Ok... I changed my mind about hot yoga

(And to clarify, I'm not referring to Bikram. That's a different conversation).

It is hard to challenge those deep-seated opinions that one has. They are so, ehm... deep seated that become part of the fabric of our lives. Like thinking "This isn't for me", "I'll never be able to do that pose", "I prefer chocolate to crisps", "I'll never like classical music". We like the comfort of what we know, as we are - generally speaking - creatures of habit, and our known environment is a safe playground we happily run around in.

Sometimes, however, it is important to be challenged. Be challenged in our belief system in order to re-calculate boundaries, check if the opinion we hold of ourselves and others can be revised, make space for new input and, ultimately, grow. But it is a de-stabilising process at the same time. It takes willingness to approach what we do not rate, have an open mind, recognise if there is anything good in there and, maybe, adopt a new vision. It's hard work.

When it comes to hot yoga, some of my deep-seated ideas sounded like: "I don't like the heat", "hot yoga is for people whose ego says that they should lose a few pounds", and "I don't do it". Then, I started hearing about a great teacher called Kristin Campbell, who trained many teachers I highly respect. Shame that she taught hot yoga.

After a few year's resistance, I finally gave in as I really wanted to study with her and signed up to her hot teacher training. I thought "I'll disregard the hot part of it". And we embarked in a 60 hours immersion where we were required to practise two hot classes per day for seven days. After the first two I decided I had been mad in signing up.

Kristin's teaching is sharp, intelligent, useful to any yoga teacher of any style - absolutely no doubt about that. But the practice? I was bothered by the heat, the sweat dripping into my eyes, the feeling that I just came out of a swimming pool, the necessary showering afterwards, the necessary re-hydration process, the necessary change of clothes you have to carry with you. The whole of it.

But as we progressed through the week, it slowly started to dawn on me. When I finally gave up fighting the bother, the sweat, the logistics and focussed on the practice only, I started to understand. The sequence designed by Kristin is called Tapasya which means "to be with intensity for the sake of transformation", and so it is. I started to work out how I could be in an intense and uncomfortable environment and keep my cool (excuse the pun).

Could I drop the thoughts about how uncomfortable some aspects of this practice is (certainly not the most glamorous either), and keep my focus on my breath instead? How can I pace my energy in this near-hostile environment? Can I respect my body and my strength levels - which are different every day - and complete the tasks at hand? This is all good training not (only) for the hot room, but for life. Off the mat. Out there. Just like any asana practice, of course, but with added intensity.

So I have been mulling over these questions and started to see the potential for transformation. My new thoughts about hot yoga were starting to diverge from my old certainties. How annoying. This is undoubtedly a strong practice, but the intensity makes it a real gym for the mind, more than - or in addition to - for the body. An interesting lab for exploration.

And I came to the conclusion that hot yoga is not that bad, and that there is real depth to it. I had to admit to myself that I had been too quick in judging. Out of the whole teacher training, one of the most valuable learnings I took away with me is that sometimes it's good to change your mind. Thank you Kristin for that, as well as for the rest of your teachings.

If you fancy practising hot yoga with me, have a look at my Upcoming Cover page.

 

Source: Photo by Geetanjal Khanna on Unsplash

What is yoga? It is like music

To be proud of your yoga positions is bad taste. To be able to do the poses "successfully" means nothing, nothing at all. Yoga should not become a circus. It must not be done as a refuge from life - Vanda Scaravelli

A couple of years ago, I went to a workshop with internationally renown ashtanga teacher David Swenson. A student asked: “what poses do I work on to get my legs into lotus pose?” (that pretzel posture you might imagine any yogi to spend their spare time sitting in). Mr Swenson was a little baffled; nevertheless he highlighted poses in the first ashtanga series which help opening the hips. 

But the student insisted as if the question had not been truly addressed: “yes yes, but what should I practise consistently so I can get into the pose?”. He raised his eyebrows and quoted his own teacher's broken sentence: “practice and all is coming”. I believe what he meant was: Keep on practising and - most of all - enjoy it. One day your legs will slip into lotus, maybe. In any case, is that really important?

The exchange stuck in my mind. What was it that drove this student to have the burning desire to get into this specific posture? Does being able to get into lotus (or whatever other pose) really makes you a better person? Happier? Enlightened? And, most of all, what is the advantage of “getting into lotus” in your daily life? Do you sit on the floor with your ankles on your thighs while having dinner?

