This week I’ve seen a YouTube film shared on Facebook by a number of people and it just hasn’t inspired me. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about:
Young, fit, athletic, woman in skimpy clothing doing advanced asana in a stunning location accompanied by suitably calm yet inspiring music.
There’s no end of debate about the commercialisation of yoga, the sexualisation of yoga and a focus on beauty and the aestheticism of the practice.
“Wow, isn’t she amazing. I wish I had a practice like that. I wish I had a body like that. I like her top…” These films may be viewed by some as inspirational – or indeed aspirational – but I feel they take us away from accepting what is. What is possible in this body today?
Yes, the woman in the film has a stunning practice and it’s obviously taken her many years of dedication and hard work to reach this point. I’m sure she’s faced many hurdles along the way too. And I’ll put my hands up – I’m no stranger to watching yoga porn on YouTube. But give me something I haven’t seen before. I’m getting so bored.
For this reason, the thing I’m choosing to share is This Girl Can: an amazing government advert showing how, in a nutshell, this girl can. It’s honest, refreshing and shows what the average woman looks like when she exercises.
Alternatively, you could come along to February’s yin yang workshop at All Saints Studios this Saturday. The theme for this month is celebrating imperfection. Visit the workshops page for more details.
Cathy Haworth runs BAYoga Studio in Berkhamsted, Herts. She teaches Ashtanga vinyasa yoga and particularly enjoys teaching ‘Mysore’ style classes. I’m one of her Mysore students and I asked her a few questions about this style.
CW: Where does the Mysore style of ashtanga yoga come from?
CH: Mysore is a town in Southern India where the founder of Ashtanga vinyasa yoga, Shri K Pattabhi Jois lived. Since his death in 2009 his grandson Sharath continues running the shala and each year thousands of ashtangis go to Mysore to practice with him. I’m planning on visiting for the first time this summer and I can’t wait.
CW: How would you describe Mysore style?
CH: Ashtanga yogais a dynamic style of yoga where movement is synchronised with the breath. There’s a set sequence of poses which are held for five breaths and you then move onto the next posture.
To practice ashtanga yoga ʻMysore styleʼis to practice the ashtanga sequence in a class situation but at your own pace. You follow your own individual length of breath, receiving guidance and adjustments from your teacher on a one to one basis. I, or whoever is teaching, don’t lead the class as such.
Learning the ashtanga sequence may at first appear a little daunting, but myself or your teacher is there to assist and we take it slowly.
As you learn and grow confident in each pose, you’re given new poses by your teacher, making this a very personal journey. Once learnt you have a practice for life.
CW: What’s so special about a Mysore practice?
CH: Moving with your own breath at your own pace enables you to work at your own level, extending the breath as it suits you. We all have different lengths of breath and this way of practicing enables you to be in charge of your own destiny.
It is a disciplined approach to yoga that allows for no opt out of poses because you find them challenging. You have to face up to every eventuality that the pose may bring.
Thereʼs no hiding, and by working with your own breath you can really connect to what may be happening both in the pose internally and externally. By bringing this discipline into your life enables you to be more focused and present not just on your yoga mat but in all aspects of your life.
It gives you the space to be you.
Whilst on your mat, working and moving with your breath, you are able to let go of the outside world and be in the present moment, allowing the real you to shine through.
Once off the mat we take on board the many outside influences that we have accumulated over the years and often act in a very different way to who we really are.
Being on the mat allows us to be true to ourselves and the more you practice, the more you are able to let go of this external ʻbaggageʻ and allow yourself the space and freedom of just being who you really are.
CW: You’ve mentioned before to me about the versatility that these classes offer. How is that?
CH: You don’t have to be on your mat at the very start of a class. You come when it suits you. If you get stuck in traffic, if you have to drop the kids off at school… that’s fine, no rush. The latest start time is one hour before the end of the class.
Classes vary in length from 2-3 hours at BAYoga Studio and if you’re a beginner you’ll need to allow approximately an hour to do your practice. Eventually, as you progress you will build on this to 1.5-2 hours.
One of the many joys of a Mysore practice is that it is very portable. I know that wherever I may be in the world, I’ll have the opportunity of going to a class knowing exactly what to expect from an ashtanga Mysore style class. Get on your mat in Paris, Sydney, New York or India and you know that you will be just fine regardless!
CW: Thank you Cathy.
