Alex Nathanson Yoga Ambassador
Alex is a yoga teacher who lives and breathes all things yoga. He talks to Sundried about his philosophy and the joy he finds in practising and teaching yoga.
Please tell us about sporting events you have taken part in or have coming up?
Last summer (2018) I swam from Asia to Europe across the Bosphorus Strait. A love of open water swimming has taken me to lots of beautiful and interesting places including many trips exploring islands, bays and coves in the Mediterranean. Iconic swims I have completed and would recommend to anyone who enjoys swimming and exploring would be escaping from Alcatraz in the South End Rowing Club invitational and swimming from Britain to America (in the Virgin Islands). Although technically I wasn’t supposed to touch the American virgin island without first going through customs.
This summer I am heading back to the Greek Cyclades to explore Milos for the first time with some very fast swimmers. Hopefully I will slow them down a little so we can take in the beautiful scenery.
One day I may do a triathlon. I have run a lot over many years of playing football, I cycle everywhere, and I obviously love swimming. Perhaps I am like the musician who knew all the notes but couldn’t play them in the right order.
Tell us about your journey to fitness? Where did it all start?
I have always been physically active. I grew up with one of the oldest lawn tennis clubs in London at the end of my road and remember many evenings bashing a ball against the practice wall.
But it wasn’t just tennis. I really loved all sport and all forms of movement as a child. On weekends, my dad would either take me swimming or to Aikido (martial arts) class. My mum tells me that she also took me to ballet classes. In my adolescence I must have erased that memory (now I wish I had kept it going).
Of course at the time none of it felt like a fitness regime and I wasn’t thinking about my form or breathing, I just enjoyed moving. Nearly all children do instinctively enjoy movement but as we begin school, our education systems typically teach us to prioritise the cerebral and the sedentary and to separate work from play (and perhaps also mind from body).
I did continue to play competitive sport throughout school, rugby every autumn/winter, football every spring and tennis every summer. And competitive sport continued at University (Bristol) where I played 1st XI Football.
In my second year I lived near the University pool and re-connected with swimming again which was a great way to kick off the lactic acid from intense football training.
However, I also spent a lot of time in the library studying and reading. I was a geek and loved my subject (classics) but I had already noticed that the challenge of balancing long periods of time sitting with intense physical activity was increasingly difficult. There were some great highs at University but some dark lows also. I suffered badly from depression in my final year.
Although sport and football continued beyond University (ten years playing in the Arthurian Premier League whilst selling property in South West London), as I got deeper into my thirties there was an increasingly large separation between work and play.
Indeed this was how everyone seemed to talk about life, working hard and playing hard. This never sat right with me. Indeed spending a lot of time sitting at a desk didn’t sit right with me.
When my cousin introduced me to yoga in 2013 (preparing for a swimming race in Italy) I realised just how much sitting wasn’t sitting right with me. Shortening and tightening my muscles and messing up my spine.
It was a revelation to discover in yoga a vigorous physical activity that didn’t involve competition and didn’t leave my body beaten up. As I explored yoga further at my local gym, one teacher helped me understand the power of controlling and synchronising breath and movement and how breath control (pranayama) could positively influence one’s mental state. This set me on a yoga journey exploring the myriad options available in London. Initially drawn to a dynamic Ashtanga based practice, I have subsequently come to see all forms of good yoga as paths leading to the same place: a healthier body and happier, quieter mind. It was interesting then to learn that yoga means ‘connected or union’ and shares many qualities with the Aikido I was taught as a child: Aikido literally means a way (do) of unifying (ai) the spirit (ki). In 2017, I took my yoga teacher training qualification and started teaching full time in 2018.
What are your training goals now?
That’s an interesting one for a yoga teacher to answer. One of the principles of yoga is to relinquish attachments to goals. That in itself could be regarded as a goal. Perhaps this is the ultimate goal: non-attachment to the outcomes and being absolutely in the moment. I have noted that good teaching hinges on being in the moment and being completely present for your students.
That said, I understand that setting goals is a practical and powerful way to keep focus and to chart progress, especially in elite sports. I think Rudyard Kipling catches it best when he talks of dreaming but not letting dreams become your master.
One simple daily goal is to stay healthy and strong (physically and mentally), specifically so I have the energy and the understanding to help others do the same.
Tell us one unusual fact we wouldn’t know about you:
I won the Ancient Greek prize at University (bona fide ancient Greek geek). This may explain why I sometimes stray into the etymology of anatomy in the middle of a Yin class. There are lots of interesting and unusual facts in anatomical etymology, for example the sacrum (bottom of the spine) was named the 'os sacrum' by the Romans as a direct translation from the ancient Greek 'hieron osteon' meaning 'sacred bone'.
