Nursing a tiger

“Your flight to London is departing in less than 14 days,” Zuji writes to remind me. As if I could forget. Only last night I dreamt I was trying to fix the curtains in my flat when my sister, watching from her comfortable position reclining on the bed, informed me my flight was in fact departing in less than two hours and shouldn’t I be checking in already? Useful.

Stressful, more like.

It is perhaps hardly surprising then that, arriving in work horribly early this morning, putting on the kettle and returning five minutes later only to find my specialty Chai tea gone, stolen – and not even allowed to properly brew, god dammit! – by my sleepy colleague, put me in something of an end of the world panic, and not for the first time this week.

On Wednesday night I had been rudely awoken by rain and lightning crashing in through the windows. While my boyfriend slept peacefully on, I lay there in the darkness going over the events of the evening, feeling a storm brewing inside.

It is Hungry Ghost Festival here at the moment, the month in the Chinese calendar when the gates of Heaven and Hell are believed to open and the spirits of your dead ancestors come back to visit the living. Offerings of food, incense, paper money and goods (clothes, mobile phones, a new car – whatever you think your dead gran or granddad would most like or need) are made to appease their wrath and ease their suffering. Where I live on Lamma Island, these ritual burnings are a common enough and heartening sight. A practiced arsonist myself, I like nothing better than a good bonfire; we always had a fire glowing in the hearth back home and being able to make it was a rite of passage. But as we walked home on Wednesday from our long-looked-forward-to evening together, I gazed rather mournfully at the peanuts, oranges and crackers lying on the roadside, feeling a bit like a hungry ghost myself.

It’s a feeling that’s been building all week. As I prepare to say goodbye to my students, colleagues and friends, tie up the last loose ends and send a few final boxes home, I am left dull, distracted, distant and distinctly without an appetite. My boyfriend is good to me, putting up with my silences, buying me lunch and encouraging me to stay positive; but I am torn – happy to be leaving for new pastures, sad to be leaving him, and stressed by all the things I have to do (pulling down curtains the very least of them).

Still, I go to my yoga classes, seeking peace and calm, an escape from my thoughts and a direction for my nervous energy. And for a while – a few fleeting minutes – I can stand back, see the murk settle and the clear water appear, can feel it washing over me. Then it’s over; it’s late; I eat supper, go to sleep and start the whole thing over again the next day. It’s not long before I am tired, ravenously hungry and demonic.

“It’s like dating a tiger,” my boyfriend jokes, trying to get a kiss in while I hurry to have breakfast before starting work.

“Well observed,” I retort. “Keep five paces back and do not attempt to come between me and food.”

It’s a common enough scenario between us to have gained me the reputation as a vicious, knife-wielding, unsharing eater. “Caring is sharing,” he tells me. But I’m vegetarian yogi and do not eat all the steak, burgers, ice cream and banoffee pie he does. I get tired after a long day at work in the city, come home voracious with hunger and the only thing I want to make love to is hummus. “Stealing,” I say, “is unfeeling,” proving that anyone can come up with a bad rhyme to conjure with. And I have one other disadvantage over him: where he can find comfort in food, I find none. In times of stress, I’m an emotional non-eater and then of course the tiger in the cage is even more unpredictable, to be approached only with the utmost caution. Which is the situation I found myself in on Wednesday evening and the reason I was awake at 3am caught up in self-recrimination and remorse.

I’d started off looking forward to the evening so much it barely mattered that I’d missed breakfast and had only a hurried bowl of cereal for lunch. We were going to The Peak for a romantic dinner. But after a long two hours’ drilling grammar, I was starving and anyone whose ever been through an eating disorder will know that the brain in starvation mode is not particularly effective at decision making. Desperate for nourishment of any kind – generally the fattier the better – it battles against the mind that wants control. Imagine, if you will the dialogue that goes on – the continual monkey chatter of the mind  – every time an anorexic quietly, fearfully peruses a menu. It’s like listening to Goldilocks on the Gwyneth Paltrow diet: “Hum, what shall I have… This? Too rich. What about this? No, too bland. Okay, then this? Are you crazy? Too oily. Well, we’re running out of options; you tell me. Which has the least calories? This one. Too boring. What about this then? But you just said I couldn’t have that. That’s right, I forgot; what about….? You know what, don’t bother. I give up.”

