Graham Burns gives a unique perspective on how yoga can help with the stresses of daily life: as a technology for quietening the mind and understanding our real purpose.
What, when and where was your first experience of yoga?
I first went to a class in the mid-1990s somewhere near London Bridge and really didn’t enjoy it. It just seemed to involve a bendy lady demonstrating shapes and then expecting my stiff, desk-bound body to replicate them—which of course it couldn’t! But a couple of years later—I think 1997—I was lured to The Life Centre and took a class with Michael Myerscough, an old Life Centre favourite teacher, and it was totally different. He was lively and amusing, the class flowed with the breath, and the studio seemed full of energy. I still couldn’t ‘do’ most of the postures, but I walked down Edge Street amazed at how much I had enjoyed it and wanted to go back, so I did, eventually becoming a 2 or 3 times a week visitor and enjoying classes with such great teachers as Simon Low, Liz Lark and Simon Turner.
What made you decide to move from student to teacher?
I hadn’t actually been practising all that long, but vividly remember being on a long walk in the hills somewhere, thinking about how much I had got from yoga, and having the total conviction that I could become a teacher. In 2000, I took a sabbatical from my job as a City lawyer and travelled the world, in the process studying with such amazing teachers as Richard Freeman and Erich Schiffmann. It was during that year that I took my first steps towards teaching, signing up for a short, intensive teacher training at White Lotus Foundation in California, and realising that maybe I really could become a yoga teacher. When I came back to London, I started teaching at a now defunct studio called The Art of Health in Balham, and I will always be grateful to its owner, Nell Lindsell, for having faith in me. Even though The Art of Health closed years ago, I still teach several of the students from those early classes.
What teaching tip has had the biggest influence on the way you practise?
Probably the idea that, in asana, we are looking always to find a degree of energetic balance, so should avoid extremes.
And the way you teach?
Not one single tip, but every part of a 5-day sequencing training with Rod Stryker in 2004.
What does your own self-practice involve?
6 days a week, I do a practice which begins with some fairly mild asana, then moves into about half an hour of pranayama and seated meditation. On top of that, 2 or 3 times a week I try to find time for some more intense asana — but, now that I am nearer 60 than 50, I am trying to accept that my body won’t always do what it could do 10 years ago!
If you only had 10 minutes to practise, what would you do?
Sit and meditate.
Who/what is the biggest inspiration on your yoga journey at the moment?
Two things. First, the work I do as a teacher on the Yogacampus teacher training. It keeps me on my toes with regard to my yoga knowledge, and also gives me the chance to meet some amazing, passionate yogis from all walks of life and all yoga backgrounds. Secondly, the academic study of yoga which I am doing as a lecturer on the MA course in Yoga and Meditation at SOAS, University of London.
What role does yoga play in the way you live?
I guess it is just always there. I try not to draw the distinction between what I do on a mat or meditation cushion and the rest of my life, but I do hope that the calm and space which are the results of the former, influence the latter and that I have greater equanimity and compassion, and more control over my life, than I would have if I didn’t practise.
What do you hope your students to experience when they practise with you?
Lots of things! First, that yoga is not just about the shapes you make with your body—it is much more important than that. So long as they are safe, I am much more interested in how they feel than the minutiae of their alignment. But, secondly, that you do have to work at it some—as Richard Freeman says, ‘practice makes practice’. Thirdly, a sense of calm, but also a sense of enjoyment. Erich Schiffmann says that the best reason to do yoga is that it makes you feel better than if you didn’t—which seems like a good theory to me.
Which yoga text could you not live without?
On a practical level, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika is probably the most influential in my teaching. But I know that my life would be infinitely poorer if I had never read the Katha Upanishad.
Describe the meaning of yoga in 10 words or less
A technology for quietening the mind, and understanding our real purpose.
Graham Teaches on both the London and West Yorkshire Teacher Training Diplomas. You can read more about Graham here.