Support for breast cancer sufferers

"It was like the end of my world," says twenty-eight year old Penkhra Jitjamnong, of being told two years ago that she had breast cancer. "I had so many questions, like why me? There were no right answers. I didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t know what to say when people would ask me ‘Are you going to die?’ "

As her illness progressed, she asked nurses about whether there were any support groups for breast cancer patients, and eventually a nurse gave her a brochure about the Bangkok Breast Cancer Support Group (BBC). "I’m so happy I found out about them. I’ve connected to a big family," she says. "The BBC will tell you about what to do if you lose your hair, how to feel good about yourself and stop thinking about being sick."

Dr Narongsak Kiatkikajornthada, an oncologist at Samitivej hospital, says that it can help cancer patients to talk to other people who have had a similar experience. "So you know that you will be okay later on. But in Thai culture, I’m not sure how it would work… At the moment, [a support group] would have to be gradually developed."

The BBC was launched more than a year ago by American Connie Larkin and two other women. When several of Larkin’s friends were diagnosed with breast cancer, she decided to do something to help them by getting the group going. "In America, support groups are very, very prevalent," Larkin says. "Even in a couple of other places in Asia, but not Bangkok."

The group consists of volunteer women from diverse backgrounds – there are currently nine women on the committee, who speak five languages between them – who are able to provide emotional support to people who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. "What we are trying to do with this group is provide alternatives to people, both Thais and expatriates. When people are diagnosed, they can call us and ask ‘Where do I go in Bangkok? What’s here for me? What services exist?’ "

As well as promoting community awareness of breast cancer, another of the group’s objectives is to create a resource centre with literature and current information. "We have tried to gather information from various cancer societies. We’ve also purchased books, and we research what’s coming out of the major cancer institutes. If people go to a doctor’s office here, there is little to sometimes no information."

Larkin hopes that doctors will let their patients know about the group. "Part of our success will be based on getting the support of physicians and their referrals. This is our main obstacle at the moment."

One of the main activities of the group are the monthly emotional support group meetings, held at a different hospital each time, which Penkhra found so useful. "I think we’re going to increase the number of meetings because the people who are sick and are coming to these meetings say they want more," says Larkin. "What we’re trying to do is encourage them to support each other, so after every meeting we send a list to everyone who participated and they can call each other."

Pensri Wanrakakit, an oncology nurse, says that she has often been asked by patients about whether it is possible to contact a support group anonymously. "Some patients want help over the phone, or Internet instead," she says.

Culturally, then, perhaps the group will take some time to be sought out by Thai women. Penkhra, however, remains baffled by this lack of enthusiasm to meet and talk about problems. "I don’t understand why Thais don’t talk. If you talk about something, it makes you feel better. When I was going to hospital, I wanted to talk to the other patients there, ask them how they were feeling. I thought maybe we should share our experience together," she says. "I really needed someone to talk to."

Penkhra has now recovered and is returning the favour to other patients by remaining active in the BBC. "If there’s someone new, I want to help her. I want to hug her, tell her that she will be fine. I understand what she’s feeling. I lost my hair – if someone is going to lose their hair, I’ll tell them to look at me," she says, indicating her now very healthy-looking locks.

Breast cancer in Thailand

Worldwide, it affects millions of women: It killed 385,000 women globally in 1997 and one in nine American women will have it by the age of 85. But there is some good news on breast cancer: with an increasing awareness of the disease, and more sophisticated technology, the early detection and treatment of breast cancer is becoming easier and is improving women’s chances of survival.

In Thailand, the statistics on the number of women diagnosed are difficult to pin down. For Bangkok, it’s estimated that just over 20 women in every 100,000 will be diagnosed with breast cancer – a rate higher than the rest of the country, but similar to rates in developed countries.

Dr Narongsak Kiatikajornthada, an oncologist at Samitivej Hospital, says that people are more aware of breast cancer than ever before. "And the incidence of breast cancer is now higher partly because we can detect it more easily. [At Samitivej] we see more breast cancer than cervical – but if you look at the national figures, cancer of the cervix is number one."

This, he says, is probably because the hospital’s patients tend to come from a higher socio-economic group among whom there’s a higher awareness – and fear – of the disease. There’s also a possible link between the diet of this group compared to others.

"There are now facilities all over the country, and we have the technology to detect breast cancer in its early stages. The problem is getting people to go and be examined," says Dr Sankiat Vayakornvichit, a gynaecologist at the same hospital.

