This year marks ten years since I qualified as a yoga teacher. It also marks a big birthday for me. On my thirtieth birthday in 2010 I took what my teachers called a “very auspicious” dip in Ma Ganga. It was very refreshing.
When I look back over the past ten years, so much has changed. Then, I was single and seeing a lot of the world. Now I have a wonderful partner and two amazing children. I’m more settled.
I remember being told at the end of my Sivananda teacher training that we were being selfish if we didn’t share the teachings. So I came back to London and taught anyone who asked.
It was scary standing up in front of a group of people. I used to feel physically sick with nerves. I doubted myself. I worried what people thought (a lot). But then my confidence grew – not just in teaching but in all areas of my life.
Yoga taught me to look beyond the surface, to pay attention. As a result, I’d say I’m a lot happier and at home in this body and with this mind. I know myself better.
Teaching yoga in Hertfordshire
Having taught in London for three years, I completed further training and moved to Hertfordshire. I started covering classes locally and began running classes, workshops and retreats. I felt a strong sense of community or ‘sangha’.
In the past seven years, the local St Albans/Harpenden yoga scene has changed and developed considerably. When I started, I wasn’t aware of any other yin yoga classes around here. Awareness of the style was far, far lower than it is now. It was also easier to find space in venues to start new classes. There are now so many more yoga teachers in the area.
The growing popularity of yoga is brilliant. And people need yin to counter the increasingly hectic pace of modern living. There’s a reason why it’s the fastest growing style of yoga today.
More broadly, yoga has changed and developed too: the toppling of yoga ‘gurus’ from their pedestals in the #metoo era and the rise of the instayogi. Mindfulness is a workplace buzzword. There’s a growing awareness of yoga teachers’ pay thanks to the work of Norman Blair and others. Perhaps the London yoga market has now reached saturation point. Yoga is taught in many more schools.
What will be the next style of yoga to take the world by storm?
There’s a lot to think about and navigate.
With this in mind, I am offering a mentoring programme for teachers of yoga and mind/body/wellness practices. It can be tough teaching out there. It can be isolating too.
We’d cover topics such as:
The student/teacher relationship
Communication with studio owners and contacts at hire spaces
Running classes, workshops, retreats and holidays
Promoting yourself and attracting new students
The business and financial aspects of teaching
It would be a small group and we’d meet one Sunday evening a month for four months from March. I’d facilitate and provide advice based on my experience but we’d all share and support each other.
Recently I’ve found myself thinking about samskaras. In yoga philosophy samskaras are seen as mental or emotional patterns that are part of us, passed on by reincarnation and karma in past and present lives.
Basically put, a samskara is a deeply ingrained habit or behaviour and we all have them. I bet it’ll take you less than a few seconds to think of one of your bad habits. I bet you have lots of good ones too.
The more a samskara is repeated, the deeper the impression becomes. Think of an old record and how the needle dutifully follows the hard-to-resist groove.
We’re all creatures of habit and often we feel the pull of the familiar – in our physical bodies, our thoughts and how we live our lives.
I’m approaching a change that I know will definitely alter my samskara. In a few weeks I’m moving in with A Boy.
Now before you say anything, yes, I know it’s exciting. I know it represents a step forward in our relationship. And I want to move in and be with him.
But change can be scary.
In an article on the Yoga Journal website, it talks about how “we often resist new patterns for fear of losing the identities we’ve so carefully constructed.
I get this. We both have different ideas about what it means to relax at home. He has two TVs whereas I have none (he says it’s the equivalent of having one each which is perfectly normal).
We’re building new samskara and we’ll deepen those grooves together. I’m learning about his beloved Watford FC and he’s been to yoga classes. I’m optimistic that some day we will find a way to stack the draining board that keeps us both happy.
The Yoga Journal article continues to say,
“When we change a long-held pattern, we undergo a rebirth of sorts. This rebirth hints at a new incarnation, a more evolved version of the self. Yet improving our samskara brings us closer to our true nature, which is the goal of yoga.”
