Not flexible enough?

copy right owned by @las initially Lori semprevio

copy right owned by @las initially Lori semprevio

I have lost count of the number of time I’ve had conversations with people where they state I can’t do yoga because I’m not flexible enough and/or can’t touch my toes. I try not to be evangelical about yoga- so I don’t necessarily think it’s the answer to everyone’s problems all the time. But I do still find it depressing that so many people are closed to the idea of trying yoga because of their perceived lack of ability and the tightness of their hamstrings.

Perhaps more strange than the conversation described above, is the other common conversation I have with people that do practice yoga that goes along the lines of “i should be able to …” or “I used to be able to …” do that pose. As a yoga teacher I’m not worried about shoulda/ woulda/ couldas – I’d rather focus on what is happening now. Even day to day your practice can change so much – you wake up stiff, you injure yourself, your emotions show up in the body or even the cold wet weather makes everything feel different.  

The problem with the shoulda/woulda/coulda mentality is it places the biggest value in yoga on achieving the “perfect pose”. I’m not sure I have ever seen this mythical perfect pose to be honest. If you’re in downward facing dog and your heels touch the floor what does that really give you – a nice stretch? smugness that you’re “good” at yoga? instant enlightenment? Just in case you’re wondering I’ve never seen the last one on this list happen. Sri Pattabhi Jois, founder of the vinyasa/astanga style which dominates modern western yoga practices famously said: “yoga is an internal practice. The rest is a circus”.

But even when we know this on an intellectual level, the thoughts often sneaks into our practice, whether beginner or experienced yogi. There is a striving, pushing, demanding part of us that wants this perfection. When we don’t have it we can feel frustrated, disappointed or like giving up / tuning out of our practice.

But actually there is so much power in recognising this force and seeing if we can soften to it. In the Yoga Sutras, an ancient text written by Patanjali, the opening line can be translated as something like “yoga is now” (sutra I.1 atha yogā ‘nuśāsanaṃ). It’s not for some distant point in time when the hamstrings (or other body part) opens up. It’s not only paying attention when we find a satisfying level of perfection. It’s now. Whatever that is for us today – tightness, stiffness, immobility and all.

I have been inspired by many great yoga teachers who practice these lessons. Tara Judelle, a US Anusara teacher often says there is no better, no worse, just yoga. Whilst Alexandra Crow and Brian Aganad recently discussed this very topic on a podcast (available here).

Ultimately we need to consider how flexible do we really need to be? Leslie Kaminoff puts it well in this video you need the amount of flexibility required to support you in your life. For many of us, we probably already have the right level of flexibility for our functional needs. Actually Leslie argues that counter intuitively overly flexible people really need to work harder to maintain safety and avoid injury when they practice yoga.

I also really like this account by Kathryn Ashworth who in her article confessions of a reluctant asana practitioner, describes the moment in a bowling alley where she stops taking herself seriously and engages with a sense of play in the postures. So next time you catch your mind starting down a track of woulda/coulda/shoulda see if you can soften a little bit to an acceptance of how your yoga is right now.    

November at Norwegian Church

Quick update I will be covering Tuesday nights yoga classes at the Norwegian Church for the next few weeks (3rd, 10th and 17th November). Classes run from 6-7pm and cost £8 – no need to book just turn up but please remember to bring a mat with you.

Look forward to seeing you in this cosy and beautiful venue. Keep an eye out for more regular classes coming soon.


Is that pose swan or a child pose?

copyright reserved jack dorsey

copyright reserved jack dorsey

In yoga classes there is a lot going on: breathing, moving, relaxing, as well as taking on board a whole range of names- dogs, cats and cobras galore. It takes time to gets to grip with it… and even after years sometimes a yoga teacher will throw something totally new in the mix. Point in case my lovely friend and ex-yoga student text me the other day to say, that when she finished chuckling to herself, she’d very much enjoyed a new pose ‘cosmic egg’ that appeared in a class she was in. I tried to get more info on what this could be but Google and my trusty textbooks have drawn a blank so I can only assume it is a new adaption by her creative yoga teacher.


