Fronted by swishy-haired instructors sipping green juice, it’s easy to see how yoga gained a reputation for being inaccessible. As someone who can barely touch her knees, let alone toes, the prospect of being surrounded by flexible fitness fanatics seemed daunting to me when I started yoga. Many others are deterred by the cost of classes, lack of time or the belief that yoga and meditation won’t make any difference to their lives.
Despite the misconceptions, yoga is an inclusive activity and can be practised by anyone, no matter what your budget or fitness levels. And here in Hammersmith and Fulham, local instructors are keen to shake off the myths I once believed. “People think you have to be very bendy and flexible to be ‘good’ at yoga,” says Nahid de Belgeonne, a Hammersmith resident who offers online classes. “But it really isn’t about putting your legs behind your head or anything like that. It’s about moving enough so that you can deal with the more stressful aspects of life and learn to better make the most of your life in the here and now.”
She specialises in teaching yoga and mindfulness to people who are sceptical about the benefits of these practices. Her clients range from athletes to stressed out business people, and those struggling with addiction or long-term illness. Alongside yoga she teaches somatic movement, which helps people to retrain their muscles in order to relax. “Your body always needs to move. When you are feeling stressed, you need to move. Otherwise it creates a constant loop of stress, which can make illnesses worse. It helps to release muscles and get your blood flowing.”
For some people, yoga can be a way to work through stressful periods. When Anna Rondina was made redundant in 2009, she found that yoga helped her to relax and process some of the difficulties she’d been facing. “I had just discovered my spine had fused and I was in a lot of physical pain. I didn’t have a very positive outlook because of the pain but yoga really helped me to relax, connect with myself and learn to cope.” She later went on to train as a yoga instructor. “Just over a year ago I had to sign up for universal credit when I was made redundant again,” she explains. “I worked with a coach through the job centre in Shepherds Bush who was incredibly supportive. I invested some of that money in a new wellness retreat business, which offers yoga, mindfulness and nutrition.” Although they are currently on hold, Anna hopes to relaunch her retreats as soon as it’s safe to do so. She also found that yoga helped her to rehabilitate after she was ill with coronavirus. “I became unwell at the end of March. On the sixth day my lungs felt like they were on fire. I was having palpitations and muscle soreness, as well as night sweats and a tight chest.” Although she never needed to be hospitalised, the disease left her feeling weak. “Meditation and yoga helped me when I recovered to put me in a more positive frame of mind.”
Dipak, a West London-based doctor, believes that yoga is a great tool to use alongside other therapies or treatments when you’re unwell. “I got into it on recommendation of my wife 10 years ago due to the stress of my job,” he says. “The first few classes I didn’t get it at all. It was mainly women and I felt like it wasn’t for me. But eventually after three or four sessions, I started to feel some benefits. I found that after a class there was a sense of stillness and calmness. I wish I could pocket that feeling and keep it going.”
He continued to have yoga classes in his home after he was diagnosed with cancer last year. “It would take my mind off the hell I was going through with chemotherapy. I started attending a local class that was specifically for cancer sufferers and I spoke to other patients about how it impacted them.” Although in-person classes are currently off the table due to the pandemic, he’s been practicing at home four times a week via online classes. “There is still a sense of community and the feeling I get after yoga definitely lasts for a few hours after a class. Those are the reasons that you keep going.”
In a bid to get more people in the Hammersmith and Fulham Community interested in yoga and mindfulness, many instructors are offering free and discounted sessions throughout the crisis. While Nahid offers free classes for key workers, she also runs an online meditation session for anyone to join on a Monday night. Meanwhile Anna has launched Instagram classes for anyone who wishes to join. “I’m not looking for payment, though it would be great if people could leave reviews that will support my business when I start back up.”
Another local instructor, Shamita Ray, is running six weekly Zoom classes for existing clients and plans to launch a specialist free class for vulnerable groups. “Yoga is suitable for anyone of any age, any body type or injuries or illness. You can practice on a chair or do something as simple as meditation or breathing exercises. There’s a whole manner of different practices.” She adds that you don’t have to be bendy or take Instagram pictures of yourself on a tropical beach. “As long as physically and mentally you’re gaining from the practice, that’s all you need. I want to reach out and help anyone I can during the crisis. It won’t be a magic wand, but hopefully it’s a gesture and I’d love to help people in any way I can.”
If you are interested in taking up classes or exploring what else our borough has to offer, check out our yoga listings page for details. If you teach or run other health and fitness classes, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to get your company added to our website.