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YOGA 

By Anna H.

Let’s talk about yoga.

Firstly, I’m not a yogi – or even close to one. I find the whole meditating thing, being ‘in the moment’ and contorting my body into positions for longer than seems humanly possible, really bloody hard.  And don’t even get me started on chanting.

I’ve spent far too many classes mulling over my ‘to-do’ list, or inwardly cursing myself for not getting that much needed pedi (never has such close analysis of my toes been had outside of a yoga class).  I’ve even been known to sniff the mat, whilst pondering how recently its last user had perspired onto it.  As I said, I’m not known for my inner zen.

But things have changed.  Since having two kids, my core is not what it used to be, I have put my back out more times than I care to remember, and the demands of having a young family has been known to make me go a bit stir crazy.

With this in mind, I thought it prudent not to ignore the benefits of what yoga has to offer (whilst also trying to attain that ‘yogic glow’ so many of my yoga loving friends manage to pull off).  So off I went to scour the yoga studios in and around Queen’s Park in a bid to find the true physical and mental benefits of yoga, whilst also gaining a better understanding of the different practices (who knew there were so many!?).

And I didn’t hold back.  I tried the dynamic practices of Ashtanga, Vinyasa and Jivamukti; the slower but extremely technical practice of Iyengar; the gentler ‘original’ Hatha practice; the sweaty and intense practice of Hot Yoga; and the profoundly spiritual new kid on the Western block – Kundalini yoga.

After all was said and done, the thing that struck me most, was the way each practice was profoundly different in its approach, with each one making me feel (both mentally and physically) very differently.  I also learnt that many yoga lovers are purists and once they have found the type of yoga (or instructor) that suits them, they don’t deviate.   It was therefore important for me to put aside my pre-conceived ideas, and try as many practices as possible.  It’s also advisable to try different instructors within each method as they vary considerably and some will ‘speak’ to you more than others, but I’m a busy mum and wanted to write this efficiently so most studios and classes just got one shot from me (not ideal I know, sorry).

Overall, the fundamental core postures (asanas in Sanskrit) are very similar amongst the different practices and are widely believed to provide relief from a whole variety of grievances, with poses for knees, hips and lower back (a god send for me), through to poses for depression, digestion and insomnia.  When these postures are practiced at varying paces, mixed with a combination of breathing techniques, you can achieve a full mental and physical workout – bonus.  And when it all becomes too much, there is always Childs Pose (Balasana) – the restorative and calming resting pose of placing the forehead to the ground with your arms stretched out in front, and your legs folded underneath your body.  This pose should not be underestimated (in my humble opinion)!

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Breathing techniques (or pranayama) are as central to the practices as the postures, but can be confusing when starting out, and require some concentration.  It appears to all be about ‘awareness’ of the breath, and learning to control it through various techniques – with the ultimate goal of achieving more fluid physical movements (or practice) and a calmer mind.  Some practices, such as Kundalini yoga however focus quite heavily on more sophisticated breathing techniques such as the ‘breath of fire’ which entails breathing in and out through the nose (or mouth) quickly, whilst pulling in the diaphragm during the exhalation and out during inhalation.  Many believe this can help alleviate feelings of anxiety, nerves, fears, pain, and depression.   As I said, this can seem quite daunting and as this piece is aimed at beginners like me, my advice would simply be, remember to exhale when bending forward, inhale when lifting or opening the chest, and exhale with twisting (all through the nose), and if you get this right – you’re on your way!

Before I began this yogic journey, I understood the meditative aspect of yoga (dhyana) as just one element of the practice, but yoga is in fact a union of breath, mind and body which taken as a whole – is really a moving meditation.  There is however often a section of a class (usually at the end) where more obvious reflective meditation takes place, and a quietening the mind is sought. It was something I personally found quite challenging.  A tool that helped allow me to feel comfortable with the meditative process, was the Headspace App which I  went through a period of listening to for ten minutes each evening.  Mediation comes a little easier these days and I have learned to enjoy the post yoga relaxation poses (savasana), particularly ‘corpse pose’ which can release all the built up tensions, whilst allowing the mind to stay focused.

When talking to a very experienced yoga teacher friend of mine about this article and the different components of yoga as I saw them, she was quick to mention that it’s most important to see yoga as a whole process, which was ultimately created to allow us to “let go of things in the past that one can’t change, to live in the moment, to not hold on to the future, and to increase our awareness“.  I guess this is why after particularly stressful periods of daily life, and a demanding practice, savasna has led me to shed a tear, which is apparently quite natural.  And it can feel fantastic – so we may as well embrace it!

