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Confession

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This is my first ever blog, it’s more of a confession really, it’s a big confession for a yoga teacher. I am not really into Yoga Philosophy! Yes, I know, it’s like saying that I have never read the Hatha Yoga Pradapika or I don’t like avocados (I have a copy of the HYP on my bookcase and I love avocados by the way).

Just because I don’t embrace yoga philosophy does not mean that I have a problem with it. I didn’t like history at school, yet I understand the importance of documenting it, remembering it, celebrating it, learning from it, I just couldn’t tell you the dates when things happened or exactly who was involved. I live in the present moment, isn’t that what yogis are supposed to do?

For me, the yoga approach is what’s important, the feeling, the emotions, the ethics; this is what the 8 limbs of yoga are about. The first two being the Yamas and Niyamas. I have met yogis who could recite what Arjuna said to Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, yet they do not follow the basic principles of yoga by spending their Friday nights in a steak house and driving their sports car to the corner shop. It’s no use spreading knowledge if you can’t adhere to the moral principles you preach about.

The Yamas are the five ethical standards which focus on our own behaviour: Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (right use of energy) and Aparigraha (non-greed or non-hoarding). To adhere to these standards we should be non-violent and truthful to ourselves, do not expect more of ourselves than is possible. We should not steal time and emotions from others to satisfy ourselves. We should not plough all of our energy into fruitless things or hold back when we have more energy to dedicate. We should not fill our lives with grandiose and unnecessary possessions.

The Niyamas are regarding self-discipline and observations: Saucha (cleanliness), Santosha (contentment), Tapas (discipline), Svadhyaya (self-study) and Isvara pranidhana (surrender to a higher power). To adhere to these standards we should keep ourselves clean, we should be content with what we have and we should be self-disciplined. We should study our own behaviour, we should seek knowledge and we should study God, if that is what we believe in. Surrender to a higher power could be religious or it could be interpreted as our awareness that we cannot always have personal control of everything.

If we are able to live by these principles, surely we are the ultimate yogis, does it matter what Arjuna said to Krishna?

You have probably guessed by now that my classes do not involve chanting (though I go with the flow in classes I attend), I do not discuss chakras and meridian lines (though it’s all interesting enough) nor do quote philosophy and texts. What I do encourage in my classes is for students to be kind to themselves, respect themselves and be appreciative of what they can achieve. I don’t think I need to do more. Once a person is happy in their own body and mind and respectful of themselves, the rest follows. It all starts with you.

Namaste. x

wildthing + fab

How to find the right yoga class

Yesterday I had an email from someone who regularly attended my classes until moving away. It’s always great to hear from my ex-yogis, but unfortunately this time, it was because she was seeking reassurance after having a negative yoga class experience. Firstly, I must point out that I do not know the teacher, nor do they teach locally or even in England, hence why I feel able to blog about it. Secondly, I am certain this is a rare event and I do not wish to discourage people from attending yoga classes.

I was very upset by this email, not only because the person involved is lovely, but because nobody should ever feel distressed by a yoga class! I appreciate that when attending a new class our expectations are frequently not met – this is not meant in a negative way so please continue reading.

There are always going to be teachers who need to improve no matter what the subject and being a good teacher does not mean you need to be the best at what you teach, it’s about the whole package – personality, empathy, understanding, integrity, impartiality etc. I would be mortified if I discovered a student felt I had not made them feel welcome, been interested in their health and well-being, encouraged them or guided them; therefore I am assuming the teacher in question would feel the same.

Moving on from the actual event, I was asked in the email ‘how to find a good yoga class?’ This is very hard to answer, but the check list below might help:

  1. Is the teacher qualified (or working towards a qualification) – look for 200 hours RYT on the website (or ask)
  2. What is the style of yoga – vinyasa, hatha, ashtanga, yin, iyenga etc – this should indicate whether the class will be focused on alignment, involve chanting, whether it will flow or have static postures etc.
  3. Read the description of the class e.g. if you are looking for a strong physical class look for words like dynamic, energetic, moving etc. , if you want a chilled out class look for words like restorative, relaxing, calming.
  4. Look at pictures on their website or social media pages – you should get a feel for their personality, inspirations and aspirations.
  5. Find out where the venue is – it’s important that the venue feels right for you, regardless as to whether it’s a community centre or a swanky studio.

After that, its trial and error I’m afraid. There are so many styles of yoga and so many interpretations of yoga that every teacher seems to be different. This is both wonderful and problematic at the same time.

