Last night between 6 and 9:30pm I participated in a master class given by Power Yoga pioneer Bryan Kest at Rama Lotus Yoga Centre in Ottawa. I signed up months ago, not really knowing what to expect; my knowledge of Kest was limited to a Power Yoga video I picked up years ago when I first started practicing yoga - my second video actually, after Eoin Finn’s excellent offering. At that time I was too anxious to go to a public class, so I did yoga “in secret.” I think I also still harboured some hangover from my time with the military (where anything remotely associated with The Feminine is quashed) that yoga was for pussies. I am facing the same obstacle today with the LifeForce Yoga, Yoga Nidra, and coherent breathing that I want to bring to soldiers suffering from PTSD. I think this is why I initially gravitated to Power Yoga and strong male teachers - it was closer to the reality I knew and believed in at that time.
From the images in the Kest video and from my ignorance at that time in my life, I couldn’t help but impose my own superficial & fear-based judgement on Kest, with his shoulder-length curly brown hair, cut-off jean shorts and how he seemed to be overly serious in his speech - a taciturn and (what I imagined to be) self-important tone (and I should point out that when judging others in this way it’s easy for me to forget the pinkish pastel sideways-zipper suits I used to wear to high school with skinny leather ties in the 80’s). Once I got past my own judgement, however, and immersed myself in the practice he offered, I benefited greatly by the spare, lean Bukowski-like detail given in each pose and the consistent invitation to come back to the breath - the best way we know how to come back to the present moment.
I wasn’t expecting very much from the class but was still looking forward to it; I honestly wasn’t entering the class with a closed or judgmental mind. It has been my experience that when a well-known established teacher is offering some guidance, there are generally very good reasons why that teacher has become so popular; accordingly, if I avail myself of the opportunity to expose myself to the teachings with an open mind and an open heart, I am more than likely to be gifted with a valuable insight or two and a few more tools for my spiritual toolkit. This is essentially what I am continually looking for, afterall: presence, awareness, equanimity, inner peace (and sometimes, yes, when I am in my ego, I’m looking for looser hamstrings, a more defined core, and a libido like a bull on the prowl). It all depends whether I am operating out of fear or out of love.
Still, even with an open mind, I wasn’t fully prepared for the transformative process of Kest’s class. Thankfully, he prepared us all with a seemingly off-the-cuff talk that lasted at least an hour before we entered our sweat-drenched physical practice.
His address was given in a jocular and playful manner, alternately humourous and deadly serious, peppered with cussing that would make a sailor blush. The essence of Bryan Kest’s simple, powerful, evocative message is that yoga is here for one reason only: to help us Wake The Fuck Up. To be conscious, present, so we can be fully conscious in our thoughts, words, and actions. So that we are full, conscious participants in our own lives, and not clinging to our same old stories. Kest quoted recent research of Harvard neuroscientists who appear to have established that 85% of the thoughts we think every day are the same thoughts as every other day.
“WE’RE FUCKEN STUCK!” he wailed, and then went on to lament that we in the West have fouled yoga practice in the same way we have fouled our own minds and lives repeatedly - by approaching yoga aggressively, competitively, ignorantly, greedily, egotistically, unaware, asleep - always pushing for more, better. Kest’s voice softened intimately when he assured us that Yoga doesn’t want us to be sexier, prettier, smarter, thinner or vegetarian; “yoga doesn’t want you to change!” All yoga wants us to be here now so we can be fully who we are.
“We have taken the shit from our lives,” Kest deadpanned, “brought it into yoga, and made yoga shit.” This isn’t the first time someone has critiqued the Western yoga craze, but Kest did so with language and conviction and, beneath his gruff manner, a tenderhearted and compassionate wisdom so personal and convincing that when there was the opportunity for questions, not a single voice spoke up. I don’t think we were cowed; personally, I felt that we had been invited into a very personal experience. Before we had even started our practice we seemed to be connected and vulnerable to each other in a way that I have rarely experienced before. The only time I can think of being similarly moved by a yoga teacher is with Eoin Finn (and in a very different way by Amy Weintraub), whose approach is entirely different but no less effective. Perhaps it is no coincidence that these two teachers are the first teachers I found on my road to recovery.
“I think I know why you have no questions,” Kest said, “because agree or disagree, what I have talked about for the last hour is simple and straightforward.” And, I would add, it held the inherent ring of truth.
It shouldn’t be surprising (but is nonetheless impressive) when a yoga teacher who (while looking remarkably young) has been around long enough that his first video is probably available on cassette in Betavision, can distill the essence of all his study and his teaching into the simplicity of what was delivered last night to 57 people in a tiny room on the second floor of a building overlooking Gladstone.
He used examples of the quinbillion ways to use triangle pose, the Ashtanga way, the Sivananda way, the Anusara way, etc. “Do any of you know how to do a proper triangle?” he asked. Nobody, in a room comprised of mostly yoga teachers, spoke. “That’s because there’s about 7 billion different ways to do one. But some teachers try to force you into certain poses. Why is this? Because the abused has become the abuser. The next time a yoga teacher comes up and tries to adjust you to go further into a forward bend, look up at that teacher and ask ‘Why the fuck are you pushing me?’
“How many noses are there in the world? Are they all the same size? Do you think your nose is the only thing that differs in size? Isn’t it obvious that some people have shorter hamstrings? Then why are you pushing so fucking hard to get to someone else’s version of this pose? You might as well squish your nose right into your face to try and make it smaller.”
The cussing, the humour, the showmanship vulgarity (openly burping and watching the class for reactions, then calling us on them) serves to strip the asana practice from any magical, mystical, woo-woo properties and bring more awareness to the fundamental purpose of yoga: yogaś-citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ, the cessation of mental fluctuations, the cessation of denial, ignorance, judgement, craving, clinging, hatred, aversion. This is achieved through union and to access this we require meditation; meditation is achieved through concentration and awareness, and this is achieved primarily in our practice through the breath.
Kest repeatedly made the point that we have taken the vulgarity of our competitiveness, our old stories, the constant agenda to which we have been acculturated from our natural state of wisdom, and brought it into yoga. We are ultimately using the practice which was designed to shed these very qualities to further reinforce these defilements within ourselves. As my meditation teacher S.N. Goenka puts it, “my friend, if you are sitting on your cushion crying ‘I want nibbana!’ - my friend, you are running in the opposite direction.” We thus build our concentration and focus and flush out toxins to all areas of the body through asana (yoga asana being the only known physical practice which does this) just to prepare our bodies and minds for meditation.
After an hour of this talk, which flew by and which I thought was a beautifully sculpted method of creating and holding a safe container for possibly the most challenging asana practice I have ever experienced, we got down to work. In setting this container, there was a simultaneous stripping of petty vanity that one can usually taste in any yoga class (at least within oneself) and the infusion of the sacredness that is already present within all of us. The body becomes the temple while the ego gets reduced. Kest is a master at preparing the practitioner by stripping away some of the ignorance around the ever-present belief that one needs to perform in any way relative to others; he then delivered a practice that forced me to acknowledge to myself and to my body that I couldn’t do or hold every posture he was guiding and still maintain my focus or breath. I came out of plank pose twice and settled into child’s pose - my initial discomfort in my ego which was (despite our introductory talk) screaming at me to “Get Up! You are a stronger man than this! You’re a former soldier! Not a quitter!” The old template of what strength used to mean to me was surprisingly strong in this class, and I am grateful to have been provided the opportunity to meet it face-to-face. The discomfort and denial of all the years I pushed my body past its natural limits hummed within me; finally I dropping past/through that discomfort into the point of sweet present-moment release, and the humble acknowledgement of what my body was asking for.
Like a compassionate drill sergeant he reprimanded us for looking up to see who was leaving the room at various times, and brought us constantly back to the breath. This was a room with new practitioners and seasoned teachers. I believe that everyone was challenged appropriately and encouraged to go a little deeper and remove more of the detritus which keeps us in ignorance. Yoga is about detox, and not craving or clinging to the sweetness of practice or developing an aversion towards uncomfortable sensations in body or mind but simply accepting the reality as it is.
I found it so fitting that Kest referred to the body throughout the practice as “your partner, your life-partner” and extended that metaphor with comments like “oh yes, the fuckin’ honeymoon is over” or “if you two are going to stay in this relationship communication is key, and the key to communication is listening...listen to your body, listen to your partner.” For a few hours, Bryan Kest became a foulmouthed marriage counsellor inviting, quite convincingly, body and mind into the present moment, to help us stumble and then flow moment by moment into some kind of harmony where we were finally able to glimpse spirit, presence, our own personal flavour of enlightenment.
In a final meditation on gratitude which lasted 10 minutes one could hear the release in the room, several people sobbing, the energy palpable. I was filled with gratitude not only for my life, my family, my health, my spiritual and material wealth, but for this teacher who has been practicing yoga for over three decades and who was willing and able to come to Ottawa and share some of what he has learned with us.