ClassPass diaries – aerial yoga at Skylab Studio

Skylab Studio in Camden is probably the cutest fitness studio I’ve ever seen. Set up in the attic space in instructor Astra’s home, it offers lessons in hoops, silk and rope as well as aerial fitness and yoga in a really friendly and cosy environment.

I went along to an aerial yoga class on a Saturday morning together with seven other early risers and it got my weekend off to a great start.

Like with all good drop-in classes the exercises and positions could be tailored to different levels so that everyone who attends feels challenged, whether they’re a beginner, intermediate or advanced.

I thought that having done a fair bit of pole fitness in the past would be to my advantage here, but it was still pretty tough going! If you head along to aerial yoga expecting something chilled and yin-like you’re going to have an unpleasant surprise – it was a really active hour and we worked up a sweat in no time.

I felt like the class worked almost every muscle in my body – we did TRX-style pull-ups for the arms and shoulders, inverted sit-ups for the abs, and single-leg salutations for quads and glutes. I’ve got aches all over today, which is always a good sign!

In the second half hour we had a go at some tricks, like the star and a pike-type move where you lie horizontal supported only by the hammock underneath your hips. Astra has been a circus performer for ten years so really knows her stuff and you feel more than safe in her hands.

There was a return to traditional yoga moves at the end of the class when we finished with a Shavasana, or corpse pose, but with our entire bodies inside the hammock like it was a cocoon. This would have been very relaxing, if I hadn’t been worried that I was going to accidentally either kick or headbutt one of the others as my hammock rotated!

As I have a weird thing about being upside down (it’s not just me – Kerouac used to start every day with a headstand), I absolutely loved this class and will definitely be back again. I’ve been desperate to try aerial hoop for ages so plan on giving that a go once I’ve worked on my pull-ups… watch this space!

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The ClassPass diaries – Music Video at FRAME

IMG_0719When I left my last job in December, my truly lush colleagues got me the best leaving gift a fitness fanatic could ask for – a one-month ClassPass.

A ClassPass allows you to try out a whole range of crazy classes at gyms and studios across London, offering everything from barrecore and burlesque to kick boxing and krav maga.

Seeing as December is inevitably a month of indulgence, I decided to wait until January to activate my pass and am hoping that it will help me to kick start 2016 in style.

First up on my list was a visit to FRAME, a dance studio that’s made a name for itself by offering themed classes teaching you how to werk it like your favourite pop stars.

The Music Video class which promises to show you how to ‘move and groove like they do on MTV’ seemed like a good shout, and I wasn’t disappointed!

We learnt a routine to Blow by Beyonce and, although I know I definitely can’t dance like Queen B, I still FELT like I could by the end of the class.

Instructor Alexus teaches the same routine three weeks in a row, ramping up the difficulty level each time, and I’m pretty glad that the week I went happened to be a ‘beginner level’ week – otherwise I would have struggled to keep up!

No one took the class too seriously though – it was much more about having loads of fun. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves hugely while unleashing their inner sassiness. It was awesome – I’d definitely visit again!

Stressing out on social media

Last Wednesday (4 November 2015) was National Stress Awareness Day. To mark the occasion Just Park created the Stress-O-Sphere, an interactive tool that explores what stresses people are taking to Twitter to talk about, divided by topic and presented in real time.

Surprisingly, health is the second most tweeted-about cause of stress, behind partners/families/friends but ahead of work and money. I say that this is surprising, although perhaps I shouldn’t be so shocked as much of the pressure to look a certain way or be a certain weight (which, let’s face it, is what many of us think about when we hear the word ‘health’) comes from social media – largely thanks to celebrities sharing altered images of themselves and giving the rest of us unrealistic ideals. So it makes sense that we’re expressing our concerns about it there too.

