The Cork-born yogi who has conquered Los Angeles
Former researcher turned yoga instructor Ducky Punch talks to Katy McGuinness about the power of yoga, her practice in Los Angeles and her retreats with a twist.
It's Friday night in the tiny Island Cottage restaurant on beautiful, remote Heir Island off the coast of West Cork and the guests are dining on piles of shrimp caught that afternoon by a local fisherman. They're ripping off their heads and tails and dunking the sweet flesh into pools of homemade mayonnaise. Later they'll eat cod in a sauce of mushrooms and white wine, followed by one of chef John Desmond's signature lemon soufflés. Most of the people eating together have not met before tonight, but there's plenty of chat - and plenty of wine.
It doesn't look like a yoga retreat, that's for sure, but that afternoon the participants - who include a couple of academics, a butcher, a farmer and a pharmaceutical company employee, many of whom have driven across the country to attend - had their first session with yogi Ducky Punch. Ducky is a first cousin of John Desmond, and usually conducts her classes in sunny Los Angeles, where she lives.
Born and raised in Glanmire, Co Cork, it is Ducky's second workshop on the island this year, with another planned for later this month and more in 2015.
Ducky is not your average yogi, having come to teaching after a degree in biochemistry and a masters in neuroscience, and having studied cranio-sacral therapy.
"I'm different to many of my peers in both the US and Ireland because I have a full-on science background," she explains. "When I first started taking yoga classes and heard people talking about chakras and energy I had a huge resistance to that, I wasn't into all the 'woo woo'. I really had an allergic reaction to that.
"It was never a dream of mine to be a yoga teacher, I kind of fell in to it. I took my first class when I first lived in San Francisco and worked as a researcher on the genome project. What I was really interested in was medicine, and my scientific background means that I am very anatomy based."
The essence of yoga is that the asana - or poses - are specific enough to make the practitioner flexible enough so that they can sit comfortably to meditate.
Ducky describes her teaching as "a mix of Vinyasa flow, interwoven with Forrest Yoga principles and peppered with a little Kundalini Yoga."
"Much of what I'm trying to do in my teaching is to open up the body to affect posture," she explains. "But secondarily, as a consequence of that, the poses make you feel better - more rested and relaxed. The breath is important; it has a direct effect on the nervous system.
"I don't talk about this in class so much, but all my teaching is based on a deep understanding of the body. When I take people into inversion [that's a headstand to you and me], the reason is to allow the heart to slow down its beating, as the normal blood flow is reversed.
"It's very scientific. I see yoga as a form of preventative medicine that keeps the spine flexible and upright, so that posture is good and you are not hunching over on top of the heart. Bad posture causes terrible damage to the internal organs.
"I want to help take stress away from the heart and help recalibrate the nervous system. My classes are about down-regulating the sympathetic nervous system, the fight or flight response, and up-regulating the parasympathetic nervous system, so that you can be in a space where you are relaxed.
"So, when you need to be the lion chasing a gazelle on the Serengeti you can do that, but equally when you need to be the lion licking its paws after it has caught the gazelle and looking all cute and cuddly, then you can be that too. It's about achieving that balance."
In Los Angeles, where she teaches the head of Sony Pictures and has had Robert Downey Jr. and Avril Lavigne in her classes, not everyone comes looking for improved health and spiritual enlightenment.
"In LA, people want the yoga booty, and I say to them 'stick with me and do lots of backbends and keep squeezing and you'll be filling your jeans in no time!' They come for all sorts of reasons but what they get is so much more. Sure they get the yoga booty too but you'd be amazed at how many of my students end up being yoga teachers, and they'll be saying to me, 'Ducky, have you heard about this?' and I'll say, 'Well yes, funnily enough I have…!'
Ducky notes that her own yoga practice has changed immeasurably since she took her first class 18 years ago.
