"The Prime Minister thanks you for your letter but is too busy to make time for such matters."
It wasn't my idea. On the world's first International Yoga Day two years ago, I interviewed the High Commissioner of India, Mr Rajan Matal, who told me that Indian Prime Minister Modi asks his cabinet to meditate and practice yoga every morning, believing this helps with clarity of vision. He suggested the then Prime Minister, David Cameron should do the same with his cabinet. So, I wrote to him and received the above response. I did the same with Theresa May and was told “she’s rather busy with Brexit at the moment.” But if the England football team are able to make time for yoga, the twelve boys and coach survived with the help of daily meditation, perhaps our politicians would make better decisions if they did too.
Yoga is hardly a niche cult. At one time during International Yoga Day, Mr Matal told me there were over 30 million around the world practicing yoga simultaneously. That’s an awful lot of ‘Om’. Prime Minister Modi believes, like millions around the world, that yoga makes you more productive and focused. Executives at Glaxo Smith Klein, even pregnant ones, get up early to attend a six am yoga class. I know, I've taught them. Rugby players used yoga while training for the World Cup. I've taught them, too. Many celebrities wouldn't go anywhere without their yoga mat and in the travel industry wellness retreats are thriving. I’ve witnessed first hand the benefits it has in schools. I teach at one particular school in Ham, Meadlands, and children as young as four are using breathing techniques to not only calm themselves, but to focus and calm those in their peer group. But it’s not for Cameron. He’s too busy to make time for such things.
So, does yoga really make us more compassionate, balanced human beings? The internet is full of websites which expound its virtues, claiming it is good for everything from asthma, to high blood pressure, to back pain, to self-awareness, to arthritis, to anti-ageing, weight loss and mental health (www.holisticonline.com/yoga). That seems a tall order for a few backbends.
Yoga means to join, to bring together, and the elements it claims to bring together are the mind, body and spirit, finding balance in nature. Yoga is the practice of learning how to breathe and sit so you are able to meditate for long periods of time. It is also allowing you to rise above ego, above need and fear.
The irony is there is an awful lot of ego among those who practice it and those who preach it. Many of those who practice yoga, and make a point of being seen to practice it are not brilliant exemplars of humility in humanity, though they would likely be even more self-absorbed if they didn’t do it? This is where the detractors start to have a point. Yoga has become a global, multi-million pound industry, feeding on the fears of those beautiful people seeking alternative remedies for the world's biggest killer, stress.
But for yoga to work, you have to be into it for the right reasons.
The New York Times in 2012 famously published an article entitled ‘How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body’ (http://nyti.ms/1Em1pqb). It caused uproar amongst the yogascenti who rushed to its defence. The article questioned the peace-and-love reputation of yoga, in particular the practice of Bikram yoga, copyrighted by multi-millionaire Choudray Bikram, performed in 105˚F heat, and the injuries incurred when doing backbends and inversions (head stands, shoulder stands, hand stands).
The article had a point. Yoga, not just Bikram, has become an obsession for some, stretching themselves way beyond its gentler principles. I never suggest head or hand stands in my classes, as they are too advanced for most people and the classes are too large to align everybody individually, vital when practicing more challenging postures. Even some instructors become regular clients of physiotherapists and osteopaths.
"The problem is," says Chris James, a well-respected yoga instructor, "many instructors are now treated like Gods. They are not. They are human. They swear, they fuck. They are like anyone else. They are not special other than that they are teachers. That is what makes them special. And if they forget that, they forget what yoga is all about. Rising above the ego."
I was not a willing convert. I remember as a ten year old, watching an old lady who would wear white on TV, early on Sunday mornings. She would demonstrate yoga postures on a back drop of white, like some sort of bendy angel. I was more bemused than enlightened. I was re-introduced to yoga in my 20s at a health club. The yoga teacher didn't wear white but she was still in something floaty and her pupils were all skinny and aloof. Everyone looked as though they needed a good meal and a good laugh. Then Ginger Spice launched her own yoga DVD. After that, I wanted nothing to do with it. Yoga had gone from Om to dumb.
It wasn't until I met an instructor at a business hotel in Delhi that I became really interested. He was a former professional gymnast, very grounded, who laughed in class. He told me about the importance of breathing properly. He told me that yoga is not balancing on one foot for hours but about strengthening our ability to meditate and give our brains a rest. He explained which postures were good for letting go, which for improving focus, which for anger issues, which for moving on and so on. It made me realise yoga was as much about the emotional benefits as it was the physical.
"We live our lives in our heads, not in our bodies,” he told me. “Even professional sports people, who are more body focused than most, are susceptible to self-sabotage, over-competitiveness and anger management issues.”
Now that I’m a yoga teacher, I get personal trainers contact me, asking me to practice some yoga with tennis players who have anger issues. Tennis is, after all, a middle class form of boxing. Tennis players are not team players.
CHOOSE YOUR YOGA
There are many different types of yoga, but they all stem from one philosophy focusing on our ability to listen to the breath rather than our thoughts. Simple to say, difficult to do. Secondly, the yogic philosophy is about observation. It’s about listening to the body and not listening to the mind, the thoughts and arguments in our head. It is not about judgement.
You don't judge yourself and you don't judge others. In many ways, it’s a nonsense to have yoga classes in gyms because being in a gym is all about competitiveness, self-judgement and the sense that nothing is ever enough. Yoga is about acceptance.
