Features | Interview
Eddie Stern: ‘Yoga changed everything’
Ashtanga yoga teacher and Hollywood guru Eddie Stern tells Divya Unny about his own journey and why teaching in India has been liberating
24 Dec, 2019
As a 15-year-old boy in Greenwich Village, New York in the 70s, Eddie Stern was your average troubled youngster with too many questions and too few answers. As a teenager, he played the guitar for a punk rock band, wandered the same neighbourhood with the likes of Bob Dylan, and drowned his sorrows in drugs and alcohol. It was then that he discovered yoga through an Indian master, and Stern hasn’t looked back since.
Among the most popular Ashtanga yoga gurus in the world today, it’s taken Stern more than 20 years to come teach yoga in India. In the midst of his first-ever workshop in Mumbai earlier this month, he tells us the many benefits of the practice.
Why has it taken you so long to come teach yoga in India, the birthplace of the practice? And what has the experience been like?
I’ve been coming to India every year since 1988. I have been quite a bit all over the country. I studied yoga here for 18-19 years in Mysore where my teacher Pattabhi Jois lived. New York is my birthplace, but India is one hundred percent my spiritual home and my second home. However, for the longest time I declined invitations to teach here in India because yoga is part of the culture here. You have it in your blood here and there is a different understanding of yoga in India than the way a western person understands it. I always felt that Indians should teach yoga in India and for the westerners who come and learn it, let us go back to our places and teach it there. It was really only after my book One Simple Thing (2019) was picked up by an Indian publisher and I thought, maybe it was okay to talk about my book here and that’s really what I am focusing on. My workshops here in Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi have been liberating, to say the least, because the quest and followership of yoga stems from a different mindset here, as opposed to the West.
What is yoga to you?
The word yoga itself stimulates in people the need to address their deeper desires. Not the superficial ones like to look better or lose more weight. But deeper desires like to know who they are, what meaning is in their lives, what their purpose is and how they can be actualising it in their life. I think yoga automatically triggers that association in us. If all you want is to be super fit you’re not going to come to a yoga class. You will go to the gym, you or you will go running or a thousand different things. But as soon as you hear the word yoga there is this automatic association with a deeper purpose. Even if we go there to get more flexible or to get stronger, there is a deeper seeking inside of us also. This is what the yoga tradition says why you wind up in a yoga class. I will help them in their asanas, but my assumption is what the yoga lineage says–people will discover an inner self through yoga.
Our lives today are ambitious, we crave to achieve success. How do we do that, and still stay attuned to our inner-self. Is it possible to do both?
There has to be a balance of an inner life and an outer life. We’re all not going to be monks and yogis living in caves. The world needs a lot of different types of people to make the world work. We need people to grow food, build buildings, cook, garden, whatever it is. We want them to be the best of what they possibly can be. Yoga is one way that can happen. So I don’t see any conflict between having ambitions and desires and doing yoga. Yoga can make sure that your desires are on track. If your desires start to get too self-centered that’s where problems occur. Yoga and meditation help give meaning and purpose to our lives so we can live good lives.
You have been teaching Ashtanga yoga for 20 years now. What were you looking for when you came to India and what was your first yoga class like?
As a teenager, I wasn’t a terribly happy kid, and I was doing everything I wasn’t supposed to from smoking to drinking to drugs. You might say I was a rebellious kid, but I was a kid who was searching. Searching for meaning outside of the regular structure. I had an English teacher, her name was Mrs. Benditson and one class we were reading Siddhartha. She said the three most important questions you can ask yourself are—Who am I? What am I doing here? What do I do next? I remember that as clear as day. So that became sort of my northern light as I was going through high school. Then when I was 18 or so, I met this person who was doing yoga, and was vegetarian and I thought this sounds like a healthy way of being. When I started reading the yoga books, I thought maybe there’s a map I could follow that would lead me to what I was seeking. So I cleaned up my act. I stopped smoking, I stopped doing all the narcotics and drinking. I was eating a clean diet and meditating. Then I went to a yoga class but I didn’t understand how doing postures was going to get me enlightenment. But I was intrigued by it so I kept going. We were doing 10 hours of yoga meditation and breathing a day. I started doing those practices and that changed everything. It changed my health, my perspective and connected me to where I could find meaning in my life.
Celebrities like Madonna, Jennifer Aniston amongst others, endorse yoga. Is it different when you teach yoga to a college student who perhaps has loans to pay off, and then go teach a Madonna?
I have a handful of celebrity students though I don’t consider myself a celebrity yoga teacher. I am not a Hollywood brat. And no it’s not different for me—people like Madonna or Gwyneth Paltro or Chris Martin or Russell Brand, are where they are because of extreme dedication to their art. They come to class and practice like everybody else and on occasion I go to their houses and teach them privately. For the most part, they would come to the yoga school like everyone else.
Is yoga really age-defying?
The quest for eternal youth in America is a little bit of a sickness. People in America are afraid of ageing may be because they are afraid of death. In most of the eastern cultures, people are not afraid of ageing because to age is a sign of wisdom and a sign of respect. And you see that in India the elderly are respected, at least they used to be. I don’t know what the condition is now. But when I was coming here to learn in the 80s, I saw that you respect your elders because they have life experience and they can guide you. We have to reframe how we think about aging, because ageing gracefully and elegantly is good. All of the practices of yoga including diet, sleep, asanas, breathing practices and meditation together will slow down the ageing process by affecting the cellular and genetic mechanisms that contribute to ageing. If we live unhealthy lifestyles, we will begin to weaken our cellular environment that will lead to quicker ageing. But by supporting the integrity of our cellular environment which is our body all our physiological processes, we restore health, we extend health and we also extend life in that same way.
Can the practice of yoga help heal or avoid fatal diseases?
Yoga is not going to heal cancer, but what it can do is make your ability to deal with whatever problems you have stronger. So supporting the body’s innate ability to restore balance, we can begin to correct certain imbalances. Exercise, meditation, breathing practices, getting enough sleep and spending some time in nature, are the five basic aspects of a good life that will ensure that you live healthy and yoga contributes to that in a large way.
Yoga is a billion-dollar industry, and growing. How do you then maintain a balance between yoga that is essentially a spiritual practice and the business of it?
I remember the first time I accepted money for teaching yoga, I felt so unclean. I thought I was really going against all of the ethics and morals that I had been trained in that this was a service that we were doing for humanity. But you need to be able to support the economy and exist with it. After sometime I surrendered to the transactional development of my yoga. I am grateful to make a living teaching yoga, send my daughter to school and pay rent and have enough food in the house and that’s a great blessing. It’s another reason why I am so deeply appreciative of what I have learnt in India and from my teachers. We continue the idea of seva (service) in many ways.
Lastly there has been a lot of questions raised about your guru, the late Pattabhi Jois in the MeToo movement, when some of his students accused him sexual harassment. How did you respond to these allegations?
We were deeply hurt and disturbed to hear what some of the students went through. It was difficult to come to terms with this, but the fact is that we are teaching practice that is beyond me, you or my gurus. No amount of words will change the trauma these women underwent. I personally know some of them and will help them heal in every way I can. That’s the least I can do.
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