November 15, 2012

Learning to Breathe: ChauKei Ngai’s Yoga Journey. ~ Blythe Forcey Toussaint

ChauKei in a critical competition pose, 2012: Courtesy Breeze Flowers Photography

Part One: Becoming a Yogini.

ChauKei Ngai has competed in Bishnu Gosh International Yoga Championship for the past five years and earned the silver medal in 2012 and 2010 and the bronze medal in 2011. She intends to push for the gold medal in the June 2013 competition. This series of three articles will outline her rise from a scared little girl to world champion yogini and mother of a three year old son.

ChauKei was born without breath, and yoga gave it back to her.

ChauKei as a baby

She was born in Hong Kong two months early and weighing only four pounds, with lungs that weren’t ready for the world. A mechanical ventilator and extra oxygen kept her alive for her first thirty days. Her parents named her ChauKei, “The Miracle in the Fall,” and prayed.

Blessedly, she survived, but breathing remained frightening to young ChauKei.

She would gasp and struggle for air, feeling breathless and wracked with chest pain. At some point in every year, from her early childhood until age 25, she required trips to the emergency room for supplemental oxygen. Finding no clear physical cause, doctors told her it was “all in her head,” and called it panic attacks.

ChauKei recalls herself driven by a prickly mixture of stubbornness and insecurity and she remembers a childhood with things to fear.

When she was 14, her father felt she wasn’t getting enough structure in the Hong Kong schools. He sent her to live with the family of a friend in Singapore, where the schools had a reputation for higher quality and greater rigor. While ChauKei now appreciates the love and caring behind her father’s decision, all she could see as a rebellious teenager was that her new school allowed corporal punishment. She watched children being hit with rulers and being laid out across a teacher’s knees for a caning. She became quiet and resolved never to give them cause to hit her, and the breathing issues only became worse.

Student Assembly at a Singapore School

When she was 16, her parents pulled her out of the Singapore school and brought her back to Hong Kong—China was taking over and her parents were terrified.

The family had run a tea business for many generations, and all remembered how ChauKei’s great-grandfather had been killed by the communists. Driven by love and concern for the safety of their two daughters, her father and mother quickly made arrangements to move to Vancouver. As ChauKei put it, “everyone who could leave then, did.”

The transition was difficult and life remained tense in the new environment.

Though things had not been easy for her in Singapore, she had built a core of friends and, as she describes it, “friends were the most important thing for me at the time, and I felt like I was forced to leave them all behind and enter a completely strange environment.” ChauKei struggled to adapt and got a diploma in Interior Design.

She nearly collapsed when she began working in the field. The competitive pace of the industry and her own sense of inadequacy and insecurity all combined to bring on ever more severe breathlessness and panic attacks. At 25, driven purely to survive, she applied to the York University in Toronto to pursue a degree in psychology. She hoped psychology might help explain the attacks she could not conquer. She also took her first Bikram Yoga class.

Pranayama (Standing Deep Breathing)-Opening Breathing Posture

ChauKei describes herself then as weighing 100 pounds at 5’4” tall, and believing desperately that she must lose weight.

She had no history of athleticism beyond PE and felt no connection with her body. Like many young woman, her only sense of self came from comparing herself with the airbrushed images the media provide. Her first yoga classes were hell. She talks about how, like so many first-time practitioners, she would feel like she was about to pass out, and even, at least three times, bolted from the room.

However, she kept going back because she began to feel, right away, that she was breathing in a way she never could before.

More than the psychology degree ever could, yoga was teaching her to master her fears and her breath. As she began going to yoga regularly, the instructors started to recognize that she had more than usual natural aptitude for the sport. Around the time she was graduating from college, her studio suggested she attend the Bikram Yoga Teacher Training.

Her parents decided it was much like going to graduate school and agreed to help.

Next week, in Part Two, Becoming a Yoga Teacher, we will continue to follow ChauKei’s journey. And then, the week following we will conclude her story with Part Three, Becoming a Yoga Champion. So, please stay tuned.


Blythe Forcey Toussaint has been dedicated to the practice of Bikram Yoga for over seven years and has come to know ChauKei as a yoga teacher, health counselor and friend. She is an author of historical fiction and keeps an active blog on the social realities of the Civil War. In addition to her writing and yoga obsessions, she spends all the time she can hiking and backpacking in the Colorado and Wyoming mountains with husband and their three large dogs.


Editor: Thaddeus Haas

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