I have a memory of my Mum wearing flared trousers at the end of the 70s and telling me about yoga. It was a brilliant form of exercise, she said, that taught you real strength and flexibility. At the end of her practice she felt like she was melting into the floor. My Mum’s face and voice were so illuminated, animated and happy it made me want to do yoga, too.
I remember trying some poses from a yoga book I found lying around my childhood home one day. And reading about breathing, in through your nose and out through your mouth, slowly and deeply. I practised those things, and liked it, but self-teaching could only take a kid so far.
As a young adult I bought an Ashtanga yoga video and started practising at home. I lacked the confidence to go to a class, suffering from the mistaken notion yoga was for girls and not realising the terrific opportunity therein. But I enjoyed the video, and over that summer made good progress. As years went by, I tried some other DVDs, and occasionally went to classes. I even went on a disastrous yoga holiday, but that’s a story for another time. While I enjoyed the classes, there was nothing compelling or exciting enough to make me come back for more.
This changed when I rocked up this summer at the Yogarden in Bophut, Koh Samui, Thailand. It was rated as the number one thing to do in the area on TripAdvisor. I was glad to find an opportunity to stay fit and move my body in the Thai humidity so I signed up for a beginners’ class.
Even the journey to the Yogarden was magical, like a treasure trail. The venue is set off the main road past Thai dwellings and a cookery school. I’d begun to doubt I was going the right way when I saw the sign. Turning in, I discovered a beautiful secret garden of a place. Taking my sandals off, I made my way up the steps into the cafe cum office cum hangout area. A brief introduction to Bonnie, the founder of Yogarden followed and then I was shown to the workout space in the open air but with a covered roof. You’re surrounded by nature and can hear birds, cicadas, cats and occasional humans as you work out. Each time I went in the mats were arranged differently- a refreshing touch.
But my love affair at the Yogarden wasn’t some holiday romance, brought on by the sights, sounds and ambience. It was much more profound. It was the first time I truly connected with a yoga class, and over the two weeks I practised there I opened up physically and mentally through the practice.
I loved Anna Sugarman’s classes so much I made sure not to miss any day she was teaching. Anna brings a real sense of fun and play to her sessions. While there is a carefully thought-out sequence in each session, she wasn’t afraid to wing it and take us to unexpected places, sometimes with hilarious results. I was really surprised and challenged when she asked us to do headstands. Since I was seven I’d struggled to do these and had long told myself I just couldn’t do them. So when Anna supported me, helping me reposition my hands, then to take one leg up and rest it on my elbow, then the other, it was an act of great kindness that astonished me and changed my perceptions of my limitations. She told me confidently I’d be able to do it within a week.
Anna makes excellent use of music, which she often introduces about a third of the way through the workout, to help deepen the mood, featuring artists from Bright Eyes to Pink Floyd to Guns’n’Roses, as well as more traditional ethereal fodder. She brings things back always to breath, driving each movement, really working to get the group breathing together, and artfully linking it to the rhythm of the music. At the end of one practice, I remember her asking us to breath in as one, and then to breathe out, our breaths intermingling with those of the biology of creatures around us creating a potent soup in the evening air. Focusing on the breath helps take your mind off discomfort when you’re holding a difficult position, and often by going internal, when you come back to the external you realise your body has adjusted and found better equilibrium by relaxing into the pose.
I developed a lot of strength through the dynamism of Anna’s chaturangas, yoga push-ups engaging the entire core and upper body and demanding explosive power from the legs. I wasn’t previously familiar with the term, but Anna repeatedly moved in and out of Sanskrit and English so fluidly during the sessions that I picked up a lot of terminology. In the vinyasa flow sequences you move dynamically and powerfully through a series of poses. I’d be absolutely dripping in sweat, struggling to open my eyes at times as it was streaming down my forehead. The heat and humidity played a part, but my body was responding to extremely challenging exercise, and therefore growing. The more practised yogis around me hardly broke sweat, despite going deeper and further into their poses than me. It was very humbling for someone who is used to being one of the stronger athletes when I’m with Run Dem Crew to be one of the weaker ones here. I felt privileged to be able to see such artful technicians at work. One girl had such a fantastic combination of grace and strength it was a pleasure to watch, not that I had much time to.
Anna often asked us to “find your edge”- a challenging place beyond ease and comfort, but not teetering over into pain- the equivalent of threshold pace in running. This was referred to particularly in her yin class, where poses were held for 3-7 minutes. The emphasis was on maintaining the pose, transcending discomfort, and deepening the pose as the muscles opened up. Anna explained that yin related to woman, darkness, the left side and the moon, compared to yang, which is characterised through fire, action and the power and dynamism that embody most of waking life. This class really appealed to me, but my favourite was “Vin and yin”, combining the vinyasa flow and then moving into the cool-down of the yin practice.
I also took one very different class led by Kom, a hard taskmaster. I believe his father and grandfather are both yogis, but he hadn’t really practised seriously until he became very ill a number of years ago. He found wellness through his practice, and now teaches a very muscular and powerful class which took me to some very difficult places. I’m glad I did it, but decided not to go back for more until I’d got a better base to work from. He also gave a deeper, more powerful three-minute Thai massage at the end of the practice than all my other Thai massages combined.
Three years ago I had a hernia operation. I generally now feel strong in that area, having done core and strengthening work, but at points during these yoga classes, I was taken to the edge of where I felt that part of body could go. It was a little scary, but I listened to my body and didn’t push further when I felt tightness in that area. I told myself to trust the process and reflected that by moving this area gently into more challenging positions I would actually deepen the strength there and safeguard against future injury. I’m really grateful to Anna and Kom for helping me with that.
The food at Yogarden is as good as I’ve eaten on the island. I particularly recommend the pomelo salad. It tastes a bit like grapefruit mixed with chillies and seeds and was one firecracker of a dish.
I strongly recommend yoga as a fantastic way of building core and full body strength. You will get toned, flexible and strong, but won’t develop huge muscles, and as such it’s ideal for runners like me, although anyone would benefit. It’s great for your mind, helping to develop reservoirs of calm and to extend the horizons of what you consider yourself capable of. I know most of my readers won’t have the opportunity in the near future to go to Yogarden, but if you ever do visit Koh Samui, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It was the absolute highlight of my time there.
In the meantime, you’ll have to seek out a good class where you live, like me. Having found one I really connected with, I feel better able to identify what yoga makes my heart sing, so I’m hopeful I’ll be able to maintain at least a weekly practice from now on. Thank you, Yogarden.