Nadia Gilani is a Yoga Teacher and Author of The Yoga Manifesto. Nadia has extensive experience of working with people with different bodies and from all walks of life and is deeply committed to making yoga inclusive. Her approach to teaching is contemporary and explorative while maintaining a deep respect for the ancient practice. We caught up with Nadia to learn more about her teachings and journey to where she is now.
Nadia, tell us about yourself?
I’m a writer and yoga teacher and spent many years as a news journalist. Although I’ve been writing professionally for a long time I had no idea I’d write a book one day – I didn’t think I could so I’m as surprised as anyone else that I’ve ended up where I have! I worked as a crime reporter for a while and it was then that I discovered a passion for campaigning and telling the stories of people society forgets about or ignores. I was inspired to share the news of unsung heroes in local communities as well as those whose voices are too often silenced. For me it’s stories make the world go round and help make sense of the maddening place it can often be. I have a punk spirit and always want to push boundaries or demolish them and say the unsayable. I’m interested in how life feels for all of us and in exploring counter cultural narratives about the meaning of life (if any), politics, mental health, recovery and how all of this intersects with so-called wellness, a concept which I’m very sceptical about.
How did your yoga journey begin and how has it evolved over the years?
My relationship with yoga has changed so much and it hasn’t always been an easy ride. In fact it’s been really hard at times, but somehow the practice has been a constant source of inspiration over the years. My mum took me to my first class when I was 16 and I really didn’t want to go, but I was in bad emotional shape at the time. I was struggling at school, had a difficult relationship with my body and my mum thought it might help. It was magical, but it wasn’t plain sailing ever after. I’ve had a complicated relationship with yoga and I write about that in the book. There’ve been times I’ve had arguments with it and walked out on it but I’ve always returned to the practice when I needed it. That’s what interests me most – why I kept coming back. It’s a testament to the power of this practice that’s limitless and beyond words in many ways.
What did you learn from your former career as a news journalist?
That everyone has a story to tell and that there are remarkable things going on in the world that we don’t hear enough about. I found out that while I was reporting on the hard bad stuff that was going on that I was most interested in people and how life was for them. So It’s natural that when it came to writing my book I would write about my own life and those I’ve met and how we’re all trying to make sense of it.
In terms of work ethic one of the biggest lessons I picked up was to under promise and over deliver. It’s something I’ve transferred to everything I’ve done since. Being reliable is important to me, people trust you more. I get it because I find it hard to feel safe with someone if they’ve let me down before. I take deadlines very seriously and only sign up for things in good faith that I’m fairly certain I can follow through. It can’t always be helped but I do my best. No one’s disappointed if you tell them you’ll get something done by the end of the week and send it in sooner. But making promises and not keeping your word – well, that’s something I work hard to avoid.
What does a day in the life of Nadia look like? Do you have any daily non-negotiables?
I need quiet time in the morning. It doesn’t have to be long but it is essential. I’ve been that way since childhood, certainly way before yoga came into my life. As a child I loved having some alone time with a bowl of cereal and cartoons to myself before my mum woke up! These days I have a decaf coffee, potter about. Often I have a tangle of ideas so I might write them down, otherwise I simply watch the thoughts unravel until I’m ready to shuffle into the day. No matter how full-on or unpredictable the day will be I know I’ll handle it if I take this time. I usually practise every day and I like to get it done in the morning. But not in the intense gruelling way I used to years ago. Practise is like getting dressed. I’d rather do it than not, but little and often is better than two hours once a week. It varies from 30 to 90 mins. Sometimes it’s just sun salutations and sitting. Other times I miss it because life gets in the way. It’s frustrating but I don’t agonise over it when that happens anymore like I used to.
How has your yoga practice supported your everyday life – on and off the mat?
The physical stuff makes me feel good. My body can be a difficult place to live unless I have regular movement incorporated in my day. This isn’t always possible so it’s a constant dance of trying to navigate doing what I need and trying not to be consumed by it when I can’t. I’ve always loved the weird shapes that the postures offer, the awkwardness of some of them as we move in sometimes unnatural ways to create more space. I love the twists and binds and impossibility of hand balances and the focus required to do them. There’s nothing my wayward mind likes more than being fully absorbed in something. Time stops and all that matters is the moment you’re in. My practice helps me concentrate and sit still but also to pay attention to what’s going on in the world and to be properly present with people. Practising compassion with students is a big lesson in learning how to do it with myself which is a big work in progress. Then there’s yoga philosophy which gives me things to think about in my relationships and ways I choose to behave.