So if you’re undergoing any big changes to your samskara (and I know some of you are), hang on in there. It’ll be worth it.
April and I will be exploring samskara in our next yin yang workshop on Saturday 25 April at All Saints Studios. Visit the workshops page to learn more.
I’ve just taught my first weekend retreat. It was a yin and Ashtanga retreat and many of you were new to Ashtanga. Some of you were new to yoga!
When assisting the led Ashtanga classes I noticed lots of stuff going on throughout the room: glances and voiceless looks of “I’m in pain, come and rescue me” and whispers of “I can’t do this.” There were baffled looks of “you’re expecting my body to do what?!”
When we go about our every day lives, we encase ourselves in a suit of armour. We smile broadly and up goes our facade. We have our coping mechanisms.
We might be successful at work, we might have a wonderful loving family. On the surface it might look like we’ve got it made.
But we all have issues with our bodies and minds. They carry our habits and histories.
I’ve heard it said that we’re at our most honest and ‘authentic’ when we’re on our mats. We’re laid bare. We’re vulnerable. There’s nowhere to hide.
Ashtanga, without a doubt, is a demanding practice. Moving your body in unfamiliar ways is challenging. Finding your breath in these postures can feel near to impossible.
How do we approach these situations? What goes through our minds? There’s fear, feelings of not being good enough, worries about getting it wrong or hurting ourselves, thoughts of being the worst in the room. Do we give up or do we give it a go?
You all did so well. You experienced the Ashtanga primary series. And maybe this weekend you weren’t able to sit in half lotus (let alone full lotus) but that doesn’t mean you never will. You just can’t do it… yet.
But to be at your side, listening to your fears and concerns, and offering little words of encouragement while you took your first Ashtanga steps was a privilege. It’s wonderful to pass on bits of knowledge I’ve had shared with me over the years.
Thank you for letting me in. Thank you for your honesty. Thank you for giving it a go and exploring and playing. You’re amazing.
At the end of next month, my teaching buddy and friend April will be starting a new yoga class in Harpenden. It’s for parents and carers to do with their children. In this guest post, she tells us more about the class.
The Big Dog Little Dog Yoga class was born out of a request on Facebook. On the Harpenden parents’ group someone was asking whether they knew of any yoga classes they could do with their kids.
I did some Googling to see if there was already something like it out there but I couldn’t find anything. There’s lots of classes for mum and baby or toddler but not actually with your kids so I thought it would be fun to start something.
I know that I enjoy having Lincoln and Grace ‘help’ me in my practice at home so the new class format takes in some of that including physical partnering, breath work and relaxation. It’ll also include some experiential anatomy – this is a dance term and it’s when you learn where things are by feeling. You use touch and movement exploration.
It’ll be my son Lincoln’s yoga teaching debut – he’s 4 (start em’ young, I say…) and he will be demonstrating the postures with me. When we practice together I feel that it brings us closer physically and goes beyond normal cuddling.
It’s also purposeful because there’s a physical exchange. So in a twist, we must both rotate our bodies equally to get the benefits of the practice. Or he might need to back bend so I can forward bend. It’s the reciprocal nature of a partnering practice but you’re doing it with your child.
The class offers a chance for the relationship to be one of equality. You’re not just the bossy, nagging mum, dad, grandparent or carer. It also takes you out of the taxi service role of taking your kids to classes. You can do it together and both stay fit, flexible and healthy.
Lincoln was asked why he enjoyed doing yoga with mommy. He said, “it’s fun.” And you can’t argue with that.
Big Dog Little Dog Yoga for children (aged 4-11) and their parents/carers will start Sunday 27 April in the dance studio at Roundwood Park School (AL5 3AE). It will run term-time on Sunday mornings from 10.45-11.30 and costs £8.00 a class (per parent/child couple). For more information, visit April’s website (it’s a work in progress) or email her directly to book.
