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The Spiritualist: Kathy Phillips, beautifully poised

March 12th 2013 / Catherine Turner

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The beauty expert’s expert, Kathy Phillips was Beauty Director of British Vogue, before founding her own product line This Works which she runs alongside her current role as Beauty Director of Conde Nast’s titles in Asia, including Vogue India and China. All this on top of being a devoted yogi for over 30 years; Catherine Turner meets her to share yoga and beauty wisdom.

When Kathy Phillips’s book, The Spirit of Yoga was published in 2001, we were on a new wave of interest in the subject. A-listers were papped clutching mats on their way to class, and quoting downward dogs as the way to perfect biceps and a flat tummy. Now, the world of yoga is booming - we can’t move for different types of classes and who hasn’t tried it but for the confusion of which style to go for. For a true devotee like Kathy, however, yoga isn’t about a trend, going to the hottest teacher or getting a better body, but a way of life; here she tells us why.

CT: How did you discover yoga?

KP: "I was very sporty at school - I did ballet and gym, played netball, rounders and swam. But when I got my first job in my 20s, I did nothing. It was the ’70s and no one exercised - apart from dancing all night at parties. I felt like I wanted to be more active, and discovered a jazz dance class at The Sanctuary Spa which had just opened in Covent Garden. Choreographer Arlene Phillips ran the class which was full of stage professionals, plus me. I loved it - we did Hot Gossip’s [Arlene’s dance troupe] routines. Yoga was just beginning to be ‘in’. It was a hippy lifestyle thing: ‘The Good Life’ - eating nut rissoles and wearing smocks. I decided to try it because although the jazz classes were fun, they had no substance."

CT: Who was your first teacher?

KP: "It’s said when you are ready, the teacher finds you, and that did happen to me. The yoga craze was so big that local councils started offering public classes, and an instructor named Penny Nield-Smith was training teachers to do this. I tracked down her class in a damp basement in Covent Garden. It turned out she had trained with BKS Iyengar (one of the founding fathers of modern yoga). There were often only four of us in the class - all very different - so it was almost one to one. Penny was an inspiring teacher who taught the importance of attention and awareness.

"I found the postures interesting, but it was the way I felt energised after doing what seemed like so little that fascinated me. I began reading up on the philosophy too. I met other Iyengar teachers including Mary Stewart and Kofi Busia who’d also studied with BKS Iyengar at his centre in Pune, India. I remember the excitement of Iyengar visiting London and going to one of his classes - there were hundreds of people there. The Iyengar system gave me my first grounding in yoga, but it was later when I discovered Vanda Scaravelli (who also worked with Iyengar) whose teachings focus on the breath far more to ground and release that took my yoga to a deeper place."

CT: Why did yoga capture your imagination?

KP: "I knew it would be something I could do for life to keep me flexible and active. There are so many dimensions to it and its popularity has had many phases. In Victorian times after Swami Vivekananda (a Hindu monk) visited the West, the trend was all about yogic philosophy and ancient teachings; in the ’60s and ’70s it was the lifestyle that attracted people. In the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s, it became all about the ‘yoga body’. I was interested in the way it can heal, build stamina and reduce tiredness and took a two year British Wheel of Yoga teacher training course in 1993-5 to understand more.

"I was Beauty Director of Tatler at the time and would get up at 6am and drive down to Oxford for classes with Kofi. It was tough, especially with a full-time job. I studied philosophy, anatomy and physiology, Sanskrit (the ancient Indian language that original yoga texts are written in) as well as taking classes and developing sequences to treat my ‘guinea pig’ students. One was a young girl with a slight scoliosis, another an older woman with arthritis. I still teach occasionally now, sometimes standing in for my teacher, Chloe Fremantle at the two-hour class I go to on Monday evenings. And I‘m happy to lead a class by the beach when I’m on holiday with friends.

"I have shelves full of yoga books and still refer to them. Mary Stewart’s Teach Yourself Yoga, BKS Iyengar’s Light on Yoga and Desikachar’s The Heart of Yoga for instance, as well as heavier texts like the Upanishads [ancient yogic scriptures] of which the famous Bhagavad Gita is one."

