Why is there so much ashtanga yoga in Harpenden? My highly scientific theory.

Harpenden sign
Image thanks to thegroveharpenden.co.uk

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…

Yin yoga workshop at BAYoga Studio, Berkhamsted: Saturday 14 September

Yin/Yang yoga workshop at Breathing Space in Harpenden (Yes! Get off the sofa!): Saturday 21 September

Weekly yin classes in Southdown, Harpenden: Tuesdays, 8-9.15pm


And if you’ve read this far, Congratulations. Here’s a little treat: How to practice yoga with your cat

Teacher training: Yin Yoga

We’ve just finished five days of Yin Yoga with Yogi Nora and it’s been a funny old week.

The classes were great – two hours of complete bliss doing a handful of poses aimed at increasing our flexibility by holding for anything between three and 20 minutes.

In Yin, you use bolsters and blankets to feel supported and there’s little emphasis on alignment. The poses work on stretching the body’s tendons and ligaments and, by holding for extended periods of time, you’re safely working to open these connective tissues. You breathe through your abdomen and there’s no mention of mula bandha. It all felt much more familiar to me than the regimented exertion of Ashtanga. Nora warned us the practice was very deep – opening both physically and mentally and the experience was emotional for many of us. 

In the first afternoon session Nora talked about the principles behind the practice – one of which is about how you shouldn’t engage your muscles. This was totally at odds with the anatomy that the ninja Michelle Lam taught us a few weeks ago –  ie the only way to avoid injury is by engaging all your muscles as if your life depended on it. Many on the course have pre-existing injuries and were wary/sceptical of Nora’s teachings. This clip from Paul Grilley explains the theory of Yin well.

I was trying to stay open and positive as I was enjoying her classes despite her use of words such as “crotch” and “gut” and phrases including “you need to lift like a mother, man”. But maybe I’m being a reserved Brit.

As the week progressed, we played tag as we each taught different poses to the rest of the class. It’s a different ballgame when there’s little to say about alignment. Our goal was to keep students focused in the poses without letting them die, man. We read spiritual quotes, invented meditations, encouraged them to “let it all hang out” and “inhaling and then exhaling blurrrrghhh…blurrrghh…blurrrrghhhhhhh”. Drooling on the mat is totally ok in the world of Yin.

Yesterday, four of us missed her final class. Lovely Abu Dhabi Debbie’s stepmum died unexpectedly and Lucy was mugged by two guys on a scooter on the road outside the resort. The other two were visiting the chiropractor. Morale is quite low but Michel and Rosalyn have been marvellous offering hugs and support to those in need.

We ended our five-day week by Michel showing us the film Siddhartha, an Indian spiritual Ben Hur, and I loved it. Watch a trailer here:

Siddhartha eventually gains enlightenment working as a ferryman taking people across a river. Over breakfast today I discussed the film’s messages with Michel and he talked about how whichever way we try and row our boat, the current will always take us in the correct direction. We can go against the flow, but it’ll get us in the end. Things happen because they’re meant to happen and it’s what we learn from the experiences that’s important. We also discussed our love of cats and that was nice too.

Has anyone else done Yin? Any thoughts? I’d like to include Yin in my personal practice and teach it on my return home.

Teacher training: Madonna inspires Sanskrit chanting

An ashtanga class normally starts with an opening mantra chanted by the teacher. Michel’s been leading the chant each morning but he now wants us to take turns.

Mitch did a sterling job this morning and, as Michel gazed around the room looking for the next victim, his eyes met mine. “Clare, how do you fancy volunteering for tomorrow?” I wasn’t totally sure that that was how the concept of ‘volunteering’ worked but I dutifully accepted. I’m turning to youtube for help as Michel is certainly no Krishna Das (read a previous post about his chanting).

Anyway, I wanted to share these clips with you just so you can see what I’ve got to work with.

Guruji himself, Sri Pattabhi Jois, opens a class:


A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…. some yogis tried to learn a Sanskrit chant. We also have the Star Wars version:


A nice, sensible karaoke version:


And finally, the Madonna version! I would so love to do this version tomorrow morning. I’m thinking backing singers, dancers, the full monty.. well erm, not quite the full monty. It might be a bit early for that sort of behaviour but we will be scantily clad. There’s no sign of baggy, loose fitting clothing here.


And I’m pretty sure I spotted a Madonna/Britney mash-up rajasic version in the search results somewhere…

Anyway, think of me tomorrow morning at about 7.30am Thai time. That’s 1.30am UK time. I expect you to set your alarms.