For those of you who don’t know, I’m now 23 weeks pregnant. Over the past few weeks I’ve started to get a lot of pain around my pelvis – a condition known as symphysis pubis dysfunction (spd) or pelvic girdle pain (pgp).
I had this when I was pregnant with my son, Jacob, but not to this degree and it began much later during my pregnancy.
I’ve seen an osteopath a couple of times and today while she was moving me around, she said, “ You are very mobile in your pelvis – maybe too mobile.”
Now, I know this. I have a naturally flexible pelvis. I’ve never really had to work to sit in padmasana (lotus pose) and other hip-related poses come relatively easily to me. But what good is that if, during pregnancy, you lose the strength to contain that flexibility? And what good is it when you’re in physical pain getting up the stairs?
Very often people are in awe of flexibility in yoga, fuelled by images on social media and other channels. Bendiness is something to strive for and if only I had a penny for every time I’ve heard someone say, “I can’t do yoga. I can’t touch my toes.”
The curse of flexibility in yoga has been well documented – London teacher Jess Glenny writes a lot about it and my teacher Norman Blair has written this piece from a yin perspective.
I know that my pelvic pain will go away once I’ve given birth but I wonder if my practice has exacerbated the problem. I know of other yoga teachers who’ve had similar issues during pregnancy. Or perhaps it’s purely down to the pregnancy hormone relaxin opening my body and the pelvic ligaments being stretched from my previous labour and childbirth.
Who knows? But for now, it’s cat/cow, chest openers, pelvic tilts and hip circles for me.
For this reason, the 2 March yin yoga workshop at BAYoga Studio will be my final one before I meet my second child in June.
Kate Atkinson will provide cover until I return in October/November.
What a week! Cathy and I would like to thank everyone who joined us at Can Dream in northern Ibiza. We think it was the best holiday yet. Thank you for your good humour, dedication to the practice and for generally being good eggs.
Last month I taught my last yin workshop at Bermondsey Fayre. It marked the end of an era: Up until now, I’ve always taught in Bermondsey.
When I first started teaching, I set up a weekly class in Bermondsey Village Hall – tucked in amongst Leathermarket Gardens with its stark silver birches and meandering snowdrops and crocuses. The Shard was just a building site back then but now it looms large over the roses and squirrels.
Now when I’ve cut through on an early Sunday morning on my way to Bermondsey Fayre, the village hall is home to a South East Asian gathering doing their weekly praising with much hand-clapping, tabourining and joyous voices.
I’ve taught at Bermondsey Fayre for three years – first weekly and then monthly but I’m no longer in London and it’s a long journey from St Albans on a Sunday morning.
It’s the people that I’ll miss the most:
The giggles in class.
The groaning when I suggest you kneel, tuck your toes under and sit on your heels (you know who you are).
The occasional in-jokes.
The faces when you finally come up to sitting.
The apologetic latecomers whose penance is a spot directly in front of me.
The prop cupboard Jenga.
The wriggling up and down in twists to accommodate the pole/wall…
The catching up with people’s lives and the goodbye hugs.
But it’s Liz Dillon who has made it all happen. The place is full of beautiful things made with love and a lot of it is Liz’s love.
Thank you to everyone who’s ever spent a Sunday morning yinning with me. If you suffer from yin withdrawl symptoms (a longing for mindful poetry and being read to, blankets and eyebags, increased crankiness and hunched backs, etc) I can highly recommend Norman’s workshops at the West London Buddhist Centre or St Albans isn’t far.
Thank you to Liz for these kind words:
We are very sad to say goodbye to our lovelier than lovely Clare Wener who has brought so much joy to Bermondsey Fayre and has stretched out and released tension in so many of our muscles with her fantastic yin workshops.
There is always a sense of bliss when I walk into Bermondsey Fayre after Clare’s workshops and a feeling of joy, love and laughter.
Clare has been commuting from Hertfordshire for a year or two now after leaving London and time has come for her to pull back from her London teaching and put more of her energy into her new home and community where she is living.
We will miss you Clare!
Last weekend marked the end of an era. I taught my last yin yoga class at Bermondsey Fayre and I am no longer teaching a weekly class in London. Instead, I will be focusing on classes in Hertfordshire.
I’ve had a long standing relationship with teaching yoga in Bermondsey near London Bridge. The first class I ever set up was at Bermondsey Village Hall in SE1.
Memories include my Mumbai friend Sundeep in London for work, joining us on a Thursday evening. He brought along Indian sweets for everyone.
This was also the place where I once – note ‘once’ – suggested that students should “flower their anuses” in down dog. A certain someone collapsed on her mat in hysterics and I think she’s still recovering.
Then I met Liz Dillon through various circuitous events and so began my relationship with Bermondsey Fayre – a little shop with a whole lotta love.
I’ve enjoyed my early Sunday morning commute into the city. The girl in the coffee shop on Harpenden station knows my order and I’m normally her first customer.
Whilst the train sits at Blackfriars, I look over the Thames, the sleeping City, Tower Bridge and Tate Modern. The South Bank is empty except for keen runners.
I get off at London Bridge and try not to get knocked over by the wind tunnel caused by The Shard. I snake through the back streets of Bermondsey, taking in the old brick-built buildings now converted into luxurious flats and places named Tanner Street and Leathermarket Gardens harking back to its grubby industrial past.
I walk by the Manna Centre and an old man with a white beard turned yellow often sits in a doorway diligently making rollies. On a Sunday, Bermondsey Village Hall is being used by the local Filipino community praising the heavens with their tambourines. I bet there’s no flowering of anuses happening there then.
It’s in stark contrast to the trendy pubs on Bermondsey Street and the Bermondsey Coffee Shop – full of hipsters with beards (the men), partially shaven heads (the women) and posters of Philip Schofield, Roland Rat and Vanilla Ice… in, like, an ironically cool kind of way.
My weekly classes at Bermondsey Fayre have been a delight. I love the yogis there. It’s a small space and we need heaters but everyone’s so friendly and there’s such a sense of community.
Teresa has a special place in my heart. We first met when we shared a room on a New Year yoga retreat in Somerset and she’s been coming to my Bermondsey Fayre class since the start. I’ll miss our chats in the park and coffees after class. She always has pearls of wisdom to impart.
Liz Dillon is the Bermondsey Fayre glue. I love Liz. She’s provided wise advice on my choice in men, guided me through my one and only ever experience of expressive movement and she’s just fab.
And so I’d just like to say thank you to everyone who’s ever been to one of my classes in Bermondsey. I have appreciated your presence and I hope you’ve got something out of it – even if no more than a serious attack of the giggles… I’m talking to you, Sandra Lynes.
I will still be teaching monthly yin workshops at Bermondsey Fayre. The first one will be Sunday 1 June, 10am – midday and is £25. If you would like to book, please email Liz. Bermondsey Fayre offers yoga classes throughout the week. Visit the website to find out more.
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.
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.
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.
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…
Last weekend I taught a yin workshop at BAYoga Studio in Berkhamsted. We did happy baby pose and I suggested to students that they took hold of the inside of the soles of their feet, allowing their knees to relax towards their armpits.
Afterwards, a friend in the class mentioned that it feels much better for her to take hold of the outsides of her feet. Holding the insides made her shoulders and chest feel restricted. “That’s odd”, I thought. Trying it at home, my shoulders and chest felt open, no problem. And then I thought about my hips. I have very open hips so my knees are wide enough apart to allow for my shoulders to relax in the space between my knees. Her hips aren’t quite as open as mine and so by holding the outsides of her feet, her chest broadens and she feels the benefits of the pose.
This got me thinking about different people’s bodies and how we approach poses. Not too long ago, someone asked me whether I could get my heels down to the mat in down facing dog. I said yes and they looked amazed. But is that due to having super stretchy hamstrings or just because of the way I’m built?
Perhaps my hamstrings have lengthened somewhat through practice, but getting my heels to the floor has never been hard. It’s surely got more to do with the fact that that I have a wide range of movement in my ankle joint due to the shape of my bones.
Likewise, I’m restricted in movement in my wrists. When I stretch my hand backwards, it hardly comes back. So when I try to do handstands, I need to place the edge of a cushion or a wedge between the heel of my hand and the floor to lessen the angle and pressure on my wrists.
Take my sister’s elbows as another example. She hyperextends through her elbows meaning that when she stretches her arm out, palm facing up, her elbows bends beyond 180 degrees. There’s no pain, it’s just how she’s made. When she practices yoga, some of her poses might look a bit odd. Ok, so she may never make it into a book of beautiful yoga poses (sorry Katharine, I still love you), but it works for her.
It’s just how we’re built and we need to work with the body and bone shape we’ve been given. We might feel a need to strive to create the ‘perfect’ pose, but for many of us, our bodies can’t do certain things because of ‘compression’ i.e. the range of movement we can achieve due to the shape of our bones and also how they meet at joints.
Regardless of how many hours of practice we put in, we can’t change this. It doesn’t mean that her pose is ‘better’ than yours, it’s just different and yoga teaches you about gratitude and acceptance: accepting where you are in your practice and more broadly who you are as a person.
If this sort of thing interests you, check out Paul Grilley. He talks a lot about anatomy. His DVD ‘Anatomy for Yoga’ is rather good too.