I often use aspects of the physical practice in sticky situations like being on packed public transport – the ujjayi breath helps here or if I’m feeling anxious and overwhelmed by crowds or too much stimulation around me I simply lower my gaze and watch the sensation of my breath moving though my body. I might be in a queue or at a bus stop – doesn’t matter – the beauty of the practice is its portability. I started cycling a few months ago and I find myself using my breath there too. If I find myself having to make a tricky manoeuvre in traffic, I breathe out as I pedal though; much like we exhale as we move into a posture.
Tell us about your book ‘The Yoga Manifesto’?
The book weaves together memoir and critique by following my personal highs and lows with the practice as both yoga student and teacher while also shining a spotlight on the industry surrounding modern yoga and its many problems. I cover a lot of ground and talk about how I fell in and out of love with yoga and about some of the crazy situations I found myself in as a yoga teacher. It’s also about yoga’s relationship with the world because in my mind a practice that isn’t engaged in the world isn’t yoga. So I write about issues in society like racism, violence against women, colonialism, capitalism, cultural appropriation and more. I wanted the book to spark thought-provoking discussion; get people thinking about this mad world we live in and how we can use our practice/s to do some good. The story builds to a place at the end where I talk about possible solutions to some of the problems I’ve identified. It’s not about telling people what to do but offering hope. I’m always looking for hope.
We can’t wait for your online class with us which focuses on increasing energy. What would be your advice to somebody experiencing low energy?
The temptation is to crawl into bed or stay there when we wake up like that. Sometimes that’s what we need. But if a low mood or a depressiveness is creeping in, I know from my own experience that nothing’s going to change unless we change things. It doesn’t have to involve seismic dramatic action. It can be as simple as making the bed, taking a shower and putting on fresh clothes. For me a bright lipstick can give me a boost when I need it – it’s the simple things. I do think that when something’s not quite right; if there’s anxiety or a low vibe going on it’s the body’s way of saying “please move me”. If you can’t face it then take it easy and rest, rest and more rest. But if you find yourself feeling anxious or resistant to rest as well then it’s probably useful to move. Go slow; gently does it. Take a walk, tidy your wardrobe or put some music on and dance or shake your arms and legs. Crawl across the floor, let out a roar (sound is movement through the body too) – whatever feels interesting. Find your own groove. Turn it into a practice or just move for the heck of moving and see what you find. That’s all practice is: self-inquiry; self-discovery. No fancy kit; no pressure, only curiosity and exploration.
What is your life motto or favourite quote?
“Be realistic. Demand the Impossible” is definitely up there. I think it was originally Che Guevara’s line but was later borrowed in the student riots and strikes that took place in Paris in 1968.
Truth is important to me: telling it, living it, owning it. I’m also a big fan of Chinese proverbs. Two of my favourites are: the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago; the second best time is now, which helps in the face of regrets. And whenever anyone shuts me down or says “no” I think of this one: the person who thinks it cannot be done should not interrupt the person who is doing it!
I also love this quote that I’ve been reminded of when my heart’s been hurting: There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind – C. S. Lewis
What is next for Nadia?
I’ve never been a big planner and have a long history of making things up as I go along. That said, I do know what’s coming up this year. I’m doing a series of workshops that I’ve organised with yoga studios and venues across the UK. The support so far has been amazing and I’m being approached with new projects all the time so I’m excited for what’s to come. The Yoga Manifesto is out in paperback in June so I’m currently hatching plans to celebrate that with a special event if I can and crossing my fingers that the book will be available in the US in the not too distant future too. Can’t say much more about this just yet but my website is up to date and I always announce news on my Instagram page @theyogadissident so that’s the best way to find out what I’m up to.
A few quick fire questions:
Favourite snack: Can’t beat peanut butter and banana on a rice cake of some description – snack of champions!
Spring or Autumn: My two faves, but if I have to choose I’ll take autumn. I was born in autumn and love its colours, moody skies and end of year reflectiveness.
Favourite pose: Headstands are the best for calming me in an instant. I love teaching them too. Especially to anyone who is scared as I was for 10 years before I was ready to try. Watching the thrill beaming out of students’ faces when they get into their first headstand is a joy.
Most loved prop: A cork brick. It’s what I hand out to students most when teaching. So versatile.
Top 3 books (other than your own!) This is an impossible question! I’ve picked titles from my younger days that truly taught me something and opened my mind to new ideas.
- Peace is Every Step – Thich Nhat Hanh
- Stone Butch Blues – Leslie Feinberg
- The Passion – Jeanette Winterson