The anxiety to reach targets to prove our self worth - very common in capitalistic societies where we are being told we always have to aspire to “more” or “better” - is truly the opposite of what yoga is for me: knowing and accepting myself for who I am (I’ll let you know when I managed). This is true about all aspects of ourselves, but we can start with the body, as this is the most tangible bit we can work on reasonably easily.

If we don’t accept who we are (I’m not good enough because I can’t get into lotus), how can we live well with ourselves? This is what yoga is really about. Accept your body (or your mind or your heart) for what they are and work with them, be kind to them; only at that point something will shift. If you are tense in your body or in your mind towards something (I can’t get into lotus, I don’t like this, I hate that) you are channeling energy in a negative way towards yourself, instead of doing the opposite. Change won't happen that way. Not real, deep and sustainable change.

My teacher Jean Hall said once: “transformation can only come from a place of softness”. That was a thunderbolt to my heart. Only by accepting who I was, I could work respecting my body, mind, emotions, limitations as well as recognising my strengths. How does ticking poses benefit my daily life? Well, it doesn’t.

So I came to think of the asana (physical) yoga practice as a piece of music: enjoy the whole of it, savour it bit by bit, the rises, the falls, the silences and the rushes, the texture and the quality of the sound. If you only focus on the last note, you miss the whole thing.

Source: Photo by Alice Moore on Unsplash

Breathing nature in: magical time in Corfu

Have you ever stood in front of a monolithic mountain or an endless ocean? Being in the presence of majestic nature can make our heart expand. The chest opens and we feel more connected to the world and the people around us. And that is why yoga retreats take place in beautiful places, where we feel more inclined to take care of ourselves and the beautiful environment around us.

I feel very lucky to have spent some time on the dream-like island of Corfu (Greece) teaching surrounded by breath-taking sunsets, heart opening dawns and crystal clear waters, but especially for having shared all this with some inspiring and remarkable women, who joined me through vinyasa sequences, restorative yoga, yoga nidra, meditations and a little Qi Gong, giving a go to all of these different - and challenging on different levels - practices.

Teaching in such inspiring natural environment, with no specific end times - so we could explore different aspects of the practices - with open and beautifully honest women, refreshed me deeply. Although I was teaching and holding the space for others, by the end of it, I felt replenished too.

Taking time out for ourselves is SO important. It's essential. If you are like me, you often operate dipping into your energy reserves, but that is exactly that: using up reserves. It is vital to recognise this and take time out in order to replenish those reserves for when they are truly necessary. When I feel I'm working too much, I often think about my mum: she is caring for three people and taking no time for herself. What happens the day she'll burn out? You heard it before but I'll repeat it again: you can't pour from an empty cup.

Whenever you have a little time and the possibility, spend time in nature, even if it is the park down the road, your garden or your balcony. Breathe in deeply, taking in the world around you. On our last practice on the beach, the group was sitting quietly on our wooden platform on the beach, taking deep breaths to live the moment and store memories deep down in ourselves, and a big fish flipped out of the water a couple of times as to wish us goodbye: that was such a treat.

Rachel Stephens, one of the ladies on retreat, sent me some words:

I met Flavia on my first yoga retreat in Greece in August 2017, she was our teacher and mentor for the week and what an absolute joy it was! I was nervous as had not done yoga for a while and am a novice, but she made it extremely enjoyable, challenging, enlightening, relaxing and uplifting. She is a very good teacher, would adjust poses as and when needed, was very vigilant to everybody's needs and reactions and, if any restrictions, she would immediately adjust for an alternative pose or movement. I felt excellently guided through all sessions. I loved the yoga early in the mornings by the sea and the more gentle sessions in the evenings in the gardens with the warmth and beauty of the setting sun. 

I highly recommend Flavia for her knowledge, her absolute care, her attention to everyone in the class, detailed instruction, 1-2-1 tuition (all my questions!) her guidance, patience and her calming voice and sense of humour. She made my first yoga retreat worth every penny and I got a whole lot more out of the experience than I was ever expecting to. I returned to the UK feeling totally refreshed, buoyant, happy, relaxed, confident, uplifted and ready to take on anything!

The group also gave me a wonderful gift which I will treasure forever. It means so much to me. Bring on the next retreat!

Are screens transforming us into nasty people?

Connecting via the virtual reality of the internet has many, many advantages; for example feeling closer to your loved ones if you live away, re-connecting with long lost friends, speeding up communications, having access to someone else’s life in a way that the pre-internet era did not permit.

