Annabel Jones is the goddess responsible for making me fall in love with yoga. I’d flirted with it for years having gone to classes now and again at gyms and fitness centres since I was about twenty. But I had no idea of yoga’s transformative powers until I spent ten days with this woman on a retreat she was co-running in India in January this year.
From the moment I saw Annabel I was struck by her presence – from inside out she radiates a warmth, beauty and grace that lights up a room (or the tropical veranda of an eco villa in Goa, in this instance). I immediately felt at ease in her presence, if not slightly envious of her amazing bod, gorgeous hair and mesmerizing voice. But, more importantly, her teaching is just magical. It would be impossible to feel uncomfortable in one of Annabel’s classes as she has a true gift of making the practice exactly as it should be – a non-judgmental, playful, joyful and healing experience. Teaching a slow Vinyasa / Hatha style, she intuitively adjusts the pace for the mood, skill level and energy of the class at any given time, creating a peaceful space and gliding around to help with alignment and ease you slowly and blissfully deeper into postures.
What really helped me connect deeper though was through the attention she brought to my breath and to my energy body. I didn’t know what a chakra was before I went on that retreat but in just a few days I was becoming more and more aware that there was a whole lot more going on beneath (and around) the surface of my skin than my physical body. For the first time yoga became a practice of self-love, healing and self-discovery. And for that I am forever grateful to her. (As you probably know, yoga has become such an integral part of my life now.)
Clearly I think pretty highly of this woman! So I thought it was about time I interviewed her on Healing Beauty and found out a bit more about what it was that made her fall in love with yoga and how she finds a balance between her spiritual practice, while teaching and living in a busy metropolis, London.
HB: Did you always know you wanted to be a yoga teacher?
AJ: Well, when I was a little kid I always visualised myself in a dance studio and used to spend hours in the kitchen making up dance routines. So it’s kind of what I’ve ended up doing in adult life… sequencing. [She smiles.]
[Later], when I first went to my teacher training I found myself standing in the room and thinking: “Wow, this is what I’ve always wanted to do”.
HB: What led you to becoming a yoga teacher? What did you do before?
AJ: I danced until I was 18. Then you either go professional or you stop. I stopped. Then I got really into fitness and trained as an Aerobics and Step teacher. I was living in London at that point.
After that [in 2002] I moved back to Bristol and fell out of exercise for a few years. I was really unhappy in my job at that point. I was an estate agent. I felt really low and nervous. I was quite anxious all the time. And I was in a bad relationship, of course. [She rolls her eyes, smiling.] When I started going to dance classes again I noticed how much it lifted my mood.
Then one day I went to a Body Balance class in a gym with a friend and I loved it. Afterwards my friend told me that everyone had been watching me during the class instead of the teacher. “Why don’t you do this?”, she said.
I quit my job the next day, bought some books on yoga and Pilates and spent three months in my garden reading, getting into my body, getting fit. It completely changed my whole mentality. I was so low. And I began to get so high from it – so strong and empowered. I didn’t realise then that I was making shifts on an energetic level.
So I wrote to all the gyms in Bristol offering Stretch and Relaxation classes. Within two weeks I had 20 classes.
HB: Wowzers! So when did you do your yoga teacher training?
AJ: In 2003 I did my Body Balance training and Fitness and Pilates training. Then I began covering yoga classes in the gyms when the yoga instructors were away. I realised I loved it and thought, “I want to do this all day every day.”
In 2004 I went to New York and did my first Teacher Training at the Laughing Lotus [with Dana Flynn and Jasmine Tarkeshi]. That was a four-month intensive weekend course. In Vinyasa Flow.
Then I came back to England and starting teaching yoga and Pilates fulltime – about 24 classes a week. Mostly in gyms.
HB: Did yoga change your life?
AJ: Oh, massively. I used to be really quite sad and insecure. I didn’t understand the magic in the world.
Once I started to realise I was energy… or, on a basic level, by moving and being connected to my body I felt more alive, by being connected to my breath I felt more alive, and with reading spiritual texts I realised there is so much more than what we see… it made me feel ecstatically happy! It made life much more exciting.
