For many in yoga, Wai Lana may not be a familiar name. But for nearly forty years, Wai Lana has introduced countless people to yoga, helping people of all ages—and from all walks of life—improve their physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Her “Wai Lana Yoga” TV series continues to attract a huge audience and has played a key role in helping ignite yoga’s mainstream popularity in the United States and around the world.
Wai Lana produced her acclaimed “Namaste” music video to celebrate the first ever International Yoga Day on June 21, 2015. It has been viewed millions of times on YouTube and other platforms, around the world. She is one of the only two Chinese nationals to win India’s Padma Shri Award in the field of yoga. Asana interviewed Wai Lana about her yoga journey.
How and when did yoga come into your life?
I was born and raised in the fast-paced, materialistic society of Hong Kong. Growing up, I experienced a lot of fear and insecurity. I had many experiences that showed me how much conflict and suffering there is in life. It seemed like for someone to be happy, another person always needs to be miserable.
One night, when I was 16, I was hanging out at a small party. I was surrounded by friends, yet I still felt overwhelmingly alone and empty inside.
Then someone played a tape on the stereo. I’ll never forget that moment. There was a gentle sound, unlike anything I’d ever heard before. Although it seemed somewhat foreign on the surface, it felt very familiar and comforting deep within me.
My mind and heart became immersed in the beautiful sound vibration. My loneliness, inner emptiness, and unhappiness vanished. It was the first time I’d ever experienced inflatable slide such inner peace and happiness. I knew at that moment that true happiness exists and that life has a purpose. Finally, I had hope. I had no idea what I was listening to at the time, only that it was the most powerful, heartfelt experience I’d ever had. Looking back, that was my first contact with yoga.
Who was your great mentor/ teacher?
I later learned that what I had been listening to was Yoga Sound Meditation being chanted by Jagad Guru Siddhaswarupananda (www.sif.yoga). Soon after that, I had the opportunity to hear him speak about the science of yoga. Even though I had never been very academic, I was able to understand the deep philosophical truths that he spoke about. Somehow, my mind became so clear and my heart so open that everything just went right in and clicked. I understood, “Yes. This is correct. I understand this. This is true.” For the first time in my life, I understood that there was much more to life than what meets the eye.
Then when I was 17, I was invited to go to a yoga intensive being held by Jagad Guru Siddhaswarupananda in India. I had never even been on an airplane before, but I was like a starving person determined to go where the food is. Nothing was going to stop me. At the 60-day retreat, I learned yoga in a holistic way: yoga wisdom, meditation, asanas, diet, lifestyle, and so on.
Ever since then, my life was forever changed. Yoga became my passion. After deepening my yoga practice under the direct guidance of Jagad Guru Siddhaswarupananda, I increasingly felt a longing deep in my heart to be of service to the Chinese people. Then Jagad Guru Siddhaswarupananda accepted me as his disciple and gave me the yoga name Vaishnava devi dasi. When he asked me to help pass on what I had been given, to help him give yoga to the Chinese people, I was very happy. I knew then that helping him give yoga to the people of China was my life’s mission.
Can you tell us about your yoga teaching style?
It’s important to understand the meaning and ultimate goal of yoga to appreciate why I teach yoga the way I do. Many people think yoga is just about exercise, but yoga is so much more. Yoga exercises or asanas are just a small part of yoga. Yoga is a very deep, philosophical, and spiritual world-view and way of life. The highest yoga practice is the cultivation of spiritual love and wisdom.
The word “yoga” means the yoking together or the union of the individual atma or individual spirit soul with the Supreme Soul, the Supreme Spirit. All different forms of yoga practices, such as asanas, breathing, and meditation are ultimately meant to help a person achieve “yoga” or union with the Supreme Soul.
While stress relief and inner calm are important benefits of yoga, the real goal of yoga isn’t a temporary state of calm. The real goal of yoga is true self-realization. It’s that self-realization, or enlightenment, which enables one to have a happy, purposeful life as well as a fearless death. That’s why you’ll see in all of my TV shows and classes that I incorporate meditation along with yoga asana practice.
Of all the forms of yoga meditation, Yoga Sound Meditation is the most pleasant, effective, and easiest to practice. When people tell me they have experienced inner peace from practicing this meditation, it makes me very happy.
As far as teaching yoga asanas, I incorporate what I consider to be the best of various styles. I first teach individual poses carefully. Then I like to combine them into sequences for a 20-30 minute exercise session that is a well balanced workout—complete with twists, bends, stretches, press and resistance—with counter poses in between.
