On yoga, on life: a review

Have you got Netflix? If you have, I highly recommend a film on there called ‘On Yoga: The Architecture of Peace’. It’s about a bloke called Michael O’Neill who used to photograph Hollywood stars. In a nutshell: he got injured, was told he’d never use his arm again, found yoga and meditation, his arm recovered.

As a result, he decided to devote his time photographing yogis. The film features interviews with teachers talking about yoga philosophy. They are wonderful. The kundalini teacher Gurmukh talking about fear of death, Eddie Stern on community and peace. Swamis explaining how we are not our body and how yoga is every minute of the day. I particularly remember one teacher saying that we’ll only be happy when we let go of desire. It’s the wanting that makes us unhappy.

Not so great are the clips of him taking photos of young yogis doing extreme poses in front of beautiful scenery – silhouetted against a sunset, a grafitti’d wall, the New York skyline. Skimpy clothes. Why do it? Why conform to a yoga stereotype? If these teachers are saying yoga is so much more than the physical body, why bring it back to that?

Kumbh Mela, 2010

Anyway, it was good to watch. He visited the Kumbh Mela – the massive Hindu pilgrimage that takes place at different locations along sacred rivers. I had the honour of being part of the Kumbh on Ma Ganga in Haridwar, India, in 2010 – something I’ll never forget.

I finished the film and took a moment to consider my current life with a one-year old baby and how my life has changed since I took my dip in the Ganga eight years ago. I felt that I had drifted away from yoga somewhat. I’m struggling to get on my mat and there are a lot of pooey nappies.

But then I thought a little more: this is my yoga at the moment. It’s not the beautiful asanas but it’s the day-to-day grittiness of life. One Swami in the film explained Bhakti yoga – the yoga of devotion. I’d also say it’s Karma yoga – giving without any expectation of reward. I am devoting myself to my son and my family.

Can I care for him in a way that is kind and caring? We do our gratitude practice while he has his bedtime milk. We chant along to Swami Vishnudevananda in the car on the way to the local soft play centre.

And while I haven’t managed an unaided headstand for over a year now, it’ll come back at some point. I’m happy if I manage a few sun salutations and standing poses.

So if you have Netflix, watch it. But please pay more attention to the words of wisdom than the cliched contortions…

Have you seen it? What are you thoughts?

(Thank you to my Berkhamsted buddy Laura for suggesting I look it up.)

Teacher interview: April Nunes Tucker

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?

April Nunes Tucker
Dr April flying high. Image courtesy of Carli Spokes.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Doing the physical postures or ‘asanas’. These traditionally belong to the system of Hatha Yoga.
  4. Practicing pranayama exercises – breath control.
  5. Observing what’s going on inside, instead of outside (pratyahara)
  6. Developing concentration (dharana)
  7. Meditating (dhyana)
  8. Superconsciousness (samadhi)

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

Baba Hari Dass
Baba Hari Dass. Image from http://www.mountmadonna.org

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.

Clare Wener and April Nunes Tucker
Discussing the intricacies of the Ashtanga Primary Series or just as likely: the songs of Dolly Parton. Thanks Carli Spokes for the image.

CW: Complete the sentence: A life without yoga would be….

ANT: Discombobulating.

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:

Have you spent time in yoga communities/ashrams? Or has reading this encouraged you to find out more about them? Feel free to comment below…






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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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