Valerie May is a yoga teacher who has been practising yoga for 20 years. She teaches vinyasa flow yoga, offering a fluid, dynamic class that integrates breath with movement. Valerie talks to Willowberry natural skincare about how yoga can reconnect us to the present moment, why yoga is about mental wellbeing as well as fitness and how there’s a yoga style for everyone.
How did yoga become such an intrinsic part of your life?
I first came to yoga in my early twenties when a friend asked if I would join her at a beginner’s class. She didn’t stick to it but I continued for some time and really enjoyed it, although I didn’t really understand what it was all about back then.
I then had a hiatus for a couple of years but returned to regular practice in my mid-twenties after a back injury sustained at the gym. I found that yoga practically cured it and increased my flexibility, stamina and fitness. At the same time it had the unexpected benefit of dramatically reducing the anxiety and stress levels that I was experiencing as a result of my corporate job. I fell in love with the practice and could not wait to go to class each week! I now mainly practice at home and combine my yoga practice with meditation.
After having my two children I decided to study with The British Wheel of Yoga, completing their 80 hour Foundation Course. The learning from this course, along with my long-term practice with the world-renowned Katy Appleton, cemented my decision to follow a career in teaching yoga. My classes allow you to soothe, relax, rejuvenate, energise and calm the mind and body and assist you in rebalancing if you have a stressful, non-stop lifestyle.
What are the benefits of yoga and how does it contribute to wellbeing?
Yoga is an ancient system of Indian well-being and self-improvement. It is one of the few forms of exercise where there is a direct connection between the body and mind. In fact, the word yoga is widely accepted to mean union, i.e. bringing together the mental, physical and emotional states. I strongly believe that any movement practice is essential for us to maintain and improve overall flexibility, and yoga is excellent for assisting us to stay healthy and keep moving.
Yoga helps us to be calmer and more present in life. The movement, breath, focus on the body, the sensations arising and falling, really help to make my students feel more in the here and now, rather than in their heads thinking about the past or the future.
When we become more present and less stressed - through practicing yoga or any mindfulness practice - we are more likely to make better and wiser decisions in our lives. We may be more mindful as to how we act, speak and think and be less reactive.
A lot of us have become disconnected to being in the here and now. We have endless to-do lists, we aren’t looking after ourselves as well as we should do, we are very busy in our heads and over-using digital technology. All of this really stresses the nervous system. Yoga and the techniques within yoga practice can reconnect us to the present moment and make us feel more still and calm generally.
What does vinyasa flow yoga entail and how does it differ from other types of yoga?
Vinyasa is a method that doesn’t have a guru connected to it, meaning we don’t have to adhere to a set system but can choose from the many different styles on offer when creating classes. This allows for creativity and expression, but there is a great responsibility to be mindful as to how we place these within a class.
The Sanskrit translation for vinyasa means to place in a special way. Music, intention, mantra and choice of words through poetry and theme are used to create a deeper connection to the mental and emotional aspect of yoga. The concept of inner listening can then be applied to the rest of our lives.
What is your yoga philosophy?
People are so stressed out in their busy lives these days. A lot of people are constantly living in a low level of stress state, where the sympathetic nervous system is activated. So my absolute focus is to give people a sanctuary each week to allow them to literally slow down, calm and balance their nervous systems.
What type of changes have you witnessed in your yoga clients?
I have noticed incredible changes in some of my clients. People with chronic anxiety and stress have found that yoga really helps to them to calm down and shift.
For some of my one-to-one clients I have noticed amazing shifts in them physically. One of my clients is in her late 60s and had never done much exercise as she had such a busy career. After six months, her flexibility and movement has increased dramatically and she has so much more energy.
One of my main areas of focus is supporting mamas-to-be in pregnancy yoga and new mums in postnatal and baby yoga. Yoga for pregnancy and birth has wonderful benefits.
What would you advise as best practices in yoga?
Having had two children and being in my 40s, I have to be very mindful of my joints - knees, lower back, shoulders and neck. This has made me think seriously about my students’ bodies and how I teach them. In yoga there is a concept called ‘Ahimsa’, which means non-harm. So my main priority is to keep my students safe and injury-free.
I realised that every single body has their own unique skeletal structure, range of motion and hence expression within a given yoga pose. I have learned that many people simply do not have the ranges of motion in their joints required to align to some of the most common yoga poses, and those people that do, often take their joints beyond their functional range of motion - something that shouldn’t be exploited.
How can someone decide which style of yoga is best for their needs?
I would advise students to try different teachers and styles in order to find one that resonates with them. Someone they feel comfortable with. Have a chat with the teacher first to see if the style they teach would be appropriate for them.
If someone feels very intimidated about walking into a class, then perhaps they could try an online class first. Or most teachers offer one-to-one lessons to gain confidence.
I would really recommend people to just give yoga a go, and know that you do not have to be really flexible, super-fit or feel like you have to look a certain way. Get on the mat and see how much better you feel afterwards!
I often hear people say you have to be bendy and skinny to go to a yoga class. This really is a myth I would love to dispel. Yoga is meant to be for anybody no matter what age, size or flexibility.
Do you recommend any other types of fitness alongside yoga?
Most certainly there are many other areas of fitness that work very well with yoga. I practice Pilates reformer weekly and have found it complements my yoga practice beautifully. It made me really aware of how my body moves in yoga and has improved my core stability.
Many of my students combine running and other sports with their yoga practice for balance. The mindful aspect of yoga can also be an excellent way to provide focus and clarity within their chosen sport.
How do you nurture your own wellbeing?
I practice yoga at home regularly. Recently this has become more of a gentle practice, which helps me to slow down from all the busy-ness of running a small business and looking after my two young children.
I have also been meditating daily for a year now. It has become a non-negotiable part of my daily routine. I have found this has created tremendous shifts for me both mentally and emotionally. I learned the technique of Vedic meditation, which involves repeating a mantra over and over, just sitting, in the moment, being aware and noticing everything that comes and goes; breath, thoughts, emotions, sensations, whether good or bad. Sometimes this can be easy and sometimes it can be very hard. I find I am calmer, more skilful in navigating decisions and less reactive when difficult situations arise.
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