Stressful stats

Here are some of the key findings of the Stress-O-Sphere:

  • 50,000 tweets about stress are posted every single day – that’s one every two seconds 
  • Health is the second most tweeted-about cause of stress, with a post on the topic being shared every 10 seconds
  • Body image and sleep are the most tweeted-about health worries, featuring in 3,000 tweets per day
  • Eating is a bigger source of stress for Twitter users than smoking, drinking and drugs combined
  • More people tweet about health-related stress than anxieties over work, money or marriage

Wellbeing woes

Delving deeper into our wellbeing woes, Just Park found that the top 10 most tweeted-about health stresses are:

  1. Body image
  2. Sleep
  3. Diet
  4. Pain
  5. Hair
  6. Depression
  7. Skin
  8. Drinking
  9. Smoking
  10. Exercise

Obviously many of these are genuine causes for concern (although I’m not sure about number five…) and it’s upsetting to realise that insecurities about body image are so widespread, but I do have a little tip for anyone who’s ever posted about being stressed out over exercise. Instead of posting something negative about falling off the wagon, try sharing something positive, such as “I’m going to go to the gym three times this week and nothing is going to stop me!” Even if only a handful of people see your tweet, it’s a public declaration that you can hold yourself accountable to. If you’re stubborn like me it works like a dream!

Oh, and if you’re wondering why I’m posting this now instead of last week, it’s because last week I was too stressed about work to look at emails about my blog! Me stressed is not pretty. It usually looks something like this… 

 

Health hacks: the holiday edition


When I’m on holiday there’s no way I’m going to deny myself something I fancy, like a giant pistachio ice cream or a buttery pastry… yum! But equally I don’t want to come back from my break feeling worse than before, so here are my top five tips for staying (moderately) healthy on your hols.

1. Get off to a good start

I know how tricky it is to resist the temptations of a breakfast buffet, but think of it this way – choosing a healthy start to the day will mean one extra treat later on! Admittedly I’ve frequently caved in and gone for a full (veggie) English myself, but I usually end up feeling pretty terrible (as in ill, not guilty) afterwards, and no one needs that with a full day of sightseeing planned! Greek yoghurt and fruit (preferably fresh berries) is a good option.

2. Use your pins

Can’t work out the local transport system? Who cares! Walking is not only the best way to explore somewhere new, it’s also a great way to burn fat – more so than running, in fact. So make sure you pack a comfy pair of shoes and get your hands on a map as soon as you arrive.

3. Don’t forget the H2O

Always carry a bottle of water with you. It’s easy to get dehydrated while you’re on holiday, especially if you’re like me and you decide to just go for a quick wander to get your bearings and don’t come back for five hours… Carrying a bottle with you will mean you won’t have to halt your adventure mid way to hunt for the nearest corner shop or supermarket.

4. Avoid the crowds

A packed gym is never ideal, and it’s particularly hard to avoid on holiday as hotel facilities are often rather ’boutique’ (i.e. tiny). If you can, steer clear of the morning rush and try going at a quieter time of day. Early evening is usually pretty good – when most other guests are having their pre-dinner nap! (Although I do also love a pre-dinner nap.)

5. Travel with Yoogaia 

Pack your tablet and you can take hundreds of different guided yoga classes on holiday with you. Even if you can’t join a live session because of the time zone you’re in, you can choose from the many recordings available on the site. All you need is an internet connection!

Now if all of this has got you in the holiday mood, enter the #travelwithyoogaia competition for the chance to win a weekend break in a Nordic city – just like the one I’m enjoying now*. All you need to do is start your free seven day trial, take a photo of your practice and upload it to Instagram along with the competition hashtag. Good luck!

*This was an all expenses paid trip to Helsinki courtesy of the lovely people at Yoogaia.

Behind the scenes at Yoogaia HQ

I’m writing this post from my hotel in Helsinki. Okay to be more specific I am writing it from the bar in my hotel in Helsinki…! I’ve been invited here by Yoogaia*, to help them let yoga fans around the world know about a really easy way to keep up their practice while they are holidaying or travelling abroad.

