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Yoga, Pilates goes upmarket at Tiaki

Wellington's Tiaki is establishing itself as a yoga and Pilates studio with an edge.

We’d only been talking for about five minutes when Nikki Brown-Haustead, founder of Tiaki Yoga and Pilates, whisked me into the changing room and lifted her dress high above her head to reveal a long scar running from her lower belly to her sternum.

Based in Sydney, Brown-Haustead was involved in an accident that required pelvic and abdominal surgery and reconstruction. The accident forced her to incorporate rehabilitation and a focus on building the core to develop the Tiaki method.
   
Tiaki comes to Wellington under the guiding hand of franchisee Rachael Burke, who brings with her 17 years’ experience as a physiotherapist.

“I strongly believe the future of health care is in prevention.  Tiaki Pilates and yoga creates postural integrity which is critical for people’s health and wellbeing in the long term.  Bad posture is the root of many degenerative and long term injuries and ailments. We have modified our yoga poses to be safe on the body and have eliminated some of the traditional poses which we now know aren’t safe.”

Rachael Burke

Rachael Burke

She believes there is a gap in the market for professionals interested in yoga and Pilates who want to practise in a attractive environment without the 'ooms' and chakras of traditional yoga – as some say the "mung beans and hairy armpits" that accompany it.

Add to that the neck and back problems of a population increasingly sitting at a desk and more and more health professionals actively prescribing yoga and Pilates as a preventative medicine, and the opportunity to start Tiaki was ripe for the picking. Burke took it, and her studio has seen a receptive Wellington audience take to its mats like they take to cafes on Cuba Street.

Tiaki aims to provide an environment where people from all walks of life can walk in and feel comfortable. Burke says: “People in the corporate world might not want to walk in to an unfamiliar environment – hence our chandeliers, our instructors wearing makeup, the nice furniture and fresh flowers.” 

Ostensibly everything is looking peachy in business terms for Tiaki. Up and running since January, Tiaki has had its fair share of teething issues; the reformer machines were held up for weeks by the Port of Auckland strikes. This meant Burke had to extend the usage time on some of the 200 GrabOne vouchers that were sold as a way to get the public in the door. However, she's optimistic that the conversion rate from voucher user to member will be high.

But in the yoga world an intense debate is brewing about the integrity of such new strands.

 
Not typically known for her Zen-like spirituality, Jennifer Aniston has become the movement’s latest poster girl. This adds to the furore about the new types of the ancient tradition that are cropping up worldwide. The traditionalists say: “Yoga is not about weight loss.”  “Power yoga reduces what some see as a way of life into a gym class.”

There are an estimated 20 million followers of yoga across America, five times more than 10 years ago. In New York yoga is a very big deal. Women from the Upper East Side have their yoga teacher the way that they have their maids and even those not quite so cashed up attend yoga like it’s going out of fashion (which, of course, it isn’t).

Former model Tara Stiles is the leader of the rebellion against traditional yoga. She rejects the New York yoga scene as exclusive and elitist – it reminds her of the mean girls in high school, only with incense and bare feet. Her online videos like ‘Yoga for a Tight Butt’, have made her a global phenomenon and see her don skimpy clothing and do stretches that would make Madonna blush. Hence the seething anger of the yoga purists is reaching a crescendo. 

But this anger is somewhat short-sighted.  Westernised yoga has never really been able to embrace the true pursuit of absolute self-realisation and where Tiaki is concerned, Wellington is not New York. There are 13 yoga studios in the city and the addition of one more doesn't seem to be drawing yoga enthusiasts away from their usual haunts. Instead, it is bringing in new converts.

Stiles is going for the firefighter who feels intimidated by 'oms' and New Age music, and similarly, Tiaki is trying to attract the public servant from the Beehive, or the lawyer from the Terrace.

In our first conversation, Burke points out that yoga was developed thousands of years ago and since then our understanding of the human body has grown by leaps and bounds.

Yoga originally consisted of Indian men doing extensions of their default position – a squat. The contemporary default position is hunching over a desk. With its focus on the spine, and breathing, Tiaki takes yoga from the streets of Bombay, and plants it firmly in the modern world.

Tiaki weighs in on the health side of yoga not the spiritual, although the instructors do put a lot of emphasis on Shavasana (lying still and focusing on the breath). Burke says traditionally Shavasana is done for 20-30 minutes but the modern day doesn’t accommodate this easily.

“I believe the spiritual side of yoga is as important as the physical – however it’s not for everyone.  Often the spiritual side comes later, for me it is more important to get people involved in the physical.”

While Gaura-arati from Wellington’s Bhakti Lounge agrees yoga is great for the body she contends that what is most important is how it affects the mind. “[What Tiaki are doing is] kind of smart because people are so bodily focused. They’ve looked at the market and targeted it.”

She adds, however: “In this day and age and people’s minds are so easily disturbed, there’s so much depression and anxiety, and it actually says in the yoga teachings that it is practically impossible to reach the goal of yoga through just the physical pursuit.”

According to Burke: “When first devised more than 5000 years ago, yoga was a technique to attain perfect spiritual insight and tranquillity; this is easy to do in an ashram but much more challenging in corporate life.  Nowhere in yoga does it say you should give up job, wealth, or luxuries, it’s about finding calmness despite your surroundings, and about how you behave to those around you.  It’s about finding calm among chaos.  This is how Tiaki focuses on the spiritual."

Yoga has been in the media a lot lately, in part, because of articles in theNew York Times and the Guardian discussing its potential to cause serious injury. Such injuries stem from untrained instructors and not enough focus on incrementally improving flexibility.

Burke’s comprehensive knowledge of the body and Tiaki’s commitment to a strong core are likely to guard the brand against such problems. Furthermore, the instructors at Tiaki emphasise the need not to over-exert in the exercises. "Take the regression” is a phrase heard often. 

In Sydney, where it originated, Tiaki was originally just Pilates; this expertise flows through to the instructors at the Wellington studio. The Pilates classes are intense and you can really feel muscle building.

Former football player Arran Sethi hails from Lancaster in England and cuts a dashing figure in the female-dominated exercise. He trained in Sydney with Tiaki’s founder and is in Wellington to help develop the brand.

In order to ensure class members are doing the correct poses and not putting undue pressure on their spine, neck, hips or knees, all of the instructors constantly re-adjust people’s poses and sometimes add pressure when they think practitioners can handle it.

Class-goer Casey Havercamp says: “It helps me to improve my technique and means that you get the most out of the class. It also makes sure that you don’t injure yourself."

Fellow instructors, husband and wife Mike and Sandra Vanbelle, bring an interesting dynamic to Tiaki. Mike is a former gymnast and a current rugby player and looks like he could prop up the ABs' front row. His physique is not what you'd call characteristic of yoga or Pilates – another way Tiaki is reaching out to people who wouldn't usually be caught dead wearing lycra and doing a 'downward dog'. It’s not just former dancer types, wrapping their legs behind their heads.

For now, Tiaki is establishing itself as a yoga and Pilates studio with an edge. The debate about new yoga for the most part exists in abstraction, as the purists have their own place. With its visually appealing studio and lack of exclusivity, Tiaki is “taking yoga to the people".