Derek Ireland was a legendary Ashtanga teacher who pioneered the style in Brighton before his untimely death 20 years ago.
His partner, Kristina Karitinou-Ireland, was interviewed about Derek and the early days of Ashtanga yoga in Brighton at a public workshop at the 2018 Brighton Yoga Festival.
Peter: I’m here to host this event and to ask questions about Derek’s Ireland’s influence and about Ashtanga yoga in the early days. Derek introduced Ashtanga to Europe. He was one of the first to do it in New York and he started doing it in Los Angeles. We’re going to roam a little around Derek’s life and the life of Ashtanga. Would you introduce yourself and tell us what link you had with Derek?
Ginny: My name is Ginny Dean. I’ve practiced yoga for most of my adult life from when I was at college. I gave up my career in 1994 and went travelling in India. I ended up on Goa beach, where I met Derek. I stayed in Goa then for about three and a half months, learning the Ashtanga Vinyasa practice with Derek. He was a very inspirational teacher. Kristina was obviously there with her young son at the time. He was a baby. That was my connection. I continued to practice with Derek in Goa every year and then in Crete as well until 1998.
Lin Bridgeford: I met Derek and Kristina in Crete. I was very fortunate to meet him before the end and just fell in love with the Ashtanga. I’d done yoga. I’d done a lot of Iyengar. I taught dance. When I went there and had done the first few days I thought: I can’t do anything but sit up straight. I don’t want to do anything else. I want to do this for the rest of my life. I thought: This is amazing. I felt so good in my body. It’s such an inspiration what Derek and Kristina have left for us to work with. I hear Derek and Kristina went on teaching and Kristina has given me amazing classes to follow on in Brighton when she left. And it was so exciting. It was so long ago. It was 20 years.
Peter: I’m going to skip you for a second, Kristina, because this is Derek’s sister Deborah. Obviously he didn’t start out as a yoga person, did he?
You grew up with him obviously. He was ferociously competitive and sport mad.
Deborah: Yes, sport mad. He only went to school when there was sport on the curriculum. My mum found him roaming around Patcham many a time in combats I think. Not even in school uniform. But he still passed all his exams and went on to have various jobs. He was a life-guard on Brighton beach. He was an apprentice for Brighton and Hove Albion. He promoted bands on Hastings Pier.
Peter: So then he started touring around the south coast as a promoter: Sex Pistols, The Clash.
Peter: He told me he’d gone to Los Angeles to arrange a tour with either Foreigner, possibly Ozzy Osbourne, but they decided that he was too wild for any of them to take on tour. While he was staying in Los Angeles, he got interested in yoga through his then partner and then they went off to the Bahamas. He really got into the yoga there. He ended up running the retreat for six years. The thing about Derek was that he knew that he was very good at organising things.
He also had funny stories about that, because it was on the direct route for the drug carriers to bring drugs from South America to Miami via this particular island. So they used to dock on the other side of the island and he said that as long as we didn’t go over to that side of the island we didn’t get machine-gunned to death. So there was peace and love on one side of the island and drug-dealers on the other side of the island. A typical Derek Ireland story. And then a visiting swami introduced him to Ashtanga and he got hooked on it. Then he went to New York to teach it there. He couldn’t afford to pay for premises, so he did it in Central Park. He would gather people in the way that he later used to in Goa by just doing his practice, because he was a fine physical specimen. He was very supple. During his practice he would gather people to him. He would do that in Central Park until the police moved him on. And then in 1986, I think it was, he started the practice place in Crete. This is where Kristina comes in. You were a student as well initially. Tell me about your studentship?
Kristina: I started Ashtanga when I was 19 with a student of Derek’s. At the time Ashtanga was not popular at all. I went to see Derek in south Crete when I was 23. When I arrived at the centre there was this amazing couple that would teach the practice at the time - Derek and Radha. And we fell in love after some time and we took it from there. But the first few days was for me a completely new world. Something that opened the door to a completely new experience, because of this intelligence he had in teaching.
Peter: But he had this odd thing though. For him it wasn’t so much a spiritual thing. It was more about the breath and the movement and enjoying that. And he told me that he used to do the practice sometimes with weights on his wrists and ankles, and once he got a weighted jacket to do the practice so that it would be harder work for him. He stopped that when he did a headstand and it fell down on his head and nearly killed him. So it was kind of an odd thing that wasn’t normal in yoga I don’t think. He didn’t believe in gurus. He didn’t so much believe in chakras.
Kristina: He used everything he had in order to promote yoga, because yoga saved his life in a way. And he was very practical but he had to teach on a practical philosophy basis, not just on a philosophy basis.
Kristina: Derek put a lot of the elements and the knowledge of the western way of approaching the body, the western knowledge of our body. That’s why he organised beginner’s courses. And led primary series classes. We have to understand that Derek was the first one to actually translate the practice of led primary series classes - it did not exist at the time. It came later on with the big demonstrations in the west.
Peter: He called it a moving meditation, didn’t he? The fact that you don’t have to think about what you’re doing next, because it’s the same process every time.
Kristina: Absolutely, it’s a form like Tai Chi. If you know it, you just practice it and you discover things. But in Ashtanga, there is asana pranayama that we do and there is meditation, a different path. So somebody can really say that meditation is sitting and observing, but when they have to stand up and do things they do moving meditation. That’s why it’s important for somebody to get into the meditation as well, but under his own terms, choosing his own path.
Peter: So tell me about you and Derek and Brighton. The link. I know the practice place The Office was in Brighton.
Kristin: Yes, he had a practice place there. When Derek, he never died, but when Derek moved on. I was without work at the time I decided to go to Greece with the children and I realised that there was nobody there who wanted to know Ashtanga. There was no interest for that so I was waiting there for six months. Everybody probably knows this, but Derek was from Brighton. And then I had this call from Julie Martin. She was an American dancer at the time and she said to me: “I have a proposal.” And I was really surprised she called. She’d only done a couple of private classes with me. She said: “I want you to come back to Brighton.” There was no yoga centre in Brighton that was dedicated to Ashtanga and because Derek was from Brighton, it was really important to do something here. At the time Julie was working at the Natural Health Centre. And we had this amazing manager. Geri Hassan from India. She said to me originally: “You’re going to come here with the children and for six months we’re going to pay you a salary whether you have one or sixty people in the class. For six months we’re going to support you to see how this things go.” So it was an investment from these people, who I didn’t know. And I thought to myself that here I have my family, but I think I have to give England a good chance.
Kristina: I put everything again on the truck taking me back to England. I rented a flat and we had this conversation with Geri and we started the classes. Julie was the first one to support, because she had all the technical knowledge. She was able to organise everything. We managed in three years, in three and a half years, to have a yoga centre for Ashtanga in the Natural Health Centre. We even had the smaller room in the centre made only for Ashtanga and we used to run 14 classes per week. It was amazing. Four years later, I decided that I wanted to go back to Greece, because I needed to be close to my mother. And my children didn’t know the Greek language at all, so that was a decision for me. The centre’s still running. The class is still running. They changed the teachers and everything, but the important thing is that… I was the first Ashtanga teacher in the south and even saying that I would charge £7 back then, we’re talking about 1999, was a huge thing, because I would be really scared, but I explained that it’s a two hour class, trust me. It’s going to be fine. Even the price was something, at the time, we would offer volunteer classes in yoga. It would be Hatha yoga, but we had to support this effort. We weren’t making money, because obviously in the beginning, to build up a business, you have to throw in a lot of money into it. But it was important for us to have the connection with Brighton, because of Derek.
Peter: it’s twenty years since sadly Derek went and he would have been seventy next year. Are you thinking of doing anything special?
Kristina: Yes, we’ve chosen to do it in London and we’re going to do a celebration for Derek’s seventy years of his birth. And that is more his style.
Peter: You told me this incredible story about the power… I know he loved the breathing, I know he loved the pranayama, but he used to do that as a separate exercise, didn’t he? Each morning, I think. He told me this incredible story, which I know is before you knew him I think. About the gas canister exploding?
Kristina: He was in the Skyros centre in Greece. He was trying to change a gas in a tent with a candle next to it. Unfortunately it caught fire and all his body was enflamed. I think Rada was there with a blanket and covered him, but all his body was full of marks at the time. I know these things only from what he said and from the photos.
Deborah: We picked him up from Brighton station, my mum and I, and he looked like a mummy, covered in bandages.
Peter: He got flown back from Skyros to London, to a hospital.
Kristina: What he said is that is that he went to a Greek doctor there. They did an excellent job, but they had to peel all the skin off. So the doctor he had a cigarette here and he said “Lift your leg up.” And Derek lifted it. And Derek said “Do you want it higher?” and he lifted it even higher. And he was peeling the skin off, but they did an excellent job. The amazing thing was that he did not scar.
Peter: The story he told me was that he came back to London, he was covered in bandages and plastic bags…
Peter: He was in this hospital before they were going to do skin grafts and it was the Olympics. It was 1988, I believe, and he decided to do lots of head and shoulder stands. Whilst he was doing these, for an hour at a time, he turned television upside down so that he could watch The Olympics upside down, doing his head stands. Then they took the bandages off…
Kristina: And there were no scars.
Peter: And they didn’t need to do any grafts, because he’d been doing the breathing.
Kristina: Yes, he was amazing. How his body healed.
Peter: He said he had time. He had no prana left.
Kristina: This is the thing. He did a lot of pranayama. He tried to concentrate on his healing process. When he went, they used to ask me how it was possible. 25 years, macrobiotic food, vegetarian, athletic, yogi. How was it possible to die from cancer. Well, that was the lesson. The lesson is that we don’t do everything we do because we have an umbrella, that nothing is going to touch us. The lesson is “How are we going to do it?” Derek one month before he died, he left me and the children in Crete, picked up his luggage and came to England. He would not allow me to visit him. It’s what you are doing. What does the practice ask of us? How we face what’s coming to us. That was the lesson for us. How he died, the reason he died and how he then moved on from that. And the message is clear. It’s this life. Everything we do, we do it because we try to lift ourselves into a different frequency. To be better people for ourselves first of all. He said “If you love me, you stay away from me. You stay there.” This is a dignity situation. It’s a dignified way of living this life. So he came back. He stayed with his mother. He stayed with his family, with Deborah and they had time to heal where they had to heal. It was the time to return to his world and then leave this planet.
Find out more:
Read Derek’s obituary, written by Peter Guttridge and published in the Independent newspaper in 1998: