It’s not that opening a shop, café and yoga studio in Edinburgh was a lifelong dream of Janis Binnie’s. That’s not the story here at all. Although she did grow up inspired by Anita Roddick and the fabulous work she was doing with the Body Shop back in the day, so maybe seeds were being sown right there. And she had developed a love of yoga over the course of her life, training as a yoga teacher and teaching near her home on the West Coast of Scotland.
This whole thing came about by accident really – or was meant to be, if you believe in that kind of thing. Back in 2010, Ian, a friend of Janis’s, invited her to go out to India with him. She wasn’t particularly keen, so he suggested ‘How about Kathmandu for Christmas?’ and she thought ‘Why not?’ She travelled alone out to Nepal, trusting that Ian would be there to meet her at the airport when she arrived. He was.
And that was the start of a passionate love affair. With Nepal. With the country and the people. Apparently, that happens a lot. If you go, you get it. As a single woman, she felt incredibly safe and cared for. She came across the most amazing handcrafted yoga and meditation goods. She developed an eye for the real deal, discarding the imported cheap goods from China that were being passed off as Nepalese handiwork. The traditions and skills of the local craftspeople had to be treasured and protected and shown to the rest of the world and Janis knew that she wanted to be a part of that. Nepal relies on its tourism. It’s the only thing they have. Janis wanted to shout aloud to the world about the natural beauty of the countryside and the heart that she’d discovered in this tiny country squeezed between India and China.
So six years ago, she began to import treasures that she loved and that she believed people in the UK would want to buy. She developed a website for her business Santosa and travelled around the circuit of Yoga and Wellness Shows up and down the UK. Right from the start, the whole thing was a real learning curve. Opening up every delivery from Nepal continues to this day to be a surprise, as Janis is never sure that what she’s ordered will be the same design or quality as the time before – sometimes even better, sometimes not so good – never predictable! She and Ian have connected personally with their Nepalese suppliers. They promote authentic Niwari art created by the clan in the Kathmandu Valley who were the traditional artists of Nepal. They import Tibetan singing bowls made in Nepal and prayer flags and fabric.
Is yoga practised in Nepal? Not in any Western way apparently. Not in a way that we would recognise. But there’s a lifestyle of yoga, a Hindu/Buddhist way of life. Janis describes herself as an aspiring Buddhist. She’s always been fascinated by Buddhism and now has a much deeper understanding of Tibetan Buddhism. She appreciates the depth of teachings of the Dalai Lama.
And Janis is passionate about the art and craftsmanship that she is bringing out of Nepal.
Each piece is produced in a state of meditation and may take many weeks to complete. These craftspeople undertake an apprenticeship that lasts twenty to thirty years. There’s a patience woven into the very nature of these works of art. The statues come out of a state of worship. There are less and less people willing to undergo this kind of training and learn these skills. If we’re not supporting it, it will die out and the world will have lost something supremely precious.
Over the last six years, Janis has discovered that many yogis with a depth of yoga practice find a real resonance in these authentic products. They want quality, not a cheap knock off. There’s something special about the genuine article, as if the prayer and worship that have gone into making the piece are contained within the piece for all time.
None of this was an intention. Santosa grew organically out of a connection with the Nepalese soul. What happened next was never part of the plan either. One evening, back in January 2016, Janis was attending a yoga class and had a vision for a little yoga studio, shop and café in Edinburgh. She told her teacher who affirmed her saying ‘I really believe you should go for this.’ The next day, the shop in Albert Street, Edinburgh, came onto the market.
As if it was meant to be. Except that it wasn’t a little shop. It was huge!
Janis and Ian got the keys in April 2016 and the yoga studio was ready in just four weeks and the shop and café four weeks after that. Everything in the whole place was upcycled – as part of the ethos of Santosa but also for financial reasons. They did everything themselves with the help of friends and supporters. The Studio timetable was soon filled with yoga teachers and alternative therapists who wanted to use the beautiful purpose-built space.
Janis has really taken the plunge. She rarely has time off. She’s had to deal with all the stresses and strains of setting up a new business. She’s worked so hard and with such faith and confidence and perseverance (none of which have been easy to maintain at times!). Without the firm and certain belief in the power of yoga and the beauty of these Nepalese products, she would not have found the determination to throw her all into this project. Santosa is a real labour of love – and is genuinely lovely.
If you get the chance to visit the shop and studio, then do. Allow plenty of time to browse and enjoy a flat white as I did. Attend a class if you can. Or visit the Santosa stand at one of the Yoga and Wellness Shows across the UK this year. Either way, take the time to chat to Janis about Nepal. It’s a real education from someone with a real heart for this often forgotten nation.