12/20/2013 03:35 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2014

Everything I Know About Travel I Learned at a Yoga Class in Bangkok

You're looking at a grudging and occasional yoga practitioner at best. I know I should do it, but rarely enjoy it. But when I learned the resident yogi at the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok could lead a session aimed at easing jet lag, I signed on post-haste. Previous trips to Southeast Asia have found me wide awake all night and a zombie all day, profoundly exhausted when I just can't switch my internal clock 12 hours.


Skeptical, but ready to try anything, I dragged my husband to the private class, held in the gorgeous, golden teakwood temple housing the spa across the Chao Phraya River from the hotel's main grounds. Clad in all white, the gently smiling yogi led us to a small room where mats, water and cool scented washcloths awaited. So far, so good. I tried to ignore my decidedly non-compliant husband's comical attempts at sun salutation, and instead focused on what the yogi had to tell us. And by the end of the session, while I can't say I found long-lasting jet lag relief, I may have found something better: I garnered some pearls of wisdom that I tried to apply to the rest of our trip.


Keep smiling.

Our yogi had a peculiarly, sing-songy voice she shared her pearls with, accompanied by a perpetually smiling face. Not a big, wacky grin -- think the sort of secretly satisfied smile you might see on a Cheshire cat. She wanted us to smile too. Even -- or especially -- through the poses we found more difficult, she encouraged us to flash our own whites. In her Eastern way, she was telling us to: "fake it till we make it." It felt unnatural to smile at points, but that's ok, she advised. Do it anyway.

I find it hard to smile while I'm traveling sometimes, too. Long lines at borders, confusing procedures, the complete lack of a toilet anywhere nearby when I most urgently need it are definitely more cause for furrowed brow than a mysterious little smile. I can't say I managed to turn up my lips every time I needed to, but I was at least conscious of the the need to smile, and that's a start. And I found that almost every smile I aimed at someone else was returned in spades.

The address in the guidebook gets so many sick travelers showing up at their door they hand out taxi vouchers to get you to the right place

If that fails: Keep breathing.

When you're upset or frightened, what happens to your breathing? We know, of course, that it speeds up, and becomes more shallow. "If your thinking can affect your breathing, why can't your breathing affect your thinking?" she asked, nearly leading me to drop my pose I was so struck by this obvious conclusion.

And when I found myself in particularly difficult points on the trip -- notably wandering sick and miserable through Saigon looking for the health clinic that the guidebook gave the wrong address for -- I forced myself to remember that. It seems such a simple thing to just stop and think about your breathing, and for a non-yoga person such as myself, an inconsequential thing. But when it's all you have control over, it's amazing how much that one act can help you get a handle on yourself. Once I breathed with purpose, I managed to stop the tears and (finally) present myself at the clinic with some semblance of control over myself.

It's tempting to try to freeze your emotions in a place like this

Don't resist the pain.

Some of the poses we tried were distinctly uncomfortable. But our yogi encouraged us to stick with it. "Don't resist the pain," she said. Clearly it's an important part of the experience, and we wouldn't reap the same beneficial effect were the process pain-free.

Later, when visiting the horrific S-21 prison in Siem Reap, I pushed away that thought, and didn't allow myself to let the full horror of the place sink in. I couldn't -- I wouldn't be able to handle it. I'd process it later, I told myself. Then I encountered an elderly man at the conclusion of the walk through. He was one of seven survivors of the unspeakable torture inflicted on some 20,000 prisoners before they were murdered. I had no choice, looking into his watering eyes, but to feel the pain. Hot tears flooded my own eyes, and his companion kindly handed me a tissue. The man, unimaginably strong to stand at his little table in the shade every day, selling books on the very grounds of his former prison, put his hands on my arm and my husband's. I didn't want to look at him, didn't want to see in his eyes what the worst of humanity can leave behind. But to travel all this way and not respect his courage, not truly allow myself to feel this experience? I may as well have stayed home. So I held his eyes and let the tears flow, and when he asked us to move on because he didn't want me to be upset any more, I thanked him, and didn't try to quell the pain.


Forget how old you are.

Fluttering our folded legs like butterflies our yogi encouraged us to go faster and faster; to bounce them with childlike abandon. "Forget your age!" she said, smiling, and for a few silly moments, I forgot my looming 40th birthday and fluttered my legs as fast as they'd go.

How much does your age even matter when you travel? In playing guessing games with locals about age (it's so much less taboo to discuss over here!) they never get mine right, always far under-guessing. So why act like I'm the age the calendar says if I feel nowhere near that old, and nobody here thinks I am either?

After visiting a school outside Siem Reap, our playful guide and driver hopped on the teeter-totter when the kids went back in after recess. I jumped up on the monkey bars. "How many chin-ups do you think she can do?" my husband asked, launching a contest to see who could do the most. Silly? Yes. More memorable than the fifth temple I saw that day? Absolutely. Part of the joy of travel is discovery; and you can discover the most when you open yourself up, childlike, to a world of new ideas. What does the year I was born have to do with, well, anything?

Letting go of ideas about how a 39-year-old should feel or think or act led to a far better trip that I'd have had otherwise. And come to think of it, this -- along with the other flashes of wisdom I took from the yogi -- apply just as much now that I'm back home.