Regular breast examinations and mammograms (breast x-rays) have a vital role to play in the early detection of breast cancer, when treatment has a much higher rate of success. At Samitivej, doctors recommend that women start to regularly self-examine with the onset of puberty, but they note that there are some cultural barriers to overcome for Thai women to do this. "The culture of Thai women means they are usually not keen on doing breast examinations," says Dr Pornthep Pramyothin, a surgeon on the Samitivej team.

But self-examinations alone are not enough – they are a necessary complement to regular mammograms. "If you can feel a lump in your breast, there’s a fifty per cent chance that it may spread through your system," says Dr Pornthep. Mammograms, on the other hand, can detect lumps that you can’t yet feel yourself.

"Guidelines for when to start screening for breast cancer vary between different national cancer bodies around the world, and between hospitals," says Connie Larkin, founder and co-ordinator of the Bangkok Breast Cancer Support Group. "We tend to promote the American Cancer Society’s guidelines because they are the most conservative."

These guidelines recommend that self-examinations should be done monthly from the age of 20, a clinical breast exam should be done every three years for women aged 20 to 39, and women aged over 40 should have a mammogram and a clinical exam every year.

When a lump is found a biopsy is required to find out whether it is cancerous. If cancer is detected, the course and combination of treatments followed will depend on the individual woman’s risk factors, her genetic disposition and the characteristics of the cancer."There is some choice," says Dr Pornthep. "The main objective is to control the disease. We need to consider the pros and cons of different treatments, explain the options to the patient and make a recommendation."

Dr Sankiat strongly encourages women to see their gynaecologist annually. "Please have a physical exam once a year – not just for a pap smear, but for a breast exam. It’s an integral part of a woman’s check up. And see a gynaecologist directly – we have more expertise in this area, it’s what we do. We want to see patients before they have a lump, rather than at a late stage, because with early detection, patients have a better prognosis."

The median age for women with breast cancer is 50 years old – that is, in a group of 100 women with breast cancer, around half will be aged close to 50. "If you are young and you find a lump, it’s probably fibrocystic disease, which is benign," adds Dr Narongsak. "I’ve seen many young women who have not been able to sleep because they have found a lump. They need to know that they are not in a high risk group, but they should still seek medical advice."

Where to do yoga in Bangkok

Although the history of yoga stretches back some 5,000 years, in Bangkok yoga has been taught formally for only around 40 years – rather surprising if you consider that some scholars assert that yoga practice is central to Buddhism. There are many different styles of yoga, with the main differences stemming from what component is emphasised. This can include the alignment of the body, the coordination of breath and movement, or maintaining a smooth flow from one posture to the next. What’s important is finding a style and a teacher that you like.

There are now more and more classes being offered around Bangkok, so options are on the increase. Here’s a rundown of a few teachers and places to start:

Teacher’s name: Chomchuen Sidthivech

Style taught: The Sivananda school of yoga, developed by Swami Vishnu-devananda and named after his teacher,is one of the world’s most popular. It follows a set structure of asanas, pranayama and relaxation. Chomchuen emphasises that this form of yoga is very graceful, with no jerking, a trait that can sometimes be observed in other schools. "Srivananda is smooth, gentle, slow," she says.

Background: Chomchuen learned the Sivananda form of yoga from possibly the first teacher to open a school in Bangkok. "My guru studied at the Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh in north India," she says. After several years there, he returned to Bangkok to open a yoga school on Soi Wattanayothin – that was around 40 years ago. Chomchuen studied with him for three years before she too began teaching at his school. Eventually they moved the school to her current home, where they taught together for around eight years. Since her guru died she has taught alone, although she is now training her youngest sister to assist her. One group of around ten women have been coming to her for more than ten years. "A lot of my students are like my sisters or my cousins," she says.

Contact details: 310/1 Ekamai Soi 16. Phone 392 9869.

Class times: Daily except Wed and Sun, 7.30-10am, 2-5pm. Students work individually, and can thus start and finish at their chosen time. Beginners should arrive early in the sessions.

Cost: Bt150 per class.

Teacher’s name: Justin Herold

Style taught: The Iyengar style of yoga is another of the world’s most popular. Created by BKS Iyengar – who taught the Queen of Belgium to do a headstand when she was 83 years old – this style is noted for its great attention to detail and the precise alignment of its postures, as well as the use of props such as blocks, belts, ropes, bolsters and blankets to help students get into poses. Iyengar teachers must complete a rigorous two- to five-year training program before being awarded certification. "I tried other schools of yoga," says Justin. "But I found that the Iyengar system was the one that best suited me."

