Though many see parenthood as a distraction and handicap for a serious athlete, ChauKei discovered that her new role enriched her capabilities as a yogini.
Just a few years after trying yoga for the first time, ChauKei found that it had grown quickly from a hobby to the basis for a career.
The enormous lessons yoga taught her about finding her breath and trusting her voice allowed her to teach with growing confidence.
She found international demand for her services as a teacher, not just because of her teaching skills and outstanding ability to demonstrate the postures, but also because she is fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese, and English.
The fact that she was quickly mastering very demanding poses led ChauKei to enter her first yoga competition in 2007.
These competitions are sponsored by the International Yoga Sports Federation, which runs a network of regional competitions that feed into the annual Bishnu Ghosh International Yoga Asana Championship in Los Angeles.
Participants are evaluated by how well they perform yoga postures, with judges taking into account technical execution, composure, and the grace with which they move into and out of various poses.
ChauKei rapidly became a serious contender in these competitions, and sought more extensive training. In 2010, the third year she competed at the Bishnu Ghosh Cup, she won the silver medal.PhotoL ChauKei Ngai
By this time, she had married and given birth to a child, who brought her great joy, but who also took a great deal of time away from her training regimen.
While it seems a paradox, ChauKei has a good understanding of why it wasn’t until she competed as a mother, with many more preoccupations besides asana practice, that she won a medal.
Parenthood gave her an unseen advantage—she certainly didn’t have as much time to train physically, but she benefited from a different sort of training: caring for a baby provides unending lessons in maintaining patience, poise and control under stress, and this regimen gave her a mental edge that was decisive.
Other participants perhaps had younger bodies and more time to train, but the steadying influence of motherhood made ChauKei more resilient than her competition.
Also, she developed a stronger ability to focus during her curtailed training time, finding that she treasured her practice as never before.
And so her life continued, full of teaching, training and enjoying the healthy and vibrant toddler-hood of her son, Osiris.
By this time, she had a coach, sponsors and a local yoga community that followed and applauded her progress. And every year, she competed at the Bishnu Ghosh Cup. She had become a force to be reckoned with—a bronze medal and another silver medal followed in 2011 and 2012.
Over time, she saw an evolution in how she viewed competing.
“I have to admit that for the first few years, I was very attached to the result,” she said. “I was upset, I was frustrated, I wanted to win, I didn’t want to lose.”
If you had asked her at that time who her biggest competitor was, she would have pegged the rivals from India and America as the ones to beat—the Indians because typically they had spent their whole lives competing in yoga in the place where it originated, the Americans because their culture of competitive athleticism produces people who train very seriously.
ChauKei herself is no stranger to competitive cultures, given that she was born in Hong Kong.
Of the fast-paced culture there, she says,
“Hong Kong is a very competitive city. It’s all a race—we walk fast, we work 10 to 12 hours a day, we want to win. Even though we don’t do competitive sports, our schools are extremely competitive. We have rankings in every class—not just the first three, but we are ranked all the way down, to the very last place. Every single year, every single class is ranked completely.”
Growing up in such a culture, ChauKei came to see that a competitive society is also a fear-based society, in that it generates many more losers than winners.
Over the six years she has been competing in yoga asana, she has had plenty of opportunity to think about that—how fear and competition go hand in hand.
And the questions she asked herself began to change—while she had once wondered how to beat her Indian or American rivals at the championship, she now began to focus on how to conquer the competition that comes from within.
Acknowledging the fear she had inside her, along with her attachment to winning, she now wanted to know,
“How do you not get into that mindset? How do you become not afraid to win, and not afraid to lose? How do you simply present what yoga is—the mind and body connection?”
One way she addressed her fear was to discover how to deal with one aspect of it—performance anxiety.
ChauKei developed a technique of meditating on her own nervousness, so that she would be able to withstand the pressures of competition without her performance being affected by physical symptoms.
“Yoga is science,” she affirms. “How do you control your nervous system? When we’re on stage, we get nervous, sweaty palms, jelly legs, the heart rate goes up.”
To be at her physical best in such conditions, she used meditation to methodically visualize each moment on stage, including each surge of adrenaline. With this mental simulation, she trained herself to make the adrenaline rush an ally, and not a foe.
It was with this set of strengths and strategies, in addition to her notable consistency and enormous innate talent, that ChauKei stepped onto the stage at the Bishnu Ghosh Cup this June and took away the gold.
Since then, she has had time to consider what the most valuable lessons have been from her years of competition.
One approach has been very fruitful for her—the practice of acceptance, patience, and non-struggle. Just as she came to accept and work with the potentially damaging onstage bursts of adrenaline, ChauKei has come to accept herself in all her many aspects.
The time when she considered herself her biggest competition may have been a necessary stage, but that time is over. Now, she feels like an integrated person, a person who refuses to be overwhelmed by negative emotions or vexing problems, but sees them as part of the puzzle.
“I’m my friend,” she said. “I don’t have to be my own competitor. I can just work with myself. I can just go along with myself, even with my fear! My coach (Jim Kallet) said my fears are like my arms and my legs, I don’t have to get rid of that.”
And then there is one final gift, a huge one, considering her lifelong breathing problems.
“While I’m on stage, I never have to think about gasping for air,” she said. “On stage, I finally see how I can thrive.
In that sense, I’m not a winner, I’m a survivor.”
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Ed: Catherine Monkman