Over the past ten years, yoga teacher, author and soon-to-be mother, Gabrielle Hales has been practicing and teaching yoga, under the moniker Secret Yoga Club and more recently, curating retreats and experiences, which Gabrielle refers to as ‘offerings’. In 2020, she published her first book, Secret Yoga Club: Practising freedom through movement, breath & meditation, a deeply personal account of Gabrielle’s own journey with yoga, its rich history and manifold traditions. We sat down with Gabrielle to discuss fashion, fertility and the need for constant evolution.
How do you describe Secret Yoga Club to the uninitiated?
SYC is a community of witches, artists, healers, educators and beautiful humans that was born ten years ago. I created what I couldn’t find anywhere else at the time. Looking back now, I was longing for community. I believe yoga should be viewed as a holistic approach to life, so why not build your practice into an incredible multi-sensory journey, surrounded by like-minded humans and accompanied (like all the best things in life) by a delicious meal? Our retreats are precious offerings. We engage in multi-sensory practices like working with clay, intuitive drawing and botanical dyes, listen to live music, drink natural wine and eat food prepared by brilliant chefs. I adore our gatherings but, for me, the true yoga occurs off the mat. It’s how we relate to people, work with them, communicate, consume and create. I’ve been exploring ways of weaving these elements into our offerings: exercises around female pleasure, feminism, menstruation and empowerment.
How and when did you first discover yoga?
I am grateful to my mother for introducing me to yoga when I was about 19. I returned to it when my pa died suddenly when I was about 22. I went back to uni a few days after his funeral and kind of carried on as normal to finish my degree. I now realise I probably had PTSD and spent a lot of that time feeling disembodied. Yoga was the only thing that gave me a few moments of real grounding and stillness. I did a brief stint in corporate PR but ended up leaving and travelling around India for six months on my own. That’s when I did my first yoga training.
Did your relationship to yoga change when it became your career?
Yes, it naturally does. When I was teaching full time, I used to mine everything from my personal practice for my classes and events but I had to be careful not to let my cup get too empty. You have to remain curious, otherwise your offerings become flat and you lose the appetite for your own practice. Over my fertility journey (it took 2.5 years to conceive again after a difficult ectopic miscarriage) I finally made the decision to step back from teaching for a while, as I needed to reclaim my body for myself, rather than constantly using it in service of others or as a field of exploration for my career. At the moment it feels good to practice just for myself.
You write so beautifully on your Instagram about your personal experiences with health and your ongoing yoga journey, alongside more universal themes. How was the experience of expanding these writings into long-form for your first book, Secret Yoga Club: Self-Empowerment through the Magic of Yoga?
Haha, wow. That book was an initiation. I felt like I went into the project as a girl and by the time it was published three years later in the middle of the pandemic, I had become a woman. I love writing and that time was one of deep learning, study and challenge. It was also an absolute gift to be offered a book deal out of the blue. I tried to express what I believe to be a holistic approach to being well, how we can become more grounded, self-aware and empowered in so many different ways through breath, movement, self pleasure, women’s circles, the menstrual cycle. Ultimately I realised that everything is everything. Life, health, relationships and work can’t be atomised. We are all part of a giant ecosystem and everything we do is part of our practice. This has brought into question my relationship to yoga, and the issue of cultural appropriation, as so much of my work has been born of, or inspired by, South Asian traditions. I am deeply grateful to this lineage but I haven’t yet worked out where I sit in relation to it. It is still an open question — how to honour yoga’s heritage whilst also continuing to work in a way that feels natural to me.
Your collaborations with like-minded creatives are always dynamic and interesting. How do you decide who to work with and how do you approach the collaboration itself?
Intuitively. It depends on my own personal interests are evolving but I’m always hungry for something fresh and interesting, like how an artist has evolved their practice in a way that naturally explores and embodies themes and teachings that I love.
How did the lockdowns affect the way you run your life and your business respectively?
