When Paul first came to my class in Clydach Community centre, he struggled his way through the first class. He was stiff, his body damaged from years of physical work and illness. He struggled so much that I assumed he was going to tell me that it wasn’t for him, or simply not return. When I went to speak to him after the class, I was amazed when he told me that, to the contrary, he had felt better than he had done in ages, that for the first time in months, his arms weren’t hurting, and that he would definitely come back the following week.
Over the weeks that followed, Paul’s dedication to his practice, combined with the work of his massage therapist, created powerful healing in Paul’s body. He stood taller, he looked more comfortable in the postures, his breathing was easier, he was better able to relax, and he gained flexibility. Pauls’ transformation rapidly become one of my favourite things about my work. To see his progress reminded me of the incredible power there is in Yoga, and how blessed I am to be able to share this with people who can gain so much from it.
I asked Paul if he would be willing to do a video interview with me to talk about his journey through Yoga. I was delighted when he agreed, and so one day we met over Facebook live, and chatted about the benefits he has had from Yoga.
Watch the interview with me and Paul here
How would you benefit from regular Yoga practice? What part of you needs to heal? It might be your body, like Paul, it might be your mind and spirit, like me. It might be both. Yoga will give you what you need, allowing you to heal the parts of you that need to be healed, and nourish and restore the whole of you.
One common reason that people turn to yoga is to try to find ways to reduce anxiety and stress. Yoga is a very powerful tool for this. You don’t have to be able to do complicated postures to achieve this benefit, as long as you have a pair of lungs you are able to harness this benefit.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a persistent feeling of unease, that may or may not have an obvious cause. It is different from stress, because stress generally has a root cause (although this can be an imagined situation, there is still a root cause). The stress response will pass once the cause is no longer an issue.
Anxiety is connected to stress, but the cause can be very non specific. Anxiety can be seen as a build up of stress. An anxiety attack may be provoked by something seemingly very insignificant. It is, in fact, the build up of anxiety that creates the problem.
There are many types of anxiety, including phobias, PTSD, post natal anxiety, IBS, Generalised Anxiety Disorder, social anxiety, hoarding and much more.
Some 3 million people in the UK are believed to suffer from some form of anxiety disorder.
How can Yoga reduce Anxiety?
Yoga is an excellent tool to help reduce anxiety. It can help you restore some peace to your life if you suffer with any form of anxiety disorder. There are many ways that Yoga can help to reduce anxiety.
Calm the nervous system
Slowing the breath and bringing awareness to your breathing in Yoga soothes and calms the nervous system. This is known as Pranayama. This takes the body and mind out of the stress response, and restores the body to balance and relaxation. Learning to breathe well has numerous benefits, but the impact on the stress response is possibly the one that 21st Century humans need most!
Stilling the mind
Anxiety is the result of thoughts that seem beyond your control. When you learn to sit quietly, to focus on the breath, and to let go of the thoughts that try to distract you, in time you will find that you are better able to do this in daily life as well. This control of the thoughts is a powerful way to reduce anxiety and stress (old video).
The Three Rules of Yoga
One of the first lessons I was taught on Yoga teacher training was Swami Gitanada’s ‘Three Rules of Yoga’. These are ‘Don’t Judge, Don’t Compare, Don’t Beat Yourself Up‘. These rules are very powerful guides for happy living in terms of how you interact with the world and yourself. So much anxiety and unhappiness comes from judgement, comparison and self recrimination – being able to let go of these will free you from so much stress and anxiety.
Yoga teaches the value of acceptance of the current state of things. That is not to say that you cannot make changes, but Yoga asks us to accept, without judgement or criticism, the fact that life is as it is. From this state of acceptance you can look calmly at what changes you need or want to make in life. This is a very empowering way to approach life – the ability to say ‘yes, this sucks, it is what it is, and I can accept that this is where I am now’ enables you to take ownership of what has happened in your life and move forward.
