The importance of a Beginner’s or Foundation Class

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Beginners-YogaThis weekend at a lunch invitation at the table the conversation turned to what you do as there were a few new faces around the table. I am  yoga teacher and chef, I explained and the immediate response as usual is firstly disbelief, I am a kapha body and most can’t imagine me doing even a forward bend and then follow the “yes, I always wanted to do yoga, where do I start?”

And, my advice is always the same, find a good beginner’s or foundation Hatha yoga class where the class is sympathetic to you and your body, go with an open mind and heart and stick to it for at least 3 months before you decide yoga is not for you.

Invariably, they don’t always listen.

Instead …

Most decide that they can’t make the designated beginner’s class as the time slot don’t suit them or some other excuse and they go to an intermediate or advance hot Bikram or Asthanga class and walk away wondering why anybody ever subjects her/himself to that kind of torture.

Others find an intermediate or advanced class, go and go until it’s not entirely torture anymore, but inevitably develop bad habits like holding sloppy postures or taking shortcuts. Bad habits lead to injury, injury leads to disillusionment, and disillusionment leads to skulking back to the gym classes with a completely wrong impression of what yoga is supposed to be.

Some do take my advice and start with a low impact or no-heat beginner’s class. In the 21 years that I have been doing and teaching yoga it has been my experience that everyone who I allowed to join my advanced classes as a beginner, don’t last and they never return to yoga. Those who stick are those whom I started out as beginners, I have build them up and slowly allow them to do more yoga. There is much to learn and to understand and this is the purpose of my beginner’s class, to slowly serve as an induction for at least a year into yoga and to build you up according to your body and where you are.

Here’s why new yogis need to start as beginners:

  1. Yoga is a skill you learn

If you were going to the gym for the first time, you can’t just walk in and start using the equipment and lifting 100kg weights, you will hurt yourself. Just as you need guidance and an instructor to show you how the equipment work and give you a plan according to which you must develop, the same goes for yoga. You need time to learn the asanas, the lingo, the rules and limitations of your body and this is a time consuming exercise.

During the first month or so of your yoga practice, you will be watching and learning more than ever before in your life. In the beginner’s class everybody is in the same boat, and this makes the class easier actually. Give your teacher a chance to show you, listen and learn and remember. Be patient. Be humble. Be present. Yoga, more than almost any other activity, is about non-competition. It’s about meeting your body where it’s at, no matter what anyone else around you is able to do.

  1. Yoga is different.

We are all beginners for the rest of our lives. I learn every week something new, as I grow older now, I have to learn how to adapt my practice to suit my body and age. There is no end goal in yoga. In the beginning you arrive at a class due to a back ache or you want to increase flexibility or you want to loose weight, doesn’t matter, be open, your expectations will change as you do yoga. Your learning curve is forever in yoga, there is no end to what you will discover and learn. Start at the very beginning and be ready to never stop learning. If you do anything less, you will be robbing yourself of the limitless lessons yoga has to offer.

  1. Yoga injuries suck.

Period. If you rush your own process, over-exert, ignore your pain, or compete with your classmates, you’ll almost certainly get hurt. And you’ll blame yoga, probably never return to it, and that will be a darn shame. The beginner class is sympathetic, it allow you to do what you can with what you have. There is now pushing, no forcing, just allowance for slow evolution at your own pace.

  1. The breath is the thing.

Pranayama is the in and out breaths I teach you with every asana. Most of us need to learn again how to just breathe in and out, this is a skill that you must re-learn again. Starting slow will prove that to you. A good beginner class instructor will remind you of the breath frequently, encourage you to return to your breath, and remind you to rest as much as you need.

  1. You risk missing the point.

When you start in an advanced or intermediate class you risk missing the point of yoga. An advanced class may be so intimidating, too much for you to take in that your mind and heart goes into shutdown mode and you miss the beauty of yoga. All you see and remember was how hard and difficult it was, the intense pain you experience two days later, resentment against me as a teacher because I don’t want to allow you to do more that once a week yoga and between all of this, you are missing the beauty of yoga. The purpose of yoga is to find focus. The purpose of finding focus is to find peace, and to keep growing within that new peace.

