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Sally Parkes: Life on and off the mat

I ran into Sally Parkes the other morning at Planet Organic where we were able to take a few minutes out and catch up.

FL: I understand you teach both yoga and pilates. How did you start?

SP: I got my degree in Sports Science. I was crazy for sports and trained all the time. I kept getting injured, and started doing yoga for my injuries and wanted something noncompetitive since I was so competitive-minded. I mainly did things to compete against myself; I did loner sports like running, power-lifting…and it all started feeling a bit flat. I think of the sports I was doing as 2-dimensional, and yoga as 3-dimensional, it has an extra layer that other ‘sports’ don’t. Yoga has definitely made me feel more balanced and calmer.

At the same time, people started asking to be taught yoga and pilates,  around 2000. I was personal training in London and knew I wanted to get away from teaching step aerobics as it was really hard on my body. I thought, I better do something to sort myself out if I want to stay in the health and fitness industry!

FL: In what ways have you found yoga and pilates different?

SP: Well, obviously, there’s the difference in the breath. Yoga works from the periphery inwards, and pilates works from the core outwards.

FL: Do you mix the two in classes?

SP: Yes, but I don’t describe what I’m doing. In a yoga class I usually say  draw the navel into the spine. People can relate to that. Sometimes yoga terminology is too much for people telling people to apply mula bandha when they can barely breathe – it can be intimidating. As a teacher, people should understand what you’re saying. I always work to the lowest common denominator – the beginners.

FL: What kind of yoga do you teach?

SP: I teach I guess what some people call dynamic yoga. I trained with Paul Dalaghan in Thailand. While he teaches Astanga he puts more emphasis on the pranayama than the asana.

FL: Do you take that into the classroom?

SP: A little bit, I teach ujjayi, nadi shodana, getting people to just breathe is not so easy, and so I focus mainly on these two, and really getting people to feel their breath.

FL: It sounds like you teach more from the heart and more based on the needs of the student than what you were trained in.

SP: Yes, that’s true, and what I’ve experienced in classes. I took years of Iyengar classes so I bring that in when its needed for alignment. I see where the group is and tailor the class to them.

FL: Do you use music?

SP: I use gentle background music, usually taking a compliation cd from Shiva Rea or something similar that are in a good flow and then when people are flowing through asanas, sometimes I’ll turn up a good song for a bit. Sometimes the music can get overpowering and instead of helping to keep the mind clear it clutters the mind more.

FL: Who are most influential teachers?

SP: Paul was a great teacher, but sometimes the adjustments can be too heavy handed for me. I try not to go too hard on the adjustments especially if I don’t know the person or their history of injuries. I’ve had it happen to me before when a teacher who doesn’t  know me has exacerbated old injuries. I think students shouldn’t be afraid to tell the teacher when to lay off and trust their bodies and their instincts.

Uma Dinsmore-Tuli, who teaches now in Stroud, is amazing.  Russel Case and Sarah Miles taught me a tremendous amount. My Mysore practice with them really was a massive turning point for me that filtered through to all aspects of my life, as it taught me so much about myself and really broke me down (in a good way) before building me back up again.

FL: When did you do your pre and post-natal training?

SP: In 2007 at Special Yoga Centre with Uma. She is an incredible woman. She told me you never know how your students are really reacting to how you are teaching, don’t take it personally because you never know what is going on in their life. I teach one pregnancy class a week at Reebok. I love it there, it’s a nice health club, people love yoga there and are very focused.

FL: Where do you like to practice?

SP: I practice at all different centres. I haven’t really found the ‘it’ teacher for me in London, so I make the rounds and keep an open mind.  Even with Bikram, I have a love-hate relationship. I love the heat, and I feel great after a class. But at the same time I don’t like that the some teachers aren’t particularly knowledgable about asana and anatomy. Kate Heller at Triyoga makes a good class. She’s very good at integrating beginners and advanced. As far as I can tell a lot of teachers aren’t good at this and get carried away with the advanced yogi’s. I love Sivananda – I like that the diet is integrated and balanced into the practice. Most of the time you don’t see or hear about diet as a part of our yoga practice, but it is.

FL: What role does diet play?

SP: It’s huge. Before I started practicing yoga I used to eat and eat I excercised all the time but was carb crazy. I was definitely out of balance. The more I practiced the more I realized what I ate and how I ate. And I shrunk. Also, before yoga, depression used to sneek in – still, if I don’t practice for 2 or 3 days I feel I get a little bit closer to my black hole and know it’s time to roll out the mat.

FL: Are you Vegetarian?

SP: I eat eggs now. I was vegan for a hear and a half and felt unwell. I got anemic. I don’t eat dairy but eating eggs seems to help my levels of energy.

FL: What makes a good yoga teacher?

SP: Kindness. But not being a doormat. Not giving up all your energy to the students. Knowing where to draw the line. Knowledge. Modesty.

FL: What inspires you as a student?

SP: When teachers integrate the teachings into daily lives, like Uma. She manages to achieve this state of yoga in everything she does. Even when she doesn’t answer emails for like two weeks, she’s busy being present with her children. It’s difficult in our world. We’re told to be vegan or vegetarians as yogis, and we should be able to this and that asana, but if we’re not able to be mindful and kind, then what’s the point?

Sally Parkes has been teaching yoga and pilates since 2000. She joins Indaba‘s teaching faculty in May!

For more information on Sally and her teaching schedule, check out her website.

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