New Yoga Column for the Third Space

I have had a bit of a hiatus as I had a baby last year and this coincided with moving to a new town and starting a new life. There will be more on that to come in this blog very soon, but in the meantime, I wanted to share that I am now the yoga columnist for The Third Space, which is a new wellbeing magazine for the not-for-profit centre. This article is on overwhelm, so it’s applicable to just about anyone who’s ever felt stressed, really!


Under The Waves

I recently watched a video of a Big Wave surf competition. As the title suggests, it wasn’t for the faint of heart. The surfers had to be pulled into the waves by jet skis. Medical teams circled overhead in helicopters. If it all went well, they got to experience the ride of their lives as they glided down a wave the height of a tower block to rapturous applause from the spectators standing a sensible distance away on the beach.

But if it all went wrong, that’s another story. They might be underwater for anything from thirty seconds to a few minutes, churned relentlessly in what surfers affectionately (and euphemistically) refer to as a ‘washing machine’ until at some point the wave breaks and they are returned to the surface. Naturally, part of their training includes learning to hold their breath for long stretches, but if you ask any surfer about the key to surviving such a wipeout, they’ll tell you that it’s to stay calm and not struggle.

Big Wave surfing strikes me as an apt metaphor for dealing with life’s more turbulent times. There’s something inherently Zen about how the surfers have no choice but to meet a dramatic wipeout with complete surrender. To struggle under the weight of a giant wave could potentially lead to serious injury or even death. They yield fully to the weight and mood of the water. They trust in the knowledge that at some point, they will be spat out on the other side, even though they don’t know when that might be, or what might happen in the meantime.

In an ideal world, we’d all instinctively handle life with such grace. But this not being an ideal world, most of us will need to find a tool or two to help us achieve such equanimity. It’s not surprising that as the pace of contemporary life becomes more and more relentless, people are turning to yoga in their numbers. It’s not just that yoga gives us a strong body or a healthy glow, though these are appealing by-products. It’s also that yoga can-with time- give us a greater ability to surrender to the flow of life.

There’s science to back this claim up. Modern life goes at a 24/7 pace. We are constantly connected to communication devices and mass media. Whilst this does have a positive side- it’s easy to stay in touch with friends, its convenient to buy things using only face recognition- it also takes its toll. We work round the clock because we’re always reachable, driven by a fear that we’re somehow dispensable. We’re inundated with images and messages insinuating that we’re not enough, and as a result, we hold ourselves- and others- to impossible standards.

The result, from a physiological point of view, is that our sympathetic nervous systems end up running the show. Also known as ‘fight or flight’, the sympathetic nervous system is what kicks in when we’re in danger. It floods our system with adrenaline, which in turn increases our heart rate, causes muscles to tense and breathing to become more rapid. It shuts off ‘unnecessary’ functions like digestion in order to conserve energy. If we were outrunning a predator, this would come in handy. Unfortunately, the ‘predator’ these days is often the permanent sense of overwhelm that hangs over many of us. And the long-term effects of stress are well documented; on one end of the scale are poor sleep and digestive problems and on the other, heart disease and cancer. Chronic stress impacts relationships, mental health and decision-making abilities. It’s arguably the greatest killer in the western world.

The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, serves the opposite function. It allows the heart to slow down, digestion to work properly and sleep to be deep and refreshing. Also known as the ‘rest and digest’ function, when stimulated it encourages the body to heal and repair itself. So how dowe stimulate it? Things like yoga (especially the more ‘yin’ styles) breathing practices and meditation consciously work to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and make us feel calmer. And just as the long-term effects of stress are quantifiable, so too are the long-term effects of being calm. We make better lifestyle choices, enjoy more fulfilling relationships and when life’s inevitable problems do occur, we navigate them with more clarity and ease.

We can’t avoid the wipeouts, in other words, but we can certainly learn how to stay calm under the waves.

Try This:

Sticking with the ocean theme, Ujayii breath-or victorious breath- sounds like the ocean and has a deeply calming effect and can be done anywhere. To make the sound, simply breathe as if you’re trying to fog up a pane of glass, but with the lips sealed. You’ll make this gentle sighing sound on both the inhalation and the exhalation. Tuning into the sound, try and deepen your breath to the count of four on both inhale and exhale. Many yoga practitioners use this breathing style on the mat, but it works just as well when you’re summoned to the boss’s office!

Yoga in Pregnancy

This piece was written for the blog Honest Mum, my friend Vicki's award-winning blog on all things mamahood-related. It includes one of my favourite breathing techniques for staying calm- pregnant or otherwise!


Unless you’ve been living under a rock for a very long time, you’ll no doubt have heard about the benefits of doing yoga in pregnancy. The breathing works wonders during labour as it helps you to feel calmer and more focused and the postures help to build both mental and physical strength and stamina.


But yoga works its magic in other ways, too. A regular practice can help a woman feel connected to her growing baby and to feel empowered during birth- whatever the method of delivery. Women who have struggled with fertility issues, pregnancy loss and previous birth trauma have all reported that yoga has been hugely beneficial. I can personally attest that it has been my saving grace through my own pregnancy, as well as a previous miscarriage.


