Building Community Through the Practice of Bikram Yoga

During ISP/ISPJ period we have very flexible schedules. We don’t have any scheduled class time, the entire month is devoted to working on our projects.

Since I am spending less time in class I decided to take advantage of having a few more hours in my day. While my project takes up a good deal of my time, I always have room for some exercise.

After the half-marathon I decided to take some time off from running and try yoga instead.

I have been attending classes at a Bikram studio I found in Belgrade. Here is a short profile piece I wrote about the owner:

The room is surrounded by mirrors which fog up with steam as class begins. Stephen Donegan stands at the front of the room directing his students. They interlock their fingers, place them underneath their chins and breathe deeply, extending their elbows upward as they do so. Sweat drops begin to stain the floor as class progresses and Donegan pushes his students.

After the 90 minutes pass, students stand around chatting. Many friendships have formed in this cozy studio in the basement of a building in Belgrade. The man responsible for this is yoga instructor Stephen Donegan, an Irish expat who manages the only Bikram yoga studio in the Balkans.

The building on the right houses though studio.
The building on the right houses the studio. Though its in the basement the studio is quite nice.

Of average height, looking younger than his 40 years and a lean build from years of yoga, Donegan chats excitedly with a student after a one-on- one class, explaining a pose she didn’t understand.

“We are trying to build here a community, not just people coming and going,” said Mina Djunisijevic, a local 28-year- old who started teaching with Donegan at the studio several months ago.

Mina works the front desk.
Djunisijevic works the front desk.

Donegan had not always practiced Bikram, a form of yoga consisting of 26 postures, practiced in a room that is heated to 104 °F. Until 2006, when he became a certified Bikram instructor, Donegan worked in the IT industry and moved working locations every few years, spending time in Amsterdam, Australia, and Ireland. Although unhappy with his IT job, Donegan has always enjoyed traveling, “it’s my main passion since I could look at a map.”  Having gained his yoga instructor license, he began traveling once more. Only this time he was doing something he truly enjoyed.

Donegan performs triangle in the yoga room.
Donegan performs triangle in the yoga room.

Having gained his yoga instructor license, he began traveling once more. Only this time he was doing something he truly enjoyed.

In 2014 Donegan was teaching yoga in Denmark when he received an email from a Serbian friend he met in Turkey- he needed help running a Bikram studio in Belgrade.

Donegan took over the studio in January 2015 and has unintentionally been fostering a community ever since, as to him it is something that happens naturally. “I think that is more organic…from studying or practicing in other studios we pick up a lot of different things we think are good or not and see what works, what doesn’t, and what way you want to do it.”

But Donegan’s engagement with the community does not end in the yoga studio. Occasionally students go to a nearby Japanese restaurant for dinner following class or attend events together such as the Belgrade Story Club, a true story telling event which Donegan will be hosting in March.

Donegan almost always has a smile on his unshaven face which his students notice even in the classroom.

“He’s really funny and unlike other teachers he doesn’t really stick to the script but he sort of does his own thing and he’s hilarious,” Jasmine Sanders, 31, an expat from Germany said.

Perhaps one of the reasons Donegan’s students keep coming back is because he is committed to his students. His goal for every class it to “make sure they feel comfortable and have fun and go home feeling a little bit lighter in spirit.”

 

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