Niraj Shah, Founder, The Present of Yoga

13 July 2017

Yoga is seen by some people as a way to relax in the hectic-ness of our modern day, some see it as a form of exercise, and some see this wonderful practice as a way to listen to your body and give it what it needs. My latest interview is with a man who used yoga to repair himself after a life changing moment, this lead him to start a non-profit organisation which helps yogi’s around the world to take charge of their career in yoga.

I’m a bit of a fan of J Brown’s Yoga Talks and in one he make a great point that when practicing yoga many of us dream of opening our own studio and teaching yoga, but having had a studio for over 10 years he stresses that it’s not as relaxing as you may think and making an income from your passion is tough, really tough!! Therefore, in my opinion platforms such as Niraj’s ‘The Present of Yoga’, is essential to help guide and advise yoga professionals along their journey to make an income from yoga.

I caught up with Niraj on a cloudy day in London to find out how he began his journey and more about the man that started this wonderful non profit organisation.

Firstly how did you get into yoga and why?

Physical yoga postures - asana - were a small part of my childhood. As I grew into adolescence that stopped and I forgot all about yoga. Then in 2010 at the age of 30 I suffered a sudden and serious stroke. Two weeks later I was discharged from hospital with the strict instruction that until I was fully recovered the only physical activity I was permitted to do was yoga.

I was determined to do everything I could to make a full recovery so I joined a short yoga foundation course. From the first session I immediately started enjoying the way my body and mind felt during and after.

At the time I had no desire to be in studios or public classes any more than necessary because I was in a very dark place mentally so after the course was over, with the help of a book given to me by my yoga teacher mother-in-law and YouTube, I would practice by myself at home 2-3 times a week. My full physical recovery took about 6 months but the yoga habit continued.

In 2012 when I started my first business yoga became a daily ritual at home, often just 15-20 minutes of basic asana practice last thing at night to calm my hyper-busy mind down so that I could sleep. The physical benefits have been very welcome by-products but it’s principally the huge mental benefits that have made yoga stick.

Starting a business is so consuming and my life was very full so although I could see yoga exploding in London it never occurred to me to go to a class because I was getting everything I wanted from my basic self-practice. It was a 6 year gap between finishing the initial foundation course in 2010 to when I set foot in a yoga studio again in 2016.

You founded 'The Present of Yoga', for anyone who hasn't heard of this what is your mission?

The Present of Yoga is a free non-profit website designed to help yoga leaders such as teachers, studio owners, retreat organisers, yoga product makers and so on - anyone who is trying to make a part of their income from yoga. It’s mission is to open up the business ideas, skills and knowledge that are working in the real world and the way we do this is to interview yogis from around the globe to share what’s working for them and what they’ve learned. With a growing audience TPOY has become a promotional platform for the yogis that we feature.

It’s aimed at the yoga community but the principles that our interviewees share transcend yoga. A nice surprise has been feedback from non-yogis such as pilates instructors and wellness business owners telling us how useful they’re finding it.

I decided to build TPOY in June 2016 and my co-founders and I launched it in September 2016. That decision meant I had to stop being a yoga hermit so I started going to studios and meeting yogis!

Describe your typical day?

I don’t have a typical day right now because I’m somewhat “between businesses”. The property venture that I started in 2012 is my main source of income. In the last couple of years I’ve changed the way it works so that I’m less involved and can work mostly from my phone and laptop, which I did to create space to build a new business. That probably sounds more idyllic than it actually is; I still spend a decent amount of time on property but it’s a more part time and flexible commitment now, and of course with less time spent on new deals my income from property has gone down.

At the moment I wake up between 6-7am and the first couple of hours are for some physical movement, meditation and breakfast. I’ll start with either yoga at home, something more HIIT or strength focused, or an early morning gym class with friends. I meditate for around 20 minutes as soon as is practical after training.

The bulk of my day is spent working on ongoing property things, TPOY and my new venture. My typical working day will run until 8pm, often later. Once or twice a week I break this up with a daytime yoga class and some days I’ll have work meetings which feels like a break because it gets me out of the flat!

I try to sleep by 10.30pm but this ends up being anything from 10pm to midnight. Most nights I do some asana practice last thing before sleeping, particularly if I haven’t had a decent stretching session that day.

During the traditional working week I don’t do much outside of training and working on my ventures. The notion of “balance” is popular and has it’s place but it’s something I have no personal interest in, I want to do only a few things and do them to extremes. I’m happy this way and my life is organised to support this. I rarely socialise outside of weekends and for the last several years my wife Khushi has worked in Switzerland so she is away Monday to Thursday most weeks. She’s a hard worker herself so she’s happy for me to work as much as I want to. We travel quite regularly and this inevitably ends up being a combination of enjoying where we are plus some time for work.

In winter we broadly operate the same way but in recent years we’ve had the flexibility to take off with phones and laptops to chase snow as much as possible, weaving work commitments into our travel. Snowboarding is my yoga of choice and Khushi is a good skier. Somehow we’re still friends!

