Building Community in Belgrade With Bikram Yoga

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Donegan performs dancer's pose in the yoga room at his studio. Photo: Hayley Schultz

By Hayley Schultz

BELGRADE, The room is surrounded by mirrors fogged with steam as class begins. The instructor stands at the front of the room directing his students. They interlock their fingers, place them underneath their chins and breath deeply, extending their elbows upward. Sweat drops begin to stain the floor as the Bikram yoga class progresses and he pushes his students hard with a mix of humor and determination.

No matter how hard the 90-minute class was, students stand around chatting after it. Many friendships have formed in this cozy studio in a Belgrade basement. The man responsible is yoga instructor Stephen Donegan, an Irish expat who manages the only Bikram yoga studio in the Balkans.

Of average height, younger-looking than his 40 years and with a build lean from years of yoga, always smiling Donegan chats excitedly with a student after class, explaining a pose she didn’t understand. He is simultaneously calm and intensely focused on what he is doing.

Stephen Donegan on stage at the Belgrade Story Club. Photo: Predrag Todorović / Story Club Belgrade
Stephen Donegan on stage at the Belgrade Story Club.
Photo: Predrag Todorović / Story Club Belgrade

“We are trying to build here a community, not just people coming and going,” said Mina Djunisijevic, a 28-year-old Belgrader who started teaching with Donegan at the studio several months ago.

Donegan has not always practiced Bikram, a form of yoga consisting of 26 postures done in a room heated to 104 °F (40 Celsius degrees). Before becoming a certified Bikram instructor in 2006 he worked in the IT industry. Even then he moved every few years, spending time in Amsterdam, Australia, and Ireland. Although unhappy with his IT job, Donegan has always enjoyed traveling, “it’s my main passion since I could look at a map.”

After earning his yoga instructor license, he began traveling once more. Only this time he was doing something he truly enjoyed.

In 2014 Donegan was teaching yoga in Denmark when he received an email from a Serbian friend he had met in Turkey who needed help running a Bikram studio in Belgrade.

Donegan took over the studio in January 2015 and has been unintentionally fostering a community ever since, although to him it is something that has happened naturally. “I think that is more organic…from studying or practicing in other studios we pick up a lot of different things we think are good or not and see what works, what doesn’t, and what way you want to do it.”

But Donegan’s engagement with the community does not end in the yoga studio. Occasionally students go to a nearby Japanese restaurant for dinner following class. Sometimes they attend events together such as the Belgrade Story Club, a true story telling event which Donegan successfully hosted in March, getting all the audience to make yoga poses and relax.

Donegan gives the audience a free yoga lesson at the Belgrade Story Club. Photo: Predrag Todorović / Story Club Belgrade
Donegan gives the audience a free yoga lesson at the Belgrade Story Club.
Photo: Predrag Todorović / Story Club Belgrade

Donegan almost always has a smile on his unshaven face and a willingness to share with others that his students notice even in the classroom.

“He’s really funny and unlike other teachers he doesn’t really stick to the script but he sort of does his own thing and he’s hilarious,” Jasmine Sanders, 31, an expat from Germany said.

Perhaps one of the reasons Donegan’s students keep coming back is because he is committed to his students. His goal for every class it to “make sure they feel comfortable and have fun and go home feeling a little bit lighter in spirit.”