That Yoga

Nick Madrid does the now deeply fashionable astanga vinyasa yoga. Here's his take on it.

"I was pushing thirty - about the only exercise I got - when I first heard about astanga vinyasa yoga. For years before that my idea of a healthy exercise had been going along to put my pay cheque in the bank. I tended to agree with Samuel Pepys, who said that 'fport is a naufeous obfeffion of the fimple-minded'. (I like a man who calls a fpade a fpade.) (from No Laughing Matter)

Peter Guttridge writes:

The photos on this page are of Derek Ireland (1949 - 1998), who was my yoga teacher in Crete and Goa for five years. He was a great teacher, who meant a lot to many people. He talked about this remarkable yoga in a "Life In The Day" I did with him for the Sunday Times almost 15 years ago. Below is an abridged version, placed here in his memory.

[You might also want to check out the yoga retreats his wife, Kristina Karitinos Ireland, runs in Mani, the utterly beautiful peninsula of mainland Greece: www.yogapractice.net]

"I get up before the sun at 5am. The Goans are walking past our house carrying pots of water for morning ablutions. I'm not into meditation. I don't believe in chakras or kundalini. I'm not a guru worshipper - I know they've grown wise but they're still only human and all they know is some southern Indian village. I didn't get into yoga for spiritual reasons. I go for the movement and the breathing, called pranayama. Prana is a little more than air; it's the life force. After water, coffee and spirulina, I practice breathing for an hour: an invigorating breath, to get oxygen into the blood, a calming one and a cooling one.

I take my first class at 7.30am with about twenty students, who all have some experience. This yoga has to be done in the heat; it helps you get into the extreme postures more easily. The practice is a couple of hours of nonstop movement, and you sweat out your toxins. I like to work hands on. I look on my teaching as bodywork therapy. I've worked with a German guy who had over 50 broken bones but is now on the second series - the yoga has six levels or series. I learnt it in Mysore from Pattabhi Jois, who rediscovered astanga vinyasa in the 1930s. There are other people teaching this yoga on the beaches in Goa but they tend to be more drug-oriented - they skip the balancing poses!

Astanga vinyasa - the true, original yoga of which other hatha yogas retain only the fragments - is a cross between gymnastics, aerobics and a contortionist's nightmare. It's a yoga without dogmas: 99% practice, one per cent theory, 100% sweat. I've called it "no bullshit yoga". Restful it aint.

During a 90 - 120 minute practice the postures are arranged in a sequence that allows the skeletal system to go back into correct alignment and the muscles to open out. Performing the basic moves (the Primary Series) exercises the whole body, detoxifying, stretching and strengthening it. I usually do my own practice to music. I used to do it with weights on my wrists, which upset a few purists. And I had a weighted jacket, but I got rid of that after I did a handstand and nearly killed myself when it slipped down and hit me on the back of the head.

Practising on the beach attracts customers. I got 50 people that way last year. My practice takes over two hours and I'm surrounded by Indians in five minutes. They haven't seen this style of yoga before. Some plonk babies on me for photographs but I try to carry on and stay focused - I only get uptight if they actually walk on me.

I got into yoga in the late seventies. I spent six months with Pattabhi Jois doing this yoga in Mysore and I try to go back there for a few months each year. He's 81 now but still starts his six-hour teaching day at 4.30am. People of all ages can do this yoga. Well, almost. Jois's favourite saying is "Practice, all is coming - but don't bother after you're 77."

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That Yoga