Laifong Ng’s new yoga studio in downtown Anacortes is about the size of the home she and her family shared back in China, the size of a one-car garage. In fact, her studio used to be a one-car garage.
Laifong was born in 1982 in Taishan, China, on the coast of southern Guangdong province in the Pearl River Delta. At the time she was born Taishan was a village. She has two younger sisters, who are twins, and a younger brother, all of whom were also born in Taishan.
“Laifong” means “beauty” in Taishanese, the Cantonese dialect Laifong and her family speak, and “Ng” is the number 5 in that dialect. It is pronounced “Mm” with a very subtle gerund at the end.
Their father, Foon Nam Ng, was a cook who eventually got a secure government job cooking at a factory. Their mother, Yi Ng, stayed home and raised the children, but she also worked in the rice fields.
Laifong’s brother had to remind her of the name of the village in which they were born. “Its name is not important to me,” she says. “I can paint pictures, but I can’t remember names.”
The picture she paints of her birthplace is of a small world, comparing it to Anacortes “from R to M and from 3rd to 12th.” Her parents also grew up in Taishan. She says rural Chinese people are destined to stay in their birthplace unless an especially fortuitous opportunity arises. “Life is fixed there,” she says. “You’re stuck there living off the land.”
Beyond her small world were glistening rice paddies and hills behind them. “Actually, the hills were burial mounds,” she says. “We used to go to the hills and pray to our ancestors.” Laifong’s family is Buddhist, though she no longer practices the religion herself.
In their home, Laifong’s parents slept in one bed and all the children in another. Electricity was available to them between 6:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Each child had only a few clothes, including their school uniforms. They each had one pair of shoes that they wore to school; otherwise they went barefoot. Their parents paid for their schooling with bags of rice.
In 1990, a fortuitous opportunity presented itself to the Ngs: A relative needed help running a restaurant in this area, so the family moved to Anacortes, via Hong Kong. Laifong was not quite 8 years old.
Although Laifong's family stayed with a friend, “Hong Kong was like a different planet,” she says. She had never seen or even imagined a huge city before. During the short time the family was there, she had an experience that she believes molded her character.
Playing in the elevator of the friend's apartment building, she panicked when the doors closed automatically. “I didn’t understand the concept of ‘up,’” she says. The elevator rose, and finally the doors opened on a higher floor. She walked down the stairs, checking out each floor. “All the floors looked the same,” she says. At last she came to a floor where she heard her parents’ familiar voices.
“Now I love the excitement of not knowing,” she says. “I think I got my sense of adventure from that experience. I travel all over the world with my ‘Lonely Planet’ and just go,” with no itinerary. Her goal is to visit all the world’s continents except Antarctica. “I only have Australia left,” she says. Recently she traveled to Thailand, where a dentist extracted all 4 of her wisdom teeth for $150.
When she travels she is drawn to street food. She raves about the squid on a stick in Thailand, the tagine in Morocco, the sweet chicken in Peru. She exercises some caution, though. “If there’s no line,” she says, “I don’t go.”
Once the family arrived in Anacortes, her parents went to work for their relative, and Laifong and her siblings went through the Anacortes school system. Laifong graduated from high school here in 2002. Before heading off to college, she took flow yoga classes at Thrive. “It fit me well,” she says, “but I got bored because the routines were always the same.”
She attended Johnson and Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, where she earned a degree in business management with a concentration in human resources and leadership. While there she bought a yoga DVD and occasionally followed its instructions for basic yoga poses, or “asanas,” to reduce stress. “It helped a lot,” she says, “but when I practiced yoga my roommate always looked at me like I was kind of weird.”
One Thanksgiving a cousin and she drove to New York City for the holiday weekend and were in a car accident. “We weren’t injured – there was no blood – but my neck and back hurt a lot,” says Laifong. “I went to a chiropractor, but the treatments never lasted. My neck and back always gravitated back to painful positions.” Then she met a yoga practitioner and attended a retreat with her. “I felt I found a tool that could really help me,” she says.
