Big bends, deep breaths, rich thoughtsThere is an overwhelming sensation of pain in my legs. It's hard to breathe. I grip my big toe and move my chest closer to my legs in a yoga pose called the forward bend. All I can think is, "Self-induced torture.... Why?"
Yoga is supposed to unite the mind, body and spirit through physical exercises, diet, breathing techniques and meditation. Physical benefits are only one aspect of yoga - ideally, yoga is a way of life based on prana, or the universal life force, and a means to attain higher consciousness.
To get physically and spiritually fit in these blustery days, the Winter Warrior surfed the Web for yoga schools. Soon enough, I found the Himalaya Meditation and Yoga Center (user.chollian.net/~rajayoga). The founder and master instructor, Park Ji-myoung, speaks a bit of English. I packed jogging pants, T-shirt and socks and went to my first class.
A woman with a shorn pate greeted me at the center. In a husky voice, she showed me where to change - in a corner behind a curtain that also hid a sink from view. Ms. Sohn, 32, who did not want her first name used, told me she had studied Buddhism at Korea's mountain temples.
I walked into the studio, where serene Indian music was playing. Covering the ceiling was dark blue wallpaper with shapes hinting at celestial bodies. Photos of yoga poses and depictions of the chakra were taped on the walls.
Most of the floor was covered with earth-toned woven mats. Tucked off to the side of the room was a small Korean medicine cabinet. Heaps of mats and folded blankets were in the back of the studio, giving the place a comfortable atmosphere.
Mr. Park opened the institute in 1991. His timing was off, as danhak, a Korean meditation philosophy, was then just starting to boom, competing with yoga for students.
But now, as yoga is becoming more popular, students at the center include fitness yoga instructors, new mothers, the elderly, high school students, former monks-in-training, physical therapists, CEOs, and the otherwise curious. The dedicated students keep at yoga not just for fitness, but for peace of mind.
I bowed to the gentleman sitting in the center of the room, then quickly took my socks off; nobody else was wearing socks. More students walked in. I stretched.
At 3 p.m., Mr. Park, 45, addressed the class of 10 students by asking us to wiggle our feet and toes, then our hands. "The life force extends from your hands and feet," he said. He moved with the odd grace of a penguin - chest out, eyes glassy, smile gentle. He stood in front to lead the class in the sun salutations, a series of 12 warm-up exercises. As we stood straight, then stretched our arms over our heads, he led us in inhaling and exhaling.
Technically, the sun salutations are not an asana, or yoga posture, but a gentle flowing of movements harmonized with breathing patterns. For a beginner such as myself, inhaling at the right time while stretching like I have rarely stretched before is mind-consuming enough. Most of the students flow through the motions without much prompting from the instructor. I follow a couple seconds behind.
Next we did several standing poses, starting with variations of the triangle. By that time, I was sweating slowly and breathing rapidly. Each move is held, then slowly pushed further. A simple stretch becomes a mental game. Can I hold it, properly, and can I endure that low, throbbing ache? It does no good to watch the other students, because I am challenging my own body.
Mr. Park walked around, gently pushing elbows in, rotating hips, and closing or straightening fingers. He encouraged some students, commenting on improved flexibility; he pushed others to try harder.
We proceeded to the "tree" pose. The tree is a delicate balancing act and a way to hone concentration. I was told to place my right foot high against the inner thigh of my left foot, look at a point in front of me, holding my palms together, then slowly extend my hands up. My right foot went on my left knee and I stared at an uneven weave on a mat, trying not to wobble. My foot slid off as I raised my hands.
I found balancing on my right foot easier. Raising my hands and leaning back, I stared at the ceiling, which looked like a night sky.
After some floor exercises to end the physical segment of the class, Mr. Park turned off the overhead fluorescent light. A lamp in the front of the room illumined a student who sat up and wrapped himself in a blanket. Students tiptoed to the back to get mats and blankets.
Mr. Park gestured for me to meet him outside the studio, where he explained that meditation is vital to yoga. The first meditation exercise I learned is just to breathe. When I inhale, I think "So." When I exhale, "Ham."
I walked back inside the studio, then sat in the darkness. After 45 minutes, the master struck a bell. I felt rested and at peace. But enlightenment? Not quite yet, but I was intrigued enough to take another class.
Minutes later the lights went on and a table was set up for us to stay and chat over green tea and snacks. A woman said she just started yoga, too: "I have a body like a log. I've been stressed because I had a baby 10 weeks ago." Would she continue? "Sure, it's bliss so far."
Me? In the darkened room, I had breathed deeply, thought of a Choco Pie and then dozed.
A rich inner life in two hours a day
Raja yoga is based on yamas, abstinence, niyama, observances, asanas, steady poses, pranayama, energy control, pratyaara, withdrawal from the senses, dharana, mind concentration, dhyana, meditation, and samadhi, the state of superconsciousness.
The 1.5 to 2 hour classes at the center start at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Classes at 7:30 a.m. will start in March. Instructor courses will also start soon. For more information, call 02-725-6883.
For classes in English, email Ron Katwijk at email@example.com or call 011-9638-6669. Mr. Katwijk teaches classes in Itaewon.
Warrior rating (from 1 to 5): 4
Meditations of a master as frequent flyer
In 1979, Park Ji-myoung traveled to India in search of a spiritual guru. Mr. Park, a recent college graduate, found Swami Sarvadanand Maharaj, who led him on a journey to enlightenment.
Mr. Maharaj took on the eager student and taught him raja yoga. When Mr. Park left for Korea a month later, he felt oddly empty; India beckoned him to return. So he did, and thus began a pattern of biannual pilgrimages from Korea to India, including trips into the Himalayas.
"I have this sense of life fulfillment," he says. He is sitting in the Himalaya Meditation and Yoga Center, across the street from Gyeongbok Palace in downtown Seoul.
Behind him is a small faded picture of his guru, who died in 1992. "He taught me how to awaken my energy and listen to the inner sound and inner light," Mr. Park says fondly.
A college class Mr. Park took in 1975 planted the idea in his mind to take the first pilgrimage. The class was a meditation course taught by an Indian. The stretching was not particularly special. But once he began meditating, his confusions fled and he experienced clarity and happiness.
Now his purpose in life, he says, is "to share that happiness."
by Joe Yong-hee