Essentially, yoga is a process of reconnecting to the body’s innate wisdom.  Pregnancy, in addition to being a wonderful time, can also be a terrifying one. The world and its wife will want to overload you with well-meaning but often misguided advice and the medical community, lost as we’d be without them, tend to focus on all the things that can and do go wrong because- let’s face it- that’s their job. When you throw into the mix the double-edged sword known as the late-night Google symptom-checker, it’s no wonder that pregnancy can leave us anxious and riddled with self-doubt. Women have been laying down in dark caves and squatting in fields to give birth for millennia, but we somehow forget this when we’re laying awake at 3AM in a cold sweat because we ate a piece of feta that may or may not have been pasteurized.


That’s why pregnancy yoga can be an expectant mum’s best friend. The practice of yoga puts us deeply in touch with just how amazing our bodies are, how nature does nothing by accident and how prepared we already are for the baby to arrive. Yoga helps us to remember that, well; we got this.


So, if you’re interested in trying it, here are a few things to think about that will help you to get the most from it.


Firstly, whether you are a seasoned yogi or a first time practitioner, it’s important to remember that the goal of pregnancy yoga is not to become more flexible. Your pregnant body is already full of a hormone called relaxin, which softens the ligaments to make birth easier (I told you you got this). Whilst this may sound like a tempting invitation to try out that Instagram pose that you saw where someone’s leg was behind their head, please don’t; your future self won’t thank you at all, as saggy joints are not happy ones. In pregnancy yoga, we focus more on building strength gently and opening the body softly.


Secondly, nothing beats the experience of getting to a live class when you’re pregnant. In addition to supporting the needs of each woman’s practice, the majority of pregnancy yoga classes will offer you a cuppa before, after or sometimes even during class and sometimes there are even biscuits. Yes, biscuits! And you can enjoy them in the company of other pregnant women, some of whom may well become your friends.  It’s win-win!


Lastly, as all yoga begins with the breath, here’s a lovely, calming breathing exercise that anyone can try at home, at any stage of pregnancy.


Three-part breathing: Find somewhere to sit or lie comfortably, ideally somewhere quiet. Begin to deepen your breath, trying to keep the inhalations and the exhalations equal, and tune in to the sound of your breathing. When you feel comfortable, begin to direct your deep breath right down into your belly, letting it fill up like a balloon and naturally contract again. If it helps, you can visualize sending deep, nurturing breaths towards your baby. After a minute or so (or however long you feel comfortable), bring your attention to your rib cage and direct your breath to this area, with a focus on sideways expansion. When you are ready, bring the breath further upwards towards the collarbones, feeling them draw gently apart and then returning to place. The final stage of this breathing practice is to put all three areas together; as you inhale, allow the breath to travel down to the belly, then move up to spread the ribcage apart, and upwards again to do the same with the collarbones. Then, as you exhale, allow the breath to travel all the way down again, letting everything relax in turn. Do this for as long as you need, and don’t forget that it works just as well in traffic jams as it does on the labour ward. Enjoy!

Who Do You Think You Are?

Labels. Sticky in more ways than one.

Labels. Sticky in more ways than one.

In my adolescence, I suffered from all kinds of addictions. When I finally decided to get help, the counsellor interviewing me asked me what I wanted to get from the experience.

"I want to go back to being my old self," I told her, buoyed by the certainty of youth and what was almost certainly a lot of class A drugs. 

"The 'old you' took drugs," she replied without missing a beat, giving me my first inkling that recovery wasn't going to be all tea and sympathy. 

We humans love to have a fixed idea about who we are. I'm a father. I'm a CEO. I'm a loudmouth. I'm a depressive. I'm spiritual. I'm an anarchist. It's as if we aren't happy-and I use that word flippantly- unless we have a peg on which to hang the very hats of our existence. And once we've found that peg, we don't really like to move away from it, even when it causes us pain. That day in the therapists office I had created a fictitious former 'me', as though there had only ever been two versions of Liz; the one that took drugs, and the happy and carefree version that came before. And the counsellor was right; she never really existed.

You see these identity fixations all the time. I recently met up with an acquaintance for lunch who managed to hurt my feelings a couple of times over the course of the meal. When I challenged him, he laughed and said "you know me! I don't have a filter!" As if this 'filter' he was talking about was something you were either born with or not, like an appendix or a Psoas minor muscle. He seemed proud of his filterless identity, as if it was something tangible that he could hang on to. 

It's not surprising that we do this. At the end of the day, we're all trying to solve the great mystery of existence in our own ways. Indeed, svadhyaya, or self-study, is a cornerstone of the yogic life. So we're on the right track, and it's only natural that labels are appealing-even negative ones- if they help us to fit together a piece of the puzzle.

The issue, however, is one of attachment (they don't lie, those zen masters!). The reality is that we are never exactly the same person even from one day to the next; we're a swirling mass of dying and regenerating cells that are affected by everything from the weather to what we ate for dinner last night. Of course we're still the same in essence, but there are so many things that we say, think and do on autopilot that if we just took a step back, we'd probably realise that that's not really what we feel anymore, or who we are. Even serious mental illness is now being reviewed, with researchers questioning whether it's chronic, life-long and only possible to manage through medication after all.

