Eddie Stern on Taking Time to Discover Your Inner Freedom of Spirit
Last year, after more than three decades of practicing and teaching Ashtanga yoga, Eddie Stern found himself wondering if he should continue in the discipline. He’d amassed a considerable following through the classes of his New York yoga studios (with celebrity students such as Madonna; Gwyneth Paltrow; and Mike D, of the Beastie Boys), authored two books, launched a successful app with Moby and the alternative-medicine advocate Deepak Chopra, and lectured around the world. But issues within the industry have loomed large: The Western yoga scene—with its high-priced classes, stadium-size festivals, “rock star” yogis, and self-aggrandizing instructors—trouble him. They distort yoga from its origins, he believes, imposing false narratives onto participants. Meanwhile, in the era of #MeToo, multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against his peers—including the late Pattabhi Jois, under whom he studied for 18 years—have brought about a reckoning in the community.
Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and Stern began giving classes over Zoom, a format he found conducive to creating the personal, noncompetitive, altruistic side of yoga that initially attracted him to the practice. He soon discovered his passion for teaching all over again.
Stern’s dedication to yoga is rooted in a desire to understand who he is, which is apparent in each step of building the life he currently leads. His ninth-grade English teacher challenged him to contemplate his identity and purpose, which he explored early on by hanging out in New York’s 1980s punk music scene, skateboarding, and taking psychedelic drugs. When a co-worker at a record store introduced him to yoga, Stern quickly saw that the practice was a direct line to the insight and self-realization he longed for. Eager to immerse himself in the discipline, he moved to India, where he spent nearly two decades, on and off, studying with Jois, who had developed and popularized the vinyasa style of yoga known as Ashtanga.
Jois also, as Stern acknowledges on this episode of Time Sensitive, abused some of his female students. But the sense of self Stern drew from being close to the guru, coupled with a fear for his own survival, caused him to remain largely silent until now. “Fear doesn’t lead toward treating people well,” Stern says. “Not just in accordance with yoga principles, but with human principles.” Today, he’s using what he’s learned from this dark experience to help inform how he approaches instructing his own students: as spiritual friends, who learn and grow together with their teacher.
On this episode, Stern describes his profound experiences with the yogi tradition, talking with Spencer about the beauty of breathing and the body’s natural rhythms, yoga as practice of selfless concern for others, the problem of fear, and how slowing down shifts our relationship with ourselves.
Stern talks about breathing in relationship to time, our “internal social networks,” and why understanding the realities constructed by our senses is a gateway to a contemplative life.
Stern explains the physical and psychological implications of living in a culture of busyness, and talks about our intrinsic need to slow down. He also details how conducting classes over Zoom has helped him rediscover his love of teaching yoga.
Stern discusses the commodification of yoga in the West, and of reconciling the divide between its spiritual and consumerist aspects. He also describes his early years as a yoga instructor in New York City, and how the discipline’s traditions are passed on through generations.
Stern recalls growing up in Manhattan, searching for identity and purpose, indulging in New York’s punk rock scene, and the record store co-worker who introduced him to yoga.
Stern speaks about studying yoga in India over the better part of two decades, and grappling with the many sexual abuse accusations against the late yoga teacher Pattabhi Jois.
Stern details how the experience of wrestling with his history with Jois has impacted his approach to teaching. He also clarifies the distinction between the narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves and what in the West is often referred to as “ego.”
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SPENCER BAILEY: Hi, Eddie. Welcome to Time Sensitive. It’s so great to have you here today.
EDDIE STERN: It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.
SB: To begin, I thought it’d be nice to maybe take a nice, long breath.
[Spencer and Eddie slowly inhale, and exhale]
SB: All right. [Laughs] Now, let’s talk about breathing, particularly in relationship to time. How do you think about breathing in the context of time and one’s life?
ES: Well, you can almost measure your life in breaths. Say you live somewhere between the [ages] of 80 to 90 years old. You’ll breathe about 600 million times. That’s quite a lot. During the day, we breathe about 21,600 times [on] average, if we’re breathing fifteen to eighteen breaths per minute. So we have a lot of breathing going on that we’re not really paying all that much attention to.
It’s interesting because the yogis always measured the lifespan against how many breaths you’re taking. They wouldn’t measure your life in years; they would measure your life in breaths. That’s why they would count them. The idea was that your breath was like a bank account: that if you breathed slower, you would save those extra breaths that you were allotted into this bank account, and it would extend your life. So, if we normally breathe, say, fifteen times per minute, and we slow that down to, say, ten times per minute, or five times per minute, or less, then all those extra breaths that we’re saving up can be used later, because those were our allotment of breath. They go into our breathing bank account, and we get to withdraw those later to extend the life.
SB: I’m just thinking about breathing in relation to environment in this context. What impact does environment have on our breath and our breathing?
ES: Our environment basically is breathing us. We have a couple of things. Number one, just to reference the yogis again, they [believed] that we had two physical bodies: We had our physical body, like the one that we see now, and then we had an extended physical body, which was the world around us. The sky, and the clouds, and the plants, and the trees, and the soil, and the rivers—everything—is our extended physical body. In the biosphere—which is what the planet is called that we live in, the surrounding atmosphere—because of the pressure difference between the biosphere and our lungs, there’s this constant pressure exchange.
The biosphere is actually breathing us. We are being breathed by the environment that we live in. When you’re born, for example, your lungs are completely deflated, for lack of a better word, because you haven’t taken a breath yet. The air that comes rushing in, when you take that first breath, is from atmospheric pressure. It’s about 500 times stronger than any breath that you’ll take any other time in your life. That gets this whole rhythmic pattern of being in an exchange with our environment happening.
You have this idea that, actually, we’re being breathed by the environment that we live in, the biosphere, all the time. Yet because of all the different things that happen in our lives—little traumas, fears, and this, that, the other—we start to hold on to our breath. If you are in an environment where there’s a lot of stress around you, the action of the nervous system to respond to that is to tighten the breath, to tighten this thing that is keeping us alive.
But when we go into places where there’s not a lot of stress around us, then that tendency to tighten around the breath is going to relax, and then the breathing happens naturally again. Like when you go to sleep, and it’s a deep restful sleep. There’s no tension around the breathing for the most part. The breath will come in and go out very calmly and naturally. If you wake up, and you’re anxious about something, the breath will automatically tighten. The nervous system is doing that in response to the environment.
Basically, we have this thing in us called the nervous system. And the nervous system is coordinating the communication of every single cell in our body. There are 37.2 trillion of them coordinating all that communication with the external environment that we live in. Our whole nervous system, and our whole being, is a constant response to the environment that we live in. That’s why creating intentional environments is going to have a direct impact on the communication within you, your states of health, the levels of well-being that you feel, or the levels of stress that you feel.
SB: You mentioned rhythm. Obviously, our heartbeat is so connected to this notion of rhythm—it is rhythm. How do you view and think about rhythm in this conversation of time, and ultimately, rhythm in connection to yoga, spirituality, and how we live our lives? How does one, or how should one, think about rhythm in the context of their life?
ES: The rhythms of our lives are the things that, really, we want to be tuning into. The more balanced our rhythms and our patterns and our rituals are, the more balanced our lives will be—and sometimes, the more fulfilling our lives will be. For example, if we look, again, to our physiological systems, we have different rhythms that are being propagated independently of any thought process, independently of anything at all.
Well, okay, here are two examples. Number one, we have our circadian rhythm, which you’ve heard of, many people have heard of. This is our sleeping and waking cycle. The circadian rhythm is being activated by something called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, which sits in the center of the brain, which is tracking day, light, and darkness—the night—through the eyes. Our eyes are basically brain tissue. When we are developed in the womb, these are two places where tissue grows directly out of the brain and connects to an organ. Our retinas are our brains. Also, the olfactory nerves in the nose are brain cells coming out as well.
All the other nerves that are happening for the other sense organs are coming through the cranial nerves. They’re inside the skull, then they come outside the skull and connect. But these are coming directly out, and they’re touching the world. Right now, as we’re looking at each other, our brains are actually connecting with each other, right now, in this very moment. Our brains are also touching the environment—[they’re] touching the air around us. [They’re] touching light around us.
So the actual sense of seeing is a tactile thing as well. That right now, what we normally think of as being inside of our skulls, is physically touching the external world, and we’re pulling that input into us. We’re going to respond to it as well. If you smile at me and I sense there’s a crinkling in your eyes and there’s a warm feeling coming from you, I’ll respond to that, “This is safe. This is friendly. This is fun. He’s not threatening. He likes me.” I feel good about myself.
But if you’re smiling at me and your eyes are in a cold, dead stare, I’ll know that there’s something menacing about that smile, and this guy’s Dexter or something, and I need to take a few steps back. We’re perceiving the environment responding to it.
But back to the suprachiasmatic nucleus: It’s tracking the movement of the sun and the moon and the stars. When it gets dark out, it begins to release melatonin and other things when we go to sleep. [When we] wake up in the morning, the same nucleus in our brain has been tracking the movement of the planet and of the sun, and then it knows, “Okay, now is the time to start waking up,” and it begins releasing cortisol. We have these chemical rhythms and patterns that are happening in us in response to the environment.
Now, our whole physiological mechanism is made up of different patterns. Our liver follows a pattern, our stomach follows a pattern, our heart rates are following a pattern, the brain waves—everything within us are following their own rhythms and their own patterns. An interesting pattern of the heart rate is that every time the Earth spins on its axis in one twenty-four-hour period, our heart beats approximately 108,000 times. The number 108 is a sacred number in the Hindu tradition. In Buddhist tradition, as well. It has a lot of different significances to it. One of the significances is the distance between the Earth and the moon. You can fit 108 moons, I believe it is, [between] the Earth and the moon. There’s this coherence of this number 108, or very close to 108, between all those different entities. So, even in the world we live in, there are these mathematical patterns that our body is in sync with on certain levels.
What we do in yoga, for example: We’re tuning into these patterns. What’s the pattern of my breath? What’s the pattern of my awareness? What are the patterns of my emotions? Is there a time of the day, or is there a circumstance, that gets me more upset, that gets me more anxious? What are the patterns of my memories of the past? Do my memories come up at certain times that I need to look at, or be aware of, or examine? I like the idea of rhythm, and I like the idea of pattern, because the biosphere that we live in is just a collection of patterns. We move from one season to the next, from day into night, from one age into the next.
By observing the patterns and living in harmony in them, we learn a lot about [how] we’re just not these individual independent beings that exist in and of ourselves. But we exist in concert with all the other patterns that are present here at this same time. Can we live with those patterns, or are we living against them?
SB: On that subject of nervous-system regulation, which you’ve called our “internal social network,” and I definitely prefer that social network to certain digital ones we have to deal with—or don’t have to deal with, I guess—these days. Breathing is really a way of studying the nervous system, as you explained. I’m curious how you think about the nervous system in relation to the five senses, and the idea that how we construct our world is a result of our relationship to our nervous system.
ES: We have these five sense organs. We have the eyes, the ears, the nose, the mouth, and our skin. All of those are bringing in information from the world around us. That information is traveling through the nerves, which are connecting these organs to the brain. Then the brain is processing that information in different types of ways. The way that the brain is going to process that information is determined by the amount of bandwidth of information that’s allowed to enter in at any given time.
For example, we see a certain spectrum of colors, limited to the seven colors and the permutations of them. They can make up a whole lot of options for us. Just open any Pantone [Color Bridge] book and you can see how many choices there are. But by any standards of a lot of the beings that exist in the world, that’s pretty limited. You have the [mantis] fighting shrimp, which live at the bottom of the ocean. We have three cones in our eyes for seeing colors; they have thousands [of units that detect light independently]. They can see more of the color spectrum than any being that we know of on the planet.
So there are a lot of other animals and species that have a tremendous, tremendous bandwidth for experiencing color. We’re limited to what we’re limited to. The same is true with sound, and with smell, and with taste, and with touch. That information comes in, for whatever reasons our bandwidth is going to limit it to that amount, and then we construct that as reality. We assume, “Because I’m experiencing this, it’s real.” But it’s only real for us as human beings. It’s not real for us as a dog, or a cat, or a butterfly, or a three-toed sloth, or anything like that. Or a whale, or a cloud.
In the Jain [religious] tradition, they consider that all beings have sense organs. Humans have five. But there are other beings—say, like a carrot—that maybe only has two sense organs. Therefore, when you’re choosing the food that you eat, you choose foods that are the lowest on the chain of having sense organs, so you cause the least amount of harm. Because the more sense organs you have, the more harm you’ll cause—the more pain that being will experience.
How does a carrot experience the world? We have no idea. We don’t know how a cat experiences the world. We know how we experience a cat, that’s all. Again, just to come back to this [idea of] meditation, and to yoga—which is, I think, why I’m here, because I’m a yoga teacher—we are trying to understand our bandwidth, and maybe expand it a little. If we can’t really expand the bandwidth all that much, what we can come to realize is our bandwidth is only … it’s assumed. It’s the illusory perception of reality that we’re living within. If we don’t take that perception too seriously, but understand that it’s filled with change, and that it’s just our perception, and other beings might perceive it differently, then we cause less conflict with ourselves and with other beings as well.
Part of living a contemplative life is to understand perception, to understand the sense organs, and then, when our awareness begins to move inward, away from thinking that the sense organs are the only experience of reality that we have—which is how many people live—we start to feel, in sense, like, Well, who’s the experiencer of this? What’s this level of awareness below the sense organs, which is experiencing and then deciding what that information is? Can I live with this level of awareness, in this level of being, so that being is the thing, or awareness or seeing is the thing which is my real identity—not all the things out in the world that I’m experiencing through the sense organs and thinking are real and define me.
Bandwidth is one way of limiting our identity to the things that our sense organs experience, that will be one great limitation. Or we can expand that to feel, What’s the awareness underneath the sense organs? What happens if I pull my awareness away from thinking that my experience through the sense organs is the real one? Then who will I be? What will I be experiencing there? That’s what the contemplatives like to do.
SB: This idea of animism—that there’s energy embedded in everything—I was curious what you think about animism.
ES: There are all these different philosophical systems in Hinduism. One of them is called samkhya. Samkhya means “to count.” What it does is it counts all the different evolutes of nature. Nature and consciousness are said to be two separate things. They’re both eternal principles. Nature [has] a tremendous potential to manifest in any of the ways that things are manifested. All the infinite things that exist in existence exist because of nature’s permutations. Like, this microphone and my body are both different permutations of nature. My body has a little bit more of, say, a balance of inertia, energy, and reflection, and this microphone maybe has a little bit more of an embodiment of inertia, because it’s steady. It’s not going to move on its own. We’re going to have to pick it up. It’s primarily a heavier material. But we’re a mix of all three, so we can do more things than this microphone can do. There’s also a thing about electricity, and energy, within this microphone. This microphone is going to need an external source of energy to power it, whereas we have our own internal source of energy.
We’re made up of the same stuff, but the ingredients levels are different. From a samkhya point of view, everything is nature. That’s all there is to it. But is everything conscious? Well, that’s a different discussion.
What do I think of it? I think that, right now, my basic feeling is, existence exists, and the things that exist within existence change. They always change. That’s the nature of existence. The fact that existence exists seems to have not changed for a very, very long time.
The fact that existence exists, I’m going to call that “consciousness.” And the things in existence, which are changing all the time, I’m going to call “nature.” Those things are going to be permutating. How long has this universe been here that we know of? We’ve counted 15 billion years back; this planet, about 4.2 billion [years], or something like that. But it hasn’t always been the same like this. It’s only very recently that it’s been like this. It’s going to continue to change. That’s all part of existence, the change.
In yoga, they call this parinama, which means “change.” Everything changes. What comes along with change? Suffering. Hardship. The yogis were interested in seeing, “Well, if I recognize that everything changes, and if you identify with change, that causes suffering. Then what happens if I don’t identify with change with nature, but with existence, and then I feel the existence part of me as awareness, as witnesses, as whatever? Then will I move beyond the identity of suffering?
SB: This is a great segue. I wanted to bring up the East-West idea, but really, more thinking about the West, and how we live in this culture of busyness, speed—you described it as “sensory indulgence” in your book, [One Simple Thing: A New Look at the Science of Yoga and How It Can Transform Your Life], which I loved. Overstimulation, overdrive—we’re just constantly on. Adrenaline and cortisol are—they’re running amok, basically. [Laughs] How do you think this has been, and is, shifting our relationship with ourselves, with our being, with time? What does slowing down do in terms of aiding us physiologically, physically, and psychologically?
ES: Well, that’s a pretty big question.
SB: Many-barreled. Sorry. [Laughs]
ES: That’s fine. It’s great. There is something about speed, which is driving our world right now. Speed of the internet—that’s really important. We like our WiFi. We like things to function. Speed is something that we’re very interested in [as a] society, but it’s not something that the rest of the universe isn’t interested in also. If we’re looking at movement, and if we’re looking at time and [the] space that we’re part of, light moves pretty fast also. It’s not like we’re the only thing in the world which is moving fast. Maybe we’re just one of the things in the world which has lost control of it a little bit, and our capacity to deal with speed, and monitor speed, hasn’t matured yet.
Maybe it will. Maybe with each generation that’s born into these times, where things are really fast, they’ll get used to it, and it’ll become normal for them. They can handle it better than middle-aged people like me. [Laughs]
SB: Or nature demands of us that we respond to speed in a different way.
ES: Exactly. I’ll say two things, two uncomplicated things. Number one, the way that our bodies work is that, at a certain time, we need to slow down. We need to sleep. We need to sleep seven to eight hours a night. Really important things are happening when we sleep. We call it a “slowing down” only because our body isn’t physically moving through space. We’re lying relatively inert in one place, maybe tossing and turning a little. But tremendous processes are happening in the body. We have an amazing system, called the glymphatic system, in the brain. Do you know about the glymphatic system?
ES: It’s so cool. What it does is, it operates primarily when we’re asleep. It’s responsible for draining the debris from the brain that collects during the day from thinking. Thinking is a physical act. When we think, we have all these synapses firing. That’s electricity. The electricity is leaving residue. That residue, those are like amyloids and all other types of things: if they’re not cleared from the brain, they start to gunk it up, like oil can gunk up a carburetor.
SB: It’s like your desktop when it gets filled with icons and files, and you have to throw it in the recycling bin. [Laughs]
ES: Yeah, exactly. The glymphatic system removes the debris from the brain that collects from thinking during the day. It happens when we sleep. Very important. That’s one of the reasons why, if you wake up the next morning with a nice night of sleep, you might feel a little bit more refreshed. A lot of cellular repair is happening. Tissue repair is happening. All these important reparation processes are going on while we sleep. As well, we are doing things on emotional and psychological levels with integrating experiences of the day, through dreaming and things like that. Even though we’re slowing down, it’s for repair and assimilation to occur. That’s really important.
During the day, of course, if we keep going too fast all the time, our nervous system is going to respond to that speed by releasing chemicals that support speed, that make us go faster and faster. That’s not what our bodies were designed to do. At a certain point, either we’ll burn out, or we’ll fry ourselves in different ways, or we’ll get sick, or we’ll not be able to think clearly. We’ll make mistakes. All those types of things that we experience already—lack of focus and lack of task completion, short tempers, and not being able to assimilate our emotions and all that—that all comes from speed. Slowing down is really important.
The traditional cultures and the wisdom traditions had ways of slowing down periodically throughout the day. That would be rituals that you perform in the morning, or going to church every day or once a week, or certain times of the week where you go and do rituals with your tribe or your group of people. In the “modern societies” that are moving away from religion, we don’t have the same rituals built into our everyday life, which have been actually really helpful for people to reconnect to purpose and reconnect to meaning. I think a lot of people who have moved away from religion have now moved to things like meditation, or to yoga, or tai chi, or other modalities, because there’s an intrinsic need within us to slow down. In that slowing down, we’re reconnecting with our sense of purpose, with our sense of being, and reconnecting with the things that are important [to] us. It may be family, or friends. It’s really something that needs to be recaptured.
I think that, with Covid, as horrible as this has been for the world, there has been a sense, for some people, of being in a forced slowdown, which has helped them reconnect with either themselves or with people. I know that, before Covid, I was really starting to wonder if I should still be a yoga teacher. I thought maybe I should go back to school. I’d never gone to college. I thought maybe I should get a degree. Maybe I should really move more toward science and research that I’m really interested in. There’s so much going on in the yoga world, and a lot of the pain and fallen gurus or sexual abuse and the things that just have been really hard for many people—[it’s been] painful for many people, and challenging and tearing apart communities and stuff like that. I just wondered, Am I in the right place? Then, with Covid, when I started teaching online, like everybody else, it allowed me to pull back a little from all of that pain that I had been seeing around me.
I was able to reconnect again with just being a yoga teacher. I rediscovered my love for teaching yoga again being online, being on Zoom. At a certain point, like towards the summertime, I realized, again, This is what I am. I’m a yoga teacher. I’ve been really excited about that again.
SB: I think it’s interesting—this technology idea in connection to spirituality, in connection to yoga, in connection to the very idea of connection. Technology is a tool that we so often talk about as something that divides us, as something that causes a lot of alarm, specifically social media. I’m just curious, as someone who’s found it as a tool for healing, and who has also created these other tools—like your new app, Yoga 365, or the Breathing App—how do you think about the role of technology in our lives in relation to how we should be thinking about finding a healthy mind-body-spirit experience?
ES: Well, if you live in a society that uses a lot of technology, then discipline is good to have. That’s one thing.
ES: Yeah, definitely. Yoga is founded on boundaries. The first thing that you find in yoga are the boundaries—the healthy boundaries of behavior. I think it’s not a good idea for people to demonize technology, because we’re the ones who have created it. It didn’t just come out of nowhere, falling from the sky like stardust. If we’re part of the culture that has created these things, then we have to be part of the culture that decides how to use it and what the best uses of it are.
There are best practices for tech, and there are poor practices for tech. Poor practices include trolling people and being abusive, and spreading conspiracy theories, and using it to plan insurgent attacks on the government, and stuff like that. Those aren’t best practices.
There are other ways that we can use technology that everyone knows are good. I’m not a Facebook user, but there are a lot of people who mainly connect to family and friends through it. They love it. The same with Instagram and stuff like that. I quite like teaching online, because people are in their own spaces. And I’m in my own space. I give them a tool that they can use that hopefully will make their lives a little better and make them happier. That’s theirs to use.
It feels to me like, in that teaching setting, there’s a little bit more of an even spread or sharing of knowledge, rather than this top-down approach to knowledge, where I’m the one teaching and you’re the one receiving. This is how a lot of the vibe has been set up. I’m not talking about India. I’m talking about the Western yoga scene, those huge festivals with someone on a stage, teaching to hundreds and hundreds of people. The idea of “rock-star yogis”—that was all something that was created in those yoga festival things. That wasn’t something we ever heard about in the eighties. This was recent stuff.
That stuff is not good for people. It’s not good for students. It’s not good for the teachers. There needs to be, especially for Western people, who—we’re not Hindus, we’re not Indians, yoga is not part of our culture. We’re privileged to have experienced these practices, we’re privileged to be able to share them, and we have to do that with great respect and great humility, and with the understanding that we’re not the owners of this information. We’re being invited to be a participant in sharing this information. As a participant of the sharing of information, we have to do it, or try to do it, in such a way that we don’t put ourselves above the other people who want to share in this knowledge as well. Yes, I might know a little bit more than you, but you know more than me about something else. You can help me in certain ways. What I can do is I can maybe help you with yoga, and that’s it. The sharing base of knowledge and information needs to become a little bit more level, so that we use it properly. Otherwise, we don’t. We use it for self-aggrandizement. We use it for narcissistic reasons. We use it for power. We use it for whatever. There’s a lot of that happening.
So, being behind a computer, teaching, and allowing people to be in their own spaces—there’s no competition, because no one’s looking at each other. There’s only a sharing of information—people can ask questions at the end of class, and people hang out for a little bit or whatever. But then we all go off and we’re on our own.
I’m not trying to romanticize it. It’s just a very practical thing. People seem, to me, that they’re able to preserve their own energy boundaries a little bit better in that setting, rather than being in a big, huge setting with lots of people where those boundaries get a little bit hazy sometimes. Not everybody likes yoga on Zoom. I get it. Honestly, a lot of my New York students don’t come to class. Most of the people who are coming are from different places now. But I, honestly—there’s something about it that I find to be good.
SB: This commodification, if we can call it that, of yoga in the West: How do we reconcile this divide, or collision, between the spiritual element of yoga and the consumerist side?
ES: Yoga, meditation, and spirituality are not transaction-free, and they never have been. It’s just that the nature of the transactions can be different. If we go back thousands of years to India, and you were going to come learn from a guru, you would go stay with the guru for—this is not in all cases, but in many, you would go stay with him. At the end of your study, the guru would ask for some type of payment. That payment could be anything. It says in one Upanishad—the Taittirīya Upanishad—that at the conclusion of the studies, the student should give that which is dear to the teacher. That is the offering.
If the teacher says, like in the case of [Tirumalai] Krishnamacharya, “Go teach yoga. Don’t become the head of a monastery, but get married, have a family, and teach yoga.” That was the gurudakshina. That’s what he should do. There are also typically situations where the students will collect wood to bring to the sacrificial fire, to keep the fire burning and the offerings going. The sacrificial fires were also transactions, where you make prayers to the fire, you give offerings, so that something is bestowed upon you as well. A blessing, perhaps, or that the rains fall on time, or that nature stays in cycle, or that there’s a good king to rule the land. These are all transactional things. They’re not bad. It’s just to maintain order.
Now we do things like, we have to charge money for yoga or meditation, because the state of our world now demands that a transaction is monetary. That’s how we pay our rent and buy our food—in India, in New York, all over. The trick is to understand that part of the transaction, and to not get out of hand with it. You don’t want to be greedy. You don’t want to overvalue yourself and take more than you deserve.
That’s going to be something up to the individual to monitor over time: Am I getting out of control with my transactions? Or are they within the bounds of sanity, or health, or whatever? Usually, if you don’t have enough moral strength within you to watch that, then there’ll be checks and balances in the world. Where, if you get out of control, eventually, something is going to make you fall down. It will be pulled out away from you if you get greedy. That’s because transactions don’t just happen between people. They happen between actions, nature, and people as well. The downfalls of great societies and the downfalls of opulence—why do those happen? Because something is out of balance. Nature is going to right that imbalance.
SB: Story of our time right now.
ES: It’s a story of every time. We don’t always get to witness it up close—
SB: Yeah, Covid is a little….
ES: It’s always there. It goes back to your earlier question of rhythm and pattern, and living in harmony with time, and living in harmony with rhythms and patterns. A lot of that has to do with not being greedy, not going too fast, not demanding that the transaction be more than what you really are worth. All of those things take heightened levels of awareness. Hence, contemplative practice, just to be aware of it.
When I first started teaching yoga, in 1989, I was teaching at [New York’s] Sivananda [Yoga Vedanta Center] and also at Jivamukti [Yoga]Jivamukti, which was then called the Jivamukti Yoga Society. You weren’t paid for teaching. Teaching yoga was service. It’s called seva. You only taught as a service to the yoga school in the community. People would come to the yoga schools. They would pay the yoga schools, because the yoga school had to pay the rent and stuff like that, but the teachers were not paid. We were very happy to not be paid, because we felt we were doing a service. This is what Sampadananda Mishra, who I was just doing an interview with yesterday on Instagram, said: “We grow by giving.” That’s one of the hallmarks of the Hindu tradition and of living a conscious spiritual life.
When we were teaching yoga simply for free like that, it was very, very satisfying. It was just pure giving. When I first had to accept yoga for money for teaching yoga—I didn’t have to, but I did start accepting it—I felt so unclean. I felt like I have really gone against everything that I was raised to believe. But then—
SB: You have to eat.
ES: You have to eat. And then I grew to be appreciative of the fact that I could do that. Right now, we’re experimenting with a model that we’ve been doing since March, which is that all of our yoga classes are donation-only. If you can’t afford to donate, that’s okay, because it’s Zoom. You get the link anyway when you register. Anyone can come. About thirty percent of the people are able to donate. About seventy [percent], in the time of Covid or depending on where they live, aren’t able to, or they donate a dollar or something. Knock wood—so far, we’re getting by.
I like it, because I feel like, Oh, I can recapture a little bit of that feeling that I had where I don’t have to be counting how many people are in the classroom to make sure I’m going to get by. It’s a privileged position to be in, to have enough people to come where you can just do it by donations and still pay a New York City rent. So I’m grateful for that, but I also like the experiment. We do have some programs that we suggest people pay for, but my daily classes are basically just like that.
Often, people ask me what yoga means to me. Or, what’s my definition of yoga? I really, honestly think that what’s more important is that I try to understand what the yoga tradition says yoga is, and not what I think it is or what it means to me. What it means to me doesn’t matter so much as what the tradition says it is.
I think that’s really a lot of our job as yoga teachers, or should be: to endeavor to understand, What does the tradition hold? And then to follow along with those things the best we can. That’s one of the ways we can protect the spreading, and this “commodification” of yoga, to answer your question, in a roundabout way.
SB: How are these traditions passed on? And how much has your practice, if at all, been modified? How, by doing yoga, are you connected to the original source?
ES: We are all connected to [the] original source. That is one of the basics of all the Hindu philosophies: Every being who is a potential conscious agent is connected to source in one way or the other. What we’re doing is trying to quiet our minds, to slow the fluctuations of the mind down, so that our awareness can move inward and that connection can be reflected in the field of our consciousness. That becomes our experience of being.
We’re all connected to original source. There are going to be millions and millions of different ways of reminding ourselves of that connection. Those are the different practices. When we study with teachers, all the teachers are doing is sharing with us their level of experience through the practices that they teach us. If they’re not an experienced person, then the practice that we get is only going to bring us to their level, which is fine. If they’re highly experienced and they have deep, deep realizations, then they can help lead us toward deeper levels of realization. Because what they’re passing to us, in a headstand, or in a forward bend, or in a mantra, or in a breathing practice, is their experience through this vessel, through this practice.
That’s basically what the tradition holds: If a guru is someone who removes darkness, what is the darkness they’re removing? Of not knowing who you really are. So how far along can they bring you? Only as far as they’ve gone. They can’t bring you further along the path than they’ve traveled. They can’t bring you to deeper levels of experiences than they’ve had. So, that’s what happens. We go to teachers. We learn stuff. We learn something about ourselves. If we’re ready to go deeper, either we have that deeper experience on our own, or we find another teacher who brings us further along.
SB: It’s fascinating to think of these postures, or asanas, as physical time, in a way.
ES: Yeah, they are. That’s one of the cool things about practices being passed down over time, from generation to generation, because they get energized. There are all these beautiful guitars hanging up on the wall here [gestures to wall in The Slowdown’s studio]. Look at that green guitar there. If that were passed down through a couple of generations of amazing guitar players, and you picked it up, you’re going to be, like, “Oh, my God, Buddy Holly played this guitar.” You’re going to handle that guitar differently, You’re going to be, like, “Whoa, this is really a cool instrument. I’m just electric touching it.”
The practices get energized and stay alive by people practicing them. When they’re practiced and taught, practiced and taught, they stay alive. They’re living entities. Sometimes we talk about these things being passed down over a period of a thousand years. A guy who studied with Krishnamacharya for a very short time—of, I think, only a few months or something, a Westerner told me this story. If we look at a practice being passed down over a period of a thousand years and, generally speaking, people will live between eighty to a hundred years, that means that if you have ten or fifteen people in a room, and you looked at each of those people as one generation, you’ve gone back, basically, a thousand years practically. You’re a hundred years, and he’s a hundred years, and he’s a hundred years, and I’m a hundred [years]. If we strung us back in time, we’d go back four hundred years just with four people, just counting them.
We can get really far back in time with ten or fifteen or twenty people, and see a continuity of ideas and practices that have been passed down from generation to generation. We can connect ourselves through lineage really far back in time—even if we don’t know the lineage, and even if we don’t know those people who came before, necessarily—just by virtue of passing things on.
I always thought that was really cool, because a thousand years sounds like a long way away. But if you look at it in terms of people, it’s really very close. All of a sudden, it becomes not such a big deal. Like, Oh yeah, why shouldn’t they have been doing this a thousand years ago? Because we’re doing it now.
SB: I find it fascinating that the average person probably doesn’t know who their great-great grandparent was, or what their name was. That’s just a few generations removed.
ES: Yeah, exactly. This is why, in the yogic traditions, and also in the philosophical traditions, they’re always repeating the names of all the teachers in the lineage, going back really far. Just by repeating it, by telling stories again and again, you keep them alive. You keep the memory alive. The repetition of the names of the people in your lineage is like a daily practice.
SB: I wanted to go back to your childhood—so, not so far back in time. [Laughs] Could you share a bit about your parents, and your upbringing, and what your childhood was like?
ES: Sure. I grew up in New York City. My parents got married in the early 1960s. My mom was young. I think she was 19, or maybe 20, when she got married, and my dad was just a year older than her. They got divorced in 1971. We had lived on the Upper East Side up until then. Then, after they got divorced, my mom moved downtown with my two sisters and I. So I grew up on MacDougal Street from the time I was 5 years old. My dad stayed uptown, my mom stayed downtown. I’ve been downtown ever since then. Now I live just on Waverly Place, a couple blocks away from where I grew up. It’s still fun to be in that area.
We come from a Jewish background. On my mother’s side and my father’s side, both were very Jewish. But particularly my mother’s side was very involved in the creation of the State of Israel. We had many rabbis on her side of the family. I believe our family tree traces itself back to the Gaon Vilna, who was a very esteemed Jewish scholar, very serious, very strict.
On my father’s side, we’re originally from Bohemia, in what’s now the Czech Republic. We came to America around 1860, somewhere between 1860 and 1880, on my father’s side. My great-great grandfather had a liquor store on Avenue C. I believe it was 5th or 6th Street, and lived on Eldridge Street. We’ve been here in Manhattan for a hundred and thirty years.
SB: I have this image now of you, in your youth in the eighties, and the ghost of your great-great grandfather seeing you running around Alphabet City in a mohawk. [Laughs]
ES: I know, exactly. I knew none of this until a couple of years ago, which has only reappeared recently, when I started learning all this in the past six or eight years. It’s a really interesting history.
My mother’s father, he was a little bit of the outlier of the family. He had gone to Harvard [University]. He got his Ph.D. there, and wanted to be a professor of philosophy. He became a private investor, and read philosophy on his own, I guess.
My mother didn’t grow up Jewish at all. In fact, he sent her to a Catholic school on the Upper East Side called Nightingale-Bamford. She grew up chanting all the Catholic hymns, and celebrating Christmas and Easter, which is how we were brought up. I wasn’t brought up with any Jewish upbringing.
SB: But it’s in you.
ES: It’s in me, for sure. My father was, I think, a little bit more observant than my mother, but not terribly, just the high holidays. I recall going to a synagogue with him, the kid services at Central Synagogue when I was young. There was not a lot of religion in our family, not on this side. I got bar mitzvaed when I was 50 years old. I wasn’t bar mitzvahed as a kid. I was never sent to Hebrew school. It was only after my parents both got remarried that I think they discovered a little bit more of their religion. Their second set of kids both had bar and bat mitzvahs. I got mine when I was 50 with a rabbi that I still study with. He’s a Lubavitch rabbi and a great guy, Mendel Jacobson.
SB: At what point did you become interested in philosophy, and ultimately, as well, in Hinduism? When did that expand for you?
ES: When I was 15, in ninth grade. I had an English teacher named Mrs. Jane Bendetson. She had us reading Siddhartha, the first book we were reading of the year in her English class. She was a very strict teacher. She said, “The most important questions you can ask yourself in your life are: ‘Who am I?’, ‘What am I doing here?’ and ‘What do I do next?’”
At that time, I really hated school. I was lost. It wasn’t for me, education. I didn’t really have friends, except for a couple friends who were like, what we would call the “bad-influence kids.” We were into drugs, and into all sorts of good music, and skateboarding and stuff. But we were not academically minded. We didn’t do things that encouraged the study or engagement of academics.
Those three questions gave me a format to begin questioning myself: Who was I, really? What was important to me? What should I do with my life? The idea of “What should I do with my life?” became really important to me from that time. Going to college was not important to me. Did I want to go into music? Did I want to go into art? I just became contemplative. I started thinking about those things. That’s really what led me into learning more about philosophy, and learning more about [it], whether it was reading Carlos Castaneda or picking up books like that. Then, eventually, I found yoga.
SB: You were playing guitar in a band called Chop Shop at the time.
ES: I was.
SB: Tell me about your days in the band, and the New York punk scene.
ES: The New York punk scene was really fun. We would go to CBGB’s every Sunday for the hardcore “matinees.” They were great clubs. There was Danceteria, and the Peppermint Lounge, and A7, [the] Pyramid [Club], The World. There were just tons of great places to go dancing and to hear live music, and there were amazing bands. There was the Ritz, also—great bands at the Ritz.
I think that from the time I was around that age, up until the time I discovered yoga, Wednesday, the day The Village Voice came out, was the focal point of the week: Who’s playing this weekend? Who can we go see? What bands are coming around? That was our Bible, the listings of The Village Voice.
We ran very free in the city. At 15 or 16, we could get into the clubs. They didn’t really care to card us, even at the Palladium, or anywhere. That was it. That was the music, and life, and hanging out on the streets of St. Mark’s Place, and playing music.
SB: Where did your band fit into this scene? I should say, some of these bands were quite big. You had Minor Threat, Agnostic Front. Beastie Boys came out of this moment.
ES: Yeah, the Beastie Boys did come out of that moment. Mike D still continues to be a great friend. He practices yoga with me, as well.
Chop Shop was not…. We had a good following. We could get a Friday night at CBGB’s, which was a big thing. But we broke up early. We fell apart. That was that. We weren’t really a punk-rock band. We were what they called a ”scum-rock” band. That was a genre of music that I believe we were instrumental in starting on the Lower East Side. We were inspired by The Cramps and The Gun Club and The Birthday Party, which was Nick Cave’s first band, and stuff like that.
SB: Slam-dancing seems quite far from yoga. But maybe it’s not, in a way.
ES: I think it’s pretty far. [Laughter] It’s definitely a communal activity. I think it’s pretty far, from the mosh pits of CBGB’s to the yoga mats of India. When you look at Harley [Flanagan], and some of the guys in the Cro-Mags and in some of the other hardcore bands, they were into the Hare Krishna movement early on.
SB: Yeah. A lot of punk is quite straight-edge.
ES: Well, yeah, for sure. Minor Threat, and a lot of the…. There were a bunch of peace punk bands as well. Even in that punk-rock scene, it was identity. We were looking for our identity and expression. We weren’t finding the identity that we were looking for in other structures of the world around us, whether it was political structures, which were corrupt, or educational structures, which didn’t seem to hold a whole lot of purpose for everyone to go through.
We wanted to create our own structure, and create our own cosmologies, and our own viewpoints, through which we could express ourselves. Even in terms of fashion, and aesthetics, and leave everything else aside, it takes a lot of time to get your mohawk to stand up just right. And if you want the color to be good and to hold, that takes a lot of work. And to put all those studs in a leather jacket, or put your piercings in the right place, or whatever—it is a very considered architecture of design into your outfits, your hair, your look, and everything. This is not just looking like a total fucking bum. This is like, you put a lot of thought into how you want to present yourself to the world. There is as much time and effort put into your perfect punk-rock hairdo, and piercings, and outfit, as the debutante going to the ball, who’s going to get her hair done and pick out her satin dress—[it’s] just, our satin dresses were primarily made out of leather and torn plaid.
SB: I understand you also had a goth phase, where you were wearing basically exclusively black. What spurred this period?
ES: Who didn’t? [Laughs] Again, it was just identity shifts. Whatever bands that you were identifying with—Bauhaus, Einstürzende Neubauten, Siouxsie and the Banshees, whoever—you’re going to dress like they dressed. The Cult—Southern Death Cult, as they were [known] at the time. That’s all there was to it. Who you identify with, that’s what you dress like and that becomes your tribe, your club.
SB: Around this time, in ’86, you were working at a record store, Bleecker Bob’s. It was there that you met a guy who was a vegetarian, and had been studying yoga in the seventies. Could you talk about this influence that he had on you? It seems profound that it led to, at least, a quite incredible lifestyle shift for you.
ES: Yeah. His name was Ted Byoric. He was from York, Pennsylvania. He was working in the comic-book section of Bleecker Bob’s and I was in the T-shirt section. We became buddies. I remember the first question Ted asked me was—we introduced ourselves and he said, “Hey, have you ever tried ecstasy?” Actually, the taking of ecstasy, and of mushrooms, and things like that, with Ted, were an entry point into these discussions about enlightenment, Samadhi, yoga, Kundalini, and all that stuff.
He’d done yoga with Amrit Desai in the 1970s in Pennsylvania. Amrit Desai was the guru who started Kripalu [Center for] Yoga [and Health]. Then he had affairs with some students, and he [left] that particular institution. But Ted had met him a decade and a half earlier to that.
Ted really introduced me to the yogic thought systems. It was mainly meditation, and chanting, and not really asanas so much, as it was other stuff. That’s how I got started. Then I started realizing that, through yoga and meditation, according to the texts, I could get to those places of insight and realization that I was finding from psychedelics, but I could do it without psychedelics. So I stopped taking drugs.
By the time I was 19, I was totally clean and totally straight-edge. No drinking, no smoking, no drugs, nothing. And vegetarian.
It was all from reading those yoga texts, [and] realizing, This is what I’m actually seeking. I’m seeking what’s described as “liberation,” or enlightenment, of a total, full, complete knowing of who the essence of my being is. Yeah, that’s what I’m interested in.
And the best way to get there is through the direct path of engaging with that, and not letting anything else get in the middle of that communication, like psychedelics. So I stopped. That was it. That was really the end of my drug days. That was thanks to Ted, that I got on that path.
SB: By the late eighties, ’89, you’re a yoga teacher in Manhattan, where, back then, there were really only a handful of yoga studios here in New York. Could you describe your path in teaching and your journey to Mysore, India, and studying with Pattabhi Jois, whom you met?
ES: Well, the journey was, that there were a couple of yoga schools in the city. I would go to those places and take yoga.
At that time, I thought you had to be enlightened to be a yoga teacher. I thought that the teachers there were probably enlightened, or at least, raised [with] Kundalini or something. There was Ravi Singh, teaching Kundalini yoga. There was Jivamukti. And there was Dharma Mittra and [the] Sivananda Yoga Vedanta [Center]. So I went to all those places.
I didn’t know that I could become a yoga teacher. I didn’t know about yoga teacher trainings, or anything like that. Then my teacher suggested that I go to India, take the teacher training, and then come back and maybe teach at their school. So I did, and that was that.
I was nervous to go to India. I didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t know where I was going—nothing—but landed, and loved it. The teacher who was leading the teacher-training course I took was named [Mahamandaleshwar] Swami Shankarananda, who was a swami for twenty-three years. He stopped in 1995, got married, and had three kids. He continues to be a very close friend. We published a magazine together called Nāmarūpa that we’ve been publishing for, I think, thirteen or fourteen years now.
I definitely have a lot of lifelong friends from those days. There was something interesting happening, creative things that bound me together with certain people.
Sadly, I lost touch with Ted. You know, I was running a T-shirt business. Ted was the second partner I had. We lived in a tiny apartment on Thompson Street. It was no bigger than this room that we’re sitting in now, including a bathroom and a kitchen, and maybe even a little narrower. It was $650 [a month]. We lived in it, we would print T-shirts, and sell T-shirts all over the place, rock-and-roll T-shirts. That’s what we did. Then, after I got really interested in yoga, and thought, This is what I’m going to do with my life, I sold my half of the business to him. That’s when I went off to India, to see what would happen next. That was 1988.
SB: You studied with Jois from 1991 to 2009. What were some of the greatest learnings, or things, that happened to you or helped transform you during that time?
ES: I do have to say at the outset that Pattabhi Jois has had multiple sexual abuse allegations put forth to him, even though he’s no longer alive. I don’t know if “allegations” is the right word, but he sexually abused women. That has been a very difficult thing for, number one, for the women, and number two, for the [yoga] community, to figure out how to deal with it. Many people have dealt with it in different ways. I’ve had my own struggles in dealing with this as well, and understanding my own personal mindset that I came into being a student of his with.
When I first arrived in Mysore and studied with him, I wasn’t too sure if I felt that he was my teacher. But I liked his yoga. I thought the yoga was very good, but I wasn’t sure about him, like, “Is this the person for me?” But after a couple of years, I thought, I’m going to dedicate myself to this anyway, and see what happens. And that was what happened.
There were so many other things that were wrapped up in that, as well. I don’t believe he was running a cult at all. I don’t think he was sophisticated enough to do that. But I also think, on many levels, he wasn’t a very good person, and on other levels, he was—he was a very good yoga teacher. How do you parse those two things apart? If you’re abusing people on the one hand, and then teaching yoga on the other hand, are those two things mutually exclusive? I have a hard time thinking that they are, to be honest.
SB: Yeah. This goes back to what you were saying earlier about, before Covid, wondering, Is [yoga] something [I want to continue teaching and practicing]?
ES: That was a lot of it. Even though I don’t think he was running a cult, I think that we had a cultlike mentality [within] the group of people who were there. One of the things that happens within cults is there is fear of survival, there’s fear of belonging. There’s all these different fears. For the women who are being abused, for them to survive, they have to leave. Somehow, they muster the internal strength to leave from that situation. For other people, like me, for example, my need for survival, and my fear for surviving, causes me to stay. Because that’s how I maintain myself.
I feel that I was living in a really fear-based existence, in many ways. Closeness to the guru, and importance in the entire community, became part of my survival mechanism. I needed [it] for my identity, and for whatever issues I was dealing with. I think, in retrospect, just looking back on it, that many of us were living in this cultlike mentality, and that the need to survive what we were going through, on whatever level that it was, caused different people to do different things.
Over the past year, a movement away from being too deeply involved in that community has been a part of me getting over that mentality. Because there’s a lot of fear still existing within it, and fear doesn’t lead toward treating people well. It doesn’t lead toward listening and acting and standing up for people who need to be stood up for. It doesn’t allow us to behave the way that we should be—the right way. Not just in accordance with yogic principles, but with human principles.
I don’t have a lot of romantic feelings about my days in India at this point. I’m very appreciative of what I learned. I’m very grateful for what I learned. I’m grateful for the practices that I’ve learned. Those have been very helpful to me. But I have to [balance] that with the pain that has been caused to women in the community—and to others in the community, as well—because of the actions Pattabhi Jois and of his grandson [Sharath Jois], as well, how he later handled the situation.
SB: From that same period of time, you’re teaching here in New York and building an incredible community yourself. One that happened to include a lot of celebrities, but those celebrities would just roll into class—Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna. Could you talk about your teacher-student relationship, and how meaningful, over the past twenty, thirty years, that’s been for you as the teacher yourself, with your own community around the studios?
ES: I don’t believe that the guru tradition is something that works for Westerners, at least for people who are just yoga teachers.
If you’re growing up in, say, Iskcon or something, or you’re growing up in an organization where they’re very much instituting the guru-disciple relationship and tradition, and you follow that, then it can be done very well. But for yoga, specifically, it doesn’t work. At least I’ve seen that it doesn’t work all that well. Because we have a cultural disconnect, for the most part, about what the guru is and what we are and what that relationship should be. It’s not part of our culture. It’s misunderstood.
