sulfur gases. By the time we got to the island of Bali we more than enjoyed a much needed rest at our friends Ashley and Matt’s villa. The day after Christmas we grabbed a motorbike and hit the road to spend two weeks cruising along the coast, up the mountains, through the rice terraces, and by the temple towns of Bali. We spent New Years at a black sand beach, saw dolphins, got drenched in a mountain down pour, enjoyed mornings of yoga and monkey walks, and so much more. I can see now why Bali stays in the heart of so many, it has a way of rooting down into your soul.
2016 was a year of epic proportions filled with more adventures than most people get to experience in a lifetime and I am so very grateful to call this my life. Yet, not one of these moments would have been half as amazing if I didn’t have my beautiful wife by my side. Her constant encouragement and support through all of my dreams, big and small, makes my life so much fuller. Whatever plan or crazy idea I conjure up is always met with a Yes! My travel companion, my fearless motorbike driver, and my goddess of a chef; the one who always makes me laugh (even when it’s the last thing I want to do) I am so thankful to have celebrated two full years of marriage this year. I read somewhere once that if you love someone, travel with them, for then you will know their true self; happily I can say that I have found someone who loves my truest self right back and that is the most epic part of them all.
When I envisioned writing this Yoga Training review/recap post I pictured myself as a much more transformed, profound woman who could do the perfect chaderanga and has unlimited internal calmness. Spoiler alert, a month of yoga training cannot bring you any of those! What it can bring you though, is closer to yourself, your center, and your bliss.
I honestly don’t remember where the idea of attending a Yoga Teacher training came from. The first time I do recall talking about it was with Kelsey, a co-worker who had attended her own training last summer and had been leading classes at the school since then. We were at my annual Christmas party and I was a few sangrias in, the conversation turned to yoga and Kelsey said “While maybe you should do a yoga teacher training.” I don’t recollect much else of what we talked about but I do vividly remember feeling that the suggestion was absolutely absurd!!!! Me? A yoga teacher? How ludicrous!
Yet something must have stuck, a seed was planted, because before I knew it my best friend/roommate, Shelly, and I were signed up to attend Siddhi Yoga’s 200 hour teacher training course in Dharamshala, India. As it came closer to the start of the course I began recording reasons that I was attending. Among them were “to find inner peace,” “to get to know myself better,” “to feel proud of my body,” “to challenge myself,” and “to investigate my believes.” The most foundational reason though came as a whole, “to put my full time and focus into strengthening the unity between my mind, body, and soul while becoming my best self.” What I didn’t realize is that I didn’t need to become my best self, because I already was (am) my best self, I simply needed to let my best self out.
After three flights, a couple hours sitting in Indian airports, and an extremely twisty taxi ride through the forests, up into the mountains of northern India, I stepped out on the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains. The training was held at POPs Resort, a hotel-like place about an hour outside of Dharamashala. Each attendee had their own room and bathroom that was simply but comfortably furnished. The hotel was plopped in the middle of nowhere with a few sweet shops being the only interest worthy place to walk to. I remember smiling, feeling a peace wash over me, as if this was exactly where I was meant to be.
Classes started bright and early the following day after a perplexing opening ceremony. We had five classes a day, beginning with 2.5 hours of yoga lessons where we went over each and every yoga pose, breaking down the correct alignment, the safety precautions, the modifications for different injuries or ailments, and the varying levels of advancements. Deep, our yoga master teacher, is easily the most knowledgeable yogi I have ever met and also the coolest. At one moment he is telling you the specific complications of sciatica pain in incredible detail that a doctor would second, the next he is on the roof holding the perfect headstand with the mountains silhouetting him, and then he is telling a blond joke and laughing with such intensity that you can’t help but join. I honestly believe that I am lucky enough to have had one of the most talented teachers the world has to offer, one with a fervent balance of traditional techniques with modern practicalities.
After we devoured a much worked-for breakfast of fruit, yogurt, oatmeal, and tea (or the like) we returned for a yoga theory type class. Here we would go into even more detail about the pose(s) we had just learned. Through discussion and lecture we would discover the individual benefits (physical, emotional, and mental) of each and every pose or breathing technique. We also revisited the safety precautions to be sure we were aware of any way you could injure yourself in a pose. Part of the beauty of Deep’s approach was the constant connection to safety. His practice was found through trial and error as he consulted various doctors and other experts on the healthiest way to refine a yoga pose and he invited us to do the same.