For many years, I clung to the identity of recovering addict. I felt that it sufficiently explained my entire existence and gave me a role to fulfil. "I'm such an addict!"I would exclaim in situations ranging from waking up grumpy to knocking something over by accident. A few years after starting a yoga practice, I had a revelation: I wasn't the permanently fragile, damaged and sick person that I had been led to believe I was, albeit with good intentions. I was someone who had made some bad choices in my youth, when I didn't know any better. That moment marked a giant shift in my way of thinking about myself and about life.

Even as a yoga teacher I find myself resisting the urge sometimes to be a 'yoga teacher'. I worry that my sense of humour is too naughty, that I am too negative sometimes or quick to judge. That perhaps I should wear more hemp and draw more hearts on things and talk more about vibrations. It can make for some uncomfortable thoughts, but at the end of the day, I can only feel how I feel. I'm a work in progress, after all.

My all-time favourite yoga saying is 'never try to have yesterday's practice'. It's on the mat that we can really see this idea take effect. We bring so many of our own 'mantras' into class with us. I'm too stiff, we might think. I know for a fact I can't do that pose. And of course, body awareness is important, but without the spirit of curiosity, we will never move beyond those fixed ideas. And in life, without the spirit of curiosity and the willingness to be in the moment, we may never see ourselves, see others, as we really are, and not who we think we are.


We Are All So Much More Than Our Hip flexors

Get this pose on camera before I fall out of it!

Get this pose on camera before I fall out of it!

There are few things more divisive in the yoga world (outside Bikram, at least) than an Instagram photo of a beautiful person in a perfectly executed forearm balance, very likely clad in an upmarket brand of yoga gear. "That's not yoga!" cry the classicists. "Where is the pranayama? Where is the meditation? Anyway, most people aren't even built for that", whilst others will point out that such pictures inspire people to get to classes so that they too can do that pose, one day. And maybe it will inspire them to go further. Maybe even in that outfit.  

I seem to spend a lot of time ruminating on this subject, more than is probably a healthy amount, because in truth, I feel a little torn. On the one hand- full disclosure- I do at times find these pictures irritating. In fact, these days, if I check out someone's Instagram account and it's mostly them in difficult poses in exotic locations, it tends to put me off. 

And yet there are many teachers that I admire and respect hugely that do it. Men and women who live authentic lives, who have chosen yoga as a path both on and off the mat, some of whom I am lucky enough to call friends. And when I see them in postures that seem to require a spine that rotates 360 degrees, my normal reaction is less of an eye-roll, more of an 'ooooohhh, that looks amazing'.

So why, exactly, do I find some of these pictures so irksome and some more inspirational? Well, as yoga requires self-study, I will put my hand up here and say that some of this is good ole' fashioned jealousy. If I put a picture of myself doing compass pose on Facebook I would look like a dog trying to remove an unusually large tick. I would only inspire sympathy, not an excited Google search for a person's nearest studio. As a yoga teacher, whenever I see a lithe, beautiful body twisted elegantly into an asymmetrical knot, there's an anxious little person inside me that goes 'who'd want to come to your classes when you can't teach them how to do that?'

But that's not just it. The truth is, there are one or two 'fancy' poses that I could do well enough for a cute sunset shot and a #yogaeverydamnday hashtag. But that's not really what I stand for. My journey as a yogi has always been more about what it gave me off the mat, how it allows me to release long-held trauma and slowly live more in a state of self-acceptance (when I'm not condemning my compass pose, anyway). And that's why I wanted to teach- to be able to introduce this possibility to other people. I'm not sure I would convey the concept of making peace with one's past on Pinterest through the medium of Koundinyasana I.

No. For me, it comes down to authenticity, and what a person is really trying to tell you with an image. You can see, for example, that some yoga practitioners are very anatomical in their approach to asana, and therefore naturally more focused on the physical. For others, a challenging pose may represent something personal to them; an obstacle overcome, a symbol of where they're at in their life right now, a symbol even of something taking place in the world around them. And this tends to come through- you can tell that whatever that person's reason for documenting a feat of physical prowess, it came from a place of integrity.

But I do get the sense that some people's social media feeds are driven by insecurity; a fear that they aren't a 'proper' yogi without an Instagram account full of King Pigeons and Peacocks. As if their worth is derived in part from the abilities of their shoulder girdle. I'm certainly not the only one that wanted to teach to transmit more of the gifts of yoga; it's what most people seem to say when you ask them why they wanted to teach. And everyone has such unique stories, such an individual energy to share with their students and future students. Surely a bendy back isn't the sum total of this.

There's no doubt that social media has been a boon for yoga teachers. And there's no doubt that Improved physical condition is, of course, another of yoga's gifts. But as yoga becomes more disseminated through media images, wouldn't it be great to see something other than a fallen angel pose in an edgy urban building, unless a fallen angel in an urban building was truly the purest expression of what you actually wanted to say (is it. Is it?). I'm not suggesting that we never put up pictures of our physical practice. But I am saying that maybe, just maybe, we have a little bit more to offer the world, that our journey with yoga could sometimes be represented with images that say more than that. As it is, one of the richest forms of spiritual development is being reduced to a shorthand symbol of a body beautiful with their leg behind their head.

We're all so much more than just our hip flexors, people. Maybe next time we want to put up that #yogilife post, we could think for a second about what we'd like to say to a struggling person who has yet to find a yoga class what #yogilife can really offer.  

Now, excuse me while I go practice my compass pose.

