How yoga straightened me out

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 January, 2012, 12:00am


German-born, American-bred Claudia Whitney, 36, wasn't always keen on the idea of doing yoga pretzel poses. She once saw yoga as a foreign form of exercise that wasn't meant for her.

'I had the same excuses as a lot of people I meet today: 'I'm not flexible', 'There is not enough time', or 'This isn't for me',' she says. 'But I finally got into it 11 years ago in New York. I was hooked from my first class. I struggled the whole way through, but the experience shifted me on so many levels that there was no looking back.'

An ancient practice originating in southern India, it seemed like a fad at first, when celebrities (and then everyone else) took to it. But why did the fad not fade?

'Yoga is more than a workout; I think that it becomes a way of life for most people,' says Whitney, now an instructor at Pure Yoga. 'You start to shift destructive patterns on the mat, and then you're capable of changing things in your everyday life. Without this outlook, the poses we do in class mean nothing, and I think that is what keeps people coming back.'

Whitney thinks yoga would benefit youngsters, too, to help calm teenage anxiety and hormonal turmoil.

'I was a wild child - well, I'm still a wild girl - but growing up, I had to face some tough times,' she says. 'Yoga has helped me find balance and calmed me down. I wish I had started earlier, as it really centres you. I've learned to let go of a lot of the nonsense and focus on positive things ... I've honestly never been happier in my life.'

Were you a sporty person as a child?

I was not a sporty child, and my diet was terrible. I ended up being overweight in my late teens and early 20s, so I started educating myself about nutrition and fitness, and that is when I first committed to working out. Changing my diet and working with a personal trainer helped me to shed the extra weight and improve my confidence. Eventually, I found yoga and, while it keeps me fit, it has become more than a physical practice. I can't imagine my life without it.

I guess you had the diet of most teenagers?

Yes, I grew up eating fried food, junk food and fast food. When I made the choice to lose weight and get healthy, I stopped eating all of these things and started experimenting with my diet. At one point I ate only raw vegan food for three years, and I felt amazing. When I moved to Asia, I was so excited about the variety of food and flavours that I reintroduced cooked food, and now I'm about 70 per cent to 75 per cent raw vegan, and I've never felt better.

Have you made a spiritual journey to India?

I spent three months in India six years ago. I travelled to Mysore first to study ashtanga yoga with Pattabhi Jois and Sharath Rangaswamy. Practise started at 5am, so I had the rest of the day to study anything I was interested in. I learned a southern Indian style of painting called Kannada, and I studied meditation and drawing with another teacher. We would sit outside his house on the ground and meditate before each lesson, which started out with scribbling with crayons to get me to loosen up. I also took vegetarian Indian cooking classes and studied Carnatic music [the classical music of southern India].

As a yoga teacher, what's your sales pitch?

If someone is really interested then I usually invite him or her to try a complimentary class at Pure Yoga. Most people are usually only interested in the physical benefits because practising yoga creates a toned, flexible and strong body, but there are benefits beyond that, like feeling more energetic and maintaining a balanced metabolism. You're promoting cardio and circulatory health, and it helps stress levels. When you practise steadily, you are also building awareness of your body, feelings, relationships and the world around you. It's a complete package.

Are men more averse to yoga than women?

Men who go to the gym usually have a misconception that yoga is only stretching and meditation, and they don't realise that it is also extremely physically challenging. I have noticed an increase in male attendance in the past couple of years. They find it's a great complement to their gym workout or any sport. Anyone can do it, and it's not going to tear up your body.