Dubbed Britain’s manliest man by the media, yoga fan and RAF fast jet aviator Alun Pepper is on a mission to raise awareness of testicular cancer, an issue that’s very personal to him.
April is testicular cancer awareness month and this is Alun Pepper. A survivor himself and now a keen awareness campaigner, he’s also an enthusiastic yoga student and martial arts fan.
Not only that, as an RAF jet weapons system aviator – and now cancer survivor – he’s earned the reputation as Britain’s manliest man. If that isn’t enough, this 46-year-old swashbuckling Samurai sword fighter also enjoys skydiving, Thai boxing and has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.
Of course, ‘Britain’s manliest man’ is a label he jokes about, but he appreciates its value in terms of raising awareness for the cause he is most passionate about. “I want to highlight the misconception that men don’t do yoga – but also stress that men are pretty rubbish when it comes to seeing the doctor or checking themselves for testicular cancer,” he tells OM. “That’s why the ‘Britain’s manliest man’ title – no matter how ridiculous – is useful.”
That kind of pragmatic approach has no doubt helped him in his work where he gets to fly in a multi million pound aircraft every day for the RAF. He’s now been serving in the forces for 21 years. But it’s also what kept him alive when faced with his biggest battle – facing up to testicular cancer, back in 2006. Now he speaks openly about his experiences and encourages all men to check for signs regularly.
From martial arts to yoga
Alun Pepper first got into yoga via martial arts, notably Aikido, which has become a fairly well-trodden route for many men discovering the ancient Indian discipline.
“If yoga is a combination of body, mind and spirit then I guess I have been doing yoga my entire adult life without realising. My background is in martial arts; initially Kung Fu, inspired by the movies of Bruce Lee and now Aikido and Japanese swordmanship (battodo).”
He points out that in the best selling book, ‘The Way of the Peaceful Warrior’, author Dan Millman describes Aikido as a form of ’moving yoga’. The word Aikido itself is made up of three Japanese characters: AI, the harmonising, coming together, unifying; Ki, the Japanese of Chi, a Chinese word meaning aliveness, life force energy or life breath (also known as Qi or in yoga more commonly Prana); and DO, which means ‘the way’.
“So, literally, the way of harmonising with energy, sounds like yoga to me,” he says. “In fact, most traditional Japanese martial arts classes start or finish with a period of mokuso, a few minutes of mindfulness in which to clear the mind and focus on the upcoming class or meditation and reflection on the practice undertaken.”
The way of the warrior
While martial arts, like a career in the armed forces, may seem at odds with the desire for peace and harmony, again, it is not an uncommon path. As one proverb has it: “It is better to be a warrior in a garden than a gardener in a war.”
Likewise, as part of his Japanese sword fighting training, he has been encouraged by his tutor to study Tanren. This forging of the human body, like the forging of the Japanese sword, integrates qualities of softness and hardness through the rhythmic application of heat pressure and fluidity to produce a state of maximum central strength, elasticity and resilience, he says.
He now does yoga and Tanren as part of a whole life approach based on the 7-5-3 Samurai code: seven virtues of the Samurai (rectitude, courage, benevolence, politeness/propriety, honesty/sincerity, honour, loyalty); five keys to health (rational nutrition, sensible exercise, efficient rest, proper hygiene, positive attitude); and three states of mind – Zanshin (alertness, awareness), Mushin (no mind, clear mind) and Fudoshin (emotional balance).
He doesn’t follow any special diet, besides some intermittent fasting, and although he’s never smoked, he does like a social drink and admits to having a sweet tooth, something he’s trying to curb.
Pepper says his interest in yoga started properly in 2012, when his girlfriend, a keen yogini, went on to do her yoga teaching qualification. “I would often be the guinea pig and that’s when I realised it was not as soft and easy a practice as a lot of men think.”
He adds: “It’s great to see more men doing yoga and seeing the benefits. Any men that think it is a soft or female activity obviously haven’t tried it, but this is where the similarity with testicular cancer arises. Men’s perception of what masculinity is and isn’t and being open or brave enough to try things or talk about things.” Again, the pragmatic side is also at play. “As I get older I find I can train just as hard but my recovery takes more work and this is one area where yoga, and massage, have definitely shown their worth and benefit.” He’s also trained in sports massage and has an interest in anatomy and physiology.
He believes the principles in martial arts and yoga are very similar, and this has helped him combine the practices in his daily life, fitting in workouts around a busy schedule. “As my job moves me around a lot, I get my practice as and where I can. But my current practice is a daily 20 minute Tanren sequence every morning and, one or two nights a week, of a style that blends the Ashtanga, Kripalu, Iyengar and Sivananda traditions together. I find the class environment encourages my practice and pushes me to achieve the more challenging poses. I am working towards Peacock and Handstand this year. Not bad for a 46-year-old!”
Path to wellness
In some ways, he believes that yoga and mindfulness may have played a part in his health recovery too.“My attitude during the cancer, although not conscious, I now recognise as mindfulness,” he says. “I just took each day as it came and because I had good awareness I caught it early which meant my cancer experience was far better than most. This attitude lead to his commanding officer at the time writing, ‘Outside of my combat experience, he has shown more bravery than I have seen’. Another compliment ‘Peps’ (as collegues call him) is keen to dismiss. “To me, bravery is doing something when there is a choice not to do it, I had no choice, I had to get on with my treatment’.”
Pepper is now the senior leadership instructor at RAF College Cranwell and is keen to integrate elements of his yoga and mindfulness practice into his courses if possible. “After all, if its good enough for the Samurai…”
For more information on testicular cancer or to get involved in raising awareness visit: orchid-cancer.org.uk