Photo: Ta Prom in Angkor Wat complex in Siem Reap Cambodia ©Cora Wen
I want you to think for yourself. I want you to be curious. I want you to be playful. I don’t want you just to listen to me. I want you to be you.
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
Related article Conversation Cora Wen, Part One
Susan Maier-Moul Everybody loves being around you. That’s what I hear!
Cora Wen Oh thank you! That’s so sweet. I guess the thing I always hear about myself is “You have so much energy, and you’re so passionate about sharing yoga.” And I guess my whole point is, I thought that’s what we’re supposed to do as teachers!
Susan You’re thinking, wow is that unique?
Cora Actually I thought that was our job. I thought this was a privilege and an honor and that all I can do is share this wonderful practice with others and hope that they want to learn more about it.
I remember in the eighties and the nineties I was reflecting about my corporate job, and how dissatisfied I was and yet I made money.
I followed the career path that a good Chinese girl does, goes to Ivy League schools, gets a good job, all that. I’d already had a career in fashion, and then I went in to banking. I was completely dissatisfied though I made good money and had “security.”
When I first started teaching yoga, I was still working at the bank, and I was teaching on the weekends. It was so satisfying to be able to share with others.
One of the things that happened was I had a big pay increase, you know, an over thirty percent pay increase, which is huge, for a high income, six-figure job.
At the same time, I got an official time slot. A time slot – it was my class. I had built up my teaching, and I was on the schedule. I remember seeing my name on the yoga schedule for some, like, Sunday afternoon class – that’s all I could teach because I was working. I was so much happier with knowing that I could share yoga than I was about the raise. So that said so much to me.
In the same timeframe, a friend of mine in his sixties was ending his career. I had shown him some letters from students. He said, you know, Cora, my whole life I’ve never had any acknowledgment that I touched another human life in any way. He said, you have to do this thing. Clearly you’re touching people and that, in a lifetime, doesn’t happen for most of us.
To me, that is the whole point of teaching. It’s not that I’m good at the poses or have some tricks to get you in there. But how do you feel? How do you feel around me? How do you want to move outward with the practice?
Susan Yes. How do you feel around me. My first yoga teacher grew up in China. He’d had martial arts training. He told me, you know, as a young man you go and you do this thing everyday, and then one guy that he sparred with said to him afterwards, “How do you feel?” He said, “You know, I really don’t know how to answer that question. I feel like I got to work out.” And the other guy said, “I don’t really feel so good. I don’t feel like the energy that you brought -”
Susan Even in a situation where you have an opponent, the energy is the whole point, learning to raise and manage it. The person you’re sparring with is worthy of you being present to the exchange.
Cora Right because the chi has to flow between you. There is has to be an interaction of that. Being Chinese, that’s a big thing for me. I need to feel in flow with the energy of the seasons, and my environment, and my body, and my breath, and my food. I want to eat the things that my body is craving at this moment which probably has to do with the seasons.
I have to deal with who I am at this moment, my emotions and everything else. How do I feel afterwards? With my yoga teacher, I want to feel inspired. I don’t just want to be impressed that they can do many poses.
I might be impressed. But I want to be inspired that they live a life that is touched by this thing we call yoga.
Susan From what I gather from the people I’ve spoken to who study with you, that’s exactly what they feel with you. They seem to feel it coming off of you.
Cora That seems to be the thing my students always say: “You’re just so you.” Well, I want you to be you. I want you to disagree with me. I don’t want you to do what I say. I want you to think for yourself. I want you to be curious. I want you to be playful. I don’t want you just to listen to me. I don’t want you to repeat what I say. I want you to be you. Maybe I can help you see that. Being you is okay.
Bringing the bliss home
Susan You say “move outward with your practice.” Do you want to share a bit more about that philosophy?
Cora I feel the practice of yoga helped me really experience life differently. I took refuge in the Buddha when I was a child, not because of my parents but because of my own situation. So I knew the idea of helping others, the balance of wisdom and compassion.
I think that I used to sort of sit back a little bit, and think that that was all just going to happen somehow.
Susan Like it was a passive thing.
Cora Yes. I think that somehow with this practice, the physical practice of yoga, I realized actually I could experience the sensations in my body that in turn would help me be in the world.