Cathy teaches Mysore style classes at various times throughout the week. Find out more by visiting bayogastudio.co.uk. On a Tuesday morning she teaches a Mysore style class from 9.15-11.15am and then I teach a yin yoga class from 11.30-1pm at BAYoga Studio. Come along to both classes for only £16. It’s a bargainous morning of yin and yang.
Cathy and I will be teaching an ashtanga/yin retreat together 3-5 October 2014. Visit the retreats page for more details.
Do you practice Mysore style Ashtanga? What do you enjoy about it? Feel free to comment below.
A few years ago I went for a job interview at The Life Centre in London. One of the questions I was asked was: “How would you describe yin yoga to a prospective student?” I said I had no idea. I’d heard of it but hadn’t practiced it. Suffice to say, I didn’t get that job.
And now, here I am waxing lyrical about the wonders of yin yoga.
You may never have heard of yin yoga, or perhaps like me during that interview, you’ve seen it on studio schedules but haven’t ventured any further. You may have been to my monthly Hertfordshire yin yoga workshops but it’s fair to say that it’s a wonderful, nourishing practice. I’m biased, of course, but here are my five reasons why:
1. Yin yoga teaches acceptance
When you’re in a pose for a minimum of five minutes, you can’t push it. If you do, you’ll regret it. So it teaches you to stay where you feel something, but not too much – not trying to inch your forehead closer to your shins in a forward bend. And anyway, over the duration of the pose, your body will open and you’ll naturally go deeper. No pushing, no judgement, just accepting.
2. Yin yoga cultivates a beginners mind
The postures have different names in yin yoga. For example, pigeon pose is called ‘swan’. This encourages us to approach each pose with no hang-ups about how we’d ‘usually’ do the pose in a yoga class.
The mind of the beginner is empty, free of all habits of the expert, ready to accept, to doubt and open to all possibilities.
3. Yin yoga creates space
When we sit in a yin pose, we create space in our bodies, in our minds, and in our day-to-day lives. On a physical level, our connective tissue surrounding our joints starts to become more malleable, improving our flexibility.
A reading from Reggie Ray covers this aspect nicely:
Here’s a teaching that Chögyam Trungpa gave that has changed the way a lot of people look at their work lives: learn how to invite space into your worklife. The space itself will actually accomplish most of what you need to do. In the form of helpful people turning up, auspicious coincidences… And in so doing, you are not only opening up your self, you are opening up the world. It becomes a dance. It’s no longer your job to sit there for 10 hours doing your thing, it’s to respond to the way the world wants things to happen. It’s de-centralized.
This has felt particularly apt for me over the past few weeks. Thank you, world.
4. Yin yoga achieves balance
The weekly grind can get you down. We’re always watching the clock. We’re getting children to school/clubs on time, rushing for the train, keeping our bosses/partners happy, I could go on.
We’re also always on the go when we do finally relax. TV keeps our minds active and we also stay busy when we exercise – going to the gym, running, cycling – or even through more energetic forms of yoga such as ashtanga and vinyasa flow. They all generate heat and get you moving.
This is all great, but we have to make space to be still and surrender.
Yin provides this balance. Being still can be hard but it’s necessary to counter all the busy-ness in our hectic Western lives.
5. Yin yoga is about awareness
When we practice yin yoga, it’s inward focussed. We start to notice sensations within, and naturally you’ll find that you start to watch your mind. We notice our thoughts – whether they’re positive or negative, linked to the past or the future, and whether they’re recurring. It allows us to connect within.
So there you go. There’s my five reasons. Perhaps you’ve encountered similar things if you’ve practiced yin yoga. Feel free to leave your observations below.
I teach weekly yin yoga classes at Bermondsey Fayre, London SE1; The Yoga Hall in St Albans; and from 25 February I’ll be starting a weekly class at BAYoga Studio in Berkhamsted. More details on the class schedule page. I also teach monthly yin yoga and yin/yang workshops in Hertfordshire.
Norman Blair is one of the UK’s leading yin yoga teachers and has been teaching in London for over ten years. His monthly yin workshops at Globe House in Bermondsey are wonderful and leave you floating for at least three days after you leave the building (speaking from personal experience).
Norman kindly took the time to answer some questions.
CW: Tell me about your first yoga class.