Coming to Life in the City of the Dead

Varanasi, India. Population, approximately 1.5 million living and 1 gazillion* dead. For death is big business in this holiest of cities. Hindus bring their dead to burn along the huge ghats (steps) that run into the river Ganges, often with tourists looking on as they try to take sneaky pictures with their phones. Wood merchants make a fortune providing tinder for the funeral pyres. Sandalwood is the most luxurious. Poor people have to fling their unfortunate relatives into the river having burnt only as much of them as they can afford. People come here to die, for a Varanasi death is an auspicious one. Who wouldn't want to liberate themselves from the possibility of becoming a dung beetle in the next life by dint of where they breathed their last?

Other things that were dead when I arrived there in August 2009. 1) my relationship of two and a half years, though we had decided to honour the trip to India together on account of the split being amicable and 2) my job at a film magazine (I was about to hand in my notice) and life as I generally knew it. In a few months time, I was headed off to live in a community in central California and spend some time Figuring S**t Out™.

I had been in recovery from drink, drugs and an eating disorder for over a decade. I was tired of talking about my problems, tired of the solipsistic, onanistic quality of my existence. They say that the unexamined life is not worth living, but I had been reflecting on my life too intensely, and for too long. I had started to feel like both magnifying glass and ant. If one more person asked me how I was really feeling about something, I was just going to ask them to pull my finger.

I wanted to be free. I wanted to learn to trust myself. I wanted to be creative and happy and spontaneous without having to keep a record of that and talk it through with a trained professional. 

It wasn't surprising that I fell ill with flu as soon as we arrived in the city formerly known as Benares. I spent the first night shivering in my sleeping bag as the sounds of chanting and bells wafted up from the streets below and the orange glow of the funeral pyres on Manikarnika ghat rose beyond the building that obscured it.

When I had recovered sufficiently, our hostel arranged a boat tour of the stretch of the Ganges immediately beyond our hostel. Our tour guide, Sanjay, had grown up next to the river. To prove it, he scooped up a handful of water, thrusting aside a flip-flop floating sole-up in the brown water, and drank it. Tourists can get vomiting and diarrhoea bugs just from ingesting a single drop. The fact that he had just willingly consumed water that was 3000 times above the safe WHO guidelines made me wonder if he himself was actually dead.

But zombie or not, Sanjay knew the vicinity like the back of his hand, and he suggested that for a small fee (natch) we went to the unpopulated east bank, where the river regularly returned some of the death paraphernalia-humans included- that was so enthusiastically given to it. Burial shrouds billowed across the sand like lost wraiths. Tea light offerings still burned amongst discarded flowers and various human skeletal parts.

"Look," said Sanjay. "A skull."

He picked it up and held it aloft. "Take it home, if you like," he waved it nonchalantly at our little group of horrified Europeans like Hamlet would have if he could just have been born in the age of Prozac. I pictured getting the skull through customs. I pictured the it sitting somewhere on display in my flat in Thames Ditton. It occurred to me that it was the kind of thing that my eccentric father would have done. I declined, and settled for a couple of tea-light holders instead. They were less likely to haunt me.

The next day, my ex and I set out to walk the length of the ghats. The streets around our hostel were coated in a grey, sludgy filth. Some of this, of course, was the ubiquitous filth of India; discarded rubbish, rotting vegetation and dung of both human and animal variety. But Varanasi has its own particular brand of dirt; grimy, oily, filth-infused ash, a by-product of the 24/7 body-burning. I grimaced as some of it oozed between my toes.

After we'd been walking for a minute or so, we passed an old man with gnarled, arthritic hands laying on the pavement in a white loincloth as two younger men washed him. We passed quietly, and when we were out of earshot I turned to my companion.

"That man was dead," I said. It only occurred to me as I said it.

His face was pale. "I know".

I had never seen a dead human before, but that sure was about to change. Over the next few days, I became as acquainted with the dead as I was with the malaria tablets poking out of my washbag that made me feel nauseous just looking at them. We saw the dead as we pressed ourselves up against the walls of the narrow streets to avoid funeral processions of stretchered bodies held aloft by men chanting "Ram ram". We saw dead people burned on countless pyres, their inhabitants clearly visible in various stages of immolation. We saw bodies being bathed, bodies floating in the river, the bones of the long-dead and the recently dead.

That kid in the Sixth Sense had nothing on us.

I sometimes wonder if at the heart of the West's problems is an inability to face death. We're obsessed with youth, of slowing the passage of time. We remove our elderly from public sight, treat them as an embarrassment. We consume obsessively, distract ourselves with whatever we can get our hands on-the internet, food, fake news- not just to get away from the 'selves' we are told we fear, but also to escape that most terrifying of truths; that, in the words of Beckett, we are 'born astride a grave'. Even our funeral rites are performed with maximum discretion, behind closed doors and shrouded in mystery. We act as if it will never happen to us. We think this will meant that it won't.

In Varanasi, it didn't take long for the dead to become like silent companions. Where at first I felt a need to bow my head or make some sort of gesture of reverence as a stretcher went past, after the second day there I barely batted an eyelid. The dead were present as I bought ice cream and bickered with my companion, as I photographed cows and joked about getting ripped off.  

