It’s really no surprise that the ancient Eastern practice of yoga keeps growing in popularity. For us Westerners who reside on our bums all day, bombarded with screenfuls of information, there can’t be a much better method to simultaneously exercise the body, calm the mind, and stick to a tight schedule.
Like Sainsbury’s supermarkets and Patak’s curry sauces, Bikram yoga – the kind practiced in a very hot room – started life in the UK on NW5’s unassuming market street, Queen’s Crescent.
Studio founder, Michele Pernetta, was the first to import this system of 26 postures across from LA 20 years ago, where she’d been certified by the controversial Mr. Bikram himself. His aggressively protected franchise model and regimented class format were not every yogi’s cup of chai, but Bikram has nevertheless grown with a phenomenal popularity over here ever since.
However, cracks have been spreading through this global yoga empire, and late last year, it was Michele’s turn to jump ship. (See the full interview below for how she found the split with the notoriously unforgiving fitness guru.)
I’ve been dropping into this original Bikram studio on and off for a few years. I’ve found the system limited, boring even, compared to Ashtanga, but I like the heat and the undeniable workout-style benefits of the sessions. Take liberal advantage of the 30-day trial period offer and you’ll quite quickly see the difference it makes to your torso.
So when it was announced that Michele was launching her own, brand new system of five interchangeable hot yoga classes, appropriately named Fierce Grace, I was determined to sample the lot.
The first thing that becomes apparent in any of the sessions is the break from the gruelling repetition and annoying script of traditional Bikram. The postures flow in a far more playful manner, and teachers are free to deviate from the sequence if, for instance, a beginner needs a modification, or an old hand needs a new challenge.
Of the lot, the Classic class is a bit too like Bikram for my liking, although it does clip along at a better pace rather than with the old monotony of doing everything twice. And some of the most dreaded elements have been mercifully dropped, without losing any of that amazing sense of having wrung-spun all tension out of the body afterwards.
The class named Fierce Grace is where Michele’s creativity shines through. It’s a wilfully mixed-up combination of yoga disciplines with complex Flow-style sequences and bonus workout-inspired crunches, all set to music. Unashamedly breaking traditions, not just with those of her original mentor, but with any rigid concepts of what yoga “should” be, my first time was a bit of a revelation.
Even if the teachers often forgot postures in the early weeks, the playfulness of the class made this exactly the kind of experimental stuff that was missing from the unwavering 26 postures of old.
I also dabbled with The Fix, a 50-min gallop through a selection of stretches, twists and compressions, good for those in a lunchtime hurry. Personally, if I’ve set aside time for the studio, I want longer, but can see why it works for others.
And The Core class has been rocking my world of late. Deep, Yin-style stretches combined with some unusual variations of familiar others, it might not be as fierce in intensity as the others, but it requires a certain fire in the belly.
As Michele explains in the interview below, she’s successfully zeroed in on what scares many men away from yoga, basing FG at the opposite end of the spectrum to incense and chanting, and making all classes a dynamic challenge, even – like the Core – ones that might seem on paper to be less aggressive.
And it’s working, as the studio is frequented by a more balance gender mix than many. But the biggest news for north Londoners is that, starting this week, Fierce Grace in turning the Queen’s Crescent studio into a ground-breaking training centre, called The Hot House.
Michele has big plans for her new yoga (she’s just opened a new branch in Hampstead Garden Suburb to go with her West, City, and Primrose Hill outposts) and that requires a space in which to get truly experimental. She calls it “guerrilla yoga”, where trainee teachers run the whole no-frills enterprise. For us, that means £8 drop in classes – half the price of standard studio classes elsewhere – and £80 a month for an unlimited pass.
I’ll reserve judgement on the effect these wallet-friendly changes have on class quality (just as I’ll have to report back on The Beast, the most advanced of the five FG classes, currently only to be found over at Primrose Hill). But one thing is for certain, the limits of yoga are being expanded right here on our doorstep, and it’s hugely rewarding to pick up a mat and join the ride.