Fierce Grace

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Michele Pernetta brought hot yoga to the UK in 1994, before launching Fierce Grace in 2013. It remains hugely popular. She reveals how to be approachable and inclusive when establishing your company culture, and her unique method to teaching.

Internal-FierceGrace-2What led to you deciding to set up Fierce Grace and where did the name come from?

For many years I had wanted to bring the best of everything I had learned and loved together in a way that would appeal to all levels and body types, and provide a system of different classes not just for the body, but for self-improvement too. I wanted to create something that was free of the limitations of some of the more rigid yoga styles, a system of classes that allowed people to choose a softer class one day and a fiery class the next, while maintaining continuity between these linked classes.

I was privileged to have been able to teach a quarter of a million bodies, and it was from the observation and feedback I received in those busy classes for nearly 20 years that I created the Fierce Grace system. The Fierce Grace system includes more than 150 poses, which move the body in the widest range of motion, getting at joints and ligaments, muscles and fibres from as many angles, and in as many different ways, as possible.

The way we move can affect the way we think and feel, so we need to have different classes to explore our different sides, sometimes soft and inward, other-times fast and outward, circular, linear. The body and mind are so complex that they need many forms of expression in order to be whole and integrated. It is foolish to sentence the body to one movement pattern. Soon enough we find our minds rigid and our expression limited. Think of the boxer who only practices punching and defending and finds it hard to be sensitive to himself – perhaps a deep, slow inward-turning stretch class once a week would have allowed this side of himself to develop? The name Fierce Grace personifies our philosophy – that male and female forces need to be balanced in us in order to be healthy; strength and flexibility, outwardness with inwardness, passion with sensitivity. It’s my version of Yin and Yang. It’s also a spiritual term, where the divine makes itself known to us with a gift, but with that gift of Grace comes the Fierce demand for practice and responsibility.

The name Fierce Grace personifies our philosophy – that male and female forces need to be balanced in us in order to be healthy; strength and flexibility, outwardness with inwardness, passion with sensitivity. It’s my version of Yin and Yang.

I also wanted a name without the word ‘yoga’ in its title. This is yoga, but it’s more. It is a system of classes with different energetic ‘moods’, to allow us to start working on the inside, on our mind and emotions, not just the body. If you are weak, timid and shy, then explore a class that requires you to be fiery. If you are angry and insensitive, take some time out in a slower class as well as doing the fiery hard-core classes you love. I believe we are evolving – people are interested in more than great abs and burning calories. They have seen how yoga and movement can address us on a much deeper level and I aimed to bring this possibility for emotional wellness to people via these integrated classes.

What have the biggest challenges been in launching and running your own company?

I think any business owner would say the same thing – you have to be prepared to work seven days a week for years on end, and sacrifice family, friends and leisure time.

I think any business owner would say the same thing – you have to be prepared to work seven days a week for years on end, and sacrifice family, friends and leisure time.

If you love hard work and have great stamina, which I do, it’s still incredibly difficult. The worry and the sleepless nights seem endless. I also challenge you to find any business owner who hasn’t been utterly betrayed by those closest to them – it seems part of the course and adds to the stress. However, the passion for what you are doing is the line that pulls you through, gets you up from the floor and drives you forward.

For me, it’s a challenge to get all my work done when running four businesses, plus retreats and teacher trainings, as well as teaching in the evenings, and somehow keep my yoga practice going continuously as well (you can’t get stiff and unfit in my business!) – but if I hadn’t been able to go in the studio and practice and let the stress go, I don’t know how I would have kept going!Internal-FierceGrace1

I think it helps to be a little reckless in business. Launching Fierce Grace was the most difficult thing I have ever done. I had to take all four yoga studios, with their high overheads and with their student memberships, and after years of preparation and work, switch them all on the same day to a new yoga system, new branding, new website, new Facebook, Twitter and go “Hi thousands of students, you liked this, but now I’m giving you Fierce Grace instead.” I was prepared for bankruptcy and ridicule. However, the support my team gave me, all the teachers showed me, and the students – who trusted us enough to try the new classes – will forever fill me with gratitude.

How did you find your niche within the fitness market?

I knew that the yoga market was missing something. No one had designed a user-friendly system that worked for all body types; and when I say ‘all’, I mean broken, older, overweight, shy, as well as athletes and the super fit. There are plenty of great classes of all types out there, but people either get bored of doing one class over and over, or running around mixing and matching classes – an ashtanga class here, a circuit training class there, which doesn’t give the body continuity and safety from injury.