Death's constant presence afforded a new layer of richness to the process of being alive. I started yoga on that trip and quickly became hooked. Its practice was a kind of remembrance of something deeper, something vast- even if that 'something' lasted a few seconds.

A few days after we left, I found out that my paternal grandmother had died. I can't pretend that my new take on death helped with the grieving process in any way, but I can say that I had the sense, somehow, of life and death being cyclical, of my grandmother still being around in some sense- hopefully without the inherent racism. 

My ex went back to France, became a dad, looks happy on Facebook.

I carried on with yoga.

I drove across America.

I took some risks.

I no longer have to timetable fun activities.

I refuse to analyse any of the above.

I guess we can call that progress.

Why I Teach Teen Yoga

I've never met a teen that doesn't love relaxation...

I've never met a teen that doesn't love relaxation...

There are those who tell you that your school years are the best of your life. WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE? Even as a teenager, I had a strong sense of that my childhood was something that needed to be weathered until the age of legal independence. If I hadn't, I'm not sure I'd be here to write this.

Of course, there were lovely bits. The long school holidays. The lack of responsibility. The pool parties (I spent much of my adolescence in the US) and the late night gossiping about boys. But what I remember most about my teens was a constant sense of powerlessness. I was powerless over my unhappy home life, powerless over my changing body and over the eating disorder that had been gaining momentum since I was thirteen. I felt powerless over what I wanted to do (be creative) versus what I kept being told to do (be sensible). 

Of course, not all teens have eating disorders or are unhappy at home or at school. That's as much of a stereotype as saying that all teenagers like to eat at McDonalds. But any teen navigating the choppy waters between childhood and adulthood will know it to be an exhausting and confusing journey at times.

As it was, I didn't discover yoga until my early thirties. I had tried all sorts by then; therapy, support groups, shouting at empty chairs pretending that they were people from my past. I jogged in public spaces and drank two litres of water per day. I was living the 'well' life.

But the thing that struck me most about yoga was the sense of refuge that it provided me with. There was something about getting on the mat that allowed me to feel like somehow I was coming home. I was by no means flexible, or even especially coordinated, but I often found that after I practiced, I just felt a little more, well... Me.

When I look at my teens, I can't help wishing that I had just discovered yoga sooner. My story is my story, and made me the person I am today (yadda yadda), but I can't help but wonder how differently things would have turned out had I just found that place of refuge at a time when I needed it the most. Movement in school always came in the form of sports, and sports always seemed to be the terrain of happy, uncomplicated people. Besides, by its nature, sports are competitive, and whilst that's not always a bad thing, isn't it nice to do something just because it feels good and not because you might win a trophy?

Teaching yoga to teens isn't always easy. Sometimes it feels like crowd control and sometimes I have moments when I swear I have gone back to being that sad, confused young person myself. For there's nothing like being in school, surrounded by teens, for bringing up anything unresolved from that time in your life- and I don't just mean New Kids on the Block and crimped hair. But mostly, it's a great chance to discover the wonderful people behind the confused and often heavily stressed facades, and best of all, a chance to help them discover that for themselves. 

If you'd like to know more about how we work with teenagers at Teen Yoga, please get in touch!

How s**t Is the World, Really?

Last November, a friend and I were about to fly to Morocco for a Festival in the Sahara. The night before we were due to leave, the Paris atrocities took place. We were supposed to be taking the train to Gatwick the next day, but a sense of foreboding made me decide to drive instead.

"You're letting all this terrorist stuff get to you." My friend warned, as I paid for long stay parking online at midnight.

A little context here: My friend refuses to watch the news and doesn't engage in politics. By contrast, if I go a week without reading a paper I feel personally responsible for genocide in the Middle East and worry that puppies have been thrown at walls because of petitions that I didn't sign. I guess you could say we're on extreme ends of this spectrum.

The next day, as we drove to Gatwick, news broke that the North Terminal-where we were headed- was closed due to a gun being found in the bag of a man headed to France. When we arrived, we handed our keys to a valet and were ushered to wait in the hotel next to the terminal, where we spent the next few hours sipping coffee and eating surprisingly good pizza in the subdued but spacious surroundings of the Hilton lounge. The people making their way by train? They were held at stations along the line, with many missing the very flight to Marrakech that we ultimately caught, and missing several days of the trip due to rescheduling problems.

The moral of the story? That smugness is always its own reward.

Just kidding; that's only partly it. And I write this story with the utmost respect for those affected by the awful tragedy that preceded it. We were lucky to even be going on holiday. I am not making light of a terrorist act. But for me, it's a parable. Just because you turn away from bad things, it doesn't mean that those bad things don't happen. And, I am always right.

I hear so many arguments from people about why watching the news is bad or why there's no point in following politics. "Life's awful enough," goes the first, often made by those of a more gloomy disposition. "Why make it worse by seeing all that  horror in the world?" I get it. Sometimes the last thing you want to hear about when you're feeling bad is about someone else being tortured, or detained in Guantanamo Bay for no reason, or raped on a bus. But I heard an interesting story recently at a Marianne Williamson talk. Some scientists were studying a monkey community on an island and they noticed that a few of the monkeys were depressed, apparently for no reason (there was no Made In Chelsea on this island, after all). They took the depressed monkeys away and returned six months later, and guess what happened? The other monkeys in the group had died. The morose monkeys, it turned out, were the empaths of the group. They could see bad things on the horizon. If you work on the theory that we're all connected- and I, for one, totally do- then if you're of a sad disposition, could it be that you're seeing things in the world that many have inured themselves to? And what better incentive to take action?

