Yoga changed Ali van Ammers for the better.
The litigation solicitor found a practice when living back home in Dunedin with her parents after she had left working at a top Wellington law firm due to anxiety. Such was her struggle, at times it was all she could do to get out of bed.
But as Ali found a practice, she found herself. This year, she returned from Goa, India where she completed Yoga teacher training. Now teaching at Hot Yoga Wellington and running her own yoga business, Make Space Yoga, Ali (at 31) has gone to the edge of her professional life and back again, finding herself in Yoga.
I first met Ali van Ammers several years ago when I was working at a corporate law firm. But I didn’t really know much about her until more recently when I stalked her Linkedin Profile, seeing she was going to be talking at a women’s event at Trade Me hosted by the law society. There, in the header, it said ‘Senior Solicitor / Yoga Teacher’. While some might consider it fine to put on your Facebook, adding Yoga Teacher to her professional profile was a bold move. It made me instantly like her.
"As Ali found a practice, she found herself"
Flash forward and we are sitting together in my living room. It has taken us half an hour to get here because I thought she was agreeing to meet uptown and she got an email from me suggesting we meet downtown. Somehow, we both went in opposite directions. "I am SO sorry" I exclaim, as she laughs. "Don’t even worry!" Ali says, surprisingly relaxed. This is how Ali is nowadays. Once, this perfectionist would not have been so placid. It’s taken her time to get to be this chilled.
Early Days: "Who moves to Dunedin?"
Ali was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. Her father is an anaesthetist and her mother an artist and a writer. “They are very different people, but each of them is exceptional in their own field”. When Ali was 10, her family moved to Dunedin after their neighbours left a position at the Dunedin Public Hospital open there. Ali was a fish out of water. “Who moves from Africa to Dunedin?” she says.
Ali attended Dunedin’s St Hilda’s Collegiate from form one until the end of fifth form. At the start of sixth form, she moved to St Margaret’s College in Christchurch. The move was partly driven by a desire to complete the International Baccalaureate program, which wasn’t available in Dunedin, and partly by a need for an attitude reset. “Being at St Margaret’s, the vibe was very much that it was cool to be good at something,” she says. This motivated Ali to focus more on study and at St Margaret’s College, she thrived. Being naturally extroverted, she enjoyed boarding - sharing a room and being around people all the time.
After school finished, Ali moved home to save money then travelled the world for a few months. While away, she found some of her ‘core values’. “Although there was a lot I didn’t understand then I managed to make good decisions for setting myself up for a good life. I went to Otago University in the end and did law and psychology. I liked them evenly but found law particularly intellectually engaging and I saw it as a challenge. Law school was the first time I allowed myself to test the limits of my abilities. I worked really hard and knew the marks I got were close to the best I could do” she explains.
"Law school was the first time I allowed myself to test the limits of my abilities. I worked really hard and knew the marks I got were close to the best I could do” she explains"
Ali admits she has always had a tendency to do things to the extreme. While at University, Ali’s parents divorced and the stress re-triggered that in her. At uni, Ali would party hard, study hard, renovated a house and worked multiple jobs. “More and more - I’d find I was always doing something. I’d be at the gym, running, or studying, or out partying. People would sometimes say ‘You’re intense’ or ‘You’re never home’. But I come from a family of high achievers and I thought that was a good thing. I was not really into expressing vulnerability when I was younger. When people asked if I was okay, I tended to brush it off or deflect”.
Post-uni, Ali moved to Wellington with friends on her Russell McVeagh scholarship. She got a buzz moving to a new city and meeting new people, but life wasn’t as easy as she would have had you believe. “At university, I had a good idea of where I was ranked in every class and I was relatively confident in my abilities. Then, suddenly I was in the deep end. I was anxious about being anxious. I had an underlying fear of not being good enough or being found to be an imposter. At the time I thought no one else felt that way.”
Back to Basics
Eventually, Ali became so anxious that it became difficult for her to work. In October 2010, she took leave, packed up her life in Wellington and moved home to Dunedin with her (now ex) boyfriend.