One of my favorite aspects was how he taught us modifications to poses in healing not demeaning ways. The world holds us in a constant sense of competition (with others and ourselves), we are told to push and force and if we can’t do it then we aren’t trying enough. Where Deep encouraged us to not only honor our bodies but to get to know them. Instead of giving the girl with the back injury a less advanced version of the pose to do, she was given props and taught a way to do the pose that will help open the space between the vertebras and actually help heal her injury. It goes both ways too, the super flexible girl was given poses to help her build strength where the former body builder spent her morning doing hamstring-opening poses. Everyone had areas of strength and areas of weakness, some mentally and some physically, and each one was treated with absolute judgment-free care.
We broke mid-day for a traditional Indian vegetarian lunch that usually consisted of dali, chibati, rice, paneer, curried veggies, yogurt, and slices of tomato and cucumber. After a rest or a walk into town we met back in the yoga hall for Anatomy class. Taught by Dr. Amrita, this was a lecture based class where we learned all of the bones of the body, the major muscles and what their jobs were, along with the physical actions happening inside our body while we complete a pose. What I liked best about this class was the direct understanding of yoga as a physical science. The information got a bit heavy at times; let’s just say that I won’t be going for my doctor degree anytime soon (not my cup of tea).
Directly following, we began our meditation class. I know what you are picturing, everyone sitting silently cross-legged on the floor with closed eyes for long periods of time. Incorrect! We practiced many different types of meditation, including dancing meditation (by ourselves and with partners), laughing meditation, staring in people’s eyes for great deals of time meditation, speaking gibberish meditation, humming meditation, music based meditation, among others. Meditation is a form of moving beyond our physical, into our spiritual selves and there are many, many ways to do that. Yes, some of these were weird and awkward but I’m grateful to have experienced them all because the more we learn the more we grow.
We would then spend some time reviewing what we practiced in the morning and taking turns teaching each other. I liked that we were expected to teach throughout the course, it made the final practical exam less concerning and helped me to retain all of the day’s teachings.
Lastly, we would join Gurumunk for Philosophy class. When other memories of yoga training fade I will forever imagine sitting in the grass completely absorbed as Guru shares his vast wisdom with us through countless metaphoric stories. Like the story of the fish who were searching for the ocean without realizing that the ocean was surrounding them the whole time; this relating to how many people search for happiness, expecting it to be at a certain place or with a certain person and not realizing that they were surrounded by it the whole time. If there was an embodiment of love, it would be Gurumunk. Always willing to listen to our seemingly basic questions (“How do you handle jealousy?” “Why does one experience sadness?” “How do you find balance in life?” “What/Who is God?”) and give us a patient answer. He shared with us ancient tools that masters have discovered to help find bliss like the 8 Limbs of Ashtanga, or the 7 Chakras, or the 3 Bodies. Each of these was presented openly and fluidly as different paths that lead to the same destination of ultimate peace and bliss.
Under the stars we ate a dinner similar to lunch as we discussed more questions with Guru, or talked about the day’s lessons, or got to know one another (there were 15 students in my cohort). Some people stayed up playing guitar, hanging out, or having study review session, but most nights everyone was very ready for bed and turned in about 9:00, just after dinner.
As the days continued on like this I learned many things:
1. Yoga is HARD!
Not that I ever thought it was easy, but there were a few poses that I felt pretty confident in. However, after learning the correct way to form the poses I realized that if a yoga pose feels easy then you are probably doing it wrong. Even if you are an expert you will still feel stretching and opening and strengthening in each and every pose.
2. Dancing is fun!
In Indian culture it is said that a baby is born knowing how to do three things: eat, cry, and dance. In the western world dancing is almost inclusively found with alcohol and being sexy, but in Indian culture dancing is a part of their lives. Although the first few times of dancing meditation were awkward and uncomfortable, eventually it became fun and freeing. This is one of my favorite things that I will carry with me from this experience.
3. Yoga is so much more than poses
There was a quote on the entrance to the yoga hall that I think summed this one up nicely: “You can go on doing asanas, postures; that is not yoga. Yoga is an inward turning. It is a total about-turn. When you are not moving into the future, not moving toward the past, then you start moving within yourself – because your being is here and now, it is not in the future.” Yoga is not the poses you make but the stillness you find within those poses.