Then there's the one that really gets my proverbial goat. The one I hear from hippie types on an almost weekly basis as they skip around on waves of love and glitter paint. "I just find it all too upsetting," they say, as they preach love and compassion to middle class white people in yoga classes and dance circles. Yes, it is upsetting. It's also upsetting for the people being displaced, putting their families on boats that have a 60% chance of staying afloat and then arriving in countries that shove them into disease ridden camps. They don't have the opportunity to switch off from it and listen to Deva Premal instead. 

The more sophisticated version of this argument is the one that goes 'the media and the politicians have an agenda. They're fucking with our heads and distorting reality!' Fair point, I suppose; perhaps they are indeed trying. But let me ask you this; if a new neighbour moved next door, and several people in your street told you that this person was a serial killer, would you just say to yourself 'oh, they probably have some kind of vendetta against him' or 'clearly they're just fucking with my head', or would you take pains to find out more, just in case you or your loved ones ended up with your body parts clogging his drains? Quite. Humans have this wonderful thing called the power of discernment. Sometimes we have to exercise it more vigorously than others.

Even for those of us who do keep abreast of what's going on in the world, the constant stream of videos, pleas, petitions and opinion pieces online and in print can make us feel overwhelmed, and like there's nothing we can do. But there's always something we can do. It's naive to think that 'clicktivism' will change the world, but groups like Avaaz and Sumofus have had successes in pressuring organisations and paying for legal campaigns with the public's help. Many people have been galvanised into helping at refugee camps in Calais or Lesvos or helping out after natural disasters after reading the reports filtering in from social media. And heck, if holding a little compassion in your heart from reading about a refugee makes you more likely to buy lunch for a homeless person, then that can only be a good thing, right? It's so often the little gestures that make a big difference.

Horrible things are happening in the world. Horrible things will always happen in the world. Did Londoners get the chance to turn away from reality because it was too upsetting during the blitz? Nope. Because hell was already  raining down on them from the skies. Just because it's not on our doorstep doesn't mean we should afford ourselves the luxury of ignoring it. Personally, I don't think there's ever any more or less evil in the world at any one time; it just presents in different ways, and for different people. Evil is like a vacuum. Wherever awful things happen, you don't have to look too hard to see the good rushing in, like the people opening their homes to refugees, or the people who rush to fill the sites of bombings with messages of love and all-night vigils. The problem is, where there is no awareness, there is no room for this to happen. In short, the world is pretty much as shit as we're willing to let it be.

The hands on approach

The one thing that strikes dread into the heart of most new teachers is adjusting students. You may have your lingo down pat and you may have practiced that forearm balance or warrior to within an inch of its life so that you can demonstrate with ease, but when it comes to adjusting another person's body, there's a whole new skill set involved. Even for experienced teachers, the practice of adjustment constantly calls for ethical judgement and an ability to read into a person's space on any given day, not to mention a deep knowledge of-and respect for- anatomy.

In this podcast, which I made with fellow teachers Ryan Spielman and Genny Wilkinson Priest, we speak to respected teachers Mimi Kuo Deemer, Sarai Harvey Smith and Kate Ellis on when to adjust, when not to adjust and how the tradition of adjustment varies between styles of yoga. Enjoy!

Listen here

Starting out as a teacher? Listen to this podcast!

It's tough starting out as a new teacher. Suddenly unleashed upon a world of gyms and studios (or, in the very beginning, most likely classes you set up yourself), you find yourself without the support or instruction of your teachers and classmates and scared you're doing it 'wrong'. When you add to the mix the business of marketing yourself and finding classes amongst a sea of other new teachers whilst maintaining your integrity, it can be doubly daunting. But it's also rewarding, exciting and fun! 

I made the following podcast with my friends and fellow teachers Ryan Spielman and Genny Wilkinson Priest. We've interviewed the owner of Europe's biggest studio, triyoga, as well as senior teachers Anna Ashby and Graham Burns. We hope that it will give great advice to new teachers starting out.

You can download it here. I hope you enjoy!

New Ageism

I’ve never much liked the word ‘spiritual’. I confess that I use it myself- it’s convenient shorthand, after all, for anything that nourishes the soul (another vast philosophical debate that I won’t go into). It’s more its pejorative use that bothers me. You say the word ‘spiritual’ to someone who doesn’t operate in certain circles and you run the risk of being seen as someone who weeps over flowers in parks and avoids parties because they can be ‘energetically damaging’. Not that there is anything wrong with either of those things- it just doesn’t fit anyone I know who describes themselves as spiritual. Most of my friends into ‘this’ way of life are the ones throwing the parties.

But 'spiritual' has its place. Spiritual is understood and accepted by most to mean-in a roundabout way- ‘concerned with the evolution of humankind’.

‘New Age’, on the other hand…

I just cannot stand this term. If spirituality can have negative connotations, the term New Age can just about clear a room in five seconds flat. But that’s not what gets my proverbial goat. What bugs me about the term New Age is that it’s completely misleading. It’s a concept that essentially claims that we in the West have worked out a way to make the world a better place by doing yoga, meditating and dedicating our lives to peaceful living. Never mind that these are ways of living espoused in other cultures for thousands of years. We just make them our own by wearing a lot of velvet and drinking water from wells in Glastonbury. That’s the ‘new’ bit.

