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The WM interview from muscles to meditation; Former bodybuilding champion Danielle Nicholls struggled through depression and a nervous breakdown before discovering yoga. She tells Catherine Jones how balancing yin and yang have brought her peace - and not one but two new careers.

Moving to the more contemplative world of yoga from the high octane arena of competitive bodybuilding means Danielle Nicholls has experienced the extremes of yin and yang in her life.

For 10 years she trained hard and won two bodybuilding titles - Miss Wales and Miss Fitness UK - but the pressure to perform became too much.

She began to be unhappy, was diagnosed with depression and finally had a breakdown.

Things all came to a head when her mother fell ill.

"It was a pivotal moment because my mum was dying of cancer at the same time as I was going into my next competition," says Danielle, who is now a yoga teacher with her own studio in Cardiff.

"I thought 'This is ridiculous, I can't do this.' I couldn't be there for my mum and something had to give. I had a mini-breakdown and I went to the GP who diagnosed me with clinical depression.

"But you can't just walk away from something like bodybuilding because it becomes an obsession, so I just started to lessen my time in the gym."

The Yoga Loft in Roath is a haven a world away from the life Danielle led as a competitive bodybuilder, and that was a deliberate move - to get away from the life that had caused so much stress and suffering.

"When I won Miss Wales and Miss Fitness UK in 1994, that was the beginning of starting to see that I was not really happy in the sport but continuing to push myself," Danielle admits.

"I had the breakdown and suffered with depression and all sorts, and that's when I turned to yoga. I never looked back."

One of the best things about the career change, says Danielle, was that it allowed her to go back to her first love - music. The Barry-born 44-year-old originally trained at the Welsh College of Music and Drama and has just released an album of songs with her band.

"That's what yoga created for me - that space to think about my music," she says.

"Before the bodybuilding, I was a singer. I trained in music and drama and that was where I thought I'd end up, but life takes its course.

"I was singing in restaurants and at functions and because I couldn't pay my bills and - literally - had the bailiffs at the door, I thought what could I do? I was pretty good at sporty things so I did some aerobics and was a lifeguard and then my career took off as a bodybuilder."

Danielle applied the same determination to her bodybuilding career as she had to her music and was thrilled to finally see results.

"I think I got into it because I had struggled as a musician to make ends meet and to make a break," she says.

"I always wanted a record deal and it's unrelenting. You just knock on doors and get turned away.

"What I loved about bodybuilding was that if I put in the same energy that I had into my music career, I saw results. You did your training, you ate properly, your body started changing.

"That was a great relief. You put efforts in and got a payback for it. It was tangible, it was there, I could see it.

"The bodybuilding snowballed," she continues.

"I got sponsorship, I was writing a column for a fitness magazine.

"I did stop and think that this was never my dream and that it was all a bit strange. But I am a perfectionist and a highly competitive person with myself.

"Bodybuilding is all-consuming. It's training, training, training. You just can't allow anything else in. It has to be an obsessive sport."

Which made it a difficult one to quit, but Danielle has managed it by gradually moving away from the gym, though she admits she still misses it.

"It was a slow transition, I haven't been training for a few years now," she says.

"I still miss it in a way. My yoga studio is based above Dave's Gym and the boys will sometimes say 'Come on, you know you want to.' "Sometimes I think it would be nice to do a bit of training but I have done so much stretching my muscles with yoga, I don't think I want to step back. The muscle memory would be too powerful!" Danielle's body is very different today compared to what it used to be when she spent so much time building up muscle.

"I'm about five feet nine inches so when I was off season in bodybuilding I'd be 11-and-a-half stone which is quite heavy," she says.

"And then when I was competing, I dropped to a lean 10 stone four pounds. Now I am just under 10 stone.

"I was a natural trainer. I never resorted to steroids which is where my career would have ended up as I am not a naturally short, squat person. I am tall and quite lithe so to form muscle for me was hard work.

"If people train naturally, they can get big, but even the guys can look OK. You look fit and muscular. Once you start dabbling with steroids and drugs you can look freaky.

"I always looked OK - like a chunky sportswoman off season - and then once I was competing, I'd look really skinny. But then I'd put on the tan and start flexing under the lights and look massive.

"It's quite deceiving because when bodybuilders get down to their competitive weight they can look very drawn and small but once they get under the lights and they are flexing, they look amazing."

Different, though, to the musical types Danielle had been used to mixing with before she entered the world of bodybuilding, So how did that initial career change feel? "Strange," she says. "It was very strange coming from the world I came from to go into a very weird world.

