Yoga can help to keep you grounded and stable, no matter what life throws at you. Nora McElhone caught up with Fife-based teacher Sarah Brannen to find out about the benefits of this ancient practise.
When the world turned upside down in March, Sarah Brannen suddenly found herself removed from face to face yoga teaching and on a steep learning curve to hosting classes via Zoom.
Sarah, a former secondary school maths teacher, took up yoga as a student as a way of staying calm during periods of stress. “As the years went on, I found it became the place I turned during periods when life was more difficult, when my job was stressful and then during my pregnancy with my first daughter.” She is now mum to two beautiful girls and her teaching focus has changed from the classroom to the yoga mat.
While her daughters were tiny, she started to offer mum and baby yoga sessions, which progressed to yoga for toddlers and their families. Now she teaches children and adults of all ages to stretch and relax and enjoy the benefits of yoga.
“There are many physical benefits to practicing yoga at any age,” she explains. “it can help improve balance, coordination and body awareness. Yoga develops flexibility, stamina and strength. Yoga can help maintain health in bones and joints, and improve posture. Because we breathe deeply throughout a yoga practice, we access the parasympathetic nervous system, which has a calming effect on the body and brain.
“We can help combat the stress of everyday life, and end up feeling calmer and happier. There are other physical activities which may have similar effects, but what makes yoga unique for me is the philosophical and spiritual teachings behind the practice. The philosophy behind yoga teaches us to accept where we are and to act with compassion and kindness.”
Finding stillness and calm
For Sarah, yoga has been a comforting constant in 2020. “I have found my focus for my practice has shifted a little over the past eight months,” she explains. “I am enjoying a strong physical practice, and finding the stamina and strength this is building has been helpful both to help with the demands of online teaching and to simply keep me going through challenging times. I am also enjoying exploring more of the spiritual aspects of yoga. I have been interested in starting a chanting practice for a while now, and access to online teaching has made this more achievable.
“I definitely need the moments of stillness and quiet that I find on my mat. And the clarity of thought that comes from practice, whether that is movement, meditation, or sitting with the breath for a few minutes.”
Sharing those benefits are perhaps more important than ever as we continue to deal with life in and out of various stages of lockdown and restrictions and Sarah was quick to adapt her teaching to keep her students moving and connected online.
“My challenges initially were in setting up the technology and all the admin involved, but I think I have got most of that sorted now!” She laughs, “one challenge is people not being sure about using the technology themselves, or struggling to commit to a class at a certain time as their own lives are so uncertain at the moment.”
She is now delivering a mixture of in-person and online classes. “I managed to restart my parent and baby classes in person a couple of weeks before the October school holidays. I have had to limit the numbers in my classes, and also restrict the class to babies under 12 months to comply with current guidance. I also restarted some kids classes in person a few weeks ago. Again I am having to limit numbers. My adult classes continue online for the time being, although I had hoped to have some classes in person by now it unfortunately hasn’t happened.” She says that keeping track of current guidance can be difficult, “For example, with the parent and baby groups, the number of people permitted in classes was reduced to 10 people of all ages at the end of September, and then changed again. I have to check the guidance for sports and exercise, and for children’s activities to see what I can and cannot do.”
Online yoga connections
Sarah has found that her online classes have worked well though, “In some ways it was a lot easier than I thought. There is still a sense of coming together, and I find that I can still offer ways for people to modify postures to suit them and can usually see quite clearly how people are managing in their physical practice.
“With the children, I found some were very reluctant to join the online sessions, but many got used to the format over time. Again, we could still have some time to chat before and after class, and I found ways to make the online sessions for children more interactive. I used games that we could play virtually, such as yoga statues, yogi says, follow the leader and drawing games.”
Finding new ways to demonstrate and explain postures can be tricky and she misses: “being able to hear people breathing and being able to feel the energy in the room. I am used to adapting my classes depending on how people are reacting. I am also used to using my hands to guide people into postures and miss this, but it is a good challenge for me to think about how to use verbal cues.”
“My own biggest challenge is keeping my own family happy whilst continuing to work. My girls sometimes don’t like it when mummy goes off to teach. They have joined me to teach many of my family and kids classes, which can be challenging but also hugely rewarding.”
Feedback from those who attend the online classes has been very positive but Sarah is really enjoying being back to in person classes with mums and babies, even if they aren’t allowed to sing just yet. “Singing is a big part of the work I do with younger children, it helps form connections, helps with language and is a wonderful way for parents to bond with their babies. I would never have thought I would miss singing in public but I do!” she laughs.
“We have all had to adapt to so much over a short period of time. In some ways, this time is valuable for us to let go of all the external distractions and find what is most important to us. But it is so hard for everyone. I feel like I am living in a permanent place of stress and worry, and am so glad I have techniques to help me cope. A regular yoga practice doesn’t have to involve twisting yourself into complicated positions, it can be simply sitting to breathe deeply for five minutes each morning or evening. It can be a quick stretch out, or a long relaxation.
“The most important thing about it is that it should make us feel good.”
Sarah is currently offering pre-recorded yoga sessions to primary and secondary-aged children in conjunction with Active Schools Fife. Find out more about her classes for adults and children at Warm Hearts Yoga.