The Gift of Yoga

Fingal Libraries
by Fingal Libraries on April 4, 2016.

I took my first yoga class almost 20 years ago and was fascinated with it from the very start. When I tell people that I practice Yoga I often hear some common misconceptions. People often think that in order to do yoga you have to be flexible (not true), or physically fit (not true either) […]

I took my first yoga class almost 20 years ago and was fascinated with it from the very start. When I tell people that I practice Yoga I often hear some common misconceptions. People often think that in order to do yoga you have to be flexible (not true), or physically fit (not true either) or that it is not possible to do Yoga if you have a ‘bad back’ (certainly not true!). Yoga is not about fitness, strength, flexibility or any other physical attributes. It is about stretching, relaxing and most importantly, breathing. I have heard yoga described as learning to relax and breathe deeply in uncomfortable positions – a life skill that we could all do with. However the most memorable comment I heard was that ‘Yoga is rather flatulent’…! Well that is one claim I can confidently counter as Yoga is very good for one’s digestion! I have had a regular yoga practice for almost 10 years and in that time it has brought me true enjoyment and satisfaction. And it also changed my life when I really needed it. Now read on…

Let me take you back quite a few years ago. I had not long left school/college and my first real proper job was working in a nursing home. The work was with people who had Multiple Sclerosis and other similar conditions. It was enjoyable and satisfying work though very physically demanding as we helped patients in and out of their beds, baths and wheelchairs. Not long after I started work I developed a rather persistent pain in my lower back. This pain never really went away as the nature of the work demanded that patients be assisted on a daily basis. I soon noticed that this was a common ailment among the staff and many coffee breaks were spent discussing various ways to combat back problems. An Osteopath regularly came to the nursing home– primarily to give treatments to the residents of the nursing home but the staff also seemed to take up a lot of these appointments with their various back problems. It wasn’t long before I too had to go and see the Osteopath for a visit. She did her work and concluded that if I did not give up this work then I too would face the prospect of living in a wheelchair at some time in the future! This I felt was a rather drastic diagnosis as ‘bad backs’ were so common in our workplace– but I took her advice and soon left this place of work…But I digress.

For the next 10 years this bad back of mine persisted. During this time I visited Chiropracters (initially successful but no real long term benefit – and very costly), Physiotherapists (offered little more than exercise sheets) and I even tried a ‘bone setter’ (well meaning, but ultimately unsuccessful). Time passed – nothing seemed to work.

Finally when living in Holland a Dutch physiotherapist told me that I had a ‘weak spine’ and that I needed to take up some regular exercise to build up the muscles on my back and stomach. This took me by surprise as I had considered myself reasonably fit (however took virtually no exercise – work that one out!) but decided to take his advice as this bad back was costing me a lot of money and discomfort. Luckily this advice coincided with a gym opening in my place of work. I became a member and started to work-out regularly. Within a few weeks of my joining the gym a new Pilates class started up every day at lunchtime and I became a regular at this class. Almost instantly my back improved. I was shocked at how quickly things had improved and kept doing Pilates with the zeal of the convert!

A couple of years passed and I had at this stage moved back home to Ireland – I was determined to keep up my new exercise regime but could find no Pilates class in my area so after some online searching, I decided to try a yoga class. And straight away I fell in love with Yoga.

I soon noticed that the majority of yoga classes are populated by women –though as a (male) yoga teacher once said to me – if it were not for women practicing yoga there would be no yoga in Ireland. However I can most definitely say that during the 10 years that I am practising Yoga there has been a huge increase in the numbers of men doing yoga. Famous footballers such as Ryan Giggs and Roy Keane have credited a regular yoga practice with lengthening their sports careers and helped improve their flexibility later on in their careers.

I have recently even seen advertised ‘men only’ yoga classes – though have yet to try one. I suspect a canny entrepreneur has figured that there are lots of GAA/Soccer/Rugby lads who want to try yoga but are a bit wary about attending a regular class and maybe would find these men only classes a bit more to their liking. Even though the numbers of men doing yoga has increased, men would still usually only make up about 10 % of most classes.