"I was anxious about being anxious. I had an underlying fear of not being good enough or being found to be an imposter. At the time I thought no one else felt that way.”
“I was broken. I had lost faith in myself and was completely disillusioned by my profession” Ali explains carefully. “When I first got home I felt pretty down and wasn’t capable of doing much. Then things started to get better. I was working in a cafe when the Otago Law Faculty called and asked me to come work with them. I did and also started studying health law and bioethics”. She soon realised that law wasn't the problem. What she needed was to find a better way to deal with stress and anxiety - achieving, shopping and parties weren’t working.
While in Dunedin, a friend in Ali’s bioethics class introduced her to yoga. She quickly developed a practice, looking to provide a calmness to soothe her anxiety. “From the start, I enjoyed it more than I realised I could enjoy exercise” Ali laughs. “I liked that it was quite personal. You don’t have to rely on someone else to show up. You can just do it. My outlook on life, and myself, started to change the more practiced.”
After a while, Ali missed the nature of client work. But she didn’t know whether she was ready to go back into practicing law. Eventually, she applied for a job, determined to make it work. The job was at Crown Law. Once there, she took a different approach to life and work, “ I was more conscious of the decisions I was making for myself. That meant I was in a way better place to take care of myself and cope with stress.”
A New Start...
In late 2014, while working on a secondment at Treasury, Ali applied for a senior solicitor role at Minter Ellison Rudd Watts and she has been at the firm ever since. She finds her role challenging and rewarding and especially appreciates the great team and interesting clients she works with.
Earlier this year, Ali took her passion for yoga to the next level and completed teacher training in Goa, India, spending up to 5 hours a day training. Upon her return she started teaching classes at the Hot Yoga Wellington studios and also at her firm. “Yoga at work was really fun. Word spread and soon I was teaching clients and at another law firm”. This led Ali to cut down to four days a week and start her own business, Make Space Yoga - a company dedicated to helping people working in high stress jobs (basically everyone) to make time and space to take care of their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing by bringing yoga to the workplace.
“Yoga at work was really fun. Word spread and soon I was teaching clients and at another law firm”.
She has now found a good balance between working in commercial law and teaching and practicing yoga, which she does between 9 - 12 times a week (including teaching). “Yoga teaching is definitely yoga but it is very different to doing it on your own. While I don’t get to focus on my own physical practice I find teaching makes me feel both energised and really peaceful. I get a genuine pure joy from teaching. It’s about the funny chats before and after class and the connections you make. The best part is seeing people wake up to the benefits of yoga and start on their own paths.”
What has Yoga taught Ali? “It’s taught me to love myself” she says, looking me in the eye “I struggled a lot with body image and weight when I was younger and had a really negative relationship with my body. Now that relationship is totally different.” Yoga has also taught Ali how to “…Get down with imperfection. “You are never perfect at Yoga and for some reason, I am really okay with that. Taking that off the mat, it feels okay not to be perfect at anything, but instead do my best and enjoy the experience. Sometimes, I walk down the street and think ‘I am SO happy right now.’ And later that day, I can go ‘Oh my God - what am I doing with my life?’. But that’s a natural part of life and I know I’m not alone in that. We can’t expect to feel positive all the time, but we do need to relate to our thoughts differently and make our sense of enoughness less contingent on outside things. I now, for the most part, have a deep sense that no matter what, I’m okay and I’ve got this.”
Now work and yoga merge. “The best thing is that I now feel like I can be my whole self all of the time,” says Ali. “I used to feel like I put on my armour and come to work. These days, I come in in my leggings.” Ali has some exciting projects coming up. She's making her first yoga video, and in December is returning to India to further develop her own Ashtanga practice. She looks forward to launching the Make Space website and helping others to make space for yoga in the new year.
"Now work and yoga merge. “The best thing is that I now feel like I can be my whole self all of the time,” says Ali"
What does Ali suggest for those who are feeling overwhelmed by life, if not law? “Start a practice to help you find a version of yourself that is not a collection of reflections,” she says. “There is a you in there that has an inherent value. Once you realise that you start to care about it and once you care, you act from a different place - one of self-love. And that changes everything.”