PJ, what was your background before yoga?
I was a good Christian boy from the midwest of the United States. Born in a trailer park in Missouri, raised in Wisconsin. For as long as I remember I loved my family, reading, comic books, action figures, Bruce Lee and Jesus. My father, a young chiropractor and my mother a telephone operator raised my two younger sisters and I to have faith but to always question authority. By the age of twelve I had fully grown into a rebellious wanna be artist, skateboard enthusiast, confused, angst ridden, music obsessed and fully distrusting of society especially religion. I often dreamed of living in the wild. I also discovered psychedelics very early on. My dad quickly earned success in the 1970's developing his clinic and techniques. He was then and still is one of the great masters of Chiropractic. In his success he had collected an extensive library of books. My father instilled a ferocious appetite for reading in me since the age of three. He had everything, all the classics and a ton of contemporary stuff. It was music and the works of Carlos Castaneda and Philip K Dick that opened the doors of psychedelics for me. My first glimpse of yoga came at a very young age reading the Guinness Book of World Records annuals cover to cover. There was also my dad's copy of the Bhagavad Gita (un-decipherable for me at that stage) and his copy of Hatha Yoga by Ramacharaka. It was that book that got me turned onto "prana" which I translated as "the force" from Star Wars. To me it was all Jedi superhero training techniques.
How did the practice find you?
At age sixteen (1990) I started reading more yoga books and learned some asanas and some breathing exercises from my first teacher, an eccentric raw foodist, local legend, eventually murdered, heroic but very misunderstood John Wild. John was the one who turned me on to yoga. He made me give up animal products and tried to show me how to live off the land. He could quote the Gita and the Bible from memory and was a superhuman athlete and sailor. He could sail an e-boat by himself and win Regatas! Even in his 30's he could do back flips. His agility and vitality was unique to say the least. John saw something in me and was insistent I learn and practice some asanas and breathing techniques. I had been studying martial arts at a local dojo since the age of eleven so discipline wasn't a foreign enemy to me. For me yoga, martial arts, drawing and making art, skating they all represented freedom from the mundane, heroic expression and transcendence. By age eighteen, I was still doing martial arts but had given up asanas, yoga and skating. I was fully immersed in the psychedelic experience back then and by age twenty-one. I found myself in jail due to my "involvement" with illegal mind altering substances. In 1997, to my family's despair and embarrassment, I was sentenced to ten years in state prison for "conspiracy to deliver narcotics". I had been set up by some of my high school friends after they had been arrested. I spent six months in a maximum security penitentiary and it was there that I truly discovered self practice. John Wild, my first teacher, was murdered that same year beaten to death by ignorant hillbilly rednecks for no other reason than he was different and he preached Yoga, vegetarian diet and peace. John's death and my inhuman circumstances inspired me to immediately dive into a set of twenty-two asanas I had learned. I did my routine seven days a week for six months. Yoga saved my mind and spirit and kept me very fit in prison.
It gave me hope that I could somehow escape and with diligence and research combined with retaining an attorney I qualified and was accepted for an early release "boot camp" called Challenge Incarceration Program (CIP) run by joint Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines for first time nonviolent offenders under the age of thirty. Twenty two inmates from various prisons were willing to sign our lives over to the military for a minimum of six months. At that point I was willing to wade through a sewer for six months to get out so I signed up with gusto. My discipline from yoga and martial arts gave me a strong enough mind to survive the program and earn my release in the minimum 180 days. Only two of us from the original twenty-two completed the program and graduated. In the fall of 1998, I was free and back on the street in exactly a year without having to rat on anyone. After that, I changed my life completely and used my new discipline spending the next few years practicing yoga, earning a bachelor degree in fine arts graduating with a 4.0, my black belt in Jujutsu and an early release from parole. In 2001, I opened my yoga shala and spent the next few years teaching yoga, martial arts, personal fitness training and running a spinal rehab program for my father's chiropractic clinic.
In 2005, burnt out from teaching, broken from martial arts, boot camp, rigorous weight and athletic training, emotionally crippled and spiritually lost, I made an impromptu road trip to Boulder, Colorado to meet and study with Richard Freeman, a personal yoga super hero of mine. I spent ten days getting my diet cleaned up, reading the Yoga Mala and listening to the Yoga Matrix, taking two classes a day at the Yoga Workshop, then Richard and his wife Mary's school. At the end of my stay I asked Richard what I should do to deepen my studies in Ashtanga and he told me point blank to go to Mysore and study with "Guruji" (Shri K. Pattabhi Jois) at his institute.
Three months later I was in Mysore sweating out my demons, studying Ashtanga, Sanskrit and Ayurveda. I spent three months watching my entire "self" painfully die and even more painfully rebirth into a baby Ashtangi. I now approach my tenth trip to Mysore and am feeling like a teenage Ashtangi, sharing my practice starting at 4:30am six days a week and done with my day at 11am. Life is simple for me now, practice, teach, eat, love and cherish my wife, chill like an OG and enjoying some balance for a wave. I owe everything I have to my parents, John Wild, Richard Freeman, Saraswati, Guruji and Sharath. Through their light I found my way.......for now.
There is a unifying theme with practitioners of this practice: a sense of longing to reconnect with their Self. What is it about this practice that draws students in so deeply?
Connect is the key word. The allure, the motivation and the long term fuel to do anything difficult is connection. Most people don't like themselves that is the underlying issue. We live in a society that constantly tells us we are not young enough, rich enough or beautiful enough to FULLY connect to life. I think many of us are burnt out on monopoly and the rat races presented by our parents, TV and even social media. I don't want to be rich, I'm so grateful I am not young anymore and beauty to me is aging wonderfully and weirdly, and so I think many of us have chosen a different game, the diving inward game in an effort to find some peace.
That is the strangest thing for me about the practice of Ashtanga Yoga, the PEACE. The serenity that comes with practice is why I come back to it like a devoted lover. I am a warrior so peace was never my goal or even in my realm of thinking. I played the rebel game so hard I am lucky to be alive. I fought the law because I felt everything is drugs. Oxygen is drugs, food is drugs, coffee and sex and practice and every thing that alters our chemistry and causes cascades of reactions within my brain and body are drugs. I felt strongly as a kid that I should have sovereign domain over my body and that exploring my mind using plants was my right as a human being. So I explored. What I found inside that pandora's box was simple yet it appeared in so many ways and colors and ideas I thought I was discovering something new. I thought I was going into the great complexity but ultimately what I found in there was a broken mirror which reflected back my SELF in an infinite variety of ways. I currently view psychedelics as redundant and tedious like most movies.
Ashtanga yoga does the same thing as psychedelics only slowly and more profoundly. It is more dignified and elegant. Daily practice is a soft and agile unfolding and refolding that reshapes my life as a mystery more interesting than any TV drama. I now like waking more than sleeping. I like thinking better than dreaming. I like silence as much as music and I am slowly falling in love with death herself whereas when I meet her, as we all will, I think I might greet her with a kiss rather than a scream
That is why I wake up at 2:30am every day to sweat and twist and balance and push and breathe. Why I only eat one vegetarian meal a day and teach six hours a day on coffee and passion alone. It is why I sacrifice year after year because for me it is not a sacrifice, it is a deeply connected exchange, an equal exchange. The practice gives me courage to face the days and occasionally a deep peace even death cannot defy. For that, daily practice of intermediate or primary, a little pranayama, a couple hours of devotion before the sun rises, it's a small price to pay. It's always hard, it hurts sometimes but I also find it to be outrageously fun.
The practices opens us up. Our heart, our nerve channels. Lots of internal expansion occurring. Feelings previously bottled up arise: anger, lust, insecurity. As a teacher, how do you advise students that enter this space for the first time that may not have access to teachers and are home practitioners? How do students navigate this tricky space?
Wow. Good question. There is probably a better pre-emptive way to intercept and prepare students for all that explosive emotional stuff. I quote Sharath a lot. He told us many years back "You must be stronger than your emotions." I deal with this everyday both in my own life and with my students. It's constant. I just try to be here every day like a fire fighter ready to put out the fires best I can as they ignite. Some burn longer than others and sometimes they prove to be too powerful for the student to handle and they quit. Another Sharath quote "If a student no longer wants to practice what to do?" I just try to hold the space and keep my cool no matter what happens. It never surprises me when students get angry, frustrated or sad. Crying is a frequent affair at my shalas. Sometimes it's new people waking up to reality and other times it's long time people going deeper. Lust? None of my students have ever talked to me about lust. Honestly I am not very skilled in this so I may be oblivious when it comes to that. All this emotional muck is the worst part of the job and many days I question my fortitude as a teacher. Many nights I lose sleep because of the outbursts and tantrums I have been on the receiving end of.