I knew that the yoga market was missing something. No one had designed a user-friendly system that worked for all body types; and when I say ‘all’, I mean broken, older, overweight, shy, as well as athletes and the super fit.

What I have done is new. This system of six classes has a set of core poses running through each class like a skeleton, but with entirely different moods and ways of moving in each class. This works not only the entire body in a variety of ways, but the mind and emotions too, giving avenues of expression that keep us whole.

People today have neck, hip, wrist and shoulder issues from being on computers and phones, and lower back issues from sitting at desks – these are different problems perhaps to the physical issues of a few hundred years ago. I wanted to create a system that put these things right; that coped with our city stress levels, and that had great current music to help us relax our minds and wake up our emotions. 

We have a class designed for complete beginners, a class for injured students, two general level classes – as well as advanced and the super fit – a soft relaxing class, and a high energy cardio class, all within an intricately worked out system that continues to work the spine, hips, shoulders and legs in the same way in every class to build a solid and secure physical foundation. It was 25 years in the making. No one else has done this. It is a brand new and evolutionary offering.

Additionally, I believe in a cold country such as the UK, heated yoga is always a good idea to keep muscles safe and the body detoxified. However, hot yoga can be just too sweltering for the newcomer or older person not wanting anything too intense, so we have reduced the heat a bit and also offer warm classes, which are just a pleasant temperature.                                     

internal-fiercegrace3What strategies do you use to raise awareness of your business and publicise it to the wider market?

I wanted to widen the reach of yoga. I want to dispel the idea that yoga is for ‘bendy girls’. That is why the word ‘yoga’ is not in our name. At a basic level yoga is a science for moving the body through its full natural range of motion in order to not lose this range as we age. The meditational aspects come later.

So how to communicate this? I was still meeting people who felt they were too old, unfit or stiff to try yoga. Yet I have always felt this to be my mission – to make these normal people feel comfortable and let them know that this is exactly what yoga is for.

I recall going to a yoga studio some years back. My friend and I were giggling as we entered and as soon as we crossed the threshold, we were given stern looks to say “this is now a place of suppression, so stop your happiness right now and pretend to be serene and contemplative.” I vowed I would never make anyone feel that way in my studios. Suppression is not a useful tool in self-understanding. Happiness should be magnified. I’d like people to walk into my studios and take a big exhale of relief that they are somewhere that they can really be their relaxed self.

So from our imagery to our interiors, we ‘normalise’ yoga and make it accessible. I have always found the images used to promote yoga in the press very offensive! The tall, blonde, skinny girl in Lotus position in white organic cotton is so off-putting; and I am a tall, blonde, skinny girl! So I can’t imagine how put-off a big bloke with a beer belly must feel. Our brand images aim to reflect humanity, imperfection and humour. 

We use images of poses done imperfectly, of people with different body types, tough men, old ladies. I do not believe the aspirational photos of people bending themselves into pretzels make people feel welcome. Our interiors are like coming home; they are welcoming. Having Buddha’s, white studios, zen silence and lots of skinny vegans around doesn’t help people feel that yoga is the most normal thing in the world and for everyone.

Our brand images aim to reflect humanity, imperfection and humour.

Who said you need to have a poker up your ass to practice yoga? Laughter is a sign of ego-transcendence – of letting go – so I feel it is an important part of life and should be brought into the yoga studio more often. It relaxes people. We use humour in our images, slogans, and often crack a joke when we teach.

We do music events, Yoga Raves, injury workshops. We post pictures on social media of teachers falling out of poses, and interact with our clients in a fresh vibrant way. This ethos is not a strategy; it’s who we are and what we believe.

You switched from working as a fashion designer for 17 years to running yoga studios. What advice would you give to someone looking to make a major change to pursue a career in health, wellbeing and/or fitness?

Be what you teach. Don’t do it from the outside in, do it from the inside out. It’s important to have what you do be a part of who you are, so you can teach from your own truth and internal-fiercegrace4experience. I am foremost a yoga practitioner, then a teacher, then a business owner. If you are embarking on a new career, talk to people who have done what you intend to do; help and advice cannot be underestimated.

In short, get so into what you are doing, be it fitness, diet, health, or yoga – read everything there is, go to every course, try every system, research, discuss, experiment and pass on your own personal experience to others – not something you read or were told, but what works for you, what inspires you, what helped you.

Share your mistakes, your humanity and your failures; don’t pretend to be perfect, and don’t be fake. Be honest about your journey, as people respond to truth. Helping others is an enormous privilege, and the more honest you are, the more people can relate to you and the more they can be inspired to make their own life changes.

http://www.fiercegrace.com

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