A Sweaty Mess with Bryan Kest: putting the yoga back into yoga


“Yoga is a lot more than what we do on the mat. Actually, if what we do on the mat doesn’t help us off the mat, then it’s worthless; it’s absolutely worthless.”
-Bryan Kest, 2006

Lately, I’ve been feeling a bit nostalgic about the early days of my yoga practice.

I rediscovered my ashtanga practice that started 20 years ago. Each breath takes me back to my old family room above the garage where I spent many hours on my mat.

I pulled out and organized old class notes from almost just as many years ago. Some are scribbled on letterhead from Pepsi, the first place I ever taught a yoga class was at their employee wellness center. Scribble that I couldn’t read then and can’t read now. (Note to self: work on that handwriting!)

Well, they say everything comes in threes. My “three” was Bryan Kest teaching a master class at my studio this past week. Talk about full circle.

I can say without an ounce of doubt that 20 years ago when I purchased his what are now probably collector’s items VHS tapes (Power Yoga 1, 2, and 3), I never imagined this guy with the long curly hair and cut-off shorts would be teaching a class at my yoga studio. Mostly because I never even imagined having my own studio. But there I was. Driving this guy to my studio in my little Honda Fit, dents and all.

They also say (well, at least I say) that you get things when you most need them. And maybe it was turning 50 last year, that has been causing me to reflect more lately. Maybe it’s been how running my own business has forced my eyes to be open even wider in a combination of amazement and dismay at human nature. Or maybe it’s my sometimes frustration at how I feel that the actual yoga has somehow lost its way and now seems to be just about the poses to so many. (Instagram Yoga Challenges. Need I say more?)

The point is, I could not have timed his visit better.

So, let me say this first. This is not going to be about his class as far as the physical practice goes. If you have never experienced his class, let’s just say that no matter what class it is, where it is or how long it is, when the class is over one word will most likely come to mind: holyfuckingshit. And if you have experienced his class, you know exactly what I mean. You will never do something so challenging yet so simple at the same time.

You see, while his class is amazing, one of the first things Bryan will tell us is that we can do all the poses we want but if we are not doing them with presence, calm and with the intention to be gentle, then all poses are just “stupid”. Of course, the challenge is to be guided by our wisdom, rather than dominated by our ego.

It’s his words that have guided and helped steer me all these years.

And so, as I sat there on my mat, in my studio, listening to him talk, I realized how all these years later while so much has changed and been experienced, some things don’t change. And though Bryan’s message has become stronger and more evolved, it was still the same.
It’s gratifying in a way, seeing the growth and expansion of someone you call your teacher. Someone whose words have greatly influenced your life. It also reminded me why I connected with him in the first place, and how I came to be doing what I am doing. And, reinforced why I continue to do it. At the time I needed it most.

Ah, the universe working it’s magic once again.

Let me jump ahead for a moment. He ended the class talking about being grateful. Something that might seem so obvious and basic to take time to do, but probably many of us don’t. And I am sure if hard pressed, no matter what kind of day we are having, we can probably come up with at least one thing to be thankful for without having to think about it so deeply. I think we can all probably also admit that it is quite easy to get caught up with the continuous cycle of complaining. To the point that sometimes we don’t even notice we are doing it. As a result of being so disconnected, finding things to dig up to be grateful for can become even more challenging. If we don’t use the muscles of gratitude, we lose them.

And so you see, yoga helps to stop that cycle. Yoga wakes us up.

But, before Bryan spoke of gratitude, he took us through the harder work.

Bryan likes to say, and I have quoted this before, “We bring our shit into yoga, and we turn our yoga into shit.”

Things like judgment, competitiveness, comparison, distraction. Things we have all probably at some point struggled with. Now, rather than continuing to reinforce these things when we practice on the mat, he challenges us to try instead to approach our practice with more compassion, gentleness, acceptance, and presence. Less reaction, less ego, less force.

And you see, Bryan doesn’t just “lecture” us about these things. He talks about them, but he will also display some interesting behavior, include colorful language, while doing so. Which gives everyone a perfect opportunity to be judgmental, distracted, critical….and then he calls us out on it. He’s sneaky like that.

And, he doesn’t stop calling us out on our shit once we start practicing on the mat either.

During class, he gives us the opportunity to be gentle. And when we aren’t, he asks why the fuck we would be doing anything that hurts.

He gives us the opportunity to practice presence and focus. Then he asks what the hell we are doing when we jump ahead or let our eyes wander around the room.

Because you see, however we act or react on the mat is really just going to reinforce how we act and react off the mat. And our yoga mat is the safest place to start working through all that crap we carry around. So the choice is we can either reinforce that crap and turn it into even more crap, or we can start flushing that crap down the toilet.

But, more importantly, he explains that NONE of this is about trying be perfect, changing or fixing anything. It’s not even about right or wrong. It’s about awareness. Taking the first steps to perhaps noticing habits and actions that we have never noticed before. Be it small, silly physical habits or catching bigger, more harmful critical thoughts that run through our mind. The point is that we begin acting and reacting with less distraction. Moving with mindfulness begins to set in. It’s all on the path toward a more conscious way of living.

We begin to wake up.

Now, the belief is that when we work toward this greater awareness, we begin to make better choices. Decisions that will result in the least amount of harm. Not just to ourselves, but to others as well.

As Bryan explained, if we choose to push and force when we practice on the mat and the result is getting hurt, then we have no one to blame but ourselves. We should never give anyone else control over deciding what truly feels right. And if we push too hard, then we need to own up to whatever the outcome.

And the same goes for off the mat. We are in control of our own decisions. And while we can’t control others’ actions or reactions, we can control ours. Hopefully, we try to always make decisions based on good intentions. But we are human. And not perfect. The most we can do is just to try our best. And our best with awareness. Mindfulness in action. That also means that whatever the outcome of our decisions, and especially when things don’t turn out as we hoped or a negative response occurs, we need to step up and own our own shit. We can’t ask anyone else to own our actions.

There’s our hard work. There’s our yoga. There’s our challenge.

We don’t need Instagram for that.

And now you see, four hours later, Bryan has set us up for what I call the “deeper gratitude”. Because after all that, we are literally a sweaty mess not just on the outside, but on the inside, too. And when he asks us to sit and meditate on what we have to be thankful for, there is no way the larger stuff doesn’t come up. Thinking has gone, clarity has arrived. The things we have to be grateful for that might not be so obvious before start to appear more clearly. Gratitude for the hard times that made us stronger, the sad times that taught us to be more compassionate, the challenges that helped us to grow. Gratitude for what we can give and not just what we can receive.

Welcome to Power Yoga.

Now, there is one point I disagree with him on. Bryan says he is not a teacher but an instructor. We are our own teachers. Well, yes, I agree with that. We are our own teachers. Only we know what is right for us. No one can tell us that. And hopefully through this practice of yoga we can tap into that internal wisdom and begin to listen to it.

But only a teacher can help guide us there. You see, anyone can instruct. Memorize asana sequences and cue alignment. Instructing comes from the head. But teaching comes from the heart. And that’s not something you can memorize. That’s Bryan.

And, with all his great success and ‘fame’, he still finds a way to be the most humble, kind, and grounded being I had the privilege of meeting. That’s a yogi.

As a teacher I also know that our job is to try our best to share the message, the ideas, the concepts in the best way we can. Understanding that students will hear what they are ready to hear. Take away with them what they are ready to take away.

So, I can only speak for myself as to what I have heard and taken away from Bryan over the years. But perhaps we can all work on waking the hell up, owning our own shit, and not looking the fuck around during yoga class.

Put the yoga back into yoga.

And maybe we will all be a little more grateful for it.

The Mat Race: the unbearable lightness of just being

FullSizeRender-2 2

As humans, we spend a great deal of time focusing on getting.

We are in a habitual state of trying to get somewhere, something, someone. As fast as humanly possible. And when we can, even faster than that. Of course, it’s never enough. There’s always something else to get.

Fast forward. Rush. Repeat.

Now, let’s add distraction to the mix. Because, come one, you can’t possibly expect us to actually be thinking about what we are doing while we are doing it???!!! iPhones and iPads and iPods, oh my!

I mean think about it. We now have TVs where we can watch more than one show at a time. When I was growing up we had one TV and one phone line. If I didn’t like the show my parents wanted to watch or someone else was using the phone, well, I would just be SOL. (Not to mention in panic mode because the boy who was supposed to call me wouldn’t be able to get through. No joke, a very serious situation.) The only ‘i’s’ I had to entertain myself with were me, myself and I. iMagine that.

