From discovering yoga and Hinduism at the age of 13 in a library in Northern Ireland in the late 1980s to creating her unique method of Stretch Yogalattes, Victoria Cunningham-Downey’s journey to running her own Yoga business is no straightforward one. Filled with overcoming the resistance and obstacles that life inevitably throws at us and studded with inspirational experiences, Victoria’s story is the ultimate tale of following your heart and doing what you love.
Victoria caught our attention with her amazing and innovative teaching methods. So, I jumped at the chance to interview her to find out more about her love of Yoga and how she has turned it into a career. You can join Victoria and other Yoga specialists in our community of Yoga instructors and enthusiasts where you can receive self development articles and discounts on our events here.
Tell me the story of how you first got involved with Yoga.
I was born in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. It was not an outward looking country. Everything felt very insular and sectarian. It was difficult to live in that sort of culture. When I was 13, I discovered yoga in a book at the library. I discovered that yoga was so much more than physical postures. I started reading about Hinduism. I also became vegetarian at that time. I was going to church at that time also, because it’s the culture I was brought up in, but my mum and I had a big argument because I refused to do my confirmation as I was beginning to understand how much bigger faith was than just the Christian faith I had been brought up in. I simply didn’t believe in the Christian faith anymore.
I begged her to see if I could go to classes because I was trying some poses out of the book but it really didn’t make sense. She didn’t want me to go to class until I was old enough, because they were in the local technical college and she thought I was too young to go to those adult learning classes. So when I was 16 she allowed me to go, and I remember being so excited and asking a number of my friends if they wanted to come with me, but they all refused! So I went to the class on my own, and I was the youngest by at least 40 years. The teacher had trained in the late 60’s, early 70’s. It was Shivananda Yoga. This was my very first experience.
The things I remember from that first experience: we didn’t have yoga mats. We had sleeping bags. It was hilarious trying to do a Warrior pose on a slippy sleeping bag. After every pose, we got into the sleeping bag for a couple of minutes and then moved on to the next pose. The class was 2 hours long but we probably only did about 45mins of exercise! The rest was relaxation.
I knew right from the start that I had found something right for me. That day, my very first savasana, I wasn’t on the mat, I was floating about 6 inches above the mat. That has stayed with me my entire life. Going to a class was such a different experience than trying with a book at home which I had been doing. Going to that class made such a difference. I’m very grateful to that teacher. She’s long passed away. I practiced with her for 2 years. It got me through my A levels. I learnt so many breathing exercises that benefited me. Then I went to Uni in Glasgow and it petered off. When I look at Glasgow University now, every second class is a yoga class. But when I was there, 1993-1997, there was no yoga class anywhere.
In your personal yoga journey, what action did you take that had the biggest impact?
When I was in Canada, I accepted an invitation to attend a Kundalini Yoga class. It was the biggest action that I took. It was the one that led me down the path of discovering Kundalini, which I found life changing at that time, and also led to my first teacher training. That absolutely changed my life.
Having said that, I don’t practice Kundalini anymore. Every now and then, there will be mantra that I’d work with, but that’s all.
That Kundalini class, there was no yoga mats. We were all sitting on sheep skins and people wore white clothes. There were so many men there! Physically, it doesn’t look like you’re doing a ton of movement, but internally, physiologically, there’s a lot of things happening. A lot of these exercises, especially combined with the breath of fire, make you sweat so much. It’s incredibly cleansing.
I would have never thought that first class led to where it did.
I had to leave my teacher training early and come home from Canada, because my mum discovered a lump in her breast and she was diagnosed with breast cancer: going from this experience where it was 24/7 yoga, yoga, yoga to being completely isolated from my peers.
A lot of the chanting I was doing is tied in with mum’s illness. A lot of protection mantra, which my mum hated. It’s a big part of why I moved away from it.
” We have gotten yoga a little mixed up and we made it movement with a little bit of breathing, but actually, it should be breathing with a little bit of movement. “
Tell me about someone who has deeply influenced you.
Max Strom. I went to the Om Yoga show in London, because that was the only one there was at the time, and Yogamatters were giving out a free book if you filled in a form but you didn’t know what the book was going to be. A few weeks later, a parcel came through the door and it was a book called A Life Worth Breathing by Max Strom. I started reading and from the first sentence I knew I had to meet this man. Coincidently, Max Strom was doing a 5-day workshop for qualified teachers in Ireland soon after, so I signed up for it. I went along. There were 75 people on the training and he had all 75 of us in tears, laughing, he was such an inspiration. Literally, an inspiration because everything was about breathing. I feel like he taught me how to breathe properly for the first time in my life. He taught me how to exhale completely, let everything release, and just let the new breath come in. Again, a bit like the Kundalini thing, it was the breathing that makes you sweat, not the movement. This is what he talks about that we have gotten yoga a little mixed up and we made it movement with a little bit of breathing, but actually, it should be breathing with a little bit of movement. The movement that we practised with him were not challenging, our breathing was. We practised ocean breathing, it’s like ujjayi breath, very constricted in the throat, breathing in and out. When you breathe correctly, the meditation are intense and powerful.