Yoga and meditation were around before Jesus, the Buddha or the prophet Muhammad. Calling these practices New Age is like calling a Pirelli tire the first wheel, or One Direction the first ever boy band. They’ve impacted on millions of lives down through the centuries and even the scientific community is starting to take note of their benefits. When we write them off as some kind of new fad for people who think they’re tree sprites, we throw the baby out with the bath water.

Which type of yogi are you?

Having been around the yoga world for a good time now, I’ve observed that yogis (broadly speaking) fall into one of three categories. If you’ve been coming to yoga for a while, see if you recognise yourself here:

1) Your parents are called Gayatri and Moonbeam*. You grew up taking yoga classes because your parents didn’t want you playing sports with children rendered savage by meat-eating. You don’t like to use the self sign-in computers in studios because that would mean having to touch electricity. You regularly bring percussion instruments to class.

2) You came to yoga from a dance or gymnastics background. You can regularly be heard asking for abdominal exercises, even though the teacher has patiently explained many times that this is a restorative class. Your favourite Zen koan is the one that goes ‘if you perform a beautiful pincha mayurasana and there’s no one around to Instagram it, did it really happen?’ By your fifth yoga class, you are often the teacher.

3) You are still getting over the end of a relationship. In 2001. Since coming to yoga you can at least open a second bottle of wine without finishing it. You like the studio because everyone is too nice to talk about you behind your back. You never find out about events at your shala from Facebook, because you aren’t allowed an account anymore.

Recognise yourself? If not, perhaps it’s time for a little more self-inquiry….

*Not on their birth certificates though

What's weird about Mysore practice?!

You wake up early on a Sunday morning, the promise of fresh coffee the only thing that can possibly tear you from the warmth of your bed to the autumnal cool of your flat. You shower, change,  grab your physio roll and head for the studio around the corner. You know you’re lucky when it comes to this last bit; some of the Mysore posse come from Hertfordshire.

You enter a tiny, hot, damp room and are immediately able to identify what at least three people ate for dinner last night from the smell. You practice mat-to-mat with two people you barely know, each of you having to stop at points to accommodate your neighbour’s foot, or arm, or rear end (this, folks, is why they tell you to shower first)…

It’s still crazy early. Half of the people in the room will have been out last night; the rest will have been watching HBO box sets. No matter, here you all are; brave souls facing Kapotasana and Karandavasana and even-for the majority- plain old Navasana. You creak. You groan. You fall out of things. You wonder if your teacher ever loses the will to live after having to adjust you for about the thousandth time in a fairly basic spinal twist.

You look at someone doing third series. You wonder if you will ever be that bendy. You wonder if that person has had a night out since 2004.

You hope no one notices the pet hair you have just discovered all over your ancient,  baggy leggings.

You make it to savasana. You realise just how much you are looking forward to breakfast. You get up and are greeted on your way downstairs by at least four people. You realise you adore them, and how sharing such an intimate space with them over such a long period of time has made them feel a little bit like family. Your body feels open. You feel energised and full of life. And it’s still only 9AM. Result!

The Bhagavad Gita for dummies

Obviously, once you're a yoga teacher people will expect you to be deeply spiritual, and you won't want to admit to them that you watch Jersey Shore and eat crisps on your way to teach a class. One sure fire way to ensure that your students bask in the glow of your deep connection to the traditions of yoga is to read the Bhagavad Gita, but if you don't have time to read it (damn that new craft beer pop-up!), here it is, digested.

It is days of yore. There's a warrior named Arjuna who is also a Lululemon ambassador on account of his being so nice looking and-most importantly- flexible, and  one day he's sitting by the banks  of the Ganges, rinsing his Kung Fu pants, when his homeboy, Krishna, whizzes up to him on a Segway.

"Dude," says Krishna. "Why the long face?"

See, Arjuna’s really stressed out because he’s missed loads of Kundalini classes and he also has a hangover. And to top it all off, he has to lead an army into battle the next day against a fearsome army of Ashtangis who’ve been forced to do Mysore practice with no coffee.

Arjuna says to Krishna, “bro, you seem pretty wise. I mean, you have a tattoo of the Buddha on your shoulder, and he hasn’t even been born yet. So tell me, how am I going to win this battle?”

And Krishna replies “you just have to make sure that your soldiers have chia seed in their bellies and plenty of Kombucha to slake their thirst. Because everyone knows that wars are won on healthy gut bacteria and good hydration levels.”

But this isn't enough for Arjuna! He’s going to have to kill some of his own family! He’s going to have to kill the guy who sells him hash! He’s really distraught and again he asks,

“Krishna,  I’m at my wits end. I, like, totally trust in your wisdom. Tell me exactly what I have to do. Give it to me straight!”

And Krishna is just about to tell Arjuna to shut up and grow a set when he remembers that he is meant to be an expression of divine consciousness, so he changes tack. Instead, he contemplates the question by staring at his third eye. Finally, the answer comes.

"Let me ask you something," he says.

Arjuna is hanging on Krishna’s every word. “What, guru? Ask me anything!”

