Yoga & Pilates

“What kind of classes are there and what they do for your body and mind? One of my new years resolutions is to do yoga and pilates but I would have no idea where to start…”

First of all, good on you! Congratulations! Yoga & Pilates are both tremendously rewarding forms of exercise with huge, immediate benefits. They are good for different things but practising both in tandem is really complementary, & as long as you throw some cardio into the mix, you will see a major difference in your physique.


How do I find a good class?
The internet is your friend! Google has been very good to me when it comes to finding classes. You can often find reviews of these places online, too. I recommend going to check out the place before you turn up for a class, & also calling ahead to say that you’ll be coming in. Some schools require that you do this. Another thing: many yoga & Pilates schools offer memberships or 10 class discount cards. Before you lay out the money for one of these, take at least 3 classes there. If you get bored or your teacher leaves or you lose motivation, you will have wasted a lot of money!

What should I look for in a good teacher?
The best teachers are friendly, give you enough instruction that you don’t feel lost, & encourage you to go further. The quality of teachers varies wildly. I once went to a one-on-one session with a Pilates instructor who basically told me I couldn’t do it so I shouldn’t bother. What?! Finding a good teacher can be really hard, but if you keep searching, the pay-off will be worth it.

What should I wear?
Relatively close-fitting clothing is best. Not so tight that you have circulatory troubles, but it’s beneficial for the instructor to be able to see what your body is doing beneath your clothes. That way they can make more appropriate adjustments if you’re not doing something properly. A tank top & leggings or a singlet & tracksuit pants are probably your best bet. Yoga & Pilates are both practised barefoot. Often you will be shown a locker room where you can stash your bag & clothes, but they don’t usually have “lockers” in them. You just find a space & put your stuff down. I like to take the bare minimum with me into those locker rooms, or I turn up already dressed & take my handbag into the room where we’ll be practising. Not everyone who does yoga or Pilates is a paragon of virtue & I’d prefer not to find out the hard way!

Should I eat beforehand?
Usually not, though it’s best to call the school & ask so that you can get their advice. I also recommend taking a big bottle of water with you, since it’s easy to dehydrate while you’re doing these classes.


“Pilates is the only exercise programme that has changed my body and made me feel great.” — Jamie Lee Curtis

Pilates was developed during the First World War by a man named Joseph Pilates. At the time, he called it “Contrology”, in part because he believed that the power of the mind was what made the muscles work. However, at some point someone obviously decided that Contrology sounded a little bit menacing, & so it is now known as Pilates.

The aim of Pilates is to give core strength, increase flexibility, lengthen the body & help to align the spine. The practise of Pilates been adopted by celebrities the world over who rave about it & have helped bring it into mainstream consciousness. Belinda Carlisle claims that Pilates has helped her grow 6 centimetres (2.5 inches). With comments like this, who could help but be interested?

“I’m a Pilates person. It’s great. I had a hip problem. I had a chronic back, a pinched nerve and a hip problem and it’s completely solved all of it. I love it. It makes me feel like I’m taller.” — Jennifer Aniston

Let’s keep it simple, not go into politics & say that there are basically two types of Pilates. They both have their own advantages, but really, doing a mix of both types of Pilates is best. It will give you variety & help build your strength in different ways.

Mat Pilates
Mat Pilates is just Pilates done on the floor with a mat. It’s a good way to start because it’s less intimidating than lying down on a machine & sliding up & down. Mat classes are much cheaper than Reformer classes, & there are more of them. You can also do mat Pilates anywhere you like, without relying on equipment. It’s an excellent way to build core strength.

Reformer Pilates
I happen to think that Reformer Pilates is more fun than the mat version. I like that crazy contraption. Some Reformer classes are one-on-one with an instructor, which is the most expensive option, & some are group classes which are cheaper, but of course the quality of attention is sacrificed. You lie down on a machine, hook yourself into straps & bars, fiddle with weights & start gliding around. It is an intense workout & very effective.