"But I used that in my favour. Because I had entertainment experience my routines were always entertaining and I used to scoop Best Routine award or Best Presentation because I made it entertaining. It was a weird world for me to be in but I used my skills."

In total, Danielle trained for around 10 years and competed for around five - which was more than enough, in her opinion, particularly for a woman.

"I think it's unhealthy for women to keep losing the weight and putting it on again," she says.

"Men can lose weight in eight weeks but women take between 12 to 16 weeks. I lost my periods for a couple of years. I knew I wasn't doing myself any good.

"I wasn't the same person. I think I was going against my nature. It was rewarding in the beginning. What I should have done - though it's always easy to say in retrospect - is if I hadn't competed and just stayed in the gym, I may have been happier.

"I think going into competitions did the damage and having that standard, that expectation, and then when I got sponsorship, I had to keep going. I knew the instant I'd had enough. I needed to come back out and be me.

"When I had depression I thought 'OK, it's a state of mind so let's try and find something that can help my mind.' "I read about Transcendental Meditation and tried it and learnt to meditate and in that community, yoga was recommended."

Danielle started going on courses and retreats which was great but found it was a bit too similar to her training - "sweating and getting achy and sore again," she says.

But eventually she found a style which combined hard work with an element of alignment, and says she moved on from there to combine a variety of styles, training at both the British Wheel of Yoga and at the Yoga Academy in London with yoga expert Sarah Powers, as well as in the US.

And she's not finished learning yet.

"I am always upping my training all the time and there are amazing teachers, like Sarah Powers and Paul Grilley - who are so inspirational and have played a huge part for me," she says "My yoga is a blend of yin and yang. I do a blend of yang dynamic yoga and the slow, more contemplative yin.

"Yin works closer to the body's core and so it stretches the bones and ligaments and you hold the positions for longer. Yang may be for people who are looking to be active and you can tone up and improve their posture with it.

"Yin and yang should be present all the time. We should all have a balance in our lives. If someone has a restless 'yang' type personality it's probably not a bad idea to do the opposite to balance them out. If you find it hard to sit with yourself, yin is more of a challenge to restless, type A personalities.

"You get a sense of silence and peace and it''s wonderful to see people just having that hour of quietness and just being with themselves. It can be very enjoyable in a busy, busy life to stop because it''s not until we stop that we can tune into our inner nature.

"We are not used to stopping and silence and peace in this Western world.

"We are used to being on the go all the time."

As well as studying, Danielle also teaches classes from her studio in Roath and does Yin Yang yoga retreats in west Wales at St Nons and St Davids.

"I have only got a small studio so I have around 10 in a class and eight classes a week, soon to be nine, as in the New Year I am starting a pregnancy yoga class, following on from the yin class on a Saturday morning."

And of course, all this is balanced with her growing music career - her new album is called Tales of the Danielle Nicholls Band, and is a fusion of folk, jazz, pop and rock.

"It's laid back, very acoustic, guitar-based," she says.

"I love Spanish guitar and acoustic guitar, I love laid-back rhythms and harmonies. There are usually four in the group.

"I feel happy doing both yoga and music and the song-writing has become a big thing, so much so that it's more about that now for me than the singing."

Does she prefer music to yoga? "I'd say both make me happy, and that's what's so nice about being able to do both.

"What I love about music in my life is that it stops me being absolutely with yoga."

Being busy with lots of different activities is something Danielle enjoys, but she's also learned to enjoy the moment and give time to just being herself.

"I really have empathy with people who are trying to fill their lives with lots of things because that's really what I have done," she says.

"Maybe it's being older and wiser, but I have come to understand just being in the moment, and living for the moment, and not trying to wish your life away and achieve so many things.

"I can understand it and I can also understand how we might go through life and have four different careers. Life is too short not to try all these things.

"Yoga helps you see if you are not giving enough time for yourself."

Danielle's album, Tales of the Danielle Nicholls Band, is out now at Tesco, on Amazon.co.uk and available to download from iTunes.

For more information about her yoga classes, which are priced at pounds 6 each, visit www.danielle nicholls.co.uk

CAPTION(S):

YIN AND YANG: Danielle Nicholls achieves a sense of silence and peace from yoga CAREER CHANGE: Danielle Nicholls left the world of bodybuilding and turned to yoga to get away from a life that had caused stress and suffering WEIRD WORLD: Danielle was 10 stone 4 pounds while bodybuilding
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Nov 13, 2009
Words:1996
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