4. You have to find what works for you
So often throughout the course the teachers encouraged us to not take their word for it, but to experiment with ourselves. Take the yogi diet for example, part of the diet is to cut out chocolate and sugar. We did not have either of these during the training (hence the many trips to the sweets store) but the idea is to try this on your own to cut these things out and see how it makes you feel. Perhaps you will feel the same as the ancient masters who felt rushes of active energy, messing with their balance. The idea is to figure it out for yourself, and find your own balance.
5. Bliss is found in stillness
Life constantly pushes us to be busy. If you are not moving forward you are moving backward. However, when you are constantly in motion you can’t find stillness. People want to schedule in a time for bliss. “From 7:45-8:00 on Monday mornings I will be still and find bliss.” Then when it doesn’t happen instantly they give up. Sounds absurd, right?
As an artist I have always had a natural curiosity in observing the world around me. You know when a movie is setting a scene and you see it flash from a bee landing on a flower, to the breeze blowing through some branches, to the water bubbling in a creek? That’s what I see. I’m looking at the big picture but I get lost in the smaller frames of the scene and they are so SO beautiful. Yet, as I’m watching, the world comes in and says “Go, go, go! Do something! Be active, don’t just sit there!” This month gave me the chance, the permission, to get back to that love of seeing, of watching, and through that there is so much beauty, inspiration, and bliss.
6. Life starts at the end of your comfort zone
As I mentioned, we learned a lot of ancient tools and paths for finding bliss, we also learned some very old techniques. There are a series of cleansing techniques to clean your body inside and out. The one that we practiced was cleaning our sinus cavities, with the rationale being that you breath is your entire life force and if you have clear sinuses you have better breathing.
The first way we tried this is with a nettie pot. Essentially a small tea pot that you pour warm water from through one nostril out the other. The other way we tried was with a catheter. We lubed up our noses with ghee (clarified butter) and gently attempted to bring the catheter up the nostril, down the throat, and out through the mouth. I must say on the one nostril that worked for me, it felt very clear and clean for the rest of the day!
In life you can sit on the sidelines and be satisfied watching the action or you can get in and try new things, explore, create, live! The choice is yours, but people rarely regret what they did, only what they didn’t do.
7. Laughter is the best medicine
I am not a very humorous person, I’m not exactly sure why, I guess I have more of a serious personality. So often during training we were reminded not to take life so seriously. It is said that the brain holds the intellect, the heart holds the emotions, and the stomach holds the self (soul). Any true laugh comes from the belly, which mean it comes from the truest part of our self. Which is why we preformed laughing meditations and told jokes every class. Have fun! Smile! Laugh!
8. Love is beautiful!
I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a place where there was such an abundance of love. I feel like I was loved even before I arrived to the training. All the way through I was greeted with nothing but absolute care and love from each and every teacher. There was no judgment, no questioning, no earning of love, just absolute adoration. I’m still human, so there were still moments of sadness or frustration or defeat, but it helped me realize that all of those negative feelings were inside of me which means they were in my control.
9. You are perfect just the way you are!
I’m sure you have heard this before, so have I, many times I’ve seen it against a pretty picture in the throngs of Pinterest or scrolling on Instagram. I’ve always felt content with myself – or so I thought. I don’t long to be anyone else, I’m happy where I am with what I have and with who I am. This month has allowed me to come even more connected with myself. I was able to see the parts of me that I have struggled with in a new light. I am able to show off both my successes and my failures at the same time with much less judgment. I no longer love myself in spite of my faults, I love myself. Period. End of sentence. “I am that which I am searching for.”
I feel like I have written a book here, and the strangest part is that I still feel like there is so much more to say. I want to tell you about our weekend shopping trips into the cutest mountain town of all time, about the mornings watching the sun come up over the mountains, about the struggles and the successes, about the mystics that stayed with us for a while and shared their music, about my new buddhist unalome tattoo and the rickety mountain side shack I got it in; but how do you sum up a time of such love, growth, discovery, learning, creativity, beauty? I hope I was able to give you a tiny insight into it at least. To leave you I will share with you this last Gurumunk quote: “Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self.” Namaste
Alisa & Kim
Two expats living, teaching, and eating their way across this beautiful world