My journey with yoga began when I was about 24 years old, via a chance encounter, not via a class, but through stumbling upon a Yoga DVD covering Hatha Asana for beginners.
Little did I know that this spur of the moment purchase would blossom into a life-long, dedicated practice.
There have been many twists and turns on this journey, and my humble introduction to Yoga has darker undertones.
Ten years previously I had received a diagnosis of Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a title I have refrained from adopting too much due to its misleading simplicity.
‘Normal’ life as I knew it, ended at around 14 years of age. I barely had the energy to come to school, and when I did, I would often be unable to participate due to pain, and a feeling of brain fog that inhibited my cognitive processes. I couldn’t socialise often. When I did, I would have to retreat to bed for weeks to recover some sort of equilibrium. This cycle of activity and post activity ‘pay-back’ informed my existence throughout my teens and most of my twenties.
A whole decade later I found myself on a quest for solutions that veered away from the pharmaceutical treatments offered via Western medicine. A lifetime of broad-spectrum antibiotics had decimated my microbiome and natural immunity.
Intuition told me that I needed to seek a new mode of healing.
Delving into some of the ‘alternative’ ancient practices of Eastern medicine including Ayurveda and acupuncture, was the major turning point at which my quality of life improved.
I was on the cusp of this shift, when I began to practise Yoga in earnest.
The quality of my life went from being barely survivable to (variably) enjoyable, a sea-change which restored my faith in recovery and the will to continue running the gauntlet of day to day existence.
As with all things negative, the suffering had a positive flip side - it cultivated tenacity, and connected me to a new healing path.
Fast-forward to waiting in a post office queue in Manchester, on a sunny and bright Spring morning six years later.
I was feeling surprisingly strong, and nearly pain-free that day. It was no coincidence that I had been practising Hatha Yoga every morning that week, the most consistent practice I’d so far been able to maintain.
I felt grounded and I breathed deeply, knowing that whenever my pain levels changed I could always return to my breath to help relax my body, and to ‘ride the waves’ of pain. I felt charged with energy, and an unusual feeling of lightness.
I could finally relate to my body as something with positive potential. I was still differently-able, but I was also finding ways to adapt and accept my unique limitations, whilst gently extending them.
Yoga had unlocked an ability to rediscover my physical self, and to move in ways that built strength, and harmonised thought, breath and movement.
Alongside these gradual positive impacts of asana practice, was the cultivation of ‘proprioception,’ or of sensing one’s body, inwardly. Yoga changed how I related to my body completely.
For the first time since I was a child my relationship to my physical being felt positive; It was as though I was experiencing who I was afresh, like a new world opening up, a world where I could re-learn strength, and build back the trust I had lost with my body.
Teaching to learn
After a decade working in the charity sector, it was time to listen to my intuition again. My partner and I moved to Yorkshire.
I signed up for Yoga Teacher Training with Yoga Campus, trained in Manchester and gained my 200 hours training qualification. The rest, as they say, is history.
I began providing free yoga lessons, in Bradford, West Yorkshire, so that communities who might ordinarily not have the financial or physical privilege of accessing Yoga, could do so.
Bread + Roses Co-op (where I had formerly worked as a Community Manager) supported me on this first foray into teaching and were so encouraging and kind in lending me the support to teach for free out of their ground floor cafe and co-working space.
Forming partnerships with street-level spaces, to provide community-centred Yoga became a dream that underpinned my teaching.
These early classes began and ended with a chat, and often some herbal tea and cake in colder months. I wanted people to feel like they belonged. To get the most out of their practice I knew that a sense of being at ease and belonging was crucial. One of my students suffered from MS limiting his lower body mobility. I knew then that I needed to find ways to make the class more accessible, but that this would be a long learning process.
I have deep gratitude for all the students that committed so fully to these early classes, where we learned and grew together.
It might be controversial to admit, but any time I had practised yoga in a studio, I rarely connected to a feeling of belonging that I strived to cultivate in my own classes.
Another barrier was financial, as I found most studio classes to be a budget stretch for me, on a part time wage. Dealing with the uncertainties of a chronic illness meant that consistency of attendance was yet another off-putting factor.
In keeping with this, my first thoughts on attending a three hour yoga and pranayama workshop run by Jane Craggs, were coloured with fear and trepidation. I felt like a fraud. I wasn’t good enough to be here, surely they’d realise and judge me? Could I justify the expense? I definitely couldn’t justify the time! Three hours?! It felt so indulgent!
Yet, on leaving the workshop, I felt transformed. My pain levels were halved, my energy had increased threefold. Any doubts I had, were replaced by a sense that yoga asana is a powerful gift that should be shared.
Yoga for all
Connecting with Yoga as a means to reconnect body and mind, has been no less than a life saving experience, and one I wished to share, to cultivate, and to grow from.
In 2021, as if by magic - along came Ellie, founder-director of the CiC Umbrella Yoga. Umbrella Yoga’s mission appeared to be granting this very wish, by offering yoga for free to communities of most need. Ellie had partnered with many organisations including a local studio in Huddersfield, Connect Yoga and Wellness, who’s fantastic proprietor Pete introduced us.
At this time, Ellie was about 18 months into building a network of local yoga teachers with a view to provide truly inclusive yoga across the whole of West Yorkshire.
Little did I know, that this introduction would lead to teaching trauma-informed yoga with Umbrella Yoga, working with Ukrainian communities in Huddersfield, as well as communities with additional needs such as visual impairments across community venues in Paddock, Heckmondwike, and Batley.
For those who may feel as I did when I first considered Yoga but was sure I didn’t belong- if I can practice Yoga, so can you. If I can access Yoga, so should you! That is why I am so grateful to be on this path, and to have joined the Umbrella Yoga team.
The practice of Yoga transcends barriers of ability, and prosperity, and ought to be open to all. Umbrella Yoga, alongside amazing partners and community volunteers, are making this dream a reality, one class at a time.