from Yoga Journal Thailand Interview – Teacher Highlight – Cora Wen

YJ: What was your childhood in your hometown (where), could you introduce yourself?

CW I was born in Hong Kong in a traditional Chinese family, and have spent life in Asia and in the West. I grew up in large cities like Hong Kong, New York and Los Angele, but have also spent a lot of time reveling in the natural beauty of the jungles of Indonesia and mountain ranges across the US. I feel connected to my Asian heritage but have adopted the enthusiasm and spirit of Western inquiry. I followed the traditional path of a good Asian child – did well in school, went to an Ivy League college, had an early career in fashion, became an entrepreneur and then returned to corporate America as a VP in banking with Lockheed Martin and Nestle as my clients. During the stressful and hectic life of a corporate banker, I needed to find respite, and rediscovered the transformative power of Yoga and meditation, so I left my career in pursuit of a happier and healthier lifestyle.

YJ: How did you initially discover yoga?

When I was a child growing up, we saw Buddhist monks, Indian mystics and other spiritual followers amongst the bankers and workers. I used to lay around on my belly as a kid and put my feet on my head, thinking this is a Yoga pose, but nothing more. My first experience with Yoga was through video, and my first class was with Rodney Yee in the early 90s. I had always been interested in Yoga, but never tried it, and after working in a very stressful banking career, I needed some respite and went on a hiking retreat. We hiked all day in the beautiful redwoods of Northern Calif, and at dawn and dusk, Rodney taught Yoga in a candlelit room to 14 people. I went up in a Backbend in that first class and suddenly I had a feeling that all the meditations, all the Buddhist teachings of kindness and awareness suddenly woke up in my body. It was love at first Backbend and I was hooked! The next year I took every Yoga class I could fit into my schedule (ex:35 weekend workshops in 1 year!!) and practiced 6 hours a day. I did so much Yoga I had no time for much else – only work and Yoga – no social life, friends, family time. There was no balance. I was in fact doing Yoga to avoid the bigger “Yoga” of becoming aware of my habits. Over the years, I have found a better balance of the practice to help my life, and to assist me in understanding myself and being a helpful presences on the planet. Teaching has taught me more than I have ever given

YJ : Who were your most influential teachers (or your inspirations)?

CW : My parents were brought up as Episcopalians in China, but they never imposed religious views on us as a family. When I was a child, we had a family friend who became a Buddhist nun and as she was discovering the teachings of the Buddha, she told me stories and tales from the teachings. The simple words and thoughts of the Buddha attracted me as a child – Live simply, be kind, help others – these words made sense, and have been my greatest guidance.
My first Yoga teacher Rodney Yee introduced me to the formal education of Yoga, and the following teachers have been my guide:

Erich Schiffmann who inspired in me the complete Joy of Yoga
Judith Hanson Lasater for stimulating curiosity to explore the depth of Yoga wisdom
Patricia Walden for embodying the grace and beauty of Yoga
Ramanand Patel for introducing me to a deeper subtle body alignment
Angela Farmer for helping me embrace my Feminine self

YJ : What is your turning point to be a yoga teacher and how do you teach now?

CW : When I did my first Yoga class, I fell in love and wanted to do it as often and as much as I could. As I mentioned before, I did Yoga (asana) to avoid Yoga (connection), and after “doing” yoga like a crazy, obsessed individual, I discovered that I actually enjoyed sharing this love with others. My teachers Erich Schiffmann and Rodney Yee encouraged me to start teaching, and when I started teaching part time, I realised I really enjoyed teaching and sharing what I knew! It was scary to leave the security of a banking job to pursue something I loved that wasn’t financially secure, yet the thought kept gnawing at me – teach Yoga, share the Joy…

I remember one day practicing with my friend Mariel Hemingway, a beautiful and skilled practitioner, and she turned to me and said “You will be an amazing teacher”. Surprised, I asked why? And she told me that I had spent more time helping her friend find the poses, then on my own practice. It was more important for me to share the practice than to do the practice.