When I started this process, I found just looking a yoga studio timetable bewildering, so I’ve broken down some of the methods as a starting point and included a little overview of the studios personally visited:

Hatha – is the original and most widely practiced form of yoga brought to the West, with an emphasis on both the physical stretching postures, and the meditative elements.  It is through Hatha yoga that most other practices are derived from.  Although it is rather gentle in comparison to other popular forms of yoga, and with less flow between postures, it does include basic breathing exercises and often seated meditation at the end.  I took a few classes pre kids and found them to be very calming when the stresses of work took their toll.

Vinyasa or Vinyasa Flow – is quite a fast paced practice which derived from Hatha yoga in the twentieth century.  It incorporates a steady flow between postures and breath which builds strength and flexibility.  Most classes start with Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskara) which is a sequence of postures done in succession, one flowing into the next.  This is a form of expressing gratitude to the source of all life on the planet – but if that all feels a little too alternative, just google its benefits!  It’s meant to revitalise the body, refresh the mind, improve circulation, strengthen the heart and digestive system – and boost energy levels.  It takes some practice, but once you’ve got it, it can make you feel fabulous (and quite sweaty)!

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Yogaloft

Yogaloft – in the middle of Queen’s Park has a wide range of brilliant classes from all disciplines, including a very popular lunch time Vinyasa Flow class held by Jessica Stewart which many of my friends (and husband for that matter) swear by.  Jessica has a wonderful calming and kind energy about her, which adds to the way she teaches.  You come away form the class feeling you have learnt something new, and despite the standard of the class being pretty high – she never lets anyone get left behind and is very gentle in her corrections.

I took two smaller classes at Gracelands Yard with Samira (Samira Yoga), which felt gentler and was suitable for all levels – from total beginners, through to those with more experience.  The studio is small but Samira, who has a loyal local following is very approachable, and adapts the class to the level of those in the room.

Another lovely gentler class I took was with Tracey (Shanti Sundays), also at Gracelands Yard on Sunday mornings.  Tracey has a calm presence and it felt like a lovely class to prepare the body and mind for the day ahead.  I skipped out of the class with a smile on my face.  Tracey also sells a gorgeous range of bolster cushions that I’m adding to my Christmas list!

Ashtangais similar to Vinyasa and is also dynamic in its approach, with poses practiced in a set of six challenging series’ that incorporate standing poses, forward bends, backbends, twists and inversions, linked by the breath.  Again, it can get rather hot and sweaty and it’s advisable that you are physically fit to take on the class.  Yogaloft offers a range of Ashtanga classes.

Jivamukti – is a much newer style of practice of yoga started by two New Yorkers David Life and Sharon Gannon in the 1980’s, after having studied with prominent Gurus in India for many years.  According to the Jivamukti yoga centre in New York, Life and Gannon used these teachings to ‘illuminate the deeper, esoteric truths of yoga’, and asked practitioners to, ‘let go of what they think they know and embrace the path to liberation in this lifetime’.  In a nutshell, this is a really deep physical practice with a larger emphasis on the spiritual nature of yoga, and is often with the accompaniment of spiritual music (sanskrit mantras).

I took a ninety minute Open Class at the Sangye Yoga centre on Kensal Road and despite my scepticism, I enjoyed it immensely.  It was a blend between Vinyasa Flow and Ashtanga so it was very physically challenging but, as with most classes, there were varying levels of postures to choose from to fit with the individuals capabilities.  Unlike the other yoga practices I have tried, sanskrit mantras were played intermittently throughout, which is meant to have a powerful healing effect on the mind and body.  For someone like me, this could have been quite cringe inducing – but instead, I found it really rather calming and enlightening.  I’m a sanskrit mantra convert!  The light filled studio itself is lovely and spacious, whilst the gorgeous low lit, incense burning central reception area feels like a welcome relief from the hustle and bustle of Ladbroke Grove.  It’s also worthy of a celeb spot or two.

Iyengar yoga is an extremely disciplined form of yoga, which takes longer to master than many of the other practices.  It is very much about discipline and alignment.  The postures were devised to promote groundedness, energy, strength, stimulation and calm and are often held for longer periods of time than in other disciplines.

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Iyengar Institute

I attended the Iyengar Institute which is a little sanctuary of calm just off the beaten track in Maida Vale.  The studio is beautifully light and airy, with a refreshing glimpse of nature visible from the studio windows and sky lights.  The classes are very popular and there were varying degrees of abilities in the beginners class as you must have practiced the Iyengar method for two years before progressing.  It was wonderful to see such a mix of ages and abilities in one room (and some very impressive headstands by some of the maturer ladies in the group!).

Kundalini yoga – is an ancient practice brought to the West by Yogi Bhajan in 1969.  It is touted as a ‘complete science’, combining posture, breath, mantra and mediation to aid personal development.  It is less about precise postures or building physical strength, and more about unblocking energy pathways to allow a free flow of energy which in turn should make us feel balanced, grounded and connected.  Some people see it as the most therapeutic of the yoga practices, and incorporates a higher level of chanting, technical breathing methods and energising music.

