(Photo by Alessandro Sigismondi)
After attending an invigorating Ashtanga yoga workshop taught by Mysore qualified Sofia Xirotiri, Lots of Yoga's Kat de Naoum took Sofia to lunch and delved into her Ashtangi mind, discovering that she is as beautiful on the inside as she is out.
Looking at you, one can immediately recognize that you are a gymnast. What is your background in fitness?
I started gymnastics at 7 years old and at around 15 or 16 I moved on to acrobatic gymnastics, competing in Hellenic championships.
(A young Sofia Xirotiri in her gymnastics days)
At 18, I was accepted to The College of Sports Sciences and studied Physical Education with a specialty in Gymnastics. I started working at various gyms as a trainer and was also teaching aerobics classes. Through this, I met a coach who used to compete in sports aerobics. I was too old to take part in acrobatic gymnastics competitions but I still wanted to compete in sports so I took up sports aerobics.
(Sofia Xirotiri competing in gymnastics)
At 23, I became a member of the Greek national team and up until I was 30, I competed abroad in European and international games. At 30, I started noticing that my body was not performing as it used to and I started getting injuries to my lower back, neck, and wrists so I had to quit the national team.
Don't people usually quit gymnastics much younger than 30?
Yes, I managed to drag it out quite a bit, but it was my whole life. I had learned to wake up early in the morning, put on my leotard or leggings and head for training. This was the part I loved and I didn’t want to lose it. It wasn’t so much the competitions but the daily life I had learned to live. My team mates, the coach, the goals we’d set… It was very difficult for me to decide to stop but that’s the sad truth that all athletes have to face one day. It comes with growing older. There are always those who are younger, newer, better. Your place is not set in stone in competing for championships. You always have an expiry date. And this is where yoga came in and helped me get over that.
How did you first get into yoga?
I was 30 and working at a gym at the time and a colleague suggested I go to a yoga class. I had never thought of it before but I was withdrawing from gymnastics and subconsciously looking for something else to take its place. I was always used to doing things for myself. My colleague mentioned that yoga combines strength and flexibility, similar to gymnastics and what I had been used to. He recommended Savvas Giantsis of House of Yoga. He spoke very highly of him and said that he was a good teacher and taught Ashtanga yoga, and he viewed him as the best in Greece.
(Savvas Giantsis of House of Yoga)
I'd heard all I needed to hear and I decided to give it a try. I still remember the first day like it was yesterday. I attended a lesson which was an introduction to Ashtanga with a group of 5-6 people. When I saw Savvas practicing, I was very impressed. Ashtanga drew me in immediately. It impressed me not only for what it could enable the body to do but the discipline required which was something I knew very well. I was very lucky because from the beginning of my yoga journey, I’ve had a teacher I admire and look up to. Savvas is still my teacher and I’m proud to say that I now work with him in his studio. He gave me a good basis and even though I was a gymnast and he could have been easily tempted to push me to my limits, he made sure I progressed slowly but surely. He respected my competing injuries.
How did you decide that you wanted to teach yoga?
I continued working at various gyms for the first couple of years and simultaneously doing daily yoga practice with Savvas, which continued to inspire me. In 2010, Savvas arranged a trip to Purple Valley in Goa. This trip for me was a turning point. We practiced daily with Tarik Thami who is certified in Ashtanga. Back then he was already authorised. He was fantastic but what I liked was the realisation that there are so many people in the world that are doing what we were doing on a daily basis with Savvas, and how this Ashtanga system unites people from all over the world. It’s like we all speak the same language. That’s when I decided to become an Ashtangi. I knew that’s what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Upon my return, I gave up everything else I was doing, fitness aerobics, etc. Making that move was like giving up my past and dedicating myself to Ashtanga from that point forward.
Did you have any difficulties in yoga in the beginning or did it all come naturally to you because of your gymnastics background?
I had great difficulty at the beginning with a lot of things! Especially my lotus, and some think that’s a pretty basic pose. I may have been flexible and strong but I couldn’t get into lotus no matter how hard I tried. My legs would just not go into it. Also, any move requiring legs behind the head, I thought would never happen for me. I had the tightest ischium. Splits came easy obviously but yoga is not just about the splits.
