What’s Fierce Grace Yoga and The Hot House really like?

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We tested out these brand new, post-Bikram yoga classes at their birthplace in Kentish Town – a studio now relaunching as an innovative and affordable training centre


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Hot hot hot. Fierce Grace. All pics: PR
Hot hot hot. Fierce Grace. All pics: PR
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.)

Enjoying the stretch
Enjoying the stretch

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.

Queen's Crescent Market stars in the promo for the brand new Hot House
Queen’s Crescent Market stars in the promo for the brand new Hot House

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.

Recognise that greasy spoon?
Recognise that greasy spoon?

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.

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In depth: Interview with Michele

Michele Pernetta
Michele Pernetta

How have the first few months of Fierce Grace been for you and your studios?

It’s been nerve-wracking, but great. Changing four busy yoga studios to something different overnight is obviously a huge risk, but I’ve wanted to offer a wider range of classes for so long that I decided to dive in. I’ve been overwhelmed by the support and positive feedback, and in fact, numbers have increased.

Students and teachers have both said how much they are enjoying learning the new poses and having different classes and class lengths to choose from. Obviously we lost a few students who said they only wanted to do Bikram Yoga, but not very many. And I noticed that new students arrived with great yoga practises from other styles, as well as students who needed either the easier or harder classes.

It’s a huge amount of work to bring five new classes to students, and train over 45 teachers in a new system, so it has been the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life.

What was the catalyst for breaking with the Bikram system? I saw you quoted as saying it was like a ‘divorce’, so how’s the separation gone so far?

There wasn’t really any one catalyst, it’s something I have been working on for years. I could see in the students that they were ready for new challenges, and as a teacher I wanted to teach things I felt were needed, in my own way.

It is like a divorce in that to separate from someone like Bikram, who you have respected and worked closely with for so many years and have so much affection and gratitude for, it is a very difficult process to break with that. He’s not the kind of man who will pat you on the back and say “well done for doing your own thing”, so you have to be prepared to say goodbye.

As a Bikram studio owner you can only teach the one class, those 26 poses for the rest of your life, which can feel stifling after many years if you want to continue learning and growing as a teacher.

Michele flying high
Michele flying high

I always felt Bikram was a great workout, but didn’t have the playful joy of a flow class or the mental clarity of Mysore-style Ashtanga. FG seems to incorporate the best of both. What did you feel was missing from the rigidity of Bikram, and also what elements did you want to lose?

No one class does everything, no matter how good it is. The body is too complex. The mind and emotions are too changeable. You simply can’t do one class for the rest of your life. If there were one perfect class we would all be doing it and there would be no different yoga systems. Ashtanga would have only one series, and there wouldn’t be nearly 1000 yoga poses.

I wanted to remove “the teacher is boss” mentality that can sometimes creep in. I don’t think it’s useful or empowering for anyone. I wanted to remove the set script teaching technique, it can sound rehearsed, and I wanted more attention to injuries and the very unfit. These people need to feel totally cared for and included.

The Bikram class is a great foundation, but I feel that it misses arms and hips, twists, and relaxing stretches. So I added hip openers and arm and ab strengtheners. Arms because everyone was so weak, abs because until you know how to work your core in every yoga pose, which can take a long time, certain students can still be weak in their abdominals after years of practise.

For Fierce Grace I wanted to bring more circular motion, (like Tae Kwon Do over Shotokan). I wanted to empower students to be their own teachers, experiment more, decide what level they want to go in the pose on any given day. We added music, as this is extremely useful to help relax the mind and to connect people with their energy, breath, and enjoyment of the release that yoga brings. It feels like it is the best of everything I have tried over the last 25 years. It is a combination of male strength building poses and female circular twists, flow as well as a few passive Yin stretches which are very good for releasing the connective tissues and really getting into very tight underlying ligaments and tendons.

How did you go about picking the new sequences and postures, and how long did it take to perfect?

