Inhalar y exhalar: Spanish Sivananda

I was Madrid recently for a few days and I’d thought that if I had time, it would be great to visit the Sivananda Centre there.

And so, on a wet and windy Spanish afternoon, I emerged from the Metro into the suburbs, avoiding the splashes as cars whizzed past through puddles. Struggling to hold my printed map, bag and umbrella I walked down a side street and found a familiar orange sign saying ‘Sivananda Yoga’ outside a residential block.

I was buzzed in, left my shoes on the shoe rack and I instantly relaxed. I was greeted by a lady in her 60’s wearing white baggy trousers, a trusty yellow t-shirt and a smart black blazer. And she started babbling away in Spanish. “Habla Ingles?” I replied in my best GCSE Spanish. “Si, si un poco, you are here for the class?”

I went into the class and she was teaching. She pointed to a space next to her and we sat to chant the Dhyana Slokas. A couple of people joined in including myself and through my closed eyes, I sensed someone looking at me. I peeked and she was looking straight at me.

It’s funny, if it was me teaching, having someone turn up at the last minute, with only a schoolgirl’s grasp of the language, I may have had tiny pangs of panic: How will she understand what to do in the class? Has she even done yoga before? I have 11 other people to pay attention to!

But, as I joined in with the om shantis, I hope I reassured her that it was all going to be ok. The class covered the breathing exercises, the sun salutations and the 12 basic postures and it was great. There were a few subtle differences but it all made sense and it was fortunate that I know my Spanish left from my right.

After the class, I wandered round the reception area/shop taking in the familiar books (in Spanish), postcards, pictures of Swami Sivananda and Swami Vishnudevananda and even a graduation photo from the last London teacher training course. The Centre was more modest than the London one but just as welcoming.

As I was sitting on the Metro going back to my hotel, I thought about how lucky I was to be able to rock up to a yoga class in a foreign country and feel totally at home. There most definitely is an international Sivananda family and I feel very blessed to be part of it.

Om shanti.

How to freak yourself out about yoga: a step by step guide

This is from the perspective of my Dad, an almost 60 year old, physically fit bloke.

1. Dad says to me, “I think I ought to give this yoga a go but I don’t want any of that chanting stuff, I want to feel like I’m getting a work-out.”

2. I say to Dad, “Why don’t you go to some beginners Ashtanga classes? They should get your heart going.”

3. Dad phones me a few days later: “I’ve just been learning about Ashtanga yoga. What are you trying to do? Kill your old Dad?”

4. I asked further questions and found out that he had Googled ‘Ashtanga yoga’ and the first result was this film:
5. After marvelling at Steven Green’s amazing practice and gawping at beautiful Indian scenery, I suggested that Dad Googled clips of beginners doing Ashtanga.

6. Dad is looking into local classes that he could attend. To be continued…

Morale of the story:

  • Don’t try and run (or do a headstand) before you can walk (or lie in savasana)
  • And Google can be dangerous!

Being able to touch your toes doesn’t make you a happier person.

I have shamelessly nabbed the above title from Nadia Narain – a great London teacher whose classes first got me interested in yoga a few years ago. And it’s true. You look around the room in a class and you see some students desperately trying to go deeper into poses. They’re looking round the room at their fellow students, seeing that perhaps one of them is able to get their chest down onto their thighs in a seated forward bend, and our old friend the ego rears its ugly head and says, “I can do that!”

seated forward bend
Now ain’t she just the happiest lady you ever saw?
(Image from thegreatestwallpapers.blogspot.

They strain, shoulders inching up around their ears, their fingertips turning white as they grip for dear life on their big toes, their knees buckling and their backs hunched as their noses teeter so very close to their kness. But are they breathing? I bet your bottom dollar that any thoughts of deep, lovely, full yogic breath have disappeared from their totally sattvic uncompetitive thoughts.

That person who is able to almost effortlessly hinge into a beautiful forward bend may be a professional dancer. Or someone who at least doesn’t spend eight hours a day tapping away at a computer. But as Nadia says, just because they can do that, it doesn’t make them happier. They’re likely to find certain asanas or postures challenging as no-one can be good at everything. Maybe they’ve got other things going on in their life that they’re finding seriously hard.

Yoga is about being true to yourself, listening and working with your body – not against it. Indeed, you often find that you can go deeper into a posture by taking more time and using your breath to release.

