Now that's a stretch

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 March, 2012, 12:00am


Many in the Hong Kong 'in' crowd might remember Tiana Harilela, 36, from her spell working at a luxury champagne company and frequent appearances in social columns.

Dressed in her designer gear and blinged out, she was by no means unfit, but she's now in the best shape of her life, and she attributes it to yoga.

Her first experience of physical or hatha yoga was with her late grandfather, businessman George N. Harilela. 'He taught me my first ever yoga pose. He was also the first person to introduce me to the yogic kriyas [cleansing rituals] at a young age. But his biggest influence on me was his subtle teachings of the 'true self' and the inner aspects of yoga. He is still in my heart as my first teacher.'

While among the glitterati, she says she was far from a spiritual being. Up until her early 20s, she kept a distance from everything spiritual and Indian.

'I knew I needed a practice with a challenge, so I turned to Ashtanga Vinyasa as taught by the late Sri K Pattabhi Jois of Mysore, India. This was one of the most powerful yoga practices I had ever seen and tried. I was hooked.'

Frequent trips to Mysore have followed. She cites Paul Dallaghan, who runs the beautiful Samahita Yoga Thailand retreat in Koh Samui, as one of her biggest influences. Dallaghan's master, Sri O.P. Tiwari, is the head of the Kaivalyadhama Yoga Institute in Lonavala, near Mumbai. Through their guidance, Harilela is now an Ashtanga yoga teacher teaching simple pranayama, a special form of breathing exercises.

'It is one of my favourite things to teach because it brings everything inwards and I have personally seen how it has transformed me,' she says.

What's been the biggest effect of doing yoga?

The biggest surprise for me is how it has changed my body. Physically I am stronger and leaner. There is a lightness about my body now. Because the asana practice I do is about two hours long, postures flowing one into the next, and practised six days a week, there is a wonderful effect on the respiratory system. You sweat out toxins and allow for your body to move back into balance. Ashtanga Vinyasa is a very cleansing practice.

What do you preach and teach?

I teach Ashtanga Mysore style, which is the best way to learn yoga. It's like having a private class with other people in the same room. You learn in the correct way pose by pose. You only move to the next pose once you have mastered the previous one. Everyone is doing the same sequence within a time frame at his or her own pace. Nowadays, there is a lot of rock 'n' roll and music in yoga classes. In this class, the music is the breath, and it is one of the most beautiful things to witness and try. It also allows for independence in the student. The teacher is there to guide and to help.

How did yoga help your recovery from the motorcycle accident you had in India last year?

I smashed the right side of my body and face. I was unable to fly back to Hong Kong due to complications. I still suffer pain in my face from nerve damage, and I have problems with my right shoulder and hip from the crash. I never thought I would be back to my practice. It took a long time to be able to do some of the things I was doing before. Meditation, yoga asana and pranayama brought me back. There was this inner sense of spirit that kept me going. It's a story I tell my students when they think they cannot do something. The human spirit is unbeatable when it shines.

Your Hong Kong friends may be surprised at how fit you are now. What do you tell them?

It's a combination of yoga and balance. While I am still working on balance in life, I feel my levels are better. I eat healthy as much as possible. I have a green and predominantly wheat-free diet. I sleep early. It's a different lifestyle altogether from what I was doing years ago. It's peaceful and there's less chaos and drama, which I feel adds to looking and feeling good on the inside and out.

Have you changed your diet?

I have. I have a predominantly vegetarian diet, eating fish once in a while. I have also changed my thought process about food. I pay attention to the foods that have acidity in them and those that are alkaline. My husband is a great chef and mainly cooks healthy vegetarian cuisine. He is always showing me herbal substitutes to take. I think maintaining a good diet and having fun cooking is the best way. You cannot just exercise and not add the food part in. We aim to show it can be fun and delicious to be healthy.

What's your indulgence?

Well, that's easy: chocolate.