Simon Borg-Olivier is synonymous with yoga in Australia and runs Yoga Synergy with business partner, Bianca Machliss.
Simon’s yoga journey began when he was just six years old and from those first exploratory steps, he has carved a lifelong adventure, which has touched and continues to influence thousands of other yogis around the world.
One of Simon’s major passions is pranayama – and at the age of six, he had his first introduction to the breath when his father, George – a free diver – taught him how to swim by holding his breath under water.
‘I could swim the lap of an Olympic pool under water before I could swim it on top,’ recalls Simon.
To this day, Simon, now 53, is more likely to be under the water than above it when he goes for a dip.
He even practices yoga under the surface. ‘I love moving under water,’ he says. ‘It teaches you how to move without breathing and to move in a way that is not dependent on external forces such as gravity.’ He explains when under water, your hands and trunk move the water and you start to feel the energy of the medium around you.
Growing up, Simon was well travelled (as he is today!), born in Malta and raised in Germany before moving to the UK. Then at eight, he emigrated to Australia with his parents, George and Marie and younger sister, Suzi.
While on the boat, he befriended Basil Brown – an athlete from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) who taught him about Bandhas including Uddiyana Bandha.
‘He showed me how to hold the breath out, do Nauli and roll the abdomen sideways,’ says Simon. This has remained a major part of his personal practice.
His parents continued their positive influence. His father taught him to remain relaxed in stressful situations while Simon attributes his philosophical education to his mum. ‘Mum taught me Santosa – the art of being happy with what you have been given,’ he says.
Growing up, Simon lived within the framework of the Yamas and Niyamas, particularly Tapas – always trying your hardest, Ahimsa – working in a way that doesn’t cause harm or suffering to yourself or others, and Ishvara Pranidhana – working and living in a loving, devotional manner.
At 17, Simon had just finished his last year of high school and was at a party when out of the crowd, a man appeared, walked directly up to Simon and handed him his card. ‘He asked me to call him and then walked away.’
The man was Lama Ta-Fi – a Tibetan Lama. So the following day Simon called the number and began lessons on the philosophy and practice of Tantric Yoga.
The knowledge and experience he gained deepened his connection with yoga and he continued to attend regular yoga classes and enrolled in the Oki Yoga Teacher Training program.
Towards the end of the course, he was in a class when instructor, Eve Grzybowski announced a yoga teacher was needed for a school in Newtown.
Despite Simon’s passion for yoga, the notion of being a yoga teacher seemed ridiculous. ‘My early teachers were amazing super beings and I was humbled in their presence,’ he says. ‘I didn’t think I could do that’.
When no-one volunteered, Eve said: “Simon, is there any reason why you can’t do it?” And because he hesitated more than a second she gave him the class!
At first Simon shared the teaching with another student, Leonard. And he discovered that while he didn’t know as much as his teachers, he had learnt enough to help people who knew less than he did.
A year later, in 1984, Simon established his first yoga studio – The Newtown School of Yoga, which was later to become Yoga Synergy.
He continued to study at the University of Sydney, gaining a Master of Science in Molecular Biology in 1986. He stayed on to work as a research scientist and met fellow student and yogi, Bianca Machliss.
He continued adding to his impressive array of qualifications, meeting his primary teacher, Natanaga Zhander (Shandor Remete), becoming a Shiatsu Massage therapist, Chinese Massage therapist and Iyengar Yoga Teacher.
But despite all these years of teaching, training and trips to India, studying with BKS Iyengar, K.Pattabhi Jois and TKV Desikachar, Simon still felt he didn’t know enough about yoga to call himself a teacher.
‘I realised I did not know enough about yoga or the body to be a safe and effective teacher,’ he says.
At the time he had big classes of about 50-60 students, but each week he would lose 20 students and gain 20… still the class was packed, but why weren’t the initial 20 coming back
He was also concerned when some people came to the class with injuries but didn’t get better…
‘If you are dealing with the body, you really need to take responsibility and make what you do safe,’ he says.
‘Although yoga is very effective if done safely and effectively, it is easy to hurt people if you give them the wrong exercises prematurely, too fast or too hard.’
So at the age of 33, both Simon and Bianca, who was now a co-director of Yoga Synergy, returned to university to study Physiotherapy.
His studies helped to streamline his own practice and teachings. He says: ‘I now describe myself as an exercise-based Physiotherapist who uses yoga as his main medium, or a Yogi with an understanding of exercise-based physiotherapy,’ he says.
Qualifying as a physiotherapist brought the scientific and yogic strands of his life together and using their vast knowledge and experience, Simon and Bianca developed Yoga Synergy’s Applied Anatomy & Physiology Course of Hatha Yoga.
This course is now taught as part of the Integrative Applied Eastern Anatomy and Physiology course at Melbourne’s RMIT University.
They say life begins at 40 – and for Simon life did take a dramatic turn when he met Vitoria – a fellow yoga teacher – who became the mother of his two children
Simon says the biggest parenting challenge he faces is spending enough time with Amaliah, now 10 and Eric, now seven.
He says: ‘I love both the physical work that I do teaching yoga. I even to a certain extent love writing about yoga, I just don’t like the physical process of sitting at my desk.
‘I love teaching around the world, but I don’t like the physical process of having to travel there. All of those things take time and they take time away from your family unfortunately. But when I get to be with them, it is just magic.’
Another of Simon’s passions is his work with the IYTA. ‘I love the IYTA,’ he says warmly. And since early nineties he has been involved with the IYTA, lecturing on the IYTA’s Teacher Training course.
