Getting fit and flexible again, with a twist
OK, confession time. I recently passed one of those ‘milestone’ birthdays, and it’s not a good one. At least, it would be if I were a cricketer, but there’s no easy way to look at this except as half way. From here on in it’s all downhill.
The jokes about receding hairlines I can take. After all, it’s on my grandfather’s side, and he was as smooth as a billiard ball. I could be happier if my body wasn’t being so boringly typical – “at such-and-such an age, most men start to accumulate belly fat and lose skin tone”, “by 40, your eyesight begins to deteriorate and you may need reading glasses”, and so on. Yada yada yada.
But it’s all true. I am losing my hair, and what’s left is showing a dispiriting amount of grey. I don’t suffer from any significant illnesses, but am definitely showing the effects of a sedentary job. And my great passion, very clearly, is good food and better wine.
Time to do something about it.
Like most people, I have dutifully paid my gym membership every month, and wondered why the only thing diminishing was my bank account. I mean, I tried, I really did. As a professional writer, I was able to make time and do the physical jerks planned out for me by my personal trainer and mentor. Three times a week I strained and sweated with the best of them, on bicycles, treadmills, step machines, rowers and weights. I knew my way round a Nautilus, and where the free weights were kept.
I did aerobics, step and circuit training. Worse, every Tuesday and Thursday morning I even joined the stretch and tone class with the, shall we say, more ‘mature’ members of the club. And they were still more flexible than me. It didn’t last.
You see, I’m a sort of slow-burn character. I will climb any mountain, but don’t ask me to run for a bus. In football, I was always the goalie, and in cricket the wicketkeeper. My favourite sports are skiing (lift takes you up, gravity brings you back), sailing (all that free wind) and absolutely anything with a petrol engine in it.
Do you see a theme developing here?
The problem was that I simply don’t enjoy that kind of high impact physical exercise. You spend 45 minutes working up a good sweat, then two days suffering the consequences and hobbling around like you’ve just gone three rounds with Mike Tyson. Walking up stairs is hard, down near impossible. And on the third day you go back and do it all over again. Madness!
And yet, when I came to Dubai one of the first things I did was walk everywhere. From my base near the Ramada in Golden Sands, I walked to Satwa. And back. To Deira City Centre. To the Gold Souk, to Lamcy, to Wafi City, to Sheikh Zayed Road, to the beach, to Shindaga, all over the place. Colleagues in the office would shake their heads in disbelief when I told them where I’d been over the weekend.
Of course, in time I acquired a car, and the long walks stopped. Got into the habit of taking the lift instead of the stairs. Spending all day hunched over a keyboard, with only the occasional stroll to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. Yet all the time there was this little voice saying I should take a bit more care of my body, get some exercise before it seized up completely.
And then I met Nelson, and everything changed. In an hour and a half, my body was worked, stretched, contorted and relaxed into more positions than I had ever thought possible. And the best bit, by far, was the fact that at the end of the session, I felt fantastic! Not sore and exhausted, but refreshed, energized, full of life and ready to take on the world. It was a revelation. It was yoga.
Since that momentous morning, I have been a regular pupil of Hari and Sudish, yoga masters at the new Breath & Health Alternative Medical Centre on Al Wasl Road. Every Friday or Saturday morning I’m there, working through a series of asanas and pranayamas, rediscovering muscles and movements I had long forgotten. It doesn’t matter how far I can or cannot twist, it is the attempt that counts. Hari and Sudish are both improbably supple, and so when they say ‘simply fold forward and touch your forehead on the floor’ they can do it. We simply fall about, bemused by the improbability of it all. That’s what 3 decades of sitting at a computer does for you.
And yet… From quite early on, I had an inkling that there is a very great deal more to this yoga stuff than merely trying to wrap your arm around your knee and grab your ankle with the other hand without falling over.
And so it was, as I learned from Director of Yoga, Mona Hydari. It turns out that our regular morning sessions (laughingly referred to by teachers Sudish as his ‘happy class’ because we can’t help but crack up at some of the situations we get into) are in fact one part of a much larger system, known as the ‘Eight Limbs of Yoga’. These are limbs three and four, Asana and Pranayama, postures and breathing, fascinating in their own light but which make greater sense when considered as part of the larger picture.
Yoga is not prescriptive, dogmatic or theological in any way. It’s not something you ‘believe in’, it’s simply something you do, but the practice itself can and does lead, if you want it to, to a much deeper level of understanding, an insight which you might call spiritual, if that is your world view. The eight limbs are a code, a system of living by which practitioners may fully participate in the world. In essence, yoga works like this:
Yama : Universal morality (respect for others – how you live in society)
Niyama : Personal observances (respect for self – personal integrity)
Asanas : Body postures (exercise – strength, suppleness, physical health)
Pranayama : Breathing exercises, and control of prana (wellbeing – how you care for your body)
Pratyahara : Control of the senses (learning to disengage from stimuli)
Dharana : Concentration and cultivating inner perceptual awareness
Dhyana : Devotion, Meditation on the Divine
Samadhi : Enlightenment, Union with the Divine
The fact is that our regular weekly classes are actually exercises designed to teach us how to control our bodies, to give us the strength, balance, suppleness and discipline necessary to hold a posture comfortably for long enough to enable us to meditate in that posture. The fact that we feel fitter, energized and more flexible as a result is a bonus, and an important one. It is the reason I keep coming back, the element that was missing from every aerobics class, boxercise session, step training and body pump workout. I feel good after yoga, not sore. And I am sure that those who developed yoga over the centuries designed it to be this way…
So, what exactly is yoga? I’ll leave that to Mona.