Background: Justin started practising yoga in 1979. He eventually took a teacher training course in Los Angeles, taught at the Los Angeles Iyengar school for three years and has visited Pune, India, to study with BKS Iyengar on several occasions. He arrived in Bangkok nine years ago, where he has since taught at the Sukhothai, Phillip Wain, the Sheraton and the JW Marriott Hotel, among other places. He opened his own studio in October 1999.

Justin points out that one of the main things with yoga is finding both a school and a teacher you like. "The end results are pretty much the same. Some people like Ashtanga yoga, where you go through a series of postures, and it gets really rigorous. It’s subjective, and that’s why I get people here – because some people like the way I teach."

Contact details: 55th Plaza Building, 90 Sukhumvit Soi 55. Phone 714 9924.

Class times: Sessions are 1.5 hours, daily except Friday. See http://www.iyengar-yoga-bangkok.com/ for details.

Cost: Bt330 for drop-in, Bt2,700 for ten lessons to be used within two months, Bt2,700 for unlimited classes for one month or 27,000 for a yearly membership.

Teacher’s name: Hilary Fedderson

Style taught: Hilary teaches her own version of yoga which she describes as being mostly Iyengar and Sivananda based.

Background: Indian-born Hilary Feddersen learned yoga on and off while she was in her twenties. She started practising more seriously when she developed some lower back problems, and found the yoga helped strengthen her back and eventually eliminated the problems.

After learning yoga with eleven teachers of various disciplines she began teaching her own combination of yoga. Besides the basic yoga asanas, Hilary believes the breathing and the meditative aspects of yoga are very important components to be included in each practice in order to receive the full benefits of yoga. "To treat yoga merely as a form of physical exercise is a mistake many people make, because well-being results from harmonising both mind and body," she says.

She gave her first yoga classes in Bangkok over 20 years ago where she and her family have been residents for about 30 years.

Contact details: Apt 6A2 Royal Mansion, 304 Sukhumvit 55 (between sub sois 8 and 10). Phone 390 2310 or 01 692 0081.

Class times: Tuesday and Thursday mornings between 9.30 and 11.00 a.m.

Cost: Bt 1,000 for 4 sessions.

A breath of fresh air: Yoga for expatriate women

The air might usually be filled with thick traffic fumes in Bangkok, but that doesn’t mean you should hold your breath. In fact, you’d be doing your body and your mind a great service if you were to learn to breathe properly in Bangkok – or anywhere else.

Practising the ancient art of yoga can help with the various health problems – and the stress – that can come with changing countries. And even if you’re healthy, it can be a good way to boost your immune system and energy levels.

“Yoga is a natural extension of the way Indians think anyway,” says Anuradha Kumar, a 28-year-old Indian expatriate who moved to Bangkok two years ago to take a job as a subeditor on a daily newspaper. “My father actually taught me to practise yoga at home when I was a child. Then I was taught it at school. It’s really a part of my life.”

Anuradha, however, had not practised for some time before she came to Bangkok. “And when I was here, I realised that yoga really is the best way to maintain your health comprehensively. I tried going to the gym, doing weights, but it’s just not the same. I don’t get the same energy lift.”

Leslie Hogya, a Canadian yoga instructor, came to Bangkok several months ago with her husband, who is here on a teacher exchange program. She looked up the Iyengar Yoga Studio (http://www.iyengar-yoga-bangkok.com/) and says she felt lucky as it made her feel like part of a community immediately. “But on my own, practising yoga allows me to focus my mind inwards. This time in Bangkok is a time for reflection and growth for me, an inward journey.”

American Justin Herold, who runs the Iyengar studio, notes that women outnumber men substantially in his classes. “Most women are more flexible than men, “ he says. “Men tend to be stronger, but they have a lot less flexibility.” He finds some men come to class just a few times as they feel overwhelmed by the number of women practising who appear “better” than they are.

But yoga is not just about being flexible. “The moment you stretch your legs and you feel the stretch – already you’re opening up energy pathways,” says Hilary Fedderson, who teaches her own blend of hatha yoga several times a week in Bangkok.

She also points out that the objective of yoga was never merely to exercise. “It was to have a healthy body so that you could go higher spiritually,” she explains. “It’s like you’re joining the individual soul to the universe. At a lower level, it’s the joining of the mind to the body.”