While she was away at college, her family started their own restaurant in Anacortes, Lucky Chopsticks.
After Laifong graduated from college in 2006, she went to Florida with her friend Amanda and lived with Amanda’s family. She was going to sell real estate, but she could foresee that the economic bubble was going to burst, so she got a waitressing job instead. “I had to carry huge, heavy trays,” she says, “and my back pain returned. It was so bad I cried myself to sleep every night.”
Then she took yoga again, and her back pain disappeared in two weeks. “I was doing Crane Pose – Bakasana,” she remembers, “and I felt a lightness.” (In Crane Pose, one balances on one’s hands with the knees resting on the elbows.) “I didn’t know where I was being taken. The teacher didn’t telegraph it. I just did it. I thought, ‘This is the shit!’” Not telegraphing what comes next is a teaching strategy she now uses herself.
But Florida was not the place for her. “It was kind of a playground,” she says. “I lived there less than a year.” She and another friend drove cross-country and Laifong began to work at Lucky Chopsticks to pay off her student loans.
She also felt the tug of family obligation. Her parents, who still do not speak much English, needed her. “It’s a balancing act between east and west,” she says. “I’ve adapted to western ways with my friends, but I respect my parents in the eastern way. They brought China into our house” (she lives with her parents). “Sometimes it’s frustrating. I feel like a chameleon.”
She still works at Lucky Chopsticks, buying supplies at Cash & Carry in Bellingham, managing the restaurant and waitressing. “I love waitressing,” she says. “I love the multitasking, and it’s almost athletic sometimes, carrying the trays.” It’s a balancing act, literally and figuratively, and she incorporates yoga into her job. She also likes that when she is finished for the night she can go home and forget it.
With minimal required training, Laifong earned her teaching certificate on several levels as a YogaFit instructor and taught in Oak Harbor for 2 years, 10 to 15 classes per week. “It was too much,” says Laifong. “My life was not in balance. I wanted to be a student as much as a teacher. I thought, ‘I know nothing. I want more.’”
In the summer of 2011 she went to Bali and earned her teaching certificate for both Hatha and Vinyasa yoga, which took 200 hours. Hatha is almost a generic term for yoga, a gentle introduction to basic yoga postures. Vinyasa is the Sanskrit word for “flow,” but unlike Laifong’s earlier flow class, no two Vinyasa classes are alike.
Now she focuses her practice on Iyengar yoga, a meticulous style of yoga with utmost attention paid to finding the proper alignment in a pose, with an array of props to help students achieve that. Laifong describes it as the Harvard or Yale of yoga. She studies Iyengar at Yoga Northwest in the Fairhaven district of Bellingham and follows workshops around the country (she’ll attend one soon in San Francisco). It takes years to become certified in Iyengar. She is not yet certified so she is only able to say that Iyengar influences her teaching.
“It’s important to keep studying yoga when you teach it,” says Laifong, “because when you study it’s for yourself, but when you teach it’s so you can remember what you have learned. When I teach it back out that’s when I know I learned it.”
She has taught regularly at Bayside Fitness for a couple of years and occasionally at Studio 1010 and the Anacortes Center for Happiness. Now she has fulfilled a dream and opened her own studio.
Her uncle helped her cover the concrete floor with a wooden one, but otherwise she renovated it herself. The garage door that faces the alley is permanently closed, and the remaining walls are painted 2 shades of green, a soft and serene sage green and a brighter lime green. A lone “ohm” symbol decorates one wall, and prayer flags from Nepal drape in scallops on another. A variety of props sit on shelves or on the perimeter of the room, including bolsters, blankets, chairs, straps, blocks and eye bags.
“You have to know who you are to teach,” she says. This is something many human beings struggle with, but all of us carry a light within us. Laifong ends every class with the blessing, “The light in me honors the light in you.”
Teru writes occasionally for Anacortes Now. She is a personal historian. Learn more ather Web site.