“The word yoga actually comes from the Sanskrit word yuj, which is often interpreted as “union” or a method of discipline. There was a famous Indian sage called Patanjali who wrote the original treatise on the practice of yoga called the Yoga Sutra about 2,000 years ago. The Sutra is a collection of 195 statements in four chapters that describe the foundations for most of the yoga that we practice today. It outlines what are known as the eight limbs of yoga: the yamas (restraints), niyamas (observances), asana (postures), pranayama (breathing), pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), dharana (concentration), dhyani (meditation), and samadhi (absorption). As we explore these eight limbs, we start by refining our behavior in the outer world, and then as understanding grows we gradually focus more inwardly until we reach samadhi (liberation, enlightenment).”
“Yoga isn’t really just about exercise, it’s a way of living, but each part has a definite purpose. For most people, that starts with wanting to look good and feel better about themselves. What we do is very much focused on that – our classes are built around a thorough warm-up, which is in preparation for the postures to follow. These in turn are all about strengthening your core, lengthening the spine, opening the breath. Yoga brings together mind and body, in preparation for meditation and enlightenment. It’s all about awareness – meditation is an experience, not a practice.”
“Anyone can do it and get the benefits. I have had lots of people say to me “I can’t do yoga, I’m not flexible enough” but that’s kind of the wrong way round – yoga builds flexibility and allows energy to flow properly, so it’s the taking part that counts. Suppleness will follow.”
“There are lots of different ‘schools’ of yoga – Hatha yoga, Iyengar yoga, Ashtanga yoga, Bikram yoga – but the basic principles are all the same, and you’ll find one that suits you best. Ours draw on a number of different schools of thought including the Art of Living, and we place a lot of emphasis on pranayama – the benefits of proper breathing – but we don’t follow a particular style. But you don’t need to know any of this to enjoy a yoga class!”
In fact, it is entirely up to you. There are as many reasons to practice yoga as there are people to enjoy it. For me, it began as a simple quest to regain a little suppleness lost as a result of a sedentary lifestyle. Vanity? Curiosity? Of course, and more. But I suspect, like many, with practice comes insight, and the more I learn, the more I realize how much more there is to learn. Each little breakthrough, every little bit of progress, another asana achieved and posture perfected reveals a little more, pulls the curtain a fraction further back to reveal the riches beyond. For me, yoga is something you start, but never finish. I know I will be enjoying it for the rest of my life.
Stars Who Love Yoga
Sting: “I came to Yoga late in my life. I’m probably in my fourth year now which would mean that I started when I was 38 or 39. It‘s actually my regret that I didn’t begin earlier. I think I would have been further along the path than I am now had I started earlier. But then again, perhaps I wasn’t ready. I have been through various fitness regimes before, you know. I used to run about five miles a day and I did aerobics for a while. I always stayed fit because I’m a performer and all of those things help me to perform. But it wasn’t until I met Danny Paradise, who became my mentor in Yoga, that I started the practice which I feel I will stay with for the rest of my life. I would like to. I feel it is a path that is involved enough to keep developing. It’s almost like music in a way; there’s no end to it. I think once you’ve run five miles in a reasonable time, as you get older, you can either sustain that time or it gets worse. That’s pretty frustrating. I think, if anything, one of the most exciting things about Yoga is that as I get older I seem to get better at certain parts of the practice, which is very inspiring. It makes you want to keep going. If anything, it’s reversing the aging process. I can do things with my body now that I wouldn’t even have thought of doing when I was an athlete, a teenager. So that keeps me going. This is something I want to keep doing.”
“Yoga is a metaphor for life. You have to take it really slowly. You can’t rush. You can’t skip to the next position. You find yourself in very humiliating situations, but you can’t judge yourself. You just have to breathe, and let go. It is a workout for your mind, your body and your soul.”
“I’m learning yoga. It’s fascinating. Once again, it’s all about getting to know your “self.” Connecting your heart and your mind in order for you to not make compulsive or obsessive decisions in life. Simplicity is the medicine.”
“I started [yoga] about five years ago. I will say, definitely, it changed my life. It made me calmer. It puts you right in the place of witness — which is great.”
Andy Murray says it was Bikram or “hot” yoga that gave him the strength to beat world number one Roger Federer at the Barclays Dubai Open.
“It has helped me a lot with my fitness and my mental strength because it’s tough being in that kind of heat for that length of time.”