I love that life sometimes throws you up a happy little accident and this week’s Big Personality story has come from exactly this place. A few weeks I was locked out of my house and took myself along to The Abbotsford Lounge Bar for some lunch and a cuppa while I waited. As I was sitting making notes, I received a phone call from a lovely lady who follows Small City wondering if I might be able to do a story on an open day at Perth Yoga Studio, owned and managed by June Mitchell.
“Of course,” I tell her. “I’ve been meaning to contact June to do a Big Personality story. Hasn’t she been teaching in Perth for almost twenty years?”
“Yes, yes she has. Oh that would be so fantastic.”
And here’s the clincher. I had June completely mixed up with someone else! And this was the happy accident that led me to meeting and discovering the amazing story behind this wonderful lady who first found yoga on a Greek Beach in 1972.
And this is where our story shall begin. In 1972 June was a carefree young woman in her early twenties who had booked in to travel to Greece on a Club Med holiday. It was, she tells me, a bit of a hippy thing to do and most of the friends she went with were there to enjoy the all-inclusive drinks. While they were all out supping up a liquid lunch one day she decided to take a wander and find out more about the activities that were provided as part of her package.
“It was the most marvellous place; quite expensive at the time but so French and sporty with a real hippy vibe to it. I was wandering along the beach looking for things to do when I spotted this girl, with four straw mats laid out in the sand. I asked her what she was doing and she said it was a yoga class. I was drawn to it instantly and by the end of my first ever yoga session, while sitting looking out to sea, having been asked by the teacher to focus my gaze on the line between the sea and the sky, something changed for me. I loved it!”
June had been travelling around, moving from her home in Edinburgh to work and study in Italy and then work in London. When she returned to Scotland, yoga, as you might imagine, wasn’t an easy thing to find!
“It was still thought of as a bit out there. A bit too hippy like. I had a friend who taught me how to stand on my head and that was my only real involvement in it for a while! When my parents moved to Perth I moved back in with them and settled into a life here. I worked as the secretary at the Station Hotel and during the Silver Broom curling competition, was helping Christian out in the Bar when a group of young lads came in with one of their fathers who had decided to bring them to a decent bar for a change – his joke! The Station Hotel was part of British Transport Hotels in those days and the city’s top hotel. One of these young guys was James Mitchell, who was to become my husband. He was from Perth and he knew so many people that suddenly my circle of friends widened and I was meeting new folk all the time, especially on our regular visits to The Grill, Perth’s meeting place then. It was beginning to feel like home.
My job as secretary in The Station Hotel, was great fun - it was a real place of glamour back then. In what was called the Top Lounge a wonderful lady called Rosamonde Morton had been doing yoga classes. I contacted her and she said there was a waiting list but that she could put me down to join in a couple of months at her new venue, the Lovat Hotel, which I did and loved it straightaway – everything seems so interesting to me.’
I ask June what it was that was so gripping for her; what captured her and held her attention so certainly.
“It was everything about it. It wasn’t just exercise or relaxing your body, although I especially found the relaxing and quietening my mind revelatory and so helpful in my life. There was a clear philosophy which is the essence of yoga. There was no messing about back then, it wasn’t something that was trendy with the latest lycra gear. I learnt that yoga is about understanding the workings of our minds, being kind to yourself and others and looking at life in a spiritual way. It just clicked into place for me. I’d had a bit of a rough time in my early twenties and it helped me think, clear my head and find methods of becoming content.”
And this is the thing you must remember while reading June’s story. In the 1970s in Perth there was no vast timetable of organised sports and fitness classes; no Live Active Leisure website to click onto for a choice of relaxing, toning, cardio or wellbeing. You had to seek it out. And if your choice was a bit off the wall, some ancient Eastern tradition, then you had the added challenge of people raising their eyebrows and questioning your grip on everyday reality.
“Oh it was definitely considered something that flakey women and hippies did. By 1976 classes had begun in The Red Cross Hall on New Row and there were two classes, one after another with about thirty people in each class.
