Patrick Nolfo was a disgruntled teenager, uninterested in football, doing a little martial arts, when his mother invited him to tag along to a yoga class.
“One class with my mom and I thought, ‘Wow, this is really great.’ And then I was practicing twice a week,” says Nolfo.
“For me it was really interesting, a new concept: you can breathe, you can relax, you can meditate, you can feel the body. It was much more interesting to me than karate.”
That first class launched the 47-year-old yogi from Montreux, Switzerland, who is visiting Abu Dhabi to teach classes at The Hot House on Friday and Saturday, into a practice that has lasted more than 30 years.
Soon Nolfo had decided he wanted to become a yoga teacher, long before it was fashionable. But he knew he needed training and experience, so he travelled and studied, keeping up his practice. A year in Boston, another in San Diego; he worked in a hospital; he earned his masters in naturopathy. Then in 1999, he was ready to go to India.
“I bought a one-way ticket,” he says. “At the time, you couldn’t find yoga by Google. I knew I had to go to India.”
All told, he spent two years learning to teach yoga in India. Then, he returned to Montreaux and opened a studio.
Back then Nolfo was just 68 kilograms, barely recognizable from the muscular 90kg he is today. He started bulking up by lifting weights five years ago, and although he had been vegetarian, added meat back into his diet.
“I wanted to have more shape, to show people that a yoga teacher doesn’t need to be skinny,” he says.
All that new muscle would save Nolfo’s life a few years later. He started traveling throughout Asia to give workshops in 2015, and was visiting China two years ago when he was hit by a drunk driver on the sidewalk, fracturing his C5-C6 vertebrae.
Unable to move without help, in terrible pain and wearing a cervical collar, he went through a week of injections until he was strong enough to fly back to Switzerland for surgery.
“The doctor told me, ‘If you didn’t have your background, with your muscle, you would be paralyzed. The thing that saved you was that your neck muscle was strong, it was protected,'” says Nolfo.
It was only two weeks after surgery that Nolfo started to move his body, doing some gentle yoga, overseeing his own physical therapy.
“After one year I could do everything I could do before, but with much more awareness,” he says. “Now I am much more aware of my body than before.”
Nolfo says he’s much more careful as a yoga teacher, too. He’s become a fan of acro yoga and in particular handstands, which will be the subject of one of his workshops this weekend.
“I love handstands because there is no pressure on my neck. I can be free with my neck,” he says. “It’s a really good inverse pose, because of the coordination between the brain and the muscles… you need to be focused 100 percent, you cannot think outside the pose.”
Nolfo is also an advocate of more men getting involved in yoga, extolling the physical gains they can make by working on their often-weak flexibility.
“It makes the body in better shape, it prevents injury,” he says. “Then combine flexibility with strength, and then your body is really functional.”
Right up there with the physical benefits, though, says Nolfo, are the emotional strength that a regular yoga practice can build.
“When you start to do yoga, you start to learn how to breathe and then you have better control of your emotions,” he says. “If you are happy, you are sad, you cry, you are scared — your breathing is not the same. If you learn how to breathe, then you can control all the emotions.”
- Patrick Nolfo will be at The Hot House for two pop-ups, on Friday, December 21 and Saturday, December 22. On Friday from 11 to 12.30pm he is leading a traditional Hatha class to build strength and flexibility, and on Saturday from 4 to 5.30pm it’s “have fun and build handstands”. Each class is Dh100. For more information call 02 5837753 or email [email protected]
Ann Marie McQueen
Ann Marie McQueen is the founding editor-in-chief of Livehealthy and host of The Livehealthy Podcast. She is a veteran Canadian digital journalist who has worked in North America and the Middle East. Her past roles include features editor for The National, trends writer and columnist for the Canadian newspaper chain Sun Media, and correspondent for CBC Radio.