I have recently been making time to attend other classes with James, as he completes his teacher training. No class has been the same and despite going through the checklist above, I have rarely got the class I have envisaged. Despite the variety of each class I have attended both recently and over the years, the most common factor is that I have left most feeling more up-beat, relaxed and/or inspired. Most teachers offer first class free or give a discount to beginners, so it’s worth a try. I am aware that despite my marketing, some people are surprised by how physically challenging my classes are (and I’m sure there are those who wanted a greater challenge). I am also aware that some feel my classes lack a spiritual element but I teach what resonates with me and I find this attracts like-minded individuals, making it a pleasant community atmosphere. If a student does not come back after their first class I always hope they try others and find one that ticks the boxes.  I have spoken to several yoga teachers recently who also teach in the style they believe in and express themselves through their own interpretation of yoga. This is wonderful because we teachers are fully immersed in what we do and love what we do, therefore giving a totally authentic experience. The problem occurs in trying to find a class to suit your desires. Try new classes, try new styles, if you find a teacher you really like keep returning, but if you ever leave a class feeling more anxious then when you arrived – please keep looking!

Lastly, thank you to all of the teachers I have visited recently – I have been inspired, I have been amused, I have been utterly relaxed and I have been welcomed.

Age is not a barrier

I often get yoga enquiries from people who state their age before telling me anything else about themselves. A typical enquiry would be “I’m 65, is your class suitable for me?” I have to very politely say that I don’t care how old they are, unless they are under 16 and in that case they must attend with an adult for my insurance purposes. Age tells me very little about a person’s fitness, outlook or health. I have several regular yogis over the age of 60 who are physically fit, body aware and keep up with people half their age. I am 40 and never felt fitter than the last few years; I would definitely not have had the confidence, stamina, strength, flexibility or ability to teach a yoga class in my teens or twenties.

Feel free to tell me your age, but what I need to know to answer the “….is your class suitable for me?” enquiry is what you put on the health form before you start the class. Even then it’s not that simple, it depends on your outlook, determination, severity of your illness, medication, length of time since you had a baby/depression/surgery etc.

I had a lovely lady start classes recently, who had an issue with her back. She started by telling me that she may feel pain in a certain part of her back, yet her doctor had reassured her that this would not be causing further damage in this case and if she was happy to continue she should. Sometimes the healing process causes pain, for example breaking through scar tissue which is restrictive, though I could never recommend such a thing to anyone myself. How wonderful that her medical practitioner had given such advise allowing her to continue with the necessary movement to build strength in the rest of her body (age was not a factor in this incidence).

I had another lady start classes recently who had clearly used a lot of courage to simply enter the room. It was absolutely wonderful to see the startled rabbit expression slowly melt into a relaxed smile by the end of class, showing that determination is certainly a requirement for some. Continuing the determination and wanting to make a change can sometimes be a long and difficult path and the positive class atmosphere you wonderful yogis help me to create is as important as my teaching.

Whilst I am incredibly grateful to doctors, physiotherapists, chiropractors etc. for recommending their clients take up yoga, it is very difficult to explain to people with illnesses, injuries and conditions that there are many different styles of yoga and mine may not suit them. For a doctor to say take up ‘yoga’ is as vague as recommending you lower your cholesterol. What is it, where is it, what should I expect, how should I feel?

Unfortunately a lady recently attended a class and had to give up five minutes into it. We had spoken on the phone, I had suggested my class may not be what the doctor had in mind for her and I could recommend some more suitable teachers/classes. I also said my first class was free and she was welcome to try it if she wished to. I do not like to assume too much until I have physically met the person (we’re going back to determination/aptitude/assuming age is a barrier/not knowing what to expect from a new experience). In this case it didn’t work out and I really hope she finds a suitable alternative, but if I turned people away because of their age I would have missed out on meeting some great yoga students.

Yoga – interpretation not judgement

As someone who practices, teaches and studies yoga, and as a social media user I am often reading and hearing people’s views about what they think yoga is, what the benefits are, who should be practicing it, why they should be practicing it, what their expectations should be and how it will change their lives……

Yoga is translated as ‘to yolk’, to join, or unison. Unison of body, mind and breath.

Yoga is an ancient tradition; it has been around for thousands of years. It has been interpreted and followed in vastly different ways by vastly different people. So, what’s the problem with that? Well, none, so long as no-one is misled or harmed, I hope you agree?

