Time Out Rio de Janeiro

Hermógenes: Rio's yoga pioneer hits 50

As Rio's groundbreaking yoga centre Hermógenes celebrates half a century imparting mental and physical wellbeing to the masses, boutique classes with international instructors are beginning to take charge.

Rio is a city constantly on the move. Arms and legs pump and muscles stretch,with  early morning joggers in Flamengo Park doing battle with Tai-Chi pensioners and cyclists taking on the Corcovado challenge. If that all sounds a bit hectic, however, the city’s yoga options have developed into obsession-inducing sources for a feel-good hit of peaceful, low-impact exercise, vital for the brain and the body. Now almost as mainstream as the hundreds of high-street gyms, as a pioneer celebrates 50 years in Centro, yoga is rising once more and Time Out met up with some of the teachers behind the best downward dogs around to find out why.

The pioneering forefather of Brazilian yoga, José Hermógenes de Andrade Filho, better known as Professor Hermógenes, opened his eponymous yoga centre in downtown Rio fifty years ago this year. Born in Natal in 1921, his grandson, Thiago Leão, now assumes control, but despite only recently giving up classes, the spirit of the originator and 'Hatha' yoga master lives on. At the age of 35, Hermógenes – whose catchphrase of choice remains ‘God forbid that I be normal’ – developed health problems which led him to discover the discipline through books and, forbidden to do so by his disbelieving physician, he began practicing clandestine yoga sessions in his bathroom. Before long He had quit the army, become a vegetarian, and begun holding classes in his garage.

Several books, a meeting with the Dalai Lama and a doctorate from the World Development Parliament in India later and Hermógenes is recognised as a pioneer in Brazil. Inheriting his grandfather’s passion for the ancient discipline, Thiago says that in becoming a vegetarian he began to look at his life differently. “He discovered he wasn’t perfect, began to analyse himself, to question why he behaved and spoke the way he did. That is what yoga brought him.” For Hermógenes ‘pupil’, it is in that extra level of ‘self’ that yoga is a unique form of discipline, far more than simple exercise; “When teachers practice yoga just for the physical aspect it is like eating the banana skin and throwing away the fruit inside.”

Californian Kimberly Ann Johnson has hosted classes all over Asia, Brazil and the US but only discovered Hermógenes when she moved to Rio, where she now hiolds her boutique KAJ classes. “You won’t meet a Brazilian yoga teacher who hasn’t studied with Hermógenes or with someone who has,” she says. “He is a major reference here in Brazil, but the lineage is a bit different to what arrived in Europe or the US. In general, Brazilians are very eclectic and inclusive, so there is little purity when it comes to practice. They are less interested in the physical. The majority of US yoga is getting people out of their heads and into their bodies, the process of embodiment. Brazilians have a less contested relationship with their bodies.”

So are we about to see another boost in yoga’s popularity in Rio or is this all just a bit deep for a free-spirited city like Rio? The 50-year landmark Hermógenes centre has reached suggests it can and will endure, and Kimberly points to a growing middle class with ‘more Western problems’ that could be a factor in pushing it back above pilates in terms of popularity.

Kiu Mars, a 34 year-old English yoga instructor who has set up his own classes in Blyss and Santa Teresa’s Casa Alegre, says; “Yoga helped me question my actions and I became more sensitive to my surroundings. In London I knew rich people who were unhappy. In Indonesia I met incredibly poor people who were extremely happy. It inspired me.” With Hermógenes’ illicit bathroom sessions back in the limelight as he celebrates fifty years of classes, it seems now could be the perfect time to get inspired.

Words by Time Out Rio de Janeiro editors

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