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Fitness 101: Inspirational Yogis

A South African, a Hungarian and an American meet an Australian in a yoga studio. No, it’s not the start of a corny joke. Rather, three vivacious women tell KATIE ROBERTS how yoga has improved their lives and why they are teaching it in Singapore.

Ashley Davies, 34

Founder and teacher, The Breathing Room

 

Long, long before Eat, Pray, Love, another American named Ashley Davies visited Bali. She had no publishing deal, but rather time on her hands and a determination to undertake a yoga teacher-training course. With a recently completed psychology degree under her belt, and to the amazement of friends and family (who, she admits, don’t know much about Asia at all), Ashley spent three months in 2003 immersed in yoga.

She returned to Florida with no intention of teaching yoga. At first she managed a health spa, still unsure which field of psychology she wanted to practise. “Clinical, developmental, organisational, there were pros and cons to all of them,” she says. One day, at a moment’s notice, she was called upon to teach a yoga class. “That opportunity happened without thought or anticipation, but it was the start,” she explains.

“Then in 2007 a woman I had met in Bali invited me to come to Singapore and teach at True Yoga. So I moved here ‘for one year’,” she laughs. Six years on, Ashley is married and expecting her second child, and she opened her own yoga studio earlier this year. “It’s not how I imagined it would happen; but when you take a leap of faith, anything is possible.”

Ashley’s own experience of India is purely as a tourist rather than as a yoga practitioner, but she is keen to visit that country on a yoga path one day. Her background, she feels, gives her a deeper insight into the psychological benefits of yoga. She says she has clearly seen how it transforms people.

“Regardless of the issues people are grappling with outside the room, yoga is something they can do for themselves and this is empowering – possibly more empowering than treatment in a clinical setting, and the effects ripple into their world outside,” she says.

Spirited and talkative, Ashley admits people have commented that she is not what yoga teachers are sometimes mythologised to be. “They are supposed to be all Zen, floating and calm. I’m not that, yoga simply keeps me balanced and tuned in.”

Aside from yoga, Ashley is a certified doula (labour coach) and has a passion for the care of women, both pre- and postnatal. She has been able to incorporate an understanding of Chinese medicine theories into her practice, through her training in yin yoga. “Our hips are one of our main energy storehouses, which means they can ‘hold’ a lot of emotions. The yang focus of today’s world may be one of the reasons why our hips are often so tight. Many people groan at the thought of hip-opening poses, and it’s no wonder, because that is one place where we store things up. Those poses are a release, physically as well as energetically.”

When asked what she enjoys most about teaching, she says, “It makes my heart smile when the students tell me they feel empowered and thank me for the experience. Whether it is just the physical aspect (finally pulling off that one tricky pose) or on a more subtle level (a connection to a deeper, truer self), I am equally pleased that I have helped another spirit shine!”

Since yoga was introduced to the West in the late 19th century, the practice has morphed and been adapted into variations like Bikram and Iyengar; but these styles are  all still based on hatha, the original form. Yoga in India was traditionally taught and practised by men. Nowadays, the global ratio is roughly 80 percent women and 20 percent men, which is also reflected in the composition of classes in Singapore.

Judit Gál

Freelance yoga teacher

 

When Judit explains the internal cleansing techniques taught at an Indian ashram, I realise yoga can take you in all sorts of challenging directions. In January 2012 she spent one month in an ashram in Nashik, four hours north of Mumbai. She enjoyed it so much that she rang her husband and her son to say she was staying for another month.

Cloth swallowing, which cleanses the stomach, “is a very tricky technique to master and is not done regularly,” she says, “but it’s part of the authentic ashram yoga experience”. Ashrams differ, but this one involves four hours of yoga a day, helping with daily chores, lectures, meditation and total isolation from the outside world (there is no internet or TV). Judit plans to return in 2013 for a third time and once again embrace the vegetarian diet and strict discipline.

Like many others, Judit’s path to becoming a yoga teacher was neither linear nor intentional. Hungarian by birth, she met her Malaysian husband-to-be in Sheffield, England, where they were both studying. They married in 1997 and in 2000 moved to Singapore. She worked in the hospitality industry until her son was born. After signing up for a Buddhism class in 2006, she started yoga.

