Yoga (Breathe)

Why I Lead Women’s Yoga Circles

November 13, 2019

In 2015 I led my first women’s yoga workshop and it was an unforgettable experience.  I was 35 years old and dealing with some intense menstrual pain that had led me to seeking out forms of yoga practice that were sensitive to the physical and emotional ups and downs I was experiencing on a monthly basis.  In my early days of yoga practice I was always drawn towards the more dynamic and physically challenging practices that would have my heart pumping, skin sweating and muscles intensely stretched (think Bikram, Power Yoga, Ashtanga).  But when I turned 30, everything changed.  Having come off the birth control pill at age 25 (after starting it at age 17 to quell period cramps), it was like my body was finally coming back into itself and its natural rhythms, ready to embrace her feminine energy.   The strong yoga practices that had kept me ‘fit’ (but also frequently injured and depleted) no longer served me or the transition I was experiencing into a new phase of womanhood.  My first step in the direction of a more intuitive and nurturing yoga practice was learning gentler styles of vinyasa flow and then gradually I welcomed in restorative and yin-style practices that encouraged slowing down to such a degree that the old me would have thought lazy, but the new me relished.  I became especially grateful to these practices during times of the month or times of the year when my body needed rest.  Eventually I discovered Uma Dinsmore Tuli, the woman behind the incredible tome of a book on women’s health and yoga called Yoni Shakti and enrolled in her Well-woman yoga training in London where I was introduced to and fell in love with her womb-friendly yoga practices.

Studying with Uma during this training and later during her pregnancy yoga teacher training further enhanced my understanding of not only the need to amend our yoga practice to our changing bodies but also the beauty of celebrating the female form and all its magical powers (yes even menstruation is magical!) by gathering women to practice yoga that incorporates gentle movement, breathing, mudra (hand gestures) and mantra (chanting) together.  There is something truly special about the energy that is generated when we take time out with others to focus on tuning in and healing our bodies.   Of course a deep connection with your inner self can happen during a general yoga class as well, but when there is a strong intention present to honour ourselves as women and give thanks to the divine feminine energy within (that is exactly the kind of energy the world needs rights now), the potential for healing and connecting is heightened.  Uma encourages us to liken our wombs to the world.  When we care for and nourish our wombs, we are building a better planet.   The practices I learned in these two trainings have been invaluable in helping me to observe the ebb and flow of my energy and to truly take care of myself in a way that supports my vitality as a women and I absolutely love sharing these practices with others.

My first workshop held 15 beautiful women, all of whom had walked outside of their comfort zones to try a new style of yoga and walked away feeling nurtured, more informed about their bodies and empowered to own their practice.  I myself connected with teaching in a way I never had before, a feeling that I was helping to cultivate an energy that could do good far beyond the yoga room.  I was determined to keep facilitating these opportunities for healing and so I am really excited to be offering what I hope will be the first of many circles on Sunday, December 15th at Yogarise in Covent Garden.

For those who have never joined a women’s circle with me before, the mats are arranged in a circle around a mandala to encourage the feeling of being held within a space, side by side with our sisters, in safe hands.  Unlike the vinyasa flow classes I teach, the pace is slower, the work with the subtle body more profound and the opportunity for true relaxation is heightened by the aromatherapy of burning essential oils, using blankets and bolsters for cushioning and adding an element of sound healing through a careful selection of music, chanting and occasionally instruments.   Different facilitators will offer these circles in different ways depending on their backgrounds and specialisms.  Mine focus on creating both an experience for women that their bodies will remember but also providing information they can take home with them to connect more with their inner teacher.  My aim is to help more women truly love and own their bodies in a way that leaves us all feeling more powerful and peaceful.

A big part of my Women’s Circles is also providing an environment in which women can talk openly about their bodies and experiences as women, and to encourage menstrual awareness and cycle tracking (for those still menstruating) and lunar cycle awareness for those who are not menstruating but seek a means of understanding our close relationship with nature and change. There’s a new book out that I’ve finished reading called Period Power by Maisie Hill, which re-introduces us to the theme of seasons and how it not only applies to our monthly and life cycles but can be an effective means of making the most of each phase of our cycle.  I’ll be sharing a review of this soon as, while it echoes a lot of the information found in older titles on the topic of Women’s Health (such as one of my favourites by Christiane Northrup – Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom) it’s laid out in a fresh and accessible manner that I hope will have more women talking about their bodies and changes with no shame, but rather respect and love for all the magic we are capable of bringing into this world.

