“If I come along, how many calories will I burn in a class?”

This is a question that was put to me whilst having a cuppa with a couple of old university friends the other Sunday. I gave a brief answer about yoga being about “much more than that” but what is yoga actually about? And why are so many people caught up in hectic city lifestyles finding happiness through the practice?

Physically speaking, the benefits are pretty well known: improving flexibility, core strength and general levels of fitness. Mentally, it helps you de-stress and relax, and then there’s also the bonus that it focuses on the energy channels in your body, increasing the flow of energy or ‘prana’ to your vital organs.

But I think what makes it for me is, by the end of a long relaxation or ‘savasana’, I feel like my entire being has been cleansed. The sense of release and letting go can be immense.

Half spinal twist
Ardha matsyendrasana/ half spinal twist (from yogastudy.org)

There are certain types of asanas that are ideal for this such as hip openers, twists and lunges. Take ardha matsyendrasana for example: with your inhalation, the abdomen presses firmly against your leg, and then with your exhalation, you can find space to twist deeper into the asana. People can hold so much stress and anxiety in their abdomens and by twisting, you’re wringing out your internal organs, releasing those emotions. Also, as you release the posture, a rush of oxygen goes to your internal organs cleansing and re-energising them.

 It’s similar with half pigeon. Women in particular tend to hold tension and emotion in their thighs and buttocks and by performing this posture, you’re working really deeply into these areas, whilst opening the hips at the same time.The asana practice also works on the subtle body and sometimes the release can be both unexpected and profoundly deep. I remember being at the Sivananda ashram in Kerala, lying on my back with about 40 other yogis on a stone floor doing double leg raises. All of a sudden tears started streaming down both sides of my face collecting in my ears and on my mat. It was the first time I’d cried during a class and I felt confused and slightly embarrassed. But I couldn’t stop.

Half pigeon pose (from caitplusate.com)
Half pigeon pose (from caitplusate.com)

Later that day, I sheepishly mentioned it to a couple of people and it turned out that they’d all shed tears in classes at the ashram. It was almost like a rite of passage and as we discussed it, it made sense. It was as if our bodies were being purged of any pent up emotion we’d been carrying. We were cleansing our bodies of past hurt, grief and upset and then we felt ready to continue with our lives. Now I’m not saying that if you come to a class, you’re going to walk out a sobbing wreck but I’ve since experienced people crying in classes and it’s nothing to worry about.

And the cleansing aspect of yoga isn’t just felt through the practice of asanas. There’s also ‘kriyas’ which are specific cleansing practices for the insides of your body. I won’t go into all of them now but if you ever have a cold or blocked sinuses you need to get yourself a neti pot. You fill this with warm water and a little salt and the neti pot has a spout that allows you to pour the water into one nostril. By placing your head at an angle, the water pours out of the other nostril at the same time as going into your sinuses, clearing out the passages. Blowing your nose after the practice makes sure everything is out once and for all!

‘Kirtan’ or chanting and meditation are ways to cleanse the mind and free yourself from egoism thus placing everyone on an equal footing. If you’re interested in finding out more about these, go along to a satsang but take an open mind too.

So, in answer to my friend’s question, I’d have to say that I haven’t got the foggiest about how many calories you’d burn in a class. But who knows, one day she may feel inclined to come along and see what other benefits she can derive from the practice. Hari om tat sat.

A ‘moving’ start to 2012

When I decided to go on Lila Conway and Dory Walker‘s new year retreat near Glastonbury it was all rather last minute. I had another trip planned but at almost the eleventh hour, it fell through

I put thoughts of lying on a Zanzibar beach to the back of my mind and before I knew it, I was getting off a train from Paddington and waiting for a taxi in a damp and grey Castle Cary, eagerly awaiting a few days of sattvic rejuvenation.

And the retreat didn’t disappoint. Lila and Dory’s asana classes are wonderful – both energising and meditative, taught in the Sivananda hatha style. I read books, went on countryside walks and relaxed in the hot tub and sauna. We set off lanterns around a bonfire, there were reiki and massage sessions and Nick’s astrological readings for 2012 made us feel.. well, erm, hopeful and a tad depressed about the nation’s outlook for the year ahead.

Now I’m not saying that I didn’t notice the mention of ‘five rhythms dance’ on the website, I guess it’s more that I didn’t pay it a huge amount of attention. I started to regret this when I was standing in the yoga studio with about eight other women and one of the three men on the retreat – a loyal boyfriend. Liz the movement therapist had her mac and music lined up and I heard her say, “We’ll start by bringing the awareness into our toes…”

I opened one eye and caught glimpses of people swaying. And then she said, “… now bring the awareness into your feet… connecting with the sides of your feet, your heels… start to discover new ways of walking.” I had never done anything like this before and I could only think that I looked like a complete muppet as I attempted to do as she said.

It was now that I realised why I’d never been tempted by friends’ suggestions of going to five rhythms classes in Vauxhall on a Thursday night. I mean, give me a wedding and I’m the first on the dancefloor. I’ve done swing and salsa classes but the idea of free, expressive movement has always felt scary and fills me with dread. But then give me some Sanskrit mantra chanting accompanied by a harmonium and I can’t get enough of it. Hare Krishna eat your heart out.

It continued. “… now move your knees… be free in your body… allow your knees to interact with another set of knees in the room…” Closest to me was the sole male. I began to move towards him with slightly bent knees. I looked up at his face and I saw It in his eyes: the look of fear. I recognised it immediately because I felt it too. I looked at the clock and only five minutes had passed since the music started.

As the music picked up the pace, people closed their eyes, spun around, slid around the room on their hands and knees, reached for the sky, lost in their own internal rhythm. And then I too gradually became lost and succumbed to the movement. I closed my eyes, breathed deeply and brought my attention to how my body could move. I stretched my fingers, rolled my neck, placed awareness in every single step, let my wrists and knees and head relax. I moved my hips and waist, all the time flowing, locking, bending, stretching, grasping and I found comfort and release through the simplest movements. I felt grateful for being fit, healthy and most of all, I felt grateful for being alive. The remaining 55 minutes flew by and I felt happy.

That night, in the run up to 2012, we wrote down our positive intentions for the year ahead. As we placed them into the fire I resolved to care less about what other people think and be more open to trying new experiences.

For more information about:

Lila: http://www.yogaprema.org/
Dory: http://yogakutir.com/
Liz: http://www.bermondseyfayre.com/
Nick: http://www.phoenixastrology.co.uk/

The birth of the blog!

Om symbolHello all, just wanted to announce the launch of my new blog – the diary of a yogi! It’s a work in progress but if there’s anything that you’re particularly interested in seeing on here then please let me know. Happy reading!

Om shanti, Clare