Traditionally on 14 February we focus our attention on someone that we’re ‘in love’ with. But this year you may like to widen your remit. We all could do with some love – on this day and throughout the year – and so I’m going to share a meditation with you.
This meditation cultivates ‘loving-kindness’ or as Buddhists say, ‘metta’. It’s based on a series of phrases that open your heart and develop love towards everyone, including yourself.
With a loving heart, all that we attempt and encounter will open and flow more easily and we’ll be happier and more loving.
You might like to repeat each step for a few minutes whilst sitting comfortably, or even just focus on a step for a week or so if you have a regular practice.
You could also repeat the phrases as you go about your day – queuing in the supermarket, waiting at traffic lights, on the way to work – or in long held yoga poses.
Start by bringing attention to yourself and breathe gently. Mentally repeat the following:
May I be filled with love.
May I be free from harm.
May I walk the earth in peace.
This particular wording works for me. You can adjust the phrases in any way so they resonate with you. Repeat these phrases over and over again, allowing the feelings to flood your body and mind.
Now bring into your mind someone who is close to you – someone who has perhaps cared for you. Imagine them going about their day, doing their thing. And repeat:
May they be filled with love.
May they be free from harm.
May they walk the earth in peace.
For the third step, focus on a friend. Perhaps someone who you know is having a hard time and could benefit from some loving-kindness. Repeat the wording for five to ten minutes.
And now for the last step, bring your attention to someone who you’ve found harder to love. You may know them well, or perhaps you’ve only met them briefly and exchanged terse words. For me right now, a traffic warden springs to mind. I’m sure they’re a very nice person… Again, repeat the wording for five to ten minutes.
During the meditation you may notice a range of emotions rising. These emotions may be very contrary to loving-kindness. Whatever comes up, it’s ok, and just breathe, repeating the phrases.
It might not feel right for you to start with the focus on yourself. Again, that’s fine. You may prefer to bring your attention to yourself at the end. No problem.
I find this a really nice practice. It cultivates love and compassion for everyone on earth and banishes negative emotions.
I’ll be using this practice in a yin/yang yoga workshop I’m teaching tomorrow in Harpenden, Herts. If you’d like to come along, have a look at the workshops page for full details.
I’m keen to hear your thoughts on this practice. Feel free to comment below.
“We have to learn how to be non-violent towards ourselves. If we were able to play back the often unkind, unhelpful and destructive comments and judgements silently made toward our self in any given day, this may give us some idea of the enormity of the challenge of self acceptance. If we were to speak these thoughts out loud to another person, we would realize how truly devastating violence to the self can be. In truth, few of us would dare to be as unkind to others as we are to ourselves.”
Earlier today I had my last yoga practice in Goa. I was on the roof of a one-storey building – the kitchen for the beach huts where we’re staying. As I went through my standing postures, an old bloke was shimmying up the surrounding coconut palms, sending ripe coconuts crashing to the earth below. I faced the ocean and breathed with the waves.
Tomorrow we leave Goa and head to Mumbai for two nights before flying home to London. I’ve been thinking about the yoga I’ve practiced over the last two weeks. Here are some things I’ve learnt and perhaps you’ll find them useful too.
Drop-in classes: a mixed bag
You just really don’t know what you’re in for. On Christmas Day morning I went to a led Ashtanga class with an Indian guy called Deepak. His adjustments were a little unconventional (verging on dangerous) and I felt my body tense whenever he moved near me. He was as bendy as the bendiest bendy thing and didn’t seem to show much empathy for Westerners in their first ever yoga class.
Other classes were lovely but just going to one class then trying a different class the next day doesn’t allow a student/teacher relationship to develop. Consistency is key.
Immersion is good
Katharine and I stumbled upon the Indian Shanti Yoga Festival and it became one of the highlights. At a plush beach resort in Ashwem, we spent three days surrounded by yoga addicts and a schedule that ran from 8am to 10pm… all for £25.
