I spoke with my aunt about her experience practising and teaching yoga for over two decades in the UK and abroad. Yoga may be known to many as a trendy fitness regime but has ancient roots; originating in India and inseparable from spirituality, meditation and health, yoga is a form of union that can transcend boundaries on many fronts.
You have taught yoga in London and abroad for over 20 years, what was it that first led you to yoga practice and teaching?
I have always been interested in bodies and exercise; my first class was in 1968 at the age of 18 in the Floral Dance Centre, doing Iyengar yoga. I can remember the pain, even then – ‘this triangle pose is really hard!’ and then I gave it up to go travelling. I came back to it in my 30s after surgery and found it very beneficial for the body, to go very deep into the abdomen; the physical side of it.
What you don’t realise when you start yoga is the mental side effects, you always feel good after doing yoga and start to notice that there is a mental element. At the time I had four gyms in London, and we did weight training and aerobics. In the 90’s a friend of mine introduced me to a very special teacher, a direct student of Mr Iyengar and I really felt the benefits of that work in addition to the exercise from teaching at the gyms.
But then I experienced a kind of burnout and felt I’d had enough of the responsibilities of the gyms around the year 2000.
Do you think that returning to yoga affected how you felt about your work at the gyms?
I had a business partner who was a triathlete and the two of us made all the decisions. I introduced about 10 classes in the week out of 50 doing yoga and loved it, whereas she was less enamoured, and we had to keep the balance. I loved yoga but our business was fitness, with everything related to gym, aerobics and step so we included yoga, but it wasn’t going to be 100%.
Eventually, I took a consultancy job in Portugal, while still owning the gyms and I continued my own practice with a slow transition from using a running machine to doing yoga. I then sold the gyms and went to Australia, training as a yoga teacher for a year and a half which was very different to teaching aerobics. Aerobics is fun with a lot of laughter; you lead a class maybe with a microphone, people copy, you bounce around and everyone has a jolly time. But with yoga, you have to look. You have to adjust. You have to feel.
There are many different styles of yoga; I chose Australia because it was an immersive course. In England, people often train at weekends and while you can get good training it can be fragmented. In Australia when I joined a yoga centre as an apprentice, we were doing yoga six days a week, morning and night. It was very much in an old-fashioned style of ‘living it’ as an immersive way to learn. I had gone from having a business with 70 staff and a turnover of millions, teaching very little but training people, to being an apprentice where I was sort of ‘sweeping the floor’ and being humble.
I studied a lot during that year and a half, both mentally and physically. In the West, we focus more on the physical side, and it is quite a step for some people to actually sit still or rest. There is a balance in yoga and many different ‘limbs’ of the practice. In Australia, the language is very pure, good and explicit, whereas in India the language is more matter-of-fact. You technically do the pose but there may be more focus on the spiritual side.
The term yoga originates from the Sanskrit word for ‘union’. As a practice, how is it different to Pilates?
It is very different; Pilates is probably more accessible especially when you are older because it is very specific and not quite so deep. Yoga encourages you to link mentally what you are doing, so you withdraw, and it can be like a meditation. You are watching your breath and feeling, which can take it to a deeper level.
When you deepen the breath, you bring more energy into the body. To be completely still and breathe can be quite boring! Just sitting for ten minutes at the end of the class can work better as you are already quite exhausted and ready to be quiet. The breath is everything though, isn’t it? It is free, it’s what our bodies do and if you don’t breathe, you’re not alive.
In yoga there are so many ways of breathing – you could call them tricks. For example, breathing to bring awareness to the belly (your solar plexus) often with what is called uddiyana bandhas, there are all sorts of magical names! There are breaths to warm you up or cool you down, breaths to extend. It’s about being aware of the breath and therefore in every form of life, like when you are stressed, we say ‘breathe’ but we really can use this to relieve stress, increase oxygen capacity and just feel better.
Did you feel that as you went deeper into yoga it started to infuse into your daily life?
Not in the early days, it took five or ten years and is a long, slow process. It’s not a magical ‘I’m going to do yoga for a year and will be a different person’. It is quite transitionary and can come to more and more of your life. It wasn’t instant and is still a work in progress after 25 years or maybe longer!
