Interview Michele Pernetta on Bikram Yoga

by admin on August 27, 2013

Post image for Interview Michele Pernetta on Bikram Yoga

Interview Michele Pernetta on Bikram Yoga


We Chatted to Michele Pernetta, Owner of Bikram Yoga London, about how she became one of the first Bikram yoga teachers, why the world needs yoga and what she eats.


Question: How did you first encounter yoga?

Michele: I lived in Los Angeles and my martial arts training had left me in need of knee surgery for torn meniscus on both knees. I heard that Bikram was the “knee guru” so with no interest in yoga other than to try to help my knees I went to see Bikram, who promised to “fix my knees in 15 lessons”. To cut a long story short, I knew very soon that this yoga would not only help my knees (it’s 19 years later now and I have no symptoms and never had surgery) but it also highlighted that I had weak knees, flat feet, stiff hips, shoulders and spine! So I could see it would treat the entire body as a whole, not just the knees. No physical ailment is in isolation; it’s always a whole body problem.


What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from yoga?

Michele: It is hard to choose just one, as there are so many, but probably the most beneficial to me has been to simply remain in the moment, without judgement, with full acceptance, and just take the next moment as it comes, with calm breath, patience, and courage. Yoga requires that you do this in class. It may take a long time to learn this, but eventually you do, and then you find this ability has infiltrated your life, making you able to deal with difficult situations, enjoy your life more, and not be phased by whatever arises.

Michele Pernetta

How are your classes different from others?

Michele: You mean my classes personally? Or our classes as in Bikram studio classes?
My classes personally: well, the students are the people to ask about that! But even though I push people to their edge, I try to bring a light-hearted feeling to the class. People get so uptight and serious about yoga sometimes. It is already a hard class – strenuous and cathartic – so I feel some humour is very useful, and a playful mind-set allows people to feel free to experiment, go out of their comfort zone and enjoy the process. People won’t work hard for you if you are being an asshole. I believe if you can’t enjoy something while working yourself hard, you won’t keep it up. I also love working with those who are the most challenged. The satisfaction one gets from taking someone who wants to run out of the room through a difficult process with care and love, and seeing them understand something profound about themselves, is the reason I teach.

If you are talking about our studios, we have a creed to try to take care of every type of student, from old, overweight, injured, shy, to advanced and professional athletes. We train our teachers to help those with injuries, and be responsive to people’s needs.


What unexpected benefit has risen from your practice?

I am amazed at my ability to concentrate. I am sure this has come from the years of one pointed concentration in class. I have noticed I can concentrate with full energy on a particular project for hours on end, without tiring, even when people much younger than me have got tired and are sitting out with a coffee and cigarette or have lost concentration. I can also see that my ability to deal with difficulties in my stride has improved, but that could just be due to running 4 businesses!


Why do you think the world needs yoga?

I truly believe that yoga is a very important movement in society. The yoga studio has become church for many people; that time alone, to reflect, to feel, to let go of things that are no longer useful. People in cities are stressed, tired and toxic. Yoga offers a non-religious way of connecting with something greater than us. It makes people more sensitive to themselves, and therefore others. It allows people the time to connect with their real state, which is actually happy, relaxed and calm. Eventually yoga teaches mind control. People are often tortured by their worries; yoga is a system that teaches us to connect to our core selves. Breath control is mind control. Breath connects us to the living life force and puts the mind back in the passenger seat. The commitment to a yoga practice doesn’t just make us healthier, reducing reliance on doctors, but makes us more courageous as people, more able to deal with life’s challenges and bring patience and a non-violent attitude to others and ourselves.


Can you share some of your teaching techniques?

I may have had techniques years ago but they are not conscious now. It’s now instinctive. I have been teaching huge classes for so long now that I feel I can look at someone in class for a few minutes and know where they are at and what they need. It could be they need reassuring, leaving alone, or that they are so motivated that they need permission to back off. I think that a teacher needs to develop their ability to look deeply at students, not just at their body or poses, but at their mood, what they are coming up against, what they are feeling. I always remind myself how difficult the beginning of a yoga practice is. It can be horrible! You thought you were fit, but you suddenly realise you are in terrible shape! Your heart is pounding and you think you might pass out! Everything hurts. It’s easy to just give up. I try to put myself in that person’s shoes, remember how I felt, and give them the chance to back off. Compassion is a great teaching tool.

Knowing when to push someone is also a skill. Lots of us are lazy in class. Pushing the wrong person at the wrong time can result in injury or them doing too much or feeling the class is too hard. But at the right moment in someone’s practice, an encouragement, or permission to go further, or a suggestion for a technique, can open a whole new world to the person and inspire them to explore in ways they never imagined possible. So in short, my teaching does not have a technique per se, other than being open, watching closely and responding. Teaching for me is the ability to respond to what is in front of you, and sometimes one’s response is so intuitive it surprises not only the student, but also yourself!

Michele Pernetta Bikram Yoga

Who will benefit most from your classes?

Anyone with the willingness to meet difficult things. You may be super fit, but not like to see you can’t do something the person next to you can do. You may be so unfit and overweight you are embarrassed to get in your work-out gear and join a group class. You may simply have pain, injuries or be lazy. Whoever you are, know that everyone is in the same boat, and finding something difficult is NOT a reason to stop or discontinue your practice. Finding something difficult means you need it! So everyone benefits in the way they need to. It is not just physical. Everything is connected, and our minds, emotions and bodies all benefit together as the limitations in all areas are seen, addressed and cleared out.


Which is the toughest pose you teach?

They say Savasana (Dead Body Pose) is the hardest pose in yoga, because we have to learn to drop the mind and body in 3 seconds. It is amazing to see how difficult newcomers find this pose. It’s 30 seconds lying still on the floor. They can’t keep still! They can’t stop thinking! Their eyes are darting all over the room, they are fidgeting, scratching, twitching. Eventually you can see how the yoga has helped them, as they can, after a few months, lie completely relaxed, doing nothing and not moving. This is the beginning of a meditation practice.

However, physically, I think Standing Head to Knee Pose is the most difficult. Big changes to the body have to happen, gradually and slowly, for this pose to become possible. People want to “achieve” in the pose so they cheat to try to go further. It shows mentally they are not ready. Core strength in the back and abdomen need to be developed. Balance, and the knee and standing leg, have to be conditioned over time in order to be able to lock the knee and contract all the leg muscles. There is no short cut, just regular dedicated practice to make the physical changes needed to perform this pose. The problem with this pose is never physical, but always mental. The student needs to be able to be truly honest and accepting of where they are at today, and not cheat by kicking out with the standing knee bent, or bending the elbows because their abdomen is weak. It shows the mental state of the practitioner just as much as the physical state.


What’s the biggest mistake you see with students?

Easy, they all try to go too far to “look good” in the pose. By doing so they lose the correct alignment, thereby not receiving all the benefits they could be getting. As soon as you sacrifice alignment for depth, you lose the benefits of the pose.

Michele Pernetta Bikram Yoga

Does diet play a role in yoga? What’s your diet like?

Yes, it does. If you have a toxic diet, it comes to plague you in your practice! However, a lot of people make no changes at first, and yoga will still detoxify the body. As the body becomes healthier, it does not crave what it used to crave. People start wanting healthy food. As their energy increases they don’t need the sugary snack or the coffee to give them a boost, as they are naturally energetic. In the evening they feel relaxed, so they don’t need the wine or the sedatives to relax and feel good. So yoga changes the choices we make even if we don’t intend to make those changes.

There is no one diet for everyone. But people should simply eat a responsible diet of whole, real, unprocessed foods. Stay away from chemicals, artificial sweeteners, hydrogenated fats, sugar and too many stimulants.

I have been everything from vegan and vegetarian for years, to now eating pretty much everything. I feel better now I eat everything (except processed foods and sugar) than I did as a vegan. But that’s just me. I believe everyone is different and needs to make their own choices. The Ayurvedic typing system is invaluable in deciding on what diet suits your constitutional type. I do not think people should make a religion out of their diet choices. Diet is relatively simple; stick to whole foods, and there’s no need to spend one’s life thinking and talking about it. I follow the Ayurvedic principles as much as possible, as the wisdom of that system works so well. I hardly eat any sugar (keep it as a treat once in a while), I don’t drink liquid with meals and I chew a lot. I eat a high fat diet, which works for my constitutional type. This includes a lot of raw dark greens, a lot of good fats and oils, and I also think butter and dairy (good un-homogenised dairy) are good for you. Homemade healthy foods beat processed or restaurant food every time. I’ll have a glass of wine or a beer once in a while. I believe getting uptight and joyless about your food is worse for you than having a treat once in a while and having a happy enjoyment of one of life’s great pleasures.

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