American Colleen Duggan, who works in finance and is now Bangkok-based, found that yoga particularly helped her when she was working very intensively in Hong Kong. “It was a good transition after work – it really relaxed me after being hyped up all day,” she says. “Yoga is good for anyone who has a stressful life. And it’s really good for expat women because it gets you out meeting people, but in a natural way. ”

Duggan has worked and practised yoga in Hong Kong, Barcelona and Bangkok over the past six years, so her advice is certainly based on extensive experience.

“Yoga is also something you can take with you wherever you go,” she adds. “You can do it in a small place, and you don’t need any special equipment. You don’t have to do it in a class, and you don’t need other people to make up a team.”

Just breathe

Canadian Lesley Hogya, an Iyengar yoga instructor currently teaching pre-natal classes in Bangkok, certainly makes yoga during pregnancy sound like a treat.

"It’s a special time in your life, especially if it’s your first pregnancy, so you should indulge and take care of yourself. Yoga poses can nurture the pregnant woman in a way that other forms of exercise won’t do. Lying on bolsters and having pillows and blankets all around you is very luxurious! And then being told to just lie there and breathe…"

In Bangkok, the ancient practice of yoga has been taught formally for only around 40 years – which is surprising if you consider that some scholars assert that yoga practice is central to Buddhism. "It’s not a religion per se, but it’s a spiritual practise," says Lesley. "Anyone can practise yoga. You don’t have to belong to a faith or believe in anything in particular."

Practising yoga can improve the average person’s body awareness, their clarity of mind and their immunity to disease. More specifically, it can reduce the effects of allergies, improve menstrual problems and strengthen muscles, among other things.

When pregnant, yoga classes can be particularly beneficial. Firstly, strength and stamina are developed. "When you’re doing the poses you’re strengthening muscles and building up stamina while holding the poses," Lesley says. "This will stand you in good stead when you’re delivering and also when you’re a new mother in need of stamina."

Secondly, practising breathing and relaxation can help. "These are usually the first things people think of, but they’re definitely not the only things. When I’m teaching pre- natal yoga I always make sure there’s plenty of time for breathing and relaxation at the end of class." This involves doing supported poses where the body is allowed to rest totally and be open to more complete breathing.

Flexibility also improves with the practise of yoga, but Lesley points out that the hormones secreted during pregnancy promote flexibility anyway, particularly in the hips. "This means you need to be careful not to over-stretch. It’s important to be balanced and not be too enthusiastic about stretching the hip sockets."

If you’re already practising yoga and you fall pregnant, it’s usually no problem to continue. "But if you’ve never done yoga before, I recommend waiting until the end of the third month to start," Lesley says. "Even though yoga is certainly not going to precipitate a miscarriage, that’s when most miscarriages occur. You usually have more strength, too, after that period."

Although you may wish to consult a doctor before beginning, Lesley notes that there’s not much awareness among Thai doctors of what exactly yoga entails. "It’s probably enough to ask your doctor whether you are in a condition that allows gentle stretching."

In Lesley’s experience, many women want to continue with yoga after the birth of their child. "A lot of women will ask: ‘How many weeks do I have to wait before I can come back to class?’ It’s good to wait six weeks, as with any major surgery."

Lesley, who has studied yoga since 1970, first trained as a hatha instructor, but was introduced to the Iyengar method, pioneered by Indian BKS Iyengar, within weeks of completing her training. "Then I couldn’t teach the old way because it wasn’t precise enough. And I couldn’t teach Mr Iyengar’s way because I didn’t know enough about it. So I didn’t teach for a couple of years and trained."

The Iyengar style is a very precise method of yoga – some might even say strict – but it’s flexible in the sense that it adapts to each individual’s level of ability by its use of props such as belts, blocks, blankets and bolsters. During pregnancy in particular, it can offer more support than other forms of yoga and allow access to more poses.

"For example, you might be reluctant to try standing poses because you think you’ll lose your balance," says Lesley. "But in Iyengar yoga we can use the wall, or a chair, or a block. It opens up the possibility of doing more. Also using bolsters to relax is very beneficial – they open the chest, improve breathing, improve the lung position."

She emphasises that women can always control how much they are doing in class themselves. "I think women are usually more sensitive to what’s right for them and their health when they’re pregnant. And I think yoga brings an awareness that makes you feel healthy."

Bangkok’s first Iyengar yoga studio opened only recently. Justin Herold, an American who has been teaching yoga at various health clubs here in Bangkok for the past seven years, opened his own studio on Soi Thong Lor in October 1999. Lesley will be running classes at 9am on Tuesdays through to the end of September, and Justin will continue to take the classes from October. The studio is located on the 3rd floor of the Fiftyfifth Plaza Bld, 90 Sukhumvit Soi 55. Phone 714 9924 for a schedule.

