Full Circle. A Yoga Manchester Journey

26th February 2018 by Barry Norton

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So I recently completed the Yoga Manchester 200 hour teacher training program and taught my first class for Yoga Manchester. I was pretty chuffed about it and Yogi in Chief Matt Ryan asked me to write another blog about my experiences as a student, a feel good story of coming full circle. I wasn’t quite sure what to say. It could be a book at the end of the day. So I will try not to bore you to tears with my life story but try to summarize my Yoga Manchester journey, in the hope it might inspire some other people, either to come to a class or maybe consider becoming a teacher. Anyway, where to begin…

I guess I can start at my first ever yoga class. Yoga for sports at Cavendish Primary School with Matt Ryan, way back when, around 2009. A work mate was a runner and convinced me to come along. I was suffering from knee pain from running and a physiotherapist had also suggested I try some yoga. Being a 6ft tall hairy dude who couldn’t touch his toes, yoga sounded like a kind of scary prospect.

The class really wasn’t what I expected. No music. No incense. No whale sounds. Just a little school cafeteria that smelled faintly of school dinners. The class was mostly men and I remember a picture of Ryan Giggs on the flyer. I think yoga was and still is perceived as quite a girly thing to do, for bendy women on beaches and so on. But at the time Ryan Giggs and Andy Murray were popularizing it with blokes and sporty types. It was really cool to come to such an accessible class that showed how anyone can do it. Even stiff beardy blokes like me.

I especially enjoyed Matt’s down to earth, no nonsense approach and great sense of humour. He is a proper manc, a normal guy, but had a wisdom about him too. He was very approachable. Even back then he was someone I respected and looked up to. Looking back on it he is still a role model and inspiration for my current path in life. I have a lot to thank him for (so cheers, Matt. Having me write these awkward blogs for you, we are square now yeah?).

I used the yoga for sports to supplement my other training for a while. I was into running , weight-lifting and swimming. I found that the Yoga for Sports sequence was really helpful for rehabilitating injuries and building strength and flexibility. As well as a whole body awareness. It was also really fun and deceptively challenging.

After a couple of months Matt came to me after class with a bit of paper and said “next step, Bazza!”. It was a flier for an Ashtanga yoga full vinyasa primary series led class that Sunday. People who practice Ashtanga are probably smiling to themselves at the idea of a relative newbie wandering into a full vinyasa class. I had no idea what I was in for. But I was enjoying the yoga and keen to explore it more. The venue was a place called Didsbury Village Hall. It doesn’t exist anymore but it was basically a converted extension behind a house on Palatine Road. It was all wooden inside with big windows, mirrors and a Buddha statue. It definitely looked more legit than the school cafeteria I was used to. The class itself was insane! I remember having to sit loads of it out. Mostly watching and muddling along. I was out of my depth. I was in awe of all the people, men and women, hopping and jumping. Flowing and breathing. Sweat dripping from everyone and the sun beating down through the windows. It was like poetry in motion and there was just something magical about it. It also looked really cool! I had to know more about this mystical Ashtanga. It was very impressive and I wanted to get good and learn the whole thing. I was bitten by the yoga bug that day. Well and truly. I had realised that I only had my toe in the water until then. I had been in the deep-end that day and I liked it.

I started going to Matt’s early morning Mysore style classes. This involved one week every month I would get up at 5am and go to St Clement’s Church in Chorlton, to muddle my way through my Ashtanga Practice (wearily) with others. The idea is that everyone progresses at their own pace and learns the postures one at a time. Everyone does their practice and Matt walks around giving adjustments and teaching new postures. It was very intense sometimes but a really nice environment. Kind of like a weird cult (in a good way). It is like a mixture between a yoga class and a workshop. With freedom to explore and practice on your own but with the benefit of more one-to-one attention from the teacher than you would get in a regular class. It was fun times and a great way to develop a self practice, allowing you to learn the sequence and do yoga at home.

At first I was drawn by the physicality of the practice as an exercise, and method of recovering from injury. Eventually it became something more than just a way to get fit and look cool doing it (or a bizarre reason to get up at 5am with other weirdos). I started to appreciate the psychological and philosophical aspects of yoga, and the difference they make to managing anxiety and depression. Yoga totally changed my life and is still changing it. It might not even be an exaggeration to say it saved my life. While it can’t promise a perfect life and clear mind free of troubles, it certainly makes a difference to my mental health. Even if some days it is only a little difference. It is better than nothing. Better than I would have been with my anxieties and previous tendency for self destruction. Yoga subtly permeates your being. It changes the way you react to things on and off the mat. The way you think and the way you interact with people. It isn’t all magic and mysticism. In many ways it is very mundane, connecting to the breath and the movement and a simpler way of being. A state that is innate to you. But even these little changes and the mundane bits can still be a revelation and highly applicable to your day-to-day life. The changes for me where a domino effect. I quit drinking, became vegan and got interested in Zen Buddhism. I even met author and Buddhist priest Brad Warner through Matt and Yoga Manchester. Going to interesting talks and meditation workshops has really helped me a whole bunch.