(Yup, I just pulled the “when I was young” card.)

Yes, we spend a hell of a lot of time doing. Doing with distraction. Apparently it’s what makes the world go round. That and evidently hashtags.

I guess for some that’s fine. Personally, I find it exhausting. Just the idea of having to be in constant “get mode”.

And, that’s when I remember those two little words: Just Be.

If you teach yoga, you have certainly spoken them. If you practice yoga, you have certainly heard them. I mean, unless you live in a cave, you can’t really can’t go out in the world without having come across them at some point on a t-shirt, a tweet or an ad for computers. (Well, actually if you are living in a cave, you most likely are ‘just being’ and wouldn’t be reading this anyway. So bravo, you get it, well done you.)

Anyway…there are, of course, other little phrases just as trendy today that are supposed to help us get a little more chillaxified.

They are, in no particular order:
-Let go.
-Just breathe.
-Just breathe and let go.
-Just breathe, let go and just be. (My personal favorite. Say that to me, and I will be sure to poke my eye out.)

And as yoga teachers, we just love to throw these phrases out there, and then just leave them hang. You know, let…them…go…

Well here’s a newsflash, if simply saying “just be” and “let go” created a mindful soul, we would all have a peaceful existence.

I think we can all agree that we can’t just snap our fingers (or even just take a breath) and let all things go and just be. There’s a little more to it than that.

Enter: Yoga Mat

Now, you see, our practice on the mat is the one place that expects nothing from us. It is one place we don’t have to rush. There’s no place we need to go. Or have to go. Nothing to get. Where we can take the time to be reminded of our true nature of being…a human being.

Well, it should be anyway. If we allow it. We, of course, can be our own worst enemy. As Bryan Kest likes to say, “We bring our crap to yoga, and we turn our yoga to crap.” Leave it to us humans…

Enter: Mat Race

Since we don’t have a convenient on/off switch, it’s very easy to continue the cycle of doing with distraction on the mat.

You know, we are not really paying attention. Kinda just on auto pilot, going through the moves, the poses. Rushing through sun salutations. Racing ahead to the next pose. (Yeah, if you take my class, you know how much I LOVE that one). Muscling and forcing through the practice. All of this brings with it judgment, expectations, ego, goal-oriented focus. In other words, it’s about getting.

Congratulations, your yoga practice has just left the room.

Yeah, it’s really easy to get caught up with all that. Or we could…

Make a conscious decision to use that time to start to break the cycle.

We can make it less about how our pose looks, and make it more about how it feels.

We can make it about not just being in the pose, but how we get into it, too.

We can take the time to a build a foundation on the perfect combination of steady and calm, instead of trying to skip the small things so we can jump ahead to the big things.

We can slow down and find mindfulness in action, instead of reinforcing our habit of rushing with distraction.

When we start doing that, a funny thing happens along the sun salutation way,
the realization that our yoga practice is bigger than our asana practice.

Enter: Just Being

The difference between being and doing, is the difference between allowing rather than fighting. Acceptance of where we are right now – exactly as is.

And that’s the basic concept of just being.

And trying to practice it on the mat is a good place to start. After all, it is supposed to be a training ground for life. A training ground where we have the luxury (or burden, depending on how you look at it) of no distractions – no phones, no music, no one telling us that we HAVE to do anything. Just the unbearable lightness of sitting with our own crap.

OK, this would be a good place to just breathe…

Breathing. The tool on our yoga mat towards being. But more specifically, paying attention to slowing it down. Then taking the next step, letting the breath determine the pace of our physical practice and where we go in it. If our breath becomes short and choppy, that’s probably a good indication that we need to back off. We are still stuck in the doing. When we pay attention to our breath, really observe it, the mind starts to quiet down a bit and we begin feeling our practice (rather than thinking our practice). The breath is powerful. It is the link to staying present. Our first step to just being.

When we take those first steps, we begin to accept each practice on the mat just as it is.
We stop trying to get some where, and we start just being. Here. Now.
Of course, the hope is that we continue that when we step off our mat.