I reconnected with Sivananda yoga through classes with Nataraj, the Director of the ashram in Kerala where I’ve spent time previously. Witnessing him in his baggy Sivananda yellow t-shirt and white trousers just made me feel so happy. He looked a bit at odds with girls wearing tiny lycra shorts but the atmosphere was very welcoming and inclusive.
There was a lot of bhakti (devotional practices). The festival opened with a homa (fire ceremony) to Lord Ganesha. We all offered something to the fire – something we wanted to cast aside for 2014. Swamis from various Indian ashrams taught classes and led the chanting of Sanskrit bhajans.
(Anand led the Ganesha homa.)
(Swami Sugoshananda: “Everything happens as planned and it is for our own good.”)
I also went to a Bhagavad Gita talk, taught by an elderly New Yorker with a huge white beard, long hair and piercing blue eyes. He reeled off the slokas (verses) in Sanskrit. Hearing the words of Krishna to Arjuna with his accent: “Hey Arjuna, so you gotta fight people you care about. But you just gotta do your duty!”
Acroyoga is awesome
Acroyoga founder, Jason Nemer, taught at the festival.
With one person being the base, another the flyer, and another the spotter, we did some therapeutic flying. We practiced giving each other massages in ‘folded leaf’ and worked on backbends suspended in the air in ‘high flying whale’. We did handstands holding onto the backs of your partner’s ankles while they were in a high plank.
(Me being a high flying whale.)
I like the philosophy behind the practice. It’s about building trust and confidence through letting go. The flyer has to resist any urge to control and you are totally in the hands (and feet) of your base. It’s playful, fosters closeness and you learn a lot about your partner. The sessions open and close with kirtan – chanting in a circle, developing togetherness.
The final day included four hours of Thai Yoga Massage run by the acroyogis. Thai massage is seen to be a complementary practice to the more acrobatic side. I like this. It’s the yin and yang idea. The massage is the yin (calming, cooling, slow, soft) and the acroyoga is more dynamic, energising and fast-paced.
Some of my most enjoyable yoga moments have been my self practices but I’m also looking forward to going home and getting back to classes – both teaching and being a student.
I know this trip has been about relaxing, spending time with my sister and also doing some yoga, but if I were to return to India for yoga, I’d do a period of study with someone who can help develop my practice. I’ve got my eye on David Garrigues’ intensive in Kerala in 2015, a trip to Mysore or even a retreat with David Keil at Purple Valley in Anjuna.
That’s the joy of yoga. There’s always more to learn and India is always calling.
Classes start back in London and Hertfordshire from 12 January and the first yin/yang workshop at Breathing Space in Harpenden will be on 18 January. My first BAYoga Studio yin workshop is on 1 February.
A few months ago I was asked if I’d like to do an hour of yoga in the new Sweaty Betty St Albans shop on the day of the opening. I didn’t say yes immediately as various thoughts were going through my head. I felt torn and here’s why:
4 reasons AGAINST doing yoga in Sweaty Betty St Albans
1. The practice of yoga is about reducing your ego i.e. that sense of ‘I’ and the self. We associate ourselves with everything that’s about the ego – for example: what we look like, what job we do and how we behave. By practising aspects of yoga – the physical asana practice, chanting mantras, and doing selfless service (doing things without an expectation of reward) – we are reducing our ego and connecting with our inner nature i.e. who we really are.
Surely doing yoga in the middle of a shop is simply drawing attention to yourself and boosting that sense of self, fuelling the ego.
“Always watch that ego. Control of the mind and annihilation of the ego are the essence of all yoga disciplines.”
2. Linked to this, humility is the greatest quality for a yoga teacher. As a yoga teacher, it’s about passing on the teachings you’ve received in a humble way and your focus is on your students, ensuring you give them your energy and attention.
You could say that ‘performing’ yoga whilst being surrounded by gawping onlookers instead of students isn’t very humble.
