A friend from college who spent two previous years in Korea quickly became my go-to source for random questions and concerns before my final decision to sign, stamp and send my teaching contract back to my recruiter. She planned to return home to the US shortly before my own departure date. I was lucky enough to meet up with her in Boston for a quick drink and a much needed pep talk that reassured me I was making the right decision by moving to Korea (“Korea!?” – all my friends/family at holiday gatherings).
I left our rendezvous slightly terrified but extremely excited – speaking with her made my upcoming move seem very real but her apparent infatuation with Korea was contagious. I madly scribbled notes across pages of my planner that were soon forgotten, but the piece of advice that I most appreciated was something I did not write down but put into practice last week. Her advice was this, or at least this is what I took from her words: Teaching will be your day job, but it should not be the only thing that defines you in Korea. Make sure to do the things you love in your free time, even though it may be a bit challenging at first due to the foreign language and culture.
I kept this advice in mind and slowly settled into my life in Korea. Fresh off a job in marketing, it took some time to adjust to teaching. Soon I found myself comfortable and enjoying my time in the classroom. I spent my free time meeting new people and exploring Korea. I took my friend’s advice and kept up with my (and in many ways increased) blogging and creating a home within the world of social media. I have enjoyed working in social media professionally in the past and I majored in writing in college, so I thought coming to Korea would be a perfect opportunity to expand on these passions. But after countless nights spent staring at my computer screen, I knew I needed to balance my online time with something social, active and mentally rejuvenating (don’t worry – I won’t get too yogi on you). Running does this for some, but it just doesn’t cut it for me. I consider myself lucky to live so close to the river and its carefully manicured path, and I enjoy a long walk or run a few times a week, but my first love will always be yoga, specifically Bikram yoga.
I put my feelers out among foreign and Korean friends and came up with a few different options for yoga. Online searches were a bit disappointing because the only certified Bikram studio appeared to be in Seoul and the rest of the hot yoga websites were in Korean or unsearchable with an English Google search. I found a few hot yoga studios within 20 minutes of my apartment, but I was a bit put-off by their mandatory expensive 3+ month packages and inconvenient locations. A few weeks ago a friend pointed me to a studio that is a two minute walk from my work. S Hot Yoga is located in the corner of the 4th floor of one of many 10+ floor buildings in a business area – I don’t think I would have found it myself. Knowing that it was hot yoga and not Bikram, I was a bit hesitant to commit to the studio. With the help of my Korean co-teacher I found the studio website and was elated to learn that the hot yoga class followed the Bikram postures I know by heart. I bravely visited the studio one evening after work and soon realized no one at the studio spoke English. It was a struggle to acquire a small business card with the schedule and pricing printed in Korean. The woman at the front desk appeared flustered at the sight of a foreigner, I just kept smiling and saying thank you in Korean as I pointed to the stack of cards behind the desk and gestured that I wanted one. I later learned that I was the first foreigner to visit the studio, so I regret surprising the staff and creating a sense of stress in the serene studio entry-way. It took me a few weeks to muster up the courage to once again face the nervous front desk staff and also part with a significant amount of my paycheck. I finally woke up ready to get my yoga on last week and now I can’t believe I waited this long to do so.
Luckily there was a fellow yogi checking in at the front desk who knew a bit of English when I arrived. I pointed to the three month package price and attempted to hand my credit card to the front desk staff. They were hesitant to take my card, I think because they knew the classes were in Korean and they didn’t think I understood this fact. I tried to explain that I knew the yoga and did not expect an English class and finally the other yogi chimed in explaining that I knew (to some degree) what I was getting myself into. Eventually I was able to pay, fill out a new member form, leave my shoes in the entry-way (1 thing I knew from Bikram!) and get ready for class.
The locker room was easy to maneuver and impressively equipped with individual lockers and locks for each yogi, plenty of space to change and do hair/makeup, hair dryers, floor length mirrors, a handful of showers and free products galore. The actual studio was standard and provided yoga mats and towels free of charge for each student. (Not having to lug a sweaty and disgusting mat and towel home after class – score!)
The class commenced with a slight bow and a “Namaste” from the teacher and I was immediately at home on my mat as she rambled on in Korean. Some of the other yogis couldn’t help but look over at me during the class, and I can’t blame them. It must have been strange to suddenly see a tall American fumbling through the poses in the front mirror. Although the class was entirely in Korean, I was able to follow the movements and poses by remembering the Bikram dialogue and by observing the other students when the poses were altered a bit.
The class was Bikram-like, but differed slightly:
* *The room was not as hot as Bikram. The website states that the room is heated to 38 degrees Celsius, although it seemed a bit cooler. I do miss the extreme heat, but it is still hot enough to sweat and move fluidly in and out of each pose.**
* *We did the two breathing exercises twice, but all other poses were only performed once. I do miss the chance to go deeper into each pose during the second attempt, but now I just have to make sure I don’t slack in the first and only pose. (1 hour class!)**
** The teacher came around and actually touched us! This seldom happens in Bikram. At first it was strange, but after a few fantastic adjustments and deeper stretches I was secretly hoping to be corrected as she scanned the room.**
** The Savasana (Dead Body Pose) was not a leisurely recharge. I only had time for one breath before setting up for the next pose or sit-up.**
** There were a few times I found myself confused by slight class alterations. For example, once after Standing Separate Leg Stretching Pose the studio erupted in loud clapping and slapping noises. Instead of gracefully centering oneself on the mat to prepare for the next pose, everyone was hitting their legs with a great amount of force. I quickly recognized this as a method Koreans use to loosen up their muscles after stretching. Small changes in class bring a smile to my face and make for an interesting class. I do love the regimental nature of Bikram, but while abroad I don’t mind if my yoga comes with a Korean twist.**
After a week of classes I found myself understanding a few of the teacher’s corrections and commands. I am in no way flaunting my Korean language skills, but I can now sense when the she wants us to “go deeper” into a stretch or “center our hips”. I have also picked up on a few specific Korean words and hopefully soon I will be able to repeat them and not just recognize them: “inhale”, “exhale” and of course “relax” (after each pose). So, I may not be ready to order at a restaurant or direct the cab home without the help of my smartphone, but I soon could potentially bring an angry Korean down from a state of outrage: “Inhale, exhale and relax.”
Here are two of my most challenging / favorite poses:
pictures/descriptions from http://www.shotyoga.com/hotyoga/info4.html
“Yoga is the perfect opportunity to be curious about who you are”. Jason Crandell
“The real pleasure, the real peace, the real enlightenment is to give. The more you give the more you get. If you give 10, you get 100.” Bikram Choudhury
Namaste for now.