It was not love at first downward dog but her natural curiosity was piqued and she continued to find out more until the stars aligned to create a chance encounter in Thailand where her life was changed forever. Awa moved to Ibiza in 2001 after many years of visiting the island for summer holidays. She recently created a yoga temple on the grounds of the luxury Hotel Xereca in Puig d’en Valls from which she lives, breathes and loves yoga.
What can you say about that very first yoga class you attended? I was already doing a lot of sport. I liked to climb, go hiking and do cardio. A friend of mine was teaching yoga. She talked to me about it so I went one day. But I wont lie, I didn’t like it at all. I didn’t connect to it. During the class I was looking at all the people, so relaxed and I just wanted to run! I didn’t understand it and I left the class early. But I decided to keep trying. This was around 20 years ago.
What made you persevere? I was thinking, if people are talking about yoga so much there must be something to it. In Africa, it’s still a new thing. Our traditions are very strong. I like to learn about new things so I started reading about yoga and then I was coming to Ibiza on holiday and I went to different classes but I still wasn’t feeling connected to it. It didn’t make me feel like ‘wow, this is for me’. I was happy to do classes, but I was thinking there was something missing. I needed something more. And I never give up. I have to find that thing.
At what point did you find ‘that thing’ that finally connected you to yoga? I was in Thailand travelling alone. I went to Chang Mai to do a massage course. One day I was walking after the massage school and I looked up and there was a yoga room on the other side of the street. I went in and all the people were Thai – there were no foreigners and no one spoke English. When the teacher arrived, she said would be very difficult for her to teach in English. And I said, ‘that’s ok, don’t teach me in English’. Yoga has no language. I stayed in the class. I was able to look at her to correct myself. When she noticed me having difficulties, she would come to me. We finished the class she asked if I would come back. She was the first teacher who made me understand what yoga was. We didn’t share a language but I was connected. It was a very special moment that day, just being human, no cares about language or colour; the yoga was for everyone.
How did you come to teaching yoga? I wanted to go to India, then I saw that the same teachers there and around the world were coming to teach in London, so I thought ‘why not to do it there?’. For me, it was a wonderful opportunity to speak in English every day, to better in one of my favourite languages. I knew that one day, if I didn’t want to limit sharing my love of yoga, I would have to speak English as I spoke mostly Spanish. I spent a month there, and I am now teaching in both languages. I do not need to translate in Spanish sometimes, as most of my yoga lovers speak English.
What kind of yoga do you teach? At the temple we have different styles, but I really love Vinyasa. I respect all types of yoga but Vinyasa is more creative. There is more flexibility to make your own structure. Here in Ibiza it’s not easy to make people disconnect. I think Vinyasa makes it easier to take them to another dimension and keep them on their mat and present. My opinion is based on different conversations with my students – most of them like Vinyasa because as they say, the sequences are never the same, but they also to try other classes and then make their one choice.
Tell us about the development of your yoga temple? When I discovered yoga, I was doing classes on the beach or in a gym, where in the next room there was a spinning class. I wanted something special. My husband said you always complain about the yoga spaces and I told him my dream. A few days later he came to me with a drawing of the temple. He had drawn my temple! When he brought it to me I started crying and said, ‘That’s my temple! How did you know?’. We went to Bali and started buying things. I bought the first mats, even before we bought the wood. Then we started to build it. It was a dream for nine years and it was finally built two years ago. Now I want to share it with more and more people. We have weekly classes and I also host two retreats a year.
How would you describe your teaching style? My style is based on respect, humility, equality and patience. I like to take my students to that point when one feels strong and free in the asanas. My classes are generally considered strong. We are all strong but we don’t have the same limits and limitations – there’s always someone who seems to be better but at the end you will realise that you are better just the way you are. I am also very good with the final relaxation – it’s not easy to lay down and just let it be.
How would you describe your relationship with your students? One of the reasons I really wanted to follow this dream was because many of my students first met me in the gym and discovered yoga with me there. There is a lot of trust. There is a lot of love in the temple. All the people that come are part of my dream. I want them to feel at home. They are part of my family. I think it has a lot to do with my tradition. Here in Europe the word family means something different than in Africa. When you spend time with people you are family. For me, the relationship is very easy and I hope they feel that way too. There is a strong emotional connection with my students. The temple is a beautiful place but without them, their energy and their smiles it makes no sense for me. They are powerful people. When I am giving a class I forget about myself. When I am on the mat I am only there for my students.
How does your tradition and faith influence your yoga? Being so far away from my family, I have learned to value the little things. My tradition is with me every day. I’ve been in Europe longer than I was in Africa now. But my base comes from Africa and I hope I will never change. I am Muslim and I love yoga. I am living in Europe, my mum is Catholic, and my dad went to Mecca and is Muslim. Yoga for me is one more thing that completes me. I can combine it with all those things. Yoga helps me through Ramadan and Ramadan helps me through yoga. There is a connection between my Muslim traditions and my yoga. In yoga and in the Muslim tradition, they talk a lot about sharing, peace and love, tolerance, humility – this is the kind of Islam my dad taught to me. I think about it a lot. When I pray, it’s the same as yoga. I put all these things I have received in life together.
What is your personal yoga philosophy? It comes from deep inside me. Yoga is a powerful gift for the world. I want everyone to try because it 100-percent changes lives. I wish I could make people understand there is no perfect body for yoga – it’s for everyone. I want yoga to be everywhere in our lives, in schools, in sports. I want it to get everywhere. This is my next dream. One day I also want to create my own place for children in Cameroon – at the moment I support an orphanage. I want them to eat and to pay for their schooling. Without education, there is only violence.
Tell us more about this idea? When I was little in my neighbourhood there was a woman with lots of children and I asked my mother, ‘Why does that woman have so many children?’ She explained to me they had no mother. I was always thinking how can I help? Then when I created the yoga temple I had another idea. We do picnic yoga by donation and all the money goes to an orphanage not far from my village. With just 10€, a child can eat for a week or go to the doctor. I have to tell the kids ‘do not think just because Sister Awa is in Europe that she has a tree growing with money!’ I do yoga and they ask about it. I show them pictures and do it with them and they tell me ‘Oh that’s hard.’ And I tell them ‘Yes it’s hard, but your life here in Africa is hard.’
What do you find most rewarding in your work? When I go to the temple, I still get that little thing inside, excitement, a bit nervous, but in a good way. I still have that before class then in the final relaxation with teatime I look into my student’s eyes – it is the best thing. They say thank you and I tell them, ‘no thank you!’ I thank them. Every day. They are the reason that every day, something special happens in my life. In class, they are my world. I love yoga because I think yoga loves all of us.