Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Sustainability Begins Within – How Yoga Changed My World View. By Nizhen Hsieh

My growing up years was spent being disillusioned with the world and life-at-large because of the kind of bad things I witnessed happening to good people in beautiful places. Over time, I overcame the inertia of my disappointment by engaging in small daily acts of kindness and goodwill although there was uncertainty over what the definition of benevolence really entailed. Regardless, at an early age, I knew that however my life panned out, it would staunchly be rooted in meaningful purpose that would go beyond myself, something that would resonate of a beauty pageant participant’s clichéd answer “make the world a better place.”

During University, I was clueless as to what the future held. Everyone else seemed to have a vague notion of a career goal – law, medicine, journalism, as I bore the weight of getting a clue pronto. So I flitted from job to job that ran the gamut from writing for magazines, research producing for variety television, and crewing for theatre, to reading the bible for blind Jehovah Witnesses and teaching poetry workshops to medium security prisoners, all in the hope of finding something that would confidently stick, click and fulfill that ‘meaningful purpose’.

After spending 8 months journeying solo in the Middle East where conflict and crisis seemed to be the prevalent subject of many a random dialogue, it inspired the decision to do work that would make an impact i.e. stop bad things from happening, or at the very least, take care of the good people these bad things were happening to. Thus began my fervent search for a suitable non-governmental/non-profitable/charitable/social entrepreneurial job that would check all the utopian boxes. Instead, it

led me to a tumultuous series of (mis)adventures that will remain unforgettable – teaching English in an earthquake-afflicted village in the NWFP of Pakistan, general managing an eco-resort in a Palawan coastal town, overseeing a reforestation initiative in Inner Mongolia, working in a China-based environmental consultancy that collaborated with multi-national businesses and local communities, etc. Each experience while unique and rich with lessons learned all ended with something in common: utter disenchantment. It was hard to swallow that even the best of intentions could result in the most negative of impacts, or else less than savoury agendas came under the guise of a seemingly righteous cause. For these reasons, the term sustainability, which was often bandied about in my line of work, felt nothing more than a feel-good buzzword with very little substance.

Frustrated, I turned to Yoga, initially with the concern of easing the stress, repairing the damage done by a careless lifestyle to my physical body and calming the agitated mind. I had taken Yoga classes before but youthful complacency that my health would be eternal had kept me at bay. What I ended up receiving was not just a slowdown but an elevated awareness that much like the original meaning of sustainability, I lacked the ‘capacity to endure’, both physically and mentally. As my practice grew deeper, it seemed logical to pursue my Yoga Teacher Training. So I headed to Nepal for 2 months with the intent of taking my practice to the next level.  

On a visit to a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery in the middle of my Yoga course, I came across the wise words of the Dalai Lama painted along the side of a wall overlooking Kathmandu Valley: Where ignorance is our master, there is no possibility of real peace. It wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard of before but never had it struck so profoundly as it did then. During this Yoga journey, it took much self-inquiry to shift the focus from my disenchantment towards the failure of the systems I had experienced in my social work to the failure of my own system of being. In other words, how could my psychological imbalance, unhealthy routine, unresolved issues, let alone my sense of entitlement to this pervading frustration render my actions anymore wholesome than the organizations I had worked with? I may have been doing all the right things on the outset but I was certainly mired in a vicious cycle of emotional duality.

What came out of my Yoga Teacher Training in Nepal was the understanding that true sustainability or benevolence begins within the self. If we don’t unlearn our bad habits that arise from the acceptance and understanding of our unsustainable behaviours, we will always be hindered from achieving the kinds of changes we want to create.

As my Yoga teacher and mentor once said when I regaled to him my epiphany that compassion if misguided has the potential to be poisonous, “This awareness you just discovered for yourself is one of the most [essential] qualities (if not the most important) of a Yoga teacher. If you are technically sound but emotionally [out of control], what do you think you will pass on to your students? It is a paradox of our time when too many supposedly great gurus end up in scandals… i.e. any yoga system can be developed from the imbalance of its founder. There is no comfort [in] the yogic path...that’s why we do not teach on a warm beach of a protected resort in Thailand where you can see poverty only from your window.”

Until I can change myself, in how I view and live within the world, while consciously acting on my own inner being i.e. being good to myself by getting rid off bad patterns, whatever difference or impact I’d like to make will not happen, and the karma I accrue will be passed on accordingly. Yoga has given me an internal sustainability that not only allows me to maintain and cultivate a sense of wellbeing, but it also encourages my energy to be extended to my surroundings and community, beyond the window to this world and life-at-large.  

Nizhen Hsieh hails from an eclectic social entrepreneurial experience. Previously employed in the environmental field overseeing an education initiative and projects involving Corporate Social Responsibility as well as NGO capacity building, she came to the realization that true sustainability comes from within our own personal development to inspire change in action. A budding Yoga teacher, she has been a committed practitioner for 10 years, and is affiliated with Yogi-Nomad (, a non-profit organization dedicated to expanding consciousness through Yoga worldwide.


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