Can you start yoga at any age, or do you need a particular level of physical ability?
Yes! In the last 20 years, yoga has become very much mainstream. While it used to be done by old ladies in halls back in the 90s, young people are now far more interested. Rosie, my granddaughter loves ‘dynamic flow’. There are ways of practice that older people would not be able to do, and you need to choose a style that suits your body. In my opinion, the back health of everybody is key. With an older person, you would focus perhaps on stretching the back and doing a more restorative, quiet yoga.
Unfortunately, there are two things that can put someone off trying yoga; one is a bossy and unsympathetic teacher and two is pain. It is like physiotherapy in a way, as does bring up discomfort. Obviously, as someone new to exercise or going into deeper movement, you have to be able to discern between what I call ‘sweet pain’ which is just a stretch and the pain which is a sharp pain, and you don’t want to go there. This can be a difficult thing but with the right teacher, it can be really very special.
How did you find teaching during lockdown, having always taught in person previously?
Straight away I went into Zoom, and I was amazed at how many people joined me, who obviously had time as they were stuck at home and couldn’t go out or do their jobs. It was a tremendous success and I think a success for many people. One of the objections to exercise in any form is just having to travel, park, and walk which can make it doubly hard. With online classes, you can just switch on your computer and it’s there, which is a great thing. Although of course you then can’t go quite as deep as the teacher is not adjusting you or looking at the finer detail.
For people who have difficulties accessing a class, due to travel difficulties or a lack of availability in their region, how would you recommend going about finding a teacher of yoga in a style that would be suitable?
There are classes on YouTube by some quite well-known people who teach for free, but to research, you basically need to put the time in to look for a recommendation from a friend. That is how a lot of people join my classes after having a positive experience. But look online for local clubs, and yoga is taught in gyms, which is probably going to be more physical and dynamic. There are classes in many yoga centres advertised across the country, but they are probably few and far between compared to gyms.
How do you find having an in-person class is different to using an app to learn yoga?
Once you start to go in deeper it is important to have somebody who you trust, for once you start going what I call ‘over the edge’. There are levels in yoga, there is a general well-being level and then you can start to do things like a handstand. Even at the age of 50 you can do a handstand. It’s just that you are telling yourself ‘This is going to be really scary, I’m going to bang my head, and my shoulders aren’t going to work’. So, if you have a teacher that trusts you and you trust them, to make sure that you are going to be safe, you are more likely to achieve that level of overcoming fear.
If you do yoga long-term, I can imagine that a lot of trust and psychological issues would come up. Is overcoming those fear barriers what you mean about going deeper?
Fear is always going to be present in your life, isn’t it? It’s to what degree and how you handle it. If I use the handstand as an example, every time I still feel like ‘I don’t really want to do this’, it isn’t as if it is a joy. There are things that you do that you know you should keep doing because if you don’t, you won’t ever be able to do them. I guess you can use that in your everyday life, like flying to somewhere that you have never been to before on your own and arriving in a completely new country.
You can take it to any level of overcoming, what you call ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’. This is very paramount in yoga when you are going that little step further. If you are in your 70s and have never done yoga before, you might not want to go there for now. But there will be things that you do that your body says it does not want to do, but you can manage eventually. That mental attitude is what is different to Pilates. In Pilates, you do very specific and clever moves, but it’s not quite that deep.
Do you feel that with the current physical and mental health challenges for young people yoga should be taught in schools?
It does have to be about play with children. But on the other hand, children often do not know how to rest. I have taught children before and when I asked them what their favourite pose is, they responded it was ‘corpse pose’, lying down at the end of the session and being still. These days we put them down in front of the TV when you need some quiet time and put the iPad on.
Learning how to rest and let go is important, just being. It is hard work teaching kids with their attention span! Around the teenage years, people tend to become more self-conscious about being overweight. I have taught some teenagers and found that yoga would help the mental side of things. It won’t necessarily assist you in losing weight but would help your self-esteem, in the longer term. The anxiety these days is very common, yoga can help.
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