This allows me time to give clear instructions and to teach the finer details of the poses. It also gives the student time to listen to his body and adjust the poses accordingly. I often suggest easier versions, so that students know how to modify an asana if needed. The most important thing that I always emphasize is safety—how to do a pose carefully, without the risk of injury by over bending or over twisting. I’m currently developing programs specifically for training teachers how to teach beginners to practice yoga asanas safely. This also reinforces in the student’s mind that practicing asanas is not a performance or competition. This is an important point. It’s not authentic yoga if one is practicing in the spirit of competition or for the entertainment of others. Yoga should be practiced for our own well-being. Furthermore, judging yourself by how far another person is stretching or how long they can hold their pose and so on will only lead to injury. To have a successful asana practice you simply need to stay in tune with your own body, and progress at your own pace.
Another aspect of my teaching style is that I almost always take a few moments to rest between poses. This rest not only gives the body time to assimilate the various benefits of the poses, but it also gives the student time to notice how the pose makes him feel. This awareness is extremely important in one’s asana practice—it helps one notice which poses one needs most, and perhaps which one should be modified or avoided altogether. It gives one valuable information about the condition of one’s body, which ultimately allows one to develop a home practice that suits that person best. After all, everyone’s body is different and therefore it’s important to practice according to each person’s own ability—not trying to achieve some “picture perfect” version of the pose.
Sometimes the sessions I teach are slow and relaxing, whereas at other times the poses are more challenging, more integrated, and move at faster speeds to help oxygenate the body in the quickest manner.
It’s also really important to me that the yoga sessions on my TV series create a relaxing mood that is spiritually uplifting. One of the ways we achieve this is with music and the beautiful natural scenery on our sets.
What do you think about the relationship of age and yoga?
Young or old, everyone wants and needs optimum physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. That is the beautiful thing about yoga—it offers a variety of techniques, processes, and yoga wisdom to provide these benefits to people of all ages. An unborn baby in the womb, hearing his mother singing the sounds of yoga meditation, will feel soothed and at peace. For children moving through the difficult time of adolescence, with all of the hormonal changes and emotional challenges of being teenagers, the practice of yoga asanas, simple breathing techniques, and meditation can be very helpful. When a woman is experiencing menopause, there are asanas and other techniques that can help her both physically and mentally. Yoga is very versatile.
Yoga offers many techniques for the elderly that they can practice even if they don’t have a lot of mobility—from simple asanas, such as movements to keep the joints healthy, to breathing and meditation techniques.
Many people, women in particular, practice yoga asanas to stay fit and to try to keep their bodies looking young and attractive. And it’s true, the practice of yoga asanas can help keep the body healthy and looking better. But we need to remember that we can’t run away from the reality that the material body is going to age no matter what we do. We get daily reminders of this every morning when we look in the mirror and see another wrinkle, line, or gray hair. The aging of the body is difficult for many people to accept and causes a great deal of anxiety.
Through the cultivation of yoga wisdom, however, we can come to understand that we are not our physical bodies. Rather, each of us is an individual, indestructible particle of life known as the atma or soul, residing within the body. We come to understand that we are spiritual in essence, and that our body is like a vehicle or clothing that we are only temporarily wearing.
As we make spiritual advancement, we come to know, “Although my body is getting older, I am not getting older. I am ever youthful. I am eternal. Only the body gets old and dies. I do not get old and I do not die.”
Furthermore, we come to realize our position and function in relation to the Supreme Soul—that we are His eternal loving servants, and that true happiness can be found when we are reestablished in our eternal loving relationship with Him. This is called yoga, or union, with the Supreme Soul.
So this is very important to understand. Yoga is for everyone, regardless of age or physical fitness. A tiny baby, or a person who is in a wheelchair or who is not very mobile can benefit from yoga. In fact, at the very end of our lives, yoga can help us depart this world successfully and peacefully. Anyone who can listen (even passively) to the various Yoga Sounds will benefit greatly on their path to lasting peace and happiness.
Why did you choose to teach yoga on a TV programme?
It was 1978 when I first began trying to give yoga to the people of China. I started by teaching yoga to a handful of university students and their friends in Beijing, and sometimes to people who sat with me on a train or on a ferry to Shanghai or some other cities.
I would also ride my bike to parks and other public places and practice yoga asanas and meditation. People would come up to me while I was singing Yoga Sound or doing yoga exercises inflatable water slide and ask, “What are you doing?!” No one knew about yoga back then, so everyone was very curious. People would ask me questions and express their interest in learning yoga. Everyone was very friendly. I essentially tried to give yoga to everyone I met!
But I could only talk to people one-on-one or in small groups. And I am only one small person, yet so many people were interested and were wanting to learn more. We felt that China really needed a comprehensive, holistic understanding of yoga, including yoga exercise, meditation, healthy yoga lifestyle, yoga wisdom, values, and so forth. To make it so that many people could learn at the same time, we decided that the best thing would be to go on TV, thereby giving the gift of yoga to all the people of China.