Among the most popular forms of yoga are Hatha, which focuses on the breath (Pranayama) and is meditative. Iyengar which concentrates on precision and alignment. Power yoga, a Westernised version, more cardio exercise than meditation and made popular by Madonna. Vinyasa is more dance orientated and means 'flow'. Anusara yoga deals with the opening of the heart, restorative on relaxation, while Jivamukti is a mix of Vinyasa and chanting. Kundalini focuses on your core and Ashtanga, which is apparently favoured by men, focuses on progression from one posture to the next, so you are not able to progress to the next group of postures until you have mastered the first. There is a wealth of yoga types but they are all bastardised versions of Hatha.
Gurus believe the practice is based on the centuries old Eastern idea that health is about body and mind in harmony, and that illness is caused by any physical, psychological, environmental, nutritional or spiritual disharmony.
I personally believe its origins are pagan. The postures, or asanas, focus on the elements of earth, air, fire and water. Although there is only one posture called 'tree', all the postures stimulate the ability to root and uplift, to reach out. Many are named after animals and although the images of the people practicing yoga are mainly slim, long limbed twenty or thirty something females, yoga is suitable and excellent for everyone from two year olds to eighty year olds and beyond. I have taught both ends of the age spectrum, and strongly believe it should be taught in schools as part to the curriculum.
THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT
Cameron and May may not get it but children do. They know we hold emotion in our body. I taught a class of nine year olds focusing on the postures that help with memory, concentration and the ability to listen; all balancing postures. I made it fun and found they were excellent at learning the colours of the chakras. They even got the Sanskrit names of the postures correct. One child came up to me at the end and thanked me, saying "Do you have any postures for sadness?"
"Yes, there are postures for sadness." says Martin Clark, editor of ‘Om’ magazine, the leading UK yoga title, "And loneliness, heartbreak, anger, greed, vanity, impatience, lack of focus and jealousy. All the seven sins and more. The main one is fear. Fear feeds off greed and need. Yoga help you rise above the ego. You feel no fear and you want nothing. You need nothing.” That’s not just a fairy tale. It’s a state of mind which leads to gratitude and acceptance. When you have that, you are content.
In the United States, the David Lynch Foundation which sponsors transcendental meditation in schools throughout the US has achieved startling results on both the academic success of students and also their overall behaviour and sense of well-being.
Look through their website (www.davidlynchfoundation.org) and you will find a list as long as your Om of statistics showing how their Quiet Time programme had raised levels of creativity among students and improved teacher retention. Just a few minutes of shared meditation time each morning has reduced teacher burnout, reduced the incidence amongst teachers and pupils of stress, anxiety and depression.
One headmaster comments, “Stress is the number one enemy of public education, especially in inner city schools. It creates tension and violence and compromises the cognitive and psychological capacity of students.”
This is not only true of inner city schools but every school, hospital, place of employment in the world. Stress not only weakens our ability to think straight, it kills, either directly through cancer, or indirectly through violence. So, why isn't it in all our schools? The official answer is schools have been resistant because it has religious and cult-like connotations. But this is changing.
Although not officially part of the school curriculum in the UK, schools are now introducing meditation and yoga sessions into the curriculum, albeit sometime as clubs. I teach Year five and six students in a few primary schools where I live. There are also organisations: Club Morgan (http://www.club-morgan.com) and Yogabuds (http://yogabuds.com), among many others trying to bring the benefits of yoga to our increasingly over-stressed kiddies.
As I write, Education Secretary Michael Gove, has introduced another test for seven year olds, so it would seem to be a good time to also introduce a way for the children to deal with the added stress that this exam will place upon young children, teachers and parents.
Clearly, I am a convert. I teach in clubs and schools locally and have written a book about how yoga helps with emotional baggage for adults and children. I believe the work of these groups can be massively empowering for adults and children.
So, why wouldn’t our Prime Minister be interested in further empowering himself? Perhaps, it just sounds too unscientific? When we stop listening to our thoughts and start listening to our body we tap into our instincts, which is not just in our gut but throughout our body: that cold sensation we feel when something is right. Our body knows it even if our mind does not. So many of us have forgotten to trust our instinct and intuition. We trust establishment, the media, the TV, the experts, and have forgotten to trust in ourselves. Perhaps, ironically that is why politicians wouldn't want school children and grown-ups to take up yoga. They would stop listening to them and start doing their own thing. How do you begin to govern, coerce, convince or bully someone who can see right through you eh?"
Perhaps that is why our Prime Minister doesn't get the point of yoga. After all, how many politicians do you know who would manage to rise above their ego, huh? Or indeed want a populace to govern who had no fear and needed nothing? I think he’s wrong. I am not alone in thinking yoga is a great way of bringing yourself back down to earth.
The late Lord Yehudi Menuhin was a friend of Iyengar, one of the leading yoga gurus, and was a wonderful bright eyed, self-effacing man who practiced yoga. "I always over run my bath, and yoga helps with memory," he told me once when I interviewed him. "And I practice in the nude, which is most disconcerting for hotel staff who come into clean the room in the morning and forget to knock."
Winston Churchill used to dictate letters in the bath, surely Theresa May’s not that uptight about being caught in an embarrassing position?
Sarah Tucker is an author, journalist and broadcaster, and teaches in school in Ham and Richmond. Currently campaigning to get yoga on the national curriculum, she would like to hear from all schools and yoga instructors who would be happy to be involved in a scheme to make this happen. email@example.com
Sarah Tucker’s A to Zen of Travel and The Brilliant Book series (Book of Brilliant Balances, Terrific Twists, Super Stretches, Brilliant Breathing is out in all good book shops and available from amazon. Her latest The Book of Excellent Energies in the new year ALL BOOKS AVAILABLE ON sarahtucker.info and all good book shops.