Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Yoga is for life — not just for January!

According to published surveys of the British population, each New Year’s Eve, nineteen percent of Brits (that’s at least 9.5 million people and rising) vow to do more exercise and improve their fitness levels in the coming year. Added to that, about 6 million people decide they will take up a new hobby or learn a new skill. So, that’s why, come January, yoga studios up and down the country are swamped with newcomers! (And you are all most welcome!)

I do notice there is bit of a peak in numbers of new students at my classes in January, and then again in September (back to school mentality?), though often I can tell if a new student will accept the challenge and stay for a few classes, or run back to the sofa! (Or stay in bed an hour longer if it’s an early morning class!)

It would be ideal if having braved the first class or two, new students could keep up the habit and let yoga grow on them, or let their body grow to appreciate the benefits of classes — welcoming the extra space in the body and mind! Then at the end of 2016, they might be looking back amazed at the differences in their posture, breathing, health and general outlook as they have taken their lessons on board gradually over the months!

It can take a while to feel and observe the changes yoga makes, and it can take trying out a few classes and styles to find something you are truly comfortable with. I wasn’t at all enamoured with my first class. Lured there by the promise of drinks and supper afterwards, I found it a bit boring and the teacher a bit sharp. (To be fair, I did start with an intermediate group to be with my friend rather than the beginners!) That was about 25 years ago…. I stayed with that teacher and class for about three years, and then moved venues and teachers a couple of times before discovering Ashtanga. Since then I have experimented with styles, studios and teachers and there are some I adore and others which don’t gel as well for me. But I have learned that it is my practice, and my attitude to the class that will make it a good experience… or otherwise.

And if you are a seasoned yogi, don't allow yourself to be put out by the busier studios and increase in beginners at your regular class (you were new once!) just make space for them and if you have a momentary lapse in concentration on your practice, look up and you'll bound to notice a newbie or two copying your moves and aspiring to perfect their postures inspired by you!

Happy experimenting and discovering in 2016!

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Festival yoga!

It used to be that music-loving yogis heading off to summer festivals would get up early (well, before 9.30am) and hunt for a bit of grass without tent pegs and the remains of last night's revelry, lay out their mat and practice a few sun salutations trying not to attract unwanted attention. Sometimes other festival goers would comment or exchange conspiratorial glances, some might even join in. Later as the sun went down, the search for a sacred patch of clear grass would be more challenging than an inverted locust pose.

Now, everything's changed. Yoga is as essential as the bands and hair braids at some festivals — or at least it truly adds to the experience. No longer do yogis have to furtively hunt for a little piece of peace, a whole tent has been set aside and lovingly decorated in readiness. Yoga classes are as much an attraction as the other indie tents drawing intrigued newcomers along, ready to go with the (vinyasa) flow and loosen up in the festival spirit.... well at some festivals it has!

I will be teaching free yoga for mums (parents) and babies at Somersault Festival in North Devon (23rd-27th July) just to prove that tots and festivals are a perfect match — and it's never too soon to try your first cat or at least ananda balasana (happy baby)! And on the Sunday I'll be helping teens find their inner warrior or uncover a chill-out zone of their own. There are plenty of other classes on offer, too. Of course you will need a ticket to the festival to access the classes, but look at it as a yoga retreat under canvas with music, gourmet campsite food and all the rest of the festival fun thrown in!

Some tips for festival yoga newbies.

Bring some suitable clothes — loose shorts, leggings and pyjama pants are ace... jeans and denim shorts aren't, because of the restricting fabric and the deep seams and zips will give you welts when you lie or sit on them. Ouch!

Try not to look around and compare yourself with people who effortlessly balance on one arm or take postures to the next stage — they have doubtless been practicing for years! Besides the whole point of yoga is to focus your attention within... Admittedly that can be hard when there is a sound system and comings and goings around the tent, plus that excited buzz of festivals, so then you get a chance to practice Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses) so you take the focus within and concentrate on your breath and your body.

But don't switch off! You'll need to listen clearly to your teacher's instructions ... but more importantly, listen to your own body first and if a posture doesn't feel good, don't do it, or ask for advice on your alignment. You don't want your first taster of yoga to be your last, now do you?

Tell your instructor if you have injuries – and if you are a beginner. They can modify postures for you to keep you safe and enjoying the experience.

Introduce your kids to classes — it might turn out to be their best festival experience — and yours!

If you have tickets for Somersault — follow this link!