So physically, an example is if we stretch, we probably get rid of some tightness and pain. If we are not in pain, and we have a great yoga class, and you feel all blissed out from the shavasana stretching, you go outside and you interact with someone in a way that’s probably kinder.
Like when somebody cuts you off in traffic, you’re probably not as apt to get angry. You know, you’re apt to maybe smile at someone and notice that they’re smiling at you and that is the resonance of this practice. So I see it all the time.
I teach yoga retreats and people are blissed out, really experiencing all this joy. Then they go to the airport after seven days and the flight’s seven hours late and they can’t get home. Well, how do you react to that? How do you react to that situation? Are you at the airport just harumphing around?
Did your yoga work for those seven days? Because if I can’t, then, take that bliss and bring that to the flight attendant, bring that to the security person that’s going through your luggage, then what’s this practice about? You know, who cares if you can touch your head with your feet? So what?
You know, I did that, nothing changed. Nothing changed until I changed. In fact, when I went after poses and just went aggressively after all the backbends in the book, then I got all the backbends in the book.
All I ended with was being competitive, and angry at everybody else for not being able to get so deep in the pose or whatever. That didn’t change me.
Doing yoga changed to being yoga
Susan Let’s pause over this for just a second. You’re really describing this excellent progression I think happens for many people where they have the postures, they work on the postures, and it’s very compelling and that there is kind of a rajas that seems to rise with it.
You had a recognition, something changed for you and now you see that all very differently. Do you have a sense of when that was? Or how that happened? How you made the next kind of transition into where you see is practice now?
Cora I don’t know, I think that when I started practicing; I practiced six hours a day. Okay? I was really totally type A. I mean you can ask Rodney. Rodney was my teacher at the time. Rodney Yee and Eric Schiffman.
And I would do these insane things. Like Eric would joke with me and say do X Y Z a hundred times in a head stand. I would do that for months at a time.
I was also really cranky. I was this aggressive, do yoga. Do yoga. Do yoga. That’s what I was. I wasn’t being yoga. I was doing yoga.
What I realized – I realized over this period of time, not in a moment, because it all happened not with a bang, but it happened sort of slowly.
I was practicing all the time and I had to go home for Thanksgiving. I was really cranky because you know, if you go home for Thanksgiving, that means you you’re probably not going to practice six hours a day. In fact, you might not even practice at all because you’re dealing with your family.
You’re twelve years old again, and fighting with your siblings about whatever, and I was not completely present. I was just talking about my yoga and oh, you guys are fine. But you don’t do yoga, and it’s going to make your life better.
Within a few years of that, my mother got ill with lung cancer and died very quickly. In 12 days.
Susan Oh, I’m so sorry.
Cora Well, thank you. I mean, it just was this is how it happened. And I remember thinking that that was the last Thanksgiving that I spent with her.
I remember thinking about that. All the times that I couldn’t talk to her on the phone because I was practicing, all the moments that I couldn’t go to a movie with my friends, all those things.
That’s what yoga’s about. Being present with your family. Being present with yourself. Living this life fully, completely, and absolutely and not defining life in search of some practice or some goal or some pose or some memorization of some sutra.
I’m not saying that that’s not good. I love chanting the sutras and mantras and I love going after poses. But how is it changing who I am? Who am I in the world?
And as a teacher, how can I help others? When I have somebody newly coming into my class that is clearly like new, mastectomy, chemo, recovering from cancer, and they’re coming into a class, how do I hold them when the tears come? How do I help them remember how to accept their body?
That’s what yoga’s about. Not whether you can put your feet on head.
Humble about the body
Susan You mentioned earlier that you’re really into teaching teachers now. I thought we might talk about that.
Cora Oh, absolutely. I’m really so humble and grateful that people want to have me as part of their teacher training. I’m invited to partake in a lot of different studios and the different methodologies, and I’ve been humbled by that, that I can teach in an Ashtanga studio and Iyengar based studio, a vinyasa studio, a hot studio. I don’t have any us vs. them approach.
For me, anatomy is something that I’m really big on, and it’s something that I was really bad at. I used to start sweating when I heard the word anatomy.
Part of it was because I didn’t have a body that was an average body. I can wake up in the morning and drop back in a backbend. I can wake up in the morning and do splits. I can wake up in the morning and do most poses, without a lot of prep and I didn’t understand for a long time, that’s different from other people.
