When Sharon McAllister’s daughter trained as a yoga teacher, she raved about it so much that McAllister herself was tempted. She had spent decades as a hairdresser, but this year, at the age of 65, she joined four strangers on an intensive, 250-hour yoga-teaching course in Spain. “I thought: ‘What do I want to do with the rest of my life? What have I got to offer? Am I just going to be another invisible old lady, or can I be of some use?’” She has already led 10 classes as a cover teacher where she lives in Essex.
Her instructor told her: “You have your own individual skills to bring.” While she is still developing her personal style of teaching, she has noticed that the way she ends her classes is very popular – with an assisted savasana, or corpse pose, in which she offers a postural adjustment of her class-goers’ feet, arms , heads, necks and shoulders.
“I’m used to touching people from my hairdressing career. It feels natural, something I’ve got to offer people, exchanging energies through touch.”
It was McAllister’s father who suggested hairdressing as a career when she was a child. Himself a barber, he had been trained by his father. A family photo shows McAllister’s grandfather in the family salon in the 1920s.
As a child, McAllister “was always patted on the head rather patronizingly by adults and told: ‘I expect you will go into the family business.’ Through gritted teeth, I would smile at them and think: ‘No I bloody won’t!’ But I did. And I was very grateful for it.”
While completing a degree in fashion and textile design, McAllister realized that it wasn’t the path for her. “I wanted to branch out on my own,” she says. She asked her dad to train her and, at 22, with £1,000, she opened her own salon, Buddies.
“It was the 70s. Vidal Sassoon was my idol. I had done my dissertation on him. I had delusions of grandeur, in the small town of Brightlingsea,” she says. She wore her hair in a short pixie cut, colored to a strawberry blond, and she decorated the salon in cream and brown, put cork tiles on the walls, and spider plants in macramé hangers. “It went down incredibly well. There were no unisex hairdressers around at the time. It was quite revolutionary.”
McAllister loved to go to London. “Colouring courses, advanced styling… In those days, you could sign up and go to the Wella school, or Vidal Sassoon.” When her dad retired, she took him over his salon, then acquired a third.
Her brother was a competition hairdresser, and won the world championships in the 70s. McAllister “was more concerned about keeping people happy in my locality. It’s been such a privilege to have been a hairdresser all my life. You meet the most amazing people. You have the most fabulous conversations.”
However, three salons proved overwhelming. She let two leases lapse. Then in 2008, she broke her arm in a fall. “I couldn’t hold a comb, couldn’t hold scissors. I had to close the salon for three months. That’s a long time in haircuts.”
When she returned, she was 53. “It was a different world. I was starting again. And I found that my age went against me. People expect women in hairdressing to be younger. And I wanted to do other things with my life.”
As well as the yoga, those “other things” have included a course to learn plant-based cookery. Next she wants to study sound therapy. She may yet run retreats. “I could do the food as well. As you grow in confidence, you think: ‘I could take this a bit further.’
“I like to think when I’ve finished a yoga class that people go out feeling happy and contented and pleased and relaxed,” she continues. “Those are the same feelings I wanted people to leave my salon with. In return, I’ve been able to keep my brain active, my body supple. Physically, emotionally, mentally and psychologically, it’s been amazing.” As she says of those hairdressing courses decades ago: “It is all about the journey of learning.”