Physical release of tension
The mind and body are intrinsically linked – what the mind experiences manifests in the body, and vice versa. If you have anxiety in your mind, it will find its way to physical symptoms, such as IBS, high blood pressure, headaches and more. Similarly, tension held in the body will add to tension in the mind. Yoga helps you to release this tension through breath work, postures and end of class relaxation. The practice of ‘throwing out’ which I teach in all my local and one to one classes, is a powerful and healing practice that allows you to release mental tension through the body.
Feel Good Factor
Yoga practices produce a neurotransmitter known as GABA. This is a chemical in the brain that makes us feel good and happy. This natural high is the reason that people leave yoga classes smiling. GABA deficiency is a contributory factor in conditions such as anxiety and IBS, so regular Yoga could help to alleviate this deficiency and reduce the anxiety at a biological level.
In addition to the increase of GABA, Yoga also reduces Cortisol, the stress hormone, thereby producing a double whammy of anxiety reduction and happiness.
Could Yoga reduce anxiety for you?
As you can see, there are some powerful reasons why Yoga could help you to reduce anxiety and stress. Would you like to give it a try? Subscribe now for your free 45 minute Yoga class lesson and practice tracker. Give a regular practice a try and see how you feel as a result. You never know, it might transform your life!
Flexibility is seen by many as a pre-requisite to practising Yoga. This is a damaging and worrying misconception. yoga will increase the flexibility in your body, reducing stress and tension in your muscles and your mind, but you don’t need to be flexible before you start. Indeed, the complicated, acrobatic posture you see on Instagram are not the purpose of Yoga at all, the purpose of Yoga is what you learn about yourself in the postures.
That said, physical flexibility is important for physical and mental health. As we age, we lose that flexibility, and this can lead to pain, loss of mobility, increased risk of injury and more. These simple practices, known as Jattis, can reduce tension and stiffness in the body and improve physical flexibility and wellbeing in a very short space of time.
These movements might not seem like much, but they are powerful. In one session, you will feel looser and more relaxed in body and mind. I have delivered taster sessions to people where this has been all we have done, and the impact has been amazing to see – the reduction in stress is visible on their faces.
Try the movements in this video now, and every day, and let me know what difference and benefits you see from the practice. You might be pleasantly surprised at how quickly you see progress. These are the same practices we do in all my classes, so you can try them out before you come along to a class, or to practice between classes.
And remember, progress is how far you move from where you are, not reaching anyone else’s level!
In ancient India, Yoga was pretty much exclusively a male occupation. If you look at the history of Yoga, you will see that all the famous Gurus who travelled to the West to share the message of Yoga were men.
And yet, oddly, in the West, Yoga is a predominantly female activity. In America, according to a recent study, 72% of Yoga practitioners are female.
This is bad news for men (and for women I have to say!).
Yoga is a powerful way of life that promotes good physical and mental health, increases strength, flexibility and muscle tone, reduces stress, improves sleep and energy levels, and much more besides.
Yoga is good for mental health
Given the recent attention being rightly given to male mental health, we need to look at ways that men can take care for themselves differently. Much of the sport and intense physical exercise that is in the ‘male’ arena is deeply competitive in nature. While some competition is good, and striving
to be the best can lead you to great things, when it comes to taking care of yourself, competition can be counter productive. Too much competition, in the sporting world and in life, can lead to feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, causing turmoil and damage to the self esteem. In yoga, you don’t have to be THE best, you only have to be the best YOU. Yoga will help you to get to that place of acceptance of who you are in all your glorious, flawed perfection
Men can gain hugely from attending a Yoga class that is focused on relaxation, getting in tune with yourself, learning to breathe and gently nurturing the body. With the need for competition gone, there is no need to fear ‘locker room’ style mockery if you can’t get into a posture. You can quieten the ego, take a deep breath and simply be.
Judo master Huw appreciates the advantages of Yoga. He is attending my classes in Pontypridd, and is already seeing the benefits after just a few weeks. He writes
Tried yoga for the first time yesterday. Didn’t know what to expect despite having done quite a lot of research. I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite being the only male in a class of nine females. Esther was very welcoming and helpful. I was allowed to take the class at my own pace, I felt strangely energised and relaxed (if that’s even possible) after the class. I will definitely be going back. Highly recommended
My friend Shan Marshall recently made my heart sing with joy when she began attending Yoga classes in her local area. A self confessed ‘Fat Bird‘, Shan had many reasons she could have decided that Yoga wasn’t for her, but she gave it a try, and fell in love with it. She recently began a website, Fat Bird Yoga, which is one of my favourite website names ever! I wanted to ask her about her experience with Yoga as a ‘fat bird’
You discovered the joys of yoga only recently. Can you tell us what brought you to a yoga class?
I hurt my back and a chiropractor recommended I take up yoga to keep my back, shoulders and hips flexible, clear my stress and reduce the migraines.
What did you think about yoga before this?
I thought it was just about getting in strange positions. I was curious to find out how someone could scrunch their body up and balance on one foot.
How did you feel when you went to your first class?
Apprehensive. I didn’t know what to expect and hoped that people were friendly, I wouldn’t be laughed at, and that they wouldn’t be the archetypal “yoga bunnies” – stick thin, young and perfect makeup. Oh, and colour co-ordinated outfits.
What were the biggest hurdles you felt were in the way for you when it came to practising Yoga?
Quite honestly, my boobs and belly. I was trying to do Downward Dog a couple of months ago and – I don’t know how I managed it – got the angle wrong and was gently slapped in the face by two soft pillows, my boobs. I remembered an ex-boyfriend telling me “You could suffocate in there”, and thought he was right. Then I thought “If I needed help, I don’t think anyone would hear me call out” so I stood up.
How did your yoga teacher accommodate your particular needs so that you can practice and feel comfortable in the class?
Gill Littleford was great. She told me to get two chairs and put them by my mat. Each pose the class did Gill came and sat on the other chair and showed me the modified pose. She encouraged me when I was afraid of hurting myself or falling off the chair, and she was compassionate and understanding. Seven months on, she’s still like it. She’s my “go to” teacher.
What is your favourite aspect of yoga?
It’s knowing that whatever I do, whether it’s simply sitting quietly or stretching my body into Triangle pose, I’m showing myself love. Having been brought up to love others, not myself, to be able to show love to me is amazing [editor’s note – I ADORE this!].
How has yoga impacted on your life?
Flip, where do I start?? I’m calmer, moving better, getting up the stairs easier, more open and honest. Massive impact.
You have the best named yoga website I have seen in ages, fatbirdyoga.com. What are your plans for developing the site?
Good question. I started the site to write about doing yoga as a morbidly obese 61 year old, after telling Carrie Eddins the Downward Dog/boobs story and her rolling about laughing. I want to develop it to include where to get clothing suitable for fat bird yogis, a directory of yoga teachers willing to teach fat birds yoga – i.e. who can teach modifications or at least be inclusive of fat bird yogis. This would be a paid listing when I get reader numbers up.
I want to be open about the difficulties of being a fat bird yogi in terms of movement and resisting the temptation to force yourself as low as everybody else is going. Then there are the experiences everybody faces which I haven’t seen written about such as yarts (yoga farts), yurps (yoga burps) and yorgasms (that was a surprise – thank Goodness it didn’t happen in class). [editors note – I have to say, after more than 10 years of Yoga practice, I have yet to experience a ‘yorgasm’ – I need to talk to Shan more about this!]
You don’t fit the instagram stereotype of the yoga practitioner, and can be a real inspiration for those who think that their size, age, fitness etc is a barrier to them trying Yoga. What would you say to someone who might want to try yoga but feels that is ‘isn’t for them’?
I would suggest they contact a local teacher, explain their situation – size, age, mobility, beginner, etc – and ask the teacher if they can teach modifications for chair yoga.
Do you want to try Yoga in the Rhondda
If you resonate with Shan’s story, and would like to try yoga, there is every reason why you can take part. Drop me a line and let me know your concerns, and I will be able to accomodate your needs in class.
