What, when and where was your first experience of yoga?
My first class was at Bodywise East London in 1991. A friend took me as she thought it would be good for me. I don’t really remember much about the class but what I do remember is that my friend, who I’m still in touch with, thinks it’s funny that I now teach yoga. She says that she’d never seen anyone as stiff or uncoordinated as me. There I was then… and here I am now!
I know there’s teachers who come from a place where they’re naturally really gifted in their bodies, but I really wasn’t one of them. It can be an asset to experience stiffness, a lack of coordination, difficulty with body parts and injuries. It allows you to see how much potential there is for change.
I first encountered yin yoga at the Manchester Buddhist Centre in November 2001. It was unlike anything I’d experienced and the next year I met Sarah Powers. She’s been my yin teacher ever since.
How would you describe the practice of yin yoga?
It’s a very soft, slow form of yoga. It gives us time to be more gentle to ourselves. It can be a great antidote to the rest of our lives which are often spent chasing around.
One of my favourite lines is from Pico Iyer: “The mind is more than capable of seeing a stationary blue car and constructing out of it a six-act melodrama.” I know that’s true of me.
But yin gives us a chance to slow down. It gives us the chance to take our time. It gives us the chance to create space where we can be more aware of how distracted we can be.
I’d also say that yin is a potential bridge between western yoga classes and a more meditative practice. We need to stop and slow down. It’s so important.
Personally speaking, yin has really helped to open my body but what I would say is that people who are hyperflexible need to be cautious in yin as there’s no strengthening work. Just because you can go deeply into a pose doesn’t mean you’re ‘good’ at yin.
It’s really helped to open my body and I love it as a way of practicing.
How does yin challenge you?
By nature I’m fairly impatient and impetuous. To be still is hard. To maintain a level of attention is also a challenge. And to not get caught up comparing myself to someone else.
The Yin for Giving day will focus particularly on this idea of comparing. Self judgement is a big issue in today’s world. There’s a quote from Donna Farhi that I like: “If we were able to play back the often unkind, unhelpful and destructive comments and judgements silently made toward ourself in any given day, this may give us some idea of the enormity of the challenge of self acceptance… In truth, few of us would dare to be as unkind to others as we are to ourselves.” We have to be kind to ourselves and then we can be kind to others. Better relationships with ourselves can translate into a better relationship with others.
What teaching tip has had the biggest influence on the way you practice? And the way you teach?
What I’ve learnt is that less is more. Pattabhi Jois said, “You take it slowly.” We just need to slow down. And that’s why I enjoy yin yoga.
What does your own self-practice involve?
Well, what I’d say first is that I approach my practice very differently to ten years ago. I’m in my early 50’s now and I want my practice to be sustainable. I’ve learnt a lot. I practice ashtanga less – 3 times a week: and I want to still be able to do it in ten or 20 years’ time.
Within my practice I try to be conscious of how each day is different. Some days I might need more of a push and, on others, I might just need to put my feet up on the sofa. It’s accepting that that’s ok.
We have to just do what feel right with a level of skilful inquiry.
Who/what is the biggest inspiration on your yoga journey at the moment?
Sarah Powers has been my yin teacher for twelve years. I still look to her for guidance and I am looking forward to joining her on retreat later this year. Continuity and consistency of teacher is important. We can learn so much by putting our shoulder to the wheel and spending time with a specific teacher. We can also learn so much by staying with a situation — whether it’s a teacher, a relationship or a yin yoga pose. If you give up, what do you learn?
What role does yoga play in the way you live?
Yoga adds awareness to the way I live my life and the way I interact with those around me. There was a book written about a Buddhist nun called Tenzin Palmo, A Cave in the Snow, and she talked about how great it would be if when we meet people on the street, our first thought were: “May they be happy and well”. Not judging them on the way they look, or the clothes they’re wearing. Not thinking “I don’t like you” or “You remind me of so and so”.
It’s these unconscious conversations in our head. Part of the practice is becoming aware of these conversations and just seeing people and things for their natural beauty. The Yin For Giving day at The Life Centre will work on this. There will be a strong combination of giving to ourselves, giving to others and becoming aware of these unconscious conversations. It will be a celebration of community and the different individuals that make up community.
What do you hope your students to experience when they practice with you?
I like to think of myself as a conduit for helping people to find their potential. For me yoga is a process of exploration: Where is my mind right now? Where am I feeling this pose in my body? If they leave a class or workshop with just a touch more insight and self-acceptance, then I’m a happy man.
Describe the meaning of yoga in 10 words or less.
Yoga is about developing our better self and becoming more inner/outer connected. I know that’s 12 but I do like words…
Yin for Giving: A Charity Day Workshop
With Norman Blair, Mia Forbes Pirie
3 August 2014, 10:00–17:00
View Norman’s teaching schedule.
Read more about Yin Yoga.