I’d get such rushes of love from doing the practice and such excitement. I found I got to know my place in the world.
HB: Do you consider yoga healing?
AJ: Yes very much so. Although I think it’s important not to get too hung up on healing. You can obsess about trying to be perfect, balanced, wholesome and wonderful and then something terrible will happen that throws you completely. You can’t control everything.
I love feeling things releasing and letting go and feeling that expansion but it’s important not to obsess with trying to make yourself perfect.
HB: As someone who’s struggled with an eating disorder how has yoga helped (or not)?
AJ: As a whole yoga has sorted out my eating disorder to such a large degree (a) because you’re physically doing something with your body that keeps you feeling connected with it and not fighting it, and (b) it made me feel so happy that I felt too happy to starve myself.
It saved me really. When I spent those three months in the garden I was on the verge of a breakdown. And I came back to life.
Once you start to realise you are energy and the world around you is magical, you start to feel a new level of excitement for the world and love for people. Then the size of your thighs doesn’t matter.
Sometimes I go through little periods of feeling shit but generally if I do a practice I feel better.
HB: Would you recommend yoga to people with an eating disorder?
AJ: Yes [she says wish some hesitation]. But not going to one of the fashionable Vinyasa Flow classes where they’re full of fit 18 years olds. Not just an exercise class. Find a teacher who connects you with your breath.
HB: How do you balance a yogi lifestyle with living in London/ the West?
AJ: It can be hard as people are so keen to help you to improve your ‘business’ and promote you as a brand, which is great if you’re money driven and want to make a lot of money. But that has never really inspired me. I start to shy away from it and get weirded out.
When I start to get lost in a world of thinking “I should be doing this and that”, generally something comes along to remind me that’s not who I really am. It’s a hard balance though, you definitely need money in London and I love enjoying everything the world has to offer.
HB: What are your thoughts on how yoga has been translated in the West?
AJ: It’s great in that it reaches loads of people. If you do the physical practice you’ll still be getting the spiritual benefits… But it’s just not as yummy! [She laughs.]
It’s more of a fitness thing here. But it’s so much more exciting to turn inwards through breath work and meditation.
The whole yoga world can be obsessive, especially in London, and with the American influence. The bit I begrudge the most is the obsession with healthy eating. If you go to an ashram you eat chapatti, you know?
It’s hard in London not to fall into the trap of that competitiveness healthiness. Yes, it’s important what you put in your body, without a doubt. But I believe what is happening in your mind can transform the effect of what you put in your body. Once you start to relax and breathe deeply your body is able to digest things. So much of what is going on in your stomach is your thoughts and emotions. You need to find what works for you, enjoy your practice and your life without feelings of guilt.
HB: What led you to do a Vipassana retreat and how did you find it?
AJ: I’d heard about it years ago and it took me a long time to feel in a place I’d be ready to do it. A friend said he was going to do it in January and my competitive side told me “you’re not doing it if I haven’t done it”. He ended up not doing it and I did it instead. [The retreat was at Dhamma Dipa in Hereford.]
I wanted to see how far the meditation could take me – how crazy it could get!
HB: How was it?
AJ: Mental. Really, really mental. So painfully hard!
The monotony was so painful. At points it felt like I was in a mental institute. No, at most points it felt like I was in a mental institute.
Physically it was painful. The aching… The pain that starts to come out of your body when you sit for that long is so painful. It’s emotions.
Your knee will start throbbing – agonizing throbbing. Then it’ll stop again. Then your neck will go, then stop. Then another pain. And so on. It’s like peeling away the onion.
Then, you start to feel this real expansion and floating and all sorts of energetic shifting.
You read all the texts and know the theory but until you do it you don’t realise that they really know what they are talking about [the yogi forefathers]. It’s a massive reminder that you are just vibrating energy.
HB: What were the immediate / longer-term effects?
AJ: The immediate effects… When you don’t even have a pen and paper and just your thoughts for ten days, it makes you realise how fast your life goes in this environment and how we bombard ourselves with so much stimulus constantly. Immediately afterwards I could hardly face the world. I almost got run-over. My phone was going constantly and I couldn’t cope.