“Yoga is a metaphor for life. You have to take it really slowly. You can’t rush. You can’t skip to the next position. You find yourself in very humiliating situations, but you can’t judge yourself. You just have to breathe, and let go. It is a workout for your mind, your body and your soul.” — Madonna

There are lots of different types of yoga, all equally valid & all good for different types of people — or different moods. You don’t have to stick to one style. Sometimes Ashtanga’s where your head’s at, but other times you might just want to chill out & do some Hatha.

I have personally found it difficult to find a yoga teacher that I identify with or really enjoy learning from. However, one of the best things about yoga is that if you go to a few classes & learn the basics, you can then start practising in your living room, in a park, on a beach or anywhere you like. It doesn’t have to be an expensive exercise as long as you have someone show you how to do the poses safely at first.

There are also hundreds of yoga DVDs which account for all sorts of tastes. The one I’m using at the moment is MTV Power Yoga with Kristin McGee, but my next purchase is going to be Bryan Kest’s Power Yoga. I also hear really good things about Rodney Yee’s Power Yoga.

Here are the different types of yoga, who they suit & what to expect.

Ashtanga is the type of yoga I like best. It’s not particularly spiritual, & is more athletic than its other counterparts. Ashtanga is fast-paced & intense & gives you a great workout. One of the best things about Ashtanga (I think) is that after you go through your poses, there is a relaxation period at the end, from which you wake up feeling blissful, energised & centred. Ashtanga is often called “power yoga” & has many celebrity devotees, including Madonna, Christy Turlington & Geri Haliwell.

Bikram is also known as “hot” yoga because it’s practised in a very warm room (95-100°F or 35-38°C). It’s kind of like combining a sauna with exercise, which encourages the body to sweat & release toxins. It also helps to warm up your muscles, so that you’re more limber. It’s not recommended for pregnant women, but Bikram is amazing to practise in winter!

Iyengar is big on perfect body alignment. The most important thing in an Iyengar class is that you move slowly into a pose, carefully & with intent. You’ll also hold the pose for a long time, much longer than you do in Ashtanga, for example. For this reason, Iyengar is really good for people who are a bit nervous about doing themselves some damage, or for anyone who has previous injuries that they don’t want to aggravate. You often use props in Iyengar, like blocks, blankets & straps, to help keep the body aligned.

Hatha is basically a blanket term for a lot of different types of yoga, but it’s a great place to start if you’re not sure that yoga is for you or you don’t think you’re particularly flexible. It is a gentle, slow series of movements which provide an excellent introduction to the world of yoga!

Jivamukti is a modern style of yoga which incorporates ashtanga yoga movement with spiritual teachings, meditation, chanting & music. Gwyneth Paltrow, Russell Simmons & Sting are all devotees of Jivamukti yoga.

Kundalini yoga’s main purpose to help utilise untapped energy (what is called prana) that resides at the base of the spine. As you move through the poses, you will breathe in a certain way to help move that energy up through your body & spin & awaken each of the 7 chakras. Kundalini yoga is a very intense mental, spiritual & physical workout, & also involves chanting & meditation.

Laughter yoga doesn’t depend on strange poses, mats or ujjayi breath. All you need is to start laughing! There are clubs in most major cities where people meet up every week to practise laughing — which has enormous health benefits. Find a laughter club near you!

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Extra For Experts:
Need inspiration? The Yoga group on Flickr has a whole lot of pictures.
A Stretch Of Imagination follows a Telegraph journalist to an Ashtanga yoga workshop.
The Benefits Of Laughter Yoga with John Cleese on Youtube. I have posted this before but it is good enough to link to enough!
See Oprah’s makeover, all thanks to Pilates. “I did it every day this summer,” she said.
What to look for in a pilates instructor, from Hair Down Feet Up.
Celebrities love Pilates! I like Ruby Wax’s comment. “You have turned me into a Ferrari; my husband thanks you.”