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Thursday 27 June 2019

Meet President Michael D Higgins' yoga teacher: 'At the age he is - he is incredible'

The Yogi who is helping the President unwind

body and soul: Internationally accredited instructor Michael Ryan is keeping President Higgins in shape. Photo: Fergal Philips
President Michael D Higgins and Sabina
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

Never underestimate the power of a man with a yoga mat. While the other Presidential candidates have been busy running around Ireland chasing precious votes, Michael D Higgins is not letting himself get out of shape.

The President launched his campaign for a second term in recent days with the revelation that he has a Yogi - and it's got the country talking.

So, who is the man helping the President to unwind? Step forward Michael Ryan. The dashing 44-year-old instructor has been drafted in to hold one-on-one weekly sessions in Aras an Uachtarain.

Mr Ryan is an internationally accredited teacher who has studied with some of the world's leading yogi and was voted Dublin's Best Yoga Teacher by Hot Press magazine. His classes have been described as "a slow-flowing deep journey" into a place of greater ease and presence.

And although critics have been working themselves into knots over the President's age - the yoga instructor says people need to take a chill pill. In fact, he says his 77-year-old student has never been more agile.

"His body is opening up much, much more and he is far more supple than when we first met," Mr Ryan told the Sunday Independent.

body and soul: Internationally accredited instructor Michael Ryan is keeping President Higgins in shape. Photo: Fergal Philips
body and soul: Internationally accredited instructor Michael Ryan is keeping President Higgins in shape. Photo: Fergal Philips

Far from being a publicity stunt, Mr Ryan revealed that the pair have been working together for almost a decade: "We have been working together for nine years now, since just before the beginning of his original candidacy. We usually practice once a week, usually in the Aras. It all depends on his schedule."

So is it a bit strange seeing the President in yoga pants?

President Michael D Higgins and Sabina
President Michael D Higgins and Sabina

"It is quite surreal, but once you get past the gate and the guard and we are in that space together, it is also very normal. There are no airs or graces to either of them. Sabina is sometimes by the fire with the dogs. She has joined us on a few occasions but we usually do one-on-one sessions," Mr Ryan explains.

"We do a lot of slow and steady movements and a lot of our work focuses on breathing through the movements. We also usually do a few standing poses, back poses and a lot of twists and positions that uncoil the spine. We target the areas of joint mobility and his back and his core."

He adds: "At the age he is - he is incredible. Particularly being a man, because a lot of men tend to get tighter and tighter as they get older, but Michael is opening up more and more all the time and becoming more and more supple."

The President has even proved to be a model student: "Since he had the operation on his knee, it is almost like he is getting younger. He has developed far more mobility than when we first met and it's all from our regular practice together. Our sessions last for an hour and then I leave him homework, which he does himself every day."

Asked what level of skill the President demonstrates, it sounds like the Irish Commander-in-Chief is even more lithe than the average 21 year old: "We do a lot of squatting work. He can do the downward dog, he can do the chair pose and the tree pose," says Mr Ryan. However, he says that the holy grail of positions, which all yoga students strive for - the 'lotus' position - "wouldn't be advisable following his knee operation".

And rather than just simply limbering up, the Yogi and student sometimes take time out to talk about the problems of existence and the meaning of life.

"We talk philosophy a lot and he knows a lot about the human condition. He was telling me recently about what it means to find a sense of home inside ourselves. At the end of the day, we are all trying to find that.

"He is a genuinely remarkable man. He is a beautiful mix of head and heart and there is a great wisdom and compassion there. I think in the Celtic Tiger years we all lost our way a bit but Michael is the beacon of what it means to be the very best of what an Irish person can be. He makes us keep in mind that idea that we are from the land of saints and scholars. He reminds us of our souls."

He adds: "Michael's mind is symbolic of that more sensitive aspect of ourselves. His presidency is such a gift to us. He reminds us about what it is to be a human being, to feel safe in our own bodies and part of a community."

On the President's decision to make their weekly sessions public, he says: "It is very private, so it is his choice but I am delighted he did. In a sense, it is a very intimate space that we are in together. It is a space for him to reboot and de-stress and to breathe and meditate - and that is an area where he shines."

Far from being the most enlightened member of the family, the President is lagging behind his wife. Sabina, herself, has been practicing yoga for over 40 years, since before the pair married.

Meanwhile, Mr Ryan, who holds twice weekly classes in Glasthule, as well as private sessions and retreats, says the nation can get on board if they want to stay as young as their leader. "As we get older, the body builds up toxins. Yoga is a way of alkalizing the body. It gives us the boost needed to stay young."

Sunday Independent

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