And of course, you could always get a tent big enough to do some yoga inside ;)

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

108 sun salutations for Nepal

There is something special and heart-warming about the yoga community — indeed, much of the general population. As soon as news reached of the terrible disastrous earthquake in Nepal, so many yoga students and teachers wondered what they could do to help the awful suffering of those survivors who had lost everything. Classes and fund-raising events were instantly organised to show solidarity and support, as well as raise awareness and crucially aid to help the poor Nepalese people rebuild their shattered homes and lives. It will take ages and ongoing aid not just a few small events, we know.

For our part, myself and other London teachers have organised a 108 sun salutations challenge at the end of the month. (Details below.) On hearing about it, one of my students who has just had a serious operation, immediately asked if she could join the event, desperate to help. 108 sun salutations can be very challenging for the regular fit student.... so why choose to do 108 sun salutations?

108 Surya Namaskaras are often performed as a mark of respect (as following the death of Shri K Pattabhi Jois, who established ashtanga yoga), and at summer and winter solstices, and equinoxes – when the Sun shines directly on the equator and the length of night and day are the same. Here, it is a charity event, the aim is solidarity but also to raise funds through sponsors and donations.

So why 108? It's not just a random number picked to challenge students to make them hot and thirsty and uncomfortable so they feel sympathy with those less fortunate. (Though it is always worth remembering those you are raising funds for when you reach 81 and feel tempted to give up... )

108 is traditionally a sacred number — in yogic, Hindu and Buddhist cultures at least. There are 108 beads on Mala (or garland) beads used for meditation and prayer. But there are so many beautiful coincidences connected with the number 108. Like the 9 times table where the individual digits of any multiple of nine always add up to nine...  The sun's diameter is roughly 108 times the diameter of Earth. While the average distance from Earth to the Moon (about 384,400 km) is again roughly 108 times the diameter of the Moon.....

And 108 is 9 times 12.... both numbers are said to have a spiritual significance in some traditions — number 9 is the number of Universal love.  So we will have 12 teachers each leading 9 sun salutations. This should make for a harmonious event — and vary the styles of the sun salutations to make it more achievable. Let's hope we can also help lessen the burden of the Nepalese people in some small way through our efforts too.

Join us as we flow through 108 sun salutations at the Kensington Unitarians Church Notting Hill on 31st May at 2pm. Please register via the facebook events page —
 or contact me on the contacts page on this site.

Donations in support of the work of the DEC (Disasters Emergency Committee) to aid Nepal.

** Bring your own mat.

Friday, 30 January 2015

Music and yoga — or not

Music and yoga can be a match made in heaven…or on the computer… or it can be a distraction, even a mild irritant, depending on your point of view, type of practice and music tastes!

Generally I love practising my yoga to music. I’ll choose music to suit my mood or the time of day or just my practice. I have a few different playlists depending on whether I am doing an uplifting practice or calming yin poses, or a bit of both, which is most of the time. Most of my selections have an upbeat start, rising (hopefully) in time to sustain me through my peak posture and then ebbing and soothing as I begin to cool down and hold postures for a while, perhaps in time for a few gentle forward bends or restorative postures. 

A well chosen track can encourage you through those challenging moments, when you’re hot, sticky and maybe beginning to flag. While a gentle, melodic tune can help you find release and reconnect with your breathing.

Sometimes I’ll listen to or throw chants or designated “music for yoga” into the mix. Mostly it is a random collection of sounds that work for me, tracks I could listen to over and over again and that really inspire me to get up and move my body — through a collection of asanas rather than dance. Yoga can be a little dance-like, linking movements and breath, choreographing a sequence of postures that work on the same area or emotion and build gradually and sequentially to a chosen crescendo — whether it is pincha mayurasana (forearm balance), Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow) or the sublime dancer posture itself natarajasana.

One of the studios I teach at is a quiet studio — a music free zone. That is lovely, too. Students can all hear instructions clearly and focus purely on the rhythm of their breath leading them in and out of the postures, with no background distractions.

Elsewhere, especially vinyasa flow classes at studios and gyms, music is deemed an essential part of the experience. I often quiz students on their preferences and gauge reactions to particular styles of music, such as traditional chants, or instrumentals over voice. I have two very close and loyal students with completely opposite viewpoints. One adores having music and is deeply disappointed when a sound system doesn’t work as the soundtracks really lift her spirits. The other absolutely can’t bear music of any kind with yoga. “I listen to it all the time at home, yoga is my haven of peace and quiet,” she said shocked at the very idea of having music in class.

Obviously some styles of yoga lend themselves better to music — flow classes for instance, whereas classic Iyengar and ashtanga classes traditionally don't have music — apart from the opening and closing mantras of ashtanga chanted
by the students! 

What do you think? Music or not, or does it vary on your mood or the soundtracks! 

Here’s some of my favourite music for yoga.....
Let me know yours!