Katherine Butler: Power and strength? It's all in the mind

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As a Johnny-come-lately myself, I suppose I can hardly complain that the football legend Ryan Giggs has embraced my recent fixation. "Giggsy", it seems, after years of injury, now credits the healing powers of yoga with transforming his stiffened hamstrings, and is such a zealot that he has just released a DVD promising "power and strength". There is something disheartening about hearing that a celebrity has, late in his career, jumped on the bandwagon of an ancient tradition and wants to re-cast it in his image.

I've had a horrible thought too. His endorsement may inspire more football-loving men to flock to yoga classes. Some of the world's leading yoga gurus are of course men. Some of them command a worrying cult-like devotion among followers. But in the real world of weekend classes in local gyms and halls I advocate ruthless gender segregation. The man on the next mat to you will always do that bit too much showing off, omming too loudly and making what should be a personal endeavour into something needlessly competitive.

An item that somebody forwarded to my Twitter feed this week suggests that there are even men who attend yoga for the wrong reasons. "If you're a single guy and you're not going to a yoga class, you're either not trying or you're very stupid" went the advice from what must be the world's least-visited website, The Man's Guide to Love.

Of course, it is true that many women practise yoga for no other reason than because we wouldn't mind getting Michelle Obama arms for the summer. And for all the New Age talk about "harmony", "balance" and "calm" which seems to have proliferated to comedy levels even as yoga has shed its hippy image to become a slick multibillion-pound industry, the self-absorption it requires can often translate into shocking selfishness.

Last Sunday morning at my regular weekly class, there was as much stress and negative energy in the air as on the Piccadilly line at rush-hour. Too many newcomers showed up but the regulars were so anxious to guard their spaces there was almost a stampede. One woman shot her arms sideways for each sun salutation so aggressively it seemed we were very lucky to get through the hour without an injury.

Even in India, despite the idyllic setting and reverential vibe, most of those I shared classes with at a week-long retreat last year were uptight Manhattanites who would mentally beat themselves up every dawn as they strove to bend themselves into tougher postures than anyone else.

Yet this is a pity, because it is definitely not by balancing on one leg but rather via what Guru Giggs wrongly calls the "spiritual" side of yoga (which he assures his disciples he is not bothered about) that any real benefits will flow. It isn't about being "spiritual" anyway, rather it is about achieving a mental "letting go". If yoga doesn't involve that, then you might as well just go to the gym or run up and down a football pitch.

This I know thanks to a honey-voiced yoga devotee called Jon Kabat-Zinn, whom I heard interviewed on the BBC World Service the other day. A professor of medicine at the University of Massachussetts, he has pioneered the use of "mindfulness" in mainstream medicine, and explained so convincingly what his techniques can achieve for stress-reduction and healing, even for very sick people, that I found myself joining a workshop with him via the internet.

For the first 20 minutes or so, I struggled. I was trying to focus on my breathing but mentally I was picking up the dry cleaning, reminding myself to pay the phone bill, wondering how long it would take the average footballer to empty his mind. Then something extraordinary happened. Listening to Dr Kabat-Zinn with my eyes closed, I had a revelation: everything I'd previously understood about the meditative side of yoga was a complete waste of time. It's not about emptying your mind. It's about establishing awareness so that you learn to live each moment and face the world with calm. It sounds like mumbo-jumbo. But by the end of the session I was in a profoundly relaxed, almost transcendent state. You'll have to go online and try it yourself to get the full effect.

Professor Kabat-Zinn advocates that even in go-getting workplaces the boss preface meetings by sounding a bell, then everyone closes their eyes and meditates for a few moments. "You would," he says, "have a very different kind of meeting." I can't see that catching on outside of LA. But I'm now willing to believe in mindfulness. And if we're stressed and we're not going to the right kind of yoga class, then we're either not trying, or we're very stupid.





Much to learn from Pascale – and not just about baking



Lorraine Pascale, the stunningly beautiful model who swapped catwalks for cupcakes, has been trending with her new Baking Made Easy television show. Ms Pascale is a very unlikely purveyor of brownies, breads and baked things. She certainly doesn't look as if she stuffs herself with too many of her own calorific cream pies, not even the ones made from filo pastry and low-fat yogurt.

I'm very happy to take tips from her, given that the last time I brought some of my own home-made cupcakes into the office, my boss, a bit like Michel Roux judging one of the elimination rounds on Masterchef, observed that they had "the consistency of golf-balls".

Pascale's success story is an extraordinary one in another way. She was adopted by a white family when she was 18 months old, and said in an interview at the weekend that the ethnic difference had "never felt odd" as she was growing up. Perhaps she should speak to some of the local authorities who make black and Asian children in care wait three times as long as white children for adoption because they are so reluctant to let white couples adopt children from the "wrong" ethnic backgrounds.

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