What advice do you wish you'd been given when you first started out?
I would tell a younger me to focus on the importance of breathing and flexibility. But I know what a younger me would have said to that.
It is strange that we don’t place more value on the importance of breathing in our education system. On average, we all breathe around 20,000 times every day. It is this extraordinary free resource that everyone has available to them. There are so many different ways you can breathe to charge the body when you need energy and strength or soothe and calm the body when you need to recover.
Do you follow a specific nutrition plan? If so, what/when do you eat?
Like Forrest Gump, when I get hungry, I eat. Yoga should be practised on an empty stomach so in between teaching and my own practice there isn’t normally much time to eat. I have to eat whenever the opportunity arises.
I have noticed that when I am physically very active it is almost impossible for me to eat too much or too little. This has been especially true since going full time with the yoga teaching. Every meal is precious fuel and it’s very hard to consume something that isn’t wholesome and nourishing.
I know this makes it sound very simple and perhaps too easy. I am aware that different body types, physical histories and work schedules make food more or less of a challenge.
I have found it interesting reading about blood types and to note foods that are typically absorbed and processed better by your blood type. I am A-type Rhesus Negative and so many of the foods recommended as highly beneficial for my blood type were already foods that I particularly enjoyed and seemed to nourish me best. A few of my favourite A-type beneficial foods are: cod, salmon, spinach, broccoli, tofu, peanuts, buckwheat, apricots, cherries, grapefruit, pineapple, garlic, miso, ginger and rice flour.
The best advice that consistently comes from health professionals and high-level athletes makes sense to me: eat a varied whole-food diet and avoid heavily processed food.
The challenge is sometimes simply to avoid the heavily processed or packaged foods. I am always amused in the U.S. by how much emphasis needs to be placed by advertisers on the food being ‘real and natural’. Often it is still heavily processed and packed with sugar even when it makes this claim.
What do you do to keep your clients motivated? Do you have any top tips to keep motivated?
I try to focus on what clients can do. That sounds simple but it is so easy to fall into the trap of comparing oneself to others and fixating on what you cannot do.
Everyone who is alive whatever their age or physical history has extraordinary capabilities if they focus on what they can do.
The most powerful yoga practises are sometimes very simple movements coordinated with the breath with the eyes closed. Movement coordinated with breath calms down the whirring of the mind and allow us to enter a flow state in which we no longer worry about the things we cannot do and take pleasure in the activity we are doing.
Within this simplicity, variety and joy are also important.
When showing a client something new or more challenging I find it very helpful to link it to something they are already familiar and confident with. For example, showing how a new yoga posture uses the same principle of breath and foot alignment as another posture they are comfortable with.
These things combined make the discipline of regular activity much more achievable.
It is also vital to recognise that different clients will respond to different approaches. Reading the energy and mood of a client or a class is a daily challenge.
Talk us through your training regime.
I think it was the American physical therapist Kelly Starrett that said the best training is the one that you are not doing.
I am naturally biased but I do believe that a balanced yoga practice does cover all the key bases for a healthy body and mind: strength, stamina, flexibility, agility and equally important rest!
I try to keep up a healthy variety. The body has an extraordinary range of movement and I believe the best regime explores the body’s wide-ranging capacities as fully as possible.
I do a range of movement exercises in the pool most mornings (either before or after morning yoga practice). I try to keep these varied but they are a hybrid of swimming drills/football warm-up exercises and pranayama. They look a little weird but I enjoy them and they never feel like a stress or chore.
Through the week, I try to balance things evenly between strength (body weight exercises, push up, pull up variations, balancing work, resistance bands), stamina (swimming, running, cycling), flexibility (longer-held Yin style stretching) and agility (any sport that involves ball-eye co-ordination usually covers this (tennis is great for hand-eye co-ordination, football is great for foot-eye co-ordination).
If I ever feel that things are getting too easy or too comfortable, I will challenge myself with something outside the comfort zone, this could range from a boxing or MMA workout to Pilates or barre class. It’s fascinating to see the correlation between movement patterns in boxing and dance. Ballet classes and Aikido all over again.
Finally an added note on resting. The importance of resting is increasingly prominent in fitness articles. It is arguably the most important part of any yoga practice. Savasana (literally 'corpse pose') is usually the last posture in most yoga classes you will attend. Allowing yourself a moment of complete surrender, without controlling the breath in any way and completely letting go of the body. For some, especially those new to Yoga, this is the hardest thing to do. Taking this moment of surrender off the mat and giving yourself time in daily life to let go of those training schedules is also key to any balanced regime.