3. Sweaty Betty can be seen as commercial. It’s a business – a successful one – and it makes a lot of money. Indeed, I was reading an article the other day about how they’re starting to give Lululemon a run for their money having opened their first stores in the US.
Should yoga be about making money? It’s a debate that’s been had time and time again. The ancient physical practice of yoga postures in India came about as a way of preparing your body for long periods of seated meditation. It’s really only since the West has got hold of yoga that the physical practice has become what it is today and it’s much more commercial as a result.
4. When you practice yoga, it shouldn’t be about what clothes you wear. This has been drilled into me from my Sivananda background where you wear the baggiest clothes ever and anything goes. Branded clothes are yet another way of increasing our sense of ‘self’. What do those clothes say about us?
However, I must say that now that I practice more ashtanga, clothes are much more important. You get pretty hot and you want that sweat to be taken away from your body quickly. I’ve learnt that technical clothes have their benefits.
4 reasons FOR doing yoga in Sweaty Betty St Albans
1. It’s a chance to meet new local yogis. I have my familiar places where I like to practice. It’s a chance to meet other people who are into the same things.
2. Taking me out of my comfort zone, trying something new, practicing in a new location… I might find it challenging in different ways. I might learn something as a result. We can get stuck in a rut with our practice.
3. You get given free clothes. I know, I know, they give you the free clothes so you’ll wear them when you teach and then students will say, “Ooooh that’s nice. Where’s that top/those leggings/jumper from?” But you know, their clothes feel nice, they’re flattering and yes, I like clothes. So shoot me. Ok, don’t really shoot me. That would be violent and yoga isn’t big on that. You can see that I still have some way to go on the whole ego front.
4. Finally, it takes yoga to new audiences. If you saw someone doing sun salutations for the first time, you might stop and watch. You might not have expected to see such a thing whilst you’re having your normal Saturday morning wander around the shops.
It might encourage you to find out more about yoga. It might even make you go to a class. Yes, it would be great if it was one of my classes but I’d be happy if was any local class.
It’s about raising the profile of yoga. The more people that practice, the more the world will be a happier and healthier place.
And so I did it.
Doing yoga at Sweaty Betty St Albans
From 11-12am on Saturday I found myself on a yoga mat in the window of a shop. It was weird and it was fun.
Sun salutations were interesting as you couldn’t stretch your arms out to the sides as you’d simultaneously hit the glass and take someone’s eye out. At times I felt I was showing the shoppers of St Albans a little too much of my bottom.
I did an hour of ashtanga primary series. In ashtanga there’s talk of ‘drishti’ – where you look during each pose. It might be towards the tip of your nose, your knees, or elsewhere on your body. Also there’s the practice of ‘pratyahara’ – withdrawing your senses and going more inward. I tried to keep both practices in mind during the hour. It was hard.
At one point I noticed an elderly couple standing watching on the pavement. Then there were families with children, and teenagers taking photos on their phones. Drishti… pratyahara… drishti.
I thought about those new audiences. Those new potential yogis in the waiting.
It felt great to share the practice with people who weren’t familiar with it. The staff at the shop were lovely and I was made to feel very welcome. I saw some familiar faces and I met
some new ones too. I was aware of my ego and tried to keep it in check throughout. I was
just doing my practice.
I (and my yogi friend April) might even be doing some guest instructor things there next year so keep an eye out.
Would I do yoga in a Sweaty Betty shop window again?
Yes I would. I’m all up for having a bit of fun and trying something new. And you know, if I wasn’t up for trying something new, I’d never be teaching yoga.
What do you think about this? Would you have done it or would you have run the other way? All comments are valid…
It’s all well and good me saying how great yin yoga is but I thought it would be nice to hear from others to find out what yin means to them. I spoke to a couple of regular students and here’s what they said:
How would you describe yin yoga to someone who’s never practiced it?
