Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Give Yoga A Go

Yoga teacher Barbara Currie explains why anyone resolving to boost their health and lose weight this year should consider yoga.

Barbara Currie has been practising yoga for thirty years and has become one of the UK's experts, writing for Yoga Magazine, speaking on BBC Radio4's Women's Hour and appearing on television programmes such as GMTV, Something For The Weekend and Open House with Gloria Hunniford.

She discovered yoga quite accidentally in the early 70s after moving from London to Scotland.

"I trained as a state registered nurse and worked at St Mary's Hospital in Paddington (London), then I left and flew for British Airways. I saw the world and had a marvellous time for four years, then I got married, moved to Scotland and had two children in rapid succession."

"I was actually quite lonely in Scotland. The contrast from flying around the world and having an amazing time with massages in Tokyo and water-skiing lessons in Bermuda, to being stuck in a new town, with two small children, not knowing anyone was the terrible. I thought, I've got to get out there and do something so I looked in the paper and all I saw was curling or yoga, so I thought I would try yoga."

"I walked in and it just clicked right away. My teacher just radiated health and although I never knew her real age, I reckoned then that she was in her 60s. She could move into every position with effortless ease, and if she turned around, she looked like an 18 year old. I thought to myself, whatever she is doing, it just works - it is as simple as that, and it does work."

The reason it works, Barbara says, is because it is a complete system of positive health, incorporating mind, body and soul.

"You work every area of the body so your breathing improves, you become more flexible, have more energy and basically feel tremendously better at the end of the class than you did when you arrived - and that is very rewarding."

One of the reasons yoga is so beneficial is because it encourages deep breathing which increases the amount of oxygen in the body. Very few of us breath properly on a daily basis. We take shallow breaths that fill only the top part of our lungs, where as a yoga breath starts at the belly, fills the sides of the ribs and then fill the top of the chest, right up to the collar bone.

"As we get older or when we are stressed, our breathing becomes more shallow," continues Barbara.

"But at the end of the day, no matter what you die of, you really die from a lack of oxygen. If the lungs were stretched out, our actual lung capacity is equal to half a tennis court, so by making the lungs work hard and breathing very, very deeply you are filling the lungs properly and sending extra oxygen into the system. As oxygen is required for every cell in your body, the more there is in your system, the better you feel - and that is what helps the body create its own system of positive health."

The most common misconception, Barbara says, is that people think they have to be flexible to do yoga. Practising yoga enables you to become more flexible, but flexibility is not important when you first start a yoga class.

"People say I can't possibly do yoga, I am not a flexible person, but most people are flexible - it is just that your joints stiffen dramatically very, very quickly if you don't use them - in fact as early as your late twenties."

"In yoga, we use every joint, in every which way possible and this stimulates the synovial fluid in the joints, which lubricates them and prevents deterioration and arthritis. With regular practice you will be surprised at how quickly your joints loosen up, and you will find that you can keep your joints flexible if you really work at it, carefully, right up to the end of your days."

Besides joint health, yoga will help every other area of your body, making you look slimmer and feel fitter.

"Yoga gives you energy, helps you to relax, best stress, calms and refocuses your mind, and just really helps your whole body. You will correct your posture, release tension in your neck and shoulders which will prevent headaches. You will reduce back aches because yoga keeps your spine flexible. You will also improve your shape. As you begin to correct your posture, your body gets better and better and the fatty deposits start spreading out nicely, and you develop long beautifully slender muscles which give you this lovely lean figure."

Yoga helps with weight-loss on two levels. On the one hand yoga stimulates weight loss because certain postures stimulate the thyroid gland which is responsible for controlling your metabolism among other things. The other reason is sue to the fact that yoga gives your health an overall boost, which naturally makes you not want to indulge.

"Yoga works as much on the inside as it does on the outside, so it has an internal effect on all the vital organs, the circulation and the nervous system - and one of the glands it does affect is the thyroid gland which regulates hunger and cravings."

"Yoga is also a system of integrated health, and as such, it affects your energy on a much deeper level and this leads to changes in your mind-set, not only your body. Yoga stimulates healthy eating, although very few people understand this at first but it really does comes from within, it honestly does. A lot of people think it is nonsense, but by the end of the first term, they say to me: 'Do you know, I used to have three glasses of wine and now I only want half a glass because that's all I need.'"