“So, hunny,” my boyfriend says, looking up endearingly at me. “Are you ready? What do you want?”

Words can hardly describe how patient he is, not only suffering me to change my mind several times, but us to change restaurants in the hope that the other place will have what my heart desires. It does not of course and whatever I order will be wrong, because even if I knew my heart’s desire I am incapable of following it. My mind has far too strong a hold on me. I cannot even concentrate properly on what my boyfriend is saying. The constant white noise of my neuroses drones on in the background, taunting me with the regret: “You should have stayed at the other place.”

“Oh, now you know what you want? Now you can make a decision? Now you feel guilty for dragging your boyfriend away from his beef bourguignon and being a complete pain in the ass all night?”

“Yes. I’m sorry, but…”

And so it goes on.

Well, having spent a sleepless night full of regret and self-loathing for having allowed myself to get into such a state of nervous paralysis in the first place, I make a promise: to feed the hungry ghost in me, to make it offerings and present it gifts as I would to a sick child. In short, to try to ride out the storm and get a little better (each and every time I do it) at working through this illness. Because it is an illness, one of the mind as much as the body, and as John Donne said: “of the diseases of the mind, there is no criterion, no canon, no rule, for our own taste and judgement should be the judge, and that is the disease itself…And still I vex myself with this, because if I know it not, no one can know it.”


The cat, myself and I

“If I could find a real life place to make me feel like Tiffany’s, then I’d buy some furniture and give the cat a name!”

the other tiger in the flat

the real tiger in the flat

There are few things more depressing than clearing out and packing up ready to move. However, being stuck at home during a T8 with nothing better to do than to clear out and pack up with a cat who is equally climbing the walls is definitely one of them.

This was the situation this week as typhoon Utor struck its path through Hong Kong, bringing gale force winds and horizontal rain. To be honest, I’ve seen worse, and in order to justify being stranded on my island, forced to miss my favourite yoga class, I would want to see worse. But still, better safe than swept out to sea, and it did force me to finally tackle that pile of paperwork that’s been glaring at me from under the coffee table for the past few months. How many important documents I threw away in my haste, I am yet to discover, but the pile has been reduced, a small victory achieved. Next on the list: the stash of newspapers and shopping bags under the kitchen sink. Oh joy! How I can’t wait to be leaving!

“What about Audrey?” My mother asks, as the cat bolts back and forth between bedroom and lounge, desperately trying to exercise in the 500 sq ft of space we currently call home. “Is she looking forward to the move?”

“She doesn’t know it yet,” I say, “but she is. We both are. We need more space.”

Funnily enough, this had not been a consideration when I moved in. Light, bright and perfectly sized for one and a half, “It’s nice,” I thought, “but something is missing.”

Having never really intended to be in Hong Kong long term – certainly not three and a half years! – I’m used to living in sparsely furnished apartments, that sense of always having just moved in. But moving to rural Lamma last year – where a knowledge of Cantonese is helpful, a memory for ferry schedules essential and the number for the Snake Police imperative – made me feel all the more how frighteningly isolated single life could be. As anyone will tell you, I’m not usually one for wanting to share my space, but surely having someone there when you come home at night – someone whose capacity for conversation extended no further than ‘miaow’ – might help make you feel more at home?

Enter Audrey. An example of ask and the universe shall provide.

I can still hear my boss on the phone now imparting sympathy to a distressed parent. Perhaps because she does it every day, but this time it was different. A student was leaving to go to school in the UK and her parents were moving to a flat that did not allow pets. Their beloved cat Qu-Qu was facing eviction and could Liz give it a home? My ears pricked up. Having just suffered a similar fate and been rescued from imminent homelessness over Christmas, I was urged to repay my karmic debt and give a home (and a new name!) to Qu-Qu. It was either that or another unwanted soul for the RSPCA cull.

when you look up at me with those eyes...

when you look up at me with those eyes…

So, several days later I found myself with a rather heavy Louis Vuitton bag with an enormous, frightened pair of eyes staring out at me. It was a small, very timid-looking Puss-in-Boots that slunk out of the bag that night to hide under the sofa, refusing to eat until she’d sniffed and rubbed herself over everything in the flat, but once that was achieved there was no stopping her.