We need to be grateful for what we’re able to do and with our lot in life. It’s so easy to get caught up with comparing yourself to others and wanting “what they’ve got”. In the new year I decided to start a gratitude diary. Next to my bed I have a little notebook and in it I write five things for which I am grateful on that particular day. It’s a great practice to help cultivate positive thoughts and I recommend everyone to do it. You can be thankful for the big things but also it’s worth remembering the everyday ordinary things too.

And now back to my mat… if… only… I could just get my body to look a little more pretzel-like and wrap… my… ankles… round my neck…

Yoga vs. Yoda

Rob Osborne's Yoga Galaxy. Available at

I was delighted to see Yoga Dork publicising Rob Osborne’s posters of characters from Star Wars doing yoga asanas. They are unbelievably cool and I think that every yogi – or indeed Star Wars fan – should have one.

This fusion is very exciting and the similarities between George Lucas’ cult films and the ancient Indian practice are endless.

 “Use the Force Luke.”
In yoga, the breath is our life force or ‘prana’. By breathing deeply we re-energise our bodies and increase the level of prana. Like the Force, you can’t see prana but you know it’s there – it’s everywhere. It’s your aura or presence and people who you may naturally gravitate towards – like celebrities or world leaders – have high levels of prana. 

Also, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali talk about people having ‘siddhis’ or supernatural powers resulting from practising yoga. I reckon Luke definitely had a few siddhis tucked up his sleeve.

Yoda: the pint-size prophet
And you would be a fool to think that the word ‘yoga’ is only one letter away from ‘Yoda’ by mere coincidence! He came out with some yogic gems. Take this one for example:

“Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. Attachment leads to jealously. The shadow of greed, that is.”

In yoga, we talk about detachment. Swami Sivananda liked a chant that went along the lines of “I am not this body, I am not this mind, I am not these senses… I am that I am”  meaning that you’re really just the ‘atman’ or soul. Your physical body gets left behind when you die so what’s the point in being so attached to it? It’s your soul that lives on.

There’s also the idea that we are all students. You might teach yoga, but you’ll always remain a student. Yoda echoes this sentiment:

“But when the day comes that even old Yoda does not learn something from his students, then truly, he shall be a teacher no more.”

Oogway picture
Grand Master Oogway from Kung Fu Panda

Animated classics
When you think about Disney films such as Dumbo and Beauty and the Beast, they’re all about looking within, connecting with the inner being and not getting caught up with superficial things like appearance. And that brings us onto one of my favourites, Kung Fu Panda. The turtle Master Oogway is rather Yoda-esque in appearance and has some great lines:

“The mind is like dishwater, my friend.  When it is agitated, it becomes difficult to see.  But if you allow it to settle, the answer becomes clear.”

Sogyal Rinpoche
Sogyal Rinpoche. Image from

In yoga we talk about the mind being like a lake and being able to see to the bottom when it’s undisturbed. Also, the Tibetan Lama and author of the ‘Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’, Sogyal Rinpoche, says similar in his teachings. Between you and me, I think Yoda could have been based on him…

So I think there’s lots that can be learnt from popular culture – not all of it, just some select bits – and likewise the thinking behind yoga has relevance to all of our lives. And Mr Vader could definitely benefit from doing some pranayama. Might calm his breathing down a bit.

Karma without the chameleon

It seems that quite a few of my blog posts stem from conversations with non-yogi friends but I found myself having another one the other day…

Pic of Culture Club
The boys of Culture Club

So there I was having a chat with a friend and we were talking about if it’s possible to make a living from teaching yoga (there’s a whole other blog post there…). I was teaching a class later that day at the Sivananda Centre in Putney and he asked how much I got paid for it. “Oh no, I don’t get paid for teaching there,” I replied. He couldn’t believe it: how was I ever going to be able to live off yoga if I taught for free, I was providing a service so I should be paid… you get the picture. I said, “I do it as selfless service – it’s karma yoga.” Now that opened a whole big can of worms. 

But what is karma yoga? I’d describe it as doing someone else’s ironing for them, knowing full well that you’ve got a stack of your own that’s been sitting at home for weeks untouched, but you’re doing theirs just because you want to do it. There’s no expectation of a reward whatsoever.

Swami Sivananda says of karma yoga,

Man generally plans to get the fruits of his works before he starts any kind of work. The mind is so framed that it cannot think of any kind of work without remuneration or reward. A selfish man cannot do any service. He will weigh the work and the money in a balance. Selfless Service is unknown to him.”

