Introducing our latest Wow Woman, the wonderful Michele Pernetta. Senior Yoga teacher and Founder of Fierce Grace, Michele brought Hot Yoga to the UK in 1994, opening the first Hot yoga studio in Europe in 2000. We sat down with Michele to talk all things Yoga and find out more about her amazing journey.
I was living in Los Angeles, I was a fashion designer. My knees were damaged from my martial arts practice and I was training for my black belt. I was told I needed surgery, but I believed the body must be able to heal. Someone told me to go to Bikram Yoga as he was good with knees. I thought I'll just go for a while, improve my knees and then give it up. However it highlighted that even though martial arts had me the fittest I had ever been, I had all sorts of misalignments, flat feet, tight hips and weak knees. I realised yoga was the most intelligent form of exercise.Why did you decide to move away from teaching Bikram yoga?
When you teach anything for a long time, you grow. You see things, you watch bodies, you hear from your students, you watch what they are doing before or after class, and what other forms of exercise they are doing in a search to supplement what they are doing with you. You want to deliver to them the things they think they need elsewhere. As a teacher you develop. I thought I could do better. I have been fascinated by the body and healing since I was a child. I wanted to find a method that would enable me to better help everyone I was seeing in my classes - the injured, the normal person with a bit of a pot belly and rounded shoulders, the older person, the athlete and those training for pro sports.
I couldn’t do that with the one class of Bikram system. I wanted to introduce meditation and deep relaxation as well, in a way that didn’t use terminology that cubbyholes what is an innately natural state. So I had to design all these classes from scratch, and connect them, so that people of all shapes sizes ages and with all different needs could do any of the classes and be safe. I wanted to widen yoga’s reach. I also wanted to be free to teach the way my development was taking me - in an empowering way, with music, elation even. I began thinking about how I might develop my own method back in 2008.
It is a new yoga method of 12 interconnected classes. It is based in traditional yoga but made more relevant to the busy city dweller who is rounded forward on devices all day, who is stressed and needs a little more direct intervention through sweat, music and a variety of movement delivered in a powerful way. It offers choices so people can tailor their own practise to suit their needs. It is a blend of Hatha, Ashtanga, Bikram and Iyengar, blended with cutting edge fitness wisdom, physiotherapy, Hiit and super slow strength training. We have injury modification class called 'Stiff Old or Broken' for those with injuries or the unfit. Music helps people drop into their feelings, their body and drop the mind. This is what people crave in their busy lives. The heat is cathartic. The sequences are beautiful, graceful, difficult, safe. They get you fit and they relax you too.What’s the most important thing you have learnt from starting Fierce Grace?
The people are very open and willing to challenge themselves physically and mentally and do the work it takes to achieve excellence in health and fitness. I am so inspired by the people that come to the studio, FG is not easy, and yet people of all ages are sweating and groaning together in there with an enormous willingness and a good sense of humour. I never fail to be impressed by people, and how hard they will work to connect with who they really are.
Just seeing people perform my sequences. Sometimes I look around the room, and see the effort, the sweat and the smiles, and I literally can’t believe people are making sequences I designed a part of their lives. It's a feeling I just can't describe. Also, after so much doubt, worry and risk, after the launch of FG, The Sunday Times Style magazine named us the “The number 1 way to get fit.” To see that in a national magazine was such a boost.If you’re new to hot yoga what can you expect at Fierce Grace?
It's not that hot. It's just lovely. Once you get through three classes you will just look forward to that warm room as it feels great and makes stretching safer. You will never be made to feel out of place, even if you are new, unfit and look the opposite of a 'yogi'. You will feel totally at home and 45% of our clients are men. We dont use Sanskrit words, or have a 'holier than though' atmosphere. You’ll get skilled teachers who value the stiff new person as much as the athletic acrobat. They will give a variety of levels of the pose so you can choose the entry level that is right for you.What has been the highlight of your yoga journey so far?
That my students across my 4 studios gave me a chance, even those who were resistant to trying something new, stayed and gave it a go. To them I will be eternally grateful as I only had a 3 month window to prove myself or else any drop in attendance would have meant I would have been unable to pay the rents. Also my wonderful teachers, they stayed with me and retrained in the new system. Without them this would not have been possible.
I never wanted to be a yoga teacher. Even when I started teaching yoga I was thinking "I'll go back to my other career soon as soon as I have more teachers". So no, I was never planning on it being part time. I guess I was in denial that in fact my entire life had been a preparation for this. All the physical exercise and all the 'health study' (I have been putting my body through various gruelling disciplines since I was 11 years old). My dream job was the job I had - fashion and costume designer. Just as my 'career' was at its height, I opened a yoga studio thinking someone else would be running it, and I accidentally ended up doing it myself. I realised I loved it. Teaching yoga is literally the most fabulous and privileged job I can think of.What would be your one top tip for anyone wanting to start their yoga journey?