It was a huge task, that started years ago by going to hundreds of other types of yoga classes, travelling to America and taking class with the great teachers there, what I learned being taught by Bikram, my own Ashtanga Vinyasa training, even my martial arts training, 25 years of meditation, plus the work of my spiritual teacher Adi Da and his lessons that the real purpose of yoga is energetic.

It was the feedback from all our students, what they wanted, needed and asked for. Once I had decided on the class outline, myself and senior teachers from the studios, particularly Emma Croft and Mark Oram, plus a select group of students did class twice a week to try out the sequences, make edits and try changes.

My house was piled high with different versions of each class, books, pictures, diagrams. It is a very difficult thing to do to sequence a class. Especially if you don’t want the vinyasa as a connector, or a savasana between each pose, then you have to really work on the transitions.

So it was something that I was going over in my head for years, in different classes for decades, and then I workshopped the classes for over three years an trained up the first eight teachers way before anyone knew we were changing.

Remember: knees locked, ok?
Remember: knees locked, ok?

What are your views on purism in yoga?

I wanted to keep a spiritual core, but without any of the phoney spiritual veneer that puts so many people, including myself off. To maintain clean, kick-ass classes that athletes, yogis and the unfit could all benefit from. People want to open their minds and process their emotions, meditate and de-stress in a yoga class, but the bottom line is they want results. They want to be free of their back or knee pain, they want a great body, abs, bum, toning and weight loss. You have deliver on all fronts. So if adding a few stationary yoga strengtheners in there delivers results, who cares if it doesn’t appear in an ancient scroll of parchment someone found in a cave?

My feeling is that it is a very exciting time in yoga. That Westerners are not apologising any more for not being Indian. We used to go in and chant in Sanskrit and wear beads and burn incense to an Indian God, and that was useful for us in the beginning. But Westerners have different bodies, different minds, live in a different way to the ancient Indian Yogis. We are more Alpha, stressed, sit in chairs all day, have more outward chaotic minds. So I think Westerners are creating vibrant, intense, non-rigid systems of yoga for themselves which address our specific needs, and that is wonderful. We are already too disciplined and structured. We need the opposite: to break free. We should be proud of the creativity and expansion that is occurring in Western yoga.

Bikram did straddle that divide, he was Indian, born and trained, but he knew how to package Indian yoga for the needs of the Westerner, and he did a lot of good by doing that. I do come from that school of thought, take traditional principles and teaching methods, and an honouring of the wisdom of traditional yoga, but teach it in a way that is relevant to the variety of people who attend – smart, motivated, stressed, lazy, athletic, sick – and teach them ancient wisdom in a way that is relevant and enjoyable. You will get your ass kicked in a way that opens you up, not closes you down.

The traditionalists say we should not veer away from the systems we have been given by the Indian greats, and of course these are our heritage and to be valued as the “source wisdom”. But Westerners have been doing yoga now for a very long time, and the evolution that is occurring is necessary and has grown out of our own needs, bodies and mind to suit us a little better. All growth is good, however I do adhere to tradition in that the yoga poses in themselves should not be messed with. Traditional sequencing wisdom shouldn’t be changed.

I knew I’d attract raised eyebrows by adding a few yoga calisthenics – which they do in India by the way – and that’s one of the reasons I added them, to say, “yes we think your body is more important that being “traditional”. I hope that my system will continue to evolve and change with the students, and I will certainly change something if it needs changing, or throw a new pose in here or there to stop people from getting rigid about any of it.

Finally, why should people do yoga?

Because the alternative is unacceptable. Aching muscles, degenerating joints, stagnant circulation and low energy. Whatever inconvenience it is to get started in a yoga practise, is a tiny fraction of the inconvenience of living in a painful body or being ill.

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The Hot House is now open at Fierce Grace North, 175 Queen’s Crescent, NW5. All drop-in classes £8. More info and full timetable here

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