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04 August 2008

Body bliss with Ashtanga yoga

Never underestimate the power of a yoga class. That's what Amy Henderson learned after a month of bi-weekly Ashtanga yoga classes. She's now hooked on them.

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Never underestimate the power of a yoga class. That's what I learned after a month of bi-weekly Ashtanga yoga classes. I also learned I have no balance, flexibility or future as a creature of grace and effortless elegance.

But it doesn’t matter. I am hooked on yoga and have finally realised what so many people mean when they refer to an exercise 'high' after a class. And what a high it is; legal and long-lasting.

I had previously practiced Hatha yoga, Ashtanga's slower-paced cousin, but I was sorely mistaken when I assumed that all yoga was as relaxed and slow-moving. In fact, Ashtanga is pretty much the complete opposite. It is fast-paced, intense, demanding and works every muscle in the body.

My first class with Sarah Stone-Francisco of It's Yoga Cape Town consisted of two men, and me. Yup, men! It's not the first time I have been in a yoga class with men, but it's certainly the first time I've been the only woman. They were both way more flexible and talented at backbends and holding downward dog positions than I could ever hope to be; but this is one of the great things about yoga – it's not a competition.

Don't be fooled, this yoga is hard work
The moves in Ashtanga are controlled, but move at a much quicker pace than I was expecting. One move flows straight into another, and just as you are about to relax, you move into yet another pose. The classes, I soon found out, all follow the same routine. This is one of the principles of this form of yoga; the movements are repetitive and unchanging. But don’t be fooled into thinking that this makes it any easier. Oh no, in fact it makes it harder, especially if you're doing it more than once a week.

After the first class I felt elated. I was in a fantastic mood for the rest of the evening and felt strangely contented and relaxed both physically and mentally. That night I slept extraordinarily well too.

However, after the second class my body was starting to hurt. Badly. My triceps ached to the point where I could hardly lift my arms, my thighs trembled at the mere sight of a step and my stomach muscles quivered in petrified memory of what had been done to them. I was beginning to think that, perhaps, this was not for me.

Fortunately I have a short-term memory, and the following week I was back at class with Sarah's soothing Californian voice easing me in and out of poses I was beginning to anticipate.

Strong muscles and mind
Each week the moves became easier and no-one was more surprised than me to find that at the end I was almost able to touch my toes without bending my knees. It is no mean feat for someone with muscles as stubborn as mine.

My body felt different too. I don't think it looks too different (though to be fair, I have only been at this for a month), but I can feel a change has taken place. My muscles have loosened up, and have rewarded my perseverance with an overall feeling of being firmer and stronger.

In the beginning my arms and legs would shake as I tried to hold positions such as downward-facing dog or the warrior-pose. Gradually though they have strengthened and become much more physically powerful and steady.

The deep breathing and meditations at the end of each class have also helped me learn to relax and become more focused - in class, and in life.

I would highly recommend this for those sceptics who believe yoga is nothing more than slow moves and breathing. It's so much more, but you will only know once you have tried it. I have, and I'm hooked.

Sarah Stone-Francisco; It's Yoga Cape Town at www.itsyogacapetown.com or phone 071-172-5205.

(Amy Henderson, Health24.com, July 2008)

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