Pre-natal poses

“Yoga poses can nurture the pregnant woman in a way that other forms of exercise won’t. Lying on bolsters and having pillows and blankets all around you – I mean, how luxurious!. And then being told to just lie there and breath…”

Canadian Leslie Hogya, an Iyengar yoga instructor currently teaching pre-natal yoga classes at Bangkok’s Iyengar Yoga Studio, certainly makes yoga during pregnancy sound like a treat. “It’s a special time in your life, especially if it’s your first pregnancy, so you should indulge and take care of yourself.”

In Bangkok, the ancient practice of yoga has been taught formally for only around 40 years – which is rather surprising if you consider that some scholars assert that yoga practice is central to Buddhism. The word yoga means “to join” – at the most basic level, to join the body to the mind, and at a more advanced level, to connect an individual person to the wider universe.

“It’s not a religion per se, but it’s a spiritual practise,” says Leslie. “Anyone can practise yoga – you don’t have to belong to a faith or believe in anything in particular. One of my favourite yoga teachers is a Catholic priest from India.”

Practising yoga can improve the average person’s body awareness, their clarity of mind and their immunity to disease; more specifically, it can reduce the effects of allergies, improve menstrual problems and strengthen muscles, among plenty of other things.

When pregnant, yoga classes can be particularly beneficial. Firstly, strength and stamina are developed. “When you’re doing the poses you’re strengthening muscles, and building up stamina while holding the poses,” Leslie says. “This will hold you in good stead when you’re delivering and also when you’re a new mother and you need a lot of stamina.”

Secondly, practising breathing and relaxation can help. “These are usually the first things people think of, but they’re definitely not the only things. When I’m teaching pre- natal yoga I always make sure there’s plenty of time for breathing and relaxation at the end of class.” This involves doing supported poses where the body is allowed to totally rest and be open to more complete breathing.

Flexibility also improves with the practise of yoga, but Leslie points out that the hormones secreted during pregnancy actually promote flexibility anyway, particularly in the hips. ”This means you need to be careful not to over-stretch. It’s important to be balanced and not be too enthusiastic about stretching the hip sockets.”

If you’re already practising yoga and you fall pregnant, it’s usually no problem to continue. “But if you’ve never done yoga at all, I recommend waiting until the end of the third month to begin yoga,” Leslie says. “Even though yoga is certainly not going to precipitate a miscarriage, that’s when most miscarriages are likely to occur. You usually have more strength, too, after that period.”

Leslie notes that as a teacher of pre-natal classes, she needs to be more open than usual to how her students are feeling: “Their energy levels can vary so much. Some women are very energetic all through their pregnancy and others aren’t – they can get very much disturbed by anything too strenuous – I can almost see them turning pale if they start to do too much.”

Other women can be hyper sensitive because of the added hormones their body is secreting. “Most people do have a greater awareness of their body – especially if they want that, and if they want to be exploring that and finding out more about how they’re feeling. And then I’ve had other women who refuse to acknowledge that they should do anything differently and they want to charge right on and do all of the difficult poses.”

Leslie notes that there are plenty of women who tend to not want to acknowledge their body is changing when they’re menstruating, or pregnant, or post-natal. But, she says, “Why not celebrate those differences? And do the poses that are going to nurture you. I think it’s good to be a little softer with yourself when you’re pregnant.”

Leslie says she adheres to the school of thought that believes you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself, whatever way you’re doing things. “There’s an aphorism in the yoga sutras that says something about yoga not being so austere that you’re punishing yourself, and not so indulgent that you don’t ever do anything – there’s a balance, a middle road. So there’s discipline, but not austerity.”

If there’s another form of exercise that you’ve been doing prior to falling pregnant, and you still enjoy it while pregnant, she suggests continuing it along with the yoga. “I think it’s important to keep active and healthy using all of your body as much as you can. Women usually know what’s right for them.”

Many women who start yoga during their pregnancy don’t expect to continue with it after delivering. However, Leslie estimates that in her experience, around fifty per cent of the women she knows who have started yoga during pregnancy have kept attending classes for at least some time after their child’s birth. “A lot of the time women will ask: ‘How many weeks do I have to wait before I can come back to class?’ It’s good to wait six weeks, as with any major surgery that you might have.

“It’s best to go back to a beginner’s class – and then try to focus on tightening everything that got loose!”

