“If I can stand upside down and can control my core so much that I am a straight line, there is nothing I can’t do,” says Irene Damanaki as she limbers her body into a vertical headstand. Acutely focused on form, she gathers every muscle taut to achieve her purpose. She becomes a physical metaphor for her life—sometimes you have to wrench yourself from the comfortable position you have always maneuvered in to see the world literally upside down. “It is by turning the world upside down that you can do things you think are impossible to do,” she explains with the collectedness of a guru-philosopher.
Damanakis decided at 37 to start her life over again. She decided to go through with a divorce even with two children to tow. She gave up a successful post as VP sales and PR for her husband’s shipping company to pursue the love of her life—yoga. While a practitioner for 18 years, she confesses that yoga was the only thing that kept her going during this incredibly difficult period of transition. “We say in yoga that pain is the only way for the light to enter us, “ she explains. “It is necessary to suffer pain so as to find the way to break through it and to find what makes us happy.” Yoga gave her the opportunity to break through her inner self to surpass her fears and come to terms with her life-long battle with anorexia.
Damanakis gives off an air of centeredness. Her practice speaks to the whole person—both body and spirit. While pushing you to hold a pose, she cushions the strain by addressing the spiritual struggle behind it, “Change cannot happen without pain.” Pain is a recurring theme in her conversations that lilt more like a philosophers. It is through the pain of a divorce that she garnered the strength to chase her dream after all. She tries to teach her students that true change, the kind that must start from within, takes time and a lot of pain. “We resist change,” she continues, “If you don’t resist, you are not really changing.”
But through the pain, a breakthrough occurs that leads to the other recurring theme for living according to Damankis–happiness. Yoga was the path to her happiness. It was the vehicle to transform and understand herself. If you’re not happy, you and not capable of making anyone else happy, she claims. She sees many women clients during the course of her day at her yoga studio in Glyfada who talk about the many demands required of them. “The physical transformation is only part of it,” she says, “everyone likes to look good and have a good body, but if your inner self suffers, it’s not going to work. You are looking good for others not for you. Happiness is an inside job. If it makes you happy, it is worth doing.”
To those racked with fear and guilt about choosing a life of self-fulfillment, of not having enough time to devote to family, of not wanting to disappoint the expectations of family and society, of worrying that they will not be financially successful if they pursue their dreams, she says,” If you are not happy and accept to live in an every day that does not completely make you happy, you will live a half-life or a mediocre life—a life only as meaningful as you risked to make it.” The best decision of her life was to pursue what she loved. “When you do something you love,” she explains, “it gives you so much strength and positive energy. With enough positive energy she states, you can do anything.” Fear and guilt are what keeps us from becoming our better selves, she states.
Happiness is at the core of her life because she has found it is the mechanisms that translates itself unto others. “My students see me sitting in front of them in the studio and they see the light around me. I make them happy. Happiness is what drives my everyday.”
At 41, Damanakis says she is the happiest she has been in her life, registering a number 8 on a scale of 10 for how fulfilled she feels, much higher than in her 20s. She is living in the best body she has ever had, she says. Her day typically starts early as her morning classes start at 8 am. She practices alongside her students for 6 to 9 hours a day. Trained and certified in vinyasa yoga, ying yang yoga, prenatal, and Akra yoga, Damanakis uses an eclectic approach that adjusts to the needs of the person. Her classes become bonding sessions for many of her students who come to talk about the concerns of their lives, their children, and jobs.
Contrary to popular opinion, she is against dieting describing it as “violence against ourselves.” Instead she works on developing mindfulness in her students so that through yoga they get to the core of the issues centered around food. She finds that eating a normal diet, even one that includes a little meat, can give the best version of herself and for her students. In time her students shed 3 to 4 kilos in a month naturally,
She is likewise opposed to body building and getting muscled up as is the craze. She claims she has never lifted a weight in her life. A practice that is consumed with artificially engineering the muscles with a chemistry lab of additives, and an obsessed tracking of pills and compounds is antithetical to the natural growth of the body and its muscles. “Forcing the body to be something it was never meant to be cannot be good because the body will pay you back for this in some way,” she explains.
She advises a daily program of 20-30 minutes per day to see results. She does not guarantee that you will have her body, but you will have your own unique body to maneuver in. “Being what you were meant to be, being your own best self, is the only thing worth striving for,” she claims. “Once we have accepted ourselves as who we are, then we can make it our life’s purpose.”
Her motto remains: “If it makes you happy, it is worth doing. If it makes you happy, then you are successful.”
For more on Irene Damanakis’ studio, check out www.yoga-4-all.com