Eddie Stern is a rockstar for Yoga in the West. A student of Pattabhi Jois, Eddie has taken Ashtanga Yoga not just to the West but to the global audience at large. At a young age, he took to alcohol and narcotics but soon transformed and embraced Yoga. His students include Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow, to name a few, and he has also shared the gift of Yoga with the Chicago Bulls and the Kansas City Chiefs. His movement “Put down your guns, pick up your mats” is an inspiring case study.
In this eye-opening conversation, he calls India his “spiritual battery”. Read on:
Can you tell us about your journey? What inspired you to take to Yoga?
Quite honestly, I was inspired to begin practicing Yoga because I was on a spiritual quest. In the 1980s, Yoga was primarily thought of as a path of Self-knowledge. There was no wellness or wellbeing industry. While everyone who was teaching and practicing recognised that there were auxiliary health benefits to be gained, those health gains were so that you could have a fit vehicle for realizing the Self. If you are sick, have low energy, or are unenthusiastic, it is harder to focus the mind. There were only a few Yoga schools in Manhattan, and all of the teachings were couched in esoteric terms, and within the Hindu mystical traditions. It was quite wonderful, and completely changed my mind, my perspective on myself and the world, and eventually my life.
At an early age you took to alcohol and narcotics, how did you transform to embrace Yoga?
Drugs and alcohol were a way that I could change my mental state in an easy fashion. I stopped all of those things when I was around nineteen or so because I was reading books on Yoga and hanging out with a couple of people who had practiced yoga in the 1970s. From what I was reading and hearing, the higher states of Yoga were the same types of states that I experienced on psychedelics. And what I was truly looking for was a deeper, or what some people call higher, state of consciousness. There’s no coincidence that there is a similar wording for the two: getting high, and higher states of consciousness. The second one – the higher states – puts you in touch with your true, inner nature, and the first – getting high – keeps you stuck in the world of gravity: eventually you have to come down. Another plus side to Yoga was you could get to deeper states on your own, and stay in those states without the side effects of psychedelics (or wasting money) – or the risk of a “bad trip”. So I started focusing on an inward journey through meditation and chanting, and then later through asanas and pranayama. I left all of the external methods behind.
Tell us about your teacher, Pattabhi Jois? What drew you to him and how do you contemporise his teachings through Ashtanga Yoga?
I met Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in 1990 when I was traveling through India looking for Yoga teachers and visiting temples. I was drawn to him because I felt that the Yoga he was teaching was the most direct of all the practices I had experienced so far. I practiced with him from 1991 until he passed away in 2009, visiting him in India once or twice a year, and hosting his visits to America from 2000 until 2007 (and one co-hosted visit in 1993).
I don’t see that I purposefully contemporise his practice or teachings, but I do filter them through the lens of an American, and can adapt the language and messaging to the needs of the Western practitioner. But the practice itself is excellent in and of itself. It does not need to be changed or adapted for the West in any radical manner. Yoga speaks on its own, if the practice is a true practice. It doesn’t need embellishments from a teacher. We should simply be conduits for the knowledge passed down through the practices the Yogis have left us. We’ll have our own experiences, but those experiences seem, by and large, to mimic the experience of others: when you know yourself, you know that same thing that everyone else experiences as themselves. That’s unity consciousness.
You are an Ashtanga Yoga specialist. Ashtanga Yoga is a relatively new concept for the US… Does this resonate with the native communities? How has this impacted the people in the US and worldwide?
Ashtanga Yoga has been in the States since Pattabhi Jois’s first visit in 1975, and has been steadily growing since then. In 1975, there were about 30 people practicing in California. At present there are tens of thousands, if not more, in practically every state. The primary series video that we recorded in California in 1993 has been viewed almost four million times on YouTube. His teachings have had a huge impact. Also, it was really through Pattabhi Jois’s influence that the Vinyasa and Power Yoga movements came about. The first two teachers of “Power Yoga” were his students, and the word Vinyasa became a popular word in the Yogic lexicon because he introduced it to the West. T.K.V. Desikachar, Krishnamacharya’s son, was also introducing Vinyasa to the West, but in a much gentler fashion. It was Pattabhi Jois’s approach, that was adapted and then modified, that has become what is today called Vinyasa Yoga. Twenty years ago, “Vinyasa Yoga” or “Vinyasa Flow” as a type of a Yoga class, did not exist.
In your view, how and in what ways has the world Yoga movement expanded in the US?
The Yoga movement in the US has expanded in the past thirty years, primarily in its sheer numbers. There were an estimated thirty-six million plus people in America practicing some form of Yoga in 2018. It is annually a seven billion dollar industry. Industries that foster positive growth, products that are beneficial to the world, and create stress-free work environments, are in my opinion, worthwhile industries to be engaged in. I do think, though, that there are too many Yoga mats for sale in the marketplace—they litter the planet like any other plastic. There is a trend toward recycled mats, and I hope those do less environmental harm.
Yoga is taught in public education, in prisons, in healthcare and in corporate environments. It is used to reduce gun-violence, and is used in addiction recovery. I think that Americans have made extremely good use of India’s gift of Yoga that it has given to the world. While there is some advertising and use of Yoga that I personally find unpalatable, for the larger part, Yoga seems to have settled in to America in very beneficial ways. I am sure that it will continue. American Yoga practitioners should strive to keep studying, to keep practicing, and to keep expanding their understanding of the deeper practices of Yoga in order to not stop at asanas. Sometimes we pay lip service to things like the yamas. It’s hard to sincerely practice them, but that is where it is all at. To be kind and honest is one of the highest Yogas, as far as I can see it. In fact, it’s the highest we can offer of our humanity, not just of Yoga.
