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Talking yoga with Michele Pernetta, founder of Fierce Grace in London

Want to workout but gracefully? If so, there’s only one place to head and that’s Fierce Grace.

The company’s founder, Michele Pernetta, has taught Bikram yoga for many years, and she’s also trained in Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, which was developed originally in Mysore India by the late Pattabhi Jois. As one of the leaders in her field, she’s built up a loyal and dedicated following, and so you’ll find studios all over London from Primrose Hill to Brixton. Don’t worry if you’re a yoga newbie, she has her top beginner’s tips for you!

Tell us about your background and how you first got into yoga?

I was living in Los Angeles and working in the fashion industry. I was an avid martial arts fanatic, competing, hardcore 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 knee surgery as a solution. I heard there was a “knee guru” yoga teacher called Bikram, so I went to observe a class. I was really fit at the time, however, I could do very little of the class, I could barely bend one of my knees at all, couldn’t kneel, I was in so much pain. In those first classes, I realized my feet were flat, my spine was stiff, hips stiff, knees weak. I thought he’d tell me he couldn’t help me, but he said: “No problem, I’ll fix your knees.” I realized a knee problem is usually a whole-body problem. I was intending to fix my knees and then give up yoga. But after I saw that yoga healed sports damage I ended up giving up the martial arts.

Fierce Grace is a revolutionary yoga system of interconnected classes that suit all ages and fitness level

What types of yoga do you have the most experience instructing?

I had taught Bikram yoga for 20 years, and now Fierce Grace for nine years. I am also trained in Ashtanga Vinyasa by one of the great masters Larry Schultz, as well as in his Rocket series. Those influences, as well as martial arts, my gymnastics and bodywork history as well as my meditation and spiritual practise, which has wisdom on yoga, breath and energy conductivity, all came together in Fierce Grace.

Even after 20 years teaching Bikram yoga to 200,000 students, I didn’t feel I really became a “yoga teacher” until I started teaching Fierce Grace. It was only after the years of research it took to develop FG – considering every single yoga system, every pose, all sequencing possibilities and every combination of poses, as well as studying every modification for every body type and injury for all the 250 poses in my system – that I felt I could really call myself a yoga teacher.

When did you start up Fierce Grace, and how did it come about?

I began work on the Fierce Grace Method nearly ten years ago, but I knew I would be delivering something new around 15 years ago as I felt the one Bikram class would have a limited life span as people need more than that to take them through their whole life.

I looked around at other systems. My aim was to bring the best of the strengths of the great yoga systems together, and create a series of classes that did everything – strengthened the weak person safely, challenged the athletic person, brought alignment knowledge to people – but in a way that was expressive, empowering and free. I just hadn’t found the style out there that I liked enough to teach or practice for the rest of my life, so I designed the classes I felt every body type would benefit from at any age. I hoped others would also like it and see the sense of it, and feel the beauty of moving in these different ways. This also meant I had to design a Teacher Training Programme that would allow me to deliver this through teachers who were trained to teach all ages and body types and also modify for injury while being down to earth, humorous, and empowering. This is tall order for teachers – they need to be very skilled – so we train them in specific ways that give them the tools to deliver classes in this unique way.

Fierce Grace led the UK in the Hot Yoga revolution, by bringing Bikram Yoga to London in 1994

What do you love most about yoga and your job?

I love that yoga is a great equalizer. Society is always labeling people, putting is in cubbyholes. As soon as you walk into the yoga class, it doesn’t matter if you are stiff, old, flexible, pretty, white, brown, a gymnast or a granny, everyone is the same – you are just a body, with its own issues, a person with willpower, the desire to change, and the willingness to go through the process and come out the other side. Everyone is there together supporting each other, and magic happens in there, barriers come down, old habits transcended, pain released, and a sense of connection with oneself and others.

Even though I am running seven businesses, and that’s a lot of office work – ultimately I am a teacher. I love to be in the studio being inspired by my students, and hoping to inspire them once in a while. I also adore teaching teachers – I love passing on what I have seen, learned and researched over the past 30 years to others, and watching them shine – and seeing them go out and change their students lives.

Tell us the advantages of practising yoga…

I believe that we as city dwellers today are pulled in so many directions – achieving, working, surviving, it is difficult to find an hour or so to just be alone with ourselves and reconnect. Yoga allows us to check in with ourselves. Yoga, through movement, music, sweating, pushing through physical and emotional limits, is literally a life-changing practice that keeps us sane and feeling detoxed emotionally and mentally.

Without listing a huge list of medical, emotional and mental benefits, which are already widely documented, in short I’d say – if you care about your old age, if you would rather not be on a zimmer frame, or have joint replacements, if you would like to walk erect and have fun in your 70’s, 80’s, 90’s even – start the work now. Your body wants to move. If you got stiff because your job has you sitting at a desk, start now. Taking up yoga isn’t easy – you need to work through the scar tissue, the old patterns, the weakness, the resistance, but the alternative is terrible – to be sentenced to live in a body that is contracting inwards, and with that, the mind follows. Be brave, and get on that mat, the older you 20 years from now will thank you.

What has been your career highlight to date?

I launched FG “overnight” in all 4 of my studios. One day all my clients were paying for Bikram, and the next day I basically said: “that’s off the menu – try this new thing.” I honestly had prepared myself for a mass exodus of my students, and bankruptcy and all the doubters saying “we told you not to do it!” However 99% of my clients tried it, loved it, and many new clients came. Knowing that people had given me a chance, put themselves in the new classes with open minds, and liked what I had done – will always be the defining moment of my career. I will always be grateful to the students who did this and gave FG a chance, without them, there would be no FG today. Being Number 1 in the Sunday Times Style “The Top Ten Ways to Get Fit” was also wonderful.

Do you have any top tips for beginners?

1. Remember that the yoga pose isn’t the “goal.” Your body and how it feels today is the goal. Take the pressure off yourself to achieve a certain shape, just stretch and breath, do the best you can, and that is yoga.

2. Breathe through your nose, and as soon as you need to open your mouth to breath its time to sit down for a minute or two.

3. We are just trying to re-establish the body’s natural range of motion. It’s nothing weird, or out of the ordinary we are doing here. Yoga is very ordinary in this way – it is simply our full natural range of motion.

4. Drink 1.5 litres of water 2 hours before the class so you arrive already hydrated. But don’t eat a big meal within that window as that can make you feel nauseous.

5. Many beginners say, “I can’t do yoga because I am stiff.” Yoga will make you flexible – but is not about just being flexible, it is also about being strong. We must build both to have a balanced body that is less prone to injury.