Katy Wright, pictured below right, on how York has belatedly fallen for one of the world’s most ancient disciplines – and is happier and healthier as a result
Spend just minutes wandering or cycling around York and you’re reminded of the city’s history, whether it’s the image of Henry Tudor conjured up by the building now known as King’s Manor, or the city’s Roman origins, as indicated by the (upside down!) column beside the Minster.
But behind the ancient walls, inside the crooked buildings, something is happening right now, which goes back even further – to the Indus Valley in Northern India. People from all walks of life, of all ages, shapes and sizes are practising yoga.
Doctors are de-stressing, builders are stretching over-worked muscles, people suffering with chronic illnesses are finding much needed relief from their symptoms. There are classes for absolute beginners, men only, children, advanced practitioners, and even singers! York is very much a ‘yoga city’, and its reputation as such is growing. But it hasn’t always been like this…
When I moved to York eight years ago, it took months for me to find a suitable class. I was able to practise at home, of course, but there’s nothing quite like the energy you get from a room full of yoga practitioners, so I kept on hunting until eventually, I found Rob Leadley’s Ashtanga yoga class. Rob’s been teaching in the city under the name City Yoga for 12 years, and has seen the yoga scene grow immensely during that time.
“There weren’t many teachers in York around then and those who were running classes taught styles that weren’t particularly dynamic,” he said.
“There’s a saying that when the student is ready the teacher will come – out of the blue in 1991 Michael Myerscough, who had spent some time in India learning the Ashtanga system with Pattabhi Jois, started teaching in York.
“Mike only stayed for around six months, when he was offered a teaching opportunity in London. But the Ashtanga torch had been lit in the city and was continued by Amanda Latchmore and Peter Finch. Then in 2000, just as I finished my teacher training, fate called me to carry the torch when Peter moved to teach at the Yoga Space in Leeds.
“Since that time some really talented teachers have emerged in the city, some of whom I am honoured to say have practiced in my classes.”
It seems fitting that a city with the postcode initials YO should become a hub of yoga activity. There are now more than 20 yoga teachers in York (including myself), holding classes at as many venues, at times to suit pretty much everyone – a statement supported by the fact that nearly all of these classes are well attended.
The founder of Peacock Tree Yoga, Lilley Harvey started teaching in the Sivananda tradition after studying the practice in Austria in 2007 and India in 2008, and believes there’s something special about York, which draws yogis to it.
“York as a city is a magical mix of ancient roots and modern, practical minds. Yoga is an ancient practice which appeals to modern minded, practical Yorkshire folk, who realise yoga’s enormous health benefits,” said Lilley.
“For us teachers, it has further appeal. I used to teach in London, which was exhausting. York is a city that just works well. I like to think that York is large enough to be interesting and small enough to be manageable.
“The size and scale of the city mean that it’s logistically very easy to get around on my bicycle – and it’s so beautiful! I never tire of how wonderful it is to look at and how lucky we are to live here.
“Also, the size of York gives it a very friendly atmosphere. Often new students come to class and recognise someone they know but haven’t seen for a long time.”
But with so many classes available in such a small city, and many more students signing up for teaching training, are we in danger of reaching a point of saturation? If the growth of yoga in America is anything to go by, it would seem that’s unlikely – for now, at least.
According to the most recent Yoga In America study, published by Yoga Journal in February 2008, Americans spend £3.5 billion ($5.7 billion) a year on yoga classes and products – an increase of 87 per cent since the previous study in 2004.
It’s a phenomenon that’s not gone un-noticed by the American owner of York Yoga Studio, Laurie Prime.
“There are both good and bad aspects to the amazing growth of yoga in the States – first of all, the industry expansion is driven by a grass roots movement which recognises the value and benefit of a regular practice – people are turning to yoga in their millions because it makes them feel better: stronger and happier,” she said.
“You only have to look at the pictures of people in their thousands laying out their mats in Times Square! And this is a good thing. But the down side is that big corporations and big celebrities have latched onto the idea that yoga is big business, and the danger here, in my opinion, is that the natural ground swell becomes diluted and even polluted.
“Maybe that’s not so bad for yoga if it makes it more accessible to everyone, but I think it does make it more challenging to maintain an authenticity of intent. The English are not so easily driven, and my own experience teaching here makes me optimistic that corporate yoga will not be attractive to most practitioners, so won’t become as pervasive here.
“York certainly is a city of individuals, and the mass commercialisation of such an individual practice would be a steep business challenge!”
So it would seem people in York are getting the best of both worlds; lots of yoga means there are lots of opportunities to try out this ancient practice.
But it remains a part of the city’s historical fabric; hidden away down cobbled streets, in old cinemas, and former guesthouses. And there’s still plenty of room for growth – in the city as a whole and in the individuals who populate it – as Lilley Harvey notes: “As the saying goes, ‘A rising tide lifts all boats!’”
More people practising yoga means happier, healthier citizens of York.
Katy Wright teaches in venues across the city – details about her classes can be found on her Yoga Buzz website