Krishna says, “dude. How is your Pincha Mayurasana?”

Arjuna immediately brightens. “Actually bro, it's pretty  hashtag awesome! You should see the pictures I just put on Instagram!”

And Krisha, knowing that a yogi is only as good as his forearm balances, replies, “You have no worries at all, my friend.”

So Arjuna won the battle and is now a regular contributor to Yoga Journal, whilst Krishna patented a yoga/Pilates exercise machine that trialled in studios in downtown NYC and spread across the western world. Problem hashtag solved. As yours now is, too. You're welcome.

Becoming the Oak Tree

Some years ago I was listening to a woman recovering from an eating disorder talking about the thing that drove her to get well.

"When an acorn turns into an oak tree," she explained, "there are two forces at work. One is the scientific part, the photosynthesis and mineral component of the soil. But the other part is the future oak tree that wills the little acorn to keep going."

She went on to say that even in the hell of her eating disorder, as she listened to the demons that told her she was worthless and needed to inflict a living death upon herself, there was a part of her- a better, future self- that also knew she deserved better. And her recovery started when she began to listen to that voice more often, and not the other one.

I identified readily with what she said. That was my own experience of starting to recover from addictions; somewhere deep within, there had always been a little voice that said 'you can do so much better than this'.

I've been thinking about this a lot with relation to yoga lately. Recovering from any kind of addiction is aligning yourself with your dharma. And so is ending a relationship that doesn't serve you, or leaving a job that you never felt that you were quite cut out for. Often, in these cases, life has a way of stepping in and making these things happen for you. How many of us can look back on a lover that broke up with us to our devastation, or a job we were made redundant from and became depressed, only to realise now how it was the best thing that could have happened at the time?

Many people that I know from my days in twelve step groups went on to become addiction counsellors; if that's not a perfect example of dharma and artha working together then I don't know what is. My own journey as a yoga teacher came from a similar place- I recognised how much healing yoga had brought me and wanted to pass that on to other people.

Michelangelo famously said that he didn't carve David- he released him from the marble that encased him. Somewhere within all of us is that masterpiece waiting to get out. For me, yoga has been the tool that chips away, day by day, to free myself.

Teaching yoga to teens

The first time someone asked me to teach a yoga class to teenagers, a big part of me thought about running for the proverbial hills. Teenagers? I thought. It can be daunting enough as a new(ish) teacher of adult classes, but at least adults aren't likely to disrupt the entire class and stare at you  like you've asked them to kill a relative every time you try and get them to try a new pose.

And in the time that's passed since that first class, I'll be honest- there have been times when I have left a class feeling frustrated and slightly like a chippy sixteen year old myself. But I have discovered too that I absolutely love teaching teens, for all kinds of reasons. If you've been thinking about it, here are some points to consider.

You'd be helping them to navigate a crucial life transition 

Teenagers brains are literally rewiring and their bodies are changing at rates that are often alarming to them. There can surely be no better time to offer them tools to help them accept these factors.

You have to throw out the rulebook, constantly

Teenagers straddle that wonderful divide between adulthood and childhood. You may well go in planning a class that's essentially a version of what you taught in a gym this morning. But you may soon realise that what they really need is some yoga playtime. And vice versa.

The rewards far outweigh the challenges

OK, there probably isn't a teen yoga teacher anywhere who hasn't torn out a little bit of hair (their own, I should add) at some point. Teens don't always do what you ask them to. They will make it VERY clear when they're not enjoying themselves. But the most rewarding moments of my yoga career have been times like when I witnessed a student finally getting into headstand after trying for two months, or when the mother of another student told me after class one day that yoga had given her daughter so much new confidence.

They will sometimes be moody or difficult- that's their job!

With regards to the above, had the mother not told me about her daughter's love of yoga, I would never in a million years have guessed, as the student rarely engaged with me and often seemed indifferent or downright fed-up in class. Don't assume that their behaviour is about you, even though you might be tempted to. 

You will never laugh so much in an adult yoga class, guaranteed

Teenagers' rambunctiousness is a good thing, too- I have often found myself laughing along with them as they discover the sillier side of yoga postures.

Don't you wish YOU had done yoga as a teen?

I can only speak for myself here; I sure do! I often feel like the difficulties of my late teens and early twenties could have been alleviated if I had been introduced to yoga when I was young. The teenage years are not famed for their grounding qualities. What a gift to offer a young person a little sanctuary from the craziness of their everyday lives.

And let's not forget- there's still a teenager in all of us, somewhere. And maybe, just maybe, in holding space for the teens in your class, you're holding space for that part of you that could have benefitted from it yourself.


I will be delivering a module (Class Management, Language and Humour) on teaching yoga to teens with Veronika Kloucek of Teen Yoga on Friday 17th July, 2015. If you are interested, please click here.

Welcome to my new site

Well, hello! 

I'm very excited to have this lovely new site up and running. After many technical problems with my old site, Sama Yoga London, I decided to start from scratch and get a brand new one. And then I thought, heck- new site, new start! Let's just keep this all very simple and get a new name, too. Except, of course, it's not really a new name; it's the one I've had since birth. It just means I'll be a lot easier to find online as Liz Hobbs Yoga.

The site is still a little under construction, so please do bear with me and my web wizard while we get everything up to speed!