The first time I did the Ashtanga primary series, I found the whole thing very difficult. When the lesson finished, my hair was all over the place, I was sweaty, red-faced and exhausted. I felt like I had just been through a war! I also thought it would never end. I’m sure I made a lot of mistakes. I couldn’t even do a half lotus. Jump through and jump back were impossible. I did not understand how my legs would fit through my arms to be able to jump through. I had learned in gymnastics to always be stretched out as much as possible and in yoga, you sometimes have to make yourself very small so this was hard to get my brain and body to adjust to. I had also not learned to breathe properly. It took me over a year to be able to get into Marichyasana D and Supta Kurmasana.
I could not comprehend how my arms would pass through to bind. It presented such a challenge for me and I believe that’s why I got stuck on it. Even now, I have my challenges. There are days I feel really heavy or tired and feel like even one Vinyasa is a chore. The challenge and the difficulties yoga presented to me was something that kept me intrigued and interested and wanting to know more about Ashtanga.
What did you find were the main differences between gymnastics and yoga?
Competing for championships gave me discipline and determination, it taught me to not get discouraged, to work hard every day, to try no matter what, without excuses and it’s a part that I love and thank athletics for. It’s instilled inside of me. I know that I won’t give up whatever happens. The difference is that now, I cut myself some slack and I understand if I’m having an off day. I won’t get mad with myself as I used to in gymnastics. I used to be so strict with myself because the coaches used to be strict with us. Yoga has changed me in that regard and will surely change me more, not only on a somatic level but also the inner aspect. To have compassion firstly for ourselves. I had not learned to do that and it presented quite a challenge.
(Photo by Alessandro Sigismondi)
How did Mysore come about?
I had never heard the word Mysore before. I thought Mysore was a teacher from India. I would say, “so, when is this guy, Mysore, coming to teach us?” My teacher would tease me and didn’t tell me the truth for a while. As you can imagine he had a good laugh at my expense. Then obviously he explained to me that it’s the city where Ashtanga was founded by K. Pattabhi Jois and it’s where his grandson, R. Sharath Jois teaches and has taken over since Pattabhi passed away in 2009. Savvas had already been. He had the great fortune to be taught by Pattabhi himself. He mentioned it to me and although he didn’t say that I had to go, his example and his journey inspired me since Mysore was the source of what we were doing.
Did you jump at the chance to go to Mysore?
Actually, I was nervous at first because I considered myself a bit of an amateur. I had also heard a lot of stories about Sharath, that he was strict, etc., and I was a bit scared to tell you the truth. In 2011, I heard that Sharath was doing a European tour which included London so I thought it would be a good idea to go see him there and if I liked it then I would go to Mysore.
How was the workshop with Sharath?
Amazing. I went to London and on the first day, Sharath was to teach the led first and second series. Savvas suggested I go straight to the second series but I was concerned that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. Sharath had never seen me before and I hadn’t been to Mysore so maybe he would think it presumptuous of me to just turn up for the second series. But Savvas convinced me in the end. I was very nervous because I didn’t know what to expect, what the people would be like or what Sharath would be like. I remember arriving outside the hall where the led first series was taking place. There were around a hundred pairs of shoes outside and I could hear Sharath’s voice. For the second series led class, there were only around 25 people who comprised of many well-known teachers and great practitioners, including Laruga Glaser. That’s where we met and became friends.
(Sofia and Laruga Glaser in Mysore)
I was so anxious. There were only 4 rows and so few of us that he could clearly see each and every one of us. I happened to sit next to Laruga and I remember very vividly that I could hear her breath. She has such great Ujjayi breath and I was trying to follow along with it. Sharath is known for stopping you if he feels that you’ve had enough, to save you from injury and to teach you patience. If he taps you out, you have to sit in lotus position till the series finishes then you join in again for the finishing sequence. With every pose, I thought that this is the moment he would come and stop me. At some point in a downward dog, I looked through my legs and saw around 10 people sitting out who had been stopped by Sharath and I was sure that I would be next. This never happened and that gave me so much strength and encouragement. That whole week with Sharath was so encouraging and uplifting. From the first moment I saw Sharath, I felt mesmerised. I can’t explain it but all the energy of the students who followed him, how he spoke and even how he carried himself was inspiring.
Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and his grandson, Sharath (photo via mysoreoakland.com)
On the last day, there were around a hundred of us and we all engaged in the led primary series together. It was the first time that I cried in Ashtanga. When it finished, instead of Savasana we all got up and applauded him. This energy was so amazing and I always find it when I go to Mysore and I can find it whenever I have a class with a lot of practitioners and I even felt it today in our workshop.
Had you been to other yoga workshops before Sharath's?
I had been to various seminars abroad. Apart from Savvas, another teacher who inspired me greatly was Kino MacGregor. I would watch her videos for hours and I’m now lucky enough to also call her a friend. I admired her practice and still do, but now I know her on a personal level and have seen her in action teaching seminars, I see that she is also an amazing teacher. She communicates with the students personally and simply, with humour and a smile. I liked her style and it suited me so I started going to her seminars. The first time I went was to one in Copenhagen. Her husband, Tim Feldmann is from there, so she goes a lot. Kino used to pester me to go to Mysore and I thank her for that.
(Sofia and Kino MacGregor)
Was it a smooth transition from gymnastics to Ashtanga?
Not as smooth as you'd think. I was a bit strict with myself in the beginning because that’s what I was used to. In gymnastics, by 18 you are an old woman. We don’t have this problem in Ashtanga of course. Yoga is personal. It’s for health. It’s completely contrary to gymnastics. In gymnastics sometimes you just have to go above and beyond your abilities, not respecting yourself. In the beginning, though, when my yoga teacher would tell me to take it easy, I was confused. I found it difficult to be honest because this was completely contrary to what I had been used to. During my first years of practicing yoga, I couldn’t accept that there was something I couldn’t do. I was used to doing something over and over again till I managed it, even if it meant that I injured myself. But the gymnastics’ coach didn’t care if you injured yourself because next year he would have another gymnast. All they cared about is now, this year and that you do it. That’s the hard truth. In gymnastics, I would always judge myself negatively. “You’re not good enough. You’re fat. You need to lose 3 kilos. You need to be more flexible. You need to be stronger. She’s better than you. You’ll never reach that level.” Life was just one big chase towards something seemingly unattainable and the whole mentality was soul destroying. You never had the chance to say to yourself, “well done. You are good. You did well today. You work hard every day”. You never had the chance to feel good about yourself.
How did you manage to change this mentality which had been instilled in you for the better part of 30 years?
I won't lie, it took time. Savvas wanted to soften me up. If he saw that I was pushing myself too hard he would say, “Tomorrow is also a day. No one is chasing us. You are doing this for you. It’s a journey where we are trying to find ourselves and to enjoy ourselves”. He would constantly say this to me. Yoga is for a lifetime. There is no expiry date as there is in gymnastics so there is no need to stress. This realisation was a great relief for me. For the first few years, I would view Ashtanga purely as exercise and if I couldn’t do something, I would get upset. That’s where my teacher helped me. Even now I may slip back into that old mentality and I’ll feel bad about myself. It’s the pattern I was used to. It’s the obstacles that we all face. We all have our demons. Mysore also helped in this. Sharath teaches you by helping you progress slowly and doesn’t rush you to get to the next pose. I find that I have more improvement working the primary series in Mysore than I do practicing the third series here on my own. I realised that Sharath and Savvas were right in telling me not to rush. I still have poses which I’m working on, like all of us, but now I don’t rush to carry them out.
What would you advise someone who is inspired to become an Ashtangi? How could they go about it?
I would suggest that they find a good teacher, one who suits them, who they have chemistry with and who inspires them. It's good for them to gain knowledge about the practice. If they can’t visit their teacher every day, even once a week or once a month is a good place to start, so that the teacher can guide them and that way they can start to excel as long as they practice regularly. In theory, if we don’t get on our mat every day, it will all seem hard and impossible but daily practice helps. Someone might have been doing yoga for years but even Sharath says that an Ashtangi, a practitioner in Ashtanga yoga, is someone who practices every day. It is a little bit regimented like gymnastics and perhaps this is what differentiates it from the other yoga methods but you need to get on your mat 6 days a week. Saturday used to be rest day but I’ve been informed that Sharath has now made this Sunday. That's something new!
Lots of Yoga notes: If you are new to the practice, you can check out our beginner's guide to 10 Things You Need to Know About Ashtanga Yoga.
What would you say to someone who is finding it particularly difficult to get on their mat one day?
We’ve all been there. I would say at least do the Surya Namaskara. Instead of not doing anything at all, try to get on the mat and start the sun salutations. It’s very important to get on your mat every day even if it’s just for 15 minutes. Doing a dynamic practice once a week or once a fortnight is not as good as getting on your mat every day, even for a little bit. Getting on your mat daily creates a routine and slowly builds strength and flexibility with less chance of injuring yourself. Some people prefer to work on a certain pose and while this is not bad, I really rely on Ashtanga as a system. In our personal practice, I believe in going through the designated routine. It’s so meticulously planned and such a great system that you have what you need already planned out for you. Each pose prepares you for the next one. When we come to a pose in the series that we have difficulty with, it’s good to stop there and then go straight to finishing. The system is very wise.
Then, the next day, do the series from the beginning and try the pose that troubled us again two or three times, and the same the next day till we feel we’ve got it and then we can move on to the next pose in the series. This is actually the way they teach at Mysore. If you have trouble with a pose, they stop you. There is a reason why we can’t do a certain pose. This is how Sharath works and I follow that. I’ve seen it in myself and in other teachers and practitioners. It’s the safest way for someone to build their strength and flexibility without injuring themselves, slowly adding the next poses and extending the duration of the practice.
What about those days of low energy and lack of motivation? You know, the days where you can’t even hold yourself up in Chaturanga Dandasana…
I would say, at that moment, don’t give in to the negative thoughts. Don’t say to yourself, ‘oh, I can’t hold myself up in Chaturanga’. Just do it however it comes out. Accept that this day is particularly difficult for you and set a small goal of doing 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, you might find that you can do just that little bit more.
Do you ever feel like that?
Of course! Especially when my mind starts to wander and the practice is not particularly a moving meditation for me that day. When the mind is not at peace and I feel that my brain is talking to me and returning me to the past, telling me I'm not good, etc. Those are the most difficult days. I just try to bring myself back to the moment and say, “Sofia, you are doing yoga now. You are not doing gymnastics.” Then the breath starts to get a rhythm, the moving meditation starts to kick in and I try at that moment to concentrate on the breath and the Drishti. Those are the two things that bring me back to the now.
When do you do your personal practice?
It depends on when I have a class. I will either do my practice and then teach the class but if I have an early class, I will do that first and then do my personal practice. I’m not that strict with myself as to the time I do it but I am strict with myself that I will practice every day. It’s usually always in the morning because it coincides with my classes. I usually practice at the studio. Even though I am also a teacher, I like having my teacher with me. Practicing with him gives me extra motivation and also it’s nice to get good adjustments. I go into his class when he teaches Mysore in the morning because I also like practicing with others. I don’t have to necessarily do it alone.
(Sofia with her teacher, Savvas Giantsis of House of Yoga)
I usually practice two hours a day. When I first started, I was so strict with myself that I would sometimes practice twice a day.
OK, you are obviously some sort of machine.
(Laughs) No, it was a stage I was going through. It wouldn’t happen every day but I sometimes would do primary series in the morning and then hip openers or second series in the evening. I’m over that stage now. I've learned not to force myself as we covered earlier, and that we always have tomorrow!
Are you all about the third series now?
Not at all, I love the primary series. Primary series is our foundation. Traditionally we all practice primary series every Friday. It’s a series which brings you back to the foundation. It gives you the strength. It helps you get over any injuries. If you have a great primary series, you can easily transition into the second series. All the poses in series two and three are hidden in the first series, for example, a great Supta Kurmasana (Sleeping Turtle pose) will transition nicely into a Dwi Pada Sirsasana (Both Feet Behind the Head pose). There is no reason to skip these poses because we will only regret it later on. Sometimes, I’ll start my personal practice with the primary series. Just because I have an advanced practice, it doesn’t mean that primary series is easy for me.
Even though you've always had an amazing body due to gymnastics, you say you didn’t have a good body image. Why was this?
Maybe a person who is not into fitness will look at the body of a gymnast and think, ‘wow, what an amazing body’, but for us in the business, even if you have an extra kilo or half a kilo, it matters to your performance. Your daily routine is to weigh yourself and to see how you look in the exercise, i.e. if you look heavy or if you are heavy and can’t move lightly. That was my whole life from 7 years old to 30. Some coaches would reprimand in a vicious way and call you fat. Maybe this was in the previous generations and I’m glad about that as I like to think that the newer generations have changed mentality. On a daily basis, I was called fat. At 8 or 10 years old, you still haven’t developed an image in your head as to what the body of a ten-year-old is supposed to look like. All you know is that you are fat.
(Sofia Xirotiri in her gymnastics days)
I was 35 kilos and convinced that I was overweight. As a result, I became anorexic and bulimic in my teenage years and at 16 and for two years, my periods stopped. I was 42 kilos at the height I am now (1.67). This is a subject which affects professions or hobbies which are based on appearance, like gymnastics or modelling for instance. I was inadvertently taught to constantly be at war with myself and never felt good enough. This changed only when I was 30 and started doing yoga. I’m 37 now and have been doing yoga for 7 years. That’s when I truly learned to love myself.
How does one learn to love themselves?
For me, it took a while to get out of the previous mindset. My teacher helped by showing me how to have patience and understanding through his patience and understanding. He would remind me that we always had tomorrow and nothing would happen if I don’t do it perfectly. The best lesson is daily practice. Listening to my body, to my breath, reading about the philosophy, listening to my teacher speaking, listening to Sharath talking at his conferences… I loved all these things but practicing every day is where I really started feeling it. You get closer to yourself and start to accept yourself, taking the good with the bad.
How did you battle the eating disorders?
Ashtanga yoga balanced me out in the matter of diet. As an athlete, I was always extreme. This is my personal experience; I’m not talking on behalf of other gymnasts. From the extreme stress I was under, for two or three days before competitions, I wouldn’t eat anything or I’d have just one fruit, and then after I would eat anything and everything I could get my hands on. I think a lot of women can relate to the ups and the downs. This lasted for many years. Thankfully, my parents supported me throughout this time and it didn’t get as out of hand as it could have. They never pressured me. I was the one that pressured myself. I managed to get healthy again through my parents’ help and without the need for medication but a lot of people aren’t that lucky. Now, I have a diet that gives me energy. I split my meals into smaller portions throughout the day, having a little bit of everything. I don’t do any fad diets or starve myself. My theory for food, and also in life, is just do what makes you happy. If you really like something and it makes you feel happy, eat it. If I want a dessert, I will eat a dessert. As long as it’s all in moderation, of course.
Do you read any yoga literature?
I’m constantly reading yoga articles and looking at sites about the technique behind poses. It really interests me. I also read anatomy and kinesiology articles, and philosophy, i.e. the Yamas and Niyamas. I also love reading biographies of other yoga teachers and inspirational yoga figures. Most recently I read Kino’s biography because she inspires me and I really enjoyed that. I am currently reading a book that was written by the older students of Pattabhi Jois, called Guruji: A Portrait of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Through the Eyes of His Students. It’s about what life was like with him. It’s so nice because it’s written by all different people like Eddie Stern and Sharath and you get to read all the different sides.
Do you have any time to do anything else apart from yoga?
Not a lot but when I do have spare time I love spending it with friends. I will go out for coffee or dinner. I’m a morning person so I don’t really like going out late at night and clubbing. It’s just not for me. I also like going to the cinema and the theater.
(Sofia Xirotiri with Lots of Yoga's Kat de Naoum)
Sofia teaches at House of Yoga in Greece. You can find out more about Sofia's workshops and events here and keep up with her on Facebook and Instagram. To find out more about Ashtanga yoga, check out our guide on 10 things you need to know about Ashtanga yoga.