Enter: Life

Ah, so now this is where things get a bit trickier.

The first step is to understand that there are certain things beyond our control. Just being is not about giving up or the idea that our life is predetermined and nothing we do can change its direction. It’s grasping the difference between what we can change and what we cannot. We can’t control people’s actions or feelings, try as we might. We can’t control all the events and situations that surround us either.

But we can control our own words, actions and behavior. We can stop forcing and fighting our life. And we can stop trying to run away from the uncomfortableness of what our reality might be. Give up the fight and flight.

It’s amazing how much energy is freed when we stop resisting our life. Go ahead, take that great big ridiculous exhale. You know you want to.

Wow, did you feel that? The 100lb weight of judgment and expectations just fell off your back.

All that energy we were wasting on forcing and fighting, just opened up a whole big space called acceptance and allowing. Acceptance of where we are. Allowing the moment as it is.

Feeling lighter? Everyone knows resisting weighs more than allowing. Just sayin’.

Of course, it’s always easier said than done. When we are riding that wave of “things are going our way,” the situation as is seems pretty sweet. Allowing and accepting when things turn to shit, well that’s usually when “just being” hits the yoga studio ceiling fan.

But the universe has a funny kind of rhythm to it. And if we keep focus on the intention behind what we do (why we are doing it), rather than the end goal (the outcome), it all has a way of falling into place.

Now, we might not get everything we want, when we want it. But I will tell you this: We do get what we need, at the right time. It might not be obvious when it’s happening, but everything has a way of unfolding as it needs to.

Just being is bigger than the practice of presence. It’s a complete and utter awareness that the moment you are in is enough. It’s being strong enough to enter each moment with honesty and compassion, but soft enough to relinquish attachment to the outcome.

I started teaching yoga because it was so life changing for me that I wanted to share it. There was nothing else. I was also lucky – it was before yoga was trendy. No one was really practicing yoga. I had no visions of yogi rock stardom. (That phrase didn’t even exist at the time, and still shouldn’t IMHO.) I didn’t have a grand plan for getting famous. I didn’t buy followers on Facebook. (Well, in all fairness, there was no Facebook. Don’t worry, I won’t start talking about the fact that we only had books made out of paper.) There were certainly no “talent agencies” for yoga instructors to help give the appearance of popularity and help to give a following unearned. I focused on my practice. On learning. I shared what I loved and what I knew to be true for me. And students began to come.

I can now look back and see that I am where I am because I just let it be. Unknowingly, perhaps. But it’s the truth just the same. Nothing was forced, I just allowed it to evolve. And opportunities showed up. Never too soon, and never too late. I can tell you, I never planned on running my own studio. But here I am, over 20 years later, herding cats. (You studio owners will get that.) All I can say is, thank god I love cats.

You see, some things just can’t be rushed. Time for instance. You can’t rush it, you can’t force it. Our experience and growth comes from time.

Whether it’s our practice on the mat. Or our practice off.

So, to all the yoga students, leave your cellphone at home. Next time you step on your mat, don’t be in such a hurry to get. Pay attention to the little things instead. And build your practice from there. Sure, doing all the “fancier” poses can be fun. But I can tell you this, everything wrong in your life will not suddenly be fixed if you can press yourself up into headstand. Or even grab your toe in triangle pose. I will tell you what might just change your life for the better: focusing on how you go. The practice of slow, the practice of stillness, the practice of the process, the practice of mindfulness in action. Make the small things the big things. And you might just end up living a life less rushed. A life more lived. If that leads to doing a handstand, too, well then bravo to you too. At least your foundation will be solid.

To all the new yoga teachers out there, throw the script away. Stop trying to get somewhere. You can’t force experience. Use each day off your mat as lesson for when you teach those practicing on their mat. Only you can live your life. Use it. Not someone else’s. But remember, you can’t rush it. Teach from where you are at that very moment. As the moment is. Don’t try to make it a different one. Because really, that’s the only one you have. You will find your voice from your heart. And that is more than enough. Your authenticity will be followed. And if you get 50,000 Instagram followers in the course of all that, well that’s awesome, too. And you can be satisfied knowing it will be real.

So, we’ve come to the point where I normally would tie it all together and say something really profound…

Instead I am letting…it…go…

So you can begin to just be…