The question of names also cropped up when i attended a class from someone who teaches in a different tradition to me recently- what I refer to as child pose, was called swan pose. These changes can be very confusing, particularly if you’re relatively new to practicing. So which is right? Typically for a yogi I’m going to sit on the fence – by saying that both are right.


Let me explain. Some of these differences are due to the simple translation differences from the original sanskrit terms such as uttanasana, ardha mukha svanasana and bhujangasana. But there are also other reasons for these differences. It is said that in yin practice deliberately has different names to asana that might appear to be very similar to asana that appear in other more dynamic styles of yoga. This is partially because the emphasis and approach to the practice is totally different so masters of Yin such as Paul Grilley encourage students to approach these new poses (with their new names) in new ways.   


This also links into the question of which is the ‘right’ way to practice yoga. There are many traditions often depending on the lineage or the origin of the yoga school: from dynamic practices of vinyasa and astanga which are linked to Pattabhi Jois, to other traditional forms of practice such Viniyoga which is linked to T.K.V. Desikachar. These are just a few strands, if I started to describe all the traditions and many variations of yoga we might be here all day (I’ll spare you!).


At my old studio Yoga Fever there is no one form of yoga taught in the studio by the regular and visiting teachers- you can encounter teachers taught in Astanga, Power, Viniyoga and other traditional Hatha schools. So the teachers encourage students to experiment and try new things. If you’re interested in understanding the history and underlying philosophy of yoga to start to gain a deeper understanding of these different traditions there are some great foundation courses and workshops around (take a look at BWY Wales). 


So for me I guess the moral of the tale is to try not to be too rigid and dogmatic in yoga about rights and wrongs. Instead as students we have to keep a careful ear out for the teacher’s instructions and if the asana names are different to what you’re expecting give a little raise of the eyebrows and then dive right into it, enjoying the pose irrespective of whether it’s a child or hare or a swan or even good old balasana.


That’s all folks (for now)

on the road

Many more days ahead of travel, journal writing and reading to come

Quick update for any of my students or interested folks stumbling onto my website. I have officially stopped teaching a regular class for the time being – leaving the very wonderful Yoga Fever.

It has been a really amazing experience teaching at the studio in the last year and many students I’ve seen grown and develop over those months, teaching me a huge amount about yoga along the way. So a big thank you to students and to Cath and the inspiring team that make the studio a really special place to practice and teach. I’m also thrilled that Delphi will be stepping in – she is a brilliant teacher and who has a lot to offer.

I have not given up teaching totally but over the next few months I will only be teaching occasionally whilst I complete my Masters degree and start a new Yoga training course with Mandala ashram.

If you have a few minutes to add a review of my classes onto Yoga Trail I would be grateful for any contributions to that. Otherwise see you on the mat … or perhaps practicing beside you in a class soon. You can also stay in touch and follow my thoughts on yoga (and many other things) on twitter @ktbergson

Facing change

copyright B Gilmor

As much as I profess to love new experiences and challenges, the reality is that often I am a creature of habit. We all have our set routines, and our little ways of doing things that suit us. So when change sweeps in and demands we adapt sometimes like a stubborn toddler we dig our heals in and resist. Alternatively when we accept the change sometime we can feel unrooted and unsettled by the shift.

Change can take us by surprise with a shock that is total out of our control or at other times it’s a big decision we do have the control to make, but feels equally difficult as we know it may lead us down a radically different path in our life. Often it’s a million little things that shift bit by bit each day. For me I got thinking about change as I face a relatively small change of shifting my weekly yoga class to Sundays (rather than Thursdays) and a bigger change of starting a new placement as part of my university course. Both means meeting new people, changing habits and possibly encountering some unknown challenges.

Perhaps the thing that makes change difficult is fear and the unknown. There is an interesting theory called the End of History illusion, by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert. Which essentially suggests that people find it much easier to remember the past than to imagine the future. It’s tiring to try to think through the possibilities of how a change may alter our future. So we try to avoid thinking about it, or avoid the changes altogether.