Ultimately, it was heartbreaking and also a gift. I needed to change the way I work and I was struggling to make the decision myself, so in a way, the push was welcome. Now I feel I’m in that mythical slipstream. Though I really miss the adventure of all the beautiful events and retreats.
What do you do to re-centre when you’re feeling overwhelmed?
I put my hand on my heart and breathe very slowly. I practise if there’s time. I go for a walk. I write a list. I self-pleasure. I have a bath. I often eat something delicious. Food will eternally be a source of delight and grounding for me. Do you subscribe to any particular philosophy or spirituality? I’m a bit of a magpie, but I think Śaiva Tantra most effectively captures how I feel about the world. That everything can be an expression of the divine and we are all unique manifestations of cosmic consciousness. Also the innate duality of existence that encompasses both darkness and light.
You’re currently pregnant — congratulations! What has been your experience so far?
I have to say, once I was over the first three months, I’ve absolutely loved it. I think I will actually miss it! I feel like the years of waiting have made it all the more special and it’s unbelievably delightful to see how excited my partner is. Also, being pregnant is like the human equivalent of driving around in a sweet vintage car. Everyone smiles at you and waves you through!
What do you like to wear when you’re not practicing yoga? How do you like to feel?
I generally like to wear loose fitting clothes made from natural fabrics — lots of vintage silk shirts and cashmere. I try to buy classic and mend where possible. I don’t practice yoga in leggings and yoga clothes — it’s my own personal rebellion against the commercialisation of the practice. Recently I’ve been wearing my partner’s tracksuits with big rings and his silver chain. Sometimes I really like dressing masculine as otherwise I’m pretty feminine. I also have a tight Rick Owens Black polo neck dress that I’ve loved wearing since my bump started showing.
How has being diagnosed with endometriosis impacted your life?
Well, it’s a relief. It’s impacted my life and mental health profoundly but after being dismissed and gaslit by so many doctors over the years, I’ve had to really rebuild my self-confidence. One in ten women have endometriosis, but it takes an average of 8 years for them to receive a diagnosis. We trust doctors implicitly because of their profession, so it’s a very strange experience to be repeatedly dismissed or made to feel like you are a hypochondriac. Not that they’re bad people. The medical system is still deeply patriarchal and most doctors are not given sufficient education on cisgender female bodies.
They simply do not know enough about the menstrual cycle, pregnancy or birth. Endometriosis is an autoimmune condition where tissues similar to the lining of the womb develop outside the womb. The symptoms are invisible: pelvic or lower back pain, fatigue, terribly heavy or excruciating periods (these are never normal), pain during sex, bad digestion, IBS… the list goes on. Currently, there is no known cure — not because it doesn’t exist, but because it hasn’t been prioritised. Conditions that affect mostly women are underfunded and, consequently, under-researched. In the UK, five times more research is devoted to erectile dysfunction, which affects 19% of men, than premenstrual syndrome, which affects 90% of women.
Endo sufferers (it affects women, some non-binary people and trans men) can experience horrific pain, terrible fatigue and impacted fertility. They can’t get out of bed for days or even weeks and sometimes struggle to hold down employment, let alone a social life or romantic relationship. 176 million women worldwide have the condition, yet there is still no meaningful funding for research that could lead to a cure, or at least faster diagnosis, nor is there a living allowance for people who suffer severely (according to the 2010 Equality Act, the symptoms of Endo qualify it as a disability).
For me, it was a relief to know I wasn’t just crazy, or lazy. After the diagnosis, I could begin to work out my own holistic approach, start advocating for myself and structuring my life better around the ebbs and flows of my cycle.
What’s next for SYC?
Most recently, I’m excited about our full spectrum Diversity, Equality and Inclusivity programmes, designed for forward-thinking companies that are prepared to do the gritty, humbling work. I’m not interested in superficial box ticking, so these workshops are designed to be a challenging yet nourishing foundation for organisations that are committed to cultivating an unbiased and inclusive workplace where everyone can flourish.
Finally, we ask all of our Journal interviewees to complete the following phrase: You Must Create… your own script!