What's been the best moment since starting your yoga journey?

Gosh there’s been so many! A lot of the best moments have been internal experiences. I’ll never forget how I felt after my first yoga practice post stroke. I can’t remember who led that practice but I remember very deeply feeling and internalising their words “yoga is a gift that you give yourself”.

Another memorable highlight was starting a late night yoga session very reluctantly in a state of stress, anxiety and anger - a rare emotion for me - and emerging 20 minutes later in a state of true bliss to be able to sleep like a rock. That was as surprising to me as it probably sounds to you! That’s the first time I fully understood yoga’s transformative power for my mind. My problems hadn’t changed, but the next morning I could approach them from an empowered place of clarity, logic and empathy.

These examples and more have showed me that physical yoga is merely a gateway tool and systemised framework for self connection and to alter my state of being. It’s certainly not the only one; I can find the same connection and mindspace via a snowboard and I know people who find it via running, martial arts, painting, playing an instrument and so on. Alongside meditation, yoga is the most accessible of these tools for me.

Other great moments have been largely centred around some amazing people I’ve met and the range of practices and ideas I’ve now been exposed to, all of which have informed my own learning about myself exponentially.

The yoga industry has boomed in the last 5 years how do you think it will evolve in years to come?

I have no idea how it will evolve, nobody does, which as an entrepreneur excites me because it opens up opportunity for anyone. From what I see yoga adapts and changes in reaction to what the world needs. At it’s root, although the reasons have changed over time, it’s always been a framework of tools for self-enquiry and mind/body connection. The physical practice that most people associate with “yoga” evolved as Western life became more sedentary over the past 100 years, sessions became shorter as people’s time became more squeezed in the last 20 years, yoga has exploded into the mainstream at a similar time to stress and anxiety exploding into the mainstream, and so on.

I think a major area of growth is going to be the mental side of yoga and mental wellbeing in general because in the last 10 years, partly because of the internet and largely because of the advent of the smartphone, we’re more distracted, anxious and stressed than ever before. It makes sense that more solutions will emerge and we’ve already seen a huge growth in the adoption of meditation and related techniques like mindfulness.

My business focus for my next venture is mental wellbeing. I’ve spent the last several months immersed in this area learning about and exploring everything I can find from different meditative practices to more esoteric techniques like lucid dreaming.

I don’t feel that London’s professional population is being well catered for in terms of access to meditative practices in a number of ways - how it’s marketed, the offerings themselves, their relevance to modern life and many more barriers - so I’m working on some ideas around this and am planning a meditation event series that should start addressing some of these roadblocks.

Where do you practice yoga in London?

Mostly alone at home and mostly self-directed based on what my body needs and anything I want to particularly work on. If I’m feeling lazy and want guidance then I’ll fire up one of Tara Stiles’ videos - her philosophy really resonates with me and I’ve been fortunate to spend some time practising with and sharing ideas with her - or for variety I’ll try something from Movement for Modern Life.

Finding that time and space to go inwards, connect and alter my state has been so important; yoga and meditation are like entrepreneurial secret weapons and they’re most potent for me when I’m alone. I would love to say that I knew self-practice is the most important practice but the reality is I was forced into it because I didn’t want to be in studios and around other people. Of course I’m happy it happened that way now!

When I started working on TPOY suddenly I was going to a lot of classes. It was a wonderful journey of exploration and being exposed to such a wide range of teachers, systems and ideas has really done wonders for what I’m getting out of my own practice.

Now I go to one or two classes in a typical week and it’s a question of who rather than where. I like some studios more than others but I’ll tolerate a rubbish studio if I rate the teacher highly enough. I always take my own mat though!

I try to practice with Adam Husler a couple of times a month because I learn so much from him, although a friend and I (lovingly?) refer to his classes as torture-asana. The other two to four classes a month are spread around a few teachers that I love practising with or a long list of teachers recommended to me with whom I want to practice with just once. There’s far too many to name, we’re blessed with some amazing teachers in London and it usually comes down to logistics and time. My list keeps growing...

Five items you can't live without?

Headphones & phone - I’m always listening to business podcasts whenever I’m on the move whether that’s heading to meetings or a class or in the background whilst working out, it’s how I fill the dead time. I carry two pairs of headphones in case I misplace one, it’s that important to me!

Kindle - books have been huge for me, I’ve learned so much from them and I am a voracious reader. I read a little almost every day. If I’m on the move and don’t have my headphones in then I’m reading a business, mindset or health book. I prefer physical books but the convenience of Kindle has been a true gamechanger, both for me and my Amazon spend…!

Pizza and ice cream - if there’s ever a world without pizza and ice cream, I don’t want to live in it (sorry vegans). That perfect summer’s day with an ice cream in hand, the first taste and the world momentarily fades into the background… that’s real yoga.

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