So it’s your attitude towards the work that counts. It’s also a central theme to the Bhagavad Gita, where Prince Arjuna looks to Krishna for advice on the battlefield. Arjuna doesn’t want to fight but Krishna says that it’s his duty and that he shouldn’t be so focused on the results:

“With the body, with the mind, with the intellect, even merely with the senses, the Yogis perform action toward self-purification, having abandoned attachment. He who is disciplined in Yoga, having abandoned the fruit of action, attains steady peace…”
Bhagavad Gita V.5.11.

You’re doing something not necessarily because you want to do it, or because it’s fun to do. Prince Arjuna didn’t want to fight members of his family, but you’re doing it in order to serve humanity, a god, or just for the greater good. It can be likened to helping in a soup kitchen on your day off work, or volunteering with the eldery. It’s just doing your bit in order to serve whoever you feel comfortable serving – God, your local community or whoever.

What I can say is that I feel a sense of wellbeing and happiness giving something back, and while that feeling lasts, I’ll continue to clean loos, iron and teach for free.

Why do we love yoga?

I heart yoga badgeI went to a class last night and as I was walking home, I was thinking about how important yoga is to me. Here are five reasons why I love yoga:

1) The sense of relaxation is amazing. Any niggly things that were bothering me before a class just don’t matter quite so much after a nice long savasana. And I know I’m going to sleep very well too.

2) Yoga helps you to become a more positive person. Meditation has made me much more aware of my thoughts and I can see trends in my thinking. If I feel like I’m going round the houses, regurgitating the same thoughts all day, I have more awareness to try and put an end to it.

3) Having grown up not being at all gymnastically or athletically inclined, I am proud to say that I can now stand on my head and sit in lotus.

4) Through going to the Sivananda Centre in London and attending satsangs, I feel like I’m part of a community of like-minded people. I know I’ll always see a familiar face there and I always feel welcome.

5) Yoga opens doors. I’ve had fab trips to India, Europe and been on various retreats across the UK. I’ve enjoyed every single one and met some great people along the way.

And now over to you. What is it about yoga that you love?


Can the Kiwis’ Hakka be likened to Sanskrit chanting?

There is a perception out there that yoga is a bit flaky, only practiced by women and a bit ‘spiritual’ – whatever that might mean to people. I remember going to a friend’s party a while ago and being asked by this alpha male city boy, “so do you do any sport?” When I answered by saying that I didn’t really do any sport but I did exercise by practicing yoga, he soon wandered off to get himself another drink.

And so it was with great pleasure that I taught this very chap his first ever yoga class on Monday night. And how he groaned. “You expect us to be able to do THAT?” was his best line during the class.

The group comprised a bunch of predominantly very blokey rugby player types (now who’s stereotyping?), who had never done yoga before. They’d been coerced into taking the class by a mutual friend as they’re training to do their first Ironman. That night I learnt that an Ironman is an even harder version of a triathlon, with the running part alone being the length of a marathon. Apparently under 13 hours is a good time to complete the whole ordeal.

The focus of the class was on injury prevention – by stretching their muscles, the chance of injury during the cycle, swim and run would be much reduced for them.

I decided to pass on the chanting to open the class, mostly because I didn’t want them in stitches (from giggling) before we’d even started. We began by practising yogic breathing lying in savasana, and then moved onto some toe squats to open their toes and feet, strengthening their ankles, combined with gurmukhasana arms. I was also aware that these aren’t the most pleasant thing to do and I hoped it would make them take the class more seriously. Me? Mean? Never…

People performing a toe squat
Toe squat (from

The sun salutations indentified some very tight hamstrings and although they had strong shoulders, they were incredibly tight. Much giggling was had when they looked around at each other and realised who couldn’t touch their toes. I took the opportunity to mention about ego and yoga not being competitive.

Shoulderstand/sarvangasana allowed them to open their shoulders, followed by bridge/sethu bandhasana to open their chest. We focused on opening the hips and hamstrings by practicing butterfly/baddha konasana, baby cradle and then janu sirshasana (seated forward bend with the sole of one foot pressed into the thigh).

Crow/kakasana proved fun with a couple of the guys being able to come up into a headstand on their first attempt.

As the class progressed, the giggling and groaning subsided and they were ready for their well earned final relaxation. After the class, whilst putting their suit jackets on, feedback was positive and I’m teaching them again this coming week. Who knows, perhaps I’ll even introduce some chanting.

Hari om tat sat