NB: My first class was at Bodywise East London and a friend took me as she thought it would be good for me. I don’t really remember much about the class but what I do remember is that my friend, who I’m still in touch with, thinks it’s funny that I now teach yoga. She says that she’d never seen anyone as stiff or uncoordinated as me. There I was then… and here I am now!
I know there’s teachers who come from a place where they’re naturally really gifted in their bodies, but I really wasn’t one of them. It can be an asset to experience stiffness, a lack of coordination, difficulty with body parts and injuries. It allows you to see how much potential there is for change.
I went to those classes in East London for a bit, and then in 1993 a friend of mine called Oz was doing an Iyengar teacher training and needed her own group. I volunteered and over the next five years we’d meet in her living room on a regular basis.
Oz then went to Crete in 1995 to spend time with Radha and Pierre – John Scott’s teachers – and came back with an ashtanga practice. I remember sitting in her living room while she did a demo of the primary series. It was really intense – watching this small woman demonstrate such control, flow and grace. After that, I was hooked. I’ve been practicing ashtanga ever since and I also get a lot from Iyengar classes with Alaric Newcombe.
What I’ve learnt though is that less is more. People get confused with ashtanga and think that it’s all fast and intense but what’s the rush? Pattabhi Jois said, “you take it slowly”. We just need to slow down. One class a week is fine. I did that for five or six years.
I first encountered yin yoga at the Manchester Buddhist Centre in November 2001. It was unlike anything I’d experienced and the next year I met Sarah Powers. She’s been my yin teacher ever since.
CW: How do you describe yin yoga to someone who’s unfamiliar with the practice?
NB: It’s a very soft, slow form of yoga. It gives us time to be more gentle to ourselves. It’s a perfect antidote to the rest of our lives which are often spent chasing around.
One of my favourite lines is from Pico Iyer: “The mind is more than capable of seeing a stationary blue car and constructing out of it a six-act melodrama.” I know that’s true of me.
But yin gives us a chance to slow down. It gives us the chance to take our time. It gives us the chance to create space where we can be more aware of how distracted we can be.
I’d also say that yin is a potential bridge between western yoga classes and a more meditative practice. We need to stop and slow down. It’s so important.
Personally speaking, yin has really helped to open my body but what I would say is that people who are hyperflexible need to be cautious in yin as there’s no strengthening work. Just because you can go deeply into a pose doesn’t mean you’re ‘good’ at yin.
But it’s really helped to open my body. It helps that I love it as well.
CW: How does yin challenge you?
NB: By nature I’m fairly impatient and impetuous. To be still is hard. To maintain a level of attention is also a challenge. And to not get caught up comparing myself to someone else.
CW: How would you describe your teaching style?
NB: If someone’s really laid back in their everyday life, when it comes to their teaching, I wonder if they’re really up tight and like, “Do this! Do that!” Whereas in my normal life I’m quite focussed and impatient. I have the speedy London walk and I’m aware of the impact that’s had on my life.
As a result, when I’m teaching I’m all about taking it slowly, taking it easy. We have to let go of thinking, “I can’t do this…” or “I used to be able to do that…”
I encourage people approach their practice as “here I am right here in this body, right now as it actually is.”
Someone said to me that it’s about being firm but fair and I want to help people find their potential by using skillful effort. In western culture it’s all about striving for the goal and we push ourselves too hard. And there’s always more goals. Where does it end? We need to be gentle with ourselves whilst also applying a bit of a push.
We also need to be conscious of how each day is different. Some days we might need more of a push and, on others, we might just need to put our feet up on the sofa. It’s accepting that that’s ok. We have to just do what feel right with a level of skillful inquiry.
I like to think of myself as a conduit for helping people to find their potential.
Of course I still have lots to learn. I know I find it hard letting go of people. Sometimes people don’t come back to classes and sometimes I have to suggest to students that they need to go to another teacher.
For example, I’m half way through the second series and, being realistic, I’m probably not going to get much further. If there are students who are going beyond that, I can’t teach them asanas that I don’t practice myself. I’ve suggested before now that students go to Hamish Hendry. It’s hard but it’s right for them and I have to let go.
CW: How do you bring the practice of yoga into your everyday life?
NB: I feel that the word ‘yoga’ comes with baggage. I’m quite influenced by Michael Stone and he prefers to call it ‘intimacy’. Matthew Remski calls it ‘evolutionary movement’.
When someone’s doing a dance class, they can be far less striving and goal orientated than someone doing a yoga class. It’s about what we bring to the situation. It’s about working on ourselves and transformation.
We all live in this world but I feel we have to be conscious of the choices we make. I fly, for example. But I do believe in social transformation and the more aware we become of our inner landscape, the more conscious we can become about other people.
There was a book written about a Buddhist nun called Tenzin Palmo: ‘A Cave in the Snow’ and she talked about how great it would be if when we meet people on the street, our first thought were: “may they be happy and well”. Not judging them on the way they look, or the clothes they’re wearing. Not thinking “I don’t like you” or “you remind me of so and so”.
It’s these unconscious conversations in our head. Part of the practice is becoming aware of these conversations and just seeing people and things for their natural beauty.
I also enjoy the practice of eating in silence. You just eat with no distractions – no TV, books or music. The food actually tastes better! You’ll eat more slowly, you’ll eat less, and you’ll become more satisfied.
I’ve also been thinking recently about the sustainability of my physical practice. Is your practice sustainable? If we’re going to strive and sweat and grunt and groan, it could be debatable. It’s ok when you’re 25 but I turned 50 this year and I approach my practice very differently to ten years ago.
I’ve learnt a lot. I do it less. I do ashtanga 3-4 times a week and I love it. But I want to be able to do it in ten or 20 years’ time. I want my practice to be sustainable.
This practice of working on ourselves will continue until our last breath.
CW: What’s the best thing about teaching yoga?
NB: I remember when I started teaching, someone said to me: “Don’t give up your day job”. I took this on board and I said I’d give it six months and see if I could manage financially and also to see if I’d enjoy it. Fortunately, it went well and I continued.
I’m always looking to evolve how I teach and learn more about teaching. Continuity and consistency of teacher is important. We can learn so much by putting our nose to the grindstone and spending time with a specific teacher. We can learn so much by staying with a situation – it’s like a relationship with a partner. If you decide to give up after three months, what do you learn?
I’ve been going to Hamish Hendry’s ashtanga classes for 14 years, I’ve spent 12 years practicing yin with Sarah Powers. I’ve learnt a lot by sticking with teachers.
CW: If you didn’t spend your weeks teaching yoga, how else do you think you’d spend your time?
NB: Before I taught yoga, I did a variety of different things. I worked for a local authority, I worked on a fruit and veg stall in Spitalfields market. I’m not sure how I’d spend my time but I know I wouldn’t be so happy.
But you know, you’ve got to make the most of this life. Life is so short and precious. With my alliteration hat on, I’d say that I just teach the preciousness of life, the precariousness of life, and the parasympathetic nervous system…
CW: What makes you happy?
NB: A good book. The taste of food. Bouncing on trampolines. Being in my kitchen. Standing on the top of Parliament Hill Fields looking over London. Standing on my head. Simple stuff.
CW: What are you up to over the next few months?
NB: I’m very excited about a teacher training I’m starting at my new studio in North London with Melanie Cooper. We teach day workshops together and a few months ago we were doing one and everyone was lying in savasana and we thought that we could do it as a teacher training.
We work well together and it’s a nice balance – Melanie’s got a lot of experience teaching ashtanga and has run teacher trainings before. I’ve taught people how to teach yin on five-day intensives and yin is definitely needed in today’s world.
I also run supervision groups for yoga teachers. All psychotherapists have to go for supervision after qualifying and it’s the same with acupuncturists and other professions. It’s totally accepted.
But in yoga teaching, you do your training and then you’re set adrift. When I first started teaching, it would have been great to meet together with other teachers and share stuff.
Each group is closed and runs for six meetings over six months – no one new can join once it’s started, it’s confidential so we can express fears and dreams and the day-to-day difficulties and joys of teaching yoga. Also it’s a place we can bring up any issues with students. I think it’s a really important thing to get going. The first session is an introduction on Sunday 1 December where you can come along and have a chat and see if you’re interested.
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.
This Sunday morning I’m going to start teaching a Yin Yoga class at Bermondsey Fayre near London Bridge station. The following is a conversation I had with YOU!
“What is Yin Yoga?”
Well I’m very pleased you asked that question as I was about to tell you. It’s a form of yoga that works on stretching the body’s connective tissue (ligaments) by holding postures for longer. We might hold a posture for anything up to 7 minutes.
“That sounds intense. Who’s it for?”
Anyone can do Yin but it’s ideal for people who already do some form of sport. Perhaps you enjoy going to the gym or you run or swim. You might already practice an energetic type of yoga such as Ashtanga, Power Yoga or Bikram.
“Why should I practice Yin?”
Because it works on a really deep level to open your body. It also can stop you getting injuries. Muscularly powerful people can become incapacitated because of joint problems. Bad backs, bad knees – these are the injuries that force sporty people to stop doing what they love and make elderly people shuffle about. Yin Yoga postures gently stretch the connective tissues that form our joints.
“I didn’t think you could stretch connective tissue.”
Oh little did you know! Moderately stretching the joints is good for you but it must be done in a Yin fashion – ie gently and over a period of time. Hence why we hold the postures for quite a few minutes.
Think about our teeth. You can’t exercise your teeth by wiggling them about as they won’t move. But if you wear a brace, gradually, over time, they move. This is like Yin and your flexibility will improve enormously. By surrendering to gravity, you can go deeper into poses. You relax your muscles and the release naturally happens.
For more information about yoga classes at Bermondsey Fayre visit their website or or email Liz to book your place for this Sunday.
I’ve taken this information from Paul Grilley. To find out more about him, visit www.paulgrilley.com.
Learn more about Yin Yoga by watching this video by Bernie Clark:
I’m on the beach at Kovalam watching the sun set on India for the final time. I recognise a middle-aged couple from the Sivananda ashram standing in the shallows watching the sun too. They both wear silver om necklaces and look sun kissed.
I walk towards them and they welcome me like a long lost friend. We didn’t speak once at the ashram. They say in broken English that they speak no English. I tell them that I leave for London tomorrow morning. They leave for Berlin in two day’s time.
She mimes singing and points at me. They must have heard me leading a chant during satsang. “Sing… engel” she says pointing at me. She points to her forearm and mimes what can only be goosebumps. “Singing… engel” she says again. She beams at me and touches my arm tenderly.
I thank her for such a wonderful compliment and we part. I continue to walk along the beach letting each wave wash over my feet. Tears spring from my eyes. India is beautiful. Whatever you offer to Her, she returns it ten-fold.
I walk further along the beach. The glamorous girl who played terrible Russian pop music in the dorm is sitting on the beach watching the scene. We wave to each other from afar.
Groups of Indian boys throw sand at each other and boldly ask me how I am. Young couples in love take photos of one another. Indian women in drenched salwar kameez sit on sun loungers waiting for their daughters to finish playing in the water.
Stephen from the ashram is throwing a frisbee in the air, trying to catch it. He goes to the Putney Sivananda Centre from time to time and lives in Plymouth. He talks enthusiastically about how yoga saved him from an unfulfilling life down the pub. “Pubs contain such dark energy, don’t you think?”
Thinking about my time away since July, my goal was to practice and increase my knowledge of yoga and I certainly feel like I’ve achieved that.
From my five weeks in Koh Samui with Michel Besnard and the gang, I learnt so much about Ashtanga yoga, my own body and about other types of yoga such as Yin and Acro. My teaching will never be the same again.
The Absolute Yogis
I learnt what it means to be ‘yo-glam‘ on Koh Phang An, and I can now give Thai Massage based on the time I spent in Chiang Mai.
I was also glad to have the opportunity to catch up with my yoga buddy Sherylee and her husband in Sri Lanka.
Three on a motorbike: with Sherylee and Brett
During the two months I’ve been in India, I witnessed the madness of Osho’s glitzy ashram and felt Amma’s love through her ‘darshan’ or blessing. In Goa I was barked at for two weeks doing Iyengar and I got to see the big man himself in Pune.
Hangin’ in Goa
I’ve had a go at learning the harmonium and gained insight into the daily life of an Indian family courtesy of Babaji and the Dhabolkars in Arambol, Goa.
The sun has set and it’s time for my final meal. I feel sad but happy and blessed to have had this entire experience. I know I’ll be back. India does that to you. The yoga helps too. It certainly brings people together.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my blog while I’ve been away. Thank you for all the comments, encouragement and the personal emails prompted by my witterings.
From next year I’ll continue to write about yoga related things. Have lovely Christmases and New Years and remember to stay positive and follow your dreams.
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!”
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…
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.
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.
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.