The main point of the trip is to use Yoogaia to practice yoga in my hotel room and write about the experience, but as the business’ HQ is in Helsinki I was keen to take a look around while I’m here. I learnt lots whilst chatting to Katja, who is a Yoogaia instructor and manages the Helsinki studio, so I wanted to share some of that with you!

For those of you that don’t know, Yoogaia is an online platform that you can log on to anywhere and at any time to follow a recorded yoga class or join a live one. The unique thing about Yoogaia is that it uses two-way visuals, so as well as being able to watch the yoga instructor live from your own home (or hotel room), you have the option to allow them to view you as you practice – so that they can give advice, correct posture or make recommendations about how best to tailor the session to your individual needs. 

The business launched 18 months ago right here in Helsinki, but has since opened up two new studios in London and Hong Kong. Classes aren’t actually held at the studios, but having more locations where instructors can film from means that Yoogaia can offer classes in more languages and to suit more time zones. Growing at a pretty impressive pace, the business already has its eye on other markets too, keen to capitalise on its USP before the idea catches on and competitors start popping up across the globe – which they inevitably will do with a concept this good.

One of Yoogaia’s other selling points is that the team take their yoga pretty seriously, with scores of different types of session available covering everything from mindful yoga and chakra meditation to, you guessed it, Broga! Katja tells me that yin yoga is the most popular here in Finland. Yin is a slow-paced practice – poses can be held for up to five minutes with the aim of increasing circulation and flexibility. It’s definitely one I’m keen to try and I’ll be checking in for a session this weekend.

In addition, all of the instructors, no matter where they’re based, are carefully recruited and put through their paces before being offered a place on the team. This is really important for maintaining a high quality across the board and ensures that, if you fancy trying something different from your usual practice, you won’t be disappointed by your new instructor.

While I’m here I’m going to be joining as many different classes as I can fit in around being a very excited tourist in a new city. If you want to join me, why not sign up for the one week free trial? If you’re not yet convinced, check out Yoogaia’s stunning Instagram feed which is full of yogis practising against beautiful backdrops of green meadows and peaceful lakes. If that doesn’t get you feeling inspired, I don’t know what will!

*This was an all expenses paid trip courtesy of the lovely people at Yoogaia.

Scoliosis and me

I’ve talked several times on this blog (and on my Instagram and to anyone who will listen to me bang on about it in person…) about the mental health benefits of exercise, but I’ve never really talked in depth about the physical benefits I’ve experienced.

When I was about 14 I was diagnosed with scoliosis – an s-shaped curvature of the spine. A slight scoliosis is pretty common amongst girls and develops during teenage years, coinciding with growth spurts. When it was first noticed by my GP it was only about 12 degrees, so it wasn’t significant enough to cause me any real problems, but by the time I was 18 it had developed to over 30 degrees. My skull, shoulders and hips were all out of alignment and my ribcage had started to twist on one side, meaning the lung on that side had less room to expand. It caused me a lot of pain and, because the weight of my head was unevenly distributed, it looked like the curvature and rotation would continue to get worse. 

I went into hospital the day after my last A Level exam to have the corrective surgery, during which they essentially forced my spine straight with a giant pair of pliers, inserted two metal rods either side and attached the rods to my vertebrae with screws and a bone graft. The length of my spine is now pretty much entirely fused together and I have a 16 inch scar that runs down my back.

After the surgery I spent a week in hospital, almost motionless for the first three days. I can’t even tell you how painful it was. The other patients on the osteo ward, who were all old ladies having hip and knee replacements, told me I cried in my sleep, but I hated being in the hospital so I stopped taking morphine so the nurses could release me.

At home, my bed had been raised so that I could get in and out more easily, but I spent the majority of the next month just lying flat on my back, reading a lot. I was taking eight Cocodamol every day for about eight weeks so developed a dependency. Codeine withdrawal symptoms include feelings of depression, so it felt like a massive setback to have to come off it just as I was getting back to normality.

