(This narrative was written for Yoga Journal Singapore by invitation. Published in August 2017. Anthea Ong, former corporate honcho from Singapore tells us about the path of self-discovery and transformation that found her more than 11 years ago.)
“Yoga is the reason Madonna looks so good.” This was the first time I had heard the term ‘yoga’ — from a man with long hair wearing only white linen pants, who introduced himself as Madonna’s personal instructor, and Sting’s as well! Of course he went on to impress us with all kinds of contortionist poses. That was 1995, in the sprawling house of a tycoon whom my then-boyfriend and I had just met through another friend. In Bali, of course.
Another eight years went by before I bought my first yoga mat to attend a class in the gym I belonged to. Yet it wasn’t love at first try, as I came out convinced that this was just a more elegant and updated form of aerobics. So I stuck to my gym training routine that already gave me plenty to keep fit. In any case, I was riding on the high of a life that saw me thriving, first as a corporate banker, then as a business leader with multinational companies across geographies, and later, as an entrepreneur and inventor in education technology.
Three years later though, after yet another blistering fight with my then-husband on his lies and affairs, I stormed out of my apartment in Singapore’s Bayshore Park. As my legs led me down Marine Parade Road, my mind was a blank whilst my heart was shattered. Nearing Marine Parade Central, my tears-soaked eyes were drawn to a poster that said ‘Ananda Marga Yoga Society’ — I don’t remember why or how, but I signed up for a package of classes with them there and then. That first lesson a few days later with Dada Shankarsanananda, a Norwegian yogic monk-teacher, was the first time I felt good in a long while. Focusing on the breathing and postures meant that my pain had no place for those two hours. I was calmed in a deeply soothing way. That was in 2006. And since that class, I have been practising yoga (which for me always means meditation first, then asanas) almost every day, even when I travel for work or play!
Yoga was the buoy that kept me afloat as I found myself drowning through the colossal collapse of my life. I finally walked out of my marriage, smacked with a broken business as a collateral damage of the divorce, and found myself lying on the cold floor of my barren flat at Marine Crescent one moonlit night with $16 in hand. I was 39 years old, and the rug of life as I knew it had been pulled from right under my feet in one fell swoop!
In all that brokenness and despair, yoga was a constant. The seeds of self-realisation and resilience planted through the daily yoga and meditation practice began to gradually sprout as the layers of social labels (CEO, wife, successful, etc.) were stripped off. I started to see and understand myself more clearly as I became more aware of how and why the dots were connecting, and what my gifts and afflictions were. That increasing clarity was almost strange, considering how muddled up my ‘functional’ existence was at that time. As I slowly crawled out of the abyss of despair, I found purpose in the service of others by actively volunteering with organisations like UN Women, Very Special Arts Singapore, World Vision, aLife, Make-a-Wish Foundation, and several others.
Yoga (especially meditation) has been my healing, my courage and my expansion — I learned that it’s not how much you have (materially), but how little you need to live and give joyfully and meaningfully. I was compelled from within to share this insight with everyone, and I did…and I am! Friends of mine hear me say this all the time: “Yoga and meditation is a birth right!”
As a newly-minted yoga instructor, I founded Project Yoga-on-Wheels in early 2011, a social service project to bring the benefits of yoga to the needy and disadvantaged in Singapore. I extended my teachings to organisations that take care of many who can benefit from a calm mind, such as women from underprivileged families (aLife), migrant workers (HOME and Aidha), youths-at-risk (Chen Su Lan Methodist Children’s Home), cancer survivors (Breast Cancer Foundation), persons-in-recovery from mental illness (Singapore Association for Mental Health), victims of family violence (Star Shelter), low-income elderly (SilverAce Lengkok Bahru and Lions Befrienders Tampines) and hospice staff (HCA Hospice).
For the last five years, I hold a community meditation circle at my home every Monday evening. In 2013, together with a few kindred spirits, I started Playground of Joy for children, integrating proven techniques of yoga, mindfulness, art and play to bring a different kind of ABC (attention, balance and compassion).
In 2014, again with the support of friends, I started Hush — a social movement to bring the world of the hearing and deaf together to encourage the practice of silence for mental wellness and community inclusion. This silent teabar is a first in Singapore, and its trajectory has completely exceeded my expectations — so much so that, as of last year, we have attained a modest level of financial sustainability to have five deaf persons and two persons-in-recovery with mental conditions on our payroll to become a full-fledged impact business.
I did my teacher training with the intention to deepen my yogic practice, not to become a yoga instructor. However, I still share yoga regularly as a volunteer instructor for Ananda Marga Yoga Society, HCA Hospice and until recently, the Star Shelter. I love how each asana presents an opportunity to learn and embody the values of humility, courage and progress, and how each sadhana (meditation) practice waters the seeds of awareness in me. I am certain now, more than ever, that my place as a yogi is clearly carved out for me off the mat! I come alive when I hold space, in whatever capacity or form, for personal transformation to unfold and flourish — this is my purpose. And my practice powers my purpose.
It has been 22 years since I first heard the word ‘yoga’ from Madonna’s ‘personal instructor’, and I would never have imagined then that yoga would take me on this wondrous journey of change and growth — including becoming a vegetarian, and later vegan for the last seven years. I would not wish what I went through on anyone given how excruciating the pain and suffering was. And yet, even if I could, I wouldn’t change any of it for myself, because without it, yoga wouldn’t have found me. The colossal collapse was in fact a colossal gift because when there was nothing more to lose, I was given everything.
You can write to Anthea at email@example.com. Read more about her at www.antheaong.com