Tell us about your first brush with yoga.
I moved to Dubai in 2007 and started work in event management. I remember one day I was so stressed and angry, I went to a boxing class to let off some steam – and felt just as angry after. So I stayed on at the gym and the next class happened to be yoga, so I decided to give it a try. It was love at first sun salutation. I was excited by what my body could do and how good I felt after. When I moved to a corporate career, yoga stayed in my life to counteract the stress I was facing at work.
What led you to become an instructor?
When my best friend went through severe depression a few years ago, I started doing yoga with her in my garden and was blown away by the speed of her recovery. I decided that I wanted to understand why yoga worked and started studying yoga therapeutics with Kaya Yoga. As I learned more about the human body and mind, I started noticing how most people were living with some form or another of pain. Keen to do something about it, I left my corporate career to go back to school and focused my life on teaching yoga. I now train yoga teachers in the UAE and run the Zazyoga School in Bali.
You have studied yoga philosophy and Ayurveda and specialised in yoga for mental health. What role does yoga play in your life?
Yoga is, for me, a way of life. Yoga has showed me how to be at peace and be happy. I do not put so much emphasis on the practise of postures or breathing exercises anymore, they became secondary tools to use as needed to balance the body and mind.
Can you tell us of an instance where yoga transformed the life of someone you met/taught?
I could tell you a hundred. Sometimes it’s as simple as correcting a breathing pattern that causes shoulder pain or headaches, other times it’s supporting someone suffering from depression or anxiety. The biggest transformations I see are in my Yoga Teacher Training. My students spend three weeks learning and growing in a safe environment that allows them to discover who they truly are. That’s the greatest gift I can give someone.
For a lot of people in the UAE, yoga is considered more of a physical movement to keep fit, than a spiritual one. What do you think?
In our modern hectic lives, we have become completely disconnected from our bodies. If the physical practice of yoga helps us reconnect with ourselves, even if the goal is superficial, I see no problem with it. I will let you in on a secret: as yoga teachers, we know that the physical practice is the gate to something much bigger. So we plant seeds and wait patiently until our students realise it for themselves.
What is the most important factor while practising yoga?
Being present. Yoga is the opportunity to leave our lives and our stories at the door and observe what happens in our body and mind.
Is yoga enough as a standalone exercise, or best combined with other forms, like aerobics, etc?
For me yoga is enough to build the strength and mobility I need for my daily activity and leisure time, but for others a complementary training might be needed. It depends on individual bodies and the fitness goals.
You have trained over 250 teachers. Do you see a gender imbalance in yoga classes – are there more women than men? Why?
Yes, I agree that yoga attracts a greater female clientele. In my teacher training, the male population unfortunately never exceeds 10 per cent. This imbalance is quite interesting, since until a few decades ago yoga had excluded women. To re-establish the balance, I think we should stop gratifying extreme flexibility because it’s very intimidating for men (and for women too!), and instead promote the health benefits of yoga.
Yoga has been hit by commercialisation in the past few years, and has been glamourised by countless Instagram yoga celebrities – perfect bodies wearing mega-expensive outfits. Do you think the age-old discipline has lost a lot of its authenticity?
Yes, I keep saying that yoga is a victim of its success. Is it all bad? I don’t believe so. Making yoga "sexy" is what allowed it to attract millions of practitioners who got inspired by these yoga celebrities.
The more commercial practice of yoga has little to do with the ancient devotional yoga, but it is accessible and adapted to our lifestyle. For many, it’s the starting point for a much deeper practice, and without it these people would have never discovered yoga and its ancient wisdom.
I don’t think we should condemn this commercial practice on the account that it’s "not real yoga". Just like you would first learn the alphabet before learning to write poetry, to me commercial yoga is just part of the process.
Can children practise yoga too?
Not only can they, but they should. Children today are exposed to a lot of stress and constant distractions. Through yoga they can learn to be present and to control their emotions. Aside from the physical benefits, children can learn to relax, be focused, build self-confidence, and cultivate acceptance. Many schools around the world are now including yoga in their curriculum.
Many people stay away from yoga as they think it is only for those who are extremely flexible. Your advice to them?
I think not being flexible is a great reason to start yoga. Lack of flexibility can create low back pain and other discomforts, and yoga can help gain both flexibility and strength. My advice to get started: show up in a yoga class. It is as simple as that.
What do you see in the future for yoga?
I think that after an enormous commercial success and Instagram celebrity yogis, people will slowly turn away from the "aesthetic practice" and become interested in a more mindful practice that respects the integrity of the body and the individual differences of each practitioner.
The recent years have shown a rise in yoga injuries, which I feel is a growing concern. For this reason, I think that the functional approach to yoga poses I teach my students will take a front stage.