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Saturday, January 14, 2006

yoga, manila style

i just got back from a week-long vacation in the philippines. the primary reason for my trip was to meet up with my 500+ relatives (i'm not even going to try to explain that), but while i was there i was determined to take some yoga classes AND pamper myself with some visits to the spa (yes, it may sound extravagant and hedonistic, especially for someone on a tight budget like me, but when you consider that an hour-long full body massage set me back only $15 and a mani-pedi less than $5, i'd be nuts if i passed up on the luxury!). i guess you could say that it was my own version of a yoga retreat...

before leaving for my trip, an internet search resulted in two yoga studios that were within 15 minutes of my parents' home. unfortunately, all i had were their addresses and phone numbers, so i had to either call or drop by each studio to get their schedule of classes.

prakash singh bisht
pure yoga studio
mandarin oriental hotel
makati avenue, makati city 1226
metro manila, philippines
(632) 750-8888 extension 2105
website: www.mandarinoriental.com/hotel/511000028.asp

right before visiting the mandarin hotel spa for my first (!) massage appointment, i paid a visit to their yoga studio. my timing couldn't have been any better; the 7:30am class was letting out and i had just enough time before the next class to get the resident yoga instructor to scribble his class schedule on the back of his business card (each class was an hour long):

monday / wednesday / friday

thursday / saturday

with my next few days already planned out, the first class i was able to fit in wasn't until three days later -- the monday 8:30am class.

when i showed up that morning, i noticed that the room had thick exercise mats neatly lined up in rows on the dark polished wood floor, with two spa towels stacked at the edge of each mat. all one had to do was show up and claim a spot; i can only assume that once all the mats are spoken for, no more students are allowed in the class (given the overcrowding and last-minute squeezing in that goes in on some of the classes i've attended, this sounded like a great idea). as for me, i happened to bring along a yogitoes skidless towel, so i covered my mat to protect myself from having to lay face down on someone else's sweat (ewww!)

there were only about 6 students in the room. from the sound of it, many of them were regulars who had been taking prakash's class but were still quite new to yoga. after some initial bends and stretches, prakash led us through the lesson for the day: sun salutations. we did them over and over and over again, with him making posture adjustments as needed. finally, some time in savasana, followed by a short lecture on hydration and digestion: "drink a liter of water first thing in the morning. drink just enough fluid while eating to wash your food down. it's best to drink lukewarm water while eating; ice water puts out the digestive fire in your belly. eat your largest meals while the sun is up because the sun gives you energy to digest your food efficiently." and so on.

prakash was a nice enough guy who really seemed to care about advancing his students' yoga practice and improve their overall health. however, if i lived in manila, i probably wouldn't take his classes on a regular basis; at P500 a pop (about $10 for 60 minutes' worth of yoga), it's pretty expensive. but then again, it's the yoga-within-a-spa experience that you're paying for...

bela lipat
sai shanti yoga sanctuary
40 rocha street
san lorenzo village, makati city
metro manila, philippines
(632) 817-0299

my sister always makes sure she has the latest edition of Metro Society magazine on hand. i don't know if she reads them to keep track of the latest food and fashion trends in manila or to see which of her friends were spotted at one of THE parties, but i made it a point to browse through her collection of previous months' issues to reorient myself with the goings-on back home, especially since it had been over a year since i was last there. in one of the more recent editions, i noticed an article about a socialite couple who had flown to a resort island for some biking and hiking, dining and diving, and yes, even some private yoga instruction from bela lipat, yoga guru to the stars.

it just so happened that bela's studio was one of the two studios that had popped up during my pre-trip research, so i was even more determined to pay her a visit. a description of bela's yoga retreat on that island reveals this about her background:

"Bela will guide guests through a daily one-and-a-half hour yoga session drawing on her knowledge of Sivananda, Ashtanga Vinyasa, Kundalini and lyengar styles.
Having studied under the aegis of teachers in Thailand, Nepal and India she combines these approaches in her focus upon the yoga asanas, pranayama, kriyas, chanting and Tibetan Buddhist meditation."