"I did not meditate in the early years of my yoga practice. In my 20s my approach was fun and playful. In my 30s I began to explore the nature of my practice and the meditation side of things and I found that I liked being quieter. And my practice in my 40s is fundamentally different to what it was in my 20s; it is richer and deeper. Now I love to meditate and I find that I accomplish more in a day if I spend half an hour in the morning just sitting breathing."
Ducky also teaches one to one, and has a number of Irish clients with whom she works when she is in the country.
"It is so not about what you cannot do. I tell people just to show up and we will figure out what they can do. I will take anyone on board. I have worked with kids with Down Syndrome and autism, who are very receptive to yoga. I have worked with veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, with disabled people who are missing limbs and with people in their 80s.
"One-to-one sessions can be very rewarding; there is a very pure exchange. 100pc of me is focused on them and they are very present for the hour or hour-and-a-half that they are with me.
"In Ireland, people have been referred to me because they might have a bad back or another medical condition such as a fertility issue. They all started practising with me and have never stopped. They say to me, 'I have no idea what this is about but I love it and I feel good'.
There's no need to talk about energy or chakras or Kundalini - they just feel better and that's great. It is lovely to see them glowing."
In addition to further weekend yoga retreats with great food and plenty of wine, Ducky is planning five-day juice cleanses of varying degrees to be held in the spring and autumn on Heir island. In the future, she hopes to establish her own teaching centre, focusing on yoga, bodywork and cleansing.
"I'd like people to stay on for a few days after a cleanse to learn how to maintain the benefits of the cleanse, and make its effects last longer. If you really cleanse and then drink a whiskey or eat a beef stew your body will go into shock."
The next Heir Island yoga retreat with Ducky Punch takes place from October 9 to 11 and costs €300 including self-catering accommodation, and two lunches and two dinners at Island Cottage.
To book email Ducky: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ducky's food rules
In LA I get up very early and start the day with two pints of water, one after another. It's like taking a bath on the inside and is very cleansing. About 10 minutes after the second pint, I have a small bowl of porridge with almond butter, chia seeds and flax oil, which is high in Omega 3 and low in Omega 6.
Lunch is greens - I'm a fiend for kale and Swiss chard - which I strip from the stalks and crush with lemon juice to soften them, a little oil, salt and pepper. I'll have a bit of grass-fed beef, which I sear and eat blue; almost raw. It's easier to digest and you get more nutrition from it that way.
During the day I snack on fruit but I don't eat it within a couple of hours of eating meat. I tend not to eat many carbs, but dinner might be some quinoa with vegetables in season and lamb or bison. I don't eat any fish in the US; it is too compromised. I also eat very little dairy in the US, but in Ireland I love to eat cheese. The quality is so much better.
I do love raw milk, and while I find that I get bloated and put on weight when I use pasteurised milk, I don't have those problems with raw milk. I make a delicious ice cream out of it with lavender and honey. My guilty pleasure is definitely a glass of red wine; I couldn't give it up. I have a weakness for sugar, so I try not to have sweet things in the house. My go-to snack is raw almonds, and I love goji berries, if that doesn't sound too 'woowoo'. I don't drink much caffeine - only socially.
During the day I drink water, it's so hot in LA that you need to keep drinking all day. And a few days a week I take a green juice, which I'll sip during the day. A couple of times every year I do a full juice cleanse and feel wonderful.
Ducky's yoga health benefits
1. Improves flexibility and strength.
2. Reduces stress.
3. Yoga sweat is de-toxifying and cleansing, and therefore very
beneficial after illness.
4. Balances the hormone system so improves hormone-related conditions such as under or active thyroid.
5. Improves sleep.
6. Improves mental clarity.
7. Releases endorphins - the feel-good factor! You eat better and make better health choices when you are in a good mood than when you are grumpy.
8. Helps arthritis sufferers by
pushing blood through the joints.
9. Helps relieve symptoms of fibromyalgia.
10. Helps reduce the incidence of migraine headaches by reducing stress.
Health & Living