He was such an inspiration to me that I included him as a required reading for my yoga teacher training and I ended up hosting a workshop with him in Scotland.
What is the quote you always come back to?
“It is a great relief when we discover that we cannot, nor should we be able to, control everything within our sphere of operation.”
The interest in Yoga seems to be ever growing. Why do you think that is?
I think Western yoga is what’s growing and I think it will continue because we are most technologically advanced than ever before but we are socially isolated from each other and craving connection. Yoga gives you a connection. It brings you into the moment. Mindfulness meditation ties in with yoga in that respect. The energy created by the physical practice makes you feel connected.
You’re a Yoga, Pilates and Barre teacher. Which movement practice came first in your professional life? Which is the one you personally practice the most?
Yoga came first. I was 13 years old when I first found out about yoga. I then started my yoga teacher training when I was 25 or 26. I had been teaching yoga for about 5 years when I trained as a Pilates instructor. However, the training I received wasn’t great. I perfected my training through self-study and research, and the more I studied Pilates, the more I engaged with it. I started applying its principles to my yoga teaching. My Barre training grew out of my Pilates training. I discovered Lotte Berk, the originator of the Barre method and also Callanetics, which I used to practice in the 80’s. In my teaching practice now, I applied the Pilates principles and the Barre principles to Yoga.
In my own movement practice, I practice Iyengar with a local teacher where I live. Alignment is what makes flow possible and that’s what I love about Iyengar yoga: the focus on alignment. Without alignment, all you do is repeating poor habits.
As a movement professional, you have spent many years teaching children. Tell me more about that.
I was a Youth and a Community Worker and a Yoga Teacher in Northern Ireland. I decided it would be a good idea to combine both disciplines, because I had been teaching yoga very successfully to teenagers I was working with and also some younger kids. I set up a charity in 2006. It was very successful. I won a prize from an organization called Unlimited. But it became very intensive in terms of management and I was basically on my own running the programme, and it all quickly became untenable. The other reason was teaching children while I deeply wanted ones of my own (I was in my early 30’s) became unbearable.
I had hoped that, by setting up the charity, I would have been able to influence policies, like child obesity or low self-esteem in children, but I never felt big enough to influence anything. Having said that, there were some fruitful collaborations, with the Ulster Council Foundation for example, for which I designed a self-esteem module that was taught in schools for 5 years, reaching 10,000 school kids a year. It was the most successful module in the whole scheme.
What do you find most challenging in your own movement practice?
The challenge for me is to get off my ass. I used to think that the only time I was working was when I was physically teaching, and it dawned on me that all the preparation, all the research, the travel to and from teaching, all this was work. I find it very hard to motivate myself to do some movement. What I have done though now, is that I make time to go to classes taught by others. I go to an Iyengar class once a week. I also go to a dance fitness class to get a bit of cardio. It feels very good to exercise with others. I’m a natural extrovert. Practising movement on my own makes me feel isolated.
What is Yoga for you?
Yoga for me is bigger than movement. You’re using physical posture and breath to affect your body physiologically and emotionally. Yoga stretches your body and your mind. Yoga helps to broaden your thinking and exposes yourself to things that are wider than the narrow view that you may have.
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Victoria Cunningham-Downey is a Yoga, Pilates and Barre teacher and her business is based in South Lanarkshire, Scotland. She has over 15 years of teaching experience and runs sessions on a 1:1 basis as well as group classes. After 5 years of successfully teaching Pilates Instructors, she started delivering her own brand of Yoga Teacher Training, StretchBodyMind, in Northern Ireland and is now teaching in two Scottish locations.
Victoria will be presenting Stretch Yogalattes, her unique combination of Kundalini Yoga, Pilates, Barre and Breathing at the Om Yoga Show in Glasgow on Saturday March 25th (12.45 -1.15 at the Yoga Studio Open Class) and on Sunday March 26th (3.15 -3.45 at the Om Yoga Open Class).
To get more inspirational stories and self development articles on Yoga, you can join Scapa Fest’s community of Yoga instructors and enthusiasts here.