This article is brought to you in collaboration with The Yogapod Sydney.
How did you get active in lockdown? Did you jump around your living room with the UK’s “favourite PE teacher” Joe Wicks? Or dig out your trainers to train for a virtual half-marathon? Or log on to a virtual session with your usual PT / pilates instructor / yoga teacher?
People all over the world have been finding their own unique way to keep active over the last 18 months, as we found ourselves in various stages of lockdowns and restrictions.
According to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 20 percent of Aussies increased their physical activity during the pandemic. Strava documented that the number of runs and cycle rides uploaded to the app increased by 42 percent, in the two weeks after Newcastle on the NSW’s central coast went into lockdown.
A survey commissioned in May 2020 by Nuffield Health in the UK found three quarters of Brits (76 percent) had taken up at least one new form of exercise, while figures from Public Health England’s ‘Couch to 5K’ app saw almost 1 million downloads from March until the end of June 2020, when the country was in its strictest lockdown – a 92 per cent increase on the same time the year before.
But there is one activity that has experienced a truly global surge over the pandemic. Yoga saw a 42 percent increase in popularity, according to research undertaken by digital health firm Withings. With regular studios closed and restrictions on movements and sizes of gatherings in place, many found the simplicity of rolling out a mat at home for a few minutes of peaceful exercise a tempting idea.
According to the United Nations, so many of us found solace in yoga while under stay at home orders because “yoga can be a powerful tool to deal with the lockdown’s uncertainty and isolation, as well as to maintain physical well-being”.
As we start to dip our toes back into the waters of our pre-pandemic lifestyles, many will feel the anxiety of getting “back to normal” again. And for those who began their yoga journey in their living rooms, making the switch to the studio might feel like a daunting journey.
New beginnings, new habits
Katy Graczer, founder of The Yogapod Sydney, understands that exploring new and unfamiliar territory when it comes to health and well-being can be intimidating, so much so that she has made it her job to make wellness as accessible as possible to everyone.
“Finding a welcoming environment is absolutely essential. I joined a gym last year and I was so self-conscious! It was really intimidating, and that feeling probably puts 80 percent of the people who do want to experience wellness off, because they’ve got a perception of what it will be like. In some cases, it is like that – and that’s why it’s important that someone can make a recommendation that meets your needs,” she said.
Katy’s business is an online wellness destination that curates the best retreats, workshops, gear, accessories, yoga and wellness insights from community-leading yogis and instructors. The pod is all about connecting yogis and wellness-seekers of all levels, from total novices to experienced practitioners, with facilitators who can help create their path to wellness, physical and mental wellbeing.
Originally from North London, Katy has called Australia home for the last two decades. After immersing herself in the yoga community in Sydney, Katy found herself being consistently asked to connect people with retreats, classes, events and workshops that would provide a starting block for their wellness journey.
“When I first trained as a yoga teacher, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my brand, but I knew that The Yogapod was something that I wanted as part of a hub and whether that was going to form a studio, a website, a collective – it could have been any of those things, but I did imagine it to be space where people could gather safely and explore wellness, in any kind of way,” she said.
Now a highly experienced yoga teacher and breathwork facilitator, Katy is also a qualified Acrovinyasa teacher and passionate about making yoga accessible to everybody, having gone through her own journey in the industry.
“I’ve always been quite drawn to yoga, it felt like something that I would be able to resonate with, because it’s a physical practise that didn’t require a lot of cardio activity – in my opinion at the time,” she said.
Forming human connections
Katy’s yoga journey saw her dabble in a bit of Bikram and Vinyasa, before finding a teacher that she connected with.
“Most people will find when they start a yoga practise that they will find someone that they really like and makes them feel particularly good afterwards, so they’ll continue to see that teacher and develop a yoga practise with them. It’s probably changed a bit now, just because of the sheer volume of yoga classes available, but I know when I started, it was very much about finding that connection to a studio and a teacher and a community,” she said.
It’s that idea of connection and community that inspired Katy to launch The Yogapod Sydney.
“I was already connecting people and I wanted to make that a space where teachers could connect to new students, and new students and existing students could explore what the wellness industry had available to them. There are lots of independent businesses that really want to make a difference in the world, in terms of people’s wellness journeys, sustainable eating and sustainable venues, and they have a difficult time penetrating the big corporates that seem to monopolise advertising. I wanted a space where people could connect. Where everybody was able to gather in one place and find that space,” she said.
