I'm part of a community of teachers who participate in the Association of Yoga Studies (AYS). A group of a few hundred teachers, mostly in the UK, who meet annually to share teachings, learn from experts in their field, and continually develop our knowledge and understanding of yoga and yoga teaching. We are based in the teachings of TKV Desikachar and his father, Krishnamacharya, Viniyoga.
Part of this tradition is chanting. Chanting the Yoga Sutras was a core part of my teacher training. Learning by heart some of this core text which forms the basis of much of what I teach. Even though it is over 2,000 years old, the teachings on the mind are so relevant to modern life.
Being able to chant in Sankrit was a surprise part of my training that I didn't realise I was going to learn to do, but here I am, years later still continuing and participating in group chanting.
There are practical reasons to learn how to chant...
- breath development
- learning the ancient teachings of the Vedas and Yoga Sutras by heart
- focus and concentration (you literally can't drift your attention and remain true to the Sanskrit sounds without knowing that you have, as you'll make an audible mistake right away and bringing your focus keenly back)
- quietening the body, nervous system and mind
But something else happens when you chant, especially when your in a group. A resonance takes place in your own body and mind. Especially with the group sound, the coming together of individual voices to make a collective sound which is a wonderful and powerful experience. Anyone who takes part in a choir or orchestra will understand what I'm talking about. It's no coincidence that every culture has singing practices embedded deep within. And Covid has reminded us the value of being together in a room with others.
Chanting in Sankrit, continuing the strict chant rules and pronunciation that has remained as unchanged as possible for over 2,000 years is an inspiring experience. It brings us together, connecting us individually, as a collective, and to the shared subtle underpinning of our everyday life.
This past weekend I took part in a wonderful Vedic Chanting retreat with Chris Preist. Coming together with a shared joy of yoga practice and study with time for reflection and silence has never felt as needed as after the challenges of Covid.
If you've ever wondered about chanting, please do ask me, or come to one of my workshops where we use simple chanting and sound practices.
Or simply try humming to yourself and start to enjoy the sound and vibration.
Lie on your back, knees bent.
~ Place your hands over your eyes (not pressing on the eyes themselves) and block out the light.
~ Gaze into the darkness and patterns that appear there.
~ And then take a soft, easy hum each time you exhale.
~ Do this for a few minutes, slowly listening to the sound of each hum.
~ No matter what note or quality of sound, and no matter if you like the sound of your voice or not. Feel the sound if you don't like to listen to it,
~ After 5 minutes, see how you feel. Something will have changed in you. ~ Ponder....
Yoga - the art of moving, breathing, sitting and reconnecting to that sense of grounded perspective and awe. Using the practice to become revitalised yet quietened in body, breath and mind, Quiet enough even, to notice and dwell in that internal spaciousness that was the same yesterday as it was the day before that, and the year before that...
It's quicker than you think
All it takes is some simple movements, attention turned towards the breath, and bringing a steadiness and calmness through intentional focus. Then space to sit and be still for a moment. Like any skill, there is a learning curve to establishing the necessary skills and understanding of what you are doing. A practice that suits you and works for you might take a bit of exploration and discovery (this is where a teacher is very helpful). But it's certainly worth the effort.
Daily yoga practice doesn't need to be hot, vigorous or sweaty. It doesn't need to be acrobatic, complicated or impressive. It doesn't require flexibility or strength. It doesn't need to be on a yoga mat and lycra is definitely not required, PJs are perfect.
I find it truly remarkable how little it takes to feel like I'm thriving again (after another tiring day of home schooling, therapeutic parenting, an onslaught of bad news from the media, and restrictions on day to day living). Of course if you enjoy making it tough, sweaty, vigorous, or otherwise, then that is great and the benefits will speak for themselves. But there is also a much simpler and more accessible alternative that can be discovered. if that will suit you better.
