Sport Wednesday, December 2nd Words by: Adam Knight, pictures by: Mark Bowen

Headstands in Herefordshire: Is the county on the cusp of a yoga revolution?

Sport Wednesday, December 2nd

Headstands in Herefordshire: Is the county on the cusp of a yoga revolution?

Meeting in church halls and front room studios across Herefordshire, the county’s yoga community is dedicated but disparate.

This may about to change.

Last month a community group was awarded a £74,000 grant to rip out an old office unit in Hereford and create the city’s first dedicated yoga studio, a sanctuary of zen on a Tupsley industrial estate.

Becoming a permanent home for five of the county’s top Iyengar yoga teachers, the hope is that a new facility will lead to a new audience, and bring the Eastern discipline into the mainstream in a city better known for beef cattle than downward dogs.

Jenny-May While's class the Left Bank in Hereford.

Jenny-May While has been practising yoga for more than 15 years, from city studios in Paris to rural institutes in the Himalayas.

Teaching from a home studio in St James she has built a loyal following, but last year took the decision to form Hereford Yoga CIC with the aim of reaching out to those who may not otherwise roll out a mat.

Jenny-May already teaches classes to children as young as six ­­- "It's exhausting. They can do everything from the first class” - and has a weekly slot working with students at the Hereford Sixth Form College.

But one of her more recent projects is also among her more ambitious, and shows the scope of what yoga can do. 

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For six months Jenny-May has been teaching a weekly class to a group of women who have suffered from domestic abuse.

The service is run in partnership with West Mercia Women’s Aid, who help in-crisis women find safety and stability following abuse.

Yoga is an escape in itself, an hour or two when anyone can close the door and focus on their practice and on themselves.

“It’s one of the classes I enjoy most,” said Jenny-May.

“They are choosing to be at the classes but they are still very vulnerable, a lot of the women.

“I have a chat with each of them at the start of the course, and some of the stories, understandably, are really distressing.

“But they are tenacious and their ability to keep coming to the classes is humbling to see. I think that’s one thing that they get out of it; showing themselves 'I can look after myself, I deserve that'.

“When we set up the CIC to do subsided classes we looked at which groups we wanted to target.

“And from the start I wanted to do a Women’s Aid class, I thought it could really benefit. So I wrote to the chief exec of West Mercia Womens’ Aid for the funding and communications, so I can focus on the students.”

For projects like this, building the Hereford Yoga Institute was the next logical step.

The Women’s Aid class currently takes place in West Mercia’s offices, a less than ideal location, while Herefordshire Mind – a charity that deals with mental health and was keen to set up a similar group – were unable to because of funding cuts and space constraints at their offices.

“Part of what I wanted to do was break down the barriers of how yoga’s perceived, who it’s for, and hopefully the new facility might open it up to people who might not otherwise access a class.

“The Institute is going to be a platform. It will be a hub – there’s a lot going on in Hereford, but it’s all over the place.”

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Part of the plan is to reach out to a larger, if less groundbreaking, group: men.

Despite the likes of Ryan Giggs releasing yoga DVDs, classes are still largely dominated by women.

This may be due to a variety of reasons. At Hereford Sixth Form for example, Jenny-May suggests that boys are still self-conscious doing yoga in a mixed class, while elsewhere the combination of church halls and loose-fitting clothing go against what most men have experienced in their sporting lives.

It might be simply that they've never been asked.

"I want to get more guys into that class, and all my classes. In my evening classes I’ve now got a growing number of regulars who are guys – and they get a lot out it," said Jenny-May.

"There is less stigma, but at the younger age I think some of the guys don’t want to be in front of the girls holding poses."

As part of the new Institute, which will open in the spring, there will be male-only classes taught by a male teacher to try and encourage a new wave of male yogis. 

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Talking to Jenny-May after a more-than strenuous two-hour class at a new space on the banks of the River Wye, I can attest to rigour of the discipline.

A rugby player by nature, I sweat and shook through poses – Iyengar yoga teaches precision and control, holding poses for longer than other styles – and walked out feeling two inches taller.

It’s not an uncommon experience, apparently.

"People come to it for all different reasons," Jenny-May said.

"A lot of times it’s physical things – recovering from injuries, or to improve their strength and flexibility – but then they find that yoga becomes something else."

You wouldn’t believe it to see her demonstrate a variety of contorted positions whilst maintaining a relaxed speaking voice in the middle of the class, but Jenny-May insists that too is how she came to yoga.

Disinterested in competitive sport she tried her first class in Hereford as a 16-year-old.

"I couldn’t touch my toes, I was stiff in the shoulders, but after the class I was interested in how it made me feel."

It’s a pattern she now observes again and again as a teacher.

"Students start because they have a bad back, but then find gives them space in their week, it makes them calmer with their kids, whatever.

"I have one student who suffers from bi-polar disorder and for two months she has been choosing to spend the short time she is allowed out of the hospital at yoga classes.

"Wellbeing is a buzzword, but more than ever people are getting to a point where they realise physical and mental health are linked – that’s everyone."

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