YANGON — Yoga is no longer simply about physical exercise for Nan Su Kay Swan, but a practice through which she finds meaning and simplicity in life—a perspective 17 years in the making.
One of Myanmar’s pioneer yoga instructors admitted to The Irrawaddy that she had been mistaken for more than a decade in what she thought was the purpose of yoga.
As a young practitioner and trainer, she pursued new and increasingly challenging poses, which initially attracted her to the practice. She had been inspired by it since she was around 15 years old, after growing up with an admiration for ballet.
Yoga became a part of Nan Su Kay Swan’s life after she fled her hometown of Kengtung, eastern Shan State, for Thailand in 2000, due to her father’s political resistance activities in military-ruled Myanmar. Her mother died in a bomb blast when she was only an infant, after which she was raised by her grandmother.
Then in her twenties, Nan Su Kay Swan joined a yoga class in a park while she was working at a Thai sportswear shop—a way to both cope with sleepless nights away from home and because of her ambition to achieve the poses she observed.
After practicing for two hours every morning for six months, the health benefits she experienced encouraged her to learn more. She said yoga helped in her sleep, build strength, and improve her immune system, as well as address abdominal and intestinal issues.
Using what she learned from the class she attended during her two-year stay in Thailand, she began working as a yoga instructor in Yangon after she returned in 2002.
“As I was interested in the yoga postures, I practiced six or eight hours every day to be able to do the challenging poses,” she said, adding that those achievements gave her confidence.
Nan Su Kay Swan’s turning point came in 2012, after 12 years of dedicating herself to yoga. She faced great losses in a small business she was running at the time, and suffered from hypothyroidism, leading to her having three operations within a year.
These experiences changed her approach to the practice of yoga.
“Giving that much time… became an obsession, but it wasn’t helpful in life. I realized I took it wrong,” she said, of her long yoga sessions. She reduced her daily practice time from eight hours to three, and started doing meditation.
Now the mother of a five-month-old daughter, Nan Su Kay Swan said she feels reborn, with less stress.
“I didn’t get it before. We can learn about one’s body and mind in yoga, like [we do in] meditation.”
The technique that she now shares with trainees not only covers yoga poses, but the link between the body and the mind—a different approach than when she once pushed students to attain challenging poses.
“We don’t normally concentrate on what we do, whether it is work or yoga. During a half hour in my class, I tell them to watch, with mindfulness, what is happening to their mind and body while they are doing yoga,” she said, explaining that this observation is based on concepts in Buddhism.
Some newcomers who are interested primarily in achieving new postures are impatient with her technique, she added.
“They want to focus on doing the poses. But what I want to give them is a practice that they can apply in their daily life. They might forget the poses if they don’t do them regularly, but not the practice,” she said.
The range of her Ahlone Township class attendees is wide: the elderly, youth, parents with children, and those recovering from injury or illness.
Her methods, Nan Su Kay Swan said, help the practitioners to be mindful, to control their anger, reduce stress, and better understand their bodies.
“I am not advertising yoga anymore as a tool to become more beautiful or to slim down. You will know what difference it has made for you because of your practice. Maybe you will fall asleep better than before, or have better blood circulation…or control your stress or anger differently. If it is good, then do it,” she said.
Now 40 years old and reflecting on the days when she first began her practice, Nan Su Kay Swan said yoga has become much more popular than it was 17 years ago.
“In the past, there was rarely a yoga class in a township. But now, almost all streets have yoga classes,” she said, attributing the growth to a desire among people to reduce stress.
“Yoga, for me, is a practice to support whatever you do,” she said.