Home yoga practice videos coming soon
I'll be posting some home practice yoga videos online soon to support some simple home practices that you might find helpful. A yoga class is of course great - it helps you learn the skills and techniques that are time tested to work and gives you a longer practice and more time than you'd likely dedicate to yourself on a daily basis. Yoga classes also get you learning from a teacher who has been where you are and can guide you more skillfully (as long as the teacher has the opportunity to get to know you and your practice and aims). But I'd encourage anyone who is interested to take up a short daily yoga practice too. 10 minutes can truly work wonders. Or join in my yoga classes and there is a home practice handout each term based on what you've learned to help get you started with your own home yoga practice.
Please don't be fooled by the Instagram/media yoga-hype --- it simply doesn't have to be that complicated or hard, it doesn't have to take ages, and no, you don't need to balance on your hands / head at any point.
Check back soon or join the mailing list for updates on videos coming soon (once the home-schooling gaps permit).
Yoga is a set of practices but also, it is an area of study. The practices that we embody - the movements and postures, the breath and the meditative supports - can be wonderful to simply experience and do. No prior knowledge needed. But as your experience and understanding develops the richer it becomes, As an adjunct to the practices is the understanding, the context and the wider practices of yoga, which are rooted in a rich, broad, deep and ancient tradition. Not something you get to grips with in a group class generally (try one of my Bristol-based yoga workshops or Foundation Courses to find out more about this).
The Association of Yoga Studies (AYS) of which I'm a teaching member, is a viniyoga community that meets every year and comes together for a weekend of wonderful yoga workshops. This weekend just past was our annual convention with an inspiring theme on Yoga and Music led by Ravi Shankar and Sheela Shankar from India. They are both long-time yoga scholars trained directly by Desikachar and Sheela is an accomplished classical Indian singer. They shared the most beautiful and subtle approach to yoga practice through sound, song, chant and ancient Vedic poetry. Sheela delightfully performed songs for us and then led us skillfully in ancient chanting practices. While Ravi gave us eloquent context and history around the chants that we practiced.
As always with the teaching conventions, I've come away inspired to explore these subtle practices in my personal practice and feel re-rooted in the tradition of yoga. It is such a privilege to be welcomed into this warm and generous community all brought together by the legacy of the humble, honest and rigorous teachings of TKV Desikachar.
What I love about the teachings in this weekend's community, is that your never more than a breath away from a reference to the Yoga Sutras or the Vedas. The ancient traditions are maintained with a thread of understanding that is brilliantly woven through the workshops and brought to life through the teacher. The interpretation of yoga hasn't been recycled so many times without reference to the original teachings, that it is barely recognisable as yoga at all (as is common in many modern yoga teaching approaches). Refreshing, inspiring, grounding and beautiful.
Chanting sublimely embodies a timelessness that is hard to find in other yoga practices. The chanting of a song that was written millennia ago, chanted to the same clear, strict rules which means it sounded the same then as it does now (if your teacher is as skilled as Sheela Shankar) bringing you to the exact same point as the people who chanted it before you, The sounds, the breath and focus required to maintain the ability to chant in Sanskrit, the acute listening and heightened senses, the connection to that which is timeless, And the awareness that of course life hasn't changed that much. The outward appearance and experience is unrecognisable, but our internal experience is still on the same path and these teachings which were so valuable then, are still available to help make life and living better. Love it!!
Perhaps an ache will reduce, perhaps a tension habit will subside, perhaps the sleep will start to improve, or you'll be less moody. Perhaps your chores will feel more pleasurable, or you'll be more present with your kids or colleagues. Perhaps you'll be more patient or open to other people's ideas, perhaps you'll be a little kinder - It shows up in many ways.
But the other can also be true. The prep may feel GREAT. The practice might be fully satisfying, and you want more prep. You might feel like you are becoming a fantastic chef and your prep is awesome. You practice more, you love it, you find your tribe and you're into it, BUT you don't notice the meal.
Life beyond the practice is the important bit - how the prep leaves you. Do you feel tired? Are you getting a repetitive strain or grumbling discomfort in your body that wasn't there before? Are you agitated or judgemental, impatient or aggressive etc. How is your ego handling all of this awesome prep and how great you have been feeling lately? How are your relationships with those around you? Subtle results that are important revelations to the results of our practice. Being vigilant to the sidetracking towards the glitter of the prep, rather than the meal itself and how it shows up in you in subtle ways, is a consideration when practicing yoga.