Leslie, who has studied yoga since 1970, first trained as a hatha yoga instructor, but was introduced to the Iyengar method, pioneered by Indian BKS Iyengar, within weeks of completing her training. “And I couldn’t teach. I couldn’t teach the old way because it wasn’t precise enough. And I couldn’t teach Mr Iyengar’s way because I didn’t know enough about it. So I stopped teaching for a couple of years and trained.”

The Iyengar style is a very precise method of yoga – some might even say strict – but it’s flexible in the sense that it adapts to each individual’s level of ability by its use of various props such as belts, blocks, blankets and bolsters.During pregnancy in particular, it can offer more support than other forms of yoga and allow access to more poses.

“For example when you’re doing standing poses you might be reluctant to try some of them because you think you’ll lose your balance,” says Leslie. “But in Iyengar yoga we can use the wall, or use the chair, or use a block. It opens up the possibility of doing more. Also using bolsters to relax is very beneficial – they open the chest, improve breathing, improve the lung position.”

She emphasises that women can always control how much they are doing in class themselves. “I think usually women are more sensitive to what’s right for them and their health when they’re pregnant. And I think yoga brings an awareness that makes you feel healthy.”

Bangkok’s first Iyengar yoga studio opened only recently. Justin Herold, an American who has been teaching yoga at various health clubs here in Bangkok for the past seven years, opened his own studio on Soi Thong Lor in October 1999. Leslie will be running classes at 9am on Tuesdays through to the end of September, and Justin will continue to take the classes from October. The studio is located on the 3rd floor of the Fiftyfifth Plaza Bld, 90 Sukhumvit Soi 55. Phone 714 9924 for a schedule.

Spiritual moves

Yoga has been around for longer than any archaeological records; by its very nature, it leaves nothing behind to point to its existence except for tales of the amazing powers possessed by some of the best yogis.

In Bangkok, yoga has been taught formally for only around 40 years – which is rather surprising if you consider that some scholars assert that yoga practice is central to Buddhism.

The first evidence of yoga’s practice is provided by Indian stone seals showing figures in yogic postures dated around 3000BC. In text, yoga is first mentioned in a collection of scriptures known as the Vedas, written five hundred years later. But it wasn’t until the sixth century BC, when the epic poem Mahabharata was published that things spread more widely. The poem contained the Bhagavad Gita, perhaps the most famed of all yogic-related scriptures.

Hatha yoga, the generic term for most yoga practised in modern times, is based on a later text called the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which describes the various yoga postures still practised today.

Although things here in Bangkok may have been slow to kick off, today more and more Thais, along with expats, are becoming interested in yoga. “I don’t know if it’s a fad or what,” says Hilary Fedderson, who teaches her own blend of yoga several times a week here, “but people are certainly picking up on it now.”

Even a new Iyengar yoga studio has opened to deal with increasing demand for knowledge of, and a space to practice, this ancient tradition.

Hilary points out that the idea of yoga was never merely to exercise. “The idea of yoga was to have a healthy body so that you could go higher spiritually,” she explains. If the body was more flexible and strong, sitting meditations would be easier. “It’s like you’re joining the individual soul to the universe. At a lower level, it’s the joining of the mind to the body.”

And you don’t need to be flexible to start doing yoga – you’ll feel the benefits immediately regardless. “The moment you stretch your legs and you feel the stretch – already you’re opening up energy pathways,” Hilary says.

The word yoga in fact literally means “joining”. Essentially, five principles can be identified as making up complete yogic practice (although various schools may have slightly differing theories). These are: proper relaxation, proper exercise (that is, yoga’s physical postures, or asanas), proper breathing (that is, the practice of pranayama), a proper vegetarian diet, and meditation.

“I don’t teach everybody pranayama,” says Chomchuen Sidthivech, also known as Khun Noo to the many students she teaches from her Bangkok home. “It’s very difficult compared to the postures – it’s inside. The postures are outside. Before you progress to pranayama you should concentrate on your breathing in your asanas. When you practise pranayama every day, it’s easy to progress to meditation.”

Many people start yoga initially because they’re suffering from a specific problem, or they are simply looking to maintain their health. Khun Noo started practising yoga because she suffered severely from allergies, regular colds and period pain.

“I found out about yoga from a magazine,” she says. She read an interview with the man who would eventually become her guru – and her father-in-law. “I wanted to help myself – I don’t like taking medicine.”

She soon began practising every day. “I was very stiff and not strong at all. After about three months, my menstrual problems cleared up, which made me very happy. It took one year for my body to really change. After that I improved quickly.”

