I travelled to Myanmar (or Burma) last August, my yoga practice turned inwards. I found stillness and simplicity. I would race up the temples and stupas, and then just sit there silently taking in the peace and beauty of the world. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful and spiritual country, and at that time I was reading the books assigned for yoga teacher training. I was physically, mentally, and emotionally in a beautiful place, and so my spirit also found its way to peace.
One of the first things you learn in the study of Yoga are the Yamas and Niyamas, wise characteristics and soulful choices for living a good and balanced life. In this spiritually rich country, these qualities were clear as day and could be seen all over.
PART I: YAMAS
The Yamas are formally known as moral and ethical guidelines. But they’re more commonly understood as how we relate to the world around us – to other people, our community, our spiritual connection, and our environment.
Young monks bringing food back to the monastery, boys and girls on bikes bring home food form the market, in Pakokku village along the Irrawaddy.Photo by Tami Lim Ledesma.
You can’t go to Myanmar without seeing a monk or two (or two hundred). Almost everyone in the country was a monk at one point in their lives. They enter the monastery as children because that’s where they can get food, shelter, and education. They can choose to leave any time, but many choose to stay for years, some even forever. Their early education is rooted in kindness and compassion, and its impact on the people of Myanmar echoes throughout the country. The Burmese are among the most caring people I have ever met. Here, two young boys carry lunch boxes to beg for food for the monastery. They do not carry money to buy food, but they never come home empty-handed. The whole community contributes to taking care of their monasteries.
Commitment to truth
An old lady lovingly wipes the covers of her books just outside the National League for Democracy Headquarters in Yangon. Photo by Tami Lim Ledesma.
It stumps me how a country of people so compassionate had fallen under such a sad situation. Closed to the world for decades, Myanmar was under oppressive military rule that kept the world and its people in the dark, literally! Lack of electricity, education, and other basic human rights violations were rampant, but unknown to most of the world until Aung San Suu Kyi brought Burma to the spotlight. The Lady, as she is reverently known, risked her life and happiness to bring freedom and democracy to her people. And through her dedication, the world learned about her country’s corruption, her people’s plight, and her own sacrifice. She committed her life to telling the world the truth about what was happening in Myanmar, and continues to help bring it to freedom. Truth is indeed freedom.
Non-stealing; coming from a place of abundance and generosity
Nature shares in the nourishment of moisture. Moss on a water jug at a Ananda Phaya Temple in arid and warm Bagan. Photo by Tami Lim Ledesma.
Despite the poverty, the people are still spiritually rich. All around the country, you’ll see jugs of drinking water. Take a sip: it’s clean, and it’s free for anyone to drink from. The Burmese are generous people. They believe it is good karma for the one who fills and cleans the jugs. So everyone does it, for everyone to benefit from. I have yet to visit a country where the people are as generous with their kindness and care as this one. It’s inspiring. With all that I have, surely I too can give freely and with all my heart?
Unity with the Divine
Tami finds her sitting bones at the very edge of Shwesandaw Pagoda in Bagan. Photo by Feliz Lim Perez.
Up on top of the pagodas, sitting between heaven and earth, it’s impossible not to feel an energetic connection with the Divine. Over 2000 temples, stupas, and pagodas dot the landscape of Bagan. My favorite, Shwesandaw Pagoda, is almost a thousand years old, is 5 terraces high, and has a magnificent 360o view at the top. It always amazes me to wonder how they made these architectural marvels without modern machines, and why they would haul huge stones across the dry plains to make a monument or two thousand of them. (At the height of the Ancient Kingdom of Bagan, there were over 10,000!) But when you’ve made your way to the very top terrace, your breath taken by the climb and the view, and you look around and see temples of dedication to the Divine all the way to the end of the horizon, you know why.
Letting go, accepting change
Excellent posture and balance is needed to bring pots to the kiln in Yandabo village. Photo by Tami Lim Ledesma.
Yandabo village along the Irrawaddy river is known for its pottery. It is a village that is sustained entirely by the transformation of mud to jug, and the women run the whole process from clay to kiln. They make the clay with mud from the river, and with loving hands knead it, whir it on a wheel, and pat and pound it into shape, dry it in the sun, take it to and bake it in a giant haystack. It’s amazing to see how soft, brown, formless mud changes into a brilliant red, round terra-cotta jar. What once was soft is now strong, what once was fluid is now fragile. In life, we are shaped by loving hands, and burning pressure alike. We go from one state to another, losing and gaining qualities as we go along. Everything changes.