"This is because yoga helps you relax and once you start feeling good, you don't want to ruin your body by shoving junk food or alcohol into it. Your body naturally leads you to a healthy lifestyle and healthier habits because yoga is a system of positive health."

Besides weight loss, yoga can assist us with other aspects of ageing from going through the menopause to dealing with retirement.

"Yoga also helps get rid of the tensions within you. I am sixty-four so I know that life is not totally care-free when you reach fifty. You still have problems with your kids, you have older relatives to care for, and have to deal with big changes in life such as the menopause or dealing with retirement - and yoga can help in many ways, and people from all walks of life and ages do it."

"When you start moving your body, you start feeling more positive about it. Often the menopause occurs at the empty nest period, but once you feel good and people start telling you that you are looking better, it boosts your self-esteem. Hot flushes disappear because of the cooling breaths we do in the practice and your body just becomes a better system of entire health."

The powerful effect it has on the body is one reason Barbara suggests that anyone toying with the idea of joining a yoga class should really just do it.

"I would honestly hate to grow one year older without it. Seriously, I look at some of my friends and I think, thank god I did yoga because a lot of them now have problems with their backs, hips and knees."

"Yoga keeps your joints so flexible, I wake up every morning feeling energised and I sleep very well at night. I am just so very, very grateful to it. I even went for an eye test and the optician said my vision is 100 percent perfect and that it was probably because of the exercises we do which strengthen the eye muscles. I am still the same weight as I was when got married. My shape has not changed at all which is a bit of a problem sometimes because my daughter says: "Mum, you've had that in your wardrobe twenty years, throw it out!" And I say: "Yes, but it still fits me!"

Of course Barbara has also witnessed yoga having an extraordinary effect on people who have had serious illnesses and disabilities.

"A lady came to me crying her eyes out. She had a problem with her back and had had an operation for it which had not worked. Her friend brought her to see me, and she said that all she wanted to do was have the ability to walk around the shops for half an hour, and if she could ever drive her own car again, that would be marvellous. Two years later she is trekking down the Amazon - and she was doing two classes a week. You've got to go carefully, you've got to take it gently, and gradually, you do get better."

"Another man had suffered a severe stroke, and the doctors said that he would be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. His wife was given a grim medical prognosis for him but he has been doing my advanced classes twice a week and now, he and his wife have just come back from Vietnam. He also walked a section of the great wall of china two years ago. So to be able to do that after being told such a dismal forecast is just amazing."

For those thinking of trying a class, Barbara suggests trying many different classes until you find a teacher and a class that feels right for you.

"I think yoga is very personal. When I started training there was only Hatha yoga, but really, all types of yoga stem from the same source - and all teachers add their own input. Some people hold the moves much longer, others concentrate on breathing and some on working the body very hard."

"The thing is to try a few classes. Speak to the teacher and ask if you can try one. If it doesn't work for you, try another. When I moved back to London after being in Scotland, I thought my yoga class in Scotland was going to very basic compared to the one in London, but every class I tried in London, I hated."

"I spoke to my teacher back in Scotland, and she said, do you own thing which is what made me decide to become a teacher. I suppose, she was a bit of a mentor for me. I think I just loved her way of teaching, the way she made people feel better about themselves and the way she inspired people. She just loved everyone, and we all walked out with a smile on our faces. When people came in tetchy and stressed she could immediately relax them, and everyone flocked to her classes if they could get in. She was one of Richard Hittleman's top pupils - and he was doing television at that time so I was incredibly lucky to have her."

It will come as no surprise to hear that Barbara has absolutely no intention of retiring, intending to continue teaching at her yoga school in Surrey.

"I do not think I will ever retire because it is just so rewarding. My youngest pupil is five, the oldest eighty-five; I enjoy stimulating health and am very lucky that I now teach and share yoga with others. It's given me a lot of life, I meet lovely new people and I find it immensely rewarding. I am just incredibly grateful I learnt it."

Barbara Currie's Exercise DVDs

The Seven Secrets Of Yoga is for the person has a busy life and can only manage 10 minutes a day. One day you work your tummy, another your hips and thighs, and another your legs. This DVD costs £19.99 from all good retailers. Alternatively you can purchase it from Amazon for £14.98.

Her Power Packed Yoga DVD is a higher impact class for those who want to exercise for longer. This costs £17.99 from all good retailers, or £12.98 from Amazon.

You can learn more about Barbara Currie at her website: www.barbaracurrieyoga.com

Rachael Hannan: Interview 2007

Published on 50connect.co.uk

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