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CT: What’s your advice to those starting out?

KP: "Try several classes and different teachers and methods until you find one that works for you. You don’t have to be good at the postures - small movements make a huge difference when you’re starting out. It’s not an endurance test, but about precise alignment and holding the postures for longer to progress. The shoulder stand is one of the of most important postures because it releases the neck and shoulders, stimulates the thyroid gland, is an inversion and gets the circulation going, but is tricky at first. So is the headstand - but it’s harder to do safely unless you practise regularly with a good teacher.

"Eventually, it becomes instinct to know what you need - for example I’ll do a headstand when I have a cold as it’s the best thing (although not possible if I feel really ill), and a shoulder stand when I’ve been at my desk all day. I have seen people change so much, but you have to be patient. It took me six years to learn Lotus (the classic cross legged yoga posture)."

CT: And meditation?

KP: "So many of us are attracted to meditation when we’re stressed and not sleeping. But forcing yourself into it is incredibly difficult. We’re emailing, texting, on Facebook, tweeting all day so it’s pretty hard to clear the mind in an instant. I think it’s important to come to it slowly through yoga, because it teaches you first how to breathe and become calm.

"For one thing, sitting still with a straight back is incredibly difficult. For meditation you might have to sit still for 40 minutes to an hour so you need strength and flexibility to do it. I went on a week’s silent retreat a few years ago and found it a hard discipline even after years of practising yoga. I suggest walking for 30 minutes after your working day, or doing anything physical like chores around the house or gardening to get rid of distractions before you sit down on the mat."

CT: Is yoga an all round exercise form, or does it need to be combined with other activities?

KP: "A purist like BKS Iyengar would say yoga is all you need to stay fit and healthy. I often hear fitness trainers say yoga doesn’t get the heart rate up. There is no question that if done correctly, it does, as anyone who’s done 12 rounds of sun salutes knows. So many of us aren’t moving at all; at the other extreme, people are running marathons and doing triathlons which puts enormous strain on the body. Yoga has a balanced approach, not just in the physical sense, which I think is why it works.

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"That said, I don’t only do yoga. I love walking - I’d be happy to walk a marathon. I also ski - it has similarities to yoga. The concentration - you have to be focused to get down a mountain - and it’s about the ‘centre’; in skiing, you are very grounded and in the bent knee position, your back is straight, and you use both sides of the body. So many sports like tennis put strain on one side."

CT: How do you combine yogic living with the world of beauty and magazines?

KP: "They are parallel universes. But over the years, yoga has become a habit - like cleaning my teeth. I find myself going into postures at odd times of the day and I practise as my schedule allows. Ideally, I’d love to be doing an hour and a half every morning, but that’s only possible when I’m on holiday and weekends. I like to go to a class every week, plus I try to do something every day - whether that’s breathing or a proper sequence, overall, it adds up. I have a mat in my suitcase, at home, in the office and in the car so I’m always ready. When I’m travelling, I often have more time in my hotel room to do a full hour and a half. (Being teacher trained, Kathy always has the resources at her fingertips to self-practice and shows me her Blackberry which has class sequences for every mood or eventuality)."

CT: What has yoga given you?

KP: "Strength, stamina, balance, grounding and flexibility. A few years ago, I did a three day ski expedition 3,000 feet up in the Alps, hiking with all my own gear and having to ski down Mont Blanc off piste. It wasn’t easy, but I had the stamina to do it with no specific training, although I did get a little altitude sickness at the beginning. And I think I can cope in stressful situations having learned how to breathe and let go."

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CT: Do you think it has kept you young?

KP: "It is thought that yoga keeps the neurological and circulation systems working properly for optimum health. But I don’t smoke or sunbathe and both my parents looked young for their age, so I have probably lucked out to some extent with my genes. I think a headstand is the best facial you could ever have, it massages your brain and calms all the neurological pathways along the spine.

