AS PUBLISHED IN YOGACITY NYC
Born a 12-pound baby with club feet, Max Strom spent the many years of his early life in casts and braces—or in surgery—before he learned to walk. In 2002, he established the center for Sacred Movement in Venice, California, now home to such teachers as Shiva Rea, Saul David Ray, and Eric Schiffman. Twelve years in the making, his book, A Life Worth Breathing: A Yoga Master’s Handbook of Strength, Grace and Healing(Skyhorse Publishing, $24.95) collects his insights on yoga practice and life, incorporating stories and exercises for yoga students and teachers.
Based in Ashland, Oregon, Max is New York for a book signing tonight at Pure East and workshops this weekend at Pure and Yoga High. Luckily he had time to talk to YogaCityNYC about his new book and what he’s been up to recently.
Joelle Hann: You’ve been teaching for 20 years. What motivated you to put a book together at this point?
Max Strom: During teacher trainings I would feel compelled to say things that seemed to come from a source inside me that I wasn’t that familiar with. I would think, that was a really nice quote, who said that? Then I realized I’d said it. I jotted these things down until I thought of making them into a book for yoga teachers
But the book shifted focus over time. In 2002, I opened a yoga school in Venice, CA, and sold it to Exhale in 2005. I didn’t work on the book in that time—I was much too busy.
Now I travel a lot—220 days last year. That helped the book. It grew my focus from local, LA-oriented, to national and then to international, including Beijing, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur. That helped feed the book, giving it more of a general appeal.
JH: Who is this book for?
MS: First, I wanted to reach yoga teachers. Then I wanted to reach yoga students, but also more than yoga students. From owning a studio and traveling, I realized I wanted to reach people who are starting to ask the questions: who are we? where are we? where are we going? The book is geared towards that person who is already a bit of a seeker.
JH: Your book is called a “handbook” from a yoga master. Some sections contain exercises, quotations, and other reflections based on yoga or Buddhist ideas. How do you imagine people using it?
MS: It’s not a book to read once and set aside. Ideally people will read it and consider the exercises. Sometimes they are very simple.
For example, when you walk through a busy area like a busy mall or the streets of New York, notice what your habits are: are you only looking at people you are physically attracted to, wondering about them as a potential boyfriend/girlfriend, husband/wife?
Do you notice the older people, the children, the homeless people? What if you looked for a saint or master instead? How would that change how you assess people?
It’s a way of looking at your present life with your present attention, broadening your perspective and breaking unconscious habits. And it’s an exercise that changes not only how you look at people but also how people look at you.
JH: So instead of looking at the world as a consumer, you’re looking at it as a responder?
MS: You’re aligning your intentions with your actions. You may really want to transform, but if you go about your day acting from your unconscious habits, then not a lot of transformation is going to happen. But if you look anew then you can transform.
JH: Have you had personal experience with that exercise?
MS: In India, I met a homeless woman who had withered legs from polio. She had a profound effect on me and we didn’t even speak, because we didn’t know each other’s language. Her presence was powerful.
JH: Have you had similar experiences in the United States?
MS: I might not necessarily see a sage, but I might see people who have an open heart or are kind or who are walking through the world trying to see everyone, seeing souls rather than bodies. You start spotting them and they spot you. It’s not a special skill; anyone can do this. It changes your energy field.
JH: How did you come up with the idea of looking at people anew?
MS: I realized that often when I would walk I would have a story going through my head. I wasn’t really present. When I learned more about being mindful I tried to walk slower, with a different awareness. I started to notice people differently. I thought, why not actively look, actively seek out people with more developed souls and open hearts?
JH: You had quite a journey from being club-footed and growing up in pain, to becoming an international yoga teacher. What about that experience informs your book?
MS: When I first started practicing hatha yoga it immediately became clear it was affecting me in a healing way. Besides becoming more flexible and more fit, it was opening up my feet from years of tension from the club feet. It helped my lower back and my neck pain. When you can get someone out of pain quickly you know you’re on to something big.
Then, an Australian Ashtanga teacher taught me how to breathe. Once I started focusing on different breathing practices it became a centerpiece of my practice. It started to affect me emotionally—it had a powerful accumulative affect.
I have no problem with the physical benefits of yoga but it’s kind of missing the best part. It’s hard to describe. It’s like, you can make love with someone just for the exercise but you’re kind of missing the point.
JH: So your book is saying that yoga can transform you.
MS: Over time, especially running a studio, I would see people make new choices. They get out of bad jobs or relationships or into good ones. They realize what they need to do. All kinds of changes beside the physical ones happen.
Physical yoga will change you to an extent. It will have its way with you. But then after that it takes discipline. You have to learn your strengths and weaknesses, and take initiative to make yourself do things you don’t necessarily want to do.
JH: You’re helping people with their tapas.