After practice for several years I wanted to pass these benefits on. I thought it had been such a great help that I wanted to help others. I had toyed with the idea of doing teacher training for a while and for various reasons didn’t follow it through. Whether it was due to work commitments, lack of money, the courses falling through, or other excuses. However, eventually the stars aligned and I completed the David Swenson Ashtanga Teacher Training 2016 and got my first taste for teaching. It was a 40 hour course and an intense immersion into teaching. I met some lovely people on that course (waves to those concerned). David is a legend and an international yoga celebrity. A really wonderful guy to learn from. He is also really relatable, funny and wise, and a real down-to-earth dude (there is a pattern forming here). If you get a chance to practice with David I highly recommend it.

After a brief stint of teaching Ashtanga I wanted to learn more and become a better teacher. So I was thrilled to learn Matt was starting a 200 hour teacher training program with full certification. It was a scary and exciting prospect to clear out my bank account and commit to such a massive course. But onwards and upwards, “first day of the rest of your life”, Matt assured me.

A couple of weeks before the course was due to start my mum died suddenly. Which was awful. The course started with a week-long intensive program the day after my mum’s funeral. My head was in pieces. I am not sure how I kept it together, in many ways I didn’t. But it was such a lovely space to be in and to work all that stuff out. In a weird way there was no better place to be. I can’t even imagine what would have happened or how I would have been if I didn’t have the practice and the space. I was in a lovely studio, with supportive people and amazing teachers. Getting to practice yoga everyday, while learning and studying did take my mind off everything else. Looking back on that first week I thank everyone there so much for putting up with me and just being there, even if they didn’t know what was going on at the time. It felt like finding a missing piece of the jigsaw, that was there all along. It was really helpful to expand my yoga practice into disciplines outside of Ashtanga and it really opened my mind to new ways of moving.

As for coming full circle. I was asked by Yoga Manchester’s Josh Wright to cover one of his Yoga for Cyclists classes at the last minute. I nervously accepted. The class was in a massive school sports hall. There ended up being 22 people there. My usual classes were 6 – 10 people in a cosy little studio. So it was a bit of a trial by fire. Every time another person walked through the door my heart beat faster. We ran out of mats and people started to improvise with the crash-mats in the gym. Sharing them like they were about to do some kind of yoga Judo. Highly unorthodox but I thought it went pretty well.  I found myself channelling my inner Matt Ryan and remembering my first ever yoga class back in the day. Visualizing that school cafeteria (I could almost smell the school dinners). I hope that I was as down to earth as Matt was back then and that I made the class as accessible and fun as I had found them. It was a tremendous honour to stand there front and centre and deliver the class I started in. I hope I did Marie and Matt proud, you know.

Writing this and thinking back to where I began, the person I was and who I am now, it is all intertwined with Yoga and people I met along the way. The Yoga Manchester family and community looked after me all these years, here and there, in one way or another and kept me on a relatively even keel. I have met awesome people, famous teachers and celebrities and made friends for life. Coming full circle from scruffy bearded manc in a yoga class, to scruffy bearded manc teaching a yoga class. A riveting rags to riches tail of love, loss and redemption, I am sure. It is hard to think of it turning out any other way. So here’s to many more years of Yoga in Manchester and welcoming more people to the family. It is a total honour to be a part of it. There really is a class out there for everyone and amazing, experienced and compassionate teachers. Yoga Manchester’s motto is “Yoga for everyone” and it is true. So beginner or advanced, get yourself out there and get on a mat. Whether that is in a sports hall, gym, church or studio. We all start somewhere and there is sure to be a class, workshop, talk or course for you.

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By Barry Norton, Guest blogger

Barry is a proud Manchester lad. Long time Yoga Manchester student and currently a Yoga Manchester Teacher Trainee. He is also the writer of the occasional blog, apparently. He is passionate about yoga and is a self-confessed nerd. When he isn't doing yoga he can be found watching old horror films, playing video games and listening to Rush.