Natalie: Yin yoga is a deeply relaxing yet energising form of yoga that encourages you to really breathe into each pose. Poses are held for around five minutes or so and are mostly seated.
Janet: I would say that it’s relaxing and calming. It realigns your body and soothes your mind. We hold poses for five minutes at a time and you only do what is good for your own body.
Louise: I wasn’t excited ahead of my first yin experience. I love ashtanga and I thought yin sounded a bit dull and easy. Not my sort of thing. I quickly realised why everyone goes on about yin being the perfect complement to ashtanga. And it’s definitely NOT easy. Or dull. I find it challenging yet peaceful. Stretching yet relaxing.
Why do you enjoy practicing yin?
Janet: I’ve got sciatica and I know it helps my back. I feel the benefit throughout the whole week! It helps me to feel relaxed, stretched and soothed.
Louise: I generally struggle to clear my mind and relax. Thoughts and tasks always creep in but yin seems to give me an opportunity to really let go and just be.
Natalie: Firstly I love it as a ‘balancer’ to ashtanga yoga. It is wholly complimentary yet completely different in approach and focus. I feel that with this style of yoga I really begin to understand the enabling power of breathing. I am naturally very ambitious and competitive and find yin makes me stop and reflect on why I am doing yoga in the first place.
After a yin session I feel balanced, relaxed and energised. I find it clears my head and helps me focus. I sleep well afterwards and feel less ‘crunched up’ in my posture.
Favourite yin pose?
Janet: I’d have to say particularly the twists as they help my back.
Louise: When you sit on a block and then lie back over a bolster. A kind of active bliss!
Natalie: Seated, with legs over the bolster, leaning forward towards my shins. I find it invigorating and can see a real difference in terms of how much my body opens over the five minutes.
Have you practiced yin? Why do you enjoy it? Do you have a favourite pose? Feel free to comment below.
If you’d like to try yin or continue your practice:
I’m starting a weekly yin class at The Yoga Hall in St Albans from Thursday 17 October.
I was having a chat not too long ago with a local yogi and we were discussing the popularity of ashtanga where we live in Harpenden, Hertfordshire. It appears to me that in terms of yoga styles taught and offered around here, ashtanga is king.
It got me thinking why that might be. And surprise, surprise, I have a theory. Now bear with me while I give out-of-towners some context.
Harpenden is about 30 minutes by train from London. The line snakes through the heart of the capital, making stops at places like City Thameslink, Farringdon and Blackfriars. These are all areas where the big city bucks are made – they span the financial district and hotspots for law firms.
And by looking at the cars in Harpenden station car park, it’s pretty fair to say that that’s where a lot of these commuters are heading. They work hard, achieve results and can afford to live in Harpenden as a result.
“So what’s this got to do with yoga?” I hear you ask. Well, I went to a led ashtanga class recently and I heard a student say that they’d only get off the sofa in the evening if they felt like they were going to build up a sweat in class. To some, it’s viewed as an alternative to going to the gym.
It’s the ‘pushing’ and ‘striving to achieve’ that can draw some people to ashtanga. I guess you do need some steely determination to get through the physically demanding asanas that comprise the Primary Series.
I’ve heard ashtanga described as a “gymnastic routine” but that undermines its beauty. When you practice ashtanga traditionally in a Mysore-style class, everyone goes at their own pace, in time with their breath. The room is quiet except for the sound of ujjayi breathing and the teacher gives you individual attention, tailored to where you are in the practice. It becomes a moving meditation.
And yin yoga really is a perfect practice for Harpenden. If we lead stressful, hectic lives, your yoga practice provides a time to slow down, to surrender and let go of ambition. If we’re constantly striving and rushing from one thing – or one pose – to another, we’ll burn out.
By spending prolonged periods in each yin pose, we let go of ambition. We come to a point of stillness – both mentally and physically – and we learn to accept our bodies. We also observe sensations that arise in our bodies, knowing full well that if we push ourselves, we aren’t half going to feel it after five minutes. There’s no hiding in yin. You’re in it and it’s for the long haul.
