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Yoga teacher Kylli Kukk shows you three easy moves, which increase the mobility of the back.Today, Kylli Kukk eats a pastry and enjoys life. She has left behind the Soviet-era Estonia, heptathlon and an alcoholic man.

She thinks back to a day from her youth: her foot was aching so much that tears clouded her eyes. Still, 18-year-old Kukk jumped over every hurdle. She did not need her eyesight, as the many years' tough training had ingrained the rhythm of the jumps.

In Soviet Estonia, a stress fracture was no reason to skip a track and field competition. Especially not if one studied in a Tallinn high school for sports where the aim was to be on top.

Kukk's sport was the heptathlon. Every morning began with a two-hour workout, and the evening ended with another workout. Trying your best was a duty – after all, in return the state offered food, sporting equipment and a place to study.

But when the coach forced her to run on a fractured leg, Kukk realised she was breaking something else besides her bones.

"Don't whore around."

Yoga teacher Kukk, 43, delivers the slogan at the same time as she asks her students to arch their backs in a Töölö yoga hall. Her voice is soft and carries only a trace of an Estonian accent.

Kukk founded a yoga school in Helsinki 12 years ago. The space has expanded from one hall to two floors, and there are over a dozen employees.

The sunny Estonian is also known outside the yoga hall. Kukk is sought for interviews and lectures to talk about wellness. This year, she published a guide to life together with journalist Virpi Melleri.

In it, she uses nicer words, but the message is the same.

"Whoring around means that you beat yourself up with thoughts and chain yourself to situations where you feel bad," Kukk explains.

Kukk wants to see people have the courage to leave cages such as neurotically monitoring calories, running with the taste of blood in your mouth or a bad relationship.

Kukk knows it is not easy. The promising athlete did not turn into a wellness guru overnight either.

It was 1990. Estonia had not yet gained independence when Kukk's father was hired as a coach by a Finnish volleyball team. The move felt like a lottery win to the 19-year-old Kylli.

Firstly: she would not become a top athlete who would fall on nothing after getting injured. She had seen such fates when her father coached the national team in volleyball. Kylli wanted a different kind of future and chose physiotherapy studies.

Secondly: in Finland, one could get anything from the stores. And nobody monitored your snacks, as in the sports high school.

Kukk carried yogurt, ice cream and cookies, Carnevals and Dominos, to the cash register. As a child in Pärnu, cookies tasted like flour, and her favourite delicacy was kogelmogel, egg yolk with sugar mixed into it.

Who?
Kylli Kukk, 43, is a physiotherapist
and yoga instructor.
Lived in Pärnu as a child
and moved to Finland at the
age of 19.

Known for?
Founded the Helsinki-based
yoga school Shanti in 2002.
This year published the “Kyllin
hyvä” wellness book together
with journalist Virpi
Melleri.

Not known for?
“I’m not always serene. After
yoga classes, when I stay
alone at the gym, I turn the
music up loud and dance
wildly to disco music.”
Three of the best

Amma: “I respect women
gurus, Mother Teresa and
Amma. I’ve met Amma at
least ten times.”

Colours: “There was nothing
colourful in Soviet Estonia,
especially not on
athletes. When I was able
to travel, I was faced with
a world of colour. The atmosphere
can be lifted
with colours. Even in rainy
weather, I’m wearing at
least pink rubber boots.”

Bali: “I go to Bali every
November. I give a yoga
course and then spend two
weeks there. I dive, surf and
climb the volcanoes. Bali’s
nature, noisiness and lusciousness
are wonderful.”

Gaining in Finland

In Finland, Kukk gorged on food and gained around 20 kilos in a short time. This was followed by remorse, exercise episodes and strange diets.

"In Estonia at the time, people favoured mono diets, in which only one foodstuff, such as sour milk, was eaten during that one day. Every time you got hungry, it was then that sour milk."

Wrenching around did not help. A year went past, and it seemed like the kilos were there to stay.

So, Kukk decided that she had to learn to like her new state of being. Instead of the balance, she stood in front of the mirror and started to repeat: there you are now, my new, lovely curves.

First it felt like silly nonsense, but slowly the words started to sound more and more authentic. You start to feel beautiful, if you keep on saying it again and again every day.

These days, Kukk laments women who bemoan their widened thighs, for example. Badmouthing yourself is everyday small talk that no one wonders about.

"If we'd scold others in the same way, we wouldn't have any more friends!"

Kukk has a talking to with women who say nasty things.

