ABU DHABI // Debbie Kochanczyk is not your average yoga teacher. "My skin is sagging, my hair is going grey. I can't do every single posture," she says, a twinkle in her eye.
But that may be why people love her classes so much. The 51-year-old Briton, who has lived in the capital for seven years, has become one of its most accomplished instructors. She teaches a mixture of yoga styles in eight classes each week at the Hiltonia Health Club, attended by up to 30 students at a time. A self-proclaimed antidote to "young skinny whipper snapper" types, Mrs Kochanczyk believes she may help her students feel more at ease. They may feel that if she can contort herself into difficult poses, they can too.
"I'm a real person up there," she says. "People don't feel intimidated." Many of them having been with Mrs Kochanczyk for years. "I need to know people's names," she says. "I want them to feel welcome. It's the least I can do." Her path to yoga - one she only set out on in her mid-40s after several other careers, marriage and motherhood - was an unlikely one. She dedicated the best part of the past 20 years to raising her two sons, John, 21, and Thomas, 16, from her 24-year marriage to her husband Ray, who works in the oil and gas industry.
She has followed her husband around the world, taking up new interests at each stop. She studied to be an interior designer, but in Azerbaijan she volunteered in local orphanages, caring for children with birth deformities including cleft palate and club foot. In London, she learned paramedical tattooing, which, for instance, can be used to help cover up severe scars suffered by victims of car accidents and fires.
"In each country, you are organic, and you reinvent yourself," she says. When she first arrived in Abu Dhabi, she took a series of courses in sports science and began teaching classes such as pilates and water aerobics. "In one class I had 45 women all jumping around to my music," she said. "It was a great experience and good fun but it soon became tiresome and was just a stepping stone. It was really yoga that worked for me."
Anyone taking one of her classes would think Mrs Kochanczyk has been doing yoga for years. She easily contorts herself into a range of postures, known as asanas, that would test the fittest of athletes. But when she first started, just five years ago at the age of 46, she was "really inflexible" and had no strength. "I was cringing at the idea of 'downward facing dog' but I really loved the benefits of it," she says. "I love the calm and quiet it gives me. It seemed a more natural approach to being healthy and using the body as its own weight. The breathing is so good for stress and sleep disorders. The sense of well-being, without having to be competitive, is so beautiful."
She says her family has noticed a change in her personality since she began her practice. A calmer aura surrounds her, what she calls "a shift of my being" from the impatient, frantic person she was before. Becoming a yoga teacher also required her to overcome her fear of public speaking. She is now gregarious and bubbly in front of her classes. "Yoga helped me find the belief in myself," she says. "It's an attitude, a philosophy. You are getting mental and physical alignment."
It is also, she says, "an elixir of youth", as evidenced by her latest interest: screenwriting. Last year, after taking a one-day course in scriptwriting, she wrote her own short film called Land is Tomorrow, which looks at the contrast between young expatriate and Emirati women. It was inspired by the young Sheikhas she has coached in the capital, ladies who she says have opened her eyes to a whole new world.
When she submitted the piece to a scriptwriting competition offered by the Abu Dhabi Film Commission, she made it on to a top-20 shortlist. "You can achieve anything here," she says. "I could never have done this in London for example. Dreams come true here. I know how hard life is in other countries and I feel very lucky here. I have a very cheeky side and I always say, 'Why shouldn't I? What's stopping me?' You have to know your incompetencies as well as your strengths. There's nothing wrong with finding out you can't do something."