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

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“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 back and forth from his hotel and 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 mediate 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.

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