figuring that she was somewhat like the shiva rea of the philippines, i decided to give bela's classes a try. googling her produced only an address and a phone number. since there was no answering machine on the other end of the line, i had to keep calling until someone was able to personally answer the phone (maybe i'm just spoiled from the way things are professionally run in L.A.?). i was told that for the next few days, her 90-minute classes would be held daily at 7:30am and 6:30pm, so i planned on attending the tuesday 6:30pm class.

when i got there, i found out that i had shown up for her led mysore class. on one hand, i had always wanted to take an ashtanga class back home, so i was thrilled with my choice. on the other hand, all i knew is that it involved a set sequence of poses, and i had no clue what that sequence was. so if i made a fool of myself, my only consolation was that i would never see those people again...

i picked up a copy of the printed schedule from the stack that was sitting beside the sign-in sheet. here's the class schedule for that week (the schedule changes from week to week since there are no classes when she's out of town):

monday - friday, 7:30am: mysore
monday / wednesday, 6:30pm: sivananda
tuesday / thursday, 6:30pm: mysore
(the usual saturday 10:00am mysore class was cancelled due to the full moon)

besides the fact that the classes were held in a private home in an exclusive gated village, i could tell immediately that i was in high-class company. the two women on either side of me were wearing lululemon yoga attire (if it's already considered pricey back in the states, one can only imagine how much more it costs with the usual import markup in the philippines) and the guy in front of me had brought his own manduka black mat (again, probably costing one week's salary for the typical worker bee). bela herself was dressed quite stylishly, but then again, given her celeb status, one would expect nothing less.

i borrowed a mat from the pile that was sitting by the front door. it was a thin mat, unlike my nicely-padded personal yoga mat back home. it was so thin that when i unrolled it on the linoleum-tiled concrete floor, covered it with my skidless towel, then knelt down, my knees weren't very happy. it was at that point that i had wished i had made room for my yoga mat in my suitcase instead of packing yet another pair of shoes...

bela began the class with some chanting, then led us ten students through the ashtanga sequence of sun salutations, vinyasas, arm balances, twists and binds, and so on. there were many frustrating times where i had to stop and watch what she and the class were doing, but then again, i fully expected that to happen. just like in prakash's class the day before, the students in her class were regulars; but unlike the students in prakash's class, this group was composed of intermediate and advanced level students. there were times when i felt woefully inexperienced, like when the majority breezed through the arm balance sequences and the headstands (reminder to self: i have to learn those PRONTO!).

she skipped savasana and led us through more chanting, followed by the usual namaste from her to the class. just when i thought the class was over, she THEN had us all do savasana. odd -- i've never had any instructor do that before. what was even more odd was that she didn't signal when savasana was over; students just got up and walked out of the room once they felt they had enough.

bela's an attractive and personable yoga instructor who visits india annually (or at least i thought i heard her mention that she did) and is quite proficient in her practice. if i lived in manila, i probably would continue to take classes with her; the P400 charge (around $8) per 90-minute class, while costly by manila standards, seemed worth it for the quality of class. bela also had a month's worth of yoga for P3000 (around $60), which is an even better deal, assuming one practices at least twice a week.

i was hoping to squeeze in yet another class at another studio before i left manila, but shopping and a much-coveted facial appointment at the office of dr. vicki belo, the dermatologist to the stars, got in the way. there ARE things more important than yoga, you know...


Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Joni,
Not sure if you're still updating this blog, but do you know about Bela's yoga retreat center (the Yoga Philippines Nature Sanctuary)? i'm curious about attending but don't know anything about the quality of the accommodations, classes, etc. Any ideas on this or other retreat centers? Many thanks!

9:16 AM  
Blogger joni said...

hi p --

it's been over a year since i last visited manila, so i haven't been keeping track of the yoga scene on that end.
you might want to contact jane, a yogini in manila, who blogs about the local yoga scene at yoginimla.wordpress.com.
i'm sure jane can get you what you're looking for :)

5:25 PM  

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