Union StUnion St

By Matt

For many of us, yoga is a fearsome beast, clad in soft bendy fabrics and throwing weird shapes on the floor. What is crouching eagle? Why is it so bloody hard to get into? When does the zen epiphany kick in?

In a world of mung bean warriors and lotus vigilantes, Leonie’s Yoga offers a practice that is as inclusive as it is instructive. As a teacher, she is more interested in the individual finding their own pace rather than hoisting people into headstands straight away; and where many instructors can be rather po-faced about the whole affair, Leonie’s classes are infused with a sense of fun.

Sitting down after the Thursday morning class to some tea and toast courtesy of the Pie-Eyed pop-up cafe, she outlines her philosophy: ‘For me it’s a bit of a treat for the body: learning how to accept it, and also how to gently move towards changing it. It’s trusting that with practice you’ll eventually reach your goals, rather than trying to push it.’

As someone who was once jackknifed into a plough by an over-zealous instructor, I endorse this attitude.

The refurbished studio space on the first floor of Union St has recently become the new home of what is informally known as the Breakfast Club – the morning class after which people stop around to catch up. At this point I must declare my own interest: I’ve been a loyal member of the breakfast brigade since I first arrived in Sheffield 18 months ago. In a city where I knew nobody, twisting myself into peculiar animal positions and then laughing about it over a cuppa with fellow twistees turned out to be a surprisingly good way to meet people.

Keeping an element of humour is important to Leonie, who is not keen on the evangelical attitude some practitioners adopt.

‘I don’t like people who are overly strict,’ she says. ‘Someone said to me recently that what they liked about how I teach is that I’m funny – I approach it in a bit more of a light-hearted way.’

One of her favourite poses is Half-Moon (Ardha Chandrasana to you boffins) – a joyous splay-limbed side angle pose balanced on one leg. ‘It’s a very joyful pose – it makes you feel quite childlike. You can’t really not have a laugh in a fun pose like that.’

She did her training through the British Wheel of Yoga: ’Three years, lots of essays’. Courses on core poses and meditation were twinned with study of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, the central texts underpinning the yoga philosophy. One of her tutors was a bio-chemist, with a vast knowledge of anatomy. This has clearly informed Leonie’s own teaching style, which is physiologically informative without being overwhelming. (True story: in yet another escapade with other yoga teachers, I was once told to ‘relax my spleen’. I’m still trying.)

Yoga as a practical anodyne to modern life is a central feature of Leonie’s method, but it is also the reason she began doing it at all. While working as a copywriter in Manchester ten years ago she began to develop chronic pins and needles in her arms and hands. After many visits to a number of specialists, this would eventually be diagnosed as thoracic outlet syndrome, a condition where a bundle of nerves become trapped around the collarbone, causing severe pain and restricting movement. At one point she was unable to lift anything or even drive – typing for long periods became impossible. Her career as a writer was effectively at an end.

‘I had to completely rethink what I would do with my life,’ she says – ‘and one of the things the physiotherapist had advised was yoga – and it really was helping me enormously.’ Teaching it provided a double boon: ‘It would be doing me good, but I also knew how much it could be doing for other people as well.’

She moved to Sheffield about two years ago, and though setting up as an unknown in a new place has not been without its challenges, she credits the friendliness of the city and the existence of places like Union St as making all the difference. ‘Union St felt like a natural fit, doing yoga and also being freelance – being of a slightly independent frame of mind’.

The refurb of the studio space came at the perfect time – when co-ordinator Matt Hill was looking for a yoga teacher to hold classes there and the Breakfast Club was on the scout for a new home. Union St member Sian Thomas already attended an evening class of Leonie’s and put the two in touch.

It represents the kind of community vibe that makes Leonie’s ethos such a good match for the space – the idea that people will stay and talk to each other, not just come to conquer the poses and rush off. ‘It’s sort of living the idea of yoga: to pause a little in your life, not rush by every experience.’

A lot is said about ‘being in the moment’ these days, but it there is a real truth to it in Leonie’s teaching approach. Progress is something to be worked on bit by bit, not hurtled through. She recalls her own early attempts at Half-Moon, which she now enjoys so much. ‘I was in the garden, falling over a lot – it was ridiculous. And there’s this beautiful moment when suddenly you’re in it, and it’s effortless – but only because it was so much hard work the last thousand times you did it.’

Finishing her tea, she summarises: ‘It’s just having the courage to try in the first place – allowing yourself to fail joyfully. You have to be able to revel in the failure, until you get to the success.’ Breakfast Club is 9-10am on Thurdsays at Union St. To find out more about this or annoy of Leonie’s other classes across Sheffield, check out her website: leoniesyogapilates.co.uk or follow her on Facebook or Twitter @leoniesyoga.

About Matt
Matt co-ordinates Union St and Champions Enterprise Nation in Sheffield. For feedback, questions or suggestions please email matt@union-st.org
Tea Break with: Leonie’s Yoga and Pilates