Ibiza wellness: Susie Howell – Top Ibiza yoga teacher

UK-born yoga instructor Susie Howell began her relationship with her yoga mat at 24, while suffering from well-hidden anxiety attacks as she worked her way up the corporate ladder in the intense world of the advertising industry. She was functioning perfectly from the outside, but inside was merely existing, with a series of broken relationships making her feel further trapped and uninspired. “Yoga allowed me to connect to something so much greater and more powerful,” she explains of her transformation.

Today, she is one half of the powerhouse female duo behind Ibiza Retreats, and finds herself helping many other people through the same experiences and issues she herself originally felt when she felt the need for a change. “Connecting to so many wonderful people and their awe-inspiring journeys has given me the strength and courage to be authentic and present,” she says. “In today’s society, no one’s ‘got time’ so you have to work with what you’ve got. Even if it’s just five minutes a day, getting on the mat is so important. You have to work with what you’ve got.”

When did you first discover yoga?
I was a real gym bunny in my early 20s and I first tried a typical power yoga class in my gym. It was something I got into for exercise and I originally saw it as another way to keep healthy in my body and stay slim. Then I started going to Jivamukti classes – it was the high intensity and the music of that style that attracted me.

Did you feel an instant connection to the practice?
It was more like, the more I got into yoga, the less I thought about it as an exercise. I’d been suffering anxiety on the side with a really stressful job and yoga became a real medicine for me. Then the more I got into the meditation and the spiritual side of it, it really helped me. I wasn’t really a spiritual person, I was more like a girl on the edge…

What kind of benefits you were seeing?
Yoga helped me to get my head together and it became something I spent more and more time doing. Rather than being at work all the time, and focusing on my job, I started spending more time in the studio, looking at how I felt, doing more classes and meeting amazing people. My weekends became more about yoga – I had been a big party girl and yoga gave me the pathway to make a huge transition. It was amazing for me.

At what point did you make the decision to become a teacher?
I didn’t ever have the conscious intention to become a teacher. After about three years of practice, I decided to do a teacher training course as I thought it was a healthy choice. I wanted to deepen my practice and learn a little bit more about the philosophy, meditation, the depths of the asanas and I loved it.

Tell us about your training?
I did a course called Teach Yoga which was more transitory than some of the intensives you see now – it allowed me to do it gradually, every other weekend over the course of a year and a half. It wasn’t something I could just jump into. It was with a lovely Italian lady who was an ex-GP, so for me it was a good in-road into yoga as it appealed to my logical side.

How did you make the transition from student to teacher?
I started teaching at work, on a Friday night or lunchtime, just to get some practice. I had a few clients I would teach on the side and then I went on a couple of retreats. The more I’d go down the yoga path, I’d go back to work and sit and my desk thinking ‘what am I doing here’? I’d been really passionate about my job previously, but I’d be working on dog food, mayonnaise or vodka advertising and I just couldn’t find my place anymore. So, I went on a last-minute retreat holiday (to mend a bruised broken heart) to Ibiza in 2010, which was the decision point for me. Six months later I arrived on the island with my little backpack, ready to make my way.

What was it about that experience in particular that moved you?
I’d only ever been in Ibiza to go clubbing before and there was something about this retreat that was just so beautiful and charming. It was high up in the mountains in Santa Agnes, with absolutely nothing else around. I stayed for two weeks and as soon as I got home, I knew I didn’t want to go back to my old life. The experience allowed me to say, I’m done with that.

How did you make the connection with Ibiza Retreats?
Yoga connections are amazing! A friend who I’d met on my teacher training course was mutual friends with Larah [Davis, co-founder] and told me I should meet her. In my second week on the island, we met in La Paloma – she was looking for a business partner, I was fresh from the UK with a lot of experience and enthusiasm. The rest, as they say, is history.

Who has been one of the most influential person in your yoga journey?
There was a teacher called Vanda Scaravelli, who passed away over ten years ago. She trained with Iyengar, and what I love about her is that afterwards she said: “Thank you for all the lessons and all the things you’ve taught me, but I am a woman, not a young Indian man and my body doesn’t really work that way, so I am going to take what I have learned and look at what else influences me.” Her book is called Awakening the Spine and I first picked it up early on in my journey and thought, oh whatever. Now I read it, after going through my own transformation, and it makes so much sense. There is no prescribed approach, she takes a lot of cues from nature, the sea, the organic style of breathing… she fascinates me.

