ehind a heavy steel door, just off Kentish Town Road, the 6am darkness of a winter weekday morning is burnt off via flickering candles and good, honest sweat. As day creeps through the skylight and up the exposed brickwork, bodies bend and move on the floor, yet the only sound is of breath.
This is the classic Mysore-style morning yoga session, where beginners and those more experienced in the astanga sequence of movements practice alongside each other, at their own pace.
Unlike your average gym-based yoga experience, there are no shouty instructors, ambient whale-song soundtracks or mirrors in which to preen and be seen. It’s back to basics. You, the mat, and claiming a precious moment of movement and stillness before the onslaught of the day ahead.Roberta Giannotti whispers occasional guidance, steadies wayward arms and pushes on lower backs with the firm yet feather-light touch of a healer. She has been guiding Mysore-style mornings ever since she was approved to do so by K Pattabhi Jois himself.
If you’re not versed in the lore of modern yoga, he was the guru widely credited with popularising it here in the west, via his teaching of vinyasa, the jumping and floating sequences that captured the imagination of celebrities and drew a whole generation of yoga teachers to take numerous trips to practice with him in the Indian city.
“I came to the UK from Canada, to dance with the DV8 physical theatre group,” Roberta tells us, “but when a friend recommended I should try yoga, from that very first class, I never looked back.”
After learning her craft in India, then teaching for many years in different London studios, she and student-turned-assistant Sarah Snelling recently set up a shala in Kentish Town, with the aim of providing an authentic Mysore-style self-practice environment in a perfect stripped-back little room (with underfloor heating the only concession to Western creature comforts).
“The space is perfect,” beams Roberta. “The owner runs a Tai Chi group here, but he wasn’t using it in the early mornings, so it all felt very right to start a new regular weekday self-practice.” She’d like to expand to meditation classes, arts events and to teaching yoga to teenagers too as the word spreads, but currently, those rising early for their drop-in stretch are a mix of her long-term students and a few in-the-know yogis who’ve discovered this little sanctuary of sacred movement now in NW5.
Yet total beginners are as welcome as seasoned astanga veterans, and in many ways coming for regular self-practice is like having a one-to-one teacher. Over the years, Roberta has been just that to all kinds of celebs, musicians and actors looking for a bit of balance in their whirlwind lives.
One former student, the famously frenetic Russell Brand, went as far as to thank Roberta personally in his 2014 book Revolution, “for helping me to remain connected with limitless realms of positivity through stretching.”
“I taught Russell for a very long time,” she says. “He’s amazing in that he just gets straight into the zone. There’s obviously a big need for him to be calm, and he’s done a lot of work and study in yoga. My biggest pride is that now he’s moved out of London and I’m not around to work with him, I know he’s still got his regular self-practice established.”
As yoga continues to grow in mainstream consciousness, with the previously unlikely likes of footballers and desk-bound office workers all now realising the benefits, all manner of new methods are available. Yet the ritual of early morning silent practice that Roberta and Sarah offer is often one that hooks people for life.
“Yoga has so much power,” she says, “from grounding or calming you, to keeping you fit or offering some simple stress relief. Moving and focusing on the breath brings you back to yourself, and for me, it’s therefore also very much about healing: getting one’s head and body back together, and learning something about yourself each day through the repetition of movement. It’s too useful and joyful not to do.”