“It’s Okay To Not Be Okay”
Ryan Ong on creativity, yoga, and acknowledging uncomfortable emotions.
Unlike his Instagram handle ‘the.inflexible.yogi’, Ryan Ong is anything but inflexible. Not only does the graphic designer and illustrator explore unchartered terrain with his imagination, but he also uses it to shed light on topical issues by giving it his humorous spin.
During the Circuit Breaker period, the 36-year-old yoga teacher set himself the task of creating one new illustration per day, a process which challenged him creatively while forcing him to confront the ebb and flow of emotions he – and by extension, many of us – was facing.
Below, he talks us through his creative process, yoga journey, and struggles with anxiety and depression.
I created 56 illustrations and uploaded them to my Instagram account during the Circuit Breaker period. Some of the images helped to send certain messages, such as the benefits of wearing a mask, while others were intended to help those who were feeling down. I might not have a wide reach, but I hope that my illustrations gave viewers something to feel good about.
The images I liked the most from the series were those that had a photo behind an illustration, partly because it brought something real to something imaginary. In a time where everyone was stuck at home, it allowed me to feel like I could still get things going even when I couldn’t go out.
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A few of these posts were created in collaboration with a company I used to work with. I was teaching them yoga online during this period and the series would reflect my point of view as a teacher and their point of view as students. As this was a corporate setting, people could choose to turn off their camera. There were a few sessions where everyone turned it off [laughs]. At times, I felt like I was just talking to myself. Because there was no feedback, I couldn’t tell if I was going too slowly or quickly.
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To be honest, there were days where I didn’t feel good. I made an effort to put out illustrations every single day but sometimes woke up feeling really uninspired. So there were a few occasions where I told everyone through my illustrations that I woke up and felt like my mind was blank. That was my way of telling people ‘hey if this is you too, just let it be and perhaps tomorrow will be better’. There will be days where it is just impossible to be positive and I think that’s just a part of being human.
It’s okay to acknowledge that you are not okay. You’re not alone. We live in a world where we often feel like we need to feel a certain way – and if we don’t, we’re failing. However, it is more important to acknowledge what you are feeling than to throw that aside and force yourself into thinking that you’re okay when you’re not. It’s okay to not be okay.
Two illustrators who inspire me are Jon Burgerman and Jean Jullien. Jon is more of a professional doodler and his work has been a source of inspiration since I was in school. Jean creates more conceptualised illustrations and he would use them to address certain issues. I like how their work helps to make people think and laugh at the same time.
I prefer not to teach very fancy sequences in a yoga class. I prefer to teach a sequence that focuses on the fundamentals and builds students up. If I can throw in creativity along the way, I will, but compared to design work, there’s a lot more structure involved in the way yoga is taught.
When I first started teaching, I felt self-conscious about poses I couldn’t do. Like a lot of guys, I wasn’t very flexible. Anytime I had to go into a wide-legged seated forward fold, I would feel a little bit sheepish. I’ll look at the students and see some of them practically in a full split while I was barely managing a 90-degree split. For some time, I avoided doing poses I thought I couldn’t do very well. Along the way, I realised that people don’t go to your class to look at you do poses. My ability to tackle poses, even if I can’t manage them as well, is probably a way of showing people that everyone’s body is different and we just do what we can. We can always find a variation that suits us.
What struck me about training under Jason Crandall was that he would talk about how there were certain things he couldn’t do with his body and that was okay. During the course, I saw teachers doing Downward Dog with knees bent. Some others couldn’t do handstands and took their own variations. I came to accept that it was more important to work with what I had than to force myself into a mould.
More people are getting injured from yoga in recent years. One reason is that many are pushing themselves to the end of their range without good support or sound knowledge of how their body works. Yoga is a really good practice but safety is very important. Once something in your body is compromised, it can affect you forever.
Years into practising yoga, certain things that didn’t resonate with me a few years back are starting to resonate now. In the beginning, I looked at yoga as a sport. I played tennis and enjoyed that adrenaline rush. I wanted to move, perspire, and feel that in a class. Over the past two years, I got to learn more about quieter practices such as restorative yoga and certain aspects of meditation. Modern life is so fast-paced that it is sometimes difficult for us to even settle down in savasana. Practices that are slower allow you to take the time to look inward. It may be difficult at the start as your body might resist it, but if you give yourself some time to ease in, you’ll find that it has a big impact on mental well-being.
I’m thankful I started yoga. Without it, I may not have realised that something was wrong. I was diagnosed with Mixed Anxiety-Depressive Disorder in 2017. There was a period of time I was very anxious about being kept in a space – like a train, cinema, or even a yoga class – I knew I couldn’t get out of. It got to a point where I would have to exit the station two to three times while taking the MRT. This period was very draining both emotionally and physically.
Yoga helped me to examine myself more closely. The breathing techniques also helped me to calm myself down. After I was diagnosed and went for medical treatment, I was also more open to accepting quieter practices such as guided meditation or restorative yoga. You could say that these practices have helped me to deal with what I was going through a little better.
In January this year, I trained under Jillian Pransky. Her teachings are restorative-based and opened my mind to how much we’re holding on within ourselves that need to be released. It’s very powerful. During our training, students who had not felt that sense of calmness or release in such a long time would just break down and cry. A few years ago, if you asked me to go for a class like this or hold a pose for 20 minutes, I wouldn’t have wanted to do it. But in these times we live in, it is almost a luxury to take one hour off and do almost nothing to restore what your body may be feeling.
Jivana Heyman introduced me to the idea of Accessible Yoga. He founded the practice which essentially teaches us how to teach people who may not have the typical body structure or ability to do yoga. We perhaps overlook this community who can benefit from a yoga practice and I hope to see more of it in Singapore.
Living in a fast-paced society like Singapore’s, Ryan is grateful for the teachings that yoga has gifted him – from the physical benefits of the practice; rediscovering himself; dealing with stress and anxiety; to the art of living. His wish is for yoga practitioners to have a safe space where they can be with themselves as they breathe, move and restore. Ryan has trained directly and extensively with some of the most inspiring international teachers, including Jason Crandell, Jillian Pransky, and Jivana Heyman, and continues to receive advanced training under their tutelage. His teaching is ever-evolving as he strives to provide a safe, mindful and accessible practice.