Every morning, Angela Yuen Wai-yan meditates for 30 minutes, sitting in a lotus position, her back ramrod straight. During this time, her mind is quiet and does not wander. Her only focus is on breathing.
Yuen, 50, has been doing this routine for three years since she was diagnosed with lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system becomes hyperactive and attacks normal, healthy tissues. The condition caused inflammation, swelling and damage to her elbow and ankle joints and later led to problems with her skin and kidneys.
But it was the emotional toll of the illness that affected her the most.
“I used to be very stubborn and uptight,” she recalls.
Those angry days are behind her, thanks to yoga.
“I started doing yoga also because as a housewife, I had a lot of free time and thought it would be a great way to get fit,” the mother of one explains. Going into it, she had no idea how its central philosophy of mindfulness would change her health and life.
“I never used to be this calm as a person and now I always keep an open mind and look at things positively. Most importantly I now understand yoga and know that it is not just an exercise or a sport.”
Yuen’s yoga master Naveen Meghwal, 37, is thrilled to see her transformation. The ancient practice is profound and goes beyond fitness, he says.
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Meghwal believes the root of all physical problems afflicting most Hongkongers stems from the brain.
“When you’re stressed out, when you are in unexpected situations, you are out of your centre, meaning your mind isn’t in line with your body, which will lead to unhappiness. Whenever you’re not connected, this strips away your happiness.”
The yoga master stresses the importance of living in the present.
“Stress takes you away from the self – it will pull you into the future and its uncertainties and if you’re away from this moment, you’ll develop anxiety and that can do a lot of damage to your physical health.”
“If you just want to get fit, then you can go for any kind of workout, either a run or a swim,” he says.
“Yoga works on your physical body, making you sweat with stretches, but it also works on your mental health and energy level. Apart from that, it improves your intellectual ability to differentiate what is right and wrong.”
Andre Lam Bing-pui, 64, is another of Meghwal’s students who swears by yoga.
In 2015, he suffered from a stroke that lasted for three days. It started with common symptoms that were easily overlooked.
“I had a severe headache and double vision but I didn’t think much of it. I just thought I was tired so I continued with my work. It wasn’t until two days later that I realised it was something much more serious when my vision became blurred. So I went to the hospital and was told I had a stroke.”
Since then, he has incorporated yoga in his recovery process.
“It saved my life. Not everyone can fully regain their motor skills after such a traumatic incident but I did. I went back to yoga a few days after being discharged from the hospital and it has enhanced my journey of recovery. I have never felt as free as I am now, physically and mentally.”
Meghwal says yoga helps its practitioners “get to the root of the disease by starting from the surface such as making you feel better physically. And once an individual is at a state where he starts to feel lighter, then yoga [works on your body’s energy]”.
Other than going to classes three times a week, Lam also meditates and does stretches twice a day.
Meghwal points out that while the poses have physical advantages as they train the body to be more flexible, the practice also releases chemicals that calm the brain and can reduce sadness or anxiety.
“If the positions are done in a particular way, with the proper sequence and breathing rhythm, then it works on your brain cells and can start changing you from the inside,” he says.
Meghwal moved to Hong Kong from India 10 years ago to spread his love of yoga. Since then he has opened up a studio, Ananda Yoga, which offers 12 classes a day and has nine instructors.
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His own journey into the practice dates back to his troubled teenage days. “I was 16 when I did my first yoga class. I was very unhappy at the time because of school and just about life in general. I still remember it was a free outdoor yoga session held in a park where I was living then.”
“For the first time, I finally felt complete and that my body and mind had become one.”
In India, he taught yoga to mentally challenged children, prisoners as well as patients recovering from chronic diseases.