This isn’t to say that all the other things you thought yoga would do for you won’t come to pass. Because of yoga, I am stronger than I’ve ever been and rarely get injured anymore. Because of yoga I don’t have agonising back ache anymore and the list goes on.

But none of those things will happen if yoga becomes just another of a long list of things you “have to do” to lose 10 kilos or to heal your back. Who needs another one of those? If yoga becomes something you have to recover from because you over-did it, it can never become the wonderful nurturing thing you do for yourself.

And that’s what it’s supposed to be.

New Beginner’s Class 2019

Start 8 January 2018 | 17:30 – 19:00 | Queenswood, Pretoria | Cost R330 pm

To Enroll, send me an email from the Contact Page.

Give your life a different Perspective – do an Inversion

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I am not going to use this post to sing the praises, the headstand or any inversion for that matter. There are enough articles on the net that do that. Just Google “headstand” and you will find the one site after the other that will tell you of the many benefits. There are also many contra-indications and one of them is that the headstand is not recommended for people with high blood pressure. I am suffering from high blood pressure and I am on medication, as my doctor once said to me, as long as the blood pressure is under control, you can pretty much do any yoga asana you like. I am following my doctor’s advice and I do at least once a week a headstand for a few minutes. I belief it does help to manage my high blood pressure.

However, this post is about an aspect, a benefit of the headstand or inversion of which very few article will refer to. I want to start at that amazing event in every human’s life, being conceived and born into this world with your unique set of karmas & samskaras and reincarnating into a life full of endless possibilities. However to be born into this life, we need to leave the comfort and safety of our mother’s womb and this is where an amazing evolutionary event happen, we need to do a headstand to basically get into this world! Jip, think about it, you were born into this world upside-down. An inversion was the very first thing you did to enter this life.

And this is where the miracle of life already starts, in order to enter this world, we had to turn our world around. In order for you as a new human to this planet you had to change not only your physical position to enter this world, but also your mental view to prepare your self for the challenges of this life.

 Less stress

Say hello to your dose of endorphins when you do an inversion. Yes, the brain releases feel-good chemicals like serotonin and endorphins when you invert your body and this in turn assist you to be calm and collected when you need to make those big important decisions.

Focus On

Apart from changing your point of view, an inversion help us to concentrate and to really focus on what is at hand. It help us to sustain our concentration and to direct all our energy to the challenge or obstacle in front of us. An inversion align the mind in such a way that we can then think creatively about the issue in hand and find a solution flowing from a space of inner calmness.

Increased body awareness.

Ever get into an asana and think, I have no idea where my feet are right now? Inversions are notorious for this. However, inverting your body not only invert the body and your awareness of your body, but also your mind. Your mind has to literally think differently when you invert and this is a valuable asset you have in problem solving. Figuring out where the body is in space is a beautiful practice in cultivating spacial awareness. Figuring your problems out while there, that is just as special and amazing.

Enhanced focus on the present.

When we worry we usually either retreat to the past to find solace or we rush into the future to seek the solution or to escape. Inversions have the power to bring you into the moment, into the here and now and to confront everything right here and now. It’s hard to do anything else when upside down! Staying grounded, calm, focused, breathing slowly and remaining present are truly the only ways to stick an upside-down asana, but while there, things do change, so that when we come down, our world might look different, we might think different. Inversions release the mind and allow it the freedom to think differently.

Therefore, if you ask me how to approach your problems, how to find a solution, my advice will always be, do an inversion or two. 

The Yoga of Inspiration

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For most of us, we start yoga and we are so inspired by what we feel and experience during the first few months or even years that we need very little encouragement to motivate us to a dedicated and committed practice. Our bodies react in surprising ways to what we do with it in yoga. Our emotions start to calm down and we feel yoga is our weekly saving grace from a hectic schedule. And the mind, suddenly the monkey starts to just relax and the constant chatter of the mind dies down. We feel content, centred and even happier than before. Yoga works! And you need very little encouragement from anybody to be on your mat week in and out.

