«If you do yoga once a week, it changes your body», explains Sabrina Kriesi. The 28 year old is perched on a cork brick opposite me on her yoga mat.
«And if you practice yoga three times a week, it will change the way you think.» Although she keeps changing the cross of her legs – at one point she was sat in simple crossed legs, then she lifted her left knee up to her chin and wrapped her hands round her bare foot – her upper body remains still throughout.
«And if you do yoga every day, it’ll change your life,» she says while gazing up at the ceiling, her long, dark lashes even more striking. The tattooed yoga teacher starts to tell me her story. She shares details about yoga, herself, life and candles.
Sabrina never thought she’d be working as a yoga teacher alongside her role as key account manager at Digitec Galaxus AG. And finding her new attitude to life in somewhere as far flung and removed from the birthplace of yoga as New Zealand – 12,024 kilometres from India as the crow flies – was the last thing she imagined.
It was restlessness that encouraged the then 20 year old to hop on a plane in search of something different. After completing an apprenticeship, she upped sticks and emigrated to Australia and then New Zealand.
«I’m not entirely sure why I decided to train as a hotel receptionist» she says. Then she thinks about it a bit and laughs sheepishly. «Actually, that’s not true. I do remember why. I wanted to travel.» Once she’d bagged her qualifications, it was like she had the key to unlock so many doors to the world.
Her first job took her to New Zealand. She described her time there as «being employed on holiday». When she wasn’t working in a hotel, she headed down to heavenly beaches, surfboard under her arm, to ride the waves and let her mind wander.
However, splitting her time between the hotel and idyllic beaches that served as Middle-earth in «Lord of the Rings» did have its down side. «It came to the point where I’d just had enough of having to work over holidays, like at Christmas and New Year,» she explains. I detect a note of wistfulness. Evidently, she isn’t done with her fling with faraway places. But there is one thing she is clear about. And that’s how much she values being able to spend holidays with her family.
While in New Zealand, Sabrina discovered yoga, at first just as a student. She describes herself as «fickle». «I registered to take classes and then went along every day. I was so keen and motivated to get on the mat.» I can hear a certain malevolence in her voice, which I assume is a cross between irony and innocence – something along the lines of: «I was clueless back then...»
But Sabrina stuck at it. She practiced yoga every day. Her body began to change. Her way of thinking began to change. And even her life began to change.
Sabrina learnt one thing very quickly, namely that yoga can come in many guises. As an active, fun-loving person, she discovered there were styles of yoga better suited to her than others. That’s not to say these types of yoga were actually good for her. In fact, this is something she considers each time she’s preparing a class.
What does she want her students to learn? What does she want to achieve as a teacher? What techniques can help her do that? All the poses have a unique impact and affect the body and mind slightly differently.
Sabrina looks for quietness, grounding and balance
Yoga originates from India, where it is called योग in Sanskrit. Yoga practice combines mind, spiritual and physical exercises. It’s considered a fusion of religion, meditation and fitness. There are different schools of thought on the origins of yoga. But what is certain is it began before the Vedic period, in other words prior to 1500 before Christ.
The first records that describe yoga practice can be found in the Rigveda (ऋग्वेद), a collection of Sanskrit hymns. These date back to approximately 1200 before Christ. In the almost two and a half thousand years that span between present day and these texts being written down, scholars weren’t satisfied with the state of yoga and so developed other styles. Each style has a different aim, just as endurance training and power training come under the umbrella of sport but have different effects.
That’s how Sabrina ended up devoting her practice to traditional hatha yoga. She travelled to Bali and completed her teacher training there. It was a 200-hour course, where they trained seven days per week. Sabrina immersed herself in yoga, internalised breathing and physical exercises and felt her mind change. She also learnt how to pass on her knowledge and skills to other people.
«The style of yoga you want to practice isn’t necessarily the one that you need.»
The style question – in other words, which style suits which person – is not an easy one to answer. She gives me a comparison between vinyāsa (विन्यास) and haṭha (हठ) yoga and is rather vexed at power yoga.
«Vinyāsa», with its strong «s» and short first «a», is actually comprised of two words. «Nyasa» is tantamount to «to place» and «vi» means «in a special way». In yoga, this term is used to describe the transition between two poses, but it can also be the name for a whole type of yoga.
Vinyāsa is all about transience and impermanence, neither of which appeal to Sabrina
«Vinyāsa isn’t for me at all,» says Sabrina. The concept of vinyāsa is to keep the body moving in a constant flow. That means you hardly hold a single pose for any length of time. Your body comes under fire. For someone like Sabrina, who is already fiery, impulsive and active, that wouldn’t give her the balance she needs. «In fact, it would just throw me off balance even more,» she explains.