Morning Pancake Meditation

February 9, 2016

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This year I am devoting myself to keeping record of a few of my favourite, revisited, tried and tested healthy recipes on my blog so I can make them easy to share with more lovely people.

No doubt, many recipes I share will be inspired by my good friend and healthy cooking inspiration Christopher James Clark, author of Nutritional Grail.  I met Chris (who would find it very funny that I initially spelled that Christ) way back when he lived in Crete and was the chef on a yoga retreat I was attending.  His healthy, macrobiotic meals were revolutionary for me.  They proved that healthy, whole-food cooking is delicious, satisfying and very accessible!  I returned home with a collection of his recipes and spent the next few months tackling each and every one one of them from his lemony-dill chickpea dish to his chocolate chip banana cookies (yes – I will soon post about those).  In recent years, Chris has focused more on paleo-inspired meals (adding high quality meat dishes to the mix) and you can follow his blog and Instagram account for daily, mouth-watering inspiration.

Today I am sharing his recipe for Basic Buckwheat Pancakes from Nutritional Grail.  This recipe is killer and I revisit it time and again especially when I’m taking a break from gluten and craving something ‘bread-like’ to bite into!  It’s also slightly fermented making this very easy to digest.  My preferred way to eat these is with tahini and a bit of honey OR a bit of avocado and tomato if I’m going for savoury.  My boyfriend slathers his with cream cheese and jam (not approved by me) – but the point is you can take some artistic liberty here.  I like to add a little lemon zest and some of my favourite spices (such as cinnamon and cardamom to the batter) to give them some extra zing!  I heat organic, cold-pressed coconut oil in the pan and enjoy the slow process of creating my stack.

I find pancake-making quite meditative and often practice Tadasana and steady breathing whilst waiting to flip each cake.  Chris estimates 2 minutes to let each side cook although for me it’s more like 2-3 minutes one side and 30 seconds the second side to ensure the pancake doesn’t fall apart upon flipping!  You can’t rush the process so turn it into a practice of being present – enjoy the sizzling sound of the batter hitting the pan, marvel at the little bubbles that form as the pancake cooks, enjoy the fragrance and satisfaction of creating a pretty stack.  Of course if that sounds a little too peaceful for your mornings, you could also do a sun salutation while waiting for one side to cook.

You can eat them nice and warm on the spot or save them for later to accompany a nice soup or ‘saucy’ meal – they’re great for soaking up juices or rolling up with nut butter for later consumption!

Please note that you’ll need to plan ahead roughly two nights ahead so you can soak the buckwheat one night and then allow for some fermenting the second night.

Ingredients

1 1/4 cups buckwheat, soaked overnight

2 tablespoons full-fat yogurt (I use Rachel’s organic greek-style yoghurt)

1 tablespoon molasses or barley syrup (optional)

1 teaspoon baking powder (optional)

2 eggs

Salt (I use pink himalayan or sea salt)

Butter

Cooking Instructions

Strain buckwheat and discard the soaking water.  Put buckwheat into the blender.  Add just enough water to make it thick, yet homogenous puree. Pour this puree into a nonreactive bowl and stir in yogurt and sweetener.  Cover and ferment 8 to 24 hours. Stir in all remaining ingredients.  Bring a nonstick pan to medium-low heat with a little butter.  Ladle 1/2 cup batter onto the pan and cook 2 mins per side.

My Yoga is Not For Show

January 29, 2016

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I love visuals. I love sharing and celebrating moments in my life with photographs. I love films, colourful books and artwork, well-illustrated magazines and cookbooks. I love anatomy drawings and the diagram I have of a skeleton from an old French schoolroom that is mounted on my wall. I love to see things explained and stories told pictorially.

But not everything can be seen.