In 2008 she did a 200-hour yoga teacher training course as a way to learn more about it, but with no plan of becoming a teacher. “At the training course you learn so much more than asanas, or poses. Beyond that physical level is the realisation of self-discipline; yoga is in the mind. Once you have stamina and strength you can hold a pose longer and learn how to relax.”

Judit enjoys yoga so much that she wants to share it with others, so she teaches freelance. She instructs up to eight classes a week, usually in people’s homes. She teaches hatha yoga and vinyasa, depending on what the participants want.

“Many people, when they first start, think it’s a form of exercise; but after a while you realise there is more to it than the poses. Slowly it will transform and change you. Yoga is a way of life that helps to bring your body, mind and spirit together.”

Advice: Breathe! Work within your limits. Never compare yourself with others and don’t push yourself to do something that doesn’t feel right.

Scientific research shows that yoga can relieve anxiety, insomnia, depression, high blood pressure and stress. The focus on breathing, combined with various poses, helps to calm both mind and body.

Kate Porter, 36

Founder and teacher, Kate Porter Yoga

 

“As a child, never once did I think: ‘Oh gosh, I’m going to be a yoga teacher, and run a yoga studio!’,” quips Kate Porter. “I wanted to be a vet, but that was not possible, so naturally I went into finance. That’s logical!”

Her battle with systemic lupus was the impetus for Kate to start yoga when she moved to Singapore with her husband from London eight years ago. She had been bedridden for four years, after giving up a high-pressure job in syndicated finance, and it was a combination of Pilates and yoga that helped her deal with the pain and to move freely again.

South African-born Kate openly admits that she is not a yoga fanatic and that it is not for everyone, but she is overwhelmingly enthusiastic when describing how it helped her get back on her feet and find a better quality of life. “Mentally, I find that in good and bad times yoga has made a difference. You can’t get ahead of yourself in yoga.

“I am still on medication and will be for the rest of my life, but now I have flexibility, strength and mobility, which is a great motivator for doing yoga regularly. It’s a type of medication in itself.”

Like many others, Kate did a teacher training course to improve her own yoga, and practised her teaching skills on patient friends so that she could pass the course. “My husband graciously moved the furniture back and forth in our living room to accommodate the sessions. As this gradually grew into a few sessions a week and they started paying me, Tom eventually put his foot down and said ‘no more’. So the lounge room became a permanent studio and we moved the living room to the spare room,” she says, laughing.

“Teaching yoga seemed to fit like nothing else I had ever done. For the first time in my life, what I was doing felt totally right and I loved doing it.”

That was four years ago, and she now has a thriving business, in a new, permanent location. Kate’s group of 500 regular students are a mix of nationalities that closely reflects Singapore’s population profile.

“My practice has become a fusion: a bit of vinyasa and a bit of Iyengar. Unlike some other studios, we exclude all spirituality. I’m not fanatical about exact sequences and poses and don’t believe in forcing the body. My yoga is realistic and user-friendly, because ultimately we all have physical restrictions and move differently.”

Kate believes yoga can transform the body. “It’s not about weight loss, or running a marathon, but being healthy and living well. People who come to my studio might say they can’t bend or sit on the floor, but I look them in the eye and say there is a damn good chance you will with yoga.”

Advice: Kate says an ashram experience is not for her. However, she has enjoyed yoga retreats in Goa with modern comforts and a touch of luxury. She says, “Choose the right experience to suit you, because a basic ashram might be uncomfortable if you like an en suite bathroom. Go into it with eyes open.”

What is systemic lupus?

Systemic lupus is an incurable autoimmune system illness. The immune system produces far too many antibodies, which then attack the body’s own tissues and organs. It’s thought to have a genetic link. Western medicine can be used to control the condition, but Kate highly recommends the benefits of yoga in addition to this. People suffering from fibromyalgia, musculoskeletal pain or fatigue disorders can also benefit from yoga.

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kateporteryoga.com

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