What I love about yoga practice is that the more consistent and appropriate prep you do, the better the meal - the better the rest of your life feels. This builds day-on-day, week-on-week, year-on-year. And occasionally in our prep, we get to taste a sublime flavour that stays with us far beyond the yoga mat.
Regular, consistent, appropriate prep, regular consistent practice, to bring into the rest of your life.
Free yoga to raise money for charity!
We are delighted that we had another successful Open Day with the other independent yoga studios in Bristol as part of the Bristol Yoga Trail. Together we all raised a whopping £943.59 for charity, all going directly to OTR (Off the Record) supporting young people's mental health. Each £10 raised equals a counselling session for a young person and we are so pleased to be able to support such a good and worthwhile cause.
Thanks to everyone who came along to our free yoga classes. From the 8:30am Saturday morning yoga class, to the pregnancy yoga and the viniyoga classes, everyone seemed to have a lovely day and we certainly enjoyed meeting so many new faces and beginners to yoga. Gloucester Road in Bishopston was buzzing and the balloons from our studio and Yogawest next door made a gloomy day into something quite delightful.
Don't forget to use your discount vouchers and come back and visit us again soon! x
Recently, on BBC Radio Bristol's 'Clueless' program, we were invited to be their special 'mystery' destination for their clue-led treasure hunt. Through a series of cryptic clues, callers had to ring in to the program and help find the location of the mystery place - US! All clues led to Bristol YogaSpace and once we were found I chatted with the show presenters where we laugh about the difficulties of starting out with yoga. Take a listen. We talk about breath-centred yoga practice which we specialise in at Bristol YogaSpace.
It is always interesting to hear about someone's first experience of yoga like the presenter in the radio chat who felt like she might never go back. She found her first class too challenging -- so for a long-term and sustainable practice, it probably isn't a good starting point. You want to have a good experience, feel engaged in what you are doing, revitalised by a positive experience, but not so challenged that you might not continue.
There is always a good starting place, and in yoga, there is always something you can do, now matter what your age or physical ability. This starting point will be different for each of us depending on our lifestyle and constitution A group class typically starts with body movements and breathwork but if your body isn't well or strong, then other starting points might be a better route for your yoga practice. But hopefully the presenter will find a class that she finds enjoyable and engaging, and something she can't wait to do again.
Maybe you first tried it through a YouTube video or DVD (my first experience was through a video cassette!). Or perhaps you tried a yoga class, or had a more meditative yoga experience, perhaps a podcast or guided audio practice. There are so many ways to first experience yoga.
Don't be disheartened if you try it and it doesn't feel right. Each teacher will teach what they found helpful and important so finding a teacher you feel comfortable with and aligned too, who can support you through the initial stages of your developing yoga skills will help you get the most benefit from yoga.
Please do get in touch if we can help you get started, whether in a group class or with private lessons to discover and develop your journey with yoga.
Breathing well in yoga can seem tricky
As a beginner to yoga, it can seem difficult to keep the focus on the breath. It is common to find that you’ve been holding your breath and straining in some postures. Arms and legs are just about doing what the teacher has invited you to do - but your breath, well who knows?
This is particularly noticeable in a fast-paced or deeply strenuous class where the body is most dominant and anything else gets left behind as you work your way through the class.
So what if my breath isn't great?
Day to day we typically breath 12-15 breaths per minute. The rate, depth and quality of it can help adjust our levels of anxiety and stress, our immune system effectiveness and many more physical and mental health markers. Yoga offers profound teachings in the breath if we choose to listen that can support our health, wellbeing and awareness in our day to day lives.
Familiarity helps to develop our breath focus
Gradually, with familiarity of a regular yoga practice, we can start to remember to breathe with a flowing and calmer breath. And eventually the breath and movements start to link together more. From here we can start to take that further still and refine into a more advanced yoga practice.
Once you feel you are able to link the breath and movements together, then the power of the breath can really start to be harnessed and the refinement and quality of our yoga practice can bloom. Our nervous system will feel immense benefit from working skilfully with breath centring and we can move beyond the endorphin highs of vigorous and strenuous yoga practice and move towards maturing our yoga practice.