The first “Yoga” show aired in 1985, and it was an immediate hit throughout the country. It aired for 15 years without interruption—seven days a week, two to three times a day—making it the longest running television series in China’s history. The Chinese people immediately saw the beauty and benefits of yoga. It was like putting ducklings in water. Yoga came naturally to them.
Because the shows were so popular in China, I decided to dub them in English and offer them to public television stations in America and to other Western countries. I felt that yoga had never been presented in such an attractive way before and that this would appeal to an international audience, not just to Asia. Since then, our “Yoga” series has been broadcast daily to hundreds of millions of people around the world, on five continents—North and South America, Asia, Europe, Australia and the Middle East.
In the United States, our 30-minute television series “Wai Lana Yoga” began airing nationwide in 1998 and is still airing today after 18 years—making it the longest-running fitness series ever on public television.
Some teachers say you shouldn’t learn asanas on television or home videos; that you should learn with a live teacher.
Of course, in a perfect world you would have an endless number of first class yoga asana teachers and each of them would only have one student or maybe up to 15 students, but this is not the world we live in. The number of people who want to learn yoga asanas far exceeds the number of first class yoga asana teachers. So we need to do the best we can with the situation we’re in and not fantasize about some perfect world that doesn’t exist.
The important thing with learning yoga asanas from video or television is not only to listen carefully to the teacher, but also to listen carefully to your own body. As I teach in our shows, each person’s body is unique in age, condition, and so forth. So each person needs to listen to their own body very carefully when practicing asanas. You must not try to imitate or do the pose exactly like the teacher is doing it, otherwise you could end up hurting yourself.
What does meditation mean to you?
It is not a question of what meditation means to me. Meditation has an actual meaning. We cannot create meanings. We cannot just make up our own definition of what it means. Ultimately, meditation means to have one’s mind and heart focused one-pointedly upon the Supreme Soul, the Supreme Friend, Bhagavan. In other words, the meaning of yoga meditation means the loving union between the individual atma or spirit soul and the Supreme Soul.
So meditation really means to be resting your heart and mind in the bosom of God. Yoga Sound Meditation is the easiest method to achieve this condition of dhyana or meditation.
Can you give some advice to people who want to start a meditation practice?
The first thing is to give up any preconceived notions of what meditation is. Some people are resistant to practicing meditation because they think they don’t have time, or it will be too difficult. But yoga meditation is actually quite easy. It can be practiced by anyone, almost anywhere.
Secondly, don’t look for or expect immediate, “far-out” experiences. Yoga meditation is a gradual process. If practiced regularly, the many benefits will begin to manifest in your life over time.
Next is don’t try to get rid of thoughts, or even stop thoughts. Meditation doesn’t mean stopping your thoughts. The mind is always active; rather than attempting the nearly impossible feat of clearing your mind, the practice of Yoga Sound Meditation is focusing your attention on the transcendental yoga sound. In other words, you redirect your mind towards that which is spiritual.
And very importantly, a person should understand that meditation is the most natural and effortless thing one can do. There are no special requirements or qualifications. Anyone can do it. So what are you waiting for? Just as the sweetness of a juicy peach can only be enjoyed by tasting it, the sweet benefits of Yoga Sound Meditation can only be experienced by practicing it.
While a quiet, peaceful environment with minimal distractions is always desirable, it’s not required. You can practice Yoga Sound Meditation while you’re stuck in traffic or waiting in line at the grocery store.
For more specific information, people should come to our website, wailana.com/meditation.
You are one of the only two Chinese nationals to win India’s Padma Shri Award. Can you tell us more about the award and how you got it?
I felt genuinely honored to receive the highly respected Padma Award. But actually the honor belongs to my teacher, Jagad Guru Siddhaswarupananda, who inspires me to share the wonderful gift of yoga.
Receiving the Padma Award was very special to me because it is India’s expression of respect and love and it makes me want to give even more in return. But I’m a very tiny, insignificant person. I don’t have any power on my own. All I can do is try my best to continue to spread the wonderful gift of yoga around the world.
I was introduced to yoga at the age of 16 and, since my 20’s, I have found my deepest happiness in sharing yoga with anyone and everyone. Yoga emphasizes that each of us is part and parcel of the Whole and, as such, we can’t be happy just living for ourselves. So I feel very happy to have been able to help people all over the world live a better, happier, and healthier life.
As for how I got the Padma Award; what happened was as Prime Minister Modi began to reach out to China, he and his administration became aware that yoga has become very popular in China. In this way, they became aware of my role in giving the Chinese people yoga. That’s when they offered me the Padma Sri Award.
In your opinion, why is yoga so important for the times we’re living in?
Yoga is not only important for these times, but for all times. Yoga belongs to everyone. It is a time-tested, ancient practice, rooted in a very deep and profound wisdom. It applies to every aspect of our lives and each and every person can directly experience the physical, mental, and spiritual benefits that yoga offers.