Vinyāsa practitioners rarely stay still. The idea behind being in a constant flow is the physical and spiritual realisation that nothing in this world is permanent, that everything is in following its own flow and is temporary. With this in mind, Gregor Maehle’s book «Ashtanga Yoga: Practice and Philosophy» claims it doesn’t make any sense to attach yourself to something emotionally. Vinyāsa is supposed to be freeing, unburdening and physically demanding.
The word haṭha is comprised of two syllables. «Ha» stands for the sun and «ṭha» signifies the moon. But these syllables also have other meanings, such as «tenacity» and «effort». While vinyāsa represents the flow of impermanence, haṭha embodies the exact opposite. The purpose of this style is to teach you to calm, control and ground your mind.
«That’s what drew me to traditional haṭha yoga,» says Sabrina, who doesn’t seem to get thrown by much. When she’s on the mat, you can tell she’s practiced. Her movements look strong and smooth. When she’s doing yoga, she slips into her own world and doesn’t take much notice of what’s going on around her.
«At the start, it was really strange having to be still», she tells me. She was all the more aware of it because her life in New Zealand always required her to be on the go, whether it meant running around the hotel or surfing on her board. Then all of a sudden she had this contrast of stopping, meditating and being quiet. «That grounded me again,» she says.
Even while you’re practicing, one of the main aspects of haṭha yoga is pausing. You’re supposed to hold the poses, known as asanas. Sabrina bends forward, stretches one arm to the floor and the other up towards the ceiling and stays there. Her muscles are engaged but her breath remains quiet. Her eyes are open but her gaze is soft.
Each asana or pose works a different part of your body and mind
Breathing exercises in yoga are called prāṇāyāma (प्राणायाम). These reflect your physical and mental body. The mirror effect doesn’t just show what’s going on inside; it can also hold a mirror up to your internal state. So once you learn to calm your breath even when you’re stressed, you’re also calming the internal body.
I’m not sure you can even call modern power yoga a specific style. Sabrina certainly wouldn’t class it as such.
«If you’re only interested in contorting yourself into fancy shapes and poses, you’ve completely misunderstood the concept of yoga,» she asserts with unusual severity. Her face stiffens, her big brown eyes narrow and the corners of her mouth visibly tense.
She then goes off on a tirade that tears into this trendy style of yoga. As far as Sabrina is concerned, people who do power yoga are only after fame and Instagram likes. «Don’t get me wrong, everything looks impressive and it works the whole body. But it completely ignores the mental aspect.»
Sabrina thinks power yoga lacks the spiritual aspect
She compares yoga to a vehicle. «Your body is a vessel.» Sabrina quickly explains that yoga is like a petrol station. «You fill yourself with energy and you learn how to control and conserve it.» In any case, meditation is the most difficult of the asanas or poses. That’s because it really challenges your mind.
Power yoga is the polar opposite of meditation, with its «casual elbow balance».
Haṭha yoga is about more than just movement and meditation. Each morning when Sabrina gets up for work, she heads straight into the kitchen to prepare her muesli. It’s always packed full of fresh fruit and cereals, as food is another important aspect of haṭha yoga.
Other people might start their mornings off with coffee, but for Sabrina, it’s always a nutritious bowl of muesli
In yoga, food has to be fresh, easily digestible and above all, vegetarian. It’s all part of the yoga maxim: «A simple life leads to sublime thinking». Eating simply also stops your stomach getting overloaded; your body just gets what it needs to function.
«If I don’t have my muesli in the morning, I’m good for nothing,» says Sabrina, who compares her bowl full of fruit and vegetables to other people’s morning coffee or cigarette after getting up. You just couldn’t function without it. The non-smoker laughs. «I’m being serious,» she adds. And then the laughter disappears from her face.
Yoga changed Sabrina’s life.
She lives much more consciously and eats a lot healthier. But it’s an ongoing saga; she’s still learning. Alongside her additional fitness training, Sabrina likes to put herself on the mat as a student and keep up her training. As far as she’s concerned, she can only be a good teacher when she’s a good student. On top of her weekly classes with her teacher Stephen Thomas, she has taken on another mammoth project: 300 hours of extra-occupational training.
«It’ll help me learn more about anatomy; how the body and bones work; and generally help to increase my knowledge. All in all, we’ll study 300 hours on und off the mat,» says Sabrina. I can sense her excitement. She appreciates it will be hard work but she also knows you never stop learning.
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