The breath powers our yoga practice
Sounds obvious, of course we need to breath to power everything that we do or we’ll collapse in a heap. But it is easy to forget about the quality of our breath when distracted or physically strained. What if you eased back from the strain and found a spaciousness in the breath to develop the power of your yoga practice instead? What would that feel like? What could it do to your yoga practice?
What if we found our physical alignment from our breath?
We often listen to the technical instruction from the yoga teacher: move your foot here, rotate your hip there, etc... Breath-centred practice can support us to more naturally open and expand your body into a posture, rather than teaching instruction being the main driver. Explore how your breath can position you into a natural alignment from within that is unique to your body structure and your deepening breath.
Starting out with breath-centred yoga practice
The classes at Bristol YogaSpace work with a deeply breath-centred approach to yoga. Rather than simply coordinating with our breath, which is common in many Vinyasa, Flow or Ashtanga yoga practices, we centre ourselves in the breath more deeply and use it to power the practice and direct the postures and focus.
When I started out some 20 years ago I practiced Ashtanga yoga, a vigourous and strong yoga practice, then Iyengar yoga which is technical and detailed in its formal postures. But I eventually discovered a truly breath-centred approach in Viniyoga and practice was transformed for me.
Perhaps ask your teacher more about the breath when you feel ready or curious or come along to a Viniyoga class which specialises in breath-centred yoga practice, or a yoga workshop to support you to develop more breath centring in your yoga practice.
Enjoy your yoga practice.
“Without breath, it isn’t yoga – it is like a river without water”
The gentle yoga class was quieter but always nice to be able to offer a more adapted and therapeutic approach to yoga practice for those who want to start there. Small groups are ideal for this approach to yoga so that we can ensure that it is adapted and suitable for you.
We are pleased to say we raised £163.28 for Off the Record, the local Bristol charity providing free mental health support for young people. Thanks for your donations and the donation jar is there this week for anyone who wants to drop-off a donation who didn't get a chance on Saturday.
It was a lovely chance to collaborate with many of the other independent yoga studios in Bristol too. Our lovely neighbours, Yogawest, who offer the more alignment based Iyengar yoga joined in, Yogafurie who offer hot yoga in Ashley Down, Yogasara and Bristol City Yoga in Stokes Croft, and Flow yoga in Windmill Hill. It is so nice to collaborate with the other 6 studios, work together to share yoga to the broader Bristol community, and raise money for charity. It is great to demonstrate that in this day and age, not everything is competitive or trying to get ahead. We all love yoga and see if as a way to share our love of it with as many people as possible, bring people together and become more integrated with our communities as a collective. Looking forward to the 2018 yoga trail and working with the other yoga studios again to bring that to everyone.
Thanks again for coming and we welcome you back to the YogaSpace studio in Bishopston soon!
Church halls can suck
Church halls are not ideal teaching or practice spaces. I still teach on Thursday evenings in Westbury Park with limited heating, lentils leftover on the floor from the preschool earlier in the day, and don’t even get me started about the red glitter stuck to the yoga mats that will remind my students when they get home that they did cobra posture as the shiny specks remain on their foreheads. But I value these classes in many ways and value the students who come so enjoy teaching them anyway
How I came to own a yoga studio
I didn’t have big ambitions for what I was trying to do, just a space, a resource, to teach what my teacher Paul Harvey had taught me and what I had discovered along the way and find great value in, and pass on this helpful stuff that I was privileged to be able to have time to study and practice.
Before starting the studio in 2009 I had a good job that I enjoyed and was teaching yoga part-time in the evenings in the church hall. I didn’t really have plans to start a yoga studio. But one morning I was early to an appointment with my hairdresser on Park Row, so was hanging around near her salon and noticed to sign advertising a space that was for rent. A great place for a yoga studio, right in the centre of Bristol. I recounted this to my hairdresser as I was in her chair and she mentioned that their basement was unused and I should take a look. I did and the seed of YogaSpace was planted. The yoga centre at 10 Park Row opened a couple of months later.
