“The beauty of yoga is knowing that it is there to suit you, to work for you. You modify yoga to suit the student, not to suit the yoga.”
Elizabeth Ng is the tutor of the YOGA F2F class.
I am interested in hearing your views, as to why you consider yoga, in its many different forms, to be so popular.
“I suppose what you are asking me is the difference between the respective ways of teaching yoga. I teach under the tradition of the family of Krishnamacharya. I have done two types of training. One under Vivekananda School of Bangalore and then under Krishnamacharya which is based in Chennai. “Whilst I don’t know in depth about the other many forms of yoga, all traditions have asanas which relate to the exercises and particular postures. The asana is the movement of the body, which we would translate quite simply into, ‘the exercise.’ Most likely, all the various yoga traditions work with asanas, but it is how you do them that makes the difference.”
Can you explain this further? “So, one of the main principles of the how, is for instance the particular style of yoga where asanas are more physical, which many people in the west can relate to. The tradition of Krishnamacharya follows a different line even though the asanas are principally the same. Everything we do in our tradition always employs the sense of consciousness of your breath, as you move. The consciousness of your breath as you sit, the consciousness of your breath when lying down. Then there is a point at which you let all that consciousness go. In some traditions, you need to master the first stages of asanas before you can go onto the next and so on. In the tradition I teach, you don’t have to master all the particular postures.”
In this tradition, it is all about the body, together with the movement and the breath, “so you can really feel your breath, feel the experience of the movement. When I teach, I teach and watch the students. It is my job to see that people are safe and to watch if they may be doing something that may disturb their body or even their mind.”
Your career in social work? Elizabeth spent 25 years working as a Social Worker with various agencies supporting the homeless in Melbourne, in the western and northern suburbs. She was involved with running programs to support mostly single adults and families. Later on, Elizabeth assisted workers who were responsible for young people and adolescents who had been impacted by troubling family issues.
Some of Elizabeth’s most memorable but also disturbing experiences occurred when she worked with Melbourne City Mission. Reflecting further, “single adults and families could be homeless for many different reasons and should not be wrongly judged or misperceived because of their situation.” Elizabeth would provide support to staff, who in turn were endeavouring to support these young people, such as in finding them accommodation in private rental or public housing. The waiting list for public housing “was enormous.”
The team at Melbourne City Mission were responsible for 50 transitional housing properties, however there was rarely a vacancy, so the team found that they worked with clients for longer than was technically allowed by the funding bodies. The benefit however was that working with those in need assisted them to become “housing ready, as well as working through their own traumas and getting things settled.”
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect was “the impact on the children. When they are homeless, they often don’t go to school, or they have to change schools multiple times.” They may not have a uniform, the required books, or their food intake may be deficient, depending on the family circumstances.
Elizabeth instigated a project aimed at evaluating the impact of homelessness on children. However, funding was very limited. The obtained statistics “were brushed aside … sadly not a lot has changed.” At the time this was not a big political issue, but “it has become more so. People are more aware of the issues relating to housing and homelessness. It is problematic for the next generation.”
Elizabeth observed firsthand, the impact of housing inadequacies on young people, “I saw some of those ultimate results … of broken families, of kids having to move from one place to another. You get, of course, very angry kids. Very angry. For the workers, dealing with this, it was extraordinarily hard, which is where we came in to assist them. “
Is there a particular memory that you would like to share? “They used to call me the ‘Somali worker’ when I was involved with the West Heidelberg Community Health Centre.” At that time there were many refugees from Somalia. “They are beautiful people, I got to know and understand them,” and to be able to work cooperatively, respecting their ethnicity, their strength and confidence within their own family environment.
One 25-year-old pregnant woman was “quite articulate, but she looked haggard, years beyond her age due to her traumatic experiences.” Two years later Elizabeth met up with her again, she had been rehoused with her child. “She looked wonderful, superb, like a 25-year-old.” This is the difference that can be made, “by being there supporting, and obtaining stable housing. It was a beautiful moment.”
Let’s talk a little about your own background. “I was born in Tunisia, the family spoke French. However, when Tunisia fought for and gained their independence from the French, we left.” Elizabeth recalls the voyage by ship to Australia in 1956, disembarking at the Port of Melbourne and of being collected by her father who had migrated a year earlier. She was about four years old.
Speaking only French, Elizabeth’s first years at school, “were quite terrifying, initially.” She first attended a Catholic school, then was moved to Malvern Primary School near their home. “I didn’t have a clue what to do, you are left to find your own classroom, to go your own way.” Her elder sister would tell her what to do but language difficulties isolated her from the other students.