"I’m so irritated with the world’s obsession with ageing - it’s irrelevant. We all have to face it. I’ve often been asked to write about it, books that tell you how to look younger. I really don’t feel inspired to do it at all. Ageing or not is a mindset - I still feel the same as I always did. The one concession I’ve made is to take supplements to maintain my energy levels. And I’m choosy about which supplements I take. I’ve been going to Bob Jacobs, a naturopath (0207 487 4334), for years and take his advice and buy them mainly from Nutri-Pharma in New York where the pharmacists are really well informed about the latest research and what to take with what."

CT: Are you strict about what you eat?

KP: "I’ve never been able to diet. The word was never mentioned when I was growing up and I think it’s sad to be endlessly living on lettuce leaves. Everyone who knows me knows that I eat cake and drink coffee if I want it, but I’m mostly a vegetarian and I’m good at moderation (another part of the yoga lifestyle). The question I ask myself is - would I have any more friends if I were a size smaller?"

CT: Your thoughts on Botox, fillers, surgery?

KP: "Lately I’ve been worrying on my trips to the Far East that parents are buying plastic surgery (serious invasive treatments) for their children in places like Korea where there is a very narrow aesthetic for beauty. It is increasingly an option in China too where they are not happy with the way they look. Through yoga, you learn about acceptance, to be happy with your lot. Practically speaking, I can’t understand wanting to go under general anaesthetic unnecessarily. I’ve always been a coward about it although as a journalist, I have done my research, tried things and explored the options.

"I have watched a brow lift, laser resurfacing, and I once saw the US dermatologist, Patricia Wexler inject a person’s bottom fat into their face... Personally, I would always recommend having teeth whitened and straightened, eyebrows and hair done, plus a professional make-up lesson before even thinking about a facelift or reconstructive surgery.

"Eyebrows are crucial to frame the face - I plucked mine when I was younger and one of the best things I ever did was have them tattooed back by Sophie Thorpe who is a genius. Botox and a few of the well-known fillers are the best and safest of all the cosmetic treatments and have instant results with no down time. But they are treatments, not products, and they are only fine in my opinion in the hands of talented and experienced practitioners."

CT: What are your beauty essentials?

KP: "The right hair colour - I go to Josh Wood because he works with the individual. He uses just enough blonde to lighten, brighten and lift my face without forcing a contrived ‘look’ on me. I’m really fussy about hair conditioner because I have naturally curly, dry hair. I like the French brand Leonor Greyl, and Rahua Shampoo, £27 and Conditioner, £28, though they are expensive, so sometimes I’ll use Pantene, but I’ll always go for the ‘extra dry/damaged’ variant.

"I think hairdos can make you look older, so I blow-dry my hair myself and then it doesn’t look too ‘newsreader’. My one weekly luxury is a manicure (today, Kathy’s nails are vibrant blue in OPI ‘Fly’). It's a great way to update and keep in fashion without having to change your clothes. Massage, every two weeks, is something I’ve done since I was pregnant and I have to have baths with essential oils - my favourites are This Works In the Zone and Energy Bank, £37, which has geranium, tuberose, and ylang ylang. I never wear scent, just these.

"Skincare wise, I use my own Clean Skin Cleanser, £19, in the morning followed by a couple of drops of Active Serum, £39, then No Wrinkles Moisturiser £46, and then in the evening Gentle Cream Cleanser followed by a few drops of Wonder Essence, £30, which I really love, because it refines, exfoliates and doesn’t overload the skin.

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"My make-up must haves are Max Factor Eye Brightening Mascara, £7.99; Liz Earle Cream Blusher in Blossom, £16.50; I’m using the last of my Dior Lip Pencil in Linen which unfortunately, they’ve discontinued. I’ve worn eyeliner every day since the make-up artist, Laura Mercier showed me how to ‘push’ it into underneath the line of the top lashes; at the moment I really like Chanel Waterproof Eyeliner, £19, which really stays put. My desert island product would have to be a kohl pencil."

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