I love my iphone camera and Instagram, just as I loved my old point-and-shoot cameras, the first battery-operated Kodak camera that preceded them, and the old photo albums and scrapbooks I used to keep. I love capturing beauty, light, life and landscapes through the lens to share with others in real time (or to keep for myself for later viewing on a rainy day).

But not everything can be shown.

I love watching dance, acrobatics, gymnastics, the Olympics and all the movement arts that display the limitless abilities of our majestic bodies. I love gasping in awe when a body defies gravity, sighing with relief when someone lands on their feet, yearning from every cell in my body to dance and move my hips, and feel the spring of foot against floor the way those who have trained their bodies through relentless practice do with grace and ease. I can imagine how it would feel in my own body because yoga has connected me with my movement centre, the inner dancer who has always been there.

But not everything is meant to be performed.

And because I have no interest in harming myself to achieve something my limbs are not ready for (and may not ever have been designed to do) in an attempt to emulate what has come before or imitate what might appear on the cover of a yoga magazine, I have to remind myself to keep my practice inside.  This is and has been my yoga philosophy since injuring myself during practice over seven years ago: Focus on the feeling, not the display. Go for the subtle, not the intense. Use yoga to heal, not to harm. Listen, don’t look. Practice for me and no one else. Because yoga is not for show.

The above is a little ‘matifesto’ (I believe this term was coined by the clever Alexandra Franzen) I wrote to myself last year following an experience doing yoga in a display window for a popular yoga clothing brand (more on that below). It is something I have to revisit from time to time to keep my practice safe and to keep my teaching sincere. While the physical practice of yoga asana can challenge our bodies as it invites our fascial matrix (connective tissue) to bend, fold, twist, turn, and lengthen in the way a dancer’s body does effortlessly, the ability to practice difficult poses is NOT criteria for being a ‘yogi.’ And while becoming more flexible and bouncy in our bodies can inspire us to be more expressive and more daring with our movement, there is a fine line to cross before pushing it too far to the extreme. What is essential to practice yoga is the abandonment of any kind of perfectionism, the self-discipline to go only so deep into a pose to trigger subtle sensations, a willingness to listen, a commitment to being patient, and a certain amount of humility or humbleness to keep at one with the true aim of yoga practice, which has little to do with what you look like.

I once read an article somewhere that said the sign of a good yoga teacher is someone who shares, doesn’t show. It rang so true but I also thought, what a challenge! Could I explain movement to someone without demonstration or synchronization of my movement with theirs?

Yes. And perhaps more profoundly so.

I’ve been teaching large, flow-style studio yoga classes for almost four solid years now and over this time I have slowly developed my yoga teaching voice – its cadence, its clarity, and its connection with ‘the moves.’ I have also developed an awareness of the vast variety of people who come to practice yoga, their physical limitations, hang-ups and insecurities. They are mostly shy, like I was, but a little voice has told them yoga may hold an answer they’ve been seeking, may bring relief to an aching body that just wants to dance, and so they have braved the first step of walking into the classroom. And would my way of encouraging them be to lift myself up into a challenging arm balance or flip myself upside down in an inversion? To show off rock-hard abs and a Lycra clad body? No. Why? Because while that may motivate some, it would probably scare off others who can’t even imagine reaching their toes with their fingertips. I like to ease my students into their practice. I love teaching beginners (who naturally have the essential ‘beginners mind’) because they are willing to take it slow. My number one goal in teaching is to have everyone leave the classroom feeling good, feeling calmer, warmer and more alive in their bodies, not deflated, achy, or worried they may have hurt themselves. I’ve been there. Many times. And it’s a discouraging place.

I’ve probably led you to think I teach in a cloak curled up in a ball in the middle of the classroom, but in fact I do wear figure fitting yoga clothes and demonstrate some of the postures because, in the beginning, it does help to see. During my training my teachers explained to me the different levels or ‘limbs’ of yoga – they start with the physical and evolve into the deeper, yet more subtle practice of meditation. The physical is the entry point into the less tangible world of eliminating one’s inner chatter to find inner peace. We have to start with what we can see and then we can move on to address those things we can’t.

