I think it goes without saying that this time of year, in the run up to Christmas, is slightly bonkers: festive meet-ups to be arranged, food to be prepared, presents to be bought, Santa’s grotto visit to schedule, Christmas parties …the list goes on and on. But if you feel like taking some time out and finding some personal head space, then look no further than yoga.
Ten years ago there was one yoga studio in Tunbridge Wells; now, if you put #yoga into Instagram, you are greeted with thousands of images. The proliferation of yoga images on Instagram mirrors the plethora of yoga teachers in the world these days – including Sevenoaks, Tonbridge & around – who want to share with you the benefits of this ancient practice and meet demand, as people try to combat the stresses of modern living.
Yoga has often been associated with hippies of the 1960s, but times have changed, and it has secured its place in the digital age too. We strive for authenticity, to being ourselves, examining our world, and we are becoming increasingly aware of our own health and wellbeing, mental and physical.
An amazing local place to indulge in some self-care is Kingdom in Penshurst. This spacious wooden building is nestled amongst the countryside on the site of the previous residents, Penshurst off-road cycling club (PORC). The structure has been crafted around sturdy, old tree trunks which imbue the studio with a feeling of longevity, stability and being at one with nature. The windows are virtually 360 degrees around the yoga studio so wherever you look, you’re greeted with wide open space.
Kingdom Yoga is a collaboration between local yoga teachers Alice Backlog, Emily Gilchrist and Kelley Osborne who deliver a wide variety of yoga classes during the week catering for every age, gender and level of ability – from absolute beginners’ classes to creative days that help yogis (yoga students) examine their spirituality in greater depth.
Alice, Emily and Kelley each found yoga after a dip in their lives and credit it with helping them regain an even keel. Alice and Kelley left jobs in the City to focus on teaching yoga, such is their passion for it. They all found, or returned to, yoga at troughs in their lives, but they’re eager to point out that you don’t need to be at a low ebb to start – prevention is better than cure and the mat (on which yoga is practised) can become a tool to help you – your space in dark, or even just slightly dim, times.
Despite the Instagram images, the world of yoga is extremely welcoming and liberating: Dave Murray, a regular at Kingdom Yoga, tells me that he’s not the only man in his class and it’s full of all shapes and sizes – a real mix; any age, level of ability and gender can participate but just in case you think it’s a collection of random movements, think again.
There are four primary ‘lineages’ of yoga: Sivananda, Ashtanga, Iyengar & Hatha from which more contemporary styles such as Vinyasa, Yin and hot yoga have derived. For beginners, Kelley advocates Iyengar yoga as it is alignment based, and very methodical; Iyengar teachers are more hands-on, off the mat, checking that you’re in the right position, providing new yogis with a good foundation from which to explore yoga variations.
The physical benefits are really found in the asana which refers to the movements made, the physical practice. This involves stretching and holding, and strengthening through different poses or patterns all of which have names – you may have heard of downward dog for example.
The stretching element really assists those that run, cycle or enjoy other cardio exercise (if you’re starting your London marathon training soon, yoga is excellent for a deep, prolonged stretch of those achy limbs) whilst strengthening work avoids trips to the gym pumping weights or can complement it, helping you achieve your fitness goals in a different way, creating variety in your exercise schedule.
Dave Murray explains how yoga has helped his posture which is “great for someone sat at a desk all day”.
The other benefits of yoga are more spiritual. Yoga had ‘rescued’ in some way or other all of the yoga teachers that I interviewed, and this wasn’t just through the physical practice. Once you master the ‘mechanics’ of yoga, the asana, there’s something much deeper to explore, something much more personal and therefore harder to define.
Lauren Barber, a yoga teacher in Hildenborough, described her spirituality as being aware that there is something bigger than her, something that she can’t control. Lauren calls it the universe, for me it would be fate but it’s personal to everyone. She admits that ‘spirituality’ can sound like a scary term or something akin with religion or a cult but, thanks to the fluidity of yoga and that fact that it ‘shapes to fit’ the individual, if you don’t like the word, just change it! Through your yoga practice, you’ll discover its name, whatever it may be to you.
