I started doing yoga back in 2010, when I was made redundant while I was living in Spain. I looked at the classes my local gym offered and thought, why not? I spent two months going to the gym every morning to a yoga class full of very old, but very flexible grannies! I felt completely transformed. Since then I have always tried to keep up a regular yoga practice, with some gaps because of physical injuries, but now I am trying to get back into it.
The first time I met Meriç Ekren was in on the first day of an EFL course where we were both teachers. A few of the new teachers were standing in the staff room, making small talk when she walked in with a huge smile on her face. I was at once fascinated and confused as to what such a radiant and interesting creature was doing there. During the first day between level testing and herding new students around, we started talking and I discovered she was a yoga teacher. During the very hot summer of 2013 she shared her practice with me and we became firm friends.
She is one of the best yoga teachers I have encountered, and who better to share how she came to live yoga not just as an occupation but a lifestyle.
She was born in Turkey to a family of teachers and has one older brother. She describes her upbringing. “I grew up as a wild and creative child with complete freedom. My family encouraged me to be social and express myself through acting, dancing and writing.”
Aged thirteen she experienced something which would mark her understanding of life and death. She said, “I was on the way to school when I witnessed a little puppy get hit by a car. The front tyre of the car went over the puppy. I remember crying all day and being sent home from school. On that day I realised how quickly life can become death and how quick things change. Death was in front of me and I had all these questions: Who am I? Where am I coming from? Where am I going? What is this for? This really impacted me and initiated my inquiry of what life is.”
Ekren believes that these questions are the same important questions that we ask ourselves in yoga by meditating. “This is the whole purpose of yoga, to understand, who am I? And where am I going.”
Since she was a girl Ekren tried to answer those questions with the dream of travelling to new places, meeting new cultures and experience new ways of living. After completing a degree in Business Management, she moved to London at the age of twenty. She reflects, “London seemed perfect for that.” However, after a visit to India and ten years of London life, she felt the need to move on. “Over the years, I realised all my dreams there; having a career, an independent life, travelling extensively… yet, it came to a stagnation.”
Ekren returned from India, she left her corporate career in the City, sold most of her stuff and moved to Sri Lanka to volunteer as an English teacher.
“My first reason to leave London was that it’s not all about the rat race of London living. It becomes so meaningless after being in India. In a yoga context everybody says that! I read a lot of interviews like this, and I wanted to say something different,” she says laughing, “but when you go to India it changes your life, but it really does…”
When she arrived in Sri Lanka she says she felt very lost, “I had no security, no home, I felt I was lost in the middle of the world. What is left behind becomes a bit of a burden. I felt like, well, I have given up everything. A secure job, not having that sort of money. Suddenly your bag is your home.” Ekren admits it’s not for everybody, and that the shift is seismic, “I felt useless. I thought, I’m nobody. I’m not a Customer Relations Manager at City and Guilds anymore, I don’t earn however much, I don’t have a flat in Marylebone. I chose this, but if I stop for a second and think about what I left behind… you think, is it going to be worth it? I was a manager last week, and this week I’m a volunteer teacher.”
Ekren had gone to one yoga class in London, although she wasn’t impressed by the experience “The first time I did yoga, I felt nothing. I did sun salutations, and I felt nothing.” However, this changed in Sri Lanka. The accommodation she was offered was within a beautiful yoga retreat. As days passed, she started attending classes before and after work, adding up to four hours of practice a day in humid conditions of Asia. Her experience was not easy though, “I had zero flexibility and remember sweating so much, experiencing so much pain, but what I felt when I finished, and I lay down (shavasana) no love story, no intimacy has ever given me that.”
During her travels in India she met a Norwegian and she moved to Norway where she still lives with him. “Winters in Norway are harsh and dark. Looking back, I will forever be grateful for the first winter as it pushed me to find ways to adjust. I had lots of time in reflection, seeking to move myself higher up and purify my body. I started doing the asanas (postures) without knowing much about them. I had no teacher and had to find the information myself. Uniting breath and movement helped me connect to myself and I started feeling. It wasn’t easy but I was drawn to it anyhow.”
She eventually trained and qualified as a yoga teacher at the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centre in London and she now teaches full-time in Hamar, Norway. Her daily life is simple. “I rise early. It is such special, pure time of the day. The first thing I do when I wake up is to shower and practice. This gives me a centre for my day and creates joy. Then I go teach. After teaching classes, I take some time off to wind down, mostly by staying out in Nature. We are lucky in Norway to have such an opportunity.”
Her daily practice has changed her in more ways than one. “I reclaimed my health via the physical practice of yoga, as well as the power to express myself. I realised most of my actions in the past have came from a lack of deep listening of myself and others. Being able to differentiate what is important and not, what is real and not is the highest teaching in yoga. So I am working on this all the time!”
Ekren explains that by tradition, yoga is defined as the stilling of the mind waves or mind patterns. So by practising we learn to watch, we allow silence and create space in the never-ending voice of the mind. “Yoga postures are no coincidence. Your body’s energetic pattern is being shaped and shifted. Our conditioning in Western society makes us more thinkers, but during yoga the observer mind takes over from the thinking mind.”
Although she teaches yoga she insists that she is first and foremost a practitioner. “I take on the role of teacher for an hour, and I share what I practice, and that makes me a teacher. I live it, and I breathe it. I must BE it, in order to teach it. I can’t fake it. I can’t go into an office and pretend to be happy and put my head down at a computer. I show everything.” She believes a good teacher has to come from a genuine place of intention and really live yoga to be able to transmit that to students. “Since I started a committed daily practice with the intention of facing myself on the mat, whatever comes up instead of just doing a sequence, things change. If you keep a genuine open heart, you might get your ass whipped by the postures, but you keep going and this is a lifetime practice.”
In the yoga community there is a fierce debate about the monetisation of yoga, and whether teachers should charge. Ekren defends this saying “Although yoga is 5000 years old, we live in 2016. Times change, yoga changes. She tells of people she has encountered who are so deep into the spiritual that they are not living their earthly responsibilities. “I don’t have the option of living in a cave. Yoga, like everything else, has to adapt to modern day conditions, and in order for me to give my best, I must feed myself. Yoga asks us to take responsibility of our lives while we are here, before we fly up there, and I must look after myself. Commercialising yoga is the last thing I want.”
Although there are many different types of yoga, Ekren practices the traditional Ashtanga yoga, a strict and steady discipline. She explains “I need such an approach for my body and mind to be calm & strong. It works for me unlike any other.” For those who are just beginning she introduces Hatha yoga and Vinyasa Flow yoga to begin with and builds up. “Hatha yoga is great in learning to breathe correctly, it involves a set sequence of gentle postures, chanting and meditation, so it is a beautiful way to understand the wider aspects of yoga. Vinyasa Flow yoga is more dynamic where the breath and movement are linked and there is no set sequence, just flow, like a moving meditation. It requires a bit more strength and flexibility.”
For those who have yet to try yoga Ekren advises them to attend a class, and start with a teacher who has a good reputation and who doesn’t interpret yoga to fit their standards. She tells students not to judge their body “Do not have too many expectations of yourself, just get on that mat and see not what you can do, but what stops you from doing what you can do.”
Yoga helps us express the internal aspects of ourselves to the world. Ekren says “I feel if everybody showed such conscious approach to body and mind, the world would be a better place.”
She recommends two yoga schools in London:
Indaba Yoga http://indabayoga.com/
And Tri Yoga http://www.triyoga.co.uk/