Obituary: Derek Ireland

Peter Guttridge
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:39

IN 1988, Derek Ireland, the charismatic yoga practitioner who was largely responsible with Radha Warrell for introducing to Europe the "aerobic" yoga called astanga vinyasa, accidentally blew himself up with camping gas canisters on a Greek island. He was severely burnt on his legs and arms so a Greek doctor peeled the skin off. "He peeled my hand which really hurt because of all the nerve endings. My lateral ligament was sticking out like an onion ring," Ireland recalled later.

He was flown to London for skin grafts. On arrival the doctors wrapped the burns in netting and plastic bags and bandages then left him for a few days before starting on the grafts. Whilst waiting, Ireland did head and shoulder stands. "It was the Olympics so I turned the television upside- down and watched it for an hour at a time." Seven days later the doctors took the bandages off. The skin had healed. "No scars, nothing. But I felt tiny because I'd no prana left from healing this thing."

"Prana" in yoga is the breath of life - the life force - and it was the power of the breathing exercises ("pranayama") that first drew Derek Ireland, a former Brighton and Hove football apprentice, to yoga.

"I'm not into meditation," he said. "I don't believe in chakras or kundalini. I'm not a guru worshipper - I know they've grown wise but they're still only human and all they know is some southern Indian village. I got into astanga vinyasa yoga for the combination of breathing and movement."

Ireland was a walking testimonial to the health and fitness properties of the form. Tall, deeply tanned and muscular, he radiated vitality and energy. To see him demonstrate the yoga, accompanied by throbbing pop music, was an eye-popping experience. He combined grace and fluidity of movement with strength and remarkable gymnastic ability.

He clearly believed if you've got it flaunt it. He did the demonstrations in designer knickers and his own yoga practise six days a week wearing only a thong. On his daily run he generally wore nothing but trainers, the thong and a personal stereo.

He got away with such shameless exhibitionism by dint of his genial charm and a willingness to laugh at himself. A warm, caring man, he had a quick sense of humour and a ready laugh - a wonderful, deep, basso laugh that filled the "sweat box" at the Practice Place in Crete or the "yoga shack" on the beach in Goa where he was an inspiring, hands-on teacher to hundreds of students over the years.

"I like to work hands on - I look on my teaching as bodywork therapy," he said. One of his students had over 50 broken bones but was on the second series (the yoga has six levels or series, each one increasing in difficulty). It didn't matter to Derek how good you were, all that mattered was that you were willing to try.

Derek Ireland was born and raised in Brighton. A "ferociously competitive" athlete at school, he was apprenticed to Brighton and Hove Albion football team when a severe knee injury playing rugby ended his hopes of a professional sports career.

When punk came along he spent five years promoting the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Stranglers along the south coast and took fully to the rock and roll lifestyle. He started conventional yoga with his girlfriend Radha Warrell after "living off my memories of my sporting triumphs for ten years". Thereafter he did yoga almost every day.

In 1978 the couple moved to Los Angeles where Ireland was supposed to take a band on the road. "It was to be Foreigner, then the Tubes, then Ozzy Osbourne. In the end I didn't take anyone - I think because they thought I was wilder than the bands."

Two years later the couple went on a one-month teacher training course to a Shivananda yoga retreat in the Bahamas. They stayed six years to run the place. During that time a visiting Shivananda swami from New York introduced them to astanga vinyasa, a vigorous form of yoga that had been rediscovered in the Thirties by Patthabhi Jois in Mysore, who claimed it was the original yoga from which all other hatha yogas had developed.

In 1986 Derek Ireland moved to New York to teach it - in the absence of premises he ran big open-air classes in Central Park until the park authorities moved him on. The following year he and Radha spent six months with Jois in Mysore, then began to teach the form as he had passed it on to them all over the world.

In 1991 they opened the Practice Place, a centre devoted to astanga vinyasa, in a secluded bay in southern Crete. The Practice Place quickly established itself as one of the most important yoga centres in the world. Many of the numerous classes now available in Britain are run by Derek and Radha's former students. More and more people have taken up the yoga, including such celebrities as Ralph Fiennes, Daniel Day-Lewis, Sting, Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder and Demi Moore.

Ireland's ebullient manner and deliberately non-spiritual approach to yoga caused raised eyebrows in the yoga community over the years. "I usually do my practice to music - in England I do it to MTV," he said a couple of years ago. "I used to do it with weights on my wrists: that upset a few purists. I also had a weighted jacket but I got rid of that after I did a handstand and nearly killed myself - it slipped down and hit me on the back of the head."

Ireland had lots of injuries, which made his control of his body even more remarkable. He fell out of a tricky posture and severed a nerve once, losing control of his left arm for four years. In consequence, teaching ta'i chi he kept hitting himself in the eye.

In winter he ran courses in a "yoga shack" on a beach in Goa. He attracted students simply by doing his practice on the beach for passersby to watch. The practice would take two hours and within five minutes he would be surrounded by Indians who weren't familiar with this style of yoga. "Some would plonk babies on me for photographs. I tried to stay focused - I only got uptight if they actually walked on me!"

Derek Ireland had started a new phase of his life with Kristina Karitinou and their child Lumiere when testicular cancer was diagnosed and treated. They had another child, Liam, 18 months ago. Cancer recurred. Ireland continued to teach in Crete and Goa in the periods between his treatments with the same care as before. His warmth and ebullience never left him until the breath of life, the prana, did.

Derek Ireland, yoga practitioner and teacher: born Brighton, East Sussex 16 April 1949; married 1998 Kristina Karitinou (two sons); died Brighton 24 September 1998.

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