When I think about yoga, so many different images flood my mind - a perfect line of perfectly harmonious and mindful people in child's pose; the aromatic smell of incense; the calming, otherworldly voice of an instructor guiding you through each movement. But most of all, I've always thought of it as lots of difficult positions, that I wouldn't be able to do, a search for inner-peace that I could never achieve. Yoga has always been something I've toyed with trying, one day, been told I should try, but somehow never got around to it. The only experience I've had of yoga so far was a so-called beginners' class at university. The experience felt pretty intimidating - so many experts, so many poses I couldn't do, so much pain - it was all a bit humiliating. Although I said I'd go back, I never found the time.
So when I decided to visit Raj’s yoga studio Namaste Yoga Ashram and sign-up to some classes, I wasn't sure what to expect. He's currently offering unlimited classes for a month for just £35, so you can get access to as many classes as you can fit into your week!
I felt a little nervous before starting, not to mention intimidated, having almost no prior yoga experience to speak of. I also suffer from dyspraxia - a developmental co-ordination condition that affects flexibility, balance, and strength: all the things required to be good at yoga. I wasn't sure whether I'd be able to do any of the movements, never mind follow Raj's instructions.
Walking into Raj's studio, there's an immediate atmosphere of calm and tranquillity. I explained to Raj that I might not be able to do everything, as I didn't want to injure myself, and felt instantly reassured by his words. The yoga studio itself is bright and airy, with a stunning view of Sheffield city centre. Towards the end of the class, we watched the sun beginning to set, which added so much to the class - being able to experience nature as you work on quieting your mind gives you an immense feeling of fulfilment and joy. The studio is also carpeted with artificial grass, which adds to the naturalistic atmosphere.
The yoga class that I opted to attend on Saturday afternoon was Hatha yoga – the word 'Hatha' means 'Force'. It's a style of yoga that is most commonly taught in the West, and combines yoga poses with breathing exercises and relaxation. We started with a warm-up which consisted of gentle stretches and breathing exercises, which really helped bring my attention to my body and started the process of clearing my mind. The fact that the warm-up was so gentle was also reassuring, as it made me feel that I was in total control and could decide how much I wanted to push my body. Raj kept emphasising that we should only push ourselves as far as is comfortable and acceptable for us - and that enormous health benefits will abound with even small changes.
As we got towards the middle of the class, I did start to find some of the moves more challenging. The down-facing dog is a notoriously difficult pose to get right, or even achieve, but as Raj mentioned, those who are beginners or less flexible can use modified moves, such as doing the down-facing dog on your knees. Moves such as the plank are more familiar to us all and has been part of my exercise routine in the past, so didn't feel as difficult. Since I have stiff knees, poses that involved crawling upwards on your feet or sitting in a squat position I tended to modify or avoid. But, wherever I could, I did push my body slightly beyond its comfort zone--I wanted to leave the class feeling that I'd made some progress. Given my condition, and my poor, cracking joints, I was actually surprised by how much I could do and how much I wanted to do. Even during the more challenging moves, having Raj's voice gently guiding you through everything gives you so much more confidence and reassurance. I liked that the class felt challenging enough so that you focus your mind wholeheartedly on each move. It’s just you and the instructor’s voice. This begins the process of mindfulness, a state that I've much-coveted, but rarely experienced. Raj's class was one of the few times I've felt genuinely in the moment – and the nice thing is, it doesn’t even feel forced. It feels almost like an emptying and freeing of the mind. If someone were to ask you a question, you'd still have all your mental faculties available, yet you feel completely focused on the present moment. It feels very soothing and creates an incredible sense of fulfilment and calm.
What I also loved about Raj's class is that it's a completely non-judgemental experience. It's always struck me that fitness - whether it be mental, physical or both - is a deeply personal experience. That's why gyms don't always have the best atmosphere, where some are supportive, others are practically combative. The testosterone-fuelled, sweaty atmosphere of a gym can take you away from your own journey, turning it into a popularity contest, as people fight for machines, glance scornfully at the person next to them to see if he or she is skinnier, fatter, stronger, burlier, better, or worse. And the answer to this is what validates their success. Things couldn't have been more different at Raj's class - everyone was very focused on their own journey, no matter what stage they were currently at. It was an atmosphere that fostered personal growth and support.
As the sun began to set over the Sheffield skyline, it was time for our final move. The easiest of all: relaxation and meditation. We laid on our mats with blankets over us, focusing on our breathing, becoming aware of our bodies, feeling them melt into the ground as we became more relaxed. Classical music soared in the background. The whole experience felt so grounding, yet also so liberating. It showed me, for that hour at least, that our minds and bodies are so inter-connected, that making changes to one has a profound impact on the other. Prior to the class, I'd felt stressed, upset and out of control. In the class, that all floated away and became background noise.
After the class, I felt a renewed sense of energy - I felt light and invigorated. Going to Raj's Hatha class showed me that yoga can work for anyone - regardless of fitness level, age, or belief system. It also showed me that yoga doesn't have to be intimidating or just for a certain demographic. In many ways, it's even more beneficial for people with health problems. People who struggle with co-ordination, like me, and even Multiple Sclerosis and Cancer sufferers, as well as those recovering from injuries, can all enjoy immense benefits and healing.
So, if you, like me, have been toying with the idea of trying yoga for years, take the leap. You might just end up discovering the hobby of a lifetime.
Namaste Yoga Ashram is located at: 98 Prospect Road