Then one morning you wake up and it happened. You feel stuck in your practice. You wish that your teacher would just do or say something today in class to motivate, inspire, and bring back the yoga mojo a little in you. In fact, you start to blame your teacher for not doing enough to move you to your happy and inspired place. You look in every class for validation; you want reassurance that you are still doing it right, that somebody notice your perfect downward dog or your gracefully executed headstand. As gregarious beings, we want to feel noticed and we want feel inspired.

As your teacher, I want to inspire you week in and week out, I want you to know I see you even if you think I don’t. It is a balancing act for teachers to be strict in terms of motivating their yogis to be in class no matter what, because how can we inspire you if you are not there? But, on the other hand we also need to tone down the discipline sometimes as many might interpret it as being too strict, to authoritarian and inflexible, when they need flexibility and tolerance.

A yoga class is not a one-size-fits-all type of practice. There isn’t a single recipe to encourage and inspire yogis. What worked yesterday will not work tomorrow, therefore for me over the years I focus less on the method and more on the ingredients, in other words, who are in my classes. The right ingredients will work together to make an inspiring and amazing dish – same with a class, the right people in each class will motivate and inspire people to come back week in and out. And if a particular class doesn’t work for you anymore, ask your teacher to move. Sometimes I ask somebody to move to another class. Each one of my classes has its own personality and each class is suited to some and sometimes it is not. Doesn’t mean the teacher and yoga doesn’t inspire you anymore, you just need to find the recipe where you will work with the other ingredients.

To get you started, here are a few ways to inspire you, to get to the right group where you will perform optimally again:

Let go of Expectations

Having a healthy expectation of yourself, yoga and your teacher is natural and a balanced outlook will inspire you. But expecting the impossible both from yourself, your teacher and the other yogis in your class is a sure way to kill the inspiration.

Remember your Original Intention

So many times we start doing yoga with one simple intention in mind, over time Ego starts to get hold of us again and we added too many intentions which become tiresome and we start to feel uninspired. Remind yourself again why you started yoga in the first place. Keep that intention alive as it will cultivate inspiration.

Know the Ingredients, Not Just the Recipe

Get to know the ingredients, in other words, reach out to the other yogis in your class. I cannot say this enough, you have a new family in your yoga group, but you need to reach out, be part of the group, and be that one ingredient that makes the recipe awesome. Be awesome when you walk into a class and realise you are part of a very special recipe with other awesome ingredients.

Sharing, Not Just Lecturing

As your teacher I am here to share. And I shall always share freely my advice, my knowledge, my compassion, my teachings, my asanas – I am not your mother, I am not here to tell you what to do and what not. I am here to share and to ensure that your practice evolves you and moves you. And in sharing I trust I motivate and inspire you. You need to find the inspiration and you can only find it, if you are in the class on your mat on a regular basis.

Own your Practice

Own your successes and small victories. When you eventually get something right, realise the magnitude of what it has moved inside you. Inspiration comes from noticing the small little changes after a while and realising that a regular practice makes the difference. You make the difference by being on your mat without excuse. As I always say, there are two reasons why you skip a class:  your death and the flu. All the rest is just excuses. Come to class, even after an operation or giving birth, you don’t have to do anything, but being there WILL make the difference you need, because is it all about the energy.

Respect is not a FOUR Letter Word

Respect is a discipline and an attitude in life. Respect is not about appreciation and praise and admiration, but it is about being committed, disciplined and to be on your mat in class. It is beyond rules; it is an attitude that inspires you to be above the need for appreciation and praise. Respect is an inner knowing and attitude that inspire you to belief in yourself, your practice and I am the best I can be.

Yoga is about Growth

Lastly, if you think yoga is about being able to stand on your head or do the perfect cockerel, then your Ego has taken over and you will not feel inspired. Leave the competiveness at home, it kills inspiration instantly. Your Ego is your greatest obstacle to the growth yoga can bring. That constant growth inspires you to do a little more every time. But, if you have lost this motivation, you have also lost inspiration. Rekindle your own inspiration by focusing on the growth aspect of yoga and not the look-what-I-can-do aspect.