Would you say Yoga is not just a fitness regime but a way of life? If yes, why?
Yoga is a practice, and like any other practice, you have to do it consistently, and for a long period of time, before the benefits it confers become a part of you. We can make big changes quickly, but transformation comes about slowly. In a fitness regime we can see quick gains, but they leave once we stop the regime. In Yoga, we transform ourselves into the level of consciousness that we are striving to reach, so that when we attain that level, there is no coming back; there is no loss of awareness because we have come to know who we are. When we know who we are, then there is nothing left to gain; and if there is nothing to gain, then there is nothing to lose as well.
Can give us a sense of the students you cater to?
I cater to anyone who walks into my Yoga school and wants to commit themselves to learning Yoga.
Can your share experiences of teaching Ashtanga Yoga to Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow, Chris Martin?
It is the same experience as teaching anyone who is dedicated, determined, makes an effort, and is focused on learning their practice: fully gratifying, encouraging, and joyful.
Yoga has captured the imagination of people all across the world. In your view, has India fully tapped into the potential of Yoga as its Soft Power? What are some of the opportunities and challenges going forward?
This is more of a political question so not one that I think I can answer well, as it is not my background. India is a great example of a country that has many soft powers, and it seems like the use of them is ingrained into the philosophical basis of the country: India has never invaded another country, it has philosophical systems that are practiced by millions as part of daily life, it has a tremendous capacity for tolerance, flexibility and openness. India is the only country in the world where the Jews were not persecuted, and were embraced and welcomed. It has a great culture of art, music, architecture (more UNESCO sites than any other country), and is the birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism (perhaps its most successful religious export) and Jainism – as well as Yoga.
How often do you visit India? Your impressions of India?
I’ve been visiting India pretty much every year since 1988, sometimes more than once a year. I’ve missed only a couple of years. It’s my favourite place to visit on the planet, and it is my spiritual home and spiritual battery.
Can you tell us about your movement, “Put down your guns, pick up your mats”?
Yes, this is a program called the Urban Yogis, and it was born out of a program called LIFE Camp in South Jamaica, Queens, in NY. This is a particular area of NY that saw a tremendous amount of gun violence due to the crack trade in the 1980s and 1990s. A woman named Erica Ford started the program to protect the young kids of that area from going in the wrong direction. In 2012, she invited Deepak Chopra to meditate with a group of 75 kids and 25 adults who had all lost someone to gun violence in Queens, and he invited me to come along to teach them Yoga. That’s how it all started. Since then we’ve trained several hundred youth in the area in Yoga and meditation. Five of the young adults have since been trained as Yoga teachers, and they now work as wellness teachers in public schools in Queens and Brooklyn, reaching several hundred kids every week from elementary to high school. We’ve had partnerships with the Chicago Bulls and currently the Kansas City Chiefs (both American football teams), and the Urban Yogis are currently training public school teachers how to teach 5-10 minute long stress reduction and mindfulness practices in the classroom to include during the school day.
Tell us about your love for Sanskrit.
I started studying Sanskrit in 1989. I was drawn to the language from the chanting, homas, and pujas that I took part in at the Sivananda ashram both in NY and in India. During my first trip to Indi, I travelled throughout the country visiting temples, and I felt that both Yoga and a draw towards chanting came alive for me in a totally new way in the atmosphere of these holy places. When I got back to NY, I saw an ad for a weekend Sanskrit immersion with a teacher named Vyaas Houston, and I signed up. We had twelve hours of classes each day for a three-day weekend, and on the third night I had a dream that I was floating on an ocean of Sanskrit vowel sounds, and I remember distinctly feeling in the dream that the universe was stitched together through an ocean of Sanskrit, of sound. I continued studying with him for many years, memorising grammar tables, verses and texts, and eventually was trained in India on how to do rituals. Later Pattabhi Jois taught me how to chant some Upanishads, and I studied with two teachers in Mysore, Professor Varadarajan, and Swami Nitysthananda, who was then the head of correspondence for Ramakrishna Institute for Spiritual and Moral Education. We built the Ganesha temple in NYC in 2001, that Pattabhi Jois consecrated, with the prana pratishta performed by Pandit Ramachandra Athreiya and Pandit Rami Sivan shortly after 9/11.
Do you see an economic value for India in enhancing Yoga abroad? While there are stringent views vis-a-vis commodification of Yoga, the opposite is also true because it could enable India to export Yoga teachers abroad thereby generating employment?
I think that India is already creating economic value for itself and for many, many others through Yoga. It’s been a tremendous and unexpected boon to millions of people. In the 1980s and even in to the early 90s when I was starting as a teacher, it was ridiculous to think that you could make a living as a Yoga teacher. We taught as seva, and did other jobs for money. Now, not only is it possible to make a living teaching Yoga, there are many people who do extremely well with it—in India and in the West . There are many institutions that are running training programs that are attended by foreigners. It seems apparent at this stage that you do not need to be Indian to be an effective Yoga teacher, so I am not sure that the focus on exporting Yoga teachers is a necessary, primary goal. Perhaps the type of education that is already being conducted is a better place to focus.
While it is true that there are cultural facets that make it easier for Indians to grasp certain philosophical concepts and to have a natural feel for the purpose of Yoga, it’s also true that many of the newer generation have not grown up with Yoga at all. Many of the Indians practicing Yoga at my school in NYC started learning Yoga in America! The most important thing is that people are well trained, and understand that Yoga has originated from within Hinduism, and pay respect to the history, culture and purpose of Yoga.