A Talk with Brian Leaf author of Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi
By Brian Leaf
What inspired you to start doing yoga? Did you have any idea the impact it would ultimately have on your life?
I signed up for yoga in 1989 on a lark because my brother, Larry, had taken kung fu and skeet shooting electives during college. I wanted something equally exotic. I’m not sure what I expected, probably something from a Bruce Lee or James Bond film. A few minutes into the first class, though, I knew that I had found my path.
What is colitis and how did yoga help you heal yourself? What yoga postures were most helpful?
Colitis is a condition of chronic inflammation of the colon. Ulcerative colitis, which is what I had, also includes ulcers in the colon. It’s not pretty. I’ll spare you the symptoms, except to say that they greatly resemble what you’d expect after drinking murky tap water at a very cheep Mexican motel.
In college, I noticed that my symptoms of colitis were worse on days that I skipped yoga. I wondered, therefore, if doing more yoga would lessen the symptoms. So I decided to medicate with yoga. I practiced four sun salutations, followed by ten minutes of deep relaxation, five times a day. This was a huge commitment, but it proved worthwhile. Three days later my symptoms were gone.
The symptoms stayed in remission for two years and then flared up. I again began my self-medicating regimen with four sun salutations followed by ten minutes of deep relaxation five times a day. And again it worked. As you can imagine, I was a yoga zealot after that.
Do you really put on gloves and punch a mattress as part of your yoga practice? Why?
I don’t understand the question. Of course I put on gloves and punch a mattress as part of my yoga practice. You don’t?
No, seriously, I did do this for about six months. I realized that I needed to release and express my anger and angst, and I found that meditating on it was not enough. After beating the crap out of the mattress for about ten or twenty minutes, I’d feel better and also, oddly enough, much more peaceful.
How did yoga’s sister science, Ayurveda, help you with Attention Deficit Disorder?
When I was diagnosed with ADD in 1997, I wondered if I could treat it naturally, as I had done with colitis. I began searching for evidence in holistic health literature that ADD could be treated through yoga, diet, exercise, and lifestyle changes. Finally, in an article about Ayurveda, I read that a certain imbalance can cause ADD-type symptoms.
I made an appointment with a local Ayurveda practitioner and I started taking classes. Eventually, I developed a personalized prescription that included taking herbs, meditating, giving myself a daily sesame-oil massage, eating a certain diet, sitting for an hour every day next to a tree on the bank of a gently flowing stream, and reminding myself throughout the day to be in my body (rather than lost in my mind). And, again, it worked. After six months, I was more focused, more energized, and more present for more of my day.
You offer eight Keys to Happiness throughout your book. One of them is "Follow Your Heart." What advice do you have for people who would like to start living in that way?
The best way to do this is, as often as possible, to ask the question, “What do I really feel right now?” The question is not, “What should I feel right now.” It’s not even, “What is appropriate right now.” It is, “What do I really feel, and what do I really want?”
Asking these questions helps you get in touch with who you really are and what you’re really meant to do. Feel for answers that give you a deep sense of rightness, passion, and vitality. And, by the way, following your heart does not automatically mean giving up your nine-to-five job at the insurance company or leaving your spouse and fourteen children for your twenty-three-year-old Zumba instructor. Sometimes the boring job at the insurance company is just right. You might need the paycheck that feeds your family and allows you to spend happy evenings and weekends together. Or not. Following your heart only means tuning into and following not your ego, not your mind, not what you’ve been told is right, but a deep feeling of passion, vitality, and rightness.
You say that yoga is your calling. Do you believe that everyone has a calling?
Yes, I believe that everyone has a calling. It could be to teach math, practice medicine, build schools in India, raise a family, or trade stocks. I believe identifying and following one’s calling brings happiness and a sense of peace. Plus, when we are following our calling, we serve the world best, like playing the right part in a giant symphony.
You speak quite a bit about listening to intuition. How can you tell when an urge is intuition and when it is simply thoughts or desires?
For me, the litmus test of the legitimacy of an urge or intuition is to do yoga and meditate. Yoga quiets my mind and engages my heart and intuition. If after yoga and meditation an urge or concern goes away, it was just a passing whim. But if during practice, it builds and intensifies, and especially if all other thoughts fade away, leaving one urge shouting to be heeded, then I know I must follow it.
Another one of your Keys to Happiness is "Meditate." What advice do you have to offer those who are new to meditation or having a hard time sticking with it?