Over the years I have been lucky enough to try a number of variations and styles of yoga. The one I started with and still practice today is known as ‘Vinyassa’– often referred to as ‘Yoga flow’. In this style of yoga one moves into and out of poses in an almost continuous flowing, movement based approach. Another style I practiced for many years was the more traditional ‘Hatha’ Yoga which is probably the most common type of yoga class. Hatha Yoga places more emphasis on moving slowly and carefully into a pose and then holding the pose for a number of deep inhalations and exhalations.

Another well-known type of Yoga I practised is the (in)famous Bikram Yoga. If you have not heard of Bikram do a search online and you will have plenty to keep you busy for quite a while. In short, the discussions focus on the founder of Bikram Yoga, one Bikram Choudhury. His story is a rags to riches tale as he came from rural India to Los Angeles in the 1970’s offering a new type of yoga where each class is conducted in a room with a wall of mirrors, lasting 90 minutes per class with the room heated to 40 degrees Celsius for the duration of the class! It is a gruelling, tough type of class where each pose is practiced twice in a row (the same 26 poses are practiced in every Bikram yoga class). The claims and health benefits made by adherents of this type of yoga are extraordinary.

Interestingly more men do Bikram yoga than other types – I suspect they are attracted to the slightly ‘ hardcore’ vibe as these classes are tough and super sweaty with a room full of people going deep into difficult poses in a sweltering 40 degree heat. It is not a class I would recommend for a beginner but some people have only ever practiced Bikram yoga and love it.

Bikram himself is a divisive figure with a string of allegations recently emerging about his personal life. But for a long time the beautiful people of LA and beyond (there are Bikram yoga classes all over the world) flocked to his classes paying the high admission prices for his very own unique brand of yoga. As I say give him a Google if you want to read more about him. I found the classes wonderfully beneficial and a great way to sweat and get toned as the poses are tough and the class moves quickly along with no time for slackers in that heat! I am currently reading a fascinating book ‘Hell-bent : obsession, pain, and the search for something like transcendence in Bikram yoga’ by Benjamin Lorr which is available from your local Fingal library. It is a real eye-opener into the world of those who really go deep into the Bikram yoga lifestyle.

Following the success of Bikram yoga a number of ‘Hot Yoga’ studios have since popped up around Dublin. These are yoga studios that offer the more traditional yoga poses combined with a heated studio which enables a deeper stretch and a good sweat which I find to be most invigorating! Hot Yoga studios have flourished as they offer all the benefits of yoga in a heated room but without the Bikram association.

There are numerous other forms of Yoga including Ashtanga Yoga, Iyengar Yoga, Pregnancy Yoga and even Yoga for children which I think is a fabulous idea. In Blanchardstown library we recently had a storytelling session recently with Yo-Yo Yoga (see www.yo-yoyoga.ie) who does kids yoga classes while also managing to tell the children a story!

There is a huge variety of great books about Yoga available in all of the Fingal libraries. Some interesting ones I have read from Blanchardstown library are ‘Yoga: A Path to God’ by Louis Hughes, ‘Iyengar Yoga for beginners’ by B.K.S. Iyengar (one of the giants of yoga in the 20th century who only died recently at the ripe age of 96) and ‘Classic Yoga’ by Vimla Lalvani. There are a multitude of books available in your local library on Yoga.

So to conclude, I would recommend Yoga to everybody. It is a superb way to get fit, to stretch and strengthen your body and a most enjoyable way to relax. If you are interested have a look online – there are yoga classes happening everywhere. I have found it to be a great mood enhancer and an enjoyable way to exercise. Doing Yoga is very relaxing and is great fun as well. What I love about yoga is that you can treat it as a way to fitness and health or choose to go deeper into the history and philosophies of Yoga. It’s your journey – take whichever road you like. And best of all I have not had the slightest back pain in the 10 years I have been practicing yoga! It truly is a way to better health and a happier more relaxed life. As B.K.S. Iyengar would say ‘Yoga is for everyone’.

By Ronan O’Malley

Blanchardstown Library