I just had a lot of laxity. I had a lot of mobility in my body, and I’ve built a lot of strength. That combination gives me a lot of poses very quickly.
So I didn’t understand when I first came to teaching why someone couldn’t do a backbend by pushing up from the floor. Like, why can’t you just open those shoulder a little bit more? Just take your arms back? Take them back. Use the strap. Take them back.
Susan This is so true!
Cora This is what I see people do, though, Susan.
Susan There’s a sense that’s it’s about asking sweetly. A well-intentioned naivety, or disingenuous about. Well, here’s a nice strap. You can use the strap to do it.
Cora Yeah. Take the strap. Just do that. Because they don’t have the experience in their body of that restriction.
Cora But I see teachers pushing people into poses. And also, encouraging people to work at maximum and for some people that just might not be the best strategy.
I’ve had eating disorder students and they attack the poses in asana as just another obsession. And they hurt themselves because they have osteoporotic bones. There’s just an aggressiveness that happens.
So at first, I couldn’t understand why people couldn’t do poses and then as I learned more of more of a anatomy, I became humble about what I was asking others to do.
I started getting into the organic body and really reflecting on the effect of yoga on my organs. I work with how some postures interact with others. That’s why I’m teaching more teacher trainings. As I continue to age, I think what people need from me are aspects that people aren’t teaching or aren’t talking about.
Living the Yoga Sutra
Susan I wouldn’t underestimate the fact that you’ve actually synthesized a number of traditions, so there is a different investigation there, a different confidence about what to question.
Many times teachers have come straight up out of their first home. They’re excellent with their tradition, which is valuable in its own right. It takes work and dedication to arrive at this synthesis you have. This is why your students are passionate about you. It’s a great gift.
Cora Well, thank you. But also I’m also funny. You know I’m not going to just be pedantic because there’s also teachers that are very pedantic, right? They disseminate information and you write down a lot of notes.
I want people to just really get it.
Susan Earlier you talked about moving your practice outward, to actually start to apply your practice, live through it in the day-to-day life.
Cora Right. Like for instance, I’m teaching a teacher training right now, and I disagree with the sutra that they’re assigning to the 200 hour because they’re giving sutras 141, 142, 143. I think it’s complicated.
My argument is what about one? One, two and three? That’s all you really need as a yoga teacher, I’m sorry to say. Especially as a 200 hour.
How often can you use those statements, “now the yoga begins?” Like when I’m about to yell at my kid because they won’t do their homework. That’s the time to say atha yogaanusasanam. And now it begins.
Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuation of the mind. [yogas citta-vrtti-nirodhah]
When I’m in traffic in California, and I need to get somewhere, you know, that’s when yoga is the cessation of the fluctuation of the mind because I’m not present with the situation right now. I could be chanting a mantra. I could be doing a visualization. I could be just calming down and meditating, but instead I’m agitated and pissed off at the guy in front of me. Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuation of the mind.
The third one is the best one of all for all yoga teachers. [tada drastuh svarupe vasthanam] The seer abides in the Self.
How often do we not see the student in front of us, but we see what we want see, or what we’ve been programmed to see? We’re not dealing with the person in front of us. It’s such a perfect yoga sutra for us to bring into our daily life.
Maybe being your best yogi is to lock yourself in your room to meditate, but maybe it’s to help your 12 year old with their homework, or to sit down and maybe shock of all shocks, have a glass of wine with your spouse and watch golf.
Susan Yes. You’re open to the life that’s happening to you.
Cora As a teacher, you might be more relevant to your students because your students are probably not all, you know, available to prostrate and meditate, you know, for three hours a day.
There’s also this myth that gets me like completely crazed. A myth that you have to be like some monk, you know, on a mountain top, and still pretend that you can live in this world and act like a monk off a mountain top, because believe me, I had all those fantasies.
I am going to run off to a monastery and become a nun. I mean, I for sure, I became Buddhist when I was a kid. Are you kidding?
Susan You have so much to offer people, I think, Cora, in the reality of your life.
Cora I think, I mean, thank you Susan. I just, you know, banged away. I’ve worked with brilliant teachers.
I’m really hoping that there’s more. I want to embrace the crone. Let me help the environment and the young.
Susan Yeah and the planet. I’m down with helping the planet.
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