Keeping me awake half the night mewing, scratching my yoga mat and biting whenever I tried to stroke her, I was soon led to conclude that Qu-Qu had not been half as beloved as her previous owners suggested, or trained out of such kittenish habits as not attacking people.

For my boyfriend, this was all fun and games. His flatmate was fostering two sick kittens and he liked nothing better than to romp around with them. “But Audrey’s a cat,” I moaned. “She’s not a kitten any longer. She shouldn’t be biting people.”

“If she bites me, I’ll bite her back,” my Mum, who over the years has to my knowledge sheltered no less than 6 cats, 3 dogs, 4 rabbits, 2 guinea pigs, 1 terrapin and innumerable hamsters and fish, warned, and that’s pretty much how I felt.

It upset me when she cowered and flinched, bit and scratched for no reason. We could be sitting there having a nice stroke one minute and the next she’d be spitting and hissing, baring her fangs and ready with her claws. But why am I using the past tense? Audrey is still like this. There are moments we occasionally share, usually when I am ill or reading in bed when she comes and nestles down beside me, nudging the book with her nose as if it is Austen or Tolstoy she wants strokes from, not me. And, sure enough, as soon as I start petting her, she looks at me with sufferance, if not downright contempt, and may allow me to carry on if she is in the mood, or bites me if she is not.

As my mum would say, you get the pet you deserve. Like Paul and Toby.

Toby was a rescue dog. Not like Lassie, rather, neglected and left to starve all day by his previous owner, he had no off-switch as far as the hunt for food was concerned. Forever begging up at your with his enormous brown eyes and stealing food as soon as your back was turned (even when it was a craftily laid, chili-laced ploy to deter him from doing it again), we were all quite assertive enough to tell him to go and lie down when we’d had enough and wanted to be left alone to eat our dinners in peace. But not Paul. Kind-hearted, weak-willed, a complete push-over, Paul would softly, patiently ask Toby to please go away until, enraged and murderous, he wanted to stab him with his chopsticks. “He’s here to teach you assertiveness,” my mum would nod sagely. But in the end, Toby was just a dog and there’s only so much one ravenous mongrel can achieve in a lifetime.

curling up with the kitty

curling up with the kitty

Audrey is, for me, equally symbolic and I persevere, defending her when my boyfriend tries to poke her pouchy belly, giving into her preference for Ocean Fish over Mackerel, and letting her alone to chase the geckos (which, FYI, usually escape with their lives, minus their tails). And for her part, she has learned not to scratch mummy’s yoga mat but now leaps around and over it, joining in alongside me for the occasional cat stretch. (Her downward-dog’s pretty good too.)

a natural yogi

a natural yogi

I may have thought that taking on a cat was as simple as making a commitment to staying in Hong Kong and making a new home, at least for a little while longer (another 18 months, as it turned out); taking responsibility for something – someone – other than my little old self. Hence, the name. Looking every bit like Cat from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, it seemed only right that I “give the cat a name” – a proper name.

However, Audrey had more to teach me than just this. She came into my life around the same time my boyfriend, Jonny, did and has been a mirror to my own independence, solitude and intolerance. If I have had to work slowly and patiently to gain what little of her trust in humans is left (after being, I surmise, left alone most days with the domestic helpers, savaged and molested by small children and then ditched on me when they’d had enough), Jonny has had his work cut out getting through the hard shell of my insecurities, anxieties and neuroses. And I have had to learn to love and accept his – mainly, lovingness.

As he says, he’s the dog and I am the cat. He wants to sniff my butt and I want to scratch his face. But we’re getting there, slowly.

Call me Tiger

this is the life

this is the life

I was up at the pool yesterday, enjoying a blissful lunchtime swim in the sunshine, when I was suddenly ambushed by a terrible thought: what if there is a very good reason why Tutti is like that with Phil?