So if you practice ashtanga you should probably try yin yoga. It’s about achieving balance. The yin and the yang.
Of course, you might disagree with my vast sweeping generalisations of this Home Counties town. In which case, feel free to leave a comment below.
Alternatively, you could come to an upcoming workshop and take it up with me personally…
As part of my Teacher Interview series on the blog, I bring you Dr April Nunes Tucker.
April and I teach workshops together and her main practice is Ashtanga yoga. Originally from California, she’s been teaching for almost 20 years and her classes are challenging yet fun. I talk to her about the interesting journey that’s brought her to Hertfordshire.
CW: Hello April. There aren’t many people in this neck of the woods that can say they’ve spent four years living in a yoga community. How come you made that decision?
ANT: It was 1994 and at that time I’d just finished my first degree in dance. I was working as a waitress in Southern California and a lovely lady at work suggested that I go visit the Mount Madonna Center (MMC) in the mountains in Northern California.
I arrived late afternoon, walked around, had dinner and pitched my little tent surrounded by 355 acres of beautiful redwoods. I felt so fearful of the place that when the sun rose the next morning I packed up and drove away.
That week I was bothered by how I couldn’t quite put my finger on what had frightened me about the place. In an effort to face my fear, I went back.
I was only there a few minutes when a woman stopped me and asked, “would you like to meet with Babaji? He’s just had a cancellation.”
‘Babaji’ is what devotees call Baba Hari Dass. That was my first meeting with the very important man who gave me the tools to better my life through yoga.
Our meeting was surreal. He’s a silent monk who hasn’t spoken for almost 60 years but I felt as though he could read my thoughts. He asked what I did, what I planned to do, and when I told him that I wasn’t sure, he wrote on his chalkboard, “you could live here.”
It took me less than a month to pack up and move to MMC and I didn’t leave for four years.
CW: How would you describe the Mount Madonna Center?
ANT: Baba Hari Dass is the guru and he teaches classical Ashtanga yoga with an emphasis on meditation. This is different to how we practice Ashtanga vinyasa yoga in the West.
The ultimate purpose of practicing yoga is to develop concentration in order to achieve peace. The classical Ashtanga yoga system consists of eight parts:
The first of these is the ‘yamas’ – a Sanskrit word meaning ‘restraints’ – living your life in a non-violent way, being truthful, not stealing, continence and non-hoarding.
There’s also the ‘niyamas’ or observances – having a sense of purity, being satisfied with what you have, undertaking spiritual study and recognising our limited ego-self.
Doing the physical postures or ‘asanas’. These traditionally belong to the system of Hatha Yoga.
Practicing pranayama exercises – breath control.
Observing what’s going on inside, instead of outside (pratyahara)
Developing concentration (dharana)
CW: What was daily life like there?
ANT: Busy! Wake up early, attempt to meditate, walk from my tent or cabin to the kitchen (my first year there I spent in a tent – cabins were at a premium!), help cook breakfast for anywhere between 100-500 people, take a break walking through the woods or practicing asana.
On certain days, attend a class with Babaji, work the rest of the afternoon on a building site or in the garden or scrubbing toilets, eat dinner, wash dishes, sit around chatting, drink herbal tea and then go to bed.
… And then do it all again the next day. It’s based on the idea of ‘karma yoga’ – doing things selflessly.
CW: Tell me about Baba Hari Dass
ANT: Babaji is an incredible human being and a wonderful teacher. He taught me how to be less afraid, concentrate and accept myself more.
One of his well known quotes is: “Work honestly, meditate everyday, meet people without fear and play” and this is what he teaches. I feel his vow of silence allows his teachings to come through with great clarity.
He has a lovely sense of humour, is compassionate and the most remarkable person I have ever met.
CW: Did you learn lessons that you carry with you in daily life?
