David Atkinson came to yoga back before yoga was as widespread as it is today. He worked as a transport manager for a brewery by day and then would disappear off to yoga classes at the Buddhist Centre in Newcastle city centre in the evening. If any of his mates from the warehouse asked him to join them for a drink after work, he would make his excuses. He didn’t tell anyone he was doing yoga. It wasn’t so much that he was ashamed, more that he was conscious that it was different. At that time, normal people like him didn’t do yoga. Especially men.
Getting into Beginners’ Yoga
He’d come to yoga via meditation. Reaching the end of a four year degree course, his brain was fried and he was looking for a way to focus on himself – before it was too late. He picked up a flyer for Transcendental Meditation and started to practise regularly. He found a fantastic guide in Chris Greathead. His introduction to yoga was via Iyengar and then Ashtanga and by the time he came to teach, he’d adopted a more flexible Vinyasa based practice. He loves to include a diverse range of all the great postures. He doesn’t like to leave anything out. As an experienced teacher, he’s learnt to go with the flow and let the class evolve organically into the right sequence for that day, based on who’s there and other variables. That way, no one ever knows what’s coming next. There’s always the capacity to surprise. And class never becomes boring! His classes have a light-hearted but focused feel. He looks after alignment carefully, encouraging each student to feel for themselves in a posture.
In the last five years, he’s seen a massive change in the yoga world – globally and more specifically in the North East. There are so many more teachers and studios now – so much more choice. A greater crossover with sport and more corporate opportunities. And the social media explosion too – the Instagram yogis. It’s all made a huge difference. It’s the fact that more men are now turning to yoga as a socially acceptable way to exercise and improve wellbeing that pleases David the most. He’s adopted a philosophical approach to all these changes – he accepts that the world is as it is with its obvious positives, whilst also recognising the challenges that is also brings.
One of the main obstacles to practice in the current era is the level of distraction that we all face, particularly from social media. People find it so hard to switch off. Literally to switch off their phones sometimes. People struggle to concentrate for any length of time. There’s a level of anxiety associated with being constantly available and constantly required to respond. Being fully present is harder than it’s ever been.
While technology will keep moving forward, taking the yoga world with it, David believes he can already see a yearning developing for a more authentic beginner’s yoga practice. For getting back to the roots. For stripping back the image to find the truth hidden beneath the surface. He’d love to see yoga becoming more mainstream in the sense of being more widely available in schools and within the NHS, but also for yoga to turn more inward. To put aside image and appearance and embrace inner beauty and truth. And there’s always room for more men in the yoga world, as it’s still predominantly about a 80% split towards women.
David made the choice to keep teaching in gyms, church halls, Space Six in Newcastle city centre and corporate settings rather than to open a studio of his own. He’s made it work for him. He loves to invite international teachers such as Brian Copper, Chris Gladwell and Uma Dinsmore Tuli up to the North East to take workshops and plans to do much more of this in the future. He also has a commitment to running beginners’ courses – this is his real passion, introducing individuals from all walks of life to yoga for the first time.
He’ll teach a Mixed Ability class. Of course, he will. You can’t teach a yoga class in a gym and expect anything different. But he struggles with the inevitable compromise of leading a class with an absolute beginner alongside a yogi with eight years’ experience. It’s like teaching two classes in one – a fine balance which is tricky to achieve. When an absolute beginner comes to a beginners’ course, you can start at the very beginning. For the first couple of weeks, David concentrates on basic stretches and breathing, linking movement to breath, which is so alien to most people when they are introduced to it for the first time. And yet it’s the key to a steady, comfortable yoga practice. He’ll then move on to build up classical yoga postures with a focus on specific alignment. Learning the right way right from the start avoids so many problems further down the line. David keeps his classes simple. No music. No chanting. Minimal props. He aims to teach people to work with what they’ve got. By the end, he may start to introduce a short meditation or a pranayama practice, but mostly the class is very practical. An introduction.
Beginners’ Yoga Course in Newcastle
David Atkinson’s Beginners’ Yoga Courses are always well attended. You sign up and pay for a six-week course so there’s a commitment there right from the start. Most see the course through. Out of twelve people in a class, normally at least four carry on to a regular yoga practice, as yoga doesn’t suit everyone. You can repeat this beginners’ course two or three times – as often as you want in reality – before moving on to a more mixed ability class or the improvers’ course. David believes that it takes a good three months to really settle into a yoga practice and feel the full benefits, although even after one class, his beginners report feeling better in their bodies and even throughout their whole lives. If you learn to loosen your shoulders on the mat, you can loosen your shoulders off the mat too, when you’re sat at your desk or in front of the TV. If you observe your breath on the mat, you can observe your breath off the mat too, standing in a queue in the supermarket or sitting in your car in a traffic jam. After six weeks, David can certainly notice some difference in the way these beginners are moving, even if they can’t notice it themselves. They have learnt what it is to be present and aware in a posture.
Teaching beginners’ yoga is so exciting. Each individual is like a blank sheet of paper and it’s such a privilege to be the one introducing them to yoga. A responsibility too. But one that we’re all here for as yoga teachers. We’re here to help people and share what we have learned. The way beginners approach yoga reminds me always to keep a beginner’s mind – to be always curious, always looking with fresh eyes. There’s such a range of people that come through the door and benefit from this practice – a great reminder that yoga really is for every body.
David tells a story of a lady who came to a beginners’ yoga course back in the early days. He’ll always remember her because she had two false legs and walked with crutches. She was determined. So determined. She could do the full Sun Salute by releasing a clip at the back of her legs. She was an inspiration to everyone on that course.
A Beginner’s Perspective
We caught up with Andy, one of the absolute beginners who attended David’s Beginners’ Course this week, at the end of the first session. He explained how he’d felt very apprehensive before the class. He’d been convinced he’d be the only bloke. He wasn’t sure what to wear. He was worried everyone else would be more flexible than him. He’d signed up for the six week course in the hope of finding something that would help him lose weight and feel fitter and better in himself. He’d been a runner in the past but a bad back had put a stop to all that and he had yet to find some other form of exercise he enjoyed enough to commit to.
After the class, Andy seemed brimming with enthusiasm. His apprehension had vanished. There were more men than women in the class for a start. And David felt like a very safe pair of hands. Experienced. He knew what he was doing. He was explaining everything well. He moved at a manageable pace. Andy had never had breathing explained properly before. How to do it well and why it matters. He came away feeling like he’d worked, but worked without pain. He was optimistic that this was the start of something good in his life.
David Atkinson is right. The enthusiasm of beginners is infectious. It’s easy to see why David finds his work with beginners so rewarding. And from the sound of it, they benefit from his years of experience too. There’s a joy that comes from sharing what we have learned, from encouraging others on their yoga journey.
It’s time to share the joy. You can visit David Atkinson’s Yoga Newcastle website here.