At first it was just me teaching classes. Then once the yoga centre started, many teachers approached me to be able to teach there. Naomi started up her Tuesday evening classes which she still runs now. I navigated the changing yoga landscape as best I could as the eclectic practice styles became more popular. I found some wonderful people along the way, and hopefully have offered teachings and classes that the students of YogaSpace have found helpful and valuable and created a studio space that the teachers have enjoyed teaching in.
Push yourself, or restore yourself? Or neither...
Eventually though my heart was less and less in it as I found myself managing a centre and lots of other teachers and having less time for my own teaching and study. And also finding that the style of modern yoga practice was changing in a direction that I didn’t feel aligned to. It felt more and more fueled by the need to exert, sweat and push ourselve, or on the flip side of that, to relax and restore. To ‘get’ somewhere with our practice rather than discover what we already have.
How to 'open your heart'?
Yoga seemed to be becoming more physical in what was being taught, more entertaining for people who come to class, physically challenging as the primary focus, creatively expressive and freeform, maybe with a sprinkling of yoga philosophy and perhaps esoteric symbolism. I kept coming across romantic sounding notions such as ‘opening your heart’ (metaphorically and symbolically interesting when presented thoughtfully and with context but otherwise a phrase that in my opinion needs further examination). I needed a rethink of what I was spending my time doing. My compass felt a little off kilter. I had somehow found myself hosting and promoting classes that while enjoyable and of use to those who attend, I didn’t personally love.
Paul Harvey's yoga centre, Yoganjali
Then my teacher, Paul Harvey, decided to pass on his yoga studio as he was going to be primarily teaching smaller groups and 121 yoga ongoing and didn’t have need of a larger studio space. His beautiful studio, Yoganjali, established in 1998 and where I had taken my teacher training was in need of a new owner. It’s an ideal space, down a quiet cul-de-sac in the heart of Bishopston. If you could design a yoga studio from scratch, this would be it - beautiful, quiet, simple, functional, warm, light, tranquil, and just off a bustling high street. My personal history with yoga was embedded here, steeped in the tradition of Krishnamacharya and Desikachar.
No brand names or styles
So here I am, now based at Bristol YogaSpace in Bishopston, with like-minded teachers, without a brand name or ‘styled’ yoga approach, just simple, breath-centred yoga orientated towards personalised yoga practice, taught in small groups or 121. And I love it.
Good luck to Bristol Yoga Centre!
Naomi I’m sure will do a wonderful job with Bristol Yoga Centre. It is a lovely studio space and I loved the 7-years I spent there building a vibrant yoga community. I miss the teachers and students and I’m sure our paths will continue to cross, but I love where I find myself. I’ve gone back to my roots of teaching what I have a firm conviction about, and returning to study with Paul Harvey for the rest of the year. This time around, I’m hoping to keep my compass more aligned and closer to my heart. I wish Naomi and all those adventurers out there happy travels and very best wishes with all the other wonderful stuff!
All forms of practice have their place at different times in life, and finding what suits you at is a very personal decision. The adaptable nature of viniyoga means it changes with you as your life changes, rather than requiring that you strive to sustain the same standardised forms of practice. Viniyoga is sustainable and supportive as you deepen your yoga practice over the years.
The British Wheel of Yoga is an organisation that offers yoga teacher training and accreditation, and a good standard of teacher training. It is the national governing body for yoga and the largest yoga membership organisation in the country. It ensures a minimum standard of teacher training so that the teacher is experienced enough and knowledgeable enough to safely run a group yoga class for the wide range of participants that each class attracts. Many teacher training courses these days are available to take as 1-6 month intensives however the British Wheel still maintains that 2-years is the minimum time period to fully explore, train and prepare to become a yoga teacher. Part of the yoga teachers job is to guide participants to move beyond their familiar physical and mental comfort zone and to do this safely is key to good teaching. They also require annual continual professional development have a good quarterly magazine.
Anyway, I'm looking forward to teaching at the annual yoga teacher conference and hope to see you there!
See Clara's group yoga class schedule >