“I’ve only ever followed what
the universe told me to do.“
Duncan Hulin .
In the memorable heatwave of summer 1976, a group of teenage boys were hanging out in the park in Sidmouth, Devon. Amongst them was an 18 year old who had asthma, eczema, and a vague interest in Zen and all things Eastern.
“One of my mates said to me, why don’t you try yoga?” says Duncan Hulin. “I remember saying ‘what’s yoga?’ and he said it’s breathing and exercises that come from India. I thought, if it comes from India that’s good enough for me.”
And so began a journey for Duncan that has taken him many times to India, from illness to robust health, that eventually saw him establish the Devon School of Yoga and now this year for the first time, The Devon Yoga Festival.
His first step was to take a yoga class at a local adult education centre where he realised he might have been good at football but could hardly reach his hands beyond his knees without having to bend them.
“Almost immediately my asthma and eczema eased – and I’ve never seen a doctor again about those conditions. I also started to see the link between mind and body. I realised before going to yoga that my itchy arm and tight chest got worse if I was stressed or if I ate the wrong things. Doing yoga started to pull all these elements together into something that made sense.”
Duncan, who left school at 15, was working as a jobbing gardener around East Devon. But the alchemy of yoga had begun, and he wanted more. So in the days before mobile phones, the internet and travel guides, Duncan decided to pack a bag and take himself off to India from six months in the winter of 1982 – 83.
A friend of the family gave him the address of a guru in Kerala – Dr P. Pillai. But he was initially not top of Duncan’s list of teachers to visit. Instead, he and his then girlfriend headed to Pune to study with B.K.S.Iyengar – only to discover a four week waiting list. Their next stop at the Bagwan Shri Rajneesh ashram proved fruitless as he just had left the country under a cloud of accusations about tax evasion. And so the couple decided the only thing left to do was head down to Trivandrum to visit Dr Pillai.
“Most visiting students were asked to stay in guest houses nearby (the beach) but he just looked straight at us and said ‘Your room is here’,” remembers Duncan, “and we stayed in the house in the two rooms that were for committed students.”
Dr Pillai shared his teachings on kriyas, pranayama, meditation and philosophy with his students one to one. Asana classes were held in groups by his brother in law in the classic Indian way – aspirants would practice from diagrams, and the teacher would only help if they asked or were struggling.
“At various times in that three month stay I had what could only be described as transformational experiences,” said Duncan. “I’d wake at 3am and go and sit on the roof and meditate or do kriyas and pranayama. One thing I saw was the next year of my life. The whole lot. And it all came true.”
What Duncan saw took him and his wife at the time through a difficult time when they returned to Devon almost penniless. When a gardening client of Duncan’s inherited a farm and asked him to turn it into a hotel, it came as no surprise – he’d seen it all in his vision. Within a year the couple were running the Moorhayes vegetarian country farmhouse hotel that was the first entirely vegetarian hotel in the South West.
During the renovation, Duncan and his by then wife (at the time) and their first child, lived in a cobweb-filled barn nearby. And it was in this humble location in the summer of 1983 that Duncan taught his first yoga classes to curious friends.
He was also running a wholefood stall at the local market two days a week – and one day his original yoga teacher walked in and offered him all her classes.
“This was another thing I’d seen in my vision,” said Duncan. “I felt and still feel that I’ve only ever listened to what the universe has planned for me and followed it, even when people thought I was mad.”
And friends and family did indeed think he’d lost all reason when just as the hotel became the first vegetarian establishment to be mentioned in the Good Hotel Guide, Duncan decided to chuck it all in for his yoga dream.
“I remember walking the dog and looking up to the stars thinking what the hell am I doing. But the answer always came clearly – just carry on.”
By 1989 he was juggling shiatsu training and practising Chavutti Thirumal (Ayurvedic massage by foot pressure) one day a week with gardening and yoga teaching, but feeling that it still wasn’t quite what was set out for him.
“So what happens? The universe really steps in. I was laying paving slabs and there was a big cracking noise in my knee. I’d torn a ligament and needed surgery.
“I couldn’t continue gardening and was very worried,” remembers Duncan. “But during the week I spent re-couperating on the sofa the phone literally rang every day with people wanting me to take over or set up classes. By the end of the week I was a full time yoga teacher.”
Duncan set up the East Devon Yoga Centre with a government scheme giving him £40 a week towards start-up costs. As well as weekly classes he would run weekend workshops to share the teachings beyond asana. These were eventually put together as a foundation course and in 1993 the Devon School of Yoga was born.
The School now offers a six month foundation course, a two year teacher training and, since 2010, a two year post-graduate in yoga therapy along with annual retreats both in Devon and India.
“I’ve also always kept it as the Devon School rather than Duncan Hulin. I wanted the teachings to stand on their own, and for the school to be able to continue if something happened to me. We have ten teachers now which means others bring their eclectic styles to the mix, although our heartland will always be Dr Pillai and his teacher Swami Sivananda Paramahansa’s method of kriyas, pranayama and meditation.”
The last time Duncan met his teacher was in 1985, when Dr Pillai came to the UK and spent two weeks teaching in Devon. He died in 1989 but Duncan’s link with the teacher’s family remains.
“I’ve just returned from a trip to see the new centre built by Dr Pillai’s son,” said Duncan. “He would have been proud to see it, as it still follows his mantra of small is beautiful, which has always been mine too.”
Despite this, it looks like things are about to get a lot bigger for Duncan, who is putting the finishing touches to the first ever Devon Festival of Yoga to be held in August 2012.
“Once again, yogic magic is behind it all!” laughs Duncan. “I originally thought about a number of existing yoga centres joining up to do a special week of workshops. But I saw the Seale Hayne venue and thought how perfect it would be for a high quality festival with great accommodation and catering. And then suddenly I had teachers from all over the country signed up!”
And so as the Devon School of Yoga heads towards its 20th anniversary in 2013, what else has Duncan Hulin got planned?
“I’d like to see in ten years time yoga gets so mainstream that it will be used by the NHS. I hope it will, because our health as a nation is in disarray at the moment. So bring on yoga for children in schools, yoga in residential homes, yoga in prisons, yoga in the work place, yoga in the flourishing new yoga centres that are popping up in towns and cities. We need healthy bodies and peaceful minds.”
The Devon School of Yoga, established in 1989 brings together classes, workshops, retreats and training courses under one umbrella, covering all aspects of the subject. Set in locations around Devon, making Yoga accessible, the ideal surroundings are provided for Yoga practice, study and contemplation.
The school teaches a holistic approach to Yoga. As well as coming from an eclectic base its core practises are based on the Dr. Pillai system of Kriyas, Pranayama and Meditation, and its spiritual energy source comes through Swami Sivananda Paramahamsa (of Kerala, India). The Devon School of Yoga is a member of The Yoga Network.