better, greater, or otherwise different from what is usual.
synonyms: exceptional, particular, extra special, unusual, marked, singular, uncommon, notable, noteworthy, remarkable, outstanding, unique
Attending one of Denisa Nenova’s hatha yoga classes for the first time at the Mind Body Spirit Festival 2016 in Birmingham, I can’t help feeling that I have come across an extra special human being. There’s just something unusual about her that I can’t quite put my finger on – a unique blend of down to earth and spiritual that I can really connect with. As we talk afterwards, I discover that Denisa has not had it easy. And yet she overflows with a grace and love and humility. She has a exceptional, gentle touch in her interactions, both physical and social.
Denisa grew up in Bulgaria. When she was 13, her mum moved to England to find work and her dad moved to Spain to find work. Denisa was left to fend for herself with her grandparents checking on her at the weekends. At that time, the mum of one of her friends introduced her to yoga. There were no studios at that time, no classes to attend. Denisa learnt yoga from books and the internet. Yoga fascinated Denisa. She had been practising Shaolin Kung Fu since the age of 7 and her teacher had always said ‘You can’t move until you empty your mind.’ Denisa found this fascinating and spent a large part of her childhood trying to work out what her teacher meant. However hard she tried, she couldn’t empty her mind (of course not an easy task for a young girl of just 7!). But yoga was a different approach to the same thing. At a slower pace. With her parents away trying to build a better future for the family, yoga became Denisa’s place of refuge during those years.
At 18, Denisa moved to England to be with her mum. It was a sudden move. She wasn’t prepared. She had zero English. She drifted away from yoga, trying to establish her identity in a strange land, but yoga drew her back. She discovered that yoga was the language that she could speak and the Sivananda Centre was the place where she could find a home and be understood. In between cleaning and waitressing jobs, she practised yoga as much as she could. Any spare money went on yoga classes. She was holding onto yoga and the martial arts to keep her going. Then she did an unprotected back flip one day and seriously damaged her back. She was in bed for six months with a spinal injury. At that point, yoga became a more spiritual practice. It had to. She began to see yoga as a sacred connection to the true essence of who she was. It was a long journey of recovery.
So Denisa, what’s so special about yoga?
Yoga was there for me when nothing else was. When no one else was. It really helped me get through life. And then when my mum became seriously ill when I was 24, yoga became a key part of what I could offer her. It was nothing formal, nothing learnt – it was just gentle and intuitive. There was lots of physical care and support out there for her, but nothing for the soul. I had the privilege of supporting her on her journey to the end of her life and learnt that death is just as significant as birth. We’re not religious. What else could have brought a spiritual aspect into our lives at that time more effectively than yoga and meditation? That makes yoga pretty special, don’t you think?
And then you trained with lots of different yoga teachers and came across Sonia Sumar. What makes her so special?
Sonia lived and practised yoga in Brazil. When her daughter Roberta was born with Down’s Syndrome, Sonia took on much of her care herself. There was no effective physical therapy available to her, so Sonia started doing yoga with her daughter as soon as they were out of the hospital. When her daughter passed away, Sonia could have given up but she went on to share what she’d found through yoga across the world as ‘Yoga for the Special Child’, a yoga method for a population with special needs, rooted in traditional hatha yoga. When you hear Sonia speak and teach, it’s like she’s a channel for all the love pouring through her. She teaches straight from the heart with great humility. She’s serving. It’s not about her. She’s offering a service to humanity. She does so much and never stops giving.
And what is so special about her method?
‘Yoga for the Special Child’ is grounded in hatha yoga, a very classical, traditional style of yoga. It’s not the latest fad. It’s rooted in tradition. It’s not so much what you teach as how you teach. Every single child matters. It’s not about the teachers getting personal satisfaction, but more about offering up the gift they have been blessed with to help others. And it’s not about trying to make a child fit into our society as much as moving into their world, into their hearts and souls, in a truly holistic way, dropping the labels and truly connecting and reaching to the essence of the person beyond the conditions.
You set up the MahaDevi Yoga Centre on Holloway Road, London in 2015. What’s so special about the centre?
Each of our teachers gets it. It’s all about community and connection, love, care and service. We try to be true to the roots of yoga. And we’re the only centre in the UK which offers the Sonia Sumar Method, which is special in itself. We make a truly holistic service available for those who really need it. The inner structure of the centre is such that every person who comes to a yoga class with us directly supports the therapy work we offer to children with special needs and every student knows it. We share pictures and stories with them. Everyone knows everyone and everyone supports everyone. Service to humanity and giving straight from the depths of our hearts, I guess that is what is special about us at the MahaDevi Centre.
And finally the special child. What is so special about each of the children you work with?
They see the world differently They help you to grow. They challenge you to be more accepting, more patient, more kind. Many of them are going through so much and yet they haven’t lost their purity. They are still connected in a way that most people aren’t. I have some incredibly deep and insightful conversations with some of those children and it always amazes me the wisdom and reception they have. And even where there is no language, there’s a depth in the eyes, so much life and light.
Thank you so much for that, Denisa. And for the great work that you and your team are doing. Any final special thought for us?
I guess it would be this: that all yoga is therapeutic but in a different kind of way, different to the way we see it here in the West. We all seem to be getting hung up these days on therapy and have such a limited view of what therapy is supposed to be and has to look like or feel like. I believe that at the deepest level within each individual, there is that sacred essence of self that is pure and whole. And in that place, there is nothing to heal, there is no need for therapy. So what yoga does essentially is it strips everything else away, peels back the layers until we discover that special place of perfect peace within each one of us. And then you know: you are beyond the labels, beyond ideas, beyond the conditions of the mind or all the whirling emotions that you have. You know that Peace within and Yoga is the path to it.