“Eternal joy is theirs who see the Self in their own hearts. Eternal peace is theirs who see the Self in their own hearts” (Katha Upanishad II.2.12-13). Reading this sentence from the Upanishad, the face of yoga master Tan Runhua (譚潤華) comes to mind. My understanding of yoga was strongly influenced by Mr. Tan, my first yoga teacher.
I met Mr. Tan at my first yoga class in November 1996. Quietly sitting on a chair was a small, healthy-looking man, around 70 years of age. He acknowledged me with a smile and invited me to join the others for the meditation. After the sitting, Mr. Tan demonstrated the Neck exercise and told us it would help us relax and prepare for further practice. I was interested to know that, even at his old age, he was still demonstrating challenging poses, such as the Plough and Shoulder Stand, at ease. We finished the class with relaxation. I left the class in a spirited and light mood and have been hooked on yoga ever since.
I attended Mr. Tan’s class twice a week. The meditation practice was difficult without any movement for half an hour. First, the cluttered thoughts would make me question if I was “good” at meditation; second, the knees and back would complain. I wanted to stand up and stretch. I looked at Mr. Tan. He was sitting in stillness, eyes open, gently looking at us. Seeing that I was restless, he didn’t say anything, just encouraged me with a smile. I felt reassured by the warmth and brought my attention to the music that was playing. Every time I was thinking of giving up meditation, Mr. Tan’s silent glance would keep me going. I believed that was his spiritual power.
My favourite part of the class was relaxing in Corpse pose. Listening to the soothing yoga music or body scan guidance, I had no trouble falling asleep. Even though the relaxation took only 10-15 minutes, it felt like a whole night’s sleep. When I asked Mr. Tan why the relaxation was so powerful, he simply told me that I needed it. He wouldn’t talk too much about theory, but he was able to lead me to experience the tranquillity of the heart. And I assumed only a peaceful person could bring serenity to others.
Although he wasn’t talkative, Mr. Tan’s understanding of life had attracted many people, and he enjoyed very lively pursuits. For instance, Mr. Tan liked to travel. Together with young adults, his age was never a hindrance to our outings. We would climb the mountain, go to the beach, and practice yoga in nature. Because his vitality was no less than ours, one of the students called him “Little Tan”. Looking at the old photos, I will always remember Mr. Tan for his calm, yet lively demeanor.
Just a few weeks before he passed away in 2006, I visited Mr. Tan in the hospital. Now that he was 93, he knew it was time to say goodbye. He comforted us by saying that everyone dies; it was just a natural phenomenon. I was so impressed by his undisturbed attitude that I even didn’t feel sad about his passing. For a person who was empowered with wisdom, nothing could take that peace away.
Meditation, posture practice, and relaxation—these are the foundations that Mr. Tan laid for my yoga practice, and his peaceful attitude towards death inspired me to look into yoga’s philosophy, which has profound information and discussion about spirituality. What Mr. Tan had said might be forgotten, but his peace won’t fade in my memory.
Quotation of the Katha Upanishad from The Upanishads, introduced and translated by Eknath Easwaran (Berkeley, CA: Nilgiri Press, 2008).
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