Strike a pose. Writer Louise Atkinson tries VOGA – the sexy, fast and surprisingly upbeat new yoga-based fitness trend
When you consider just how much yoga I’ve done in my life you’d expect me to be altogether more zen – not to mention slender and bendy. I sun-saluted my way through each of my three pregnancies, baby-yoga-ed my progeny (using them as complicit but wobbly weights as I struggled to regain any semblance of tone), spent a week on a ‘finding myself’ yoga retreat and even now I regularly perform ‘downward dog’ yogic stretches with the family pooch. But I’m still utterly useless at it.
It’s a modern hybrid fusion of yoga with ‘voguing’ – the dance style Madonna hijacked in the late 1980s and made famous with her ‘Strike a pose’ hit
My attempts at headstands and backbends are frankly ridiculous, dodgy knees stop me kneeling or crossing my legs yogically, I’m rubbish at balancing and I have a visceral allergic reaction to plinky-plonk whale or sitar music. The only yoga move I’ve really nailed over the years is the ‘corpse pose’ which is the bit at the end when you get to lie down on your back and snooze. I’m a natural at that.
So when I heard about a new yoga craze called VOGA I was sceptical. It’s a modern hybrid fusion of yoga with ‘voguing’ – the dance style Madonna hijacked in the late 1980s and made famous with her ‘Strike a pose’ hit. But I’m intrigued. There are some spooky similarities between me and Madonna. We are both in our 50s and we both had our first child, a daughter, in 1997 – though hers was chaotically fathered by an exotic South American dancer and mine was the product of a planned coupling with a graphic designer from Lincolnshire.
I figured I’d been pretty slick at drunken Voguing on the Essex dance floors in my twenties, and I know ALL the words to the Madonna song, so perhaps this would be a form of yoga I could truly embrace and love.
I kitted myself out in a pair of deliciously retro Sweaty Betty leggings (channeling a ‘mutton-dressed-as-lamb’ Edina from Absolutely Fabulous), tethered my fulsome bosom in a super-supportive sports bra and slipped in at the back of a large barn in the Cotswolds for my first class.
VOGA is the brainchild of Juliet Murrell, a 35-year-old former set-designer, who has fused her love of fashion, music and style with her training as a classical yoga teacher. ‘I was frustrated by the fact that conventional yoga is quite serious and measured and doesn’t allow for self-expression,’ she says. So, inspired by the same underground Vogue dance culture that underpinned Madonna’s hit, she has given traditional yoga poses and sequences an up-tempo make-over.
VOGA aims to be more of a dance than an exercise class with a sequence of dramatic poses taken from the pages of fashion magazines and – bizarrely – Egyptian hieroglyphics held with a pout and an air of haughty insouciance. ‘It’s for people who like yoga but want something more upbeat,’ says Juliet. She launched House of Voga in 2014 taking her classes to festivals and uber-trendy nightclubs where it is much loved by the beautiful young people like the Hemsley sisters (pioneers of the 2015 clean-eating craze) and former Made in Chelsea ‘it girl’, Millie Mackintosh, and fast gained a cult-like status.
It’s for people who like yoga but want something more upbeat
Now VOGA has gone mainstream with trained teachers based in Manchester, Edinburgh and London, and Juliet whizzing around the country to take monthly one-off classes at (always) stunning venues.
Of course this isn’t the first yoga-incarnation. Because of its increasing popularity, there is an increasing thirst for bigger, better, newer versions of yoga. If you’re bored by hatha, ashtanga, kundalini or Bikram, you can now try yogilates (yoga crossed with pilates), crunch yoga (focusing on the abdominals), yoga booty (emphasis on the bottom and thighs), nia ( aerobic yoga), yoga with tribal drums, dog yoga (DOGA), laughter yoga, disco yoga and even Stevie Nicks yoga (poses performed to Fleetwood Mac music). But Juliet’s House of Voga is alone in combining yoga with Voguing.
The classes are backed by loud, 80s music (very often with a live DJ), and they are held in exotic locations (never sweaty studios) such as art galleries, vaulted halls, lofty barns, or brick-lined underground caverns. Which is how I find myself perched on a hay bale on a wet Monday evening in the middle of winter.
