When I need to unwind during my work day, I rake sand in my Zen rock garden while listening to New Age music. It’s a bit of a compromise. As a psychiatrist newly assigned to Hong Kong with the US Foreign Service, my first days here were a jarring immersion into a city of sweaty industriousness and tiny spaces, and little in the way of the casual small talk I was accustomed to. I needed a stress-relieving outlet, which is something I’m always suggesting in my clinic.
I love yoga, so on my to-do list was to find a class. The first obstacle was financial. “It’s an investment in your health,” I say to patients who tell me a beneficial routine is too expensive or too time-consuming. So, in the name of wellness, I joined a studio near my office in Central.
I looked forward to a leisurely walk to my first class during my lunch hour. But I hadn’t factored in choking pedestrian traffic. I tunnelled my way through texting businessmen, construction workers and sunbrella’d shoppers. When I finally arrived, drenched but excited, I whipped out my shiny new membership card.
“I’ll let you in this time,” the girl at the front desk said flatly. “In the future, your space will be forfeited at ten minutes to the hour.” Duly noted.
The locker room presented different challenges. The women were so thin! Fortunately, they were staring not at my love handles, but at their phones.
Off they hurried to class in gorgeous neon spandex with flattering cutouts. I wore a cotton tank top and basketball shorts. I was transported back to eighth grade: The new kid wearing cut-rate, unstylish jeans.
Forty warm bodies filled the stuffy studio. “My name is Dimple,” said the sparrowesque instructor, introducing herself. “Namaste.”
“We’ll start with side crow,” Dimple announced after a quick warm-up. Despite no visible muscle, she lifted both legs at an angle parallel to the floor, wrapping them around one shoulder. She looked like a triumphant, elegant bird. I was barely able to lift a toe in the pose.
“Now lie on your back and extend one leg at a right angle,” she instructed. I dangled a foot over the man on my right. I was so close to him I could see his ear hair. The woman to my left made carnal-sounding exhalations. Her glossy red toenails hovered precariously over my crotch.
At last, Dimple led us through the closing “Om”. The students popped up and filed out. I rushed too, to avoid the cleaning ladies that stood at the door, mops and buckets of bleach ready to go.
I returned to my office in shellshock. Maybe I’m lacking what it takes to find serenity here, I thought. This feeling didn’t subside as time passed. So, in the name of mental wellness, I’ve foregone the HK$1,300-a-month relaxation fee, and I feel much better. I also have new empathy for patients who tell me the effort of relaxing can just be too stressful.
A rock garden and music will do just fine for now.
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This article first appeared in the June/July 2018 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.