How do you keep your fitness knowledge up to date?
There is no end to this exploration. And this type of enquiry (svadhyada) is another guiding principle listed in the ‘Ni-Yamas’ of Yoga’s Ashtanga (8-limbed) Path.
I am currently reading a book on pranayama (breath or life force (Prana) guidance (Yama)): Light On Pranayama by B.K.S. Iyengar.
One general book on health and fitness I would recommend is Becoming a Supple Leopard by Kelly Starrett (PT friends consider this something of a bible)
For an introduction to Yoga try The Classic Yoga Bible by Christina Brown, Ashtanga Yoga by David Swenson, Light On Yoga by B.K.S Iyengar, The Key Muscles of Yoga by Ray Long.
I appreciate reading is time consuming and not for everyone but there are now also great podcasts and documentaries out there. If you type some of the above names and key words into your podcast provider or Netflix then there is endless material to explore.
I am wary of recommending short form you tube videos as it is so hard to cater for individual requirements in any short form video advice. The right advice for one client is often the wrong thing for the next.
Nothing beats trying different physical disciplines yourself, and talking to those who teach them.
Going to different classes, whether that is different Yoga disciplines or as above, boxing classes, dance classes, high intensity circuit training. Often there is an interesting overlap in the most beneficial aspects of all these disciplines and physical cultures, whether it is the way the breath is used or the alignment of the limbs to create maximum stability or torque.
You can learn a lot from talking to experts in one field and asking them about their weaknesses. Many personal trainers who have impressive physiques and are exceptionally strong want to gain greater flexibility and stamina. And many Yoga teachers who are have wonderfully lithe and supple bodies struggle when they have to run or punch or carry weights.
And finally but most importantly for a teacher, listening to students. They are often the best teachers when it comes to understanding how different body types respond to different exercises and stretches. For example when I free the reins in a Yoga class and invite students to take their favourite inversion or favourite glute stretch I often see an even spread of variations and often learn a new version of a stretch from them. The ultimate goal is to empower the students to make the best fitness choices by themselves for themselves. Those choices won’t necessarily be the same as mine. In fact it would be strange if they were.
What are your top 3 trainer tips?
Tough to pick just three: the first two limbs of the eight limbed yoga path list 10 guiding principles which are all equally important and valuable. Here are three to consider:
Tapas. Sanskrit Tapas rather than Spanish! This could be translated as 'discipline' or 'consistency'. The word comes from the Sanskrit root ‘Tap’ which means ‘to burn’. It’s that inner fire which helps you keep going even when things are tough. It is not about mindlessly beating yourself up but rather finding that strength to keep moving even when life is getting you down.
Ahimsa. The Yogic guiding principle (Yama) of Non-Violence. It sounds obvious to say that training should not harm the body. Traditionally, elite sportspeople have pushed themselves to breaking point in training; the 'no pain, no gain' mentality. I completely understand the motivation to test and push the physical limits of our bodies and capability. But there should also be the intelligence and body awareness to know when to push and when to back off and rest. Again, the quality of the breath is such a good guide to help this awareness. Yoga illustrates that there is a great power in taking the 'no pain/no gain' mantra literally: not harming the body and not seeking specific gains from your daily practice.
Santosha. To find the joyfulness and contentment in what you do, however much or little it is that day.
If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?
I would take breath and water before food. They are the most important nourishment for the body and the soul. But if it had to be one food I’ll say fresh red grapefruit. Even a small slice is such a sweet way to start the day.
What do you like about Sundried and what's your favourite bit of our kit?
The Water Bottle. The subtle hour glass figure of the bottle gives it an elegance that its rivals lack and perhaps this is part of the reason it is such a pleasure to drink from it. It has now officially met and passed the challenge of falling out of my bag whilst I was cycling at high speed: not a scratch on it.
But above and beyond all of this, it was this product that properly engaged me with the philosophy of the company.
After reading about the motivation to set up the company and their founding principles, I was so impressed I contacted them about about becoming involved as an ambassador.
Favourite fitness quote:
These three probably don’t often get quoted together but it’s fun to imagine them sitting down and talking about the health of the body, mind and soul.
"It ain't about how hard you hit, it is about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much can you take and keep moving forward."
Mahatma Ghandi (similar but more succinct than Rocky):
"Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will."
"He who binds to himself to a joy
Does the winged life destroy
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise."