Claire Missingham, a former choreographer and now one of the UK’s most popular and loved yoga teachers, has practiced alongside A-list celebs in her time, but she insists the incredible benefits of this transformational practice are equally available to everyone, every day… you just need to step on the mat to make the magic happen
How did you get started in yoga?
Having dabbled on and off with yoga with my mum, who was into a spiritual lifestyle in the 70s and 80s, and then in 1994/95 during my choreography degree, I started practicing regularly in 1996 in New York City. I was in my mid-20s and regularly spent months in NYC dancing, choreographing and researching movement technique. My first class was at Jivamukti Yoga, and was an Ashtanga class, as well as their open classes they used to do in a small studio on the Lower East Side.
I loved the use of music and the specificity of intention and reason for doing what we were doing. I fell completely in love with the Ashtanga yoga system and, on returning to the UK, each morning we started class with an Ashtanga sequence. There were not any decent yoga mats easily available in London, so I would buy this great carpet underlay from a man in Bethnal Green; he sourced a sticky material that was perfect to practice on, and would get it cut to size and order 20 at a time and give out to dancers or yoga friends. In the late 90s, on Monday nights at Jivamukti, we would go and chant with Krishna Das, and I adored closing my eyes and singing to Neem Karoli Baba, his guru. The devotional aspect was always very strong for me.
Back then I loved the stabilising quality of Ashtanga, the way it had a whole technique and ritual, such as six days a week at the same time, then new and full moon considerations and moving slowly through the asanas, being handed the next posture when you are ready. It had such form — which intrigued and calmed my need as a dancer and choreographer for form, technique, reason and alignment.
Also, in my 20s, I was very competitive, mostly with myself, to be better, stronger, more focused, learn more, so it really indulged this part of me. Luckily, now all of that has completely fallen away and I am left with the purity of what works without the exterior force, so it’s a lot more peaceful now.
I then travelled and spent time in Mysore studying with Sri Pattabhi Jois and his grandson and at that time was asked to tour with a music artist for six months as a private yoga teacher. So this was really when I started a full-time commitment to teaching yoga and the dance company was wound up.
In my teaching, I have always aimed to have the same narrative story arc process of creation that I had as a choreographer, so my yoga sequences evolved more towards Vinyasa Yoga, and after being involved with Jivamukti from 1997-2005 I had trained as a teacher in both systems, as well as attending classes at Golden Bridge in LA and NYC, which I also loved for the completely esoteric nature of the practices there. From 2001 onwards, I also spent a lot of time in LA with Maty Ezraty and Lisa Walford, as well as Shiva Rea in the mid-2000s, who was hugely influential.
Twenty years ago I feel this was the golden age of yoga in the west, so much creativity and brilliant teachers. I often feel nostalgic for this time.
Who or what inspired you in the early days?
I was always inspired by the breath, music, poetry, reading sacred texts and good alignment. I also studied Bhakti Yoga and loved the tradition of this path: devotional singing, mantras, chants, raags, shlokas and repetition of the divine names. I have always loved singing but was not good, hated the sound of my voice and wished more than anything I could be a singer. It was never meant to be for me but nevertheless Bhakti Yoga helped me to go inwards and stop judging myself and be with the divine source within me.
What are the main styles of yoga you practice and teach?
I now enjoying fusing styles under the vast ‘umbrella’ of yoga, rather than focusing on one style. I’ve experienced many styles, schools of yoga, teachers/gurus and charismatic teachers, good and bad. However, there are constants that go beyond trademarks that are more to do with the historical, philosophical aspects of yoga that are present in all forms: devotion, going inwards to the divine, the breath, listening inside, trusting yourself.
So I lead classes in a yoga that is more ‘traditional’ in terms of bringing these qualities into the class whether it is through an asana, a moving sequence, through music, chanting, meditation or breath-work, a kriya, sound technique or mantra. I feel less need to align with one school, teacher or technique now. I use trauma-informed techniques and consider neurological research into what aspects of yoga are most beneficial for mental health too, without needing to be advanced physically. My practice now is much deeper than ever before.
What differences have you seen in your practice over the years?
My practice now could not be as different as when I began! I have retired many poses that eventually physiologically were not a match in the end for me kinaesthetically after 20 years of daily practice. I developed severe osteoarthritis in one of my hips (my right side, which as a dancer was always the side I worked more and demonstrated on), so it got very tired, and I have a genetic propensity for joint issues, along with forcing my turnout beyond ROM (Range of Movement) for my whole childhood, with the slightest discrepancy between leg length meaning my pelvis has always been twisted.
So no more two-leg behind-the-head poses or extremely externally-rotated postures for me! My body got to 45 and said “Okay, you’re done with those movements now, girlfriend!” So now my practice is precise, loving, gentler and more mature. I still love flowing in vinyasa though and I practice kriyas and meditations from the Kundalini lineage to close my eyes and go inside.
How do you feel when you practice compared to when you haven’t been able to get on your mat?
If travelling I always return to Ashtanga primary or second series as my homebase, it’s so deep in my consciousness I just go there to create a blank slate again.
I have a shorter sequence I practice daily that keeps me in check, and can be done anywhere even without a mat, and I meditate daily in silence for at least 10 minutes. Parenting an adolescent teen through two years of a pandemic was rather challenging, requiring a lot of patience, focus and a will of steel. Every part of my daily life is better once I’ve practiced. My ideal waking time is 5am; I adore the quiet mornings to remember who I am, have time to reflect on past actions from which to learn, and set intentions for the day ahead, not for perfection, but for a sense of knowing all of that is within me when externally I am being pulled in many directions.
Do you think anyone, at any age or ability, can enjoy the benefits of yoga?
I do think that anyone of any age and any physical situation can benefit from yoga, meditation and chanting. This is the only downside of Instagram yoga, as it always comes with an image alongside, it means often people will compare themselves to that visual image and decide they cannot do yoga as they already need flexibility or physical awareness. One comment that always makes me giggle is when I meet people and they say, “Oh no wonder you are a yoga teacher, you are calm and fit.” And I’m like: er no, I am not naturally calm or fit, I am only occasionally like this because I practice yoga inside and out! It took me two hours of practice to get to neutral!
What do you think of famous people like Gwyneth Paltrow and influencers getting into yoga? Is it good for yoga or does it make it too commercial?
I love GP! She gets a bad rap about her obvious privileges, but honestly she has championed wellbeing for two decades. Her and Chris Martin and Sting used to practice Ashtanga and I’d often be on the mat alongside them; I found them focused and inspiring in their commitment. I’m grateful that yoga became popular in the west back in the 1990s through people like Christy Turlington and Madonna, as they did much to start many of us on our path that then became our life’s work. That’s a blessing, no matter how superficial it may seem.
YOGA & YOU
What does yoga mean to you personally?
To me yoga means: How can I breathe, move, go inside and down into my body, observe, forgive, align and create intention so that my inner world is congruent with my actions on the outside?
Do you have moments that you feel you are truly ‘in the flow’?
In 1990, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who is considered one of the co-founders of positive psychology, was the first to identify and research flow. He said: “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times…The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). I get lost in writing now, that is my current love of flow.
What do you believe is your true calling in life?
I will always be my best self when teaching, in a room with real people, channelling divine experience, and being honest with myself and others, without letting any ego override the art of pedagogy. I adore teaching. I have missed and pined to teach real people during the pandemic so much I ached; it is the true space of community and healing.
People used to make records, as in a record of an event, meaning the event of people being together in a room. That is community. Now, everything is about cross-marketing and socials and followers, and even if you have 5,000 people it’s considered hardly worth anything. Put those 5,000 people in one room though all together and you have an event worth making a record of!
Our perspective has become so distorted in every industry; it has been watered down to what is free and easy to get having more validity than anything that requires effort or investment or being there in person. Twenty years ago you couldn’t learn from an experienced teacher unless you saved up, took time off work, travelled, studied, read, researched, practiced over months or years. This art of community and time is a traditional practice that I hope will not be lost through technology.
What do you love to do when you are not practicing yoga?
My calling now is also writing, I have a mentor and am studying the art of turning life into words and am on a journey that is challenging and wonderful and healing.
What are your plans for the future?
My plans are that soon my memoir of my life through yoga will help people see that yoga is accessible to anyone from any background.
Can you tell us some of your self-care practices?
1. Learning how to sleep eight hours per night; nasal breathing in sleep.
2. Magnesium salt baths; my red light sauna; and cold morning showers.
3. Drinking two litres of water a day.
4. I have been doing strength work for two years now and although it has changed my body shape somewhat, it has been a life saver for my bone health and physical stability.