However, it also has a dark side. Or better, it unleashes the dark side in some human beings. The screen, or better the lack of face-to-face interaction is my guess, seems to give a ‘rightful’ space to knee-jerk reactions and non-constructive feedback all the way to spiteful comments, trolling, threats, etc.

I recently had few online conversations with un-known people on Facebook who were incensed by a post by a famous Italian writer who was advocating for compassion towards those refugees who crossed the Mediterranean this summer. I was shocked by the level of hate, the wishes for the death towards these desperate migrants and the total lack of empathy and capacity to put oneself in someone else’s shoes. I was also deeply shocked by the aggression that some showed towards me as I was kindly and respectfully (!) offering a different point of view. As minimum I was told to “SHUT UP!”.

Why do some people feel that it is ok to insult and wish horrors to others they don’t even know? Does the screen provides a barrier that prevents them to realise that the person on the other side - reading and responding - is indeed a person and does have feelings? Would they say the same things, in the same tone, if they were facing their interlucutor? I'm not sure, but I doubt it.

If you are a yogi/ni, you’ll surely have come across beautiful photos of amazing bodies, in incredible poses in breathtaking locations. I tend not to take or publish such pictures because I wonder: is it really that important if I can get myself into whatsitsface-asana? I do not believe that good teaching is based on my ability to put my feet behind my head, but rather to respect, inspire and meet the students where they are to let them reach their potential, amongst other things.

Recently, a friend and colleague posted a photo of herself on Instagram in a pose which wasn’t Circus-Du-Soleil style, and received the following comment:

"Oh dear, not the greatest image advertisement for the art of yoga! Couldn't [brand name] found a far better, more suitable model (and certainly a more flexi one for this particular pose at least!) for the main event pic? It doesn't really induce or inspire me to want to try... And the jazz hands is just...meh :-/ Hopefully the yogi in charge is more proficient ;-)"

This response truly upset my friend. The choice of words really shocked me. A "model"? Is this what people wishes or believe yoga teachers are?

I do wonder if this commentator would have said the same things to my friend's face. Did she think she could give voice to her unnecessary mean comments without considering that these could hurt someone else?

I advocate for questioning the behaviour of the mass, and the fact that the 'other-people-do-it' attitude is no justification for behaving without thinking or considering consequences of someone's actions. Words are extremely powerful, they can be a weapon as well as a soothing tool. We must use them wisely.

Opinions and feedback can always be shared, but with respect and with the intention to offer a constructive point of view, not simply to moan or, worse, to attack. I feel that these attacks are simply an outlet for the frustration brewing in someone's life, intentionally directed at the wrong target. Someone who is far away and you don't know - easy, no?

Yogi/nis often talk about ahimsā, non-violence. I'd wish we all tried to navigate through life leaving behind the temptation of wanting to hurt people. And if an aggressive feelings comes up - which it can, of course - can we take a breath and check where that originates from, instead of launching ourselves at someone's throat?

 

Source: Photo by Madhu GB on Unsplash

Teaching patients with mental health disabilities

For the past year, I have been teaching yoga to patients with reasonably severe mental health disabilities who live in a supported housing association. Given the respect for patients' confidentiality, I was never given full details of what affects them, and therefore I cannot be more specific on the conditions that I work with.

However, I thought to share some of my findings in case this post might help other teachers starting in this field. I'd like to clarify that my experience makes me NO expert on the subject, and this post is solely the fruit of my reflections about working with specific students in a specific setting. Here is what I learned.

It's all about the relationship
For students with mental health disabilities turning up to a class can be a challenge. Especially at the beginning, when they do not know you and the prospect of moving and being in touch with their bodies might not be their idea of fun. Coming to class is an indication that they wish to change something in their life and they are putting their trust and energy in you. Honour this and be incredibly encouraging and kind.

Make them feel welcome. Your class must be a safe space for them and they need to feel that there is no benchmark they need to be aspiring to. Remind them that whatever they are doing is good and acceptable and totally ok.

Tell them that you are happy that they showed up and you hope to see them again soon. If appropriate, why not get to know them a little more by chatting at the beginning and at the end of the class? Some of my students love watching films so we often talk about that, or how their job or volunteering experience is going, etc. This will work towards creating a friendly and trusted environment.