Her guru had been suffering from high blood pressure, diabetes, and weight problems, so he studied at the renowned Sivananda Ashram in Rishikeh, north India, when he went to India as part of his job as a journalist. He returned after several years of study to open a yoga school here in Bangkok located on Soi Wattanayothin – that was around forty years ago.

Khun Noo studied with him for around three years before she too began teaching at his school. Eventually they moved the school to Khun Noo’s current house, where they taught together for around eight years. Her guru died around eleven years ago, and she now teaches alone, although she is training her youngest sister to assist her. One group of around ten women have been coming to her for more than ten years. “A lot of my students are like my sisters or my cousins,” she says, smiling.

The Sivananda school of yoga that she teaches emphasises gracefulness, with no jerking, a trait that can sometimes be observed in other schools, such as Ashthanga which is becoming popular in the US. “Sivananda is smooth, gentle, slow,” she says. “It’s quite different.”

She is emphatic about the benefits of practising yoga. “If you practise every day, you learn how to breathe and move in a complementary way – it makes you become happy,” she says. “After a while, if you miss a day, you start to feel bad.”

American Justin Herold, who recently opened Bangkok’s first Iyengar yoga studio, undertook yoga seriously when he found it offered him better all-round health than running, his previous method of maintaining fitness. He eventually took a teacher training course in Los Angeles, taught at the Los Angeles Iyengar school for three years and spent time studying with BKS Iyengar, the school’s founder, and his family at their institute in Pune, India. He arrived in Bangkok around eight years ago, where he has been teaching since.

“I go back in yoga around twenty years,” he says. “And the people who went back say ten or fifteen years prior to me were really on the cutting edge in terms of learning yoga in America. When they started, they were kind of like the real weirdos – the people you most associated them with were like beatniks, the flower children. It was something from the East, and it was something that was really – you know, maybe communist-rooted or something like that!”

He chose the Iyengar school of yoga, which emphasises body alignment and uses props such as blocks, ropes, belts, blankets and bolsters to help students get into poses. As he has a background in construction, he says this sort of approach to yoga appealed to him. “You find things that you grasp, that you can understand. Building and foundation make a lot of sense to me because I’ve seen it through the work I do.”

Justin points out that one of the main things with yoga is finding both a school and a teacher you like. “The end results are pretty much the same. Some people like Ashtanga yoga, where you go through a series of postures, and it gets really rigorous. It’s subjective, and that’s why I get people here – because some people like the way I teach.”

So if you’re looking for a way to maintain your health or you’ve been suffering from chronic pain or illness, and you’re prepared to give an ancient, highly-reputed therapy a go, Bangkok is now a good place to be. Invest in some casual exercise clothes and you’re set: you just need to find the teacher and the school right for you.

Hilary Fedderson teaches several classes weekly in the Sukhumvit area. She can be contact via email at [email protected] Khun Noo teaches Monday to Saturday at her home on Ekamai Soi 16. Justin Herold takes classes at set times every day except Friday at the Fiftyfifth Plaza Bld, 90 Sukhumvit Soi 55. Phone 714 9924 for a schedule.

Walking tall

Around the globe there are a whole lot of fitness-freaks slowly coming to their senses. These are the people who maybe started aerobics in the ‘80s but have now had it with jumping around interminably on carpets stinking of sweat; or they’re the joggers of the ‘90s who are tired of being injured or just sick of mindlessly pounding the pavement.

They’re discovering Pilates, an exercise system developed by German-born Jospeh Pilates earlier this century. While in a British internment camp during World War I, Pilates, who was proficient in gymnastics, boxing and body-building, became a nurse. He rigged up a machine to help patients rehabilitate while still lying on their backs, and also trained other interns in physical fitness. This was the beginning of something big.

He moved to New York City in 1926 where, with wife Clara, he opened up an exercise studio. By the ‘40s, Pilates was well known and respected in the dance community. In 1956, Dance magazine wrote that “At some time or other, virtually every dancer in New York… has meekly submitted to the spirited instruction of Joe Pilates.” By the ‘60s, Pilates was teaching ballerinas at the New York City ballet, and the Pilates method was slowly becoming popular outside New York as well.

But what is this system? Its basic aim is to create a balance in the body. While many forms of exercise promote a tightening of certain muscles and an overstretching others, Pilates works to correct this imbalance, with weak muscles being strengthened and bulky muscles being elongated. The system promotes efficient movement of the body, while improving postural alignment, breathing, and mind/body control. The idea is that a few well-designed movements, properly executed in a sensible sequence, are worth hours of doing sloppy exercises without thought.