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Kundalini Rise

I took a one on one class with Lucy Keaveny of Kundalini Rise in her gorgeous Kensal Rise home, and was surprised by how different this form of yoga was to the others I had tried. There were some deep postures as well as technical breathing sequences to master – many of which were married with hands to heart chanting, and singing of prayer (not mandatory to join in!).  It was a real experience and very enlightening.

To take the Kundalini journey further, some partake in sound  healing, which can be had in the form of a Gong Bath – also practiced by Lucy who regularly holds yoga, live mantra and gong baths from her home or at Gracelands Yard.

Hot Yogawas introduced to the UK in 1994 in the form of Bikram Yoga via Michele Pernetta who now owns the Fierce Grace brand.  Hot yoga is (unsurprisingly) performed under hot and humid conditions to aid flexibility within the poses, and leads to extreme sweating.  The style of yoga practiced at Fierce Grace is based on classical Hatha, Bikram and Ashtanga yoga, but with its own set of devised sequences.

The classes I attended at Fierce Grace West were tough to begin with, namely because of the heat, which smacks you straight in the face as you enter the room and can feel quite stifling (if you’re not a fan of saunas, probably best to steer clear).  This feeling does dissipate however once you acclimatise to the temperature and I would advise going in ten minutes early for this reason. As a relative beginner to yoga, I tried the Classic class, which I felt able to keep up with, and particularly enjoyed manoeuvring my way into poses not usually possible in normal temperatures.  The conscious meditation is less prevalent in these classes.

As you may well imagine, it’s been a journey.  A journey that has led me to a type of practice that I think suits me and my lifestyle best and one that I hope to continue with.  I have loved incorporating a full body workout with something that is also good for my mental state.  And one of the best things of all, is that through learning the basics of yogic postures, breathing and meditative techniques, I have been able to help alleviate some of the daily stresses and physical aches and pains by using them at home – and that has been almost life changing. But these are my own experiences, and the only way you’ll know if yoga is for you is to try it.  If at first you can only concentrate on your lack of foot hygiene, or inner gas or stinky mats (there are sprays for this fyi), just keep going, as the chances are you’ll eventually find a practice that sings to the needs of both your body and mind – and who can argue with that.

Lastly, thank you to all the teachers and studios who kindly let me take part in your classes – it has been a real pleasure.

Namaste.

 

DIRECTORY OF LOCAL CLASSES (remember to look for introductory & QPM’s offers):

Fierce Grace West (Hot Yoga): 260 Kilburn Lane, W10 4BA. Tel: 020 8960 9644; E mail: west@fiercegrace.com

  • QPM’s offer: 20% off all contracts and packages excluding the £39 for 30 day offer.

Gracelands Yard (Wide range inc. pregnancy): 102 Liddell Gardens, Kensal Rise, NW10 3QE.  Tel: 020 8960 7450

Iyengar Institute (Iyengar Yoga): 223a Randolph Ave, Maida Vale, W9 1NL. Tel: 020 7624 3080; E mail: office@iyi.org.uk

  • QPM’s offer: £6 off the six week Introduction to Iyengar Yoga Course

Kundalini Rise (Kundalini Yoga): 61 Wrentham Avenue, Queens Park, NW10 3HN. Tel: 07958 986903; E mail: Lucy@kundalinirise.co.uk

Qore (Vinyasa Flow / Dynamic): The Maqam Centre, Wrentham Avenue, NW10 3HJ.  Tel: 020 7625 0375

  • Introductory Offer: FREE Qore class from 18th September – 31st October. Call to reserve a space

Samira Yoga (Vinyasa / Hatha): Gracelands Yard – 102 Liddell Gardens, Kensal Rise, NW10 3QE.  Tel: 07713 941 479; E mail samira@samirayoga.co.uk

  • QPM’s offer: 2 for 1 on private 1:1 sessions (£35 per session instead of £75) or a block of 5 classes @ Gracelands Yard for £45 (instead of £55)

Sangye Yoga (Jivamukti & Vinyasa Flow): 300 Kensal Road, W10 5BE.  Tel: 020 8960 3999; E mail: info@sangyeyoga.com

  • Introductory offer: £40 for 30 consecutive days.  See Sangye Yoga website for more information

Shanti Sundays (Vinyassa / Hatha): Gracelands Yard – 102 Liddell Gardens, Kensal Rise, NW10 3QE.  Email: hello@shantisundays.com

Yogaloft (Wide range of classes inc. pregnancy): 3 Lonsdale Rd, Queens Park, NW6 6RA. Tel: 020 7625 2645; E mail: info@yogaloftlondon.com

Yoga in Daily Life: 133 Salusbury Road, NW6 6RN. Tel: 020 7328 7163; E mail: london@yogaindailylife.org

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