So what has all this got to do with yoga? Well in the yamas and niyamas, a kind of yoga code of conduct written in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, we find Aparigraha (non-possesiveness or non-grasping) and Santosha (contentment and acceptance). These are interesting ideas to explore in our lives – for more information on this check out the brilliant blog by Helen at Yoga Bright and the book How Yoga Works to see the Yoga Sutras guidance put into examples in story form.

Secondly our approach to change can mirror our approach to the physical practices in yoga: we are always looking for a balance between ease and effort (sthira and sukha). We need to find the sweet spot in the middle between wilfully forcing our way through change, and being like a piece of seaweed tossed and turned at the ocean’s whim. In my practice I find that requires attention and care to constantly negotiate that fine balance. Every time we get on the mat there are changes in our bodies, in our feelings and our practice. It’s important to be aware and open to these changes rather than slip into the mantra of ‘i should … be able to touch my toes’ or ‘i could… do this pose last week’ patterns.

Finally whenever I start to notice change in my life I return to practices that emphases grounding in yoga. The simplest way to feel this is to take note of your foundations – really feel the feet in standing poses, sitting bones in poses like dandasana or even the whole body touching the ground in savasana. For me this is effective because it shifts the awareness from your individual view of a change and how it affects you, back to a connection to the ground and maybe even a bigger sense of the earth that supports us daily.

Is yoga including everyone?

Help Others

I am interested in what happens when people look at either an image or video of a yogi ‘performing’ an impressive pose (like here). Clearly we can only understand the physicality of that moment how the body contorts or holds the person strongly. Usually we can only guess at that person’s internal level of calm and how their breath flows in that moment. I don’t wish to say that the yogis in these snapshots are anything less than zen. But we can’t really perceive it. There is an interesting debate about whether these things make yoga aspirational or potentially alienate people who feel that they can never live up to such ideals. Even those of us that possibly who have been studied well the ins and outs of yoga, and understand its not all about flexibility, may end up feeling inadequate as teachers like Charity Poole and Sarah Erzin describes in their blogs .

There is no denying that the backlash against the ‘typical yoga’ image has given rise to some great projects showing and practicing yoga diversity. But they are still only the small minority. The majority of media is still a depressingly narrow view of yogis as young, lithe, highly flexible predominately white and mostly female. These characteristics are not negative in themselves but they certainly don’t fully represent me or the students in my classes very well.

Arguably it also feeds into wider debates over whether yoga and meditation is elitist in western society. For me some of the most interesting projects happening at the moment are working with much more diverse students. In prisons like Prison Phoenix Trust, with homeless people and those suffering from addictions (see this TED talk) and with those who can’t access mainstream yoga classes (see local charity Yoga Mobility and Matthew Sanford a disabled USA teacher).

So I’m really pleased to be supporting the upcoming #yogaforwallich event. Firstly this will be a great opportunity to get to practice yoga with some of the most experienced teachers in Cardiff; Tori Lang, Ray Hussian and Sharon Davies to name just a few! Then you’ll also get the opportunity to raise money through taking on the challenge of 108 sun salutations.  So not only are you likely to have a great day but you’ll also get the warm glow of helping to raise money for a brilliant charity. The event demonstrates that yogis can live their values by caring for those around them, even the hidden parts of society.

Yoga students know the huge benefits of the practice on their body, mind, and wellbeing. But it’s worth bearing in mind that some people, possibly those who could most benefit from yoga, either think it excludes them or for practical reasons are not able to access it. The two issues need different approaches to find suitable solutions.

I think all yogis have a responsibility for promoting diversity if someone says I can’t come to class because I’ll be the only man, overweight, older or less flexible person challenge them to try it. Then support them when they do attend. Attitudes are slow to change but they will shift eventually. Teachers also have a responsibility to promote diversity. Yoga teachers must also be mindful of how these poses are taught and their use of language. Teachers, students and media share responsibility for strongly advocating that yoga is truly for everybody.

The second part of providing access to those with more physical barriers may not be as easy for everyone to support. But we can encourage projects and groups that facilitate this (see links at end of the article). Everyone can also campaign for a greater number of classes and facilities that gives wider access. I’m not naive enough to suggest it’s an easy process but if western yoga wants to evolve beyond the accusation of too much individualistic, or self-serving focus then we must continually push for that equality of access and diversity which is what makes yoga truly strong and powerful.

Some of my favourite projects and organisations if you are interested in finding out more:

Yoga for Wallich – takes place 10th May in Cardiff County Hall.
Off the mat – a US project encouraging yogis to engage in activism
Prison Phoenix trust – supporting prisoner to access yoga and meditation
Yoga mobility – Cardiff charity supporting greater access to yoga
Special yoga – London based charitable business supporting children with additional needs and training teachers to help create more of these classes.

The beginners mindset

Start finish at john o groats by Ilike

image copyright of ilike Flickr

This year I was asked to teach a beginners class at Yogafever, which in just a few months in has turned out to be as much of a learning journey for me as (I hope) it has been for the students who attend classes. I started practicing yoga 12 years ago so I scarcely remember my first experiences of yoga classes. But i do remember arriving in London in my early 20s and being somewhat mystified why the yoga teacher I approached suggested I did her beginners course. In my mind I knew my dogs, from my warriors, so what business would i have in a beginners class? I was wrong and I’m glad I took her advice. The beginners course gave me time and space to really experience what yoga was about for the first time.

Perhaps one of the feelings we least like as humans is the embarrassment of having to say I don’t know or I don’t understand. But actually turning that on its head being totally open to the beginners mindset can be useful for all of us. As a teacher beginners ask me more questions and that forces me to continually question my assumptions, practice and teaching.

Yoga teachers can be guilty of speaking another language (and not just the old Sanskrit names). So when I come to teach beginners groups I have to think how do I distill the beauty and exquisite depth of yoga into something accessible, without scrimping on the best bits. Recently I was doing some training with US teacher Jason Crandell when the same question came up. If students leave the yoga room with one thing what is it? There are an infinite number of important and correct answers to that question. But for me these are themes that come up again and again:

1. Relaxation

Everyone deserve time and space for themselves to really relax. For me and pretty much everyone I see around me, carving out time for relaxation in the midst of busy lives doesn’t happen as often as it should. If you can get that sensation on the yoga mat, it’s a valuable thing.

2. Embodiment

We live in a very ‘cognitive’ or thinking world these days. That can lead us to habitually live in the mind, largely ignore the body until out of the blue an injury or ill health comes along to remind us how important it is. So it is valuable to be able to reconnect with those sensations in the body. There is an important link between body and emotions (think of the physicality of gut instinct, heartache or joy). For me being connected to this body also helps me feel more aware and connected to my emotions

3. Integration

But it’s not all about the body. In yoga we typically think of three core elements-breath, body and mind. When I attend a good yoga class I walk away at the end of it feeling whole again. I’ve integrated these pieces of me back together.

4. Acceptance

Enjoying (or somedays just accepting) where you are at today. It’s almost certainly different to yesterday or last week. And it’s different to the person next to you. So being able to drop the comparisons and see if you can play with where you’re at now is a useful experience.

For those of you new to this blog there is a longer post on intentions hereWhilst yoga is something that’s been a significant part of my life for over a decade, I do have a little bit of understanding of how daunting it is to start from scratch. I recently started dancing so became a beginner student in that. There are some interesting parallels here – embodiment, focus, relaxation. It’s not easy to step into a room full of people you don’t know and try something new as a total beginner.

Yoga is also a vast subject to study. Thousands of years of development and even now  creative new forms are constantly emerging. So even when we’ve been practicing something for a long time it’s useful to be open to new ideas. I love the days when I can recapture my beginners mindset in yoga – to go woah that’s a new pose for me and to enjoy the process of exploring it.  So whether you’ve done one class, or five hundred classes, the beginners mindset can serve you well. Just as I have learnt so much from my beginners group, so too can more experienced students use the beginners mindset as a tool to stay open to new things and get a fresh perspective on old practices.