Sun, sea and sweat - yoga with a kick

A cross between gymnastics, aerobics and contortionism, its followers include Sting and Demi Moore. Peter Guttridge heats up and chills out in remotest Crete

Perspiring heavily, 23-year-old Anna from Hamburg balances on her hands, her legs threaded back under her armpits, her ankles crossed behind her neck. From the front she looks as if she has large ears with toes on them sticking out of her head. Sasha, a late-twenties PR executive for a London-based company, slides into the splits on a sweat-drenched mat. Henry, a Peterborough-based management consultant in his late forties, sprays sweat everywhere as in one flowing movement he drops from a standing position into a kind of press-up, concaves his back, then swings his bum up and holds himself in an inverted V, breathing like a steam train waiting for the off.

Just another morning of astanga vinyasa yoga at The Practice Place in Crete.

The Practice Place, a yoga retreat in a remote bay on the south of the island, sounds like a sybarite's delight, offering an all-in sun, sand and souvlaki Greek holiday (minus the souvlaki - plentiful vegetarian food instead). Plus, of course, daily yoga and other classes designed to de-stress the busiest workaholic.

However, newcomers soon discover that the yoga taught here is unlike any they've come across before. Astanga vinyasa yoga - regarded by its proponents as the true, original yoga of which other hatha yogas retain only the fragments - is a cross between gymnastics, aerobics and a contortionist's nightmare. It's a yoga without dogmas or meditation - 99 per cent practice, 1 per cent theory, 100 per cent sweat. Restful it ain't.

Derek Ireland, one of the two people who run The Practice Place, described it on breakfast television as "no bullshit yoga". An American teacher called it inelegantly but vividly "the most kick-ass variety there is". Another has given it the muscular moniker Power Yoga.

It puts the usual stretching, twisting, headstanding yoga postures into a non-stop 90-minute sequence which is aerobic, dynamic, sweaty and, when you first do it, totally knackering. Rediscovered in the Thirties, only in recent years has this yoga really taken off, particularly in the US. Celebrity practitioners now include Sting, Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder, Kris Kristofferson and Demi Moore.

Anna, Sasha and Henry are among a dozen people who have been here before and are hooked on the yoga. The 20 beginners get a rude awakening from their sybaritic daydreams on Sunday when Derek and his long-time partner Radha Warrell demonstrate the yoga to the accompaniment of throbbing world music.

Aged 46 and 47 respectively, the couple are lithe testimonials to the health and fitness properties of the form. Radiating vitality and energy, they do the flowing sequences of stretching and balancing absolutely beautifully - including postures which to beginners look frankly impossible.

"God, I want a body like that," whispers Fiona, a physiotherapist from Edinburgh. "Yes, she's beautiful isn't she," I agree, looking at Radha, who has in the past been photographed by Snowdon for Vogue. "No," Fiona says, ogling Derek, "I mean his body - and preferably tonight."

Derek has the eyes of almost all the women on him throughout my stay. A former punk rock promoter, he is a charismatic man who clearly believes if you've got it, flaunt it. He does his own practice on his balcony six days a week wearing only a pouch. He gets away with such shameless exhibitionism by dint of his genial charm. Radha, lively and funny but also quite shy (she laughingly describes herself as an "introverted egotist"), is rather more demure.

Between them Derek and Radha are largely responsible for introducing the form to Europe. After spending the Eighties as globetrotting yoga teachers, they opened The Practice Place six years ago. Here they run these two-week courses for absolute beginners (taught by Radha) and more advanced students (Derek's responsibility) for some 30 weeks of the year. The rest of the time they give workshops all over northern Europe and run a three-month winter Practice Place on a beach in Goa.

Arriving sometime Saturday, beginners have the weekend to get to know each other before the first class early Monday morning. We are a handful of men and a majority of women, average age early thirties, from all over Europe and all kinds of backgrounds. Doctors, a banker, a management consultant, a fitness instructor, several nurses, a marketing executive, a Cambridge don, students and secretaries.

We share double rooms, most with balconies. All have views over the quiet bay where on Monday morning half a dozen dolphins are busy doing whatever dolphins do. This bay, Agios Pavlos, is so remote that the nearest town is an hour's boat ride away and the nearest telephone a two-hour walk up into the spectacular mountains.