William Mowat Thomson, whose Scottish Yoga Centre based in Edinburgh had branched out to Perth and Glasgow, had another lady lined up to start these new classes and William asked me if I would like to go along to assist her as I was a very keen student in those days. James and I had been married in the September and we were living in a flat in South Street at the time. I remember getting a phone call from this woman’s husband who was basically telling me that I had to go in and teach the classes because she couldn’t do it. She had found her first few classes too nerve-wracking. As I say to my own student teachers these days ‘teaching yoga is not as easy as a good teacher makes it look’.
I said to him, ‘I can’t teach the classes, I am only keen!’ But I couldn’t let them down and, with twenty minutes notice, I turned up at the Red Cross Hall with my yoga mat, my enthusiasm – and a smile. That’s all I had!
I got through it with sheer joy for the treasure that is yoga rather than anything else but when a pregnant lady turned up to the second class it was a bit daunting – I had no idea what to do with pregnant women and yoga. Her name was Carol Houston and thankfully, as a nurse, she did know what she could and couldn’t do and so we made it through that one as well.”
June started her yoga teacher training in Edinburgh in the Sivananda method in l976 under the tuition and guidance of William Mowat Thompson. Originally a ballet dancer, William ran the Scottish Yoga Centre in Atholl Crescent, which then moved to St. Stephens Street in Stockbridge and also became The Theatre School of Dance and Drama in Edinburgh. He was also extremely well-travelled and a student of Eastern Philosophy and yoga, and so with much demand he founded the Scottish Yoga Centre in Edinburgh in the early 1970s.
“He was and is an amazing man and a fantastic teacher and I am very honoured to say he is the head of the governing body of my yoga teacher training school, CYS, which stands for Classical Yoga School. He taught the first ever yoga teacher training courses in Scotland together with Dr. Arthur de la Poer Rowbothem, psychiatrist, philosopher and Vedantist. When I qualified, my certificate in Hatha Raja Yoga was given ‘With Merit’ which I have to say made me feel very special. To still have him as my friend and supporter all these years later and to watch his face light up with enthusiasm when we meet in Edinburgh is a huge privilege and pleasure.
While all of this was going on June and James had opened a Bed and Breakfast on the Dunkeld Road. Called Lorne Villa it was a beautiful old house with ivy crawling up the walls and a happy stream of guests giving them a steady and regular income. She started yoga classes and with the Women’s League of Health and Beauty the only real alternative to women who realised exercise was an important aspect of their lives, she was soon busy with several classes a week.
“It was a wonderful time; both my boys were born while we had Lorne Villa, Andrew in 1979 and then Robbie right after him in 1980. The B&B was busy, my yoga classes were hugely popular and it seemed the perfect time to make some bold life choices. We sold up the business and in 1981 we bought a big old house on Barossa Place and opened Scotland’s second ever Yoga Centre – the only other was William’s in Edinburgh. In fact, The Courier came and did a story on us and I found it when I was looking out old photos for you!
We had a veggie wholefood restaurant on the garden level of the house which might be super trendy now but back then it was unheard of! There was a beautiful big studio that had huge windows and then we lived upstairs and also rented rooms to students at the top to try and bump up the business income.
By then I was meeting other practitioners and my interest in philosophy and complementary therapies had grown vastly. We brought them in to the Yoga Studio to give workshops, and we were one of the first centres to initiate this type of workshop and teaching group. We had about 400 people a week coming through and it was wonderful.”
I think it’s safe to say she was about twenty years ahead of her time, in a town with a population of small ‘c’ conservatives. So although those who attended loved it with as much passion and enthusiasm as June and James, as a business model during the recession-struck eighties it was struggling.
“It was awful. The recession kicked in and we were borrowing money at 17.5% to pay for the necessary renovations to the building which I know seems hard to believe in these days of almost zero borrowing rates. No 7 Barossa Place was a very beautiful Georgian building plus being Grade 2 Listed, it was just a money pit. There were still wooden hooks in the basement for hanging your meat. It was so dilapidated and we had to more work than was initially planned as the Fire Department wouldn’t pass some of the areas without major investment.
We had to sell the garden flat so the veggie restaurant went but it gave us a few more years before we had to give up running the house as a yoga studio in 1986. And of course, in a small town like Perth, when this happened, people talked! Throughout all these hard times, yoga philosophy helped me but, even so, it was hard.