Although I wanted to teach full-time, it took me over 9 years of teaching part time and working as a banker to finally develop the courage to break away. And it also took a very serious illness to make me look at my life and where I was going. As I lay in the hospital bed, I thought about my ideas of “security” and what was “sensible”, and I realised that I was not happy as a banker, and ultimately I was not secure. There was no promise of a successful career as a yogi, but there was actually no guarantee of a successful career as a banker. So I took the leap of faith and have not looked back. I once asked Erich how I could survive as a yoga teacher, and he told me that there were many teachers, but not many good ones, and very few great ones. I then asked how to tell if you ere any good, and he told me that if I was not good, the students would tell me – they would stop coming. So as long as students show up for classes, I will keep teaching.My style blends an alignment focus of the Iyengar method using long holding of poses combined with a flowing vinyasa practice. I believe this combination brings attention and awareness to the subtle pranic body by staying in the pose, along with enlivening the spirit of the physical body by flowing and moving from pose to pose. I try to stay playful and have fun, while remaining dedicated and devoted to the tradition of Yoga
YJ : How did your family feel about your becoming a yogi?

CW : My family, being traditionally Asian, were initially confused by my desire to leave an “excellent” job – VP at large bank, good salary with benefits and career future, et al. They were worried about how I would make a living, and concerned about earning enough money to live as a single woman in California.

My Mother always wished happiness for me, and she taught us to follow our dreams and our hearts, but she was also worried about the “sensible” ways to live in the world. She wanted me to be happy, and for her, happiness included money and security. My Mother had a boundless heart and a rich, full laugh and she knew I wanted to pursue something I loved, but she was very worried about my safety. Her own history of fleeing Communist China and making her way in a new country were memories that haunted her, and she wanted me to be able to take advantage of the opportunities of a good, secure income and future in America. She came to a class early on in my career, and she told me after class that she saw and understood then how much I loved my craft.She died as I was transitioning from corporate life to the Yogic life, and I have always felt that she has been an angel on my shoulder cheering me along this path. I wish she could have lived to see me returning to Asia and teaching in Thailand!

YJ : What do you definite yourself?

CW : I am always a student, and I will always be learning. I can only share what I know, not what I dont know, so I continue to be a Yoga student and I continue to ask questions of my teachers and learn from them, as they learn from their teachers. This lineage is what has created the Yogic tradition and will continue past my lifetime. In Japanese martial arts, one has to wash the dojo floor for many years before ever being able to step onto the mat. I in turn, have been washing the floor for many years, and will continue to pay homage to all those that have learned their craft before me.
My asian heritage has taught me to devote much time to learning and studying my lineage, and I remain dedicated to this tradition and heritage of Yoga. My Western mind wants information and sometimes needs “proof” of the teachings, so I see myself as a bilingual, multi culti yogini following paths, crossing paths and making new paths along the way. I need to have laughter and joy in my teaching and I want to give more than I receive from this practice.

This new wave of East/West Yoga allows me to define, refine and redefine this tradition

YJ : What do you wish more students knew?

Duncan Wong, Nigel Oakins and Casey Gramaglia at 2009 Thailand Yoga Journal Festival

CW : As Yoga has gained popularity in the last 15 years, I see a lot of focus on the physical benefits and a great deal of stress on difficult poses, but I hope there will also be emphasis on the illuminating mental aspects of Yoga. The physical “feel good” happens after most classes, but the deeper effect into life transformation usually happens with a deeper study into philosophy and history. Another wish is from a purely physical side: anatomy and physiology. I see many teachers teaching poses, not the students in front of them. Not every pose is for every body, and no moment is the same. There is a great deal of difference between being flexible and being adaptable. I see many students coming in looking for flexibility, looking for strength, but not looking at their own individual body. As I travel and teach, I see more and more injury. These injuries don’t show up in one day, one week, or even one month, but they do show up over time. Too many chatturangas done without good alignment will do more harm than good, backbends bending into the lower back will harm the spine, and moving without breathing doesn’t stimulate the organs and nervous system. Every day is different, and every body is different. The easiest poses aren’t always the healthiest poses. It is important to build the harmony of strength and flexibility to help Yoga become a practice of transformation and awareness, not a practice of contortion.

YJ : What is your passionate and enthusiastic guidance that make students have discovered the complimentary path of meditation with yoga

CW : First and foremost, it feels good, and it feels natural.

I spent years doing strict Chan meditation, and I had never been comfortable in the seated lotus position. My knees hurt and my back got sore, so my mind was always chattering away – the monkey swinging from the discomfort of my body to the discomfort of my mind. When I started to do the poses, I became more comfortable in my body which allowed me to sit more mindfully and quietly in meditation. I learned that as the body settles down and becomes more comfortable, the mind actually settles down and becomes more quiet. As I became aware of how my spine felt, what my toes were doing; the sensations of my tongue, eyes, ears and more subtle perceptions helped direct my attention inward. As I began to see and know my body, I began to understand and see myself. As I felt dubtle sensations in my body, my mind began to quiet down – I gave myself the direction to focus and listen inwardly. First it was my body parts, and then it began to influence my sitting practice. The years spent training in traditional Ch’an meditation finally made sense and the addition of a physical yoga practice to seated meditation gave the depth and clarity I had been seeking. I want to share this insight with my students, and give them the encouragement to get connected to their body on the outside, so they can get connected to their mind and body from the inside.

If the practice of yoga is becoming too serious, how can we bring more joy into it?
Learn to laugh at yourself; play around, have fun, be curious, be willing to fall down, make mistakes and try different methods and approaches. I always encourage my students to try new things, make up poses, do what the ancient yogis did – have fun, try new shapes and see how they feel…

Of course, I teach them to be safe and understand their bodies, know what is anatomically healthy and what is not. It is much like playing Jazz music or modern art – one learns to play the scales first, to learn how to draw a face first… then once you have the basic skills, you can explore the edges of the form. Learning basic skills is important in most art: music, painting, dance, photography, and once you have the kowledge of “correct” form, you can play and find your own form.
YJ : Could you explain your program to teach in The 2009 Thailand Yoga Festival

CW : My programme for the 2009 Festival is to introduce the idea of working with energy in Yoga; to look at the lines of energy meridians based on Traditional Chinese Medicine and learn to draw one’s attention inward. As we move past the sensations of large physical movements, and into a deeper awareness of breath and energy, we can find subtle and interesting ways to explore our bodies. This awareness begins in the physical musculo-skeletal – understanding where our bones and muscles are, into deeper sensations of feeling organs like kidneys and lungs, into an even deeper and richer awareness of how the breath moves and how our energy moves with this breath. The language of Chinese energy meridians is similar to the Indian system of nadis and Ayurveda, and TCM is a natural language for me to explain how the microcosm of the body works in the macrocosm of Nature. This focus allows me to teach how to let the poses ebb and flow like a river: the banks of a river contain the water, and the movement of the river creates fluidity and grace. As my teacher Erich Schiffmann taught me many years ago – this awareness becomes a pathway to learn to trust your “inner guidance”.YJ : How about your feeling to join in The 2009 Thailand Yoga Festival?

CW : I am honored and very happy to return to beautiful Thailand and have the opportunity to teach asian people. As an asian woman, it is especially poignant for me to share my experience and knowledge with the Thai Yoga community. I naturally have a great deal of flexibility, and I see this in many of my female asian students, and I want to share my personal experience, especially as I have injured myself over the years by working only on flexibility, and not balancing it with strength and structure. It is a privilege to share what I have learned with people of my own race, and the opportunity to share my personal experience working with respected master teachers. Much like the Zen tradition of reciting the lineage of all teachers back to the Buddha before every Dhamma teaching, I feel that I will be talking from the heart of my own lineage that comes down through Krishnamacharya

Yoga Journal Thailand 2012