I do get concerned with traditions for the sake of tradition. Traditionally a woman would be called a whore for falling pregnant following a rape, a marriage would be between a man and a woman, and fox hunting would be classed as ‘sport’ for the upper class. Traditions begin because they seem like the right thing at the time and they continue until someone questions them. Some traditions must change to fit in with society or to be morally acceptable.

Traditionally there was very little movement in yoga. The asanas were practiced in order to prepare the body for stillness, for meditation. Asana translates as ‘seat’, so traditional yoga postures were mostly seated. Society then required hard labour in order to provide the family with food and shelter, therefore there was a need for stillness and quiet.

In today’s sedate society we are forced to spend far too long sat at a desk or a driving seat, hunched over a computer or a steering wheel. Chairs in no way replicate a natural seated posture (which would be squatting). Once the working day is over, we often choose to take the same seated posture on a sofa staring at a TV screen or hunched over an electronic device.

Modern yoga practice needs to help us to straighten out our chair shaped hips, our hunched over shoulders and our over active minds.

There are many yoga teachers who wish to stick to the traditional yoga which means little movement and a lot of seated meditation. Of course the benefits of meditation and stillness can sometimes be very helpful for calming an over-active mind and relaxing an over-worked body.

In my opinion, there is a desperate need for flowing movement within our practice, both to rejuvenate our static bodies and then to allow our minds to find peace. I find that many people cannot switch off the mind whilst the body is desperate for movement, the two go hand-in-hand. You wouldn’t give a kid a handful of sweets then ask them to go to sleep, they would need to release energy in order to settle the mind. Why do we think as adults, we are different? We need to release energy with varied movement, whether that is energy caused by stress, a sedate job or repetitive movement in order to restore our bodies and minds to allow calm.

So, back to the ‘meaning’ of yoga – unison of body, mind and breath. Whether you stick to a more traditional form of yoga or choose to adapt it to the modern world, you will still, in some way or other, be uniting the body, mind and breath.

Yoga in its many forms is our interpretation, not our judgement.

James and I have been to several workshops and tried various classes this month – Ashtanga, Iyenga, Freestyle Yoga Project and Jason Crandell. I have learnt from every one of them and I love to add little bits I learn into my own practice and classes. Despite calling my classes Vinyasa, I take influence from everywhere and like to make my classes varied. Vinyasa translates as ‘to place with intent’ and is also called flow yoga, basically, I can be creative and non-restricted which is why it’s my chosen ‘style’. Yoga traditionalists often forget that there were no styles of yoga until about the 1920’s, when we began to create them. Yoga styles simply help us to create a yoga practice that appeals to the practitioner. So, regardless as to whether your preferred yoga practice involves predominantly meditation, chanting or handstands; if the mind, body and breath are present you are practicing yoga!

Be ‘More Dog’ this winter

I, like many others, struggle with winter. It makes me feel down, despite having no reason to be; it makes me lack the motivation to do even basic tasks; and it makes me feel incredibly tired, despite only working part-time hours.

Since going self-employed I spend a great deal of time with my dogs and have learnt a lot from our intense companionship. Dogs don’t seem to get SAD, so this winter, I have decided to be ‘More Dog’. Here’s how:

  1. Play: my dogs love spontaneous play and it seems to be vital for their happiness and wellbeing. It’s really important to do fun stuff to ensure life is not just about work and menial tasks. I plan to do something fun and spontaneous each day, even if it’s just kicking leaves or jumping in a puddle.
  2. Exercise: as you know, I like running. I usually run for about 3 hours a week just to tick along when I’m not training for an event. Over the last few weeks or more this has been less than an hour per week. I don’t need to tell you that exercise boosts mood, nor do I need to tell you that it’s the process of leaving the house which is the difficult bit. Running in the cold is actually really nice and the woods I usually run in are beautiful, so once I’m out, it’s all good. So, I will motivate myself to get the trainers on by thinking 30 minutes ahead, when I know I will be having a lovely time.
  3. Embrace routine – dogs love routine; once they have had breakfast they can snooze happily until it’s time for a walk. For most of my life I had tried to escape routine thinking it’s boring and constricting. I now realise that following some sort of routine and structure allows us to relax and enjoy things more. I allow myself three cups of tea a day – two in the morning and one before my evening yoga class and I actually sit down and enjoy them instead of multitasking and allowing them to go cold. Simple things J
  4. Sleep more: my dogs are snoring most of the time and they always have energy and motivation to do stuff. I love my sleep, so I’m looking forward to this one!
  5. Live in the present moment: why don’t dogs get illness from stress? Because they live in the present moment – they encounter stress, deal with it, and move on. One of our dogs is scared of most things – loud noises, fast movement, dogs approaching… If a dog runs towards her, she may grumble but when the dogs gone she shakes it off (literally) and it’s all forgotten, the tail wags again. I will try to ‘shake off’ things that upset me and smile again straight away.
  6. Stretch: dogs are great at yoga! They look joyous when they do an incredible stretch. I have set myself reminders to do my home yoga practice or attend a class several times a week. It certainly boosts my mood.