This was something that I know that I did, and many of us did, with Pattabhi Jois. We had these ideas of what the guru was, based on the books we were reading, of Ramakrishna [Paramahamsa], and Ram Dass, and Ramana Maharshi, and all of the saints. The Autobiography of a Yogi. We’d read these books. Then there were a lot of us who were there practicing with him, and we wanted that person. We superimposed those ideas onto him. We forced them on him. I totally did that. I totally wanted him to be that kind of a person, but he wasn’t.
SB: I love that you’re saying this, by the way, because one of the things that really struck me in reading your book is that you talk about this idea of narrative, of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. You quote James Baldwin. I wanted to read it here, because I just feel like.… I don’t know. This quote has been ringing in my head since I read it. He writes [in his “Notes for a Hypothetical Novel,” an address he gave at an Esquire symposium in 1960], “This collision between one’s image of oneself and what one actually is, is always very painful, and there are two things you can do about it. You can meet the collision head-on and try to become what you really are. Or you can retreat and try to remain what you thought you were, which is a fantasy.”
In the context of this conversation, of what we project onto others, but also what we project onto ourselves, I felt like I had to bring it up. How should we be thinking about these life stories, whether they’re our own, or a guru’s?
ES: Let me just back up for a moment and finish this one thought—and I love that quote also, and I love James Baldwin. I value the guru tradition. I deeply value it. I’m definitely still engaged with it, with my own personal feelings of respect and gratitude for teachings, and the privilege to be able to be taught them, experience them, and pass them on. But what I am not is, I am not a guru, nor would I want to be one. My relationship with my students [comes] from my perspective of spiritual friendship.
I think that’s a good model for Westerners to follow. Don’t worry about the guru stuff. Don’t worry about being a big teacher. Just think that, Maybe, I know a little bit more about yoga than some of the people coming to class. I’ll share that, as spiritual friends, so that we all continue to grow together. That’s it. That’s how I think of my relationship with them. I used to be a much stricter teacher than I [had been], because I saw that’s what Pattabhi Jois was doing, and I thought that’s how I should be. I used to be a lot meaner than I am now, back in the 1990s. I don’t think I’m like that so much anymore.
I think that time, and becoming a father, and trying to be a good husband has softened me in the understanding of what it is that we’re really looking for. We still need discipline, but we don’t need to be mean. We don’t need to be hard. We need to be dedicated, but we don’t have to impose.
The dedication has to come from within the student, and we should inspire that dedication because we’re dedicated, but not because we tell them to. There’s a lot of top-down teaching and a lot of pontificating that happens in the “yoga and meditation worlds.” I don’t know why I said “quote unquote,” but I did.
I don’t know how helpful that is, because what that does is, that takes our own personal prejudices about a practice, a system, or a way of being, and then we impose it on another human being. That’s not our job. Our job is to be sharing techniques and giving guidance, and not imposing. That’s how I view the importance of this relationship. It can’t be an imposition. It needs to be a.… I don’t want to say a “welcoming environment,” but it’s an educational environment. We’re all learning. We’re all growing. We’re all at different places. But spiritual friendship—I think that’s where it’s at for the West. I hope that’s where it’s at.
SB: It’s almost like conversing with them as you would with yourself.
ES: If you’re going to be honest about it, yeah. I think honesty is important. People respond well to knowing that you struggle with something. If people think that, Oh, that other individual is perfect, and everything has come to them because they’re perfect and they’re so good at it, and I want to be like them, then that’s not it. That’s another false narrative. That’s another putting someone on a pedestal. When you build up a pedestal, you have to dig a hole in front of them to get earth for the pedestal and you put yourself down in it. That’s not a great relationship.
The guru tradition has a lot of subtleties to it. It’s founded on respect, appreciation, awe, and gratitude. Those are the things that I think, as Westerners, we can take. There are other cultural things that we might not understand, because it’s not part of our culture. We’re too individualistic in the West. That individualism doesn’t always work to our benefit.
SB: Yeah, I love the distinction you’ve made [in your book, One Simple Thing] between freedom as an idea and hedonism.
ES: Yeah. That’s the idea that, in America, that freedom is we can do whatever we want, whenever we want, however we want, and that no one can impede it. No one should stand in our way of accomplishing that. That’s really hedonism. In the Hindu traditions, freedom starts with restriction, [with] knowing, What are the boundaries of behavior? And that leads you to an inner freedom of spirit rather than an outer freedom of indulgence.
SB: To finish, now that you’ve had more than thirty years of yoga practice, is there anything you’d like to tell your 1988, ’89 self?
ES: Well, yes, I would. The thing I would tell my 1988, 1989 self is: “Don’t start teaching yoga yet.” I would tell myself to practice for a good ten or twelve years before I started teaching. Because the mistake that I made was, I started teaching too early. You don’t know anything back then. I think a lot of people start teaching too early. They say that teaching is the best way to learn something, but sometimes practice is a really good way to learn something, as well. That’s really the big change, the big thing I would tell myself.
SB: Take your time.
ES: Take your time. Practice more before you start teaching. I only say that for selfish reasons, because I feel like I would have made more progress in my practice. Honestly, the way we should look at it is like, No, don’t change anything. Because everything you did brought you to the point that you’re at right now. You needed to make all those mistakes in order to learn, in order to be this imperfect person that you are now, so you can continue to see what unfolds.
It’s only for selfish reasons that I [would] say, “Don’t start teaching yet”, so that I could have made more progress in my practice. But who knows? Maybe that would have become a great impediment to me. Just like getting really good at yoga could have been another narrative stumbling block—or, as we use in the West, an ego stumbling block.
I remember, I was living in my first apartment on Cornelia Street after I graduated from high school. There was a rainstorm, and I was lying in bed. I was thinking about the nature of my awareness: Who was being aware of what in that moment? And I was thinking to myself, The awareness that I feel inside me right now is always going to be the same awareness. The person that I am when I’m fifty years old is going to be exactly the same person as who’s lying in this bed right now, trying to get a sense of their awareness. Maybe I’ll look different, maybe I won’t have a mohawk anymore, or long hair. Maybe I won’t dress the same. But I’ll be the same person. And I feel that. I feel that I’m the same person now as I was when I was a teenager, because that person is our awareness.
SB: I think we’ll end there. That was beautiful. Thank you, Eddie. Thanks for your honesty and being so open, and sharing your story. And wow, I have a lot to think about. [Laughs]
ES: Well, thanks for having me on.
I hope the Pattabhi Jois thing is not upsetting to too many people. I know it’s been a very painful experience. I don’t minimize the pain which was caused at all. I wish that I was a stronger person back then, and that I could have stood up for the women who needed to be stood up for at that time. I didn’t have the resources to do that. I had too much fear to do that. If there was something that I could have done differently, actually, that’s probably the thing I would say that I would have done differently. I would have been a stronger person, to stand up against injustice.
SB: Thanks, Eddie.
ES: Thank you.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on January 22, 2021. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity by our executive editor, Tiffany Jow. This episode was produced by our managing director, Mike Lala, and sound engineer Pat McCusker.