As soon as you step into Araluen Clarke's Birkenhead yoga studio, the scent of bergamot and lavender wraps itself around you like a warm hug.
Clarke admits that she's become so used to the scent that she no longer smells it. But it's just one of the details that make the Connected Centre and what they have to offer so welcoming.
Clarke's yoga studio brings something new to the wellness table, especially for those with a restless mind and body. As a trained drug and alcohol counsellor turned yogi, she's combined aspects of both fields to teach the art of self-compassion, a practice that has its roots in traditional meditation.
At its heart, "self-compassion" is simply practising kindness to yourself and others, Clarke explains. And the benefits for your mind and body are meant to be significant, with recent studies showing people who can be compassionate towards themselves have better social connections, greater emotional intelligence, and overall higher life satisfaction.
This helps lessen anxiety, shame, fear of failure and all those negative emotions it's so easy to default to.
But practising kindness is more difficult than it sounds. After a year during which the value of compassion has become clearer than ever, could taking a couple of her classes teach me how to be kinder?
Sounds like a bit of a stretch - no pun intended - but here in the calming North Shore studio overlooking the lights across the harbour, I'm willing to give it a try.
Meditation and breath control is a huge part of Clarke's counselling practice, and after just five minutes of focusing breath and relaxing my body, a weight lifts from my shoulders, which are usually shaped like parentheses from spending too much time hunched over a computer.
I can't help but feel soothed and relaxed, and in the perfect headspace to start the yoga practice that follows.
As Clarke says, meditation means all sorts of different things to different people. But at the heart of it, it's about connecting your body's movement with your breath and with your mind.
"It's just about finding a spark of joy in your day, that moment of peace," she explains.
It's not the only connection formed in this little studio - there's a tight-knit community of mostly women who gather there. They arrive after long days at work or with kids or grandkids and greet each other with warm hugs. They take their time rolling out their mats, selecting props for their practice, sipping hot tea - the studio's signature blend is a soothing kawakawa, lemon and ginger from Charity Teas.
Bringing everyone a cup of tea before starting the practice is one of Clarke's rituals. "It's such a simple gesture, but such a warm and nurturing one. It's a little gift. Often we're not kind to ourselves or others aren't kind to us. So it's important to wrap around someone to create that nurturing environment," she explains.
"Loneliness is killing people, it's a pandemic. That's why it's so wonderful to see diverse people connect in this really special place. That gentle check in and hug can make such a difference."
Her approach to yoga goes against everything exercise culture has taught us for so many years - that we need to be better, look better, compete with everyone around us.
"We want everyone to be able to feel at home, there's a common humanity. No one is here to look or be a certain way."
The centre has only been open for one year and prior to that was a yoga studio where Clarke trained and taught. It was then that the original owner offered to hand her the reins, which Clarke admits was "pretty terrifying".
But the opportunity to create a space for people from the community to come together and "just be" was too good to pass up.
"It was never my plan but I'm so pleased I said yes," she shares.
But when the studio had only been open for eight weeks, the level 4 lockdown of March 2020 hit. It then had to close down for seven, and Clarke had to find a way to shift all of her classes online.
And after seeing the mental toll that lockdown took on the community, Clarke made it her mission to make kindness a part of wellness, deciding to make her online classes available to anyone for two weeks during which people pay only what they can afford.
It was then that she also launched her four-week self-compassion course, which as she explain is broken down into three main factors.
"Being kind to ourselves when we are suffering, having a common sense of humanity, and being willing to observe our emotions non-judgmentally and with kindness," explains Clarke.
"That's what the main intention of the Connected Centre really is - to create an experience and a time for you to breathe, connect and just let go."
And it really does have that effect. The gentle yoga practice ends in savasana, a resting pose on the floor. But even after the class, it doesn't feel like I've done a workout.
It simply feels as if I've reconnected with what's really important, and let go of all the rest.
Turns out it only takes moments to show yourself some kindness - and your mind and body will thank you.