We do our practice in a sealed, crowded room because the heat we then generate allows us to do quite advanced stretching and bending exercises safely. During a 90-minute practice the postures are arranged in a sequence which allows the skeletal system to go back into correct alignment and the muscles to open out. Performing the basic moves, known as the Primary Series, exercises the whole body - detoxifying, stretching and strengthening it.

That's the theory anyway. I came here cockily fit, after years spent swimming, running and working out in the gym. Along with most other people, I crawl out of the room at the end of the first class, drenched in sweat and exhausted. Each day I get progressively stiffer. "It wears off by the end of the first week," Derek assures us. "We used to teach two classes a day but by the third day nobody could move. So now we do one class a day and offer other courses for those who want them."

It's the non-stop movement - twisting, bending at the knees, dropping to the floor, springing back up, balancing in odd positions - that over 90 minutes is so tiring. Where in traditional yoga you might hold a posture for a couple of minutes, here you hold for a maximum of five breaths, but you repeat a couple of them again and again. The energy you need to complete the series comes from the breath (the vinyasa bit). Everything depends on matching breath to movement. The "firebreath" breathing can release powerful emotions, however. One Swiss woman abruptly leaves the second class in tears. "That's not uncommon," Radha says. "The practice isn't just about physical ability. Your whole character comes into it so your practice can be rough, smooth, dynamic, emotional."

All this activity takes place before breakfast which is, unlikely as it sounds in this climate, porridge. Breakfast, the take-away lunchbowl and dinner are all prepared by yoga enthusiasts here for the season, who exchange work in the kitchen and cleaning the rooms for free tuition. They make some delicious food.

After breakfast the day is ours. There are other classes if we want. Depending on the fortnight, they include t'ai chi, juggling, pottery, swimming, massage and aromatherapy. The setting is ideal for walks, too, especially in the spring when the wild flowers transform the stark landscape.

For some the remoteness of the location is a delight, for others a problem. "Thank God for my mobile phone," a native New Yorker says as she heads off up the nearby headland to make her daily transatlantic call. Most people have little urge to leave the small bay or The Practice Place but there are three tavernas here if you do get stir-crazy or feel the need for meat, fish or alcohol (none of which are on the Practice Place menu).

Derek's right. By the end of the first week stiffness wears off and people feel energised and exhilarated. Over the weekend, groups go on day-trips to distant and nearby beauty spots or take the boat to Agios Galini, the nearest tourist town.

By the end of the second week almost everybody is enthusing about the yoga. "On that first day I felt sure I was going to do myself an injury," recalls Lindsey, a Birmingham doctor in her late twenties. "I've done other sorts of yoga and the speed with which we did the postures here really knocked me off balance. But I love it now."

Kelly, the personal fitness trainer, thinks the yoga is "brilliant". "There's been nothing new in aerobics for years," she says. "I can see this taking over because you get the suppleness as well as the aerobic movement."

One or two people have suffered niggling knee injuries and strains, largely because they haven't paid proper attention to what they're doing or they've tried too hard.

People who weren't particularly fit have had to learn to pace themselves. In the class Radha has kept a watchful eye on everybody but has left it up to individuals how far they want to push themselves. It's proved crucial to warm up properly and concentrate on each movement.

"We've designed the two-week course to introduce the yoga as safely as possible," Derek says. "Most people we get are professional. They've spent 15 years getting their careers together but they forgot the fitness. This yoga is the quickest way into it. But Guruji says it's important to be focused all the time."

"Guruji" is the affectionate mode of address adopted by Radha and Derek for their teacher, Pattabhi Jois, whom they visit in Mysore every year for several months. Jois starts his teaching day at 4.30 in the morning, every morning. He's 80.

That gives hope to those of us coming to this yoga later in life (I'm 44 and counting). "Oh sure," Derek says. "You've got some time. Guruji says, 'Practice, all is coming but don't bother after you're 77'."

Details of 1997 courses in Crete are available from The Practice Place, 177 Ditchling Road, Brighton, East Sussex, BN1 6JB (tel 01273 276175). Book your own charter flights to Heraklion then travel by shared taxi to Agios Pavlos. A more relaxing route is by air to Athens and ferry from Piraeus. As with any activity holiday, check with your doctor if you're worried about your fitness before you go.

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