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
Sunday 09 February 1997
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.
17 October 2014 07:08 PM
Going down the wrong road: parking fines are nudging people into debt difficulties
17 October 2014 07:58 PM
Stacks of income: Drax is among the companies in Neil Woodford’s portfolio that he believes will pay strong dividends
17 October 2014 07:23 PM
Don't panic, it’s a wise idea to check investments regularly to ensure they are on target for your hoped-for returns
17 October 2014 08:18 PM
With little or no wage growth being seen in the UK, increasing house-price inflation could see the number of first-time buyers slide further, unless there’s a new accelerated house building programme
17 October 2014 07:19 PM
You should ignore the headline offers and trickery and work out the total cost of borrowing under different deals
17 October 2014 07:24 PM
Denise Leigh, who appeared in a production of Rigoletto with Alan Opie, was left without an essential service
10 October 2014 06:13 PM
A charity has calculated the cost to us all of unmanageable debt – from lost productivity to the extra demands on the NHS
10 October 2014 06:36 PM
The regulators are at last tackling the high-profile payday lenders, but they appear to be ignoring the growing problem of internet loan firms
10 October 2014 06:35 PM
As the cold weather hits, the question of soaring bills will be felt by each of us at home
10 October 2014 06:55 PM
Nikki Galloway (above) sells jewellery via her own website as well as on Facebook, Amazon and Bouf
10 October 2014 07:17 PM
Queenstown on Lake Wakatipu in New Zealand. The country’s stock market was boosted last month on John Key’s re-election
10 October 2014 07:29 PM
Royal Mail is cutting its small parcel charges from 20 October
03 October 2014 07:08 PM
Anyone who moved to countries including Australia, Canada, South Africa and a 100 other places, have had their pensions frozen at the rate it was paid at when they left the country
03 October 2014 06:52 PM
Every fund has good years and bad, but consistent underperformance over a number of years points to something more fundamental
03 October 2014 07:38 PM
Nick Train thinks luxury fashion brand Burberry is one of the companies that has prospered in digital marketing
- 1 This 'woman calls police to order pizza' story isn't going where you're expecting
- 2 Marijuana use by teenagers does not result in a lower IQ or worse exam results, study finds
- 3 Watch what happened when food critics were unknowingly served McDonald's
- 4 Jimmy Carr's controversial Oscar Pistorius joke goes too far at the Q Awards
- 5 NHS staff banned from drinking tea or coffee on the job because it looks like they're not working hard enough
Of course, teenage girls need role models – but not like beauty vlogger Zoella
Cameron is warned 'no possibility' of UK reducing immigration and that bid to bring in quota on migrant workers would be illegal
Support for EU membership 'at highest level since 1991' with most Brits wanting to stay 'in'
Thousands with degenerative conditions classified as 'fit to work in future' – despite no possibility of improvement
Residents should throw a street party and mix with immigrant neighbours, councils told
Russell Brand threatened with arrest after filming outside Fox News headquarters
iJobs Money & Business
£350 - £360 per day: Ashdown Group: SQL Developer with T-SQL, Watford, Hertfor...
120-150k: Accountancy Action: We are looking for an experienced CFO from a min...
£24000 - £28000 per annum + bonus & benefits: Ashdown Group: IT Business Syste...
£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: The SThree group is a world le...
Day In a Page
This 17th century beauty is full of rustic cosiness, while the detached home office means you can also run a business
This five-bedroom red-brick beauty overlooks the village green and sits in just under two acres of land
Four exclusive apartments in a Grade II-listed former medical school with 2,275 sq ft of living space and 18ft ceilings
A five-bedroom terraced house on the popular Peterborough Estate, ideally located for both Eel Brook Common and South Park
A state-of-the-art farm-building conversion on the former Cliveden Estate, with 11,420sq ft of internal space, cinema and wine cellar
A three-bedroom, 15th-century cottage with original features in the picturesque village of Sissinghurst
A six-bedroom terraced house with large south-facing roof terrace, cinema room and wine cellar
A new seven-bedroom home built in Queen Anne-style with swimming pool and parkland views in Mortimer
A listed, four-bedroom farmhouse in the rural hamlet of Rushall with detached barn, four acres of gardens and paddocks
A first-floor flat with two bedrooms, a spacious reception room and communal grounds in a leafy part of London
A three-bedroom flat with a spacious rootop terrace and balcony, accessed from a private gated courtyard
A Grade II-listed pile with six bedrooms, stables and 39 acres of grounds in Standlake
A two-bedroom flat with boutique hotel-style interiors, close to the foodie haunt of West End Lane
A two-bedroom flat in a beautiful old vicarage, with many original features, close to the city centre
A three-bedroom 16th-century home with an aga kitchen, private gardens and heated outdoor pool, in Hadleigh
A three-bedrom home in sought-after Queen's Gate Mews, with Italian marble-finished bathrooms
Surrounded by glorious countryside in the village of Udimore, sits this impressive four-kiln oast and barn conversion
A five-bedroom house in the picturesque village of Kettlewell, north Yorkshire
An 18th-century former coaching inn with original staircase, open fireplaces and beams throughout
A Grade II-listed Georgian town house with three bedrooms and a south-facing courtyard, near Arundel Castle
Feel on top of the world at this über chic penthouse on the 37th floor of one of Europe’s tallest blocks.
A Grade II-listed Victorian villa with six bedrooms and two further cottages, all with spectacular sea views
A grade II-listed, Georgian cottage with mature 50ft garden, perfect for summer entertaining
A magnificent Georgian pile with turrets, seven bedrooms, a heated pool and four acres of gardens
Fairoak Farm has five bedroom suites, gym, outdoor swimming pool and golf course
Chic two-bedroom river-fronted flat with a private lift that delivers you directly to your home
A spectacular seven-bedroom Tudor pile, once owned by Henry VIII, with 18 acres of land
A seven-bedroom Georgian property previously used as a picturesque wedding venue
A split-level flat in a church conversion with two en suite bedrooms and 1,200sq ft of living space
A three-bedroom bungalow situated behind an impressive stone wall, £645,000
Windsor Castle overlooks this three-bedroom Victorian cottage located on one of Windsor's smartest roads
Chapel House is a former vicarage with nine bedrooms in the beautiful Upper Wye Valley
A five-bedroom B&B and separate owner's accomodation with potential for conversion
Enjoy summer by the Thames in this two double-bedroom converted warehouse in Rotherhithe village
A one-bedroom, luxury apartment with private gym and concierge service in Moorgate
A four-bedroom house in Hermitage Gardens with three reception rooms and landscaped gardens
A seven-bedroom Grade II-listed property with a separate self-contained apartment
A five-bedroom Victorian house with three reception rooms and galleried landing, £695,000
A six-bedroom farmhouse with five acres of land in a former cloth-making village