I sat down with yoga instructor and dancer Sam Marais. We chatted about the 5 happiness hacks, Oprah, what yoga teacher training is like, why you should connect with your breath, his favourite yoga poses [see the video below!], and more. Here’s the interview:
Why don’t you tell us a bit about yourself.
Hi my name is Sam Marais, I am a yoga teacher. I did my 200 hour teacher training at Wellness Connection at Hout Bay. I’m an ex dancer and am still in the performing arts. I studied at the Waterfront Theatre School dance and musical theatre. I’m 26 years old, and yeah, that’s me [laughs].
Wellness Connection in Hout Bay (Photo Credit: Amanda Webb)
So what made you decide to get into yoga?
After studying dance and musical theatre I was looking for a form of exercise that was still going to be fun and that would challenge me as a dancer. So I started with yoga not having any idea of what it was or what it would mean to me! It just kind of happened naturally.
What was the best thing you learned in yoga teacher training?
Besides all the obvious stuff like anatomy or alignment, or the different styles of yoga and philosophy, which by the way was really fun and special. I think the best thing I took from my training was home practice, because part of our course, we had to log a 40 hour home practice as well, and that forced me to get into the habit of practice at home. If you’re serious about improving home practice is the way to go because you can guide your own practice, you can decide what you want to work on. And also now, after my training, I have the knowledge to be able to challenge myself in my practice.
And how many hours would you say you spend on your practice? Does it vary?
It does vary. It’s not the same every week but I try to do at least once a day, even if it’s just 15 minutes. But on average I’d say I do 1 hour a day, 5 days a week.
Would you recommend teacher training for someone who enjoys yoga but isn’t necessarily planning on being a teacher?
I think it depends on what your goal is. If your goal is purely to improve your practice or the physical asanas of yoga I think a better option would be to maybe do private classes, workshops, and yoga retreats are very fun. But if you want to go more into yoga history, or philosophy, or yoga as a spiritual practice then the teacher training can be very beneficial. There are also a variety of teacher training programs. My teacher training, for example, here at Wellness Connection, was very focused on making you a teacher, so it was very focused on the anatomy and the alignment, but there are some courses that are more focused on your personal practice. So I think you can shop around a little bit, but I don’t think everyone needs to do teacher training if they just want to improve their own practice. Private classes are better.
How do you stay motivated to practice yoga?
Obviously I love yoga, I love being active and physical, but…obviously everybody does, I also get times where I just don’t feel like it! Especially, I figured out, if I’m trying to do it to make up for some false belief of physical…whatever. If I’m trying to be pretty or be better or whatever, then I don’t want to do it.
Ok so here’s the thing, things started going really well for me. I’ve always been very dedicated and I’ve always known what I want, and worked towards it, and worked hard, and been hard on myself, and then I started getting these things that I really wanted. And two weeks in I realized I wasn’t nearly as happy as I thought I would be after getting these wonderful things. It was horrible, it upset me, so I started reading up and checking out videos, you know, the whole Oprah and all those people, I went through to figure out what’s going on here, I’m supposed to be happy now. And then I came across a guy called Shawn Achor, he’s a happiness researcher in America. He’s got these 5 hacks for happiness, it’s really interesting, you should check it out online. I should ask him for money because I tell everyone about him [smiles]…but one of the things he’s proved in his research that improves happiness is exercise. And once I made that shift to exercising to do yoga and to be happy, just enjoy now and enjoy now, and be happy and not try to make up for anything that I feel I lack. It’s like I’m not motivating myself to do it anymore because I’m inspired to do it anyway…if that makes sense! [laughs]
Oh definitely! What do you suggest for becoming more mobile or flexible, or better at your yoga practice?