So, how have I done so far? Today I woke after a good night’s sleep, I savoured a cup of tea and practiced 30 minutes of gentle yoga in my favourite yoga wear – pyjamas. I went for a lovely run in the rain where people smiled and said hello, Fable met a Chihuahua (called Gary!) and a Labrador (called Nigel!), then for fun I practiced ‘acro-doga’ with Farah (see my Facebook/Instagram video) just for fun. My mum called too, so it’s been a great day so far, I even felt motivated to write a blog!

How do you beat the winter blues?

 

Please note:

Unfortunately, not all dogs have the opportunity to be a happy dog. Some, such as puppy farm breeding dogs can never play or move freely, they live in barren cages in their own filth with no company or toys. Incredibly, it is estimated over 20% of the 8.5 million pet dogs in the UK are NEVER walked! Many dogs are unable to sleep soundly and live in constant fear and stress due to abuse or neglect. Please adopt, not shop, for a dog if you possibly can and think long and hard about whether you can meet its needs.

Friendship

So, yesterday, I said goodbye to someone who has been attending my classes very regularly for 18 months. She is such a delightful person whom James and I got to know quite well, simply from chats pre and post yoga class. I am sad to lose a friend and excited for her as she moves abroad. It might seem strange to call my regular ‘clients’ friends, but they are. I might only get a brief insight into their lives, from the first time we meet and discuss their health issues and previous yoga experiences from the weekly chit-chat about the weather or the things we might have in common. I love to take a brief moment before or after class to ask how the dog is or how the concert was etc. I am always upset if I am distracted as people leave and I miss saying goodbye.

Whether I know very little or a lot about someone’s life seems irrelevant, I know what they want to tell me and that’s enough. A yoga class does not just involve movement and meditation, it involves connection. You may join a yoga class for socialising or you may join for solitude; whether you desire connection with others or not, it happens, that’s nature. Spend time with people, breathing and moving in unison, smiling to each other in a hazy relaxed fog after class and you will connect. Whether you enter the room stressed, troubled, joyous or contemplative, if you leave feeling uplifted then yoga has worked its magic. Smile, talk, be silent, be whatever you want to be, the whole hour of yoga practice your time.

The wonderful thing about people who practice yoga is that they become insightful, if somebody needs a smile, they seem to get it, if somebody needs quiet, they tend to find it, if somebody wants to talk then there will be someone to listen. I am usually the onlooker, the one faffing with the light switch or speakers as this goes on, but I am still connecting and enjoying the presence of wonderful people. So thank you!

Negative emotions

This week, a couple of people told me that they had considered not coming to yoga because they were too tired and busy with work. Both said their partners had encouraged them to go and at the end of the class made a point of telling me they felt better and were glad they had made the time for themselves. So, why do we need our partners to remind us what we need instead of listening to ourselves?

When I left my job as a college lecturer in June this year the first few weeks were great; I felt like I was on holiday, as that is the natural time of year for those in education to have time to breathe. After I’d had realised that I didn’t have to go back in August and I didn’t have start my twentieth academic year, I suddenly felt guilt. I felt guilty for getting up at 7am instead of 6, guilty for sitting down to eat breakfast and lunch, but mostly guilty for not being emotionally drained and permanently exhausted. Why should our ‘normal’ emotional state be negative? Negative emotions harbour negative thoughts and negative outlooks on life, resulting in everything around us turning negative.

I soon realised that I was waking up smiling, I was more able to focus and enjoy the things and people around me; and Sundays did not involve a knot slowly tightening in my belly until Monday came. Of course I am not encouraging everyone reading this to quit work and you will suddenly be happier, but whatever makes you stressed, busy, tired or negatively emotional must be balanced out with something which provides fun, self-empowerment and clarity. In every job interview I have had, I have always been surprised that they never ask about hobbies and interests. What we do outside of work shapes how we behave and cope inside work. I am really glad that some employers are waking up to the fact that employees well-being results in less illness and mental health issues, and is vital for a happy workplace and increased productivity.