If you intend to teach, then be sure you care passionately and almost painfully about the wellbeing of others. Otherwise the connection with your students may not be strong enough to last the years it takes to get proficient at teaching. Also train well, with senior teachers, not teachers who have only been teaching a few years. It makes your foundation strong.If you could use one word to describe yoga what would it be and why?
Brave. Because you get the idea of who you think you are, or want to be, stripped away. You are forced to see yourself as you really are. And you get to confront all your limitations. And move beyond them. Yoga is for the brave, not the faint hearted.
I think yoga just keeps you real. Its hard to be phoney, its a great equaliser, it keeps you humble. I do try to be very authentic with my students and teachers. I tell them poses I cant do, or where I'm tight, I dont just demonstrate the poses I'm good at, that' ego. I even sometimes swear jokingly in class to deconstruct the idea that the yoga teacher is some pure being. Most yoga teachers are very honest about who they are, and people love that, it makes them feel it's ok to be who they are. The prancing fakes who pretend they are enlightened in order to sell an idea of themselves or of yoga, aren't the real deal and people often feel intimidated by them. I think one has to be truly human first, before one can evolve.At Asquith we’re all about living better for ourselves and for the planet. If you could give one top tip for living better for your body what would it be and why?
Ayurveda. Find out what constitutional type (dosha) you are, and tailor your diet to that type. Everyone gets attracted to the foods that are the worst for them, so the calm strong Kapha loves avocados and bananas - which are bad for them, skinny anxious Vatas are all drinking green smoothies and eating salads and they shouldn't touch them, and the muscular active Pittas are spicing up their diet with chilli and spice which makes them too hot and angry. Its fascinating.And one for living better for the planet?
Yoga teaches us how to be compassionate to ourselves first, and then this works its way out into all our relationships as kindness. Being kind to others, human and non human alike, is great for the planet.As you know, we make ethical and sustainable activewear but do you think there is more the yoga community could be doing to be more eco-friendly and sustainable? If so, what do you think this would be and how would you like to see it evolve?
Yoga studios seem to be ahead of the game, removing plastic water bottles from sale at the studios, using recycled mats. But its more than that. Yoga studios are making people healthier, less reliant on drugs, or hospitals and more aware generally about people and the the planet. Those people then have more awareness about living a responsible life for the good of all.What does ‘wellness’ mean to you?
It means not just focussing on the body. People are pretty brave when it comes to physical wellness, they are prepared to fast, drink terrible drinks, eat a restrictive diet, exercise for hours a day. But being challenged emotionally or mentally, getting ones blind spots poked, is a little harder. But it's important to develop the same willingness to explore ourselves mentally and emotionally and grow in these areas too if we are to be really “well.” Mental health is more in the foreground now which is wonderful, and yoga has been shown to have enormous benefits for people suffering in this way.
A cathartic Fierce Grace yoga class, with heat, sweat and euphoric music. The APPI Clinic in Hampstead if I have an injury or just need a relaxing massage. The therapists and physios there are amazing. Any steam room. I love to sweat!Favourite yoga pose and why?
Yogi in Sleep Pose. I've always felt very comfortable with my legs behind my head.Mindfulness or Meditation?
Meditation 100%.Where do you go to ground yourself?
To our house in Tuscany - we did up an old ruin in the hills. Having always been a city girl I cant believe how much I adore looking at the forest and hills, the different seasons and colours, all the insects and animals and the smell of earth and burning wood. I do mosaics, and dig around in the dirt.What is your quote of the day every day?
I’m not a quote type of person. I love to work. I feel that work can be a form of sadhana. Karma yoga. I find it makes me strong so I do the best I can every day.What is the best advice you have ever been given?
Accept no limitations.What is your single piece of advice to the next generation of women?
Accept no limitationsWho is your ‘Wow Woman’?
My Assistant Anysa. She is powerful, smart, beautiful, funny, and tackles projects with me with energy, enthusiasm and skill. She also teaches yoga, is a great yogi, can drink shots, is bi-lingual and loves to laugh. What's not to love!If you could only live in one item of Asquith clothing what would it be and why?
I actually have been living in one! - For ten years my favourite yoga top is your bamboo, black Long Sleeve Tee. I literally can't live without it. When it's in the wash I'm just waiting for it to dry. Its been washed hundreds of times and is still very black. I love plain simple classical clothes.
Fierce Grace launched in 2013, a daring new yoga style consisting 12 interconnected classes to bring balance to body and mind. The method is based on Michele’s 25 years experience in yoga, martial arts, spirituality, meditation, dance and gymnastics. Fierce Grace brings a wealth of physical disciplines together within a classical yoga framework. It is a mix of ashtanga, hatha, Iyengar, Bikram and Power yoga, is sequenced with the latest cutting edge fitness wisdom, physiotherapy, core, upper body strengthening, HIIT timing and covers over 250 yoga poses in a unified system of classes that each have a different energy. FG is now in UK, Ireland, USA, Brazil, New Zealand, Scotland, the David Lloyd centres, and in approx 25 other locations