ANT: I carry the sadhana practice that was given to me by Babaji. It includes chanting, hand mudras, pranayama, kriyas (methods for calming the mind) and meditation. I try and get up an hour before my kids every morning in order to do the practice. Sometimes it gets cut short when they start clambering over me but the intention’s there.
CW: You taught yoga classes there. Was this your first experience of yoga? What were the classes like?
ANT: I taught asana (the physical postures) and pranayama (breathing techniques). MMC hosts very big retreats – often with around 500 people – so my first teaching experiences were a baptism of fire!
I was on a stage with a sea of people in front of me and a two other ‘demonstrators’ on smaller platforms either side of the stage doing the same asana as I taught it. Scary!
My only previous experience of ‘yoga’ was doing a little class in the staff room of the restaurant where I worked in California with my waitress buddy who followed Babaji.
CW: What were the other people like who lived there with you?
ANT: There were all sorts of different people there. Some were only staying a month just checking out the scene, others were original devotees of Hari Dass since the 1970s. The people there were as varied as people are anywhere.
I will say that I believe living in a community setting magnifies personalities. It is very good training for looking at yourself when you are irritated with others.
CW: There are lots of spiritual/yoga communities in California. Why do you think that is?
ANT: Everyone is searching everywhere. Maybe I’m being generous but California has a lot of natural beauty and people are open to alternative ways of thinking or being. So Eastern philosophies such as yoga flourish.
Also I think many people who live in California are quite privileged and can ‘afford’ to take time out to work on personal development.
CW: You now teach Ashtanga vinyasa yoga – as popularised in the West by Sri K Pattabhi Jois. What do you think is the best thing about teaching yoga?
ANT: For me, teaching a class has three parts: before, during and after. Before the class I enjoy the discipline of attempting to put the reins on my ego. I try to come into class as open and humble as possible.
During class I try to keep my ego in check – demonstrating humbly, allowing for humour and executing compassionate adjustments as much as possible. I really like that sensation of ‘being in the zone’ where I can intuitively flow through a class.
Sometimes after classes I get a real hit of emotion – love or sadness or joy. I like this because it makes me feel very alive. It’s a direct reflection of our human connection.
CW: If you weren’t teaching yoga or looking after two small children what job would you be doing?
ANT: I would probably be lecturing in a university on contemporary dance. That’s always been my field of interest – particularly human movement and the way that it connects people and communicates meaning. I have a PhD in dance and have researched movement repetition.
I like how Ashtanga vinyasa yoga and my daily sadhana practice rely on repeating certain movements and this links nicely with my specialism in dance.
When I go back to the academic world I hope to continue finding ways for dancers and dance academics to become interested in yoga through my research.
CW: How does the Ashtanga vinyasa practice challenge you?
ANT: I feel that the key to the Ashtanga practice is the repetition. To offer an image, the repetition of the practice is like an anchor – the anchor for a boat out at sea.
Imagine a boat floating on the surface of the water with a big heavy chain with an anchor at the end. The anchor’s chain goes down… down through the water until the anchor embeds itself in the sand on the bottom of the ocean floor. That deep ocean floor is like that part of self that knows it’s all ok – the part of the self that knows peace. It is the repetitive yoga practice (the anchor) that can tap into that peaceful part of the self.
The boat represents the part of ourselves that we identify with most readily – the self that’s pulled this way and that by things we desire. It’s the part of the self which is affected by the weather, the currents of the water and the part that gets angry or sad as seagulls shit on it as they fly overhead.
CW: Complete the sentence: A life without yoga would be….
CW: Thank you for your time April.
April can be found in Harpenden teaching a Sunday morning class at Roundwood School and private classes in people’s homes. She can also be found on Facebook and email. April and I teach yin/ashtanga workshops at Breathing Space in Harpenden and the next one is planned for Saturday 21 September from 3pm – 6.30pm. Visit the workshops page for more details and to book.
If you’re interested in learning more about yoga communities/ashrams, I’ve frequented some in India: