Wow so Summer is here! I've been quiet with communciations and workshops over the last month or so as it's been an eventful time in my personal life. I've been busy in wedding season (honoured to be a bridesmaid twice) - there's a second wave at age 35 - and I have been enjoying quality time with my boyfriend before he moved to a new job in Amman, Jordan last week.
Although the last month or so has been filled with lots of joyful times, it was also unsettling, as I contemplated the change in my relationship, and created more space for thinking about what I wanted in life, as I was doing less for my yoga business.
Often we crave a break and less intensity in our lives, but the reality is that a pause in our busy-ness can feel uncomfortable. We question our direction, we feel less needed and valued, our mind can go into over-drive. Sometimes it seems easier to avoid the discomfort of this state in a non-stop chain of engagements and to-dos.
But now, on the other side, I'm grateful for the time I took to refocus and recharge. Over the last few years I've been working on my tolerance to sit with my emotions in the "Liminal Space". This is a concept I heard about from Rob Bell - a place of not knowing, transition, waiting. Only a couple of years ago it felt unbearable, but I've learnt that being able to stay here means that new growth can happen, it's that sticky cocoon phase from which the great stuff emerges.
"That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin. Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible…This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed. If we don’t encounter liminal space in our lives, we start idealizing normalcy." - Richard Rohr
Wishing you courage to stay with the process if this what you are experiencing. Take plenty of deep breaths! xx
Yin Yoga has multiple benefits for our bodies. It focuses on the hips, pelvis and lower-back, parts of us that are prone to stiffness and injury, particularly as we age. It targets connective tissue (ligaments, fascia, tendons) with gentle long holds so they become longer and stronger. After just one class I hear people say that their body feels stretched out and more relaxed, that they notice the release of aches and pains. A regular practice will increase your joint mobility.
Personally however I value the practice of Yin Yoga most for the effect it has on my mood and emotional wellbeing. If I’m fatigued, feeling overwhelmed, or under the weather, eventually I remember that things will seem better if I pause and take just a few Yin poses.
It’s easy to numb or stimulate ourselves when we are feeling less than great: alcohol, immersion in work, shopping, food, social media, Netflix… But in the last few years I have learned that taking the time to find stillness, to feel everything happening in my body and the emotions moving through me, is the most effective way to shift myself to a more peaceful and relaxed state. Quite often I try wine and ice-cream first, but a mindful Yin session always brings longer-lasting results.
The wealth of media at our fingertips has made it harder than ever for us to be simply present in our body with our feelings. But if we want to understand the depths of our complex internal world, to allow emotions, our creativity, intuition and sensitivity to surface their messages, we must pause so they have our attention and time.
Yin Yoga gives us the opportunity to be present with all our layers – physical, mental and energetic. This awareness combined with pressure on our physical body can help release emotions and tensions in our tissues. Some practitioners believe that Yin Yoga taps into the Meridians (energy channels) of Traditional Chinese Medicine, which are said to affect the flow of our emotions and our wellbeing - but this deserves a separate blog post.
Sometimes slowing down and looking inside is a scary prospect, but the breath is our resource throughout. With each exhale we can let go a little of whatever we are holding onto, and each inhale brings in fresh life and possibility. With practice we can loosen our attachment to the changing thoughts, moods, and feelings that are constantly passing through us. And hopefully we finish our Yin practice feeling a little lighter, softer, more embodied and at ease.
Do you have the patience
Fifty people are lying on their backs with their eyes closed. Most have their mouths open and their bodies are visibly moving with the rhythm of their breath. Waves of air fill the belly and chest, and for a few, the whole body moves in synch with the flow. Some have expressions of bliss, several are crying, others look like they are fast asleep. This is Alchemy of Breath.
Journey to Ubud, Bali
In March, I travelled to Bali to become an Alchemy of Breath certified practitioner. I had been using this technique for over two years, and had already facilitated my own intimate groups close to home, but it was an emotive experience to observe and support the large numbers of ‘breathers’ in Ubud, and then to host my own session.
Before I left for Bali, I felt quite self-conscious as I explained to people that I’d be completing this training course, which I had begun the previous summer. Most people in the UK have never heard of breathwork, and the power of the breath is underestimated in our culture. The truth is - as I also say when I teach Yoga – the technique should be practiced before its efficacy or theory is believed.
Although a breathwork facilitator can set an intention and create an atmosphere for the session with their presence, guidance and music, the participants' experiences are a journey inside themselves, and are unique each time they breathe.
In the early sessions, it is often physical sensations that make the most dramatic impact. Tingling fingers, toes and lips, a building of energy, and even some discomfort may be sensed, as the body adjusts to a different way of breathing and a change in the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Breathers are encouraged to embrace and mindfully investigate this physical experience, and to allow any associated emotions to be felt. “If this part of the body could speak, what would it say to you?” is a favourite question of my teacher Anthony Abbagnano, who has developed Alchemy of Breath from over a decade of investigating breathing techniques and self-development practices around the world.
Alchemy of Breath is notably inspired by Holotropic (which means ‘a journey towards wholeness’) breathwork, as developed by the psychiatrist Dr Stanislav Grof since the 1970s. After Grof’s research into therapeutic uses for LSD in the 1960s had been halted by legal restrictions, he was inspired by ancient cultures and Shamans who used breathing techniques to take people into a ‘non-ordinary state’, where he believed self-healing of the psyche could take place.
The mental, emotional and even spiritual effects of Alchemy of Breath are difficult to define. If the breather commits fully to the technique (sessions usually last 20 minutes to an hour), they can enter an altered state of consciousness that allows them to connect with parts of themselves that are beyond their conscious mind. These experiences are often reported as; feelings of relaxation, joy, emotional and energetic release, connection to others and the universe or divine, insights, creative visions, surfacing memories, and a return to being at home in their body.
The urge to experience an altered state of consciousness is a quality inherent in mankind. The motivations are varied; to discover more about ourselves or the world around us, to seek a spiritual experience, to relax and unwind, to break habits or restrictive ways of thinking, even to momentarily escape the pain of life. People use meditation, drugs, hypnotherapy and other techniques to access a new perspective, and to move beyond the point of view of the ordinary mind.
Despite having repeatedly dabbled with Pranayama – the breath control techniques of the Indian Yogic tradition - I hadn’t experienced the intensity I found through my first session of Alchemy of Breath. The effects I have experienced are, on occasion, similar to those of my Vipassana mindfulness course, which required a 10 day period of silence and meditation for up to 10 hours a day. I’ve heard people say breathwork can have similar qualities to the journeys induced by the Amazonian plant-medicine Ayahuasca.
The strength of your breathwork experience is largely dependent on the intensity of your breath, and how willing you are to open yourself to the experience, which can involve embracing challenging emotions and delving into darker parts of the subconscious. The breather can ease their breath whenever they want to, and can hold themselves back from going into painful emotions if they wish. Yet those who begin the practice expecting a specific or profound revelation can be disappointed, as there are no encounters delivered ‘to order.’ Sometimes the experience is subtle and gentle - perhaps what you need today is more presence in your body and to embrace the present moment.
During my trip to Bali my breathwork practice took me to my deepest places yet. Whilst I experienced a release in my body and emotions, and gained insight into areas in my life that I had found challenging, it was at times deeply uncomfortable and it took time after my trip for these experiences to settle. Through breathwork deeper truths can surface, but there can be distortions, and immediate clarity and resolution aren’t guaranteed. Sometimes talk therapy or other therapeutic techniques are needed to fully integrate what has been surfaced through breathwork. Delving into the subconscious can be challenging and complex, but psychology suggests this can guide us to understand and shift underlying emotions, patterns, compulsions and limitations.
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate.”
Breathwork in Vogue
Breathwork seems to be moving into the mainstream - last year Vogue claimed “Breathing is the new yoga!” and ran an article with the headline “Why a Breathing Technique That Makes You Trip—Without Drugs—Should Be Your New Year’s Resolution”.
In recent years, science has proven that the ancient traditions of Yoga, meditation and mindfulness have incredible value for our wellbeing, and I am hopeful to see more examination of the importance of breathing and how this can benefit our physical and emotional health. A BBC programme recently covered scientific research into Wim Hof, who is known as the Iceman, because he uses breathing techniques to maintain his body temperature in freezing conditions that would otherwise be life-threatening.
Whilst my course is finished, and I am now a qualified Alchemy of Breath practitioner, it feels that my journey to understand the potential of the breath is at it’s beginning. I'll be writing more about my experiences of practicing and facilitating breathwork on this blog in the coming weeks.
"When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life.
As a hatha teacher I am often asked this question, and the answer is a little complex!
From Ancient times
The term ‘hatha yoga’ has been used for over a thousand years to describe a methodology for preparing the body for higher levels of consciousness. The body is purified and energy is balanced using yoga postures (asana in Sanskrit), breath control methods (pranayama), and bodily cleansing techniques (shatkarmas), so that the practitioner is ready for meditation.
There are references to hatha yoga practices from as early as the 6th century BC, and the system of hatha yoga emerged in India around the 6th century AD. In the 15th century it was documented in the text ‘Hatha Yoga Pradipika’. Modern types of yoga, such as Bikram, Vinyasa Flow and Ashtanga, are styles within this broader definition of hatha yoga.
The literal translation
The word hatha can be translated from the ancient Sanskrit language in two ways:
1. willful or forceful
2. sun (ha) and moon (tha). Hatha yoga unites the masculine (active, hot) and feminine (receptive, cool) aspects that exist within each of us.
What to expect from a hatha yoga class?
Hatha yoga is now also used as a term to describe a style of yoga asana class. These can vary greatly, but they are usually slower classes with long holds in the postures and can include periods of rest, to balance effort with surrender. They usually include a form of the classical sun salutation.
What are the benefits of a hatha yoga class?
If you want your yoga practice to help you feel grounded, present and centered, then movingly slowly so that you can focus on a long, controlled breath, and feel into the experience of each posture, can be very beneficial. It can also be physically challenging and strength-building.
Life is often hectic and rushed, and a slow, breath-focused yoga practice can bring us into our parasympathetic nervous system – the state of relaxation and healing for the body.
There is also opportunity to explore the nuance of what is happening inside our body and mind. J Brown, a New York based teacher, who has advocated a ‘slow yoga revolution’ writes: ‘Slow Yoga takes the emphasis off accomplishing something and puts it more on experiencing something… (It) allows me to discover subtle variations in alignment on both physical and energetic levels. It also allows me to tune in to any emotions that might want to come bubbling up. Most importantly, this mode of yoga allows me to move deeper and deeper without injuring myself, and for the practice to truly be a meditation unto itself.”
This article originally featured on the YogaVenue blog.
We breathe all day (and night) long, but have you thought about your breath today?
In modern life we pay attention to how we exercise, how long we sleep, and what we eat – we know that they are key for our vitality. But did you know 90% of your energy should come through the breath?
Respiration happens automatically, but we can also consciously control our breathing. And, in many ancient cultures (including India and China), breath control has been used as medicine for the body and mind, a tool to activate our own natural healing powers.* With the development of modern medicine we have lost some wisdom from the ancient worlds about the importance of our breath.
Too fast, too shallow
It is widely agreed that the healthiest rate for adults to breathe is between 3 & 6 breaths a minute. This allows for optimum oxygen transfer from the blood to the cells in our body.
Yet stress, poor posture and lack of movement mean that the average person is taking between 12 and 20 breaths each minute. We are gulping down air without getting all the goodness.
When we breathe fast, it also tends to be shallow - research has shown that most people use less than 20% of the surface area of their lungs.
This modern breathing pattern leaves us low on energy, which we can perceive as hunger or tiredness, and it can invite a host of health problems, including anxiety, stress, stroke and high blood pressure.
The breath in yoga
Yogis have always been aware of the importance of bringing "Prana" (the yogic word for our energy, or life-force) in through the breath. Pranayama, or breath control, is a core yogic practice for both energising and calming our nervous system.
The three-part yogic breath, (breathing into the belly, ribs and upper chest) is a deep, slow breath, which stimulates the vagus nerve and switches on the parasympathetic nervous system. This brings us to our repair and digest state and alleviates stress and anxiety.
As we synchronise moving into postures with the breath, we unite the body and our mind's intention in our own natural rhythm, which can bring a feeling of peace or flow. As we breathe together as a group in class we start to feel our essential connection to each other, the reality of the yogic attitude that 'we are all one'.
On my quest to find out more about the power of the breath this year, I’ve taken workshops with two teachers who have specialised in this field:
Alan Dolan: The Breath Guru
Transformational breathing is a very intense practice that changes our oxygen levels so that we can explore different levels of consciousness. Each experience of this technique is different, but practitioners can become more aware of their emotions, let go of things they were holding onto and experience peace and deep relaxation. I like to explore things that are 'out there' and some of my transformational breath experiences have been truly remarkable.
Ben uses his own self-practice and deep research into the breath to provide breath techniques that are side-effect free for all and that can help with a range of physical and emotional issues. I'd highly recommend one of his workshops.
What can I do?
Spend some time each day focusing on your breath and encourage your body to return to the slow belly breaths you took as a baby. I use this simple technique most days to unwind, recharge and manage any emotional turbulence:
1. Get comfortable, seated or lying down. Start by noticing your natural breath pattern. Observe the rate of the flow and where you can feel the breath moving in your body.
2. Close the mouth if it is open and just breathe in and out through the nose.
3. Start to encourage the breath down to the belly, you can place the hands there to feel it. The belly should gently expand as you breathe in, the breath then fills up the lower and side ribs and finally the upper chest and back. When we breathe out the breath flows out of the upper body, lower chest and side body, and then the belly.
4. If you can’t feel the breath moving in the belly, pull your belly button in towards your spine as you breathe out fully. Relax the belly on the inhale and it should balloon out with the incoming air.
5. Try to slow down your exhale and fully empty the lungs. A full exhalation triggers a reflex, which allows the next inhale to be deep and easy. The breath also eliminates 70% of the body’s waste.
6. See if you can make each breath last at least 10 seconds. It might take some practice for you to achieve this. If you are preparing for bed and want to relax count to 4 on the inhale and 6 on the exhale. If you want to energise yourself try to count to 6 on both the inhale and exhale.
7. Keep your awareness focused down in the belly and when the mind gets distracted, gently bring it back to the breath.
8. Relax :) Breathing in this way should start to calm your nervous system in under ten minutes.
*I’m currently reading ‘The Healing power of the breath’ by Richard P. Brown, MD where you can find lots more detail on this topic.
Yoga classes are busy at this time of year. I'm impressed at everyone making it out of their homes in the cold and often wet UK weather to move their bodies and bring focus to their minds. Discipline is important in the yogic tradition: 'Tapas' a Sanskrit word, describes a quality the keen yogi must develop. It means a fiery discipline, a commitment to working to bring ourselves closer towards the state of yoga - a individual wholeness and union with the Universe.
I certainly lost my motivation in December, I decided to listen to my tired body and rest in hibernation as I needed. In January my energy isn't yet fully returned as is normal in this season - I am still practising some horizontal meditations, wrapped up warm in my bed - but I am enjoying setting intentions for the year ahead and reflecting on what my practice can bring out of me if I continue to dedicate myself.
Setting intentions and identifying what we would like to develop and experience is an ancient practice. This month I have been reminded of the ancient Indian text 'The Upanishads' quotation:
Here's to a 2016 where we unearth our deepest desires, those of our authentic selves rather than our egos, and in which our intentions for the year bring us to fulfil the destiny of our souls.
And, if you're just starting your yoga practice this year, check out the blog I wrote below for the YogaVenue site.
New year: New yoga resolution
Coming to a yoga class or studio for the first time can induce performance anxiety… Will it hurt? Will I be able to get in the positions? Can I be too sweaty?
In reality, there’s no need to worry. Your first class will challenge you - a yoga practice asks for focus of mind, control of the breath, balance, strength, stamina and flexibility. But no one has all of this mastered from day one; this is what keeps people coming back to practice. And as we persist we start to uncover a potential in ourselves that we didn’t know existed.
Still not convinced? Here’s the reality to overcome those excuses.
1. I’m not flexible enough to do yoga.
It’s a myth that flexibility is the number one quality required for yoga - flexibility is a benefit that develops as you practice, but being bendy is neither required nor the only goal. Postures and awareness of our breath are used to explore our body and mind. It doesn’t matter if you can’t touch your toes.
2. I can’t do a handstand or stand on my head.
In yoga everyone is considered to be their own best teacher, and you need only do what feels safe and good for your body. If you want to learn to stand on your head you can, but each person and their body is unique and there are no requirements for your yoga practice, even in a group setting.
3. I don’t have the right clothes to wear.
Yoga fashion has exploded, but you can wear any comfortable sports clothes to class. Just check in the mirror that your leggings remain opaque or that shorts cover you when you bend over. I’ve learnt this the hard way!
3. Everyone will laugh at me if I fall on my face.
If you challenge yourself in your practice, at times you will wobble or topple out of a pose. Most people are too absorbed in their own practice to notice what others are doing. We aim to take our awareness to what is happening inside our body, rather than observing what is going on around us.
5. I’m not fit enough to keep up with a class of yogis.
One of the mantras of yoga is ‘start where you are’. Don’t wait until an imaginary day when you’re ready, accept where you are today and begin with that. You can rest on your mat whenever you need to and there’s a range of styles of classes, so find the one that best suits you.
Most of all, make your 2016 resolution to have fun in class!
This article originally appeared on the YogaVenue blog
One of the greatest things about yoga is that it gives us tools to respond to the challenges in our lives. There are few expected responses to the greeting 'How are you?' and we share our best faces on social media, but the reality is that we all have to deal with elements of pain, frustration, shame and sadness, sometimes buried so far down we may barely sense it ourselves. Society and our education system give us little coaching for for how to respond to these emotions, and the growing occurrence of debilitating stress and depression suggests that the consequences are highly damaging.
I'm a fan of the blogger Glennon Melton who describes life as "Brutiful", beautiful and brutal at the same time. If we think that we're in control and have things figured out, life and our fellow humans can throw up the unexpected, unearth our biggest fears, and shake everything we count as secure.
Q. Why do you cry so often?
Last month I was exploring a heart based yoga practice in the classes I taught and in my own time on the mat. In a yogic perspective the heart goes beyond our romantic feelings. The heart chakra (energy centre) is associated with unconditional love, joy and compassion, for ourselves and all other beings. I was asking:
Reality intersected with my theorising when just before I stepped in to teach my Saturday morning class, I was told about the terrorist attacks in Paris that had taken place the night before. An exploration of the heart and our compassion suddenly felt more vulnerable and challenging.
Tuning into our our hearts is hardest when there is pain and fear - distraction, lashing out and numbing seem far easier choices. But, if we refuse to experience our emotions they remain awaiting our attention, deep inside our bodies. If we feel powerless in the world, yoga reminds us to look inside ourselves first. If we want life to be more gentle, connected and loving, can we create more of that in ourselves?
Try heart opening postures
A soothing heart meditation (from Ana Forrest)
This simple technique gives soothing self-care to your heart. It’s ideal if you feel anxious or sad when you wake in the morning or before you go to sleep.
He who is rooted in oneness
It’s not too far over a year since I began paid yoga teaching work. With a sprinkle of good luck and a lot of effort and determination I’ve since taught in three countries, at an island resort, in studios, gyms, corporate offices, a yoga shop, a retreat and festival. I’ve taught hundreds of people, aged from 4 to 80, and been pleasantly surprised by the warmth, gratitude and openness of nearly all of them.
I am incredibly thankful that I’ve discovered a vocation that brings me alive and connects me to others, yet I’ve also found this path hugely challenging and it still brings new demands for me to face my fears and build my resilience. If you’re finding becoming a yoga teacher a daunting task, or if you’re doubting yourself as you face any new venture, I hope these tips and experiences help you to move beyond your fears and enjoy stepping into something new.
After completing my teacher training the vastness of Yoga dawned on me and I felt less prepared than ever to start teaching. I turned to the internet for advice and I found everything that a yoga teacher can do wrong. I wasn’t confident about standing up in front of a group of strangers, and yet the pull to teach was strong. At a Sydney yoga festival I spoke to Duncan Peak, (one of Australia’s most famous yoga teachers) about feeling unsure that I was ready to teach and he told me emphatically to start. You can begin teaching friends and family, you can run free or donation classes, but the best way to develop any skill is through practice.
I made my start to teaching particularly challenging by moving to a country where I had no yoga connections and basing myself in an area brimming over with yoga teachers. I have called, emailed and visited countless gyms, studios and other venues. Twice I took test classes and I was told that although they liked my teaching style and I had potential, they didn’t think I was ready to teach their clients. At the time I was gutted, but with hindsight they were right. One was a small group of advanced yogis and another was a hardcore gym with classes of around 40 people - I was still finding my feet and working out what I had to offer. I had to keep practicing and seek out the students that were right for me. Classes can have low attendance and individuals may not like your style, all you can do is your best, listen to the feedback and remind yourself that you are learning, no matter how much experience you have.
Remain a student
Yoga teachers agree that the 200 hours qualification is really just the basics. My month long immersion left many knowledge gaps that I wanted to fill. I avidly read books, seek out online tutorials and articles and although costly, I have taken extra courses in anatomy and physiology, adjustments, and to teach yin yoga and meditation. Guidance from senior teachers is invaluable, if you don't already have one, try to find a mentor through your connections. When I moved to a new area I made contact with an established teacher by offering to teach her cover classes.
Don’t be afraid to take a break and get your inner house in order
A few months into teaching a couple of opportunities fell through and my personal life hit a bump in the road. I didn’t feel at my most calm or confident so I decided to take a hiatus from pursuing teaching work and to focus back on the pleasure of my own practice. Our society celebrates progress and achievement, but this can lead us to push too hard for what we want rather than letting life flow in its own time. After a couple of months I returned to teaching with renewed enthusiasm and things started to fall into place. Teaching yoga isn’t easy unless you feel calm and emotionally secure, so take the time to explore your own vulnerabilities and triggers first.
Nerves and lack of confidence can feel a real hindrance, but they are very common, especially in the early days of teaching, in a new environment, or if you feel you are being assessed. I find it helpful to remember that I am just sharing my practice, I do not need to do anything more than that. We are full of contradictions so be compassionate and patient with your nervous side, whilst also drawing out the confident person inside you. The start of the class is a great opportunity to calm yourself as well as your students, close your eyes and slow your breath if you feel anxious, you can even take child’s pose with everyone.
Balance stability and courage
Teaching yoga isn’t an easy or particularly secure way to earn a living and I currently have an alternative income four days a week. After I qualified I was travelling and working abroad and dabbled with various ways to boost my yoga earnings, but I found that having the stability of a routine job and regular income can make teaching yoga more free and playful. Yet it’s necessary to take some risks to achieve success, so make space in your life for the new to move in.
Get out there
Having a clear target audience and a niche approach can help you succeed, particularly if you live in an area with lots of yoga classes, but these can take time to identify. In the meantime it can be fun to try different things and connect with as many people as possible (online too). I've enjoyed holding donation classes in my local park through meetup.com which attract lots of beginners and has widened my local network.
Developing my skills and experiences as a yoga teacher has been hugely satisfying, and forced me to examine myself and grow as a person. I'm sure there are many more surprises down the road, I'd love to hear anyone else's advice for the journey ahead.
“Teachers are like enzymes, Nature’s go-to facilitators of change. Essentially, enzymes are catalysts. They accelerate the rate of reactions. They make change happen faster.” Bill Wilder
This March I returned to the UK after 18 months of working, travelling and yoga-ing around the world. So I was a little embarrassed to tell people that just two months later I would be departing for another sun-blessed isle, to spend two weeks in Paros, Greece.
Admittedly I had heard tales of how idyllic the Greek islands are, but primarily I was following my desire to train with internationally respected yoga teacher Sarah Powers. I booked the trip before I’d even taken a class with her, her website's course blurb and discovering that she was a teacher to one of my favourite Bondi yoga teachers hooked me in. I had learnt the lesson on my travels that following your instincts is usually a recipe for success and I wasn’t disappointed: Six months later I was absorbing the stunning hilltop setting of Tao’s Retreat Centre, gripped by Sarah’s teachings, and sharing the experience with 64 enthusiastic yogis - I felt a very lucky woman.
Sarah (from California), and her husband Ty - also a meditation teacher - have developed an approach called Insight Yoga, which integrates the wisdom of Yoga, Buddhism and psychology. They teach this system as the path towards a healthier, happier, more peaceful life, with meditation at the core.
Having studied with US yoga guru Paul Grilley, she is also one of the leading figures of Yin Yoga, a slowed-down yoga practice that I grew to love during my time in Sydney, where it is hugely popular as a counter-balance to the busy, achievement-driven city culture.
All that Sarah was teaching made sense to me. Since my childhood I have had a tendency for worry, nervousness and to have high expectations for myself, and during my twenties yoga was the best tool I could find to manage the stress from working in the London advertising industry. If I was under pressure at work and skipped a few classes for a comforting glass of wine with friends, everything in my life became harder and I lost my balanced perspective.
During my time in Nepal in 2014 I took a Vipassana course, which shares meditation techniques and teachings from the Buddha. Coincidentally, this was the organisation that ran the first meditation retreat that Sarah Powers experienced. Vipassana retreats are a highly intense experience, requiring silence amongst participants and meditation for ten hours a day, they describe it as ‘performing surgery on your own brain’. I dug deep into painful parts of myself that I would usually choose to ignore at all costs, but the outcome was positive, I started to have a clearer picture about how and why I could create my own limits and suffering, and previously subconscious beliefs began to surface.
The Insight Yoga approach doesn’t give easy answers or original solutions, but for me it was a reminder of some essential life lessons, a few of which I’ve been trying to hold onto since:
1. Live in the present moment.
Since reading ‘The Power of Now’ I’ve been convinced that dwelling less on the past and worrying less about the future is the way to a happier life, but like most humans I find this incredibly hard. This is one way we can learn from our canine friends!
2. Become your own best friend and parent yourself.
I’d always thought I liked myself a lot, but when I really started listening to my own thoughts I discovered how often I was my own biggest critic. Caring for ourselves and speaking to ourselves with the patience and acceptance we would grant to our best friends makes life a LOT nicer. And when we give ourselves as much encouragement and love as we need it takes the pressure off our relationships and our expectations of others to support us.
3. Notice your craving and aversion.
We all naturally want more of what gives us pleasure and less of what doesn’t feel good, but constantly chasing and reacting doesn’t lead to a peaceful life. I'm still working for the emotional maturity to always pause and breathe, rather than being led by my impulses and emotions.
4. Accept that everything changes.
We are constantly evolving, all our relationships will change, everyone we love will die, if we are lucky we will get old. Only when we accept this on a deep level can the pain of change become any less unbearable.
5. Accept all of your emotions
If we try to block or numb our feelings because we think they are inappropriate or too difficult to experience, they don’t just go away. In Chinese medicine our emotional state is intrinsically linked to our physical health and wellbeing, and it is believed that excessive or repressed emotions are a cause of disease.
Sarah has developed an incredible understanding of yoga asana (postures) over her teaching career, but delving into these deeper aspects of yoga as a philosophy for life resonated most strongly with me. I’ve also noticed a positive change in my teaching since I completed her training, I’m more confident in what I want to communicate and more open to sharing insights beyond the physical experience. I hope to continue to learn from Sarah's wisdom - I’ve already booked myself and my yogi Mum onto her next visit to the UK.
Over Easter weekend I taught prenatal yoga to four women in their final trimesters of pregnancy, at a retreat ran by Yoga lovin’ Rach Cox at Brazier’s Park* in Oxfordshire.
Yoga has incredible benefits for pregnant women in their second and third trimesters. For the physical body, postures to develop strength and flexibility can release aches and pains and help to ease the birth process, and work to isolate and strengthen the pelvic floor is particularly invaluable. Mentally, the ability to control your state of relaxation through the breath and to focus your mind on the present moment are amazing tools to manage pain and calm fears.
The level of yoga practice that women can maintain during pregnancy is of course individual and depends on their yoga experience prior to pregnancy. You can see Yoga Teacher Summer Huntington’s advanced prenatal yoga practice at 36 weeks on youtube (not instructional). Generally, yoga is not recommended in the first trimester when pregnancies are most at risk.
Some elements of yoga should be avoided, (including some breathing exercises, stomach twists, lying on the stomach, and exercises on the back in later stages,) and it’s certainly recommended that pregnant women check-in personally with their doctor and a qualified yoga teacher.
Three insights I keep front of mind for prenatal yoga are:
1. Focus on connection to the breath and the baby. Developing an awareness of her body, breath and emotions can be the most important thing a mother-to-be can learn from yoga. Start, finish and keep returning to this connection during the session.
2. Only work to 80% of capacity. Women in the late stages of pregnancy have the aptly named hormone relaxin in their system. This helps their body to open up for the birth, but increased flexibility can lead to strains if they push themselves too far. Most pregnant women also experience fatigue, so this is an excellent time to take it easy and practice compassion towards our bodies.
3. Indulge in hip openers. Squats (Malasana) with the back against the wall can be performed daily. Kapotasana (pigeon pose) can be practiced with a pillow to prop up the long extended leg and create room for the bump, or sat on a chair with one ankle raised and crossed at a right angle over the opposite knee. Baddha Konasana (bound ankle pose) is another delicious option.
Prenatal yoga is a fantastic way to rejuvenate deserving women and to spread feelings of peace to growing human beings. Practice with care and and teacher, students and babies reap the benefits.
(* Brazier’s Park is a fascinating 65-year-old experiment in communal living, based around a Jacobean-era Mansion House and its surrounding farmland in Oxfordshire, and is well worth a visit.)