Meditation can be torture at first. It can be just terrible. But it gets much easier. The key is taking small bites. Start with only five minutes. And use the breath as a point of focus. Otherwise meditation can be five solid minutes of the mind obsessing on lunch. I remember one time meditating in a very sacred room at the Kripalu yoga ashram and feeling really guilty because my mind was so ridiculously noisy — my thoughts were so loud in my head that I forgot that no one else could hear them.
What do you mean by “Becoming Most Real”?
Becoming most real means becoming aware of what we are doing and feeling all the time. It means noticing not only our imagined or desired reality —the one we’re cooking up in our mind to soothe our discomforts and fears — but also the reality that actually exists, the one that is most real.
Here’s an example. Yesterday I was stressed about a deadline for a few chapters I owed my agent. I was all worked up and feeling pretty miserable. I figured that if I could just stop feeling stressed and feel relaxed instead, that then I’d be happy. So I breathed deeply, I meditated hard. I struggled. I pushed and fought — trying to talk myself out of it, trying to shift awareness, trying to trick myself, if necessary, into switching from feeling stressed to relaxed.
But then I asked, “What is most real?”
I noticed that I was feeling tense and stressed. That I knew already. But I also noticed that I was struggling to change things, trying to force myself to feel relaxed. And that was the key. Because then I went from being lost in the struggle to being aware of the struggle. I went from identifying with the struggling to identifying with my deeper self that sees the struggle. For a moment I was grounded in the unflickering flame of my true self. For a moment I achieved the very aim of yoga.
You can practice being most real by asking yourself, “What am I trying to feel right now, and what am I actually feeling right now?” These two are related: What you are trying to feel right now, or more specifically, the fact that you are trying, is what you are actually doing; it is most real. Most real is not the state you are trying to achieve but the state you are in. That’s where you’ll find the greatest vitality, peace, and happiness.
If you had to choose one favorite story from your various adventures and misadventures, which would it be?
Ruby the masseuse in Chapter 9. I just didn’t see it coming that she was a prostitute.
What has been the most challenging part so far along your personal journey?
Staying committed to the path and tirelessly pursuing spiritual experiments was not at all challenging. It felt like the only choice, like what I was meant to do. But sometimes the day to day of being on the path was very difficult and painful. As they say, “The path to enlightenment [or I would add simply “to not being neurotic”] is like a razor’s edge.”
You say that finding the right style of yoga is like dating. How so?
There’s a spectrum of yoga classes offered these days, from power vinyasa to gentle restorative. I had a friend who tried out a Bikram yoga class, and he was sure he’d perish in the 105 °F heated room. He spent all of camel pose sweating profusely and mentally rewriting his will. Equally, I’ve seen folks attend a gentle restorative class and be bored to tears. That’s why new yogis should date at least three different styles before buying the month-long package.
Throughout much of the book you are on a cross-country road trip and are given some great traveling advice when you first embarked on your adventure. What was the advice and how did it serve you?
My friend Zach’s sociology professor from college told us, “Be brave. Be honest — people can tell, and they’ll open up to you. And, stay relaxed, have fun.” This advice inspired me and became my mantra on the trip. Whenever I was afraid, whenever I wanted to fall back on old, established patterns, whenever I found myself in unfamiliar territory on that trip, I’d say to myself, “Fearless, honest, relaxed.” This got me into some very interesting and transformational situations indeed, like, for example, at a Grateful Dead show, at a yoga ashram in Northern California, and during our next stop in High Point, North Carolina, at Ruby’s massage parlor.
In your book you share ten yogic yamas and niyamas and encourage readers to pick one to follow for a week to see how they feel. What are the yamas and niyamas and where do they come from?
The yamas and niyamas are the Ten Commandments of yoga. They come from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, written about 2100 years ago. Patanjali is very famous as the author of the sutras, but in reality, he was probably just compiling and categorizing existing knowledge. He was sort of the yogic Wikipedia of ancient times.
The ten yamas and niyamas are nonviolence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), nonstealing (asteya), moderation (brahmacharya), noncovetousness (aparigraha), purity (shaucha), contentment (santosha), discipline (tapas), self-observation (swadhyaya), and meditation on the divine (Ishvara-pranidhana).
Swami Kripalu, the namesake of Kripalu yoga, taught that the yamas and niyamas are like beads on a necklace — if you pick up one, they all follow along. Actually, he said it a bit more poetically, “By firmly grasping the flower of a single virtue, a person can lift the entire garland of yama and niyama.” In other words, dedicated practice of any one of the yamas or niyamas will result in cultivation of them all.
This works because, for example, if you follow nonharming, you can’t lie to a friend because at some level the lie would harm her. Swami Kripalu also meant that practicing any one of the rules builds consciousness. And increased consciousness will make a person desire the peace and joy that comes from adhering to all of these rules.