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Interview with Eddie Stern

I believe in teachers and the experience of teachers

Since I am on a mission to modernize spiritual traditions like Yoga & Ayurveda especially for us millennials to find a way to bring these wisdoms into daily life I have decided to do some interviews with – to me – very inspirational spiritual teachers who have decided to settle down in a city.

As such, who else to ask better for my first interview than Eddie Stern? A very well know spiritual teacher, living in NYC, who has clearly figured it all out (Eddie laughs when I say this to him btw).

Eddie teaches Ashtanga Yoga in his shala in Brooklyn, recently launched this beautiful app called the Breathing app and is about published his first book “One Simple Thing: A New Look at the Science of Yoga and how it Can Transform Your Life” which can be ordered on Amazon.

Eddie is really inspiring to me personally and I was very curious about how he thinks about Yoga in our modern society.

Let’s start with what got you into yoga. I remember you saying that it had something to do with a response to your troubled youth. I also heard you saying that when you came in contact with Yoga you found out that you could reach the same state as you were able to reach through drugs. In Amsterdam lots of people are experimenting with psychedelics which I see as a shortcut of being in the moment. What is your opinion about this and has it something to do with your decision to start doing yoga?

The reason that I came to yoga was because I was on a spiritual quest. The feeling of being on spiritual quest was not a very well formed feeling at that time. It was a searching. At that moment I didn’t have the people or tools around me to seek in a proper way. The guides that were around me at that time where people from the punk rock movements who had access to things like psychedelics and MDMA which we were taking and which were giving us transcendental experiences. But of course this was not a sustainable way. Eventually, I met a guy named Ted who had done some yoga and he started to give me a bit of guidance. He taught me that spiritual liberation was a worthy thing to pursue.

Psychedelics gave us a transcendental experience, but is was not sustainable

Why did you choose Ashtanga Yoga? We know it’s a very strict method that in some cases could have just the opposite effect of liberation. Can you explain to my why you think this tradition is so effective?

I believe in teachers and the experience of teachers. Back in the ’80’s when I started yoga I didn’t know anything about different brands of yoga. We didn’t identify with it. We were looking to know who we were and to expand our consciousness. When I started doing this practice with Pattabhi Jois I didn’t knew what Ashtanga Yoga was, because it wasn’t a brand name back then. It was just the name of his school, which to me referred to all of the limbs of yoga and not only the method of doing postures (asanas). The reason that I stuck around and kept doing it was because I felt that what he was teaching me was very effective. I felt that I was changing in having a deeper experience of what yoga could be. I was going learn from him whatever he was going to teach me. So it’s very arbitrary that I ended up teaching Ashtanga Yoga. I don’t really care about brands. A lot of rigidity you see in the yoga world is obviously counterproductive to people having an integrated experience of the world and appreciation of different ways of approaching life. I actually think that the brands, for the most part set people apart from each other.

I didn’t knew what Ashtanga Yoga was, because it wasn’t a brand name back than

The branding of yoga makes people attracted to the lowest impulses of their mind as they start to think that what they do is better than what others do. This is harmful for the world. That’s why I don’t identify with being a Ashtanga Yoga teacher. I identify with being a yoga teacher and I identify as Pattabhi Jois having been my teacher who I learned everything from. This is very satisfying for me as I like to be free to teach a person whatever he or she needs to be taught. This gives me freedom.

But still you do use the Ashtanga method as a foundation, right?

Well there is an aspect of that which is true, but in our Yoga Shala in New York people are not necessarily doing the series. I mean when you were pregnant we made some modifications to what you were doing and some may look at that and say that it’s not the correct method. But I am not so concerned with that. I want to make you feel happier and healthier and feel good with doing some yoga and not being restricted by a system. So yes, I choose to follow the sequence and the methodology. But I don’t follow it because I have to, but because I think it’s good and useful. Again, if it’s not useful for somebody I am happy to make some changes. So in that way, it’s more of a praxis, or application of theory in action, rather than a “method”, which is a systematic approach to doing something. In praxis there is more freedom for flexibility; with “methods” there is usually more dogma.

Does this also helps you to teach yoga for such a long time with the joy and love you do?

Yes, I am able to maintain it and love doing it, because I allow myself to be free in the way I help people. As soon as I start thinking there is only one way to do it and every other way is not the correct way and it’s not the correct method if you change this or the other all of a sudden your mind will become tense. You become rigid in your ideology and you won’t be quite as happy. So than all of sudden we have backtracked by coming to a system that is supposed to help to set us free put ourselves in a new cage with a new label.

All of sudden we have backtracked by coming to a system that is supposed to help to set us free put ourselves in a new cage with a new label

Which I have experienced as well if I am honest…

I have experienced it also, but I have chosen to move away from that experience. It’s very important also to reinforce it. I think that yoga all around is great and I love teaching and love doing it. I also think that the sequence of poses as Pattabi Jois has taught us are fantastically and brilliantly organized. So I have no criticism of the actual practice. What I have critic against is some of the mindsets which has come into the world of yoga. Not just with Ashtanga Yoga, but with many other types of yoga as well since the branding has become more prevalent in our modern world.

