Interview with Michele Pernetta, founder of Fierce Grace Hot Power Yoga

In 1999, Michele Pernetta opened the first Bikram Hot Yoga studio in the UK. Read why, 18 years later, she’s launched Fierce Grace, an interconnected yoga system of six classes that work together for ultimate health, fitness and mobility.

What inspired you to bring Bikram to the UK?

In the 90s I was living in Los Angeles, working as a successful fashion and costume designer for couture, menswear, film and television. I was suffering with a knee injury which I had sustained when training for my martial arts black belt. I was told Bikram Yoga was great for bad knees. Under Bikram’s direct instruction for 4 years, he helped heal my injured knees and thus prevented knee surgery.

Upon moving back to the UK in ‘94, I found that there was no Hot Yoga nor any yoga I found I liked as much – so I began practising on my own at home, where gradually friends came and I began to teach Bikram Yoga from my living room. When it was too crowded I moved to a rented premise for one, then two, then three nights a week after work, dragging portable heaters around in my car.

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The classes proved so popular that I went onto opening my first Bikram studio in the UK, Bikram North in 1999.

You rapidly built a successful reputation. How did you achieve this?

Partially I think because I was really motivated to let people know their injury might not need surgery and that the body could heal. Also perhaps because I ensured none of the outdated cliquey-ness or more superficial uses of Indian philosophy carried through into the way I taught… It’s off-putting. And through sheer dedication! Other people’s health has been my main interest since I was a child. I have personally taught over 200 teachers and been very mindful to ensure that the culture of what Fierce Grace stands for is always front of mind.

I think it’s also because with Fierce Grace (FG) we bring an element of humour to yoga, it’s a great relaxer, and helps us to become more aware of our bodies. I am not a fan of the holier-than-thou attitude that can sometimes get associated with yoga; it makes people tense. I don’t want people to feel intimidated at my studios in any way so we bring these elements together to create a system that works for everyone, balances everyone, and is taught in a way that is motivating and compassionate; in studios that make you feel warm and relaxed, not uptight and out of place.

Also Fierce Grace is accessible, I have put together a range of classes to fully meet the needs of the students that come to my studio and those that thought we could not serve them. My hope is that Fierce Grace is accessible to everyone and will support you at every stage of your life. Athletic, injured, tired, pregnant, over 80 or under 10!

What do you think was the most powerful way to spread the word about something new?

Through word of mouth, we have grown organically, our growth is through the fact that we are doing something completely new in the yoga industry. I have created an evolutionary practise which is a 6 class integrated system; whereby doing all 6 classes transforms you in ways you could never imagine. This is the first new yoga system in decades.

My vision is that in 30 years from now the student-practising Fierce Grace will be a newer breed of elder individuals. Gone will be the Zimmer frames, walking sticks, aches and pains. Yoga Grandad will be leading the fitness revolution. Yoga is not just for the young and fit, it’s to makes us young and fit no matter what our ages are.

Why did you decide to move away from Bikram Yoga?

Through my practise and teaching for nearly 2 decades I found the Bikram system of 26 poses was very limited. For many years, I had wanted to bring the best of everything I had learned and loved about yoga, of all the styles I had studied, together in a way that would help appeal to all levels and body types, and provide a system of different classes not just for body; but for self-development and balancing of mind and emotions as well.

I wanted to create something that was free of the limitations of some of the more rigid yoga styles that adhered to traditional yoga principles; but which embraced freedom, change and expression.

What is the Fierce Grace system?

Fierce Grace is an interconnected yoga system of 6 classes that move the body in every way possible and work together for ultimate health, fitness and mobility. It offers over 170 poses, connected by a set of template postures that recur through each class – this brings continuity, while the variety of poses and ways of moving in each of the classes ensure that we do not repeat patterns too often and confuse the muscles to keep them strong, firing correctly and alive. This method undoes habitual postural patterns.

There are also 6 supporting classes that ensure whatever time of life we are in, we do not need to stop our yoga practise. These include: a pregnancy class, a kids class, an injury class and an unheated/warm class. The moods of the classes take us from fiery and powerful, to soft and slow and have the capacity to balance us emotionally as well as mentally so that we can balance every aspect of ourselves. Everything we need is in one integrated system. Running all over the place to mix and match classes to get what we want is a thing of the past.

One can mix and match classes to suit ones goals, needs or schedule while always maintaining safety and progression.

Where is it taught now?

We launched in 2013 and now FG is offered in 23 locations both in the UK and Ireland and international countries such as the USA, Brazil, Italy, Australia, Sweden, Spain, Lebanon and France. As well as our 6 London-based studios, we have trained over 250 teachers. We’re also taught in selected David Lloyd leisure centres across the UK, and run internationally-recognised annual retreats in India, Tuscany, Spain, Costa Rica, and other locations.

What lessons did you learn from introducing Bikram in the past that are helping you now?

I learned a lot about how to launch something new. No one had heard of Bikram when I began teaching it here. I had to figure out how to communicate the things I was passionate about effectively; both through promotional materials and through the way that I was taught.

I had to persuade the British public, (not easily swayed!) to come into a hot room, and do something difficult that they didn’t like much at first – because if they didn’t they were going to have a painful old age!