Treading lightly on your mat, and on the Earth
Katy admits that from the outside the wellness industry, like any industry, can sometimes seem a bit obsessive, and its core reason for being – to help everyone live better, healthier, happier lives – can get missed. But stepping into it, particularly when through a safe and welcoming space such as a yoga studio, can provide an introduction to topics and leaders in other areas that you wouldn’t necessarily be amongst otherwise, including environmentalism.
“If you train with a teacher that looks at all the other realms of yoga, treading gently on the Earth is a very important practise, and impacting others in a positive way is very important. If you do study yoga from a traditional standpoint, you will be taught those lessons and that would be considered some kind of guide to live by,” she said.
Healthy you, healthy planet
Often, a barrier to living a more sustainable lifestyle can be the perception that it will be too expensive to achieve. And the same is true in wellness, but Katy says her perceptions changed once she started living the lifestyle herself.
“I come from a poor suburb of North London, and there was always an association that living well and choosing organic food and sustainable produce and looking after the Earth is an expensive activity. I live in a wealthy area of Sydney now, where we have access to all these things and while there can be an expense associated with the immediate purchase, I’ve noticed that when you start living this lifestyle, it does become so much more budget-friendly,” she said.
“For example, our family doesn’t eat a whole heap of processed foods, we are lucky to be able to buy what we need as we need it, which reduces our food waste, and we eat a lot of fruit and vegetables. You might think it’s so much quicker to just go and get takeout, but actually that’s a half an hour of your time, when you could have already made your food at home, and it would have been so much more affordable and nutritious.”
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle doesn’t just improve your body and mind, but can also positively impact your wallet, as Katy explained: “There’s the way it makes you feel. Because you are already doing the best thing for your health, you feel good and you’re not constantly trying to make yourself feel better and spending money on that. Yoga is one of those practices that if you do it enough, you will see improvement and you will experience changes in the way you address many things. For example, it’s unlikely you will go to an hour long yoga practise and go to McDonald’s afterwards. So, you start falling into these healthier and healthier habits by default. But that’s a journey that you have to go on, and I think we in the wellness industry just have to do a much better job of making it accessible to people, and that’s what I want to do.”
Time to retreat, locally
As restrictions have eased at different paces across Australia, our thoughts might be turning once again to the possibility of travel. But just like the Empty Esky movement encouraged us to travel locally to support communities affected by the devastating bushfires of January 2020, as Sydney comes out of lockdown Katy encourages us to consider what’s on offer nearer to home, and support local businesses that have been impacted by lockdowns.
“I’d like to see more people travelling locally and enjoying what we’ve got on our doorstep. I think it’s been very difficult to do that previously, because we’ve always had such fanciful ideas about what a holiday looks like and now we can take these little bite-sized chunks of things a little bit closer to home to reintroduce us to relaxing and getting away, without having to do too much upheaval,” she said.
There is something for everyone in the retreats listed within The Yogapod Sydney’s guide, with categories ranging from breathwork, to cooking, dance, feature retreats, surf and yoga, wellness and, of course, traditional yoga retreats, located in beautiful venues around NSW, the Southern Highlands and the Northern Coast, all offering a detox from daily life.
“I’d love to see the businesses that I’ve been supporting in The Yogapod – these amazing venues and caterers – I’d love to see them full again. I’d love to give as much support as I can to all of the teachers that have really struggled, because they haven’t been able to get into a studio for quite some time, so connecting on a face to face level with their students will be amazing. And of course, for the students who haven’t been touched by a pair of hands for a really long time, to not have that hands-on instruction when you’re so used to a yoga practise which is connected physically and spiritually, it will be so nice to be able to have that interaction again, face-to-face,” Katy said.
What you can expect from a retreat
Katy says: It’s not actually easy to retreat. To switch from a very busy lifestyle, or a lifestyle where you’re absorbed by family, then move to an environment where it’s more slow and simple is actually quite a transition. So, it’s very useful to have a facilitator there, to allow you some time to drop into that space.”
The retreats recommended by The Yogapod Sydney will often take place over a weekend. Guests usually arrive on a Friday afternoon to be greeted by a beautiful venue and a friendly facilitator. The schedule of activities offered at each retreat will differ and will always be optional, but a standard yoga retreat will include a form of dynamic or energetic yoga in the morning, then a relaxing or recharging yoga in the evening.