My trepidation is tempered as my classmates arrive. Most are proper women like me – and, surprisingly, men too – in all shapes and sizes. On the mat next to me, Helen Marsden is 56 and runs a blood-testing company. She tells me she’s here for the stretch and because she finds ordinary yoga too ‘dour and slow’. ‘This is fast-paced and exciting!’ she says. The other women around her agree.
The classes are backed by loud, 80s music (very often with a live DJ), and they are held in exotic locations (never sweaty studios)
‘The classes are really popular with women who loved clubbing in the 1990s but feel they might be a little too old for that scene now,’ explains Juliet, ‘we can provides a safe and rather lovely environment for them to get the same buzz.’
She adds: ‘The classes offer all the health benefits of yoga such as increasing circulation, improving flexibility, fat burning and toning, but importantly for women in their forties and above, I put a big emphasis on core strength and working the abdominal muscles which is great for posture as well as protecting you from aches and pains and injury.’
I exchange nervous glances with a slim woman behind me. She’s about my age too. ‘This is a tough workout, but it’s good for my brain!’ she says afterwards, ‘I really had to concentrate on the sequences of moves.’
Despite Juliet’s love of outrageously colourful leotards, buttock-skimming swimsuits and sexy crop-tops, most of my classmates are in various shades of black. The woman behind me is wearing jeans and I fear for their Lycra content. My jarringly loud block-coloured leggings mean I have nowhere to hide.
In the flesh Juliet is possibly the most physically perfect advertisement for yoga I have ever seen. At 5’11 with not the slightest sliver of fat, she is beautifully toned with elongated muscles a washboard stomach and the long neck and elegance of a ballet dancer.
She clips on her head mike, clicks her slender fingers at the DJ, and we are blasted by the familiar opening bars of Donna Summer’s classic hit ‘I feel love’.
I am transfixed, and for one brief moment I allow myself to fantasise that just maybe, if I do enough VOGA (let’s be realistic – that would be quite a lot of VOGA) I too could look like her.
The classes offer all the health benefits of yoga such as increasing circulation, improving flexibility, fat burning and toning
The class is quite yoga-like to begin with as Juliet guides us through a series of warm-up exercises, but at the point where you’d normally bring your palms together in front of you (in a prayer or ‘namaste’) and take them up to bend backwards, she reverses her hands so they are back to back like a crown over her head, purrs ‘Queenie!’ (the name of the pose), then ‘Express!’ (another pose) and starts bouncing her hips to the beat.
I know I’m supposed to be pouting provocatively as I follow the sequence of stretching moves, but I can’t stop a huge not-at-all-yogic grin from spreading over my face.
All the classic yoga poses are there – the warrior, the crow, cobra, bow, chair and tree – but they are subtly different. The hand positions are fantastically Madonna and all the moves are timed to the loud throbbing beat (Janet Jackson, Chaka Khan, Witney Houston…).
It is sweaty and fast but utterly exhilarating. I’m so focused on Juliet I have no idea whether anyone else is keeping up or flailing around as I am. But I am flailing rhythmically (no style, no grace) and it is a wonderfully life-affirming thing.
Ok there are moments when I recognise that familiar pang of disappointment in my too-tight, too-stiff middle-aged body: when Juliet reaches behind to clasp her ankle for one pose I try to copy and stretch back to find my ankle might as well belong to someone else it is so far out of reach. I guess I’m doing OLGA (old lady yoga) but boy am I rocking it!
At the end of the class we all gather for a drink (wine not green juice – so refreshingly normal!). That’s part of the VOGA ethos. Juliet says she wants VOGA devotees to think about incorporating their class into an evening out and wear workout clothes they feel good in, and would be happy to carry-on partying in afterwards. Ok. I’m slightly regretting the leggings. Her idea is you take the class without even realising you’ve been exercising, and she says even fitness-phobes seem to love VOGA.
When I woke up the next morning, however, I knew I’d had a proper workout. My muscles hurt in places where I didn’t even know I had muscles. But hell it was worth it. Who knew yoga could be so much fun?
Classes cost £10-£15 for an hour (depending on location – see www.vogalondon.co.uk for full listings).
Juliet Murrell is the owner and originator of VOGA (www.houseofvoga.com)
Follow her on Instagram: @houseofvogahq
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