Sunday, June 3rd 2001
Life section

Cat lessons for the cyber age

Today's cybernetic environment requires only the mind, the eye and the hand and the result is that we are often not comfortably at home in our body

HAVE you ever stopped to watch a cat stretch itself? It does so fully -  and luxuriously.

Often when I see joggers on the road, I see their knitted brows, their clenched jaws, and their glazed eyes, and I tell myself, yes, they are indeed working out, as opposed to exercising.

In my book, exercise shouldn't be grim work, it should be about losing the grip on the body, letting go, being relaxed. It should be about luxury, the luxury of deep breaths, of fully stretching the body and limbs, and being present to the moment.

Most of the time though, we are absent. We may be at a meeting, watching TV, eating a meal, or even chatting with friends, but we aren't really there. Our minds are far away, worrying about the tomorrow, or nursing yesterday's hurts.

The late great choreographer Martha Graham, speaking of the art of dance, said: ""All that is important is this one moment in movement. Make that moment vital and worth living. Do not let it slip away unnoticed and unused.''

Dance and all forms of sport, even jogging, are about attending to the moment, making it vital. It is about being present, balancing effort with surrender, and in doing so, being fully at home in our body, and therefore being whole.

But in today's cybernetic environment, which requires only the mind, the eye and the hand, and has no use for the body, we are often not ""at home'' in our body.

Even for those people to go to the gym to work out, the principles that apply are those of precision engineering and technological regimentation. Gym-goers move along an assembly line of ""stations'', or Natilius machines, each of which exercises a different muscle group.

""The body is conceived of as an interlocking assemblage of machinelike components, and the desired effect, in which glutes, lats, pecs and abs stand out in sharp relief, resembles the product of a punch press,'' as the author Mark Dery puts it so eloquently in his 1996 book, Escape Velocity: Cyberculture At The End Of The Century.

I'm glad therefore to note the resurgence of the ancient art, yoga, which is fast growing in popularity even in hard-bodied temples like the fitness gyms, as our cover story reports.

When we were discussing the story concept earlier last week, a colleague remarked: ""But yoga takes up so much time! You need only 15 minutes on a threadmill.'' 

Her remark is so telling of our age, when time is carved into blocks, and every block must be filled with some activity or another, or we are not seen as productive. Even leisure is measured in blocks of time, in a grid that is like a television channel's, and there mustn't be any blanks or ""dead'' airtime.

Some of us, who believe ourselves indispensable, slice our blocks so thinly that they are like the split-second cuts of MTV videos, and not content to do just one thing, we ""multi-task''.

Yoga, like taiqi, or like any true sport before it was ""techno-colonised'', is precisely about dead airtime.

It's about stopping the frenzy, to do one thing at a time, so as to do it well. It's about being present to the """full bloom of the moment'', in Walt Whitman's words, relaxed yet fully alert to the surroundings.

Picture Akira Kurosawa's samurai with his sword drawn, or Clint Eastwood's cowboy with no name in the Sergio Leone trilogy, squinting his eyes coolly in the sun as he faces a deadly enemy.

It's about breathing freely, not fretfully or fitfully, which we do most of the time.

IN THE early 1970s, I took classes at the non-profit, non-religious Singapore Yoga Health Centre in River Valley Road. The monthly fee for the sessions, one hour each time, three times a week, was $15, if I remember correctly. The teacher was an Indian man in his 70s, but looked to be in his 60s.

The centre was in a two-storey shophouse, and classes were held upstairs in a hall with timber floor boards, in the mornings and evenings. There were separate beginners', intermediate and advanced classes.

The students would unroll their mats on the polished timber floor in two rows on both sides of the long hall, and the teacher would walk up and down in the middle, as he took them
through the exercises or asana, the original Sanskrit term for them.

""Breathe in deeply,'' he would command, then, ""hold'', and after a long while, ""breathe out - slowly.''

He would help us maintain our shoulder stands, or correct our postures when they were not done correctly.

I enjoyed those classes, especially the death pose at the end of each session, when we lay on the floor with our legs slightly apart and our hands limp by our sides, our eyes half-closed, and breathing normally.

As any beginner would tell you, breathing normally is, paradoxically, the hardest thing to do.

I would lie there in the room and watch the whirling fans on the ceiling, and feel all the day's anxieties - mine was the evening beginners' class - fall away. Time seemed to stand still.

I did move up to the intermediate class - I could actually sit in the full-lotus position - but it wasn't long before I stopped going to the centre altogether.

There were other distractions, and a convenient excuse to get out when I read a magazine article in which a doctor was quoted as saying that yoga was merely self-massage. 

The other day when I popped into the building, I saw renovation work being carried out inside. The yoga centre obviously is no longer there, and in its place would probably spring up another pub or new-age office.

I have forgotten how it feels like to stretch like a cat for a long, long time.

Like just about everyone else caught up in the new economy, I have been treading the mill in a cease less frenzy.

Perhaps it's time I get back to yoga and learn again how to breathe normally.

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