Lauren’s training in meditation has led her to beg the question of why don’t we all do it, such is the restorative powers it holds for her. But she hasn’t always felt like that: when she first started yoga, she was scared of the relaxation time at the end of a class, known as savasana. As someone suffering from anxiety and panic attacks, lying still with her own thoughts was not an appealing prospect and so she started meditating whilst dog walking. Being quiet with her own thoughts but yet active was the introduction she needed. She’s adamant that there’s a meditation style to suit everyone, with the current hot topic of mindfulness being just one. You don’t have to have an empty mind, she tells me, nor stop thinking, but you need an open mind, to surrender.
Inspired by Lauren, three dog walks later, three hours of not checking my phone (a real achievement) and I return home refreshed. I was alone with my thoughts (and my dog), admiring the view – simple steps to start creating my space.
And space is another word that keeps cropping up during my interviews. Lauren loves her one to one yoga teaching as she’s “holding space for someone else”. What does she mean by that? She explains that when you book an hour’s teaching with her, you are booking that time away from the day-to-day; you’re committed to it and in that hour, Lauren takes control. She can help you meditate and relax in that hour; exert yourself physically through asana; or even just express emotion but either way, she’s holding that space for you. “How many people would give themselves an hour just to be?” she asks me.
At Kingdom Yoga, they implore us all ‘to be’ and connect with ourselves too. As Alice explains, society leads us to live such hectic lives and we go along with that until we break – overworked, our health and wellbeing suffers. Yoga is a way for us to “connect back to ourselves”, a chance to rest and relax. Kelley highlights that there is a feeling of guilt, especially for women, associated with rest and that they want Kingdom to be a safe refuge from those feelings, a space to remember who you are. Joleene Gonzalez, a Kingdom Yoga regular, told me how she had such an emotional connection in one class that she sobbed for the rest of it. “With yoga, you don’t need to have a goal, you just need to be in it and the class will give you what you need,” she tells me.
Children can also take part in yoga at Kingdom and although it may appear that they’re wriggling and fidgeting, Emily hears from parents that the yoga ethos is being absorbed. The classes focus on similar themes to the adult sessions: the children learn relaxation techniques through breathing for example. The teachers at Kingdom hope that they are equipping the children with tools to help them cope throughout life as well as instilling a love of yoga.
Hopefully it’s clear that yoga isn’t something that you can learn overnight. Yoga teachers must undergo 200 hours of training – some teachers spread this out over a year (as Kelley says, “you marinade in it”, an expression I love and so apt for yoga) and some condense it into a month but either way, it has to be done. Teachers must execute CPD (continuous personal development) training each year to further their studies and of course, they can choose to specialise.
When looking for a teacher, Alice advises you to consider the style of yoga being taught and then have a go: experiencing the classes is essential. You must follow your intuition and trust the connection of why you’re being drawn to that instructor.
Kingdom opened earlier this year and already there are plans afoot for it to extend its offerings. Basil café is already in-residence Friday-Sunday and a cycle track is in the process of being built to accompany the existing off-road capabilities of the site. They are in discussions about Kingdom becoming a glamping location where glampers will be able to participate in yoga classes if they like and receive treatments from qualified therapists Emily and Kelley whilst enjoying the beautiful surroundings. Kingdom Yoga is planning on offering more classes during the week, retreats and they also want to take Kingdom Yoga on tour.
So, if work’s becoming overwhelming, if you’re not feeling that jolly about the festive season or if you just want to connect with yourself for 2018, contact Kingdom Yoga, Lauren Barber or search for another yoga studio in our local area. Then, find your space, move your body, breathe and just be.
By Caroline Kings (firstname.lastname@example.org)