Elizabeth described a personally traumatic and neglectful childhood, she left home at the age of 17 years. “It’s a long story.” At 19 years old she became pregnant, caring for her child alone, then 12 months later married the father and had another child. Elizabeth ensured that she was home caring for the children when they were young, She then worked in administration and bookkeeping, before commencing her career in social work.
What led you into taking up yoga? Elizabeth commenced yoga prior to commencing her career in social work. During her traumatic childhood years, she would spend much time in the local library, reading books on topics related to the sense of self and psychology. Later, searching for personal relief, she attended yoga classes, “there was something for me that just clicked.” There was support, “a lack of judgment, I would walk away feeling so much better.” This led Elizabeth into teacher training, “going deeper and understanding more about, what is it about yoga that can make you feel good, if I can feel better, can I impart this onto others?”
There was also a social connection, “but in a really gentle way, in ways that I hadn’t experienced before. So over time, and as I got into social work later on, I felt that I could utilise this in life, really utilise the whole principle of yoga, which I also incorporated into my work.”
Elizabeth commenced tutoring yoga with U3APP in October 2022. Prior to this she was teaching classes at Christ Church Community Centre and is currently teaching on Zoom.
At U3APP, there are several types of yoga being taught, and from the waiting lists, it is clearly very popular. Is yoga for older people a more recent development? “ I think there are a few things. As a generation, we are more conscious of keeping healthy. We can’t just eat or ‘slob’ around. People are seeking ways to be healthy, to be stronger.” Interestingly, the proportion of men in classes is “much lower. Men have a tendency to think that yoga is too slow, that to be fit you need to keep moving. However, yoga can in fact be quite physical.”
How do you manage getting some older members to sit on the floor for instance? “If that becomes a problem, there are ways to manage this.” Elizabeth referred to a woman in another class, aged 89 years. She wanted to be part of the group, so she did some exercises from a chair. “When lying down on the floor, there are ways to help you get first onto your knees and then to slowly stand up.”
What do you think U3A, in general, has to offer the older generation, in respect to enabling classes such as yoga? “I think it is a fabulous opportunity, yoga is important within a social context as well. To meet with others, to share the space.”
Referring to her class at U3APP, “there will be some who are unable to move as freely as others.” However, Elizabeth is able to provide them with alternative postures or modifications, for instance. “The beauty of yoga is knowing that it is there to suit you, to work for you. You modify yoga to suit the student, not to suit the yoga.”
That same principle may differ somewhat in other yoga traditions. However, Elizabeth takes the view that, “if you walk away in pain, then I haven’t done my job. Sure, muscles may be a bit sore, but where there is pain, something has happened that shouldn’t happen. I want people to be conscious of this and to be responsible and provide feedback as they know better than me how they feel.”
In her classes Elizabeth uses a small lamp, “a diffuser powered by electricity, with coloured lights that flash very gently whilst diffusing aromatic essential oils, as candles are not permitted.” One of the best-known asanas is the salute to the sun. “The whole principal of the salute to the sun, is the sense of bringing light, vitality and joy into yourself.” The candle is a symbol of that.
Other interests? Elizabeth enjoys spending time with her two adult grandchildren. Walking the family’s mini schnauzer. Her French background inspired her to attend French language classes, and has revived her interest in various cultures, including exotic foods. Elizabeth’s ex-husband is a Malaysian born Chinese, their daughters share her interest in the wider aspects of French and Asian cultures. “My Australian husband now enjoys the benefit of those culinary experiences.”
Tragically in 2008, Elizabeth’s youngest daughter, aged just 35 years died. She was eventually diagnosed to have cardiomyopathy.
Elizabeth enjoyed the U3APP French singing class with David Sharples, while this was running. She likes to draw, “comic figures.” Elizabeth is also contemplating doing voluntary work with migrants and working with other cultural groups.” She has plans to travel with her husband to Vietnam. They have a property in East Gippsland, on the northern arm of Lake Tyers. “It is a long way to go but it is beautiful when you get there, I especially like to go kayaking on the lake.” She also has a small number of clients, for counselling.
Elizabeth has worked for 25 years with a very needy section of the population, the homeless. With those who may be subjected to public misconceptions as to why they have become homeless or find themselves in dire need. She has observed firsthand how childhood trauma, distressing experiences in teenage or adult years, impacted on their ability to cope with the adversities of everyday life.
Elizabeth has a ‘lived experience’ of growing up as a migrant child in Melbourne and has used this experience to help others. She continues to do so, through her dedication to teaching yoga, which promotes strength for the mind, body, and soul. This, she imparts to members of her class, at U3APP. Elizabeth is emphatic, “yoga is my passion.”
Elizabeth Ng was interviewed by Felicity May.