Social media makes it worse because they can always abuse you online and blame the teacher and the method for the pain. I came up in martial arts and my military training was all about pushing, showing no emotion and fighting through the hurt, embracing the pain. That may have worked for me then but I still get sad and frustrated when I struggle both as a teacher and a practitioner. Less and less as time goes on but man do I remember some of my early trips to Mysore really going through some real emotional and physical torture. I'm not a psychologist so I just give hugs and tell the student it's part of the deal and that they are doing well. I quote Guruji too as he used to say "The only bad practice is no practice." If the student shows up, I help them and I honor them whatever they are going through. I don't have a lot of advice on this. It's the messiest and most grotesque aspect of teaching Ashtanga yoga no doubt. I had no idea what I was signing on for when I signed those authorization papers.
As far as people who don't have access and are home practitioners, that is me. I am from Wisconsin and to this day my wife and I are the only authorized teachers here. I had no access to any Ashtanga whatsoever so I sacrificed everything to go to Mysore and learn. Beyond my ten trips to Mysore I made many trips to practice with Richard Freeman, Rolf and Noah Williams over the years. To those people out there in that boat my advice is get connected to a teacher or teachers asap. Start a group of friends to practice with once in awhile. Make trips and pilgrimages. Don't attempt this journey entirely alone. Not only is it dangerous, it's masturbatory, doomed to fail and egocentric. A teacher is of paramount importance. Guruji used to say it takes five years of study under a teacher for each series. I agree with that. I still practice alone most of the time and it's hard. I can't progress or learn alone. Even though I haven't missed a practice in years I can barely maintain my practice solo. I only improve and progress with the help of my teachers. Prioritize your practice and your practice will prioritize you. The quintessence of that is respect for the teachers and in developing a sincere connection to lineage.
How do students navigate this tricky space? With relentless perseverance and faith. Keep sharpening the sword of discernment and trust the method even when it hurts. Especially when it hurts. It's the cost and the jewels of yoga are ruthlessly guarded. Lazy people and weak minded fools are repulsed and repelled and that is fine with me. I don't even know for sure if this yoga is good for most people. When I am practicing full power I feel amazing and eerily content but when I don't do my full practice I can feel dirty and low. That is a heavy trip. I am on board like a crazy pirate ready for sea monsters and epic storms in search of spiritual treasure but most of the people I grew up with could never handle this practice and that is ok too. I love them for that. To each their own.
The West has seen a massive rise in "yoga" over the last decade and is now a multi-billion dollar industry. What are your thoughts on this?
I like the idea that interest in yoga is rising and I am not against making money. I think the failure occurred when we created the meme "Yoga Studio". A "studio" as an English word has associations like dance, music, art. I love all of those things but it implies a creative space designated for making and selling art. I learned at a yoga shala. The school of yoga then known as The Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute. The Institute is a designated sacred place as well as a space for learning and practicing a set system of movements, postures, breath sound,specific eye gazing,engagement of root muscles all with the aim of instilling discipline, devotion, patience and concentration in each student. This world and our species desperately needs Shalas and experienced tested teachers to run them in a traditional way. This would be powerful. That would change the world. Then we would truly witness "YOGA KEERTI STAMBAHA" or yoga as a lighthouse in the darkness. Yoga studios create profits, they create teacher trainings and amalgamations of all styles and new blends, clothing and products and it is endless. For instance Yoga booty belly dance classes followed by a trance dance pranic immersion. I think it is fucking hilarious. I've seen the mock videos on youtube and yoga as a sex fetish. It's funny at best, repugnant at worst, but it isn't changing the world for the better.
Every child should know the yamas and niyamas. Everyone. A sensible asana practice and knowledge of some breath control should be understood across the board like basic math and writing. Schools are institutions of education and practice. There is little money in this. So we seek a shortcut and a flashy infomercial version that will catch as a trend and make some dividends. Yoga studios and teacher trainings are the cancer of yoga. They self propagate, mimic healthy cells and ultimately destroy the host body. We must return to a lineage based system and proper shalas if the body of yoga is going to survive and thrive, and I think that is very much related to the survival of our species in the next one hundred years. Some may call me a zealot but scientifically Ashtanga yoga as a viral meme could inoculate the human race against its own self imposed annihilation. I know Sharath agrees and so did Guruji. That is why I do this and why I will continue to run our shalas and uphold the tradition. It's my dharma and I dig it. It's legit.
What does Sharath mean to you and what can we learn from him?
Sharath means the world to me. I love my teacher so much. He has been teaching me for a decade and I appreciate him now more than ever. Loving one's teachers is so healing, empowering and medicinal for the heart. He has always busted my chops, told me the truth especially when I didn't want to hear it and never hesitated to poke some fun at me. I love him all the more for it. I never felt good enough in his eyes, I even felt humiliated at times but I always felt the love from his heart. All the waiting and the hassles of registration and travel, the tribulations of living here in India, it's all worth it and more. Just to be in his presence uplifts me beyond measure. I would be the same egodrunk, stiff, angry, confused dipshit I used to be without him. I used to have so much body pain not to mention the emotional roller coasters of distress I used to live with daily. Now I feel better than I ever imagined. The impossible is now possible and even fun. My emotions are steady and mostly positive. The fluctuations are less and less as the years of uninterrupted practice go by. I did the work but without him I could have never found the motivation. I never understood why people struggle with surrendering to and loving their teachers even when they are a bit harsh. That is their job. To push where we need it and hold us up when we are falling down, to hold us accountable when our ego starts driving our emotions and reactions. I treasure his gangster style humor and scoldings. He came and waited to drop me back today. I was ready to catch and he just had me walk in and said "we have plenty of time". He has the most experience with Ashtanga yoga. He is the most steeped in it. It is one thing that he is the most advanced Ashtangi in the world, he is the finest man I know. The most important thing we can learn from him is how to master our emotions. He is a real yogi in that. He is always steady and his humor is relentless. I know I have so much more to learn from him and that I have only just begun. I thank Guruji, Saraswati and whatever Gods may be for our extraordinary Guru Sharath Jois.
Any final thoughts, PJ?
I see a lot of violence in the world today. Guns and greed are tearing humanity into pieces and shattering lives. It's all fear.....cowardice. I'm always ready to kick some ass to prevent greater harm but there is nothing at this point that would ever motivate me touch a gun or hustle another person. I love my wife more than life itself but even if I or she was threatened I hope I would not fall into the type of fear that motivates me to touch a gun.
Ashtanga yoga builds spiritual courage to face death and hardship with love and patience and that to me is invaluable to the human race. It's been a most effective alchemical process for me in that. I have watched it work wonders for thousands of people from all corners of this earth. It is a science in that way. I love it and therefore, I may at times sound like an ambassador for the style but I want all those who are reading this to understand I believe yoga is one. Any process one undertakes to reconnect with self and nature is a yoga in itself and I respect that.
I tried many things, various yoga styles, religions, rigorous exercise routines, bodybuilding, plant medicines, martial arts, relationships, nature retreats, vipassana meditation, books, courses and art mediums in efforts to find peace within and to better connect to the greater expansive reality.
All of those things were positive and helpful but Ashtanga has been a pranic rocket ship for me to see and connect with inner and outer space. That is my trip, no judgement on yours if it may be different. My hope is that many more people embrace this method and find the peace and the thrill I have been blessed with through uninterrupted practice. It's a difficult path but its beauty and effectiveness is undeniable. May we all embrace the difficulty and the comforts of life equally. Sukha Dukha Sama. Thank you for connecting with me and giving me this opportunity to express myself. Hope to see you in Mysore sometime.
Editorial note: For additional information on PJ, visit http://www.pjsyogashala.com/
*photos provided by PJ
*Ashtanga Parampra thanks Lydia Teinfalt for editorial assistance
*Ashtanga Parampra thanks Lydia Teinfalt for editorial assistance