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Reaching Seekers: An Interview with Max Strom


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.

MS: Exactly.


The Big Book: Yoga Studies Institute teaches the Bhagavad Gita


The main lobby of Pure Yoga is covered in backpacks and notebooks. Groups of people, some from as far away as Arizona, England, and India, sit together eating snacks and talking. It looks like a college common room around exam time. But these studious people, ranging from early 20s to late 40s, are not gathered to take a test. They are here to receive the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Hindu text, as taught by Tibetan Buddhist monk Geshe Michael Roach and his co-teacher Lama Christie McNally.

For eight evenings in November, Roach and McNally explicated the Gita—which is 9th scripture course in their Yoga Studies Institute (YSI) series—discussing the text’s insights into karma and ethical living. The conversation between Arjuna, the warrior prince, and Krishna, the Hindu god (disguised as Arjuna’s trusted friend and charioteer) is a model of student-guru relationship, and a fitting tableau to explain some of yoga’s subtle concepts.

The excitement in the room was palpable. Roach and McNally only come to New York about twice a year and many students—including long-time ones—had not heard this particular teaching. As well, the duo will be traveling extensively in 2010, before they undertake another 3-year silent retreat later in the year. Both will make them inaccessible to their New York-based students.

Roach and McNally taught from a stage covered in roses and lilies. Each night, when they entered the room, students bowed, offering abundant flowers, fruit, chocolate, CDs of music, and even boxes of breakfast cereal. These entrances took quite a while as the teachers gathered the goods and chatted with students.

Then, Lama Christie, dressed in her signature white cotton, opened the formal teaching with a heart-centered meditation and visualization.

Rather than go chapter by chapter through the Gita, the two used particular stanzas to discuss key ideas of karma, the laws of action, and perception.

Present action, they said, does not lead to present results. That’s just our wish to control of our lives. Rather, present situations spring from “seeds” planted long ago. So, if you want something in your future life, give it away now. If you want a lot of money, give a lot of money away (Roach has written books on this). If you want a good boyfriend, help someone else meet their romantic partner. If you love churros (a fried Spanish donut, often sold on subway platforms), give all your churros away. Roach used the example of receiving a pizza box full of churros after sharing a bag with some students.

“In our life, we are trained to think we can’t get our goal or that we should have reasonable goals,” says Roach. “If you understand how to do an action, you don’t have to settle for anything less anymore.” We can—and should—dream big, but to get everything we want we need to stop thinking of ourselves. In helping others first, our own dreams will be fulfilled.

Also, they lectured, things in the material and emotional world are projections from within us. As subjective constructions, they don’t actually exist. It’s because form and reality are not fixed that enlightenment—a major shift in perspective—is possible.

Some attendees, like Edward Lafferty, assistant to a senior YSI teacher, felt that they were receiving spiritual nourishment just by being at the event. “It’s very clear that things are happening at a deeper level,” he said. “There’s some sort of transmission going on beyond the words.”

Others were curious. Piotr Bracichowicz, a lecturer in computer engineering at CUNY, had come along with his wife, a yoga teacher. “These are simple things they’re talking about,” he said, “but they are life changing. We cannot make an action expecting a certain result. But we are responsible for making good actions anyway. It’s a great practice.”

But for others, the event raised questions. Phebe Palin, psychotherapist and lecturer at Brooklyn College, found the ceremony around the teaching distracting.“I was surprised that it took them 45 minutes to get into the room every night,” says Palin who is currently training enrolled in the Conquering Lion yoga teacher training program. “I would have liked to have heard them teach more.”

The program, slated to end at 11pm each night, often ran past midnight.

As for why now is the time to teach the Bhagavad Gita, Lobsang Chukyi, Buddhist nun and assistant to Roach and McNally commented, “The story centers on someone who is confused in midst of battlefield—confused about what to do. The world is confused right now. People don’t know what to do in their lives. They want the knowledge.”

As attendees searched for their shoes and socks at the end of the night, many lovingly watched their teachers as they left the studio. The feeling of excitement hadn’t dimmed. It was a bit tired, but still burning bright.