Yoga has become a big business. It comes with its own fashion and accessories. There are fancy studios, people who do body-contorting tricks of so many varieties. It even has its own lingo. Yet yoga is still one of the best ways to stretch, strengthen, get calm, gain energy and build focus – with results continually backed up by scientific research. We asked livehealthy.ae’s expert – and owner of the Abu Dhabi studio The Hot House – Pem Fassa how to get and stay real with an enduring practice.
What do you say to people who may be wanting to try yoga but are intimidated by how it looks from the outside?
Overcoming fear and doubt is always a challenge. Taking an introductory/gentle/beginner’s class is a step in the right direction. As there are so many disciplines of yoga, it takes a little trial and error before finding the right style for any individual. Unfortunately the images we see on social media can misrepresent the many facets of a yoga practice and deter people from even trying. What we need to realize is that it takes practice and determination to achieve results – this applies to any sport, activity or hobby in life. There are people who will adore yoga from the outset, and those who will grow to love it over time. There are even those, like my husband, who after all these years is not a fan of practicing yoga, but loves how he feels afterwards. There is something for everyone.
When I tell men I love yoga, they usually roll their eyes or say they aren’t flexible enough. Yet I see more men in my classes really enjoying it. How do you encourage guys to get on board?
Flexibility starts in the mind! Yoga is where to go to become flexible. Muscles need to be trained for strength as well as flexibility. I once read this quote: “Strength without flexibility leaves you with rigidity; flexibility without strength leaves you with instability”
Someone the other day said they hated yoga because they couldn’t stop thinking. What exactly is your brain supposed to be doing when you are on the mat?
I would advise anyone who thinks their brain is in overdrive to take yoga! In a carefully crafted yoga class there is usually a focus on breath awareness [pranayama], which helps immensely to still these constant fluctuations of the mind. If we consciously remind ourselves to come back to simply “watching” the breath flow in and out of the body, the chances are, we shift away from the thinking mind and become more aware of our presence. Just being. We can’t completely switch off the mind, but through yoga we can train the mind to be more focused on one thing – you breath. Your breath is the most important teacher in any yoga class. Yoga is an introspective journey and the focus is primarily on the breath leading the movements.
How do you stay inspired to practice over the years? What keeps you coming back to yoga?
I started practicing when I was in my teens. My purpose then was to overcome certain fears and to try and get a better understanding of the world. This experience opened my eyes to so many things I struggled with at that age, and I was truly enjoying the posture practice [asana] the most. I was curious to explore and integrate all eight limbs of yoga, and did so over the years. I practiced yoga during both my pregnancies and had the easiest deliveries. I am grateful to yoga for this. I have never stepped off my mat and felt anything but better, happier, calmer after a practice. I was recently injured after attempting a pose that required deep compression of the neck. During my recovery I shifted toward a more spiritual practice, that is, seated mediation, breathing techniques, restorative techniques. At every major crossroads in my life, I turned to yoga for guidance, patience and strength.
How do you see rise of the Instagram yogi affecting the practice?
Instagram yogis can either inspire or deter people from yoga altogether. There is so much power in those images, and sadly the almost bare, sculpted figures photographed in extreme poses can send the wrong message. The yogis we find on Instagram often represent big yoga apparel brands, and more often than not are of a certain body shape and size. Fundamentally, yoga is for every body type. I don’t think the pictures depicted on Instagram always send this message across. I find that a lot of the images on Instagram may confuse people as to what yoga really is and isn’t. Most of the pictures depict a hybrid of classical yoga postures with an element of gymnastics. I go back to the forefathers of yoga and can’t imagine they would align themselves or approve of yogis practicing handstands in skimpy underwear in a kitchen. There is so much more than the physical practice in yoga. Sadly, a picture depicting the spiritual aspect of yoga, like a yogi sitting in meditation, may not have the same appeal as a picture of a yogi practicing a backbend against a beach backdrop.
Who are your favorite people in the yoga world? How do they inspire you?
People who have a sustained practice, who devote and dedicate their time to yoga, inspire me the most. People who practice what they preach and teach in and out of class have the most profound effect on me. Over the years, I have met, followed, admired and even had the honor of practicing with, a few of such yogis: Sri Dharma Mittra [the Dharma yoga founder], David Life [of Jivamukti], Max Strom, Briohny Smyth, Dice Lida Klein, Matthieu Boldron and Noah Maze, to name a few.
Featured photo courtesy Unsplash
The owner of The Hot House studio in Al Zeina, Pem has been a yoga teacher for more than 20 years, training extensively, first at the Sivananda yoga school in Geneva, and later through Bodhi Yoga Academy and Bryce Yoga. She's also a certified Anti Gravity yoga instructor.