I can only think that I owe this thought to the bikini top that was slipping down from under my armpits and threatening, as indeed Tutti’s had done at a water park at the weekend, to expose all. It was from the water park that I got by way of Proustian-style stream of unconscious thought, to the question of whether my friend’s tyrannical Chinese girlfriend was not quite right to needle, pressure and make demands on my pliant English friend, or whether I’m not right to think that a guy’s life (and his money) is his own and that he should be left – more or less – alone to get on with it.

But first perhaps I should explain one or two little details of Hong Kong life, its sexual and dating politics. First of all, think old-fashioned chivalry: holding doors open, letting the woman go first, carrying her handbag, paying for everything… At first I found this a little weird. Coming from England where chivalry would be considered an offence against female emancipation if those lazy arsed males could even be bothered to attempt it, I simply wasn’t used to such common courtesies as being given priority to exit a lift and could only think of that pearl of wisdom my friend, aged 15 at the time, shared with me that there is only one reason why a guy would want to hold the door open for you – to check out your ass as you walked through. To this day, this is all I can think about every time my boyfriend holds the door for me, or lets me climb the stairs first, and with him I do not doubt that this is precisely his motive. After all, he had the chivalry to warn me on our very first ‘date’ that he was lecherous and I had no reason not to believe him.

But though I am continually lugging around enough kit to see me through a creative writing weekend at a yoga retreat in the Bahamas during rainy season, I am equally guarded about letting my boyfriend carry my possessions. “I’ll forget that you’ve got it,” I complain, taking back my laptop, gym bag and umbrella and handing him the 2kg sack of cat litter to carry instead. Because, of course, if a guy’s got muscles (and you don’t, and I certainly don’t), it is only sensible to make use of them. It saves you a fortune in neck massages and gives them the little ego boast they need. But I draw the line at having my boyfriend carry my handbag, for the simple reason that I know precisely the kinds of questions are flashing through everyone’s mind when they see a guy toting a pretty pink Prada or Louis Vuitton: “Is that his? Is he…?” and the relief when they realise: “Oh no, it’s hers. Phew.”

But of course, we are only scratching the surface here. Handbags and doors are only tip of the iceberg stuff. What about Valentine’s Day? That dreaded day when every girl in Hong Kong is competing for who can be seen clutching the biggest bouquet, teddy bear or box of chocolates, and every restaurant in Hong Kong for who can have the most ridiculously expensive set menu booked out months in advance. Because, let’s face it, there’s nothing more romantic than sitting in a small confined space with dozens of other press-ganged couples pretending to be more in love with each other today than they are on any other day of the year. Which is why I tell my boyfriend not to bother, and why his credit card takes an annual sigh of relief. But now the question occurs to me: am I letting him off the hook too easily? Is there a reason Tutti insists that Phil book that top Valentine’s table the before the fizz has settled on their New Year’s champagne brunch; that her handbag is self-consciously swinging from his hand (other than because the Rolex he bought her for Christmas already weighs a ton)? Does she know something about men that I don’t?

One of the things my boyfriend told me – nay, demanded – early on in our relationship was that I never let him get away with anything. This did rather unnerve me, but my response, being brought up in the tolerant, freedom-minded West, was “I’m not your mother. Just don’t try to get away with anything and we’ll be alright.” And happily we seem to agree on pretty much most things. For example, that line in the movie One Fine Day “love your man like a little boy and he’ll grow into a man”? Yeah, that had us both cringing with embarrassment, groaning with outrage and condemning it as one of the worst, most outdated pieces of advice ever given – patronising to men and degrading to women, to be ignored at all costs! Phew, I sigh, wiping the sweat from my brow. Thus far I am pleased to own such an enlightened, equal opportunities partner. But what if…What if there is a very good reason to take his “don’t let me get away with anything” seriously?

In Hong Kong, it is not uncommon for children to live with their parents until they marry, which these days could be anything into their mid-thirties. Rents are high, the family sacrosanct and … I don’t know. I just can’t see it myself, but apparently it works for many. It works for my boyfriend. “Didn’t he move out?” my friend groaned at me just the other day. “Yes,” I said, “but he moved back in.” “Ugh! He is too comfortable.” And I fear she may be right, in which case, I am in big trouble and need to rethink my whole policy. Here’s why.

In England and the West, I believe it could be quite easy to get comfortable living at home with one’s parents. I have seen it happen to many, but particularly to men: my friends’ brothers, my sister’s boyfriends…These males would happily sit on the sofa in front of the TV while their mothers cooked them dinner and washed their clothes. Hell! I even knew a guy who’d moved out of home but took his washing back with him when he visited – on the train! from London to Leek! Which, in case you are wondering, is 220km or 136 miles. “She likes doing it,” he’d say, as if a) that could ever be true and b) a good enough excuse even if it was. Yet, where mothers are doting, pliant and downtrodden, you can see how easy it would be for sons to take advantage and continue to be loved like a little boy until they failed to grow into a man. But what if your mother’s a tiger mum? What if she wakes you up at six in the morning to help her send an email? What then? If my boyfriend’s “too comfortable” living at home with a veritable (I hesitate/regret to abuse anyone, but in the words of her own family) Kim Jong-il, aren’t I gonna have to rethink my policy if I ever want him to move out of home and (God forbid!) in with me anytime before we get married?

Perhaps I should start taking a few lessons out of Tutti’s book and write my Christmas wish list now. Let me see… should a trip to Bali come top of the list or that Tiffany’s diamante wristwatch? Oh, I think I could get used to this.

The green, green grass of home

‘Write about a place where you have lived, saying what you would miss about your life there if you were away at sea for a long time.’

under the beech trees: where I belong

under the beech trees: where I belong

Anyone familiar with teaching the Edexcel IGCSE English syllabus will know the passage about Ellen McArthur risking life and limb to ‘Take on the World.’ What they might not be familiar with is the difficulty of helping a student write about what they would miss about Hong Kong if they were to go away to sea for a long time. Neither was I or I wouldn’t have put myself through yesterday afternoon: a rather wet and miserable hour – typhoon skirting us like a shark with its sights set on juicer prey – attempting to help the young, slightly cheeky, rather lazy Anna articulate just what it was she liked about Hong Kong. Which, as it turned out, was not much, except everything I hate.

Crowds, crowded places, shopping and shops, these were the things that my student liked most about HK. Not the country parks, the egg tarts, Victorian trams, or the numerous outlying islands and beaches…but the insane numbers of people. Fair enough, she’s Chinese, happy or, at least – like my dear boyfriend – unfazed at the prospect of being herded into a shuffling queue with several thousand others for the nebulous privilege of attending the only literary event in the Hong Kong calendar, the annual Book Fair. (Yes, we did, and no we didn’t. We got so far, my boyfriend decided that the murderous silence that was descending over me wasn’t worth the risk and we went for brunch instead.)

“But why?” I asked my student, needing – at least for the purposes of the essay, if not my own curiosity – to have the appeal of Mong Kok and Causeway Bay explained to me. “Because it makes me feel safe,” came the reply. Crowds of people, hoards of strangers on the street – the very things that send me into a agoraphobic meltdown – make my student feel comforted, protect and “part of something bigger” – that she belongs. I could have guessed this would be the reason, for it is the answer my boyfriend would have given and the reason he has never been bowled over by my dream of living in the country in the middle of nowhere. “How would you get to the shops?” he cries.

Having spent most of my life in the countryside or seeking out places of comparative or relative green and quiet, the idea of waking up to horns blaring rather than birds tweeting, a view of someone’s bathroom wall instead of treetops and the clear blue sky, the smell of exhaust fumes where fresh air should be, is anathema to me. And the idea that there might be nothing or no one for miles around? Absolute bliss. But for those who are used to bumping shoulders with nigh on 6 million other people every day, I can see that wide open, empty spaces might be a thing to bring on a panic attack. Not me, I love them. But I can see how it might appear to others. All those bees buzzing, the distant sound of a tractor or church bell; all those hideous green trees, cows and flowers. You could be in something from Hitchcock.


in an english country garden

in an english country garden

Happily enough the Duke of Edinburgh is doing quite a good job of bringing these city dwellers into direct contact with the source of their anxiety by having them get lost in my mother’s out of the way neighbourhood. In the week I was home at her little cottage in the Peak District, I became familiar with the sight of exhausted, slightly sunburnt young marauders seeking their journey’s end on a map they could make head nor tail of. “Are we in Wetton?” they would ask hopefully. “No, Grindon. Two and a half miles that way,” we would say from our sunny seats in the front garden.