So, in teaching, I keep to occasional demonstrations and soft adjustments. I look at each person as an individual. I encourage everyone to make yoga work for them, not the other way around. I don’t try to be a model for my students, instead I am a facilitator and guide. I admit my limitations in arm binds, inversions, and other asanas that my body has not found yet and remind students that the prep work for advanced poses is where it’s at. I don’t look for perfect bodies, flat stomachs, or long limbs. I look for soft smiles, uncreased brows, lifted hearts, relaxed shoulders, focused gazes and all the true physical manifestations of a body that has found its home on the mat.

Do I think all of the yoga images we see today are bad? Of course not – they are simply images. It’s all down to how you interpret them and how they are used to market yoga. The human body is a remarkable thing and it’s lovely to see it expressed in different ways. Yoga poses and mudras make for great expressions. Clothing is also a fun way to externally express your inner colour so if you feel beautiful in a certain outfit and in a certain pose and you want to capture that moment, then why not? I’ve had rare moments where I have simultaneously felt beautiful and in the mood for some self-portraiture and done just this. I’ve had more moments sitting in meditation in my pjs with bed-head where I’ve felt equally gorgeous, but not necessarily camera ready. What has never felt and never will feel right is practicing yoga or posing for yoga with a large, scrutinizing audience waiting for my next trick.

Occasionally I get lured back into the ego space of wanting to look a certain way. Last year I was asked to do ‘yoga in the window’ for a popular clothing brand. I agreed on the condition that I would not allow myself to ‘perform’ for the passersby, that instead I would take on the task of representing the less lean ‘yoga body’ that is excluded from most yoga marketing and would demonstrate a softer practice. Maybe I would even just sit there and meditate. But when I arrived on the scene and observed the preceding model (a trained dancer like most of those chosen) bobbing her head up and down to the beats of a live DJ whilst holding her right leg up in Paschimotonasa, I started feeling inferior and completely not up for the job. I wanted to run; I wanted to hide, but there was a voice that said – follow through with this Kate, there is a lesson here. So, heart racing, insecurities abounding, I chose an outfit to model and got in the window display. I took three deep breaths and tried hard to centre myself but the thumping music and amassing crowd of pedestrians gathering around the window had my nervous system in overdrive. I was worried about the sweat dripping off my face, but did everything I could to keep my cool and stick to the plan. Did I stay true to my intention?

No. How could I? I was completely disconnected from me. I was clothed in brand new yoga bottoms and top but I felt naked. My senses were heightened so much as a means of protection that I couldn’t find my breath. I ignored but could feel impatient eyes upon me. One gentleman even decided to come into the shop and stand behind me as he stared at my bottom in a forward fold so his mates outside could take a picture. And why wouldn’t he? I was a moving mannequin advertising an outfit in public. I ended my 1- hour window (which felt like an eternity) ten minutes early. They allowed me to keep the free outfit, which I have since given away. For the next day, no the next week, my body got back at me with stiffness and pain. My nerves were so revved up that I hardly slept a wink that night. I woke up and journaled for an hour. I didn’t regret the experience, instead I felt immense gratitude to the Universe for showing me that my approach was right all along. That cemented it for me.  True yoga practice requires deep connection with your breath, full immersion in your being and humbleness.  The rest is just for show.

Salute the Sun

September 1, 2014

Salute the Sun

This incredible sunset is reflected on the facade of the church (and museum) of Santo Spirito in Florence.  While I do not affiliate myself with any religion, there is something special about happening upon a structure like this when aimlessly traversing city streets that stops you in your tracks and makes you look up, breathe, and notice the light.  I hope that is what resonates in this picture – a sense of sacred space illuminated by the sun.

September was a busy month and I got the sense from many of my students (not to mention myself) that it was stressful too.  In September, schedules pick up again after the summer and we get caught up in planning ahead by filling our calendars.  We quickly forget the spacious summer months and surge ahead just when nature is asking us to slow down. If that sounds familiar, then I’m giving you a few things to reflect on to keep that summer sun shining within even when skies turn grey. You’re going to need it for the winter.

It’s not always possible to simplify our schedules so we need to be creative about creating breathing space, moments to unwind, rituals to keep us grounded, and routines to keep us feeling on top, rather than buried under, our growing to-do lists.  This comes naturally to us during the summer when the weather beckons us to idle away some time but it’s an effort when the year picks up and we spend less time outdoors.

When I have a mountain to climb (figuratively or literally), I always remember the ‘one step at a time’ saying.  It’s easy to get overwhelmed when we’re looking ahead and that’s because it pulls us from the present moment.  The present moment is where we can observe, where we are attentive, where we can breathe.  The breath is the gateway to the present moment so in many ways we’re taking things ‘one breath at a time’ (to quote a student of mine who says this is how he survived a stressful flat move and prevented getting emotionally overwhelmed).  When you focus strongly on every inhale and every exhale you take, it’s hard to get distracted by much else, even anxious feelings.

This is why I slowed every flow class I was teaching right down and got everyone to really focus on their breathing.  Our natural breathing pattern can tell us a lot about how we are feeling, if we’re in a state of anxiety or depression, under too much pressure, too stressed.  And likewise we can take control of our breath to use it as a tool to counteract those feelings. There are times when it’s excellent to slow down your yoga practice (around the Autumn Equinox for example) and I always find these are the times we feel the biggest impulse to rush and run.  The yoga mat is where I cultivate a lot of patience and tame my inner White Rabbit to drop the watch and stay in the now.

If you’ve ever attended a yoga class, you’re likely to have practiced a Sun Salutation.  Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar) are composed of 8 postures sequenced together and joined by the thread of the breath.  They are an excellent place to start when developing a home practice, especially one that you can incorporate into a morning routine to greet the first rays of sun (depending on when you wake up that is).  They are fantastic because once your body learns them, you don’t have to think about or get overwhelmed by choice of what to do on your mat.  They start with a strong standing pose, then an inhale to raise your arms to the sun, and you’re off, gracefully moving your body to your breath in a series of simple poses that get your blood flowing, your energy soaring and your being soaking up each inhale and exhale as nourishment for the day (read below for an instructional link).

This is my simple go-to practice when I have an overactive mind and am looking to slow things down, when I need a block of time to myself to soften my pace and feel at peace.  And this is why I love mornings – you’re much less likely to be distracted during the morning hours by people, tasks, and the general busy energy that increases as we approach noon.  Sun Salutations together with restorative yoga poses have been an essential part of my Autumn cleanse (more below).

Digital media can also pull us away from the present moment.  I was asked to write a blog last month about disconnecting from our mobile phones and computers and the timing was perfect.  We know when we’re being productive at the computer and when we’re using it as a distraction.  How many times do you actually pick up your smart phone to make a call? How does that compare to checking emails, playing games, and trawling the internet when you’re bored on a commute?  Do you ever leave your phone behind so you have no distractions?

Just the other day I was in a gym class and a woman answered her phone!  She didn’t even bother to leave the room or dismiss herself – it was assumed we would accept this as normal and that she could talk at a volume louder than the teacher regarding business affairs.  I felt less bad for the rest of us and more sorry for her not allowing herself even 45 minutes to be phone free and just in her body.  I put together some thoughts on this and 5 simple ways to have a digital timeout should you be addicted to your digital device in this blog.

Currently my iPhone serves two major purposes: photography (using the camera to capture moments of gratitude for lovely things in my life) and texting (to communicate with loved ones when I can’t see them in person).  Otherwise I try to save emails for designated work time at my desktop computer, don’t play games, remember to read books, and generally keep track of my phone use, cutting myself off when I know I am using it out of boredom and my vision starts to get blurry.  It’s an effort and I often fail, but I know it pays off in terms of creating space for my mind to breathe and obtaining mental clarity.

My suggestion this month would be to be a little soft with yourself.  Allow for some down time.  Even though the mornings are darker, allow yourself to wake up earlier to steal a few of those tranquil morning minutes when everything is a blank canvas and most of the city still sleeps (leave your phone in the other room).  Incorporate contemplative activities, such as wandering around an art exhibit (I thoroughly enjoyed the vibrant colours and shapes at the Tate’s Matisse cut-out show) or photographing nature and the Autumn foliage. Connect with your spiritual side – the side that takes you inward to reflect by taking long walks, creating a sacred space in your home or finding one in the city somewhere where the sun is shining.  Practice yoga in slow motion.