Once again I think home practice is really the way to go, it’s such a good habit to get into. I take my mat wherever I go. The thing about it is you’re not dependent on a class, or studio, or trainer or anything, and also you can guide yourself. However, I know that sometimes if you don’t have the knowledge it might be a bit hard to guide yourself because you don’t know what to do. And a fun way to do that, I do it myself as well, is to find an advanced pose that you can’t do. And then figure out, you might need a little help, and you can ask any yoga teacher to help you out with this, figure out what in this pose do I need, do I need hamstring flexibility, or do I need shoulder strength, or do I need core strength. And then find asanas [a series of yoga poses] or practices to work on those things, so then you have a goal as a peak pose, and then you can keep working and working and working on it. And you’ll find that you’re working on all these things and as you work toward that peak pose you’ll be able to do other things as well.
Are there any exercises you recommend to avoid injury?
That’s a very difficult question because not only is every physical body different but lifestyle plays in as well. A runner shouldn’t have hamstrings that are very flexible. If you’re working at a desk you might be struggling with things like lower back. And then there’s things like injuries, and past injuries, and medical conditions, so there’s really no one size fits all. However, a good sun salutation is mostly a good option to go to. It gets your body moving, it gets some blood circulation going.
And then the most important thing that people don’t always incorporate is breathing. In yoga we call it Pranayama, it’s an entire field on it’s own. If you just connect with your breathing, 100% of the time you can increase the benefit from your practice and reduce the risk of injury. So I think breathing is really important and there are so many different breathing exercises that you can do as well. One of my favourite poses I can only go so far in, and then as soon as I start incorporating my breath I can almost double my flexibility. So really breath is the way to go. And also it connects you with your body so you can listen to what your body is telling you, this is sore, or I shouldn’t do this…things like that.
I read an article that spoke about breathing. When you breathe through your mouth your body tends to think that you’re going into shock because it’s like you’re gasping when you’re out of breath. Whereas if you just stay connected to your breathing through your nose you stay more calm and you also have a little bit more control because the valve is a little bit smaller so you can only inhale that fast and exhale that fast, it’s not a gasping thing, so you stay more connected and more controlled.
Interesting, that makes a lot of sense. What mistakes do you usually see people making in yoga?
Besides alignment and all that kind of stuff, I think the most important thing that people tend to do is we measure ourselves with everyone, and not only in yoga. This is another reason why yoga is so beautiful to take what you practice on the mat out into the world. When you are focusing on the person next to you or in front of you, one of two things happen. You either get discouraged, so you don’t get the full benefit of your practice, or you try to keep up and then injure yourself. I think that’s the biggest mistake, and I’ve made that several times myself. Just be where you are, push yourself to your limits, and focus on you, because you’re never going to get to where they are, and they’re never going to get where you are.
It’s a personal thing. You’re never going to be done, there’s always going to be more. I think that’s the biggest mistake, to compare yourself with others.
So true, everyone seems to do it…Do you meditate? If so, what’s your practice like?
Yes, I meditate every day. I may not exercise every day but I do meditate every day. I think meditation is the most wonderful and beneficial habit anyone can have. It is also part of Shawn Achor’s study, it’s one of the 5 happiness hacks, it’s 15 minutes of meditation every day. Western medicine is catching up to how beneficial it is to health, there are tons of spiritual leaders and cultures that teach meditation. It’s a very valuable thing. Sometimes I’ll do it in silence but I find my mind wanders a lot when I try to do it in silence so I prefer to listen to a beautiful piece of music and just focus on my breathing, and maybe not even counting my breath but just thinking of [breathes in] “Oh that’s a good one in” [breathes out “That’s a good one out”. And just get that feeling of that fresh breath and just focus on that throughout my meditation.
Something that’s also really fun is guided meditation, I love guided meditations, especially if you want to get some energy moving. In my personal practice I sometimes sometimes use them during Savasana, youtube is a gold mine for guided meditation and meditation music. Oh and of course there’s mantras as well, I came across a meditation the other day that was so exciting. It’s called the So Hum meditation and So Hum means I am That which is the name of God, which is also what God told Moses when he asked him what his name is and how Moses did all the miracles. So basically what you do is you just lie down and just connect with your breathing again and when you inhale [inhales], that’s So, and when you exhale [exhales] that’s Hum. So it’s So Hum, and it basically says how your body has been chanting So Hum since your first breath. Since your first breath you have been connected with everything, and your body knows it. It’s just a very nice meditation for you to get to know that.
Do you have a morning ritual or routine?
I do have a sense of a morning ritual actually. I get up, and then I have tea, it’s a caffeine drink, and then I go in the bath and get dressed and have my shake quickly. And then I do 15 minutes of meditation. After that I do a little bit of journalling. Basically, I write down 1 positive thing that happened to me in the last 24 hours, and then 3 new things that I’m grateful for and why. And then after that I will do a little bit of yoga. Sometimes if I don’t have a lot of time, if I only have 15 minutes or so I will do a group of exercises called the 5 Tibetan Rites. So it’s basically 5 different exercises that is believed to be the fountain of youth and it literally takes you about 15 minutes so it gets you up and going and nice and flowing. Those 4 things that I do are 4 of the happiness hacks from Shawn Achor, as I said, I’ve been doing it for awhile and it’s been working amazingly for me. So basically it is 15 minutes of meditation, it is journalling on something positive that happened, writing 3 different things that you’re grateful for and why, 3 new things every day as well, and 15 minutes of exercise, and a random act of kindness, which I usually get an opportunity for somewhere in the day. So I try to stick to that every morning.
We’re definitely going to do the 5 Happiness Hacks now! Thanks for sharing that. How long do you find you usually journal for every day?
It’s usually about half an hour, it depends. Sometimes it doesn’t flow so nicely, and sometimes you just get into a roll and you start with something as simple as I am grateful for the internet and then you go into encyclopedias and everything that came before and…so you can really get into a gratitude mode if you do that, but yeah usually I spend on average about 30 minutes on that.
And you mentioned a shake that you have in the morning, what do you usually have in your shake?
So I use the Herbalife meal replacement shake, I love the cookies and cream flavour. And I add 1 raw egg, 1 tbsp of peanut butter and 2 tbsps of oats.
Do you have any songs that you really love for working out?
For yoga I like, there’s some really nice music, it’s usually just meditation music, Chinese, Indian, and my favourite is Native American with the didgeridoo and throat singing music is really nice that I like for yoga. At the moment I am absolutely in love with the soundtrack from Hidden Figures, that movie changed my life, so Pharrell Williams, and yeah it’s great music, I love it so much. Janelle Monae has a song out called Yoga…
Yeah, that I love to jam to in my room [both laugh] and generally anything girl band or Beyonce [both laugh]
Awesome. What’s your take on shavasana [also spelled savasana]?
Originally savasana is actually the most advanced yoga pose there is, people laugh when they hear it but what you’re actually supposed to achieve in savasana is to become so detached that you can control your heartbeat. However, that is not accessible to mostly anyone [laughs], so what we do nowadays is just try to quiet our mind and try to become clear of thought at least. But that in itself is still very difficult.
So what I do in my yoga classes is I use yoga Nidra which is basically just guided meditation. I try to guide my students through a little bit of releasing every muscle in the body and then just calming down and maybe repeating an affirmation. Because yoga is based on the concept that we have energy centres in our body that can get clogged or there can be tension in these energy centres that can come from our day to day life, or our beliefs, or trauma, or whatever. And the yoga asanas are meant to release the tension in these energy centres. You’ll find yoga teachers sometimes say that the hips, when you stretch the hips, that you might get emotional. And another way that we as humans experience tension and friction in our energy centres is through our emotions, as we all know. Now what we can do is in yoga we clean our energy vibration centres through the asanas, but we can also do it from an emotional side. So what we also do in savasana is try to clear out the chatter in our mind, and maybe even direct our emotions and the chatter in our mind to a positive place, and that also clears the energy and clears the spirit in essence.
Do you time yourself when you’re practicing yoga (either on your own or for your classes)?
It depends from pose to pose. I usually try to, if it’s a strength sequence that I’m doing I try to do 8 breaths in and out. Also some of the classes I teach are an hour, some are an hour and a half. So if it’s an hour and a half I might spend a bit more time on doing it deeper or stronger; whereas in an hour class you often go a little bit faster.
Do you find it’s worth it for you to be a instructor?
I’m going to be honest with you, at the moment it is not about the finances for me, and also, it’s not as lucrative for me as it would be nice to be. However, I must say that my schedule only allows me so much time to teach yoga. There are a lot of yoga teachers that go into yoga full time and really do well. I think it’s like any industry, you need to be good. You can’t just, now that you have the training expect to be successful, you have to put the work in. But what’s also exciting about now is that there are so many different platforms where you can teach. I look at some people having youtube channels and just doing really well with that, or just doing online courses, or just doing retreats, or private classes.
There’s a company in Cape Town that just employs people to do private classes at clients homes…so you can if you want to, I’m sure you can make it a lucrative option for yourself. But don’t get your degree and think that you’re going to be rich because that’s not going to happen.
Do you think it matters if you listen to music while you practice?
Not everybody uses music, it’s not crucial obviously. But I think rather than calling it music I think I’d rather call it sound because in sound you can also use the element of silence which can also be very valuable. As I mentioned earlier we are working with energy and vibration, and sound is energy and vibration. And if you think about it, everybody knows the benefit of music, that’s why we have soundtracks, and colour therapy, and colour psychology in movies. There’s so many different things that you can incorporate in your yoga class and in your yoga practice to get your vibration going in a certain direction. I love using music, I always have a different type or style or genre for every set or sequence in the class that I teach. I think you can draw a lot of energy from music, and the music can guide students to what you want to achieve – make them calm down if it’s a long stretch, or get the energy flowing if you’re busy with a vinyasa flow. I think music is a really fun way to direct the class.
Could you show us some of your favourite poses?
I think my first favourite pose is Upavistha Konasana [see video below], which is wide legged seated forward bend – the English words are so long. And I think why I like this one is I had a breakthrough with understanding breathing with this one. Because I can go to about here [sits in the pose] if I just get into it. But I found if I really connect with my breath and extend on the inhale, and go deeper on the exhale I have been able to go all the way down to the floor just by using my breath. So I really like this one.
Another one that I really like is Compass pose [see video], of course. Let me see if I can get it this time [gets into the pose]. Basically like this…I really like this pose, I don’t know why, I think it’s because it’s nice to get a goal pose to work towards, an advanced pose.
Another one that I really like just because it feels so fun is to do Wild Thing pose [see image below & video above]. It’s just such a nice chest opener, you feel so open and so free [does the pose by going into downward dog, then flipping over]. So that’s Wild Thing pose, Camatkarasana.
Obviously there are a lot of others…I love arm balances and inversions [see image below for an example of an inversion], but they’re not so much stretches, so I think those are my favourites.
Part of what I like to do in the morning is to start with abdominal exercises, I’m not going to do all of them now, but you know, the basic, navasana, ardha navasana, maybe some Pilates exercises. And then what I like to do is get a little inversion going. So I’ll start maybe with a handstand or against the wall. And then my favourite new sequence is my tripod sequence, so I’m going to show you how I do it [does the sequence]. And then I just repeat that a couple of times until I fall on my face [smiles]. But yeah, I like to do the inversions, they’re always fun to do.
And then I’ll just do what I feel like, I like to do some shoulder as well, there are sometimes other exercises that I work into my yoga as well. Another one that I found that’s really exciting for me is the side push-up to work the chest, because in yoga we don’t really get to isolate the chest and biceps so much. And yeah, I think that’s it for now.
Awesome, thanks so much for chatting with us, Sam!
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