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Juice with Norman

Last week I experienced my first Yin Yoga class with Norman Blair which I found extremely relaxing and meditative. In Yin Yoga each posture is held for 5 minutes, giving the student plenty of time to surrender to any mental attachments or bodily discomfort. I have to admit, I came to class particularly tired due to lack of sleep, but I got the feeling that I was able to go deep (dare I say nod off?) into each posture before being pulled out by Norman’s relaxing voice.

After class I caught up with Norman for a juice and a chat. FL (That’s me!): Norman, you mentioned stillness many times throughout the class today, yet the postures  we’re constantly shifting and changing form within them. Were you using stillness as a metaphor for the mind? NB: Yes, for the mind, and for life really. Yin yoga is about doing less. While there is constant subtle movement in the body in terms of energy and fluids, the aim is to stay and hold into physical stillness, not fidgeting, not thinking about escaping from the posture. Like when we have difficult situations in life. I know a woman who is getting over a loss of a loved one and she told me she needs to take on more work to get really busy to distract herself, and I was like, no! Stay with your loss for a bit and see what comes up.

I’m a hyper kind of person, I come from an energetic background and have experienced a lot, but my life is shifting now. I used to have a full-on Ashtanga practice but now I realize some of the things in the Ashtanga system no longer work for my body. Yin has helped me to get freer and take it easy.

FL: How did your yoga path begin?

NB: Well, looking at where I came from it’s actually funny that I teach. When I first started a friend took me and she said she never saw anyone as stiff and inflexible as me taking a yoga class. I took a beginners class for several weeks but I stopped going. Then in the summer of ’93 a woman I knew named Oz was doing the Iyengar teacher training and needed a group to teach. It was a small group in her front living room, it was great taking classes with her we had lots of attention, very personal. In the mid-nineties she went to Crete with Derek and Radha. So then she started teaching Ashtanga, and I followed her. I took classes with her until ’99. So first it was Iyengar, then Ashtanga; now she teaches Shadow. We all influence each other. That’s how I became vegetarian too, by being exposed to others.

FL: So, you’re a vegetarian – what role do you think this plays in the practice?

NB: Well, I think for some people it is healthy, and like most people I’ve moved in and out of various dietary practices. I have dairy now, I just love ice cream way too much. The yamas and niyamas set guidelines for us as practitioners, but I don’t think anyone can dictate what is good for everybody – we’re all different and work with what we have. At the end of the day, we should question the practices and make sure what we’re doing is really about living our lives as better human beings, being conscious of the consequences of our actions.

FL: When did you start teaching?

NB: I started teaching Autumn 2001 – Asthanga and general yoga.  I went straight into teaching fulltime. I gave myself 6 months to see if I could financially manage and if I would enjoy it. Luckily I was well connected and at that time there were more teachers than classes. Now it’s the otherway around. But it’s not like you’re a footballer, you can keep getting better and better as a teacher. At 70 you could be a far better teacher than at 50 with a lot more insight and ability to inspire your students.  For the most part I say to new teachers, don’t give up your day job. If you’re in London and connected, you might make it, but London is hard. It’s easier outside London.

FL: How long do you think one should practice before becoming a teacher?

NB: How do you define practice? I was practicing for 8 years, but I didn’t have a meditation practice when I started teaching. I would say in general 5-8 years. My joke is if you’re under 30 or come from a dance background you shouldn’t teach yoga. Of course that’s way too simplistic, but you get the point. We can learn so much about ill health, fragility and the life process with age and with working through an inflexible or weak body as a starting point.  That authenticity needs to be brought to teaching. I’m a mentor on the yoga campus teacher training. Some people have only been practicing a few years and can get up into certain postures like handstand, but it’s a shallow practice. It lacks depth, and so will their teaching. Of course, some young teachers are excellent but I would guess that’s the exception. I’d also recommend psychotherapy for all yoga teachers to sort out things that come up in teaching and in the practice.

So many things in yoga are dictated by highly flexible people. I’ve heard teachers say that using blocks isn’t yoga and other kind of box-like thinking. For me teaching is more about having integrity, looking at how we can help each other in the practice and being more relaxed about defining what is and what isn’t.

FL: What is your daily practice like now?

NB: On a good day, 40 minutes of seated meditation, some form of asana practice whether it’s Ashtanga (primary, plus the second series, a third or half way through) or Yin Yoga. Some days it’s quite focused, some days it’s not. Ideally in a week I’d do Ashtanga 3-4 times, but I’ve been busy lately so it becomes more like 2-3 times,  I go to a dogmatic studio for Asthanga. I don’t certain things anymore, I damaged my knee from dropbacks and so I ease off where I know it’s not good for me.

FL: Are there any types of yoga that you’ve tried and didn’t like?

NB: Bikram. I wouldn’t go to another Bikram class. I went to this class in Berkely with around 80 sweaty people in the room with a tiny teacher in some kind of strapless bikini muscling us through the postures like bootcamp. But then, I know someone else who is a homeopath who has been practicing yoga for years and only does Bikram and loves it. There’s no right or wrong since everyone is different. Just like I’d never say vegetarianism or ashtanga is for everyone. We all need something different.

FL: Who are your most influential teachers?

NB: I’m into loyalty and longevity. I think when you have a teacher, go the distance. Its like if you you change your boyfriend or girlfriend every 6 months you only skim the surface of that relationship. I’ve been practicing with Hamish since ’99, and I’ve had my ups and downs with him. I’m not an Ashtanga dogmatist, but I love the Asthanga system.

Sarah Powers, Richard Freeman and Judith Lasater have been hugely influential as well.

FL: Who do you practice with here in London?

NB: Consistently I go to Hamish Hendry and Alaric Newcombe. In the past, Alexa Harris at the Life Centre and Leela Miller. It’s so important to practice.

Norman has been practicing yoga for 17 years and teaching full time since 2001. He currently teaches at various locations across London, and will be on Indaba Yoga Studio’s faculty. For more information about Norman, check out his website.

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