What were you doing before the yoga teaching?
I was a fashion designer. I went to Central Saint Martins College specialising in tailoring and I went on to work in the industry here and in Los Angeles. I made everything from men’s suits to leather jackets and even fetish gear! By the time I started teaching yoga I had moved into commercial and film costume design.
When did you start getting interested in Yoga?
I was 26, living in Los Angeles and doing martial arts training while working in the fashion industry.
I was an avid martial arts fanatic, competing in hard core full contact stuff and training for my black belt.
My knees were bad from the years of high impact kicking and I was only being offered surgery as a solution. I heard there was a “knee guru” yoga teacher called Bikram so I went to observe a class and afterwards he told me to join in next time for him to assess me.
I was very fit but I could do very little of the class. I could barely bend one of my knees at all and I couldn’t kneel. I was in so much pain.
In those first classes I realised my feet were flat, my spine and hips were stiff and my knees were weak. I thought he’d tell me he couldn’t help me but he said “No problem, I’ll fix your knees in 15 lessons.” I realised a knee problem is usually a whole body problem.
Tell us about your practice and your rehabilitation?
Bikram told me he would fix my knees if I gave up martial arts and went to his class 6 days a week. I was not going to give up my training and I only intended to do yoga until my knees were better and then I could take my Black Belt. I went to martial arts each morning at 6.45am, went to work in downtown LA and got back to Bikram’s class every night. He really pushed me and It hurt so much but I did what he said and thought I may as well trust this man and see what happens.
Within a few lessons the pain in my knees was only in class. Outside of class they already felt much better and gradually over about a year 80% of the mobility returned. Studying yoga with Bikram developed commitment and discipline. He taught me to not be afraid of the body and that the body thrives on intensity.
I eventually got my black belt but my pursuit of it did slow down my rehabilitation.
What made you want to run your own yoga classes?
I didn’t. When I was about to leave Los Angeles to live back in the UK, Bikram called me into his office and told me I should teach in London. No thanks, absolutely not interested, I told him. I’d spent my life getting good at my job, I was earning great money and loved what I did.
It was 1994 and London had very little in the way of dynamic yoga classes. I tried it all. None of it had the intensity I wanted. So I started practising at home with my fiancé and a few friends would show up simply to keep the practise going. My living room was soon full. I found a room in Swiss cottage with a mirror which we hired and we all split the cost. It grew quickly so I hired it three nights a week and taught there after work. With so many people now showing up I couldn’t just practise, I had to turn around and correct people’s posture. I had listened to Bikram teach the public every day for 4 years, so I knew what to say. After 6 years of dragging heaters around in the back of my car and running home early from film shoots to teach (I was the only Bikram teacher in the UK) Bikram thankfully started his teacher training. One of my students went, as did I. Once qualified we decided to open a little studio to teach students.
What is the difference between Yoga and Hot yoga?
The term ‘Hot Yoga’ now has no meaning. It just means the room is heated. It used to mean Bikram yoga but now people put all styles of classes into the heated room. In fact not all yoga styles are even suitable for the hot room.
So “regular” yoga or non heated, also means nothing – one needs to understand the style of yoga, or what combination of styles, and then the credentials of the teacher.
Fierce Grace as a yoga method works in any temperature. We choose to heat the rooms in the studios as this ensures safer stretching, more benefit to the muscles and joints as well as cathartic benefits and the detoxification of the skin. So the official answer is it isn’t about the heated room It’s about the yoga itself and these days it’s almost impossible to know what yoga you will be doing, as Hot Yoga could now mean hatha, vinyasa, Bikram, a hybrid or anything else.
Where does the name ‘Fierce Grace’ the name of your studios come from?
I had been fascinated by the play between male and female energies in people’s practise, in their personalities and in class. The balance between strength and flexibility, outwardness and inwardness and intention and surrender. I saw that alpha types were unlikely to go to a slower more inward turning class. Just as more inward people were unlikely to go to a hardcore “alpha” class. So I was designing sequences that would encompass both energies.
I have had a spiritual teacher Adi Da since my early 20’s and have studied meditation and spirituality since I was 18. I had seen the documentary ‘Fierce Grace’ in my 20’s about the spiritual teacher Raam Daas. When I was searching for a name for my new yoga method it suddenly jumped back into my consciousness 25 years later! It not only summed up my method and the way that it is taught but it also has a lovely spiritual meaning which is that with (divine) grace comes responsibility, fire and challenge which applies to yoga and life.
Do you get a lot from teaching ?
There is nothing like it. I feel privileged every time a room full of people go through this intense and rewarding process and share it with me.
When I teach I look at each person and imagine their body 30 years from now and what it would be like if they don’t address their postural issues now. I’m actually teaching the older version of them, the little old lady or man and I hope that older version of themselves will be standing tall and walking without a stick. Teaching gives me as much as practising does. You are being allowed to witness people’s struggle, their limits, their bravery. It’s a non-verbal intimacy with people that is very touching. I believe the teacher goes through a transformation along with the student so it’s a two-way street.
How does Yoga benefit the body as we grow older?
Yoga is just the body’s natural range of movement. We need to maintain that full range of movement all our lives.
A well-rounded practise will reduce wear and tear on our joints – and that is what every older person needs to start taking very seriously. Yoga strengthens muscles in the lengthened position, meaning strong long muscles, increased joint mobility and good joint support.
One’s postural habits if not addressed can sentence us to a small space to live in as we age – rounded shoulders, contracted ribcage, less space to breathe and neck pain as the neck has to compensate for a rounded upper back. We will suffer compression on discs in our spine through lack of movement, lack of back bending and even weak feet – they cause endless issues for the older person. Flat feet impact the knees and hips, weak feet impact balance. Every 10 years over the age of 40 we lose several seconds from our ability to balance on one leg, unless we work on it.
When your business grows are you mindful to keep your personal practice going?
Oh absolutely. I’d probably be a wreck from the stress if I hadn’t been practising all these years. It’s not always easy to keep taking the time out though. Running seven businesses, (4 studios, the retreats business, teacher training business and the brand PR) travelling all the time, appearances and all the paperwork makes time to practise tough but I’ve never stopped.
Can people come to the mat for the first time at any age?
One can begin to stretch and strengthen at any age. The body is crying out for it. Don’t be scared of your own body – use it. If you don’t use it, you lose it. An unfit 70 year old should not however show up to a vinyasa class!
Fierce Grace is a new integrated yoga system of 12 interconnecting classes with mixed styles to address, every need, every level and every mood.
I developed The Stiff Old and Broken class for all ages and all levels, from an athlete with an injury that wants to keep working or a person recovering from knee surgery to the 75 year old who needs some personal attention. The body wants to stretch, it wants to open at any age. Just 15 lessons will see every single person no matter how old feeling the benefits to their body, mind, mood, sleep and energy levels. We pay into pension plans all our life and doing yoga pays back dividends far greater than that. As we get older it’s not our age that causes our symptoms, its being sedentary. Being sedentary is the disease.