 (“Should we have offered them a drink?” Paul, Mr Generous Down to His Last Penny, would say after they’d left. “Nah,” we’d chorus, enjoying our homemade lemonade and their discomfort far too much. “They won’t get the medal if we did that,” lying through our sweet teeth.)

Ah those were the days. Now it’s my boyfriend’s turn to be enjoying those lazy, hazy days of an English summer and mine to be sheltering from the storm in Hong Kong, pining for the smell of freshly cut grass that brings on my hay fever and the taste of the local honey that’s supposed to help.

But is the grass always greener in England? This is the question my colleague put to me when I told him I was going back for good. Having only just come back to Hong Kong himself, he cannot see the appeal. Bad weather, expensive transportation, no jobs… why would anyone want to live in England, he asked? And I found myself admitting that I knew very well the pit falls of the UK. My trip back home in October last year, for instance, had been particularly depressing: not only was my whole family ill, but I of course soon joined them, while my skeleton stiffened itself against the freezing cold until I could hardly turn around to reach for the toilet paper. Equally, when I moved back to the UK four years ago after a year-long stint out here, I found myself dreaming that I was going into a 7/11 and taking down a carton of Vitasoy (milk); or, walking down a blindingly sunny road in Cambridge, wishing that I had a sunbrella with me, and realising that, no, that would only be acceptable in Asia, where anyone can get a suntan but only the privileged, dedicated few can be unhealthily pale and white.

“So if there are things about HK you will miss,” Chris said – the warm November and December weather, perfect for the beach or an evening meal out; the ‘short’ size Starbucks and half-sandwich servings in Pret, perfect for those who are indecisive or can’t commit to a whole anything; and flip flops, because who wants to have to wear actual shoes? – “why are you leaving?” I give you the answer I gave him. Because apart from the torrential rainstorms and humidity, the ubiquitous crowded shopping malls and the inaccessible mosquitoed hiking trails that I will gladly exchange for persistent grey drizzle, rolling green hillsides, insects that don’t bite and a failing economy, England has one other advantage that Asia will only gain when I leave, and that is its claim on my imagination. I may have spent three and a half years being physically, geographically here, but in my heart and in my head I have been elsewhere. I think it’s time we were reunited.

Or, if irony will have it that way, that we at least switch sides and my body get to be in England, while my heart is in Hong Kong. Either way, they say a change is as good as a rest, no?

Ready, steady, yoga!

“He who practises the Headstand for three hours daily conquers time.” – Yoga Tattava Upanishad

another sun sets

another sun sets

Today I updated my ferry ticket for the last time, and not without a little pleasure and relief. Every month it comes around and every month I forget, see the long line of faithful ferry passengers queueing up to do theirs and think “f**k! I’ll do it tomorrow.” But not this time. This time I was on to it. First in line, smug and celebratory, my interior monologue singing “This is the last time I’ll be needing to renew you, ferry pass. Next month I’ll be on my way home!”

Over the next few weeks I can look forward to saying “farewell” and “screw you” to my less favourite facets of Hong Kong daily life – the idling pedestrians emailing and watching videos on their mobile phones, the heat and humidity that transforms my sleek locks into a Ronald McDonald do, and the small mortgage I have to take out just to buy a salad in town… But I have decided that it’s also time to embrace something new, which is how I found myself committing to 10 classes at The Yoga Room, a smallish studio that, get this, specialises in all kinds of yoga and pilates, all through the day with people who actually love yoga! And the reason for this (not financially insignificant) commitment? The rage I had on Monday night doing – or rather, not doing – ‘Dynamic Flow’ with Irene.

Ah, Irene. Anyone who’s heard me on this subject will know the problem I have with Irene. Not only does the girl seem to get hot, flustered and out of breath just thinking about teaching yoga, but she spends so much of the time talking that she has no breath left with which to do yoga. I would not mind this so much if she would just let us get on and do it, but she doesn’t. We stand around while she gas bags about how difficult the poses are that even she can’t do them, leaving me wondering whether she actually understands what the phrase ‘Dynamic Flow’ means or whether she’s not really a yoga instructor at all and I’m just appearing in one of her bad dreams. On Monday I found myself getting so mad I was tempted to raise my hand and ask, but in the end I opted for the slightly less rude option and just left – half way though. Which is when I told myself that enough was enough, that my few remaining weeks in HK were too precise to waste standing around waiting for yoga to happen, that I was going to go out there and make it happen.

Thank god I did because the following evening I had one of the best nights out I ever had in HK, and it all took place in a sweaty little studio in Sheung Wan with 8 people in nothing but their shorts and vests. But, before I go any further, perhaps I should explain a bit about yoga in HK.

As in so many cities in the West, yoga practice here is mainly confined to the gym, and so too has been my experience of it. Here, in highly air-conditioned studios older women (mainly tai tais) compete not only over who has the best Downward Dog and hamstring stretch, but as to who gets the best mat, the best position right in front of the mirrors, who has the best outfit, hairdo… The list goes on. I have travelled all over for yoga – to Bali, Thailand and India – so I know it does not have to be this way. There are places in the world where people go out of their way to make space for you because the more is the merrier, where hand-me-down hippy gear is all that’s desired because there are no mirrors to pose and preen in front of and, anyway, who’d want to sweat over actually nice clothing? But alas, in HK competition rules and it’s less gym bunny and more gym shark.

So on Tuesday night, when I entered a small studio lit with candles and fragranced with essential oil and met Nora, a radiant teacher with hair flowing down to her waist, and her class of 7 or 8 young men and women, all greeting each other and chatting like friends, I was love-struck, amazed. They smiled and welcomed me in and before I knew it I was one of them. It was incredible. And that was even before we got down to any yoga!

But what do I even mean by yoga? What was it about Irene’s class that made my skin crawl and Nora’s that sent peace and love coursing through my veins? Well, as I stormed out of Irene’s class on Monday, I realised that the thing that was missing, apart from the actual movement of the body (even the uninitiated would be familiar with Sun Salutations, right? Well, apparently not Irene) was – ironically – the breath. While she was gasping and straining, the rest of us were being given no instruction to ‘cap hai’ ‘fuh hai’ – to breathe in, breathe out. You might say that isn’t this obvious? You’ve got to breathe, you should be always breathing. But breathing that is co-ordinated with the movement – to breathe in as you raise your arms up, out as you bend forward, in as you look up, out as you jump back, in as you Cobra, out as you Downward Dog… This is yoga and this is the reason why we would want to flow. To keep moving is to keep breathing, create heat and raise the prana or energy up through your body and open up your mind. Then, when your body is warm and your mind is supple you can go for warriors, side-planks, half-moon, wheels, handstands or scorpions, whatever you like! Needless to say, there was none of that in Irene’s class and all of that in Nora’s.

Of course, when we want to build a splendid castle we must start from the foundations, and that is where Nora’s class began: with a five minute seated meditation on the yoga sutra sthira sukham asanam (2.46) in which the sage Patanjali states that the posture for yoga should be steady, stable, motionless as well as comfortable. This, Nora explained, means that any pose – from a simple crossed-legged position to a fierce warrior or an advanced headstand – should be strong and full of ease. We do not want to be using so much force and energy wrestling our bodies into a asana that we look like a constipated Hulk and sound like we are giving birth to something as hideous. A pose should be graceful, comfortable but not without consciousness and effort. It should be beautiful.

This, Nora went on, was the same in life; our practice on the mat should be the foundation for our practice off the mat. Whether in our work, our relationships or our hobbies, it is about finding that balance between giving the time and energy that we need to be strong, confident and successful, but not so much that we are overburdened, stressed out and suffering. And it was precisely with this in mind that we went about our headstand, wheel and scorpion practice, using the wall to give us a stronger foundation, build our confidence and our muscles while allowing us to remain focused on our breath. For it is this that distinguishes yoga from gymnastics: the mindful attention to breath and the hope that the peace, joy and love one finds in a yoga studio can be taken back out into the rest of the world, that they are the foundations for the rest of your life.

Which got me thinking… In the question of ‘going the distance’, do I have a strong enough foundation? However, this will have to wait. I’m running late for my ferry and in Hong Kong rush hour it’s every yogi for herself.