Seventy-five-year-old movie screen legend Jane Fonda, after releasing her own ‘Yoga for Beginners’ DVD, says it makes her feel “happy, alive and healthy.” LAURA MURPHY - who is a good few years younger - tried her first yoga class to see what all the fuss is about
Lying on my back, my hands resting on my abdomen, my eyelids felt heavy, my legs like lead, my entire body relaxed.
Less than an hour ago, I had arrived for this yoga class, slightly late, very flustered after a long drive from Belfast to Poyntzpass, and with just a tad of typical Monday morning gloominess infiltrating my mood.
Now, I felt perfectly at ease, and the only thing I was aware of was the sound of instructor Adeline Henry’s soft tones, telling us to concentrate on each breath we took, before visualising ourselves leaving our bodies, tiptoeing to the door of the Community Centre and sneaking out, meeting people in the street who appeared not to see us, and taking wings and soaring above the skies, soaking up the sight of the sunlight reflecting on the clouds beneath us.
Sound awfully ‘new agey’ and a little, well, wacky? Some might think so. Myself, to some extent, included. But yoga is something I had been curious about, and with all the hype about its apparent physical and mental benefits, I was keen to try it out.
And it was this part of the class, the relaxation segment, officially known as ‘yoga nidra’, which I enjoyed the most. It also included the ‘sankalpa’, which was when Adeline asked us to make an affirmation to ourselves, silently of course, and in total we had to repeat it six times.
I shan’t reveal that private promise right now, but what I will say is that my mood was calm - verging on serene - for the rest of the day.
Certainly, for instructor Adeline, from Loughgilly, Co Armagh, but now living in Poyntzpass, yoga is her escape, and something she describes unashamedly as “sort of like magic”.
The mother-of-three is a yoga tutor for the Southern Regional College, which runs the classes in Poyntzpass.
She had her first taste of the pastime more than 10 years ago, whilst she was a student at university in Edinburgh.
“The woman who taught the class was just lovely,” she recalls.
“She was an older woman but she was so healthy and vibrant and she could do all these fancy positions.”
However it wasn’t until later in life when Adeline found herself being negatively affected by a number of personal difficulties that she came back to the solace of yoga.
“I had a book on yoga and when I was having an anxiety attack, I would turn to it and I always felt better.”
In 2002, she enrolled on a yoga teacher training course at Newry Technical College, and in spite of her intentions not to go into teaching, she found she really enjoyed this aspect of the subject, which was headed up by established local yoga trainer and instructor Marie Quail.
After the birth of her children, she got “back into yoga teaching” thanks to the encouragement of Alistair Livingstone, who runs Yoga Studio in Newry.
Today, she practises yoga herself five days out of seven, so she was certainly the perfect candidate to instruct me in my own first ever yoga class.
As someone who enjoys exercise classes on a regular basis, I would consider myself to be flexible enough.
Therefore I really enjoyed some of the poses we - myself, eight other ladies, and one man, James - were asked to perfect.
An excellent sense of balance was needed for the ‘dancer’ pose, which involved stretching one arm out in front and using your other to grab your foot and pull in slowly behind your body, so that you were teetering on one leg.
After this and a few other poses, it was time to get down on our mats. All moves were slow, controlled, relaxed, there was no pressure to rush or try anything too complicated, and the smiling, casually dressed group of students added to a friendly atmosphere.
After the final part of the relaxation was complete, we gradually ‘came round’, rolling onto one side, our eyes still shut, slowly up to a sitting position, and rubbed our palms together to create heat, after which we placed them over our eyes, and blinked as we opened them.
“How did you find that?” asked one of the ladies.
I confessed that I had enjoyed it so much I didn’t know how I was going to manage to go back to work later that day.
I was interested to hear what fellow yoga students thought of the whole business.
“It’s just a wee bit of time to yourself,” said mum-of-two Alison Clarke.
The 35-year-old admitted that she “did have some preconceptions” about it before she started a few years ago.
“I thought, ‘I’ll never relax enough to enjoy this’. And I thought it might be a bit ‘new agey’,” she confessed.
“But I enjoy the fact that you don’t have to really keep up with anybody other than yourself. It’s not competitive and you can do what you want to do.”
When local lady Maureen Flack tells me she’s 77 I gasp in surprise and declare that yoga must have something to do with her youthful looks.
“I find it very relaxing and the breathing part is very beneficial to me, and of course I use muscles that I don’t normally use,” she said, adding that she finds it “inspirational.”
Maureen said that she would encourage other people who are tempted to try yoga.
“It empowers you and allows you to just be able to totally relax and forget about the outside world. That’s my favourite part of it.
“It helps me enormously, and I take away the ability to be relaxed in life and not get worked up about everything.”
For Poyntzpass woman Kathleen McClory, yoga has proved to be something which helped her on a healing process.
“I’ve been doing yoga for a long time, it all originated from a cancer diagnosis.” said the 56-year-old.
She was further diagnosed with osteoporosis, and found herself in a dark place.
“I was going down a dreadful road and I thought, ‘I’m too young for this,’ she said.
Someone suggested that she give yoga a try, and it helped her immensely.
“I found it be a gentle way of bringing mobility into the spine and the limbs, and with mobility comes strength,” she says, adding that the practice “opens you up on many levels.”
Says Kathleen: “I have my limitations, but I don’t dwell on what I can’t do, I work with what I can do.”
I listened to these women, and reflected on their own, very different reasons for coming to Adeline’s class.
The relaxation element is a central thread - after all, women today lead frantically busy lives, and it is little wonder that we need to physically schedule ‘me time’ into our hectic timetables.
Adeline believes many people, both men and women, “don’t know how to relax.”
“You might get a glass of wine and watch TV, and you’re sitting like this” - she hunches her shoulders and stiffens her limbs, as we chat alone, after her students have left, chilled out and ready to take on the challenges of the day.
“You’re not getting that deep relaxation, whereas with yoga, your head switches off.”
Far from being a sports fanatic at an early age, Adeline says - reassuringly - that “at school in PE the only thing I remember being commended for was being able to straighten my legs up to the ceiling from lying down.”
But after getting into yoga, first at university and later in adulthood, she became hooked on “the good feeling during and after a class: calming, relaxing and lighter in every way.”
She says: “I love yoga because it makes me feel happy. I feel light physically and mentally after a session. I feel my mind is clearer.”
And she is comfortable about addressing some of the concerns people who are not familiar with yoga may have about it; many are wary of it because of its associations with religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, and Adeline knows this.
“For a time I worried that maybe I was getting too much into yoga; maybe it was too weird and wacky, coming as I do from a traditional Ulster, farming, church-going background,” she says.
“Now with a daily practice I see that it isn’t weird or wacky, it just allows me to feel more connected and happy.”
So how does yoga help those who enjoy it, older people in particular?
“First of all, it makes you feel better!” says Adeline. “Yoga facilitates the body functioning as well as it possibly can. It often reduces or gets rid of non-permanent physical restrictions.
“It is therefore of special relevance for people as they age and start to lose their natural mobility.
“Not everyone can do the physically very challenging postures, but everyone can do modified versions of them. Even those with very restricted mobility can learn breathing techniques.
“The idea of ‘use it or lose it’ is sometimes applied in later life; however the essence of yoga is kindness both to yourself and others, so it is a gentle way to work with your body and encourage it to move and gently challenge it to increase flexibility and mobility.”