Arthritis is a progressive condition that affects the health and mobility of the joints of the body. It is very common, with around 10 million people in the UK suffering from it, and while it is often thought of as an age related condition, it can strike at any age, with children also affected. 15% of women and 10% of men in Wales are reported to be affected by arthritis.
The most common form of arthritis, which affects an estimated 8 million people in the UK is osteoarthritis. This is most common in women over 40, but can strike at any age, and can be triggered by injury or other conditions, as well as age and genetic predisposition.
While there is no cure for arthritis, there are things that can be done to alleviate the symptoms, and slow down the advance of the condition. Treatment to manage symptoms and reduce pain are available on the NHS. The NHS also recommends gentle exercise to maintain as much movement in the joints as possible.
Yoga for arthritis
Yoga is a powerful tool to both prevent and manage arthritis. Research has found that regular yoga practice can improve the mental and physical wellbeing of arthritis sufferers.
Here are 5 powerful ways that Yoga can help to make life with arthritis easier.
Increased flexibility in the joints
The arthritic joints, if not moved and exercised regularly, will stiffen more and more and pain will increase. Yoga is well known for promoting flexibility in the joints, and many of the postures can be hugely beneficial to those at risk of, or suffering from, arthritis. Care needs to be taken not to overdo it, or your yoga practice could cause more problems, but if practised with care and under the guidance of a teacher, it can be really beneficial.
If practised regularly, the jattis, or loosening exercises, we do at the start of one of my classes can promote and maintain flexibility and mobility in the joints. This can help to prevent or slow the onset and progression of arthritis.
Arthritis is most associated with chronic pain. Research has shown that people who regularly practice Yoga have a higher tolerance for pain and show lower brain response to pain than people who don’t practice Yoga
Pranayama, the yogic practice of breath control, has been shown to reduce pain in patients with lower back pain, and specifically with arthritis, and is believed to relieve pain in other situations as well
Improved mood and mental wellbeing
Yoga increases production of the feelgood chemical, the neurotransmittor GABA, in the brain. This creates a positive state of mind, which naturally leads to lowered stress, a higher tolerance to pain, and the ability to look beyond the pain to the positives in life. One Yoga session has been found to increase production of GABA in the mind, leading to a real, deeply felt sense of wellbeing in the body and mind.
Reduction of stress
Stress makes every bad situation much worse. Constant pain creates a great deal of stress in the body, which will try to compensate for the parts that feel pain, and the mind, which is constantly trying to deal with, or anticipating, the next flare up of pain. Yoga teaches the practitioner how to relax, to let go of tension in the body and mind, to focus the attention away from, and to breathe through pain.
Yoga can reduce inflammation
As Yoga is a condition characterised by painful inflammation, reducing the inflammation could help to relieve the pain. Yoga has been shown to reduce inflammation through the practice of Pranayama, the art of breath control. Rhythmic breathing, such as Sukha Pranayama, has been found to reduce inflammation in the body. This has powerful implications for arthritis sufferers, as it means that they can get enormous benefits just from breathing exercises, allowing participation regardless of mobility.
In the video below, I guide you through a simple Sukha Pranayama. It is a very old video, my hair looks nothing like this anymore, and I will update soon, but in the meantime, the practice is just the same!
Safety in Yoga class with arthritis
When you have any health issue, it is always best to talk to your yoga teacher, and your doctor, before beginning any exercise regime. Your doctor may have already recommended Yoga as a gentle form of exercise, but make sure that you check with the teacher to make sure that the class you hope to attend is suitable for your needs – some forms of yoga are very intense and powerful and would not benefit you at all. Your teacher should be able to make adjustments and suggestions for how you can participate in the class and still get lots of benefit while taking care of your body’s needs and being safe. I will always recomend that you sit on a chair for many of the postures, and my golden rule is always ‘listen to me, but listen to your body more, and stop and rest when you need to.
If you are based in or around the Rhondda and would like to explore how yoga can help you with arthritis, take a look at my class timetable and see if there is a location and time that works for you. All my classes are accessible to you, and I will suggest modification to suit your condition.
Get in touch if you have any specific questions, or if you would like to double check the suitability of the yoga class for your needs.