Part II: NIYAMAS
While the Yamas talk about how to live in the world, the Niyamas talk about how to cultivate our own personal environment. The Niyamas are soulful qualities that lead us to a positive relationship with ourselves.
Purity, cleanliness, simplicity
Feeling the earth, reaching for the sky, barefoot in Bagan. Photo by Feliz Lim Perez
Any temple in Myanmar requires you to be respectfully barefoot. It’s a yogi’s dream, but a germophobe’s nightmare. Surprisingly, my feet did not come back black as my mom feared. The temples were very clean! Being barefoot brings you back to simplicity. Locals and tourists alike, whether backpacking through or cruising in luxury, we are all standing on the same ground, reaching for the same sky. Whatever stains or stars we accumulate on the outside, we are all pure and beautiful human beings on the inside. Only the natural dust of the earth remained on my feet at the end of the day, and it made me wonder what my own footprints left on the ground. When we remove our outer accouterments, when we are laid bare to the very core of our being, what sort of mark do we leave in life?
Contentment, to feel satisfied within one’s immediate experience
A young Kayan girl contemplates on her weaving. Photo by Feliz Lim Perez
Inle Lake in the north is known for its floating villages and weaving houses. For the Kayan women, weaving is a craft that is passed on through generations, but fewer women are getting into it, just like wearing their signature brass coils on their necks and arms, and opting instead for more lucrative professions. It was wonderful to see a young girl carrying on the tradition of her elders, and very much being herself and living out her tradition. In weaving, you have to be completely present in where you are and what you’re doing, knowing that the strand you are in right now contributes to the bigger pattern. It’s about being happy with where you are, knowing that you are in the right place, exactly where you need to be at the moment, in the great big design of life.
Pencils in the air, like beacons of light, school children from the village along Irrawaddy River demonstrate burning enthusiasm. Photo by Tami Lim Ledesma
I visited a tiny village along the Irrawaddy River where the Pandaw Cruise company had set up a school. We brought along pencils for the kids, and the teachers distributed them among the younger ones. Suddenly they were standing on chairs, holding their pencils in the air. If that isn’t burning enthusiasm, I don’t know what is. Myanmar has gone through an educational tragedy in recent years, and needs all the help it can get. Even now, when I asked our guide how we can help, his answer was “Educate us. Come and teach. Send us materials. We are eager to learn.” It was really touching how something as simple as a pencil got the kids so excited. How to cultivate Tapas? Be like a child – grateful for the simplest things, and eager to play with them.
Self-study, intention to know one’s self
A man in traditional longyi (cloth garment) searches for books along Pandosan Street in Yangon. Photo by Tami Lim Ledesma
Despite the educational crisis, the Burmese are literate people. In Yangon, Pansodan Street and the roads leading to Scott Market are littered with secondhand book stalls. You can all sorts of reading material, from old issues of Reader’s Digest, to photocopied and bound reproductions of popular novels. George Orwell is a popular author for the time he spent in Burma, especially his famously banned book Burmese Days. Novels about Aung San Suu Kyi, memoirs of Myanmar, and political histories are also very popular. At one point, many of these books were banned by strict censorship, and now that they’re openly available, the locals are hungry to learn about their history and culture. The dedication to learning is more than a need for education, it is a search for identity, a thirst to know one’s self.
Celebration of the spiritual, surrendering to the greater plan of the Divine
Tami salutes the sunset at Inle Lake. Photo by Feliz Lim Perez
At Inle Lake, you can only go out when the sun is up. It can take up to two hours from one point to another, so that means starting out at dawn and heading home by 4pm to make the most of it. So what do you do the rest of the time? Watch the sun – rise and set. Marvel at the beauty before your eyes, and join the earth as it celebrates the sun’s arrival and departure. Find peace in knowing that whatever happened today can be laid to rest as the sun goes down, and find hope in knowing that tomorrow the sun will rise and give you a fresh new start.
Myanmar was one of those trips I’ll never forget, and I count myself extremely blessed to have been able to have such a deeply spiritual encounter with the country. Experiencing simplicity and kindness of the people, learning about what they went through and are going through now, and being surrounded by so much natural beauty showed me just what it means to be at peace. I was physically, mentally, and emotionally in a beautiful place, and so my spirit also found its way to peace.
By Tami Ledesma
Tami is a Barre 3, vinyasa and yin yoga teacher. She loves to travel, appreciates good art, inspired with movement and still hungry to learn. She recently finished her Yoga Therapeutic training with Leslie Kazadi. Click here to follow her on Instagram