On a practical level, one who practices yoga will experience increased inner peace and self-satisfaction. So naturally that individual will become happier. When that individual becomes happier, his family members will more likely be happier, especially if they practice yoga too. The more people in a community are practicing yoga, the more harmonious inflatable obstacle course that community will become because people who practice yoga are more self-satisfied by finding their happiness within. Because they are satisfied within, they are also less exploitative and don’t see other people or things as objects meant to fill their emptiness or give them what they feel they are lacking.
Some people get very caught up in trying to find philosophical or political solutions to the many problems facing our society, whether it is racism, terrorism, environment degradation, and so on. But really, there is no more effective solution to all of these problems than practicing and sharing yoga with others. The gift of yoga is a bottomless treasure that we, as a society, have barely tapped into.
What do you think of Yoga’s popularity in China?
Of course I am happy that yoga has become very popular in China. That has been our goal. However, unfortunately, yoga has become very commercialized, and this is quite disheartening. They also have some misunderstandings about what yoga really is. There are so many different so-called styles of yoga coming into China now that it’s become difficult for people to understand what authentic yoga is.
Often, when people think of yoga, they simply think of it as a type of calisthenics or physical exercise for beauty or weight loss. This is a very shallow understanding, and many people don’t realize that yoga is a complete way of life, aimed at developing greater inner peace and spiritual happiness. The actual goal of yoga is wisdom and spiritual love. But I am encouraged that there are a lot of people in China still holding on to this true meaning of yoga.
How do you incorporate yoga principles into your lifestyle and family? What challenges do you face?
Now that all my children have grown and have started families of their own, our extended family gets together very often to practice group yoga sound meditation (kirtan) together and to spend time with each other.
As far as challenges, when I was younger and first wanted to learn more about yoga, my parents protested saying “Why do you want to learn yoga? Yoga cannot bring you a good job.” At that time, nobody knew anything about yoga. Yoga was something very mysterious to people. But times have changed and yoga is so much more widely accepted today that even my mom does yoga meditation every day. She sometimes comes to visit and when she sees me and her grandkids and great-grandkids, she is very happy. We practice group yoga sound meditation (or kirtan) together as a family. She was so thrilled to participate along with 200 relatives and friends from her home town village in the filming of Namaste and help spread its wonderful message. You can see her in the wheel chair in the middle of the crowd. www.wailana.com/namaste
But I would say the biggest challenge that I face is a limitation of time. I have so many different projects that I want to carry out to spread yoga, but time is very limited. So that’s the biggest challenge—how I can do all the things that I want to do with the limited amount of time that I have.
What is the message you’d like to deliver in the songs that you have composed, like Namaste?
Yoga teaches us that we are all part of one big family. We are all children of the Supreme Soul, united to each other, despite our different nationalities, races, and religions. So through Namaste, I wanted to show
that the values of yoga can expand our consciousness to include love and acceptance for everyone.
I produced my most recent release, Alive Forever, www.wailana.com/AF to help people become more aware of the very valuable and fundamental teaching of yoga—Aham Brahmasmi—that I am an eternal spiritual being, not my body, and I will not die when my body dies.
My goal was to weave this ancient yoga teaching into a message for modern society by making a song that everyone can relate to. This profound knowledge is not just for a handful of intellectuals, scholars, philosophers, or great yogis. It applies to every single person’s practical, day-to-day life.
What is your regular day like?
People frequently ask me how often I practice yoga or whether I practice yoga every day. The simple answer is: my whole life is yoga. I try to live my life guided by yoga wisdom and motivated by spiritual love. I see my life as one of service, specifically serving others by giving them the gift of yoga.
Within this overall context of my life, every day I usually spend 45 minutes doing yoga asanas, yoga breathing, and some meridian work if I feel the need—utilizing a few of the important bandhas and mudras.
I always cook and eat according to yoga principles. Most important, and most central to my life, is the daily practice of Yoga Sound Meditation, both in the form of japa meditation and Yoga Singing and Dancing.
Aside from that, I spend a lot of time in the recording studio, and I like to get out into the water and swim and boogie board or spend time with my kids and grandkids.
Any upcoming projects you are working on?
Right now, I’m working on several songs for my upcoming album Alive Forever. One of my most favorite songs is called “O, My Sweet Lord.” It’s almost like a personal prayer. Its lyrics are very intimate, and I hope it will inspire others to cultivate their own personal, loving relationship with our Sweet Lord.
I am also working on an app to help people learn the various methods of Yoga Sound Meditation in a practical and systematic way. And I’m in the process of producing a comprehensive book on yoga wisdom, co-authored with my spiritual master, Jagad Guru Siddhaswarupananda.
To read the full article please download our Asana Journal App or purchase Issue 164 August 2016.