His new role within the organisation is key lecturer in the Post Graduate Advanced Yoga Teaching, where he is focusing on applied anatomy and physiology of yoga.
He says: ‘We can only affect the world and our bodies by the way we activate muscles and the way we think to activate muscles and breathing.’ Simon wants to help people understand how their own movement muscle activations can change their yoga and the way they feel.
He feels that in Yoga today, anatomy, in terms of how we look and strength, is often overplayed compared to physiology. Yet physiology is about how you feel, how energised you are – your mood and energy levels.
‘As you get older, these things become more important. As a youth, you can handle stressing yourself out doing lots of intense things because afterwards you will feel okay, but as you get older, you will completely wipe yourself out doing an intense workout and be exhausted for the week,’ he says.
Simon believes in a nurturing practice that gathers energy and doesn’t deplete it, that nourishes the internal organs rather than exhausting them, that can even become a substitute for sleep and food.
As Simon has refined his own yoga practice, he has been able to reduce his need for sleep, food and even breathing.
‘For the past 10 to 15 years I don’t eat, breathe or sleep as much as I used to,’ Simon says.
He typically sleeps three to four hours a night and has been a vegan for the past 30 years. His idea of pigging out is to eat a big salad!
He also believes most of us hyperventilate and need to learn to slow the breath.
He says: ‘Learning how not to breathe is the true art of pranayama, as anyone can breathe more. But to breathe less takes a bit of understanding.’
He adds that when you are in the ultimate state of meditation it’s almost as if you are not breathing at all.
Yoga became Simon’s salvation two years ago when he suffered a catastrophic four-metre fall while on a film set in Melbourne. The fall, from scaffolding, resulted in him breaking his elbow in two places, tearing off his triceps, crushing his wrist and severely injuring his lower back and hips.
Amazingly, after medical treatment on the day of the accident, Simon flew back to Sydney to teach his yoga class. He remembers it was pouring with rain and he strolled in ten minutes late.
He normally encourages his students to follow him and do less or more, depending on their flexibility.’ They know they will usually do less than him, but Simon quipped: ‘Tonight you will probably do more,’ and then removed his jacket to reveal a full arm cast!
For the next few months, Simon simply modified his practice. ‘The doctor didn’t think I’d ever be able to straighten my elbow again and I wasn’t able to put my hands on the floor for six months. But thanks to my own yoga teachers I was even able to do handstands again!,’ he smiles.
He is still not fully recovered, but hopes he will eventually be able to fix up his back and hips.
Alongside the physical benefits, Simon has also found the philosophy a massive help.
He says: ‘I was surprised how many people thought I must have been devastated by what had happened,’ he says.
‘It made me appreciate that at some level I had learnt the yoga philosophy of Aparigraha – don’t be attached to what you have, don’t expect to be able to do what you’ve done before just because you’ve done it before, to not expect to have something because you’ve had it before. This doesn’t just refer to material things, but also to your body, the way you do things and your situation. None of that is permanent.
And even though we sometimes have bad luck we still have to accept the place we are at. Happiness is a choice you make, not a place you land into.’
And Simon believes the realisation that happiness is a choice is fundamental for our health. ‘We can choose happiness, complacency or averageness,’ he says. ‘So we might as well choose the one we feel best with – and for most people choosing happiness is going to give the best response. It has certainly been proved to be true with modern medical science – people who are generally happier are healthier.’
‘Even though I had a physical injury, which I still have, I find happiness in my daily life. That’s a gift from yoga.’
And so what’s next for Simon on his yoga path?
‘I have everything in mind and nothing in mind at the same time,’ he laughs.
‘My teacher (Master Zhen Hua Yang) would love me to travel with him around the world and one day I would love to do that. But the one thing I want to really focus on is helping my children grow up as good people.’
Simon is also busy promoting his two online Yoga Synergy courses. One is Basic Anatomy and Physiology of Yoga and the other is Yoga Essentials – the fundamentals of teacher training.
He adds he is a bit concerned about the state of yoga around the world today.
‘Most people are practising what they call yoga,’ he says. ‘But it is over-stretching, over-tensing, over-breathing, over-thinking and followed by over-eating.’
Simon’s philosophy, which he enourages his students to practise is to: tense less, stretch less, breath less, think less and eat less while doing more!
He believes many people adopt one of two types of yoga. The first he calls ThaTha – which he describes as being passive in poses, totally relaxed and then going to sleep.
He says: ‘That is never going to strengthen you, but will probably make you overstretch your joints, leaving you apathetic and lazy.’
The second he calls HaHa yoga, where the body and breath are tense, tight and hard, which is usually followed by a few minutes of ThaTha yoga at the end, where the student simply zones out.
He believes the best way to practice yoga is to do semi stressful things in a controlled environment and while being relaxed. Or boring activities such as washing up, while staying focused and attentive.
‘But many people do stressful yoga, stressful exercise while they are feeling stressed. Then they lie down to relax at the end and just space out.’
Simon feels positive that as the years pass his personal practice will continue to deepen. His teacher, Master Zhen Hua Yang, cites his 108-year-old grandfather as his main teacher.
‘He respects and admires him because he believes he is more powerful than he is. That he is more evolved physically (not just mentally and emotionally), and as we get older, the yoga power within should get more powerful. As long as the yoga is on the right path.’
So as Simon’s journey continues, he is aspiring to improve his yoga, his personal health and the way he connects with his own body.
‘Because,’ he says, ‘Only with your personal health at a satisfactory level are you able to help the planet.’
* This article, written by Katie Brown, was first published in the IYTA’s International Light magazine