“The thing about life is you get filled up and when you don’t have any space, nothing new can happen. So when you give yourself a space, then things can happen. Part of that for me was going to the yoga teacher training.” — Lasse Holopainen, former Department of Energy assistant secretary turned yogi
Words POLA ESGUERRA DEL MONTE
Makati, on a sun-drenched Saturday morning, is only a tad less catastrophic than on a workday.
The tortuous path to Urban Ashram Yoga Studio on Ayala Avenue is crowded with cabs and buses with horn-happy drivers, and traffic signs that promote confusion instead of clarity. This chaos is the very reason Lasse Holopainen, former Department of Energy assistant secretary and President of Philippine Electric Market Corporation (PEMC), fled the world of corporate bureaucracy and government service and escaped to another, much more serene, realm.
Long, deep breaths steep in the silence of the antiseptic room in which Mr. Holopainen holds his yoga classes. His students, stretching their arms toward the window in perfect form, don’t seem to mind that they have a perfect view of a concrete building instead of a zen garden. “Feel your diaphragm move down,” said Mr. Holopainen in a tender tenor voice, soft enough to evoke calm but loud enough to be heard by all. “Allow your lungs to expand.”
Today, Mr. Holopainen lives and breathes yoga. He believes it is his “dharma,” his unique purpose in life. He acknowledges that arriving at this phase was serendipitous, a life away from his technocrat past in which he was successful but “fundamentally unhappy.”
As a yoga teacher, he shores up his instructions with explanations. The gentle request to “increase the amount of breath you take in” is followed by a rationale: “extending the exhale by even 5% can give you 5% more energy because it literally scrubs the C02 out of the system.” He likes intellectualizing his practice, a choice perhaps fueled by his affinity for systems and logic.
After bidding his final “namaste,” Mr. Holopainen sat, back straight, on a bolster on the floor. “If you asked me 10 years ago,” he began, “yoga wasn’t even on my radar.” His formal introduction to yoga was in 2006, when a sore lower back and tense hamstrings prompted him to seek help. His wife Maricar enrolled him in the now-defunct Pulse Yoga, which used have a studio in Greenhills. ”I started practicing, and as I practiced I realized how restrictive I was, and maybe how unhappy I was, that I was actually doing what I wasn’t supposed to be doing.”
The strain of being an executive running an organization of 140 employees before he was even 40 years old left him with little opportunity to ponder his life choices. He reached a turning point in 2009, when he lost his daughter and his mother, and quit his job.
“I had anger problems, I used to drink a lot. Through all of that, I had my yoga and I practiced more and more. I got to know more about my body. I started realizing how strong I would become,” he said. “The thing about life is you get filled up and when you don’t have any space, nothing new can happen. So when you give yourself a space, then things can happen. Part of that for me was going to the yoga teacher training.”
In 2010, Pulse Yoga flew in Joan Hyman, a teacher from Los Angeles who is affiliated with US-based Yoga Works. After taking a 30-day class with Hyman, he dipped his toes into teaching. After his wife saw how much of a change it made in him, she decided to take the same class a year later.
They opened Urban Ashram Yoga Studio with four other people with whom they shared the same concept of an intellectually based yoga (“None of this ‘I’m your yogi, I’m your guru.’ None of that.”) After opening a studio in Brixton, Pasig City, they opened branches in Ayala Avenue, Makati City, and Bonifacio Global City in Taguig City.
Locating in business districts was strategic: Mr. Holopainen wants to share his catharsis with people who resemble his past self. “Sometimes we’re not even scratching the surface of who we are, and as a teacher, all I can do is spring that open. It’s up to you how it unfolds.”
He does this with classes designed to be as accessible as possible. Flexibility is not required. Instead, the focus is on proper alignment and using props to manage issues such as tightness, injuries, and other medical conditions. According to Mr. Holopainen, the simple act of breathing properly through pranayama and meditation can do wonders.
“I think all of us want to be fulfilled and all of us want to find happiness. And it’s not just, ‘oh, I had a good meal’ or ‘I had a good Coke,’” he said. “Happiness in terms of going home, being content, and seeing that everyone around me is happy as well.”
“Work,” he continued, “should not be something we run away from but something we embrace.” He doesn’t miss the days in which he had to fight with people to get what he wanted. “How can I be happy if people around me are not happy?”
Mr. Holopainen closed his eyes and faced the window. “In my previous life, we were controlling energy in big massive blocks. We were moving electricity one way or another in predefined paths,” he said, referring to his post at PEMC. “The body is so much more intricate and so much more astoundingly complex but at the same time, so much more powerful. Electricity can only do so much. The body can change generations.”