Oona Giesen has been organizing yoga retreats for the past 25 years. She has a fascinating backstory with yoga, dating back to the beginnings of Iyengar yoga in Europe.
Recently, her retreats have won the Yoga School of the Year LTG Award for 2018. On this occasion, I thought it’s the perfect time to ask Oona some questions about her yoga journey, and share her answers with the world.
1. How did you start practicing yoga? What determined you to follow this path?
I started practicing yoga when I was 7 years old, over 45 years ago. My mother was one of the first Iyengar yoga teachers in Europe, trained by mr. B.K.S. Iyengar in person. When I was 7 we went on holiday in France, where she took a yoga holiday with Agnes Hillen – Mineur. I joined in, and I loved it immediately.
2. What was the most important yoga moment you experienced? What convinced you to pursue the path further?
In 1998, I had a car accident and broke my spine and had a collapsed lung. When I was in the hospital, trying to breathe on this machine with tubes to my left lung, it was the strongest moment I was aware of doing yoga, trying to stay alive. Yoga saved my life. I learned to listen to my body better, I had no choice. And I am convinced of the healing power of the body itself, and the healing power of yoga to help in that process. I want to pass this over to other people.
3. Did you ever feel a special kind of enlightenment, or is it unrealistic to speak of a single such moment?
I teach very down to earth Hatha yoga. I am an atheist, and the word ‘enlightment’ I find a bit over the top…..and you will not hear me about this in class. But if I were religious I should have become fanatic after my car accident and my near death experiences 20 years ago. It was wonderful and I was feeling light: in body and in mind. Now in my yoga practice I try to find this feeling again, and many times I manage.
4. How did you feel when you won the prize for Yoga School of the Year? Did you see it coming?
No, I did not see it coming. I feel very honored. I thought they (Luxury Travel Guide) were mistaken and explained them that I am just a small 1-person yoga holiday place. But they ensured me that from their 2 million members most people voted for me to be the best yoga retreat for 2018 in Europe.
Based on my internet site, what I offer, my social media use etc, and last but not least because of the years I am doing this. This year I celebrate my 25th year anniversary of organizing yoga retreats. We are used to call it yoga holidays nowadays, but back then it was strange to organize a yoga holiday. Skying maybe yes, but a yoga holiday? Nowadays it is very popular to go on one of these.
5. How does a regular day as a yoga teacher look like for you?
I always try to start my day with about 1 hour of yoga. But the time is depending on my 11 year old child and his schedule; if he has school, football, etc or not. I have a ‘normal life’ as every mother, with, in my opinion, too many hours online, answering mails etc. for my yoga holidays and for the future hotel that we will run from next year.
If I do not do my yoga in the morning I swim the bay in front of our house up and down or do my yoga in the afternoon before dinner. I try to do 1 of the 2, or swimming or yoga every day. I have to stay okay with my body since the accident. Apart from that I am not a saint, I eat and drink everything and try to enjoy my life as much as I can.
6. What is your favorite part of the yoga practice?
The twistings, they always make me feel better. Then the sitting still, meditation and calming down my mind. But mostly I love and need the backward bendings, chest and heart openers I do always, over a wooden Iyengar prop, backbend arch.
7. Do you have a favorite asana? Which is it and why?
The one mentioned at question number 6 and then mostly, above everything, the absolute favorite for me is hanging up-side-down in my hammock: supported headstand. It´s safe, no weight on the neck and creating space for my spine and the nerves. I believe that the most common, normal headstand, without support, all the weight on the head and the neck with most people, is doing more harm then good and it is very easy to have an injury for the neck. Especially nowadays with everybody spending so much time on their phone, the neck and upper body are becoming more and more a difficult area. For me, with my broken spine from my car accident, as long as I can do that a few times a week, hanging upside down, to have the weight/gravity working the other way around, I am fine with my spine and my pain, with the metal inside there. The moment I don’t do it for a week, I feel 20 years older.
8. How do feel about the way yoga is practiced in the West, focusing mostly on the physical movements? Do you think there is a major fissure between authentic yoga and the more commercial yoga found in the West?
My yoga is very authentic, and very down to earth, but also very physical. Although it is about the connection between the mind, the breath and the body; they work together. I am atheist, in real life and in yoga. Authentic for me is not necessarily more to the philosophical side. I find it even dangerous when yoga teachers take the role of a Guru, of somebody who knows things better. And who gives advice about life. I will never tell people how to think, how to look at life, or what not to eat, drink or smoke. I am just a yoga teacher, a good one, with many years of experience, but just a yoga teacher, nothing more, nothing less.
Now that yoga became very commercial I think it has more to do with the new development of teachers with only a few hundred hours ‘teacher training’. This is not doing well to yoga land and creates teachers who have no idea what they are doing, all over the world and on every corner of the street. I don’t believe in YAI – certified. I believe you need a training of at least 2 years with serious practicing on a (almost) daily basis for yourself, to become a yoga teacher.
9. Did you have a main yoga mentor? Can you share more things about him or her? I know that you benefitted from the wisdom of many famous teachers, but I am curious who was the closest to your heart.
Mr B.K.S. Iyengar. He brought yoga to the west in my opinion, in my experience. I grew up with my mother, Jeanne Buntinx, and others like Viktor van Kooten and Margriet Post as being the first yoga teachers in the Netherlands, getting together for trainings in weekends. They took their family and their children with them. I grew up with Iyengar yoga from the age of 7.
Iyengar was very detailed. His detailed approach is very good for people with any physical problems. And most people above 20, have something, somewhere in their body. I use his props always in my classes. They might call this part of my class even ‘restorative ‘yoga nowadays, but for me it is just part of my daily yoga and classes. Although Iyengar was a though man, and everybody knows that he could be hard on his students, his precise and detailed approach is what I like and why I think works. For me at least. you can describe my yoga best as Iyengar yoga but with a soft approach.
10. What is the best yoga advice you ever received?
To focus on what I can, not on what I cannot. (Received from myself.)
11. What yoga advice would you give to beginners?
To focus on what you can, not on what you cannot. And to be patient. It needs time and practice. If you want too much too fast, you might hurt yourself. Be patient and do safe yoga.
12. Do you ever consider what your life might have looked like without yoga in it?
All doctors agree that without yoga I would not be walking and in a wheel chair since 1998, 20 years ago.
13. Did you ever feel the status of a yoga celebrity impacting your teaching and the way students interact with you?
Yoga celebrity? Haha, are you kidding? I am just a human being, as my students are. I learn from them, they learn from me. I am nothing more or less then they are. You will never see me on a stage for example. We are all humans.
14. What is your favorite place for practicing yoga when you are by yourself?
In my own yoga studio/school/shala (whatever word is in fashion now?), with my hammock, arches, pillows etc. Although on the beach is also nice, when I am early and alone, and it is not so warm yet.
15. How about with a group? Which is your favorite spot for teaching a yoga class?
Also in my own yoga studio/school/shala; with my hammock, arches, pillows etc.
Thank you, Oona, for your time and for having the patience of answering these questions. I am honored to have this exchange with you.
Would you like to be able to learn from Oona in person? You can find her at one of her retreats in Paros, Greece.