James and I were going through a really tough time and we split up in the eighties and I lived with the boys in the bottom part of the house until the mid-nineties.”
So here she was, single Mum to two boys, with a real need to earn an income to support her family. She picked up various part time jobs, working as the Assistant Manager in No 33 on George Street (remember that?!) and taking stretch and tone classes as well as yoga classes at the Garvie’s Fitness Centre in Glover Street.
However, her passion for her beloved yoga never faltered and she continued further yoga training throughout the eighties and nineties attending courses with some of the country’s leading Sivananda and Iyengar teachers. At one point she had three jobs, two boys and was combining her yoga teaching and study with raising her family. Now, as regular readers will know, I am hugely humbled by any person who chooses to leave an unhappy marriage and forge a path for them self and their children; it is a demanding and inspiring life. As someone who grew up with a single mum in the eighties, before tax credits and wrap around care at schools, I know this undertaking by June was no mean feat.
As the boys grew into teenagers she looked at moving things forward again and in l992 she completed a Certificated Course in Yoga Therapy for Low Back Pain through the Yoga Biomedical Trust in London. She was taught by Indian Orthopaedic Consultant and Yoga Teacher, Dr. D. G. Dongaonkar and her thoughts turned once again to the idea of a centre for alternative therapies.
In l993 June founded the Riverside Centre in Perth where at any given time between ten and fifteen teachers and natural health therapists offered holistic health treatments to the people of our small city. By then people could see its worth and she was seen as being innovative and influential in her field. She was twice short-listed in the Business Excellence Awards initiated by the Perth Chamber of Commerce.
However, disaster struck and there was a fire in The Jazz Bank Night Club below, stripping the studio of use and moving June into St Matthews Church for the two years it took to renovate and reopen. The Riverside Centre reopened in 1995 and was there until 1999.
“The fire was a huge knock and also, I wasn’t really into the hard-nosed side of business dealings and was left with a lot of debt to pay off – which I did.
My profession didn’t help the way some people treated me; people tended to have a preconception of what a yoga teacher was. Back then they thought you were either all mung beans and strict rules – and to be fair there a few like that! - or some hippy dippy who didn’t know what day of the week it was. But I was neither of those things. I’m still not! I’m just a normal woman who, if anything, was a bit Miss Moneypenny with my high-powered secretarial background. I did wear the odd cheesecloth dress but I’m sure that doesn’t make you weird – we were all wearing them in the 1970s!”
Her eyes are twinkling; a mixture of a serious point well-made while gently poking fun at herself. She is warm and open in her manner, chatting freely as we sit enjoying a coffee and very definite in her opinions of what makes yoga one of the world’s greatest philosophy practices. She is softly spoken, as calm as you’d expect from a woman who has built her life teaching hundreds of people how to meditate and fully relax. Surprisingly then, the occasional mild swear word slips in when she is expressing a passionate point (we all know I love wee swear so it was fine by me!) and it does nothing but reinforce this idea of a normal woman who has built a life doing an extraordinary job.
“Oh when my boys were in secondary school they wouldn’t tell anyone what I did. They had all their friends convinced I was an aerobics teacher which was apparently more acceptable!"
June, at a guess, will be in her mid to late fifties although we don’t discuss age and when we touch it on it briefly - really to give me a point of reference for keeping on track – she brushes it aside as irrelevant. You get the impression this isn’t some vain-I-don’t-want-to-grow-old-woman thing but rather a way of approaching the world that doesn’t place the same emphasis on how long you’ve been here.
“When I started out I was very young; some would say too young to be a good teacher. I’ve always been mindful of that because, although I was young I knew I ‘got it’ at the beginning and my age meant nothing. No matter what age you are when you start practicing or teaching you will have great qualities that will help you.
When we’re young we’re full of enthusiasm and energy and as we grow older we bring life’s experience with us. I had two girls last year on my teacher training course and they were both only twenty one, but they had a great openness to learning the philosophy and they are both doing really well as qualified yoga teachers. I also regularly have lovely men and women approaching retirement age from their day jobs who may have been practicing yoga for many years and now want to do a teacher training course to do a few classes to fit in with their lifestyles; and they bring all their life’s experiences to their teaching.
Age doesn’t come into that; it’s about being ready to accept this way of life that teaches kindness and love and an understanding of the world. You have to want to learn and teach from that place in your heart if you want to do it well and practice seriously. People think it’s about putting your foot behind your ear and it’s not - it’s a process of the mind. Whenever I’m asked the difference between Yoga and Pilates I am still surprised that people don’t understand the fundamental difference! Pilates is great for exercise but there isn’t a spiritual foundation to it as there is with yoga which has so many aspects to it."
We chat a bit about this idea of slowing down and meditating, relaxing and reflecting. We both agree that yoga’s sudden, meteoric rise to the ‘exercise’ of choice is without doubt a symptom of our busy, stressed lives. We are guiltily reminded every time we look online or open a magazine that we need to be more active and that we need more me time and that we need to relax properly. And then here is this great exercise that ticks a whole heap of boxes for in the never-ending train of 21st century madness.
“Oh for sure. CYS runs a teacher training course in Surrey as well as Scotland and down there they’re even more pressured and stressed than we are up here. It’s such a shame there is so much stress - on women especially. They want to make yoga trendy and mix it up with dance music or the like. One of the student teachers was telling me last weekend she likes Rocket Yoga – which I must say I had never heard of but apparently in London they think it’s pretty nifty.
The classic styles of Ashtanga Vinyasa and Hatha Yoga are wonderful practices and yet there is a desire to redevelop them and rebrand them into something “better/cool”.
The CYS June talks about is her teacher training school which she helped set up in 2003 following an Intensive Yoga Teacher training course with Paul Dallaghan. Paul is the founder of Centered Yoga, Yoga-Thailand and is a Certified International Ashtanga Yoga Teacher and June was the first person in the UK to have this world-class training which has Yoga Alliance International Certification. She is also a direct student of the Ashtanga guru, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, having studied and practiced with him in 2004 in Southern India. It is without doubt that the immense pedigree of her own teachers has made June determined and dedicated to honouring the traditional teachings of yoga.
In 2006 CYS expanded into the South of England and both courses have grown and thrived since June took over as sole owner in 2010. Under her guidance and with the support of an outstanding team of tutors, the school has become known as a Centre of Excellence in the UK, training enthusiastic yoga students to become inspiring yoga teachers in their own right.
“There are now 300 CYS qualified teachers and so many have set up their own successful yoga studios in Scotland and the South of England. Two of my pupils, Harry and Allison Normand run their Live and Breathe Ashtanga Yoga studio in Townsville, Australia so the teaching has gone global!”
And then in 2012 her late and much missed friend, Zoi Chisholm, had to give up her Perth Yoga Space in Glover St due to ill health and June agreed to take it on, going back to her roots in managing a busy day-to-day centre, coordinating classes and teachers. In August 2014 Perth Yoga Studio relocated to the old Academy building overlooking the North Inch and June now combines running this with CYS.
“I live in Highland Perthshire which for a city girl like me is sometimes still a surprise! I have dogs and cats and spend my days picking up bits of mice. I’ve been here for almost twenty years and I love it. The quiet, the peace and the wonderful air. I’ve been teaching people for almost 40 years to be move with focus, strongly and mindfully, to be still, to breathe and to meditate and there is nowhere better to do this for me, than in the hills of Perthshire.
My life hasn’t really been easy but I recognize that all the challenges I have had to face, have given me insight into many aspects of living. I have had quite a few ups and downs and I know that throughout, yoga philosophy has been my one true strength. When you find that there is nowhere to go, nowhere else to turn but to your inner self and strength – to that quiet, still place of guidance and inner knowing and then trust that – this is what yoga is.’
June Mitchell may not have been the lady I was expecting to meet; but she was everything I could hope for in a Big Personality and so much more. It’s like she says, life will steer you and guide you in many different ways, and sometimes you end up with far, far more than you ever thought you would.
Perth Yoga Studios is holding an open day on May 9th and June would love for you to come along and try out some of the classes and meet the teachers involved. Check out their website and follow them on facebook to keep up to date.