Every person is different
You don't know who you have in front of you. Quite rightly, for data protection purposes, you will not have full details of what affects your students. In the same class, you may teach people who have severe learning difficulties, or patients with debilitating depression, or who suffer from schizophrenia, etc. This could mean that they might respond in different ways to your teachings, your descriptions or your touch. Be aware of this and adjust your class accordingly.

Give & ask for permission
In order to build trust and create a safe relationship, promote a supportive environment where patients feel free to express themselves. Always offer them the option to stop, take time out of the room if they need to and re-join when and if they can. Or to leave if this is what they feel they should do.

As you progress during the class, especially in case you notice that they are really enjoying or struggling with something, ask them permission to explore it more. It can simply be a question such as "shall we do this one more time?": this will empower them and they will feel in control and comfortable.

Keep it super simple
Just as in a beginners' class, drop the idea of teaching a super creative sequence, talking through huge amounts of alignment cues and offering in-depth anatomical descriptions. Keep your sequence simple and repeat it, repeat it, repeat it.

Demonstrating
Demonstrate everything. Visual aid is invaluable in a setting such as this where sometimes body awareness is limited, and it is important that students copy you for the whole time. My experience is that patients will do everything you do and therefore mirroring might not be the best option. Do your best to see how they are getting on behind your back.

Physical adjustments
Touch could be problematic, at least in the beginning when you don't know your students very well and are not aware of their history and medical condition. Patients might respond in very different ways to the human touch. I personally err on the side of caution and avoid physical adjustments; however, if you feel you'd like to adjust students, ask them permission and this will remove uncertainty.

Pranayama, breathing practices
This has been the area were I experimented the most and with the greatest results. At the beginning I was not comfortable in teaching breathing exercises given the strong connection of the breath to emotional states as I worried that I might trigger unwanted or upsetting feelings.
However, by asking students permission to work on the breath and giving them permission not to follow my instructions during the exercise, I noticed that they really enjoyed breath work and asked for more.

Initially I offered a simple mindfulness exercise of counting the breaths from 1 to 10, a technique I learnt at the London Buddhist Centre. After the success of this breathing practice, I introduced counted inhales and exhales, with the aim to gradually lengthen the exhales. This has also been very well received. The counting keeps the mind focussed and promotes a sense of calm.

I avoid breath retention or high energy pranayama (kapalabhati or bhastrika) in order not to trigger possible anxiety episodes. I feel that all gentle techniques which help students focussing their mind on something and being more in their bodies are welcome.

Attendance
My students tend to arrive late to class and this has implications on the amount of time I have available to teach. Their lack of punctuality also brings other considerations: staff at the housing association tell me that those students who arrive late are also late for their doctor's appointment, job interview,etc.

Kindly, but firmly, remind them to be punctual. Be gentle and avoid patronising them, but still make a point of it. I tend to lift my hand up, spread the fingers, smile, and say "see you next Tuesday at 5, not a quarter past five, at 5!". Punctuality improved dramatically after these gentle reminders, and my hope is that they can take this new skill into other areas of their life.

I also noticed that some students were very regular in their attendance for months, followed by weeks of not seeing them at all. Be aware that they go through peaks and throughs in their physical and mental health and therefore their attendance might be affected by this.

Finally, I'd like to reiterate that I can only account for my experience with my students during a limited amount of time - therefore this pointers might not apply to your group.

It's never too late to be what you might have been

The cute fox at the top of the page was drawn by my sister. As in, my 40-year old sister. As in, not when she was younger, but just a couple of months ago.

She never drew anything (we are not a creative family on the artistic front), but last year she decided that it was time to uncover something that might always been there, albeit never explored. And so she began to draw, watching videos on YouTube on how to create shapes and shades, using different colours and tools. I respect her for the energy she put in learning something new, from scratch and on her own, and it gives me joy to see that type of enthusiasm when people are learning something new, because - and this is what it really is about - they are creating or discovering a new side to themselves.

I guess went through a similar process a few years back when I decided to take up yoga teacher training. When I finished high school I considered studying to become a PE teacher; however that did not happen and I went down a different route. A few years later I discovered yoga and the gifts it brought to my life, and decided that it was time for me to become what I might have been. I was 33 when I enrolled into a gruelling 24-months journey to learn to teach yoga - you can read more about all the challenges that came with it (and not just practical!) on my old blog, A yoga teacher's journey.
Four years later, I'm writing this new blog post, getting ready to launch my website as a yoga teacher. Wow, life can be surprising, if you just let her do its thing...

The quote "It's never too late to be what you might have been" is by George Elliot.