"I say that 'look dear what lovely eyes you have. And a heart that has not rested even for half a minute. And a womb, which has produced three children. Still, you only talk about thighs!'"

Making the most

You should treat your body and core well, because they may be taken away at any time.

In the small hours of a September morning, a twentysomething student rose to study for an exam. The news was on teletext: a ferry, the MS Estonia, had sunk.

"I thought to myself, how could something like that even happen in modern times. That a ship can just sink like that!"

When grandfather called, the scale of the atrocity became clear. Onboard were five Estonian athlete friends and her best friend's mother. The captain of the ship was a neighbour from Pärnu.

Three days later, Kukk's grandfather collapsed in a bus on the way home from the Pärnu market place.

"Grandfather was a completely healthy man. The doctor said that he died from the grief caused by MS Estonia."

Kukk grieved, but a thought sprouted in her mind. She started using all of her prettiest fancy dresses. Why should they be stored, if the next day is your last one.

"I decided that as long as I'm above ground, every day is a gift. Some always remember that in funerals, but then forget about it. I will never forget this realisation."

Learning happiness is brainwashing, Kukk says. If you have wallowed in negative feelings, new connections are hard to make.

"When parents taught us to brush our teeth, they reminded us of it every single day. But mother doesn't call me to say, Kylli, make sure you're being sunny and happy. You have to do that work yourself."

Because of MS Estonia, Kukk does not own a coffee maker. She wants to drink her coffee with a pastry in a café, because every day is a festive day.

Rollercoaster levels out

It is easy to fly as a messenger of positivity when all is well. But sometimes one needs to do something else besides talk.

When she was under 30, Kukk had everything: a pleasant job as a physiotherapist, a home on a lake and on the shore a canoe, in which one could go on canoeing trips. There was a lovely and sensitive man, who remembered to tell you how much he loves you.

But the weekends were from a different world. That is when Kukk sat in a bar looking at how the man would start an argument with everyone while drunk. Kukk was ashamed and kept on apologising, even though the man's friends reassured her that tomorrow everything would be forgotten.

"First it was a rollercoaster. During the weekdays, I was living my dream life, and Friday to Sunday morning was terrible. But after a few months had gone by, I didn't know how to be happy even during the week."

Kukk sought help from a group for relatives of alcoholics. There, the women always told the same story: their own parents drank, and now the husband did the same thing.

"There is a saying that says that a familiar hell is better for most people than an unknown paradise. My parents have not fought. I was an exception in there."

Kukk lasted a year. Then she rented a van and drove many hours to Helsinki.

"I tried to change him with gentle talks, at times I pounded my fist on the table. I thought that love would fix everything."

Sometimes in the yoga class, Kukk sees a student with a black eye. Then she asks if she could help. And hopes that the woman knows when it is time to leave.

Gentleness is important, but firmness is needed just as much.

"It's no use being a victim and a martyr. You can't always just say 'yes yes' if the boss makes you stay overtime. You must know how to be both an angel and a lion."

Therapy, not punishment

She still has the rhythm of the hurdles in her spine, but Kukk does not run anymore. Every now and then she runs around Töölönlahti, leisurely and breathing deeply. She does not force herself to do anything.

Many passers-by have a frown on their face.

"They are dressed up in fancy sports clothes, exaggerate with superfoods and have expensive Hästens in the bedroom. However, they lack the joy of exercising."

Excessive toiling is not a good counterbalance for a stressful work life, Kukk says. Exercise should be therapy and not punishment, whose task is to make the meeting pastries go down easier.

"Many people rush around all year, first they have a full day at school and work and then practice their hobby with a frown. Hard training may cause a stress reaction in the body."

Kukk believes that already at school there should be more talk about what we are made of besides muscles and bones.

"We should think that we are primarily a soul, which has this wonderful body. We greatly identify with our body, but the truth is that it will become decrepit and wrinkled. That is why the life of many aging people is somewhat hellish."

Kukk is in her forties, single and without children. She likes getting older, as what she calls the "spiritual whoring around" decreases year after year.

"Aging directs one to wisdom and tranquillity. The desire to please and stress disappear. I've acquired my wrinkles by laughing and surfing in Bali."

Maybe in forty years, some teenage girl will come to Kukk crying about a man cheating on her and leaving her.

Kukk hopes that she could then take the girl into her arms. And tell her in a serene voice that everything will end well one day.

Essi Lehto – HS
Meri Rantama – HT
© HELSINGIN SANOMAT
Image: Ville Männikkö / HS

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