As your teacher I belief in the individual capabilities of each of my yogis. Each yogi in my class inspire me to be on my mat and to move and grow my own practice. I can only inspire you if you are in my class.

Yoga and Your Journey into Food

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“If I start doing yoga, must I become a vegetarian?” I am now in my fifth year as a yoga teacher and this question always feature somewhere during the conversation with most potential students who want to do yoga with me. The short answer is no, you don’t have to, but if it is a natural development and outflow of your yoga with me, then it is your choice to allow it and to follow how the inner world wants to manifest Itself in the outer world. This article will map my own personal journey from meat eater to vegetarian and back to meat eating again and in that I trust it might give some answers and consolation to those out there who need more than just vegetarianism is the ultimate choice or the preferred one if you want to do yoga.

Map of my own Vegetarian Journey

My own teacher Sri Durga is a vegetarian and a very avid one and she used to advocate vegetarianism strongly in her classes, to the point where I decided soon after I started yoga in 1999 with her to also make the transition to being a vegetarian. And please don’t get me wrong, I adore her and I respect her for her strong stance on this issue. Around me all those other vegetarians and fellow yogis looked so healthy and as I always had a problem with maintaining my weight, I really pinned all my hopes on vegetarianism to be the next big weight loss programme for me combined with a yoga practice.

By May 2000 I ate my last piece of kingklip and so started my vegetarian food journey. Initially I felt great, didn’t lose any weight, in fact I started to pack more kilograms around my waist and developed the most terrible heartburn, but being a Taurus, the stubbornness in me prevailed and I stuck to my newly found vegetarian diet. By 2003 the most terrible muscle aches in my legs started to appear. Initially I thought it was just sore muscles from the yoga and the 10+kg I have gained since starting on my vegetarian journey, ignoring the messages my body was sending me so desperately at night. Eventually I spoke to my teacher and fellow yogis about my aches, and my teacher recommend that I add more magnesium to my diet and that I take a Vitamin B12 plus B-Comp injection at least once every three months. Unfortunately, it didn’t make the aches and pains better, in fact it got worse.

By 2005 I have picked up 15kg since my vegetarian journey started. I also become very depressed and the doubt about my diet and yoga started to creep into my consciousness. In October of 2005 I went to India for the first time and I was shocked by many aspects of India, but the one thing that shocked me the most was the realization that India is not the great vegetarian loving nation as portrayed in Western media and articles. In fact my experience was that most Indians actually eat meat at least twice a week if they are not a swami, pundit or some religious leader. And that was the turning point for on my vegetarian journey.

Back home in South Africa, I decided to still stick to my vegetarian diet, but to research more. I started to look at my family history. Both my father and eldest sister was diagnosed with pernicious anaemia and my father especially had huge issues with this disease. He died in 2006 of a massive heart attack after suffering a serious and very low iron deficiency due to the fact that his body couldn’t absorb vitamin B. And as it is a genetic disease, I had to consider this for myself as well. At this point I started to look like Batman’s seriously overweight sidekick, Robin, huge black circles around my eyes, loss of energy, always tired and an increase in muscles aches throughout my whole body now, made it nearly impossible for me to function. I then saw an Ayurveda doctor who prescribed more eggs and a greater combination of plant based legumes, nuts and cheese for me, which to my great dismay didn’t make a difference at all except to my weight! The higher carbohydrate diet just pushed me faster towards the edge of diabetes and when I was test a in 2007 for diabetes I was classified as being pre-diabetic. This was where I decided enough is enough and started to introduce fish and chicken back into my diet. Within months my weight started to stabilise and the severe muscles aches and cramps disappeared. My energy levels returned to normal and the constant tiredness start to dissipate.

In hindsight I can say this: Vegetarianism is great and I am a great supporter of this diet and lifestyle choice, but before you plunge yourself into it, research your family history, check your parents for diseases and syndromes that will affect your journey into vegetarianism as it could have serious consequences.

What about Ahimsa – the practice of non-harming and non-violence

Being a vegetarian is not the ultimate way of honouring this yogic value. It is clear from my own account above that what I thought was a non-violent and non-harming lifestyle choice perpetrated so much violence and harm against my own body, that I have to ask questions about the violence I allowed against my body and how it resonated with this first yama of yoga.

