Finding balance

Petcharapan Sangsawang used to suffer from allergies. Nearly every morning, her nose ran, she would sneeze and her head would be uncomfortably congested.

“Now I know how to breathe,” she says. “My lungs are healthier and stronger, so they can cope with the allergies.”

What did she do to alleviate her problems? She studied Iyengar yoga – it took around two years of regular practise before she overcame her ailment, but overcome it she has.

“I wanted to make myself fit and healthy,” explains Petcharapan, who also suffers from low blood pressure. “I don’t want to have to take medicines. I know that as I get older, I will need to take more medicine, so I want to take as little as possible now.”

Michon Semon, a professional photographer who has had two exhibitions of her work in Bangkok, also practises Iyengar yoga. “I felt my body was in need. I am not an active athlete – I have never been an athletic person, but yoga felt right,” she says. “I took some yoga classes about thirty years ago and enjoyed it very much – I wish now I had kept it up.”

Michon will be 60 this July. “Practising yoga makes me feel like my body is still capable of doing something new,” she says. “Whatever age you are, you can still do it.”

In fact BKS Iyengar – the guru who pioneered the style of yoga named after him and is recognised by many as the foremost living teacher and authority in the world on hatha yoga – taught the Queen of Belgium to do a headstand when she was 83 years of age.

Furthermore, your writer is not biased. After just ten days of daily Iyengar yoga classes at a spa on Koh Samui, I regained movement in a stiff wrist which I had not had since it was fractured fifteen years ago. Suddenly activities like playing the piano and tennis were things I could consider doing again.

Now I attend classes around three times a week, and after four months I feel what can perhaps best be described as a more complete awareness of my body. Things connect. I feel lighter. I’m not as grouchy (relatively, I mean) or as stressed out as I used to be, and practising creates a clarity and calmness of mind – yoga’s more than just a physical thing.

Bangkok’s first Iyengar yoga studio has opened only recently. Justin Herold, an American who has been teaching yoga at various health clubs here for the past seven years, opened his own studio on Soi Thong Lor in October. This is where Petcharapan, Michon and I attend classes.

Petcharapan has been studying with Herold for four years, having previously been his student at the Regent – he has also taught at the Sukhothai, Phillip Wain, the Capitol Club, and the JW Marriott Hotel, among other places. (Another of Herold’s students has been with him for the full seven years.)

“Since I started learning yoga with Justin, I understand more about the balances and structures within my body,” says Petcharapan, who runs her own successful advertising business. Her job can be unpredictable and the pressure she faces is sometimes large. “But the yoga can help make my mind quiet and peaceful, and breathing calmly helps reduce the pressure.”

She has had various other teachers who have subsituted for Herold over the years, but prefers his method of teaching. “He is a very practical instructor. ” she says. “He can find props to help us do the poses, so we don’t feel like they’re too difficult to do. Some of the other teachers I’ve had don’t explain much – they just want the class to follow what they’re doing. But Justin explains why we have to do poses, and how to master the poses.” Petch has managed to get one of her best friends and her brother and sister to also come to classes.

Justin himself has been practicing yoga since 1979. His objective at first was simply to overcome injuries sustained during his long distance running – he was running around 140 kilometres a week. Eventually, however, Justin decided that it was yoga that provided the most complete and safest system for keeping healthy.

“With running, there’s a price or a penalty that you pay – because of the abuse you do to your body, you’re going to get injured. So what you try to do is minimise that. You try to run efficiently, intelligently, and do things that reduce your injuries,” Herold says.

And he thought for a long time that the benefits of running were greater than the price his body was paying. “But then I looked at yoga, and I thought, well, there’s really no penalty with this one. You get injured sometimes – I’ve had neck injuries – but nothing that can’t be corrected.”

There are numerous styles of yoga, but Justin chose the Iyengar method. The style is a very precise method of yoga – some might even say strict – but its flexible in the sense that it adapts to each individual’s level of ability by it’s use of various props such as belts, blocks, blankets and bolsters. As Michon pointed out, you can really start practising at any age.

“I tried other schools of yoga,” Herold says. “But I found that the Iyengar system was the one that best suited me and my background, which was in construction.” In fact, he thinks it’s a good idea for students to try different schools until they find both the style that appeals most to them, and a teacher who they get along with. “The main thing is finding a teacher that you like. The end results are pretty much the same.”

Eventually Justin got to a point in his practice where he wanted to learn how to teach. “Teaching is a way to educate yourself,” he says. “So I took a teacher training program, and was certified in 1989. I taught at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of Los Angeles for three years, and then wound up here.”

Herold’s ninety-minute classes here are relaxed, but he encourages students to push themselves in order to get the most out of their classes. He’s a thoughtful instructor who injects a sense of humour into things when they get too serious. “He takes care of his students,” Petcharapan says. “You can ask him any questions and most of the time he has a sensible answer!”

The numbers at his studio are steadily increasing. “People come because they’ve tried other things which haven’t worked for them – like they’ve had a problem with their back, and they haven’t gotten any results. And then they read about yoga. They come for a lot of reasons.”

At the moment, women outnumber men substantially in his classes. “Most women are more flexible – men tend to be stronger, but they have a lot less flexibility.”

But you certainly don’t need to be flexible to do yoga – doing the poses to the best of your individual ability means you’re getting just as much benefit from doing them as people who can seemingly wrap their ankles around their neck.

And if you’re persistent you’ll find your flexibility will naturally improve anyway. Along with your overall health, your muscle tone, your clarity of mind, your immunity to disease, your ability to deal with physical ailments independently…

Classes are run daily except Fridays at the Iyengar Yoga Studio, third floor, Fifty-Fifth Plaza Building, 90 Sukhumvit Soi 55 (Thong Lor) – within walking distance of Thong Lor BTS station. Bt 330 for a drop in class, Bt 2700 for ten lessons to be used within two months, Bt 2700 for unlimited classes for a month, or Bt 27,000 for a yearly membership. For more information, phone 714 9924.

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