It reminded me of how important it is not to be constantly bombarded by things.
And how much emotionally is stored inside us that you don’t realise. Such funny memories come up – not necessarily sad… It makes you realise how much your cells store.
HB: And now?
AJ: Once you’ve experienced that level of expansion and moved that far deep into your meditation it becomes easy to go back again. Just like that. [She clicks her fingers.]
HB: Do you meditate every day?
AJ: I’ve always found it hard to get a steady practice going for myself. But I love meditating.
I felt energy really quickly. I did tai chi when I was in my early twenties and could feel it easily. I get excited about it. But my mind is still chattering away.
I feel meditation now as if I’m so still I never want to move again. I feel a lot of energy around.
HB: What kind of meditations do you like?
AJ: I do more Prana Vidya – observing the energy. I love the ‘loving kindness’. Sometime I do ‘so hum’ with the breath, like we did on the retreat.
For a while I was just doing 3rd eye gazing – I loved that. [She smiles, again.]
I got quite scared of the Vipassana meditation as it was quite strong. [That sounds like an understatement!]
HB: Do you talk about spirituality with your friends?
AJ: No one talked about it until 2012 … or the end of 2011 actually. [I agree. September 2011 for me.] Now everybody is. There was definitely a shift then. I really do think it’s that Age of Aquarius. I have had so many more friends starting yoga in the past couple of years.
There’s a lot in the ancient texts about not talking about it though. I try not to talk about it too much. You can end up with competitive spirituality and take the magic out of it a bit.
I interject and say I agree about the magic and the privacy of it – but I think it’s important to share. For me there are things I want to blog about but haven’t for these reasons. But I do feel compelled to share things if the opportunity arises, if I sense the person is open to it. She agrees:
AJ: Yes. Don’t preach. And if someone’s not into it then shut up straight away.
HB: How do you bring the spiritual element into your yoga classes without preaching?
AJ: With some clients I don’t go into it at all. So I just get them into their breath. You have to honour if someone just wants to do it for a physical reason.
In the classes I try to keep people’s concentration and encourage them to look into their muscles, their tensions, to feel things release… From there you can start to feel shifts.
It’s a slow process of first introducing them to the physical, then to feel the energy, then getting them to question if their energy is the same as their mind. Get them to pay attention to their thoughts, to watch their thoughts… then question who it is that is watching their thoughts.
HB: How is doing a retreat different to doing a class?
AJ: With retreats it gives you a chance to really build up to something. You’ll have an idea of what you want your participants to feel or experience by the end of the retreat then break that down daily and into each class.
In fact I do that as well with my classes here. I have aims and objectives – physical poses and the spiritual theme I want the class to have.
It’s really nice to see people change from the start of the week to the end. To see people’s bodies open up and respond to the practice and also to see people’s shifts in their priorities in life and what makes them happy. See their personalities come out and find their strength, physically and mentally.
HB: What’s the most rewarding thing about your work?
AJ: [Huge grin on her face.] I love when people first do ujjayi [breathing] and then get that stillness and don’t breathe for a while after and they’re so surprised that they haven’t needed to breathe for a while.
When they first feel energy. First feel their breath has stopped… a feeling of something whooshing. And their eyes sparkle. [As do hers.]
HB: Do you think yoga is for everyone?
AJ: Yeah, totally. Anyone can do it. It’s harder for some though. I taught a semi-professional rugby player. It’s so hard for them to start getting that flexibility. They’re very focused on the physical, but gradually they can start to feel the subtleties more.
Some people think they can never meditate – that their mind is too busy. They don’t realise that everyone’s mind is like that.
HB: If you weren’t a yoga teacher what would you be doing?
AJ: Pffffffft…. I don’t know. I really don’t know.
HB: What’s next for you?
AJ: At this point in my life I feel like focusing on myself and being really good to myself. It’s easy when you’re teaching to run from one person to the next. I feel like the next phase of my life is about nourishing myself.
Contact Annabel directly for more details about her teaching and classes:
Mobile: 07545 233 833