I also think there are much bigger issues currently to consider in our strife for ahimsa than just becoming a vegetarian. The other day I visited one of my very good yogi friends and as she prepared a lovely vegetarian meal for us, I couldn’t help to notice that the beans she prepared was from Zambia (we are in South Africa), the carrots from Zimbabwe, and the petit pois from Uganda and the couscous from Tunisia. Our whole meal was imported! The violence against Mother Earth to get all those foods to South Africa is huge in terms of carbon from the fossil fuels burned to get those foods here. It is also more difficult to get information about ethical treatment, usage of pesticides and gm seeds from those countries, than from your own country. And let’s not get started on the violence against so many farmers and families in South Africa due to the lack of income, loss of jobs and farm land, because of imported food.  Eating closer to the source of your food is not just serving you better, but the whole world in a very authentic way.

Ahimsa in terms of my food journey, is to know where it came from, how it was produced and as a fish and poultry eater, I like to know how these animals were treated, were they happy and living in good conditions, cared for with love? There are farmers who dearly love their animals and who rear their animals with respect and compassion, and my choice is to eat those animals from those farmers. I look towards local producers, where my food only had to travel a few kilometres by road instead of thousands of kilometres by air and road from some strange country where I don’t even know how my vegetables were cultivated.

Ahimsa for me is also to support initiatives such as Meat Free Mondays and to encourage people who eat meat everyday to consider eating meat every second day. As a chef I have to work with meat, I can’t avoid it and as such I always treat the meat I am working with, with great respect, honouring in that way the animal that died in order for me to prepare some great meal as nourishment for someone else and not seeing it as just another piece of dead animal on my chopping board.

Patanjali, The Yoga Sutras and Your Diet

For most yogis it is a problem that Patanjali nowhere in The Yoga Sutras makes special mention about diet and what foods you should or shouldn’t eat. Even the Bhagavad Gita doesn’t list any specific foods for following a “yogic diet.”  And I suspect that if they did, the list would be very problematic for us as Westerners and also what was appropriate then, might not be appropriate today.

Despite that fact that there are no clear guidelines, I think as yogis we can look to Ayurveda and what it can offer us in terms of a great basis on which we can base our future food explorations and choices. Ayurveda tradition differentiates between the three Gunas where foods that are considered sattvic, include most vegetables, ghee, fruits, legumes, and whole grains. Rajasic foods such as coffee, eggs, cheese, peppers, salt and fish increase energy levels and Tamasic foods, such as onions, meat, and garlic slows the metabolism. However, in the West we know the many health benefits of garlic for example and for me it doesn’t make sense to exclude it from my diet or to even list it as Tamasic. Maintaining a balance between all three Gunas is more important in maintaining a healthy and light body and this doesn’t mean to eat just Sattvic foods. Consider also your constitution or Dosha, there are three Doshas, Vata, Pita and Kapha and how they are in balance with each other.

In Conclusion

The vegetarian diet made me sick, but I am still attracted to the non-violence of the first yama of yoga and as such I had to discover the truth for me. And my truth is that I still need animal protein to function appropriately. For me an omnivorous diet, one that consists of moderate amounts of animal protein and enough fruits and vegetables makes more sense and is more appropriate for where I am than a strictly vegetarian or even vegan diet. Since I do eat animal protein, I always honour the duck, the chicken, and turkey or prawn or trout by not wasting its life force or mine, but to use that force to heal myself and others, and to teach, inspire, and help people evolve. My ethics about what to eat came down to my personal truth and that is that an omnivorous diet works physiologically far better for me.

Clearly, with such varied perspectives on what feeds the body and spirit, developing a diet that reflects your ethics and honours your physical needs can be challenging. In the end most yogis would agree that part of the practice is to develop awareness about what you eat. It’s worth spending time educating yourself not just about the possible diets you could follow but also about the origins and properties of the food you buy. To begin forming your yogic diet, think about which teachings best resonate with you and how you might put those teachings into action.