Finally, I am on day three of a 4-day Ayurvedic food-based cleanse.  The cleanse consists of a mono-diet of kitchadi (warm, cooked moong daal).  This is the fourth time I’ve done this cleanse and it never ceases to amaze me how much we resist foods that make us feel calmer and more centered, always reaching for a stimulant like caffeine or chocolate to keep us going, even in the evening when we’re meant to wind down.  This cleanse is all about balancing and training the body to have a set routine of eating for nourishment only.  It’s an incredible experience that teaches you a lot about how we often try to distract ourselves from the present moment by reaching for a mood-enhancing food and snacking.  No snacks allowed – just three set meals and over time you learn to dismiss the false hunger and allow yourself to be tired and rest.  You learn to surrender and hang up the towel before you over exhaust yourself.  It’s something that should come naturally so listen for those signals and be aware of when you’re ignoring the need to rest your body, your mind, your digestive system, you name it.

Summary (and links):

I love this video for a gentle sun salutation sequence.  Give them a try.  I teach this in my Beginners Yoga Courses, so sign up if you’re interested in more…

Tips and thoughts on digital overload – Surrender to Simplification and take timeouts from your phone (I’ll be taking my own advice)

And just for fun, here’s last year’s Autumn blog on why I love Autumn colours

If you want to learn more about kitchadi and cleansing in the Autumn, send me an email.

If you need a song to get you into that slow down space, try Devi Prayer from 108 Sacred Names (many thanks to Romee for recommending this peaceful chant that smoothed out my September)

Enjoy the sun when it shines.

Should I Try Yoga?

April 20, 2014

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Has anyone ever told you about a yoga class they tried and then quickly dismissed because it was ‘too slow’ or ‘too boring’; there was ‘too much breathing’ or they weren’t ‘flexible enough’ and couldn’t ‘do any of the poses’? Perhaps you’ve had this experience yourself?

I get a lot of these responses from people when I tell them I’m a yoga teacher. A lot of people, sometimes without even trying, think yoga is simply NOT for them.

I have to laugh because I used to have the same attitude about yoga. I used to think that yoga was for the skinny, bendy, twisty types. Bring on a spinning class (if anything) please…

Over time, I have proved myself wrong. Very very wrong. And every day I am so thankful for that. I’ll tell you why…

One of the most common misconceptions about yoga is that you have to be flexible. Let’s just say that, back in the day, I was lucky to get my hands past my knees (let alone to my ankles) when I folded forward at the hips to try to touch the ground. I was tight and inflexible, a gymnastics reject and with lower back issues to boot.

But against all of these odds I decided to trial out a yoga class anyway. There was something drawing me to the practice – an innate sense that this ‘yoga stuff’ carried some of what I needed.

My instinct was correct. The more classes I took, the more flexible I became so that now I can place the palms of my hands on the ground without bending my knees (and without pain). I healed a back injury. I got strong and less stressed. And then I got certified to teach.

The simple fact is that there are no prerequisites for yoga other than an open mind (or what we call ‘beginner’s mind’). I would also add to that patience and the obvious checks you would do with a specialist before getting involved in any physical activity following injury or trauma to the body. However, a yoga class can be a great place to cultivate patience if you haven’t got much and also to heal an injury if you choose the right kind of yoga.

That’s right – flexibility isn’t the only benefit from practicing yoga. There are many styles of yoga that address various energetic, physical, emotional, and mental needs.

The kind of yoga I teach is mostly dynamic and energising vinyasa flow mixed with restorative postures. The overall aim is to leave my students feeling better in their bodies and minds before they exit class, whether that be by the simple act of moving in new and challenging ways, finding strength and stability in poses, quieting busy minds through meditation or lengthening spines and limbs through breathing.

Basically, the more you practice, the more you realise this ‘yoga stuff’ goes much deeper than stretching…

With yoga, the possibilities are endless. But you have to be curious and you have to devote some time to trialing out different classes and teachers. I would say try 5 different classes/teachers minimum before you decide yoga is not for you. And remember that a lot of the things we think we need to have before we take a yoga class (flexibility, strength, patience, balance, a fit body to name a few) are what we gain as a result of a dedicated practice. And there’s no better time to start than now.

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