Going back to my first point, we tend to feel guilt for prioritising ourselves over others. Our well-being should be our priority, after all, what use are we to others if we are burnt out ourselves? Don’t feel guilt for allowing yourself space to breathe and time to relax, learn or workout; it is as necessary as sleeping and eating. If you have a partner, make sure it’s one who is insightful and kind, they are an essential part of our well-being, as you are to theirs.

Namaste x

Meditation in Movement

I took up yoga because I am a runner and I wanted to see if the acclaimed benefits of yoga were true.

So how is yoga supposed to help runners, particularly trail runners? In a nutshell, yoga makes us strong, yet flexible. Balance postures, for example, not only improve our proprioception, they strengthen the ankles meaning that wrong footfalls are more likely to become mere stumbles rather than sprains or tears. Kilian Jornet claims to have never twisted his ankles due to his ankle strength. Increased strength and better use of our core muscle group enables the body to move smoothly as one, rather than movement being driven by the hips, glutes, legs and arms as individual entities, therefore reducing injury and allowing swifter recovery. Watch Mo Farah and see how smooth and coordinated his gait is; he trains his core muscles a lot. Whatever the style of yoga you choose, it will involve movement with breath and breathing exercises (pranayama). Being more thoughtful about how we breathe will inevitably benefit running especially though a more active style of yoga such as Vinyasa.  Regular practitioners of yoga can become better focused and able to push aside negative thoughts, possibly resulting in improved performance. Some of the best endurance runners around are ambassadors of the benefits of yoga to running performance.  Lizzy Hawker completed yoga teacher training in 2013 during a period of injury and she quotes on her website “yoga…not strictly to do with trails, but it helps to keep us on them!” Rory Bosio has a dedicated yoga practice, claiming that yoga makes her a better athlete. She states on one of her many blogs for her sponsors North Face “Incorporating just 15 minutes a day of quality yoga poses has made a noticeable difference in my running form and helped with injury prevention. Yoga increases my range of motion, lengthens muscles, strengthens the core and realigns my spine after it’s been contracted and twisted from a hard day on the trails.”

Of course, yoga did benefit my running enormously, and the more involved in yoga I became, the deeper my love of trail running developed. A fellow yoga student once asked me if running benefitted my yoga. This threw me, as I had only contemplated the question in reverse. Fast forward several years and I am still a dedicated runner, but also a yoga teacher, and I am still pondering the question.

I know as a yoga teacher I am supposed to embrace meditation, which I do, but not in the traditional sense. Meditation is defined as ‘focusing the mind for a period of time as a method of relaxing’. Many people think about meditation as sitting cross legged for hours and chanting, this is a perfectly acceptable method, though I prefer moving, silent meditation. Many people, like me, are movers and do not like to stay still. Meditation is about clearing the head of stray thoughts and ‘the chattering monkeys’. When I run, I focus on the present moment, have no thoughts about the past or the future, nor worry about things which are out of my control, I am just me, breathing rhythmically, feet flowing, body moving, nature surrounding and soothing me….there is no better place to be. There are times of course, when competing for example, that running meditation goes by the wayside and yoga skills can be used to purely enhance running performance – improved oxygen intake, the physical adaptions that allow us to skip over uneven terrain, the mental aptitude to strive to beat competitors with no malice or ill-wishes.

In 2015 I completed ‘The Plague’, a 100KM Cornish Coastal run. It was fabulously scenic with an incredibly friendly and encouraging atmosphere; though as is the case with endurance running, long periods of time can be spent running alone. After completing the event my partner, James, asked me how I found “the steps”, “which steps?” I replied to his amazement. I was so focused, so in the present moment to have allocated ‘the steps’ a space in my memory. Apparently ‘the steps’ are tough, very tough. Obviously this doesn’t mean I was in a meditative state for the whole 16.5 hours, I had plenty of time to enjoy my experience and had enough awareness to avoid falling down the multitude of badger holes, though perhaps this focus enables me to get through the tough and enjoy the good?

Running and yoga are mutually symbiotic. Yoga clearly improves running on the physical level but also helps to improve the enjoyment of it, as well as preparing the mind for the difficulties involved with it. Running does benefit our yoga experience, as it gives us the ability to be our true selves, it gives us the space and clarity to focus the mind, it allows us to relax and it makes us happy. I think every runner, someone who truly loves running, frequently experiences moving meditation.