Experiencing Yogasana

Some yoga classes are special. They’re experiences.

The Yogasana class I had last weekend with Stewart Gilchrist was more than an experience. It was a manifesto: a spiritual, political, intellectual manifesto. It went beyond physical practice, breathing, meditation, and became a reflection on today’s world, consumerism and hipster yogis… among other things.

Let me start from the beginning.

I was spending the weekend in London and one of my friends recommended Stewart’s class at Indaba Yoga Studio as a one-of-a-kind yoga class. No need to tell me twice, I was in! A lovely coincidence brought me the lovely company of Irina Meissner, a great Zurich yoga teacher (read more here) and friend, who happened to be in town that very day. So here we are on a Sunday morning, claiming two spots in this always overbooked Yogasana class for experienced practitioners – let’s see what we’re in for!

The studio room was generously sized, already stuffy after the previous class, and every spot was claimed by a mat. Surprisingly enough, it even had mirrors at the front but given the size (and pace) of the class, they weren’t serving for self-alignment.

Now on to the class itself: it was certainly fast-paced, probably one of the quickest starts I’ve ever had. The first few minutes were spent in standing guided meditation, encouraged to develop awareness of our own prana, i.e. vital energy, flowing through our bodies. We chanted powerfully until the room was truly vibrating from the collective sound.

And then it was action time: turbo sun salutations A, turbo sun salutations B, turbo flow #1, turbo flow #2. Somehow most of the class knew the order of the poses, which made me think that some of the sequences were Stewart’s “signature flows”. At any rate, this class qualified as advanced all the way, with challenging asanas, a gazillion chaturangas, and people floating into handstands while I was gasping for breath transitioning from upward to downward facing dogs.

The level was however not the special element of this class – it was certainly not the first time I was truly challenged in a London yoga class (read more here). I found (i) Stewart’s authenticity (keep on reading…) and (ii) the hands-on alignment from the teaching assistants really impressive: they made sure that they came around just in time to align both sides of asymmetrical poses. For instance, I received hands-on support on both sides of my trikonasana and revolved bird of paradise pose.

By halftime into the class there wasn’t much oxygen left and a lot of sweaty humidity. The mirrors at the front were condensed, and Stewart drew the Animal Rebellion logo on them and commented on the protest movement taking over London.

Before guiding us into pranayama, i.e. breathing exercises, he reflected (in a very straightforward way) about the quality of air in London, citing recent studies that compared pollution levels in the City to those of New Delhi and Shanghai. Breathing is becoming toxic in certain areas of the world, and however intense our pranayama practice may be, we’re still inhaling poison. But, as he dryly put it: let’s do some breathing exercises, “for what it’s worth“…

That was of course not the end of the manifesto. Later, as we were holding a 5-minute shoulder stand, he played ABBA at max volume and commented on hipster yogis’ obsession with mantra music and “enlightening” drug-powered experiences. I wasn’t aware that “scoring ayahuasca” had become a common thing in London but I’m not surprised. For those not familiar with this, it’s a traditional shamanic treatment with various psychedelic effects, which has become very popular in these “millennial times” as people are looking for new transcendental experiences.

One may or may not agree with his comments but one thing is for sure: Stewart’s class was HIS class – his style, his thoughts, his values, in yoga and in life.

My biggest personal takeaway from his discourse was this: “you can only teach what you have experienced yourself.” As a yoga teacher in training, I find that to be very true, smart and responsible. And hearing this from Stewart made me value his class even more: it was him sharing his experiences of many years’ practice with us; him inspiring many people to discover and respect yoga; him speaking freely about today’s realities and maybe sparking critical thinking in some of us…

I can imagine this class is not everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s alright. I also don’t think it would be my “go-to” class if I were living in London (seriously, too many chaturangas!)… In any case, it’s a true experience! Something you need to taste before you judge.

No drugs involved, just prana ♥

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