After that, it got better. I was able to go to university in September as I’d wanted, and just got on with things. The pain never fully went away, though, and I did a couple of courses of physio to try to sort out the cause, which was that the muscles in the middle of my back had been weakened by the whole experience so ached awfully if I had to hold my body in the same position for any length of time. The exercises were boring though(!), so I didn’t keep them up, and in my final year it was so bad that I had to sit my exams in a separate room so that I could lie down for a break whenever I needed.

I’d just accepted that I would have to deal with it for the rest of my life, until my friend got me to go to pole dancing classes for a laugh. We kept going and gradually, as I stuck with it, I got stronger. I ached in the days after a class, but I noticed that it was a different kind of ache. The more progress I made in lessons, the less pain I would be in on an ordinary day, and when I realised the connection it seemed so obvious. My doctors had tried to help by referring me to a physio, but I couldn’t believe no one had suggested I took up a sport or hobby that would strengthen these muscles before. 

I still have weeks when I get pain, and this is usually when I’ve been stressed and tense, spending too many hours hunched at my desk and not enough time moving my body. But I’ve never really looked back. 

I recommend exercise in a lot of situations, but it’s always because I genuinely believe it will help. I thought it was about time that I shared my personal story to explain why.

Drop the Pom, Gymbox – review

Girls at the Drop the Pom class

Yesterday I headed to the Gymbox in Farringdon to try out urban cheerleading with PT Esmee Gummer. Esmee is a member of London’s Drop the Pom group and devised the class based on the workout cheerleaders get when practising and performing their routines.

I have to admit that I wasn’t sure how strenuous shaking some pom poms about would be, and was kind of hoping the studio wouldn’t have any windows so that no one could catch me in the act… Having found my love for exercising through weight training I wasn’t sure how seriously to take this class, but it turns out that the answer should have been VERY. Cheerleading is hard work!

After warming up, Esmee put us through our paces with a series of drills for legs, abs and arms. I started training years ago because I hated my thighs (which sounds stupid to me now), so I can squat with the best of them, but I found the arms section a challenge – you’d be amazed how hard it is to keep your arms up in the air for four minutes! So this is definitely a class I’d recommend to anyone who wants to sculpt their upper arms/shoulders.

After that there was a HIIT (high intensity interval training) section, which was probably the toughest section of all. This involved badass cheerleader-variants of side lunges, high-knees, jump lunges and the dreaded burpees, for a minute each, and I am more than happy to admit that I had to stop for a breather mid way!

Finally, we worked on a little routine, and by this point I had totally forgotten my worries about looking daft with the pom poms and could not have been loving it more. Esmee was a great teacher and taught us little sections at a time, always building on what we’d already practised.

One of my favourite things about the class was learning how strong you need to be to perform as a cheerleader, both physically and as a person – Esmee kept reminding us to smile and not let them know that we were in pain, ‘them’ being the audience of 10,000 that we were imagining performing in front of! This reminded me of pole dancing and how it looks so pretty and graceful but actually you need to be hard as nails to do it because it hurts like hell. There’s a weird satisfaction in making something difficult look easy – maybe it’s endorphin-related.

Esmee knows all about overcoming challenges to succeed, having had to learn to walk again after a complication during surgery for a sports injury left her temporarily paralysed from the waist down. This stopped her from going to performing arts school, but hasn’t prevented her from becoming a successful PT and dancer and even releasing her own fitness DVD earlier this year. It’s an impressive story and you can read all about it here.

All in all, Drop the Pom was a super full-body workout. My arms are aching today, which is always a good sign! More importantly I really enjoyed myself and felt so much better walking out of the gym than walking in, all set to enjoy the weekend.

I think I got lucky in that the class I attended was on a sunny Friday evening, so it was quieter thanks to the number of people who weren’t able to resist the pull of the beer garden! But Esmee’s class usually has a waitlist so if you decide to give it a go make sure you book in plenty of time.