I had to learn to persuade them about the heat. That despite what some misinformed journalists had written, one doesn’t over-stretch in a hot room, far more injuries occur in cold rooms etc. that Hot Yoga is a style in itself. However, at the start no one in Europe had heard of it, they thought I was mad. People would walk in the room and run and open all the windows thinking something was wrong.

The heat doesn’t need to be as high as some think, some yoga studios completely overdo it by running temperatures of 110 – 130°F. I don’t believe this to be healthy, it is depleting and enervating and poses some risks.

I’ve learnt that by teaching Hot Yoga properly in a moderately heated room with good oxygenation and humidity, through properly trained instructors is enjoyable, safe, healthy and effective. I also learnt that the 26 poses offered in Bikram are limiting and too predictable – hence through my many years of practise I felt I could offer a better model.

How long did it take you to research and trial Fierce Grace?

20 years!

About 10 years thinking about it, five years gathering and researching, and specifically trialling it with teachers and a group of patient students over a four year period. Once launched, another twoyears of refining, amending, perfecting. It’s a living thing. It speaks back to us.

I have been 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; plus the years of experience in Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Hatha, meditation, traditional fitness, massage, martial arts and Bikram, that I was ready to launch Fierce Grace in 2013.

What has been the biggest hurdle you’ve had to overcome in creating this?

Everyone around me was telling me not to do it. Not to risk changing four busy studios with four expensive leases and staff and bills to pay, to something new. That all my students already paying for the class they knew, would leave.

People told me they were worried I’d go bankrupt, that I’d never create anything as popular as Bikram yoga, and that it would be a disaster. I was worried, to change four expensive studios all at once, to an unknown completely different yoga system, was potentially financial suicide. And I have no buffer, no investors, and no huge corporation behind me. It was my home on the line if I missed even a few loan payments.

But I still believed I could do it. I knew that I should trust what my clients wanted, what their bodies needed, what their emotions cried out for. So I took the biggest risk of my life. The stress nearly killed me but I am so happy to say it has been very well received.

Also any business owner would say the same thing – you have to be prepared to work seven days a week for years on end, sacrifice family, friends and leisure time. The long sleepless nights seem endless, however the passion for what you are doing is what pulls you though, gets you up from the floor and drives you.

It’s a challenge to get all my work done when running four businesses plus retreats, teacher training, and supporting the franchised studios as well as teaching in the evenings and keeping up one’s own yoga practise. If I hadn’t been able to go to the studio and practise to let go of the stress at the end of the day, then I don’t know how I would have got through the last few years!

And your proudest moment so far?

When I told my 50 Bikram teachers I was re-launching the studios in a totally different yoga style, and that they would have to learn the new classes or leave. I was worried they would leave, but all but one came with me.

It was one of the happiest moments of my life and made me so proud to be in this community of wonderful teachers. Also the great press we receive makes me immensely proud. Being named ‘The Number 1 Way to Get Fit’ by the Sunday Times Style Magazine made my year.

You’re clearly very driven, what fuels your ambition?

I return to that vision of where I want the people I teach to be in 30 years. The new breed of yoga elders will be up a mountain in their hiking shoes, teaching their grandchildren headstands or scuba-diving on a beach in Goa.

I feel that if I can help enable young people to do the things that will reduce their pain and suffering in their old age, then all this will have been worthwhile. I love old people, and I hate to see them suffering physical pain that could have been avoided had they of known to do certain exercises. That’s the vision, and that’s what drives me.

Who inspires you?

Mohammad Ali. Ghandi. And humming birds.

How do you achieve balance in your life?

I don’t! I have no idea how people do it who run businesses. I’m open to suggestions! I’ve read those articles where a CEO goes for a 6am run and then to the gym, has their green smoothie, and arrives at their pristine white office in their Prada outfit. I have no idea how that’s possible. I work all the time, and eating and socialising are squeezed into any gaps that appear. I often arrive at work with frizzy yoga hair, no make-up, and having to eat yesterday’s lunch in the car.

Running the retreats gives me time to simply teach, which is what I love doing! And to get some sun; which I firmly believe is a major key to health and fitness, alongside vitamin D and never-using toxic SPF’s. The yoga retreats I run leave me fresh and ready to jump back into business for when I return.

I am also a huge fan of Ayurveda and I follow its wisdom alongside dieting and the use of oils. It’s helped me so much to maintain equilibrium when under stress. My advice to readers is to go online and do a “dosha” quiz to see which of the 3 types you are, and then consider following the dietary recommendations. There is no one diet for everyone. In Ayurveda there are 3 diets – one for each constitutional type.

I sew, I paint and I draw and do mosaics. I love DIY when I get a spare moment. We have a place in Tuscany we escape to. I love dancing. And I like many people. I love a sofa, cats, and a box set.

What piece of advice would you give someone who wanted to spread the word about a new business concept?

Be sure of what your passion is, and work from there. Your business is about what you care about, what moves you, what you feel is important. Not an abstract business idea. You’re going to have to live this idea, so be sure it’s something you love.

You can find out more about Fierce Grace and find your nearest classes on their website.