Being a yoga teacher, many people assume that I’ve always had an affinity with yoga, but it wasn’t always like that…
I attended my first yoga class in 2001 at my local gym. I was 4 months pregnant with my second son and had joined the local gym, primarily because they had a pool and a crèche, and I’d really enjoyed swimming during my first pregnancy. The gym also offered yoga on its timetable and I’d heard yoga was beneficial during pregnancy. Plus, my best friend had been into yoga for a few years and seemed to really enjoy it, so I thought I’d give it a go.
My main form of exercise until then had been jogging or swimming; cardio stuff to get the heart rate up and keep the weight down, but with my progressing pregnancy running was becoming difficult. It had been many years since I’d attended a group exercise class. In my early 20’s I taught aerobics at City Y gym, and was a regular there every lunch time in the gym classes, but when I moved to the UK in my mid 20’s I opted for running and swimming at lunch times instead, so I hadn’t done a group exercise class for over 6 years.
Even though I was used to moving my body and had learnt dance as a child, I was a complete beginner to yoga. I fully expected that I’d really like my first class, but it wasn’t love at first down dog for me! People were doing postures I’d never heard of or seen before, I didn’t know what I was doing and it all seemed sooo sloooow. And then we had to lie on our backs for 5 minutes at the end of class doing nothing! Surely this wasn’t exercise, and I definitely wasn’t burning any calories lying on my back! Needless to say, I didn’t return to a yoga class for another couple of years.
I continued to swim through my second pregnancy, and my third, as well as running when I could. Ten years of running had kept me fit, but my flexibility had sadly declined, unable to touch my toes with straight legs.
It wasn’t until after I’d had my 3rd son in 2003 that I ventured back into the yoga room. At first I only went once a week, when the crèche was open. After a year or so I started attending a second class, at the unearthly hour of 8am on a Saturday morning! (I’m not a morning person). By now I was really starting to notice a difference from doing yoga. My flexibility was improving and I was getting stronger. But I also found it easier to cope with the stressors of daily life (ie. being a mother of 3 young boys), which was an added benefit that I hadn’t anticipated. If I had to skip class for any reason I’d notice a difference.
I became a regular in the gym yoga classes and eagerly chose a spot at the front of the room, but yoga teaching wasn’t something that I’d wanted to do or thought that I could do, until one day when the teacher didn’t show up and the rest of the class urged me to take the class. I did so reluctantly, from my usual spot up the front of the room, pretty much just doing my own practice and the rest of the class could follow along if they wanted to. This, however, planted the seed that maybe I could actually teach yoga, so I researched yoga schools and did my level 1 yoga teacher training with Byron Yoga Centre in 2009.
My teacher training with Byron Yoga introduced me to the philosophy of yoga, something that I hadn’t come across in the gym classes. We learnt the 8 limbs of ashtanga yoga, or the eightfold path to Samadhi or enlightenment, of which asana (or postures) is the third limb. Yoga actually starts with the yamas and niyamas, a set of guidelines on how to interact with the world and personal observances to bring about contentment. I was starting to get a fuller picture of what yoga is, but my practice was still very physically based.
By now I’d discovered ashtanga yoga; a very physical practice that follows a set sequence, which gets progressively harder (or possibly more insane) as you progress through the series. It appealed to my competitive nature; I liked to push myself; I liked to achieve. I got stronger, I got leaner, I got healthier, I felt great. I loved the physicality of the practice and the challenge and it felt great when I finally managed to hold an arm-balance or back bend that I’d been attempting for months or even years. But some days I’d get so frustrated if I couldn’t do the difficult postures I wanted to. “I could do it last week. Why can’t I do it today?” On these days, my practice wasn’t calming at all, just frustrating.
Then I did a workshop with Kate Pell, a wonderful senior teacher who owned the Yoga Den in West End, and what she said really resonated with me; it was what I needed to hear: “Just because you can get your foot behind your head, it doesn’t make you any more enlightened.” The penny finally dropped! Why did I want so much to be able to get my foot behind my head? To feed the ego of course! It looks impressive, and it gets lots of likes on facebook.
I took every opportunity I could to do more yoga training, completing my level 2 teacher training in 2010, and that same year doing two amazing workshops on the anatomy and physiology of yoga with Simon Borg-Olivier, which improved my practice in leaps and bounds. Realising that it is very common for students to present to class with some sort of injury or medical condition, I wanted to be able to assist them better, so I embarked upon my yoga therapy training with Dr Ganesh Mohan in 2012. This training also made me look at my own practice in a new light, and reinforced the concept that yoga is about having a healthy body and calm mind and that “performance yoga has a limited life-span”. It brought more softness and flow into my practice, and more emphasis on the breath and mind. My practice continues to evolve from my ongoing training and has morphed again this year with my Calligraphy Yoga training with Master Zhen Hua Yang, which focuses on the more subtle energetic aspect of the practice to improve internal health.
But it was Kate Pell who taught me to be happy with where I’m at right now. Yoga is a state of mind, not a flashy backbend or seemingly impossible arm balance. I still enjoy practising arm balances and handstands and I am guilty of putting my foot behind my head on occasions, but I now listen more to my body and take rest if I need, or attempt the difficult postures but watch my mind as I do, being mindful not to get frustrated if I fail. I want to be able to practise yoga when I’m 90, without needing a hip or knee replacement in the process.
To me, yoga is a journey of self-discovery. It started as a discovery of my body; my joints and muscles and how to move them to gain strength and flexibility, and I continue to notice subtle changes in my body as I grow older. But yoga will ultimately lead you to discover your mind; your own thought processes and how they drive your actions, and the conscious choice that we have over our thoughts and actions. Yoga is a life-long journey of discovery of the self and I look forward to continuing my journey as I travel life’s undulating path.