Tell us about the style of classes you teach?
I’ve been through all different variations and colours of the rainbow, but it’s still Vinyasa based – I like to have that movement and breath connection. When you first start teaching, you’re quite focused on ‘that’s what a warrior looks like’ or ‘that’s what a triangle looks like’ but over time it has become much more organic for me. I encourage my students to follow their own internal compass, so we improvise parts of the class and it’s more of a somatic experience, for them to close their eyes and go inside, rather than me dictating this, this and this. I think it’s empowering them to go inside and find their own practice –  every single body has got a different story.

How do you describe your relationship with your students?
I really love doing one to one classes. I feel my strength lies with the individual and I like getting to know people and watch their bodies change holistically – the spiritual body, the emotional body and the physical body. A lot of the clients I have now have been with me for six or seven years and we’ve grown together. It’s a personal and private relationship and I love that.

How do you describe your personal teaching methods?
We have fun. I’m not too serious about it all, though of course I can be when there’s a need to be, but we can have a giggle as we explore things. I’m not just sitting there and directing, there’s a lot of hands-on. We take it step by step and it’s really about understanding what each client wants and feeling them. You need to learn to read people – it’s like a language. Sometimes you meet a client and they’ll tell you what they want to do and you can see their nervous system buzzing… as you go through the practice with them, what they need becomes clear and afterwards they feel so good because they’ve listened, rather than doing what they think they needed. That, for me, is key. We’re not our thoughts, we’re not our minds – we need to come inside and feel.

What is your own yoga philosophy?
It’s about connecting to yourself. The word spiritual gets bandied around so much, and there is so much craziness in this world right now, that I think yoga is a practice that anchors you when everything around you is chaos. If you can develop a practice – whether that might be sitting on your mat meditating or a strong Vinyasa – that’s what will ground you, the connection to yourself.

What is your own personal practice like?
Day to day it changes, so it reflects how I am feeling. Some days I get on the mat and I’m a warrior woman and I can do a really strong practice and other days, I’ll do a really long savasana and just some gentle moves around. I think as long as you get to your mat, it doesn’t matter how you formulate your practice. It’s about how you feel that day and it’s so important that you can honour yourself, by listening and tuning into that. That’s when you start to see and feel big changes.

Do you ever practice under the guidance of other teachers?
I do. I go to other classes at least twice a week because it’s so nice to be taught and to be in that collective energy of being and breathing. Sometimes, when it’s really busy in Ibiza and running the business is taking up a lot of time, it’s nice to go into a studio and shut the doors, just know that for the next hour and a half, you’ve got time with yourself.

Tell us about one of your most profound yoga experiences?
The first time I went to India, I had an amazing experience. I didn’t do mainstream India, I went straight out to the depths of Karnataka and stayed with an Indian family. I was so out of my comfort zone and my anxiety was completely triggered. I worked with a teacher in this village for two weeks and when I first arrived I just wanted to get out of there! He said: “Well you can just get back on those four buses you came on for the last day and go back.” So I stayed, and it was really profound and beautiful. We went out to a field to meditate at sunset once and I remember I really got into it and as I opened my eyes there were about 30 cows there just staring at us… we’d conjured this whole herd around us, and you know how sacred cows are in India!

How do you feel about the yoga industry becoming commercialised?
It’s great that yoga has become something that is accessible to everyone – there are so many great benefits to it. That the positive side of it. A lot of young people are practicing these days which is great and you just have to keep spreading the integrity.

What do you find most rewarding about teaching?
When you can really help people to connect with themselves. I love getting to know people and see positive changes in their lives. We get so many testimonials from people after they’ve been on retreat and made huge life changes and it’s an honour to be part of that. All we’re doing is showing them the tools and techniques and it gives them this platform to leave jobs they’re unhappy in, make huge changes in relationships, to clear enough emotional space aside to have a baby. If you go in with your open heart and such passion like we do, that’s what people will feel, love and acceptance.

What do you find most challenging?
When you meet people who just want to do an exercise class and you just think, there’s so much more I wish you could see. It can be frustrating because I only get one hour with them but I wish I could spend more time to show them how beautiful the practice can be.

Have you got a yoga ‘wow’ moment?
I have a lot of times when I want to pinch myself – the wow moments are not few and far between. When I finish teaching a class or doing a class, I always get that moment of elation, the endorphins, the feeling of connection and that huge gratitude for the practice.

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