It may have taken some time, but Pilates has finally reached Thailand. Deborah Jackson, the Sukhothai’s Health Club manager, has recently started teaching classes in floorwork Pilates at the Sukhothai (there are also Pilates machines – not yet in Thailand – which look a bit fearsome and require further qualifications to instruct). With a background in fitness instruction, Deborah has always been interested in improving people’s postures as a start towards getting them fit, so it’s only natural that she’s come to be interested in Pilates – as in fact much of the industry has.

“Over the last ten years, we in the fitness world have been taught always to support our back, and always make sure it’s well protected,” Deborah says. “Then the question arose as to why there were suddenly more people with more back problems and injuries. That’s where Pilates has come in. It’s more corrective. It’s basically strengthening, encouraging you to use those muscles and let your body support itself. Pilates is reintroducing the use of what we call fixator muscles, muscles that fix and support the body in a postural position.”

Deborah describes Pilates as a mixture of ancient martial art forms, Tai Chi and yoga, with ‘fitness’ moves thrown in as well. “It’s almost like – if you can remember going back to school and the teacher used to get you to lie flat on the floor and do sit ups and touch your toes a hundred times. Very basically, it’s going back to that,” she says.

I must look a bit unimpressed at that, for the next thing I know we’re heading down to the gym and Deborah’s showing me a few of the 34 basic floor moves. “I’ve had ten or 15 years of jumping around doing aerobics and high-energy stuff, and this is a good alternative for me,” she says. “The strength is still there. I can understand the benefits, I can feel the benefits. It’s so strong – it’s probably just as hard as running ten miles on a tread-mill, but in a relaxed and soothing way.” I’m sure I’m perspiring after trying just one move.

Although it’s early days yet for Thailand, things could be looking up: Deborah is planning on bringing Michael King, a Pilates instructors’ instructor, to Thailand within the next few months to run an instruction course in floorwork for those in the fitness industry.

“A lot of people residing in Thailand are not aware of Pilates yet,” she says. “In the States and even in Europe, it’s huge. It’s just taken the whole place by storm. The results of Pilates are fantastic – I don’t think anyone who has gone and done Pilates can’t feel the difference in their body posture.”

Alas, there’s bad news for those of us who want to toss away our runners for good. While Pilates is excellent for lots of reasons, it won’t maintain your cardiovascular fitness – you’re going to have to do something else regularly to get your heart rate up. But Pilates will substantially help your body’s ability to deal with aerobics on sweaty carpets or pavement-pounding. With the body awareness it creates, it might even make you enjoy it.

There are three fifty-minute Pilates classes a week at the Sukhothai. Health Club membership is required. Deborah Jackson can be contacted by phoning the Sukhothai on 287 0222.

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.

Yoga bare

Want to learn how to stand on your head? Maybe your shoulders? No, not for a party trick, but to improve both your physical health and that of your mind as well?

American Justin Herold has been teaching Iyengar yoga around the traps in Bangok since 1992, but last October became more accessible to everyone when he opened his own Iyengar studio on Sukhumvit Soi 55.

Iyengar yoga was pioneered by BKS Iyengar whose work is a reflection of the Yoga Sutras, written by Sage Patanjali around two and a half thousand years ago. It’s different from generic hatha yoga in a number of ways, but most obviously to the beginner by its use of props such as walls, ropes, blocks, belts, bolsters, blankets and chairs.

Justin himself came to yoga when he was in college running around 60 miles a week. “The warm-up for running at that time was to run the first mile slow,” he recalls. He sustained minor injuries, so when the benefits of stretching were made known he tried a yoga class. “I figured the yogis were the ones who knew the most about stretching. The more classes I took, the more I just kind of got drawn into it. And eventually I realised that it offered to me what I was looking for in my running: it was a way to maintain my health.”

Eventually he took a teacher training course in Los Angeles and taught at the Iyengar yoga school there for three years before finding himself in Bangkok. He’s also studied at the Iyengar Institute in Pune, India. “I have the blessings of Iyengar for teaching here. He likes the fact that I’m here, putting out his message in this region.”

His current following consists of both Thais and expats, but about 95 per cent of his students are women. “Some men probably look at it as more of a woman’s thing, because a lot of women like it,” he says. “But some come and they find out how difficult it can be, and they’re threatened by the competition.”

But convincing you to try yoga in words is not really possible. As Iyengar himself once said: “Words fail to convey the total value of yoga. It has to be experienced.”

The Iyengar Yoga studio has classes every day except Fridays. Call Justin on 714 9924 for further details.