“There will be some optional activities such as bush walking or fun activities during the day – particularly surfing as we’re on the east coast of Australia – as well as breathwork and ice bathing, which are both very popular at the moment,” explained Katy.
One thing you can guarantee from any of Katy’s retreat recommendations is that your accommodation will be of a certain standard, so even if you decide not to participate in any of the activities, you can be sure of a comfortable night’s sleep in a relaxing environment, often are in nature – mountains or coasts – and away from the city.
Food and eating together also form an important part of any retreat. All The Yogapod Sydney retreats have their own chef serving up organic, locally sourced (where possible), healthy and nutritious meals.
“Often, the food will be vegan or vegetarian, not always, but we do usually suggest that as part of a retreat weekend, you take a break from meat. Some retreats won’t serve alcohol, but they will allow you to bring a bottle of wine if you want to, unless stipulated. But we really do ask that when you enter into a retreat, you’re going to try and take a break from your everyday life and that includes giving your body a bit of a break from all of the junk we put in it all the time,” said Katy.
But the biggest thing to expect from a retreat is finding a sense of connection to others. After all, that’s what The Yogapod is all about – human connection in safe spaces. It is for this reason that yoga retreats can be popular amongst singles and lone-travellers.
“You’ll usually meet between eight and 30 attendees on a retreat, and you can guarantee that you’ll come away with at least one very good friend, if not 30. It’s a really beautiful way for people who are on their own to go away on a holiday and connect with other like-minded, super nice people. I think that’s something we overlook when we talk about retreating, and often people are very afraid of doing something by themselves, we see lots of people saying ‘I want to book a single room’ and we say ‘no you don’t! You want to book a room with someone else so you can be friends!’. But people get nervous spending time with people they don’t know; however, invariably on our retreats, we see friends for life,” said Katy.
And until then?
For those of us around the world going in and out of stay-at-home orders, or for those of us who are just struggling to stay positive during challenging times, planning a trip away may feel like an opportunity that is just out of reach right now.
“That’s the one thing we’ve all been trying to find in all this, is the hope, right? Because it seems the goal posts seem to move away from us,” said Katy. “So, what we try to do is create retreat experiences as part of our daily habits. And they can be as simple as getting up in the morning and having a little bit of structure to your day. And that’s certainly something I do in terms of setting some very simple and achievable things to do, which is what you would do on a retreat.”
Katy’s tips for creating retreat experiences at home
1. Make sure that you move like you love yourself at least once, every single day.
It won’t be to the same standard as if you were going to a gym or a yoga studio and we know that, but making sure you allocate 10 or 15 minutes to moving, whether that’s walking outside or moving on a yoga mat. Make sure that’s part of your to do list.
2. Nourish your body as best you can.
Of course, we’re going to have a couple of days each week when we’re just gonna eat chocolate and popcorn, and that’s totally fine! But make sure that you don’t go down a slippery slope and you remind yourself to nourish your body, because it really is something that will get you through.
3. Plan your day.
Give yourself some structure around your day, so you have things to participate in when and if you can.
4. Get a good night’s sleep.
Don’t stay up late scrolling through social media. Switch off and get some quality rest.
Life after lockdown
The last 18 months have been overwhelming, and remain so for many of us. Continuing to stay positive through continuous global crises can be challenging, and the uncertainty of what’s ahead can weigh heavy. It is times like this, though, that community and compassion are so important.
“I’d love to see people come together. To support one another. Lift each other up. Let’s get back into supporting these local businesses, and do it with a level of understanding – because I think we’re going to be moving into a world in the next six to 12 months where there will be a bit of division and it’s going to be much harder for us to overcome those things if we don’t have a level of compassion and understanding that we’ve never seen before,” said Katy.
“I’m very comfortable with promoting the businesses with the best vibe, that are really looking after their customers and the world. The last 18 months have kept us out of the big supermarkets and made us think more about where we spend our money, and the ethics of the people who are producing goods. For me, that’s the silver lining of all of this. It’s been a really beautiful journey – that I’ve had the time to understand who those people are, and I feel like that’s such a gift, because maybe, I might not have noticed them otherwise.”