Can you tell me something about why you picked NYC to open your Shala? I know that you were born in New York, but went to India for a long period. Besides, since you are very well known nowadays you could have picked basically any place in the world to teach. What is so attractive to you about NYC?

New York is my home. Except for India I lived my entire life in New York. Now of course we are in Brooklyn. It’s more quiet and peaceful to me than Manhattan.

Alright, your home. So this is probably also why you feel so safe to leave the doors open everyday? As I remember that the front door was unlocked when I arrived there on a moonday (when there was no practice). You must feel really safe there? Or are there any other reasons to not lock your doors?

Yes, our doors are always open. That’s probably because I am stupid (Eddie laughs). I mean we lock it at night time, but during the day our doors are always open. You never know who needs something. If it is a moonday and somebody walks in then maybe they want a glass of water or something else.

That is such a cute answer! But tell me, what is – besides doing yoga – a more simple tool you would recommend people to do to reach a state of freedom? I know that you made this wonderful app called the Breathing App which people can use even in a train as a way to connect and relax. Is there, besides the breathing, something else you would suggest people to do to bring them back in their seat?

Yes, developing the ability to catch yourself before you have gone to far and if you have gone too far to be able to realize that and to bring yourself back. I think maybe one of the most important things we can do here is to develop kindness. Not just in sort of a superficial way of being kind to ourselves. But when a negative or angry thought pops up in our mind to be kind to our thought or to express a feeling of kindness to our emotions and to our body and to other people also. Mostly when someone is annoying us or we are having a stressful moment it is important to just back off for a minute aiming to express a kind thought towards that person. This may even result in listing better to this person. Even if you are not agreeing with what this person is saying the feeling of kindness slows everything down and allows you to become more receptive of what is happening right in that moment. So breathing is a trick that works very well and another thing we can use is bringing in a certain mood to a certain thought (like being kind). This will not only bring you in the present, but also with a good feeling. This good feeling is very important. In mind practices we sometimes forget that it is important to bring in a kind of mood or emotion attached to that mindful thing we are trying to do. Because that mood is going to make being in that moment a little bit more satisfying and fulfilling.

The most important thing we can do here is to develop kindness

So more loving kindness?

Well you could say loving kindness, but I would stick with the word kindness. Because sometimes we don’t know if we can love the person in front of us, but we can have a kind thought to them. We can say okay this person is very angry at me and I am very angry, but I am going to have one kind thought about this person and also one kind thought to my own anger as well. Because if we are angry we are mostly convinced that we have the right to be angry or we wish the frustration wasn’t there. It is just better to be kind to the feeling of anger even if we think we have the right to be angry. This will help calm the anger down. The anger even might start to think: am I really so angry?

Allright let’s switch gears a little bit. Which person outside the yoga scene is inspiring you at the moment?

Right now, the person I am very inspired by Jordan Peterson. One of the reasons that I really enjoy listening to him is that he is very thoughtful and intelligent. Also, he is very passionate about his views and he thinks his way through them and the problems in the world. Another thing is that he talks about the meaning of life in a way I can relate to. The feelings that I have towards ideas of happiness: that everybody is striving to be happy is something that I have never really agreed with that completely. I didn’t really feel that this is the main goal of people’s life. As well, when people talk about the meaning of life, I never really felt that there was a meaning of life. Maybe each of our lives have their own individual meaning, but there isn’t an overarching meaning that we should all ascribe to, like happiness. Jordan Peterson really articulates these points in nice ways with more depth and subtlety than I brought to my thinking about it. He talks about finding meaning in our own personal life and how suffering and struggling helps you to find that meaning. This is very similar to what Viktor Frankl describes in his book “Man’s Searching for Meaning.” I think he’s worth listening to.

I never really felt that there was a meaning of life

What can you share with us about your new book that is being published in March?

The first half of the book is about some basic yoga philosophy and some of my thoughts on some of the techniques that are being used in yoga. After this examination I go through the limbs of yoga in terms of personal responsibility. I look at Yama’s as a personal responsibility we have to our social interactions with people in the world around us. I look at Niyama as the personal responsibility we have towards our discipline and our frame of mind towards practice. I look at Asana as a responsibility we have towards our body and how to take care of it. And Pranayama as a responsibility we have towards our nervous system.

The next thing I discuss is the meaning of Prana (life force). I’ll also talk about the nervous system as it is presented both in Yoga and through Western terminology to then dive into how your yoga practice can affect the operations of the nervous system. My supposition is that happiness and freedom are not mental ideas, but they are actual physiological experiences that we can have through different practices of yoga and then I describe what those practices are. The reason for this is, is that our body and mind are a continuum. What happens in the mind expressed in the body and what happens in the body is expressed in the mind. So therefore to separate feelings like happiness or freedom as a mental occurrence is to fall into your own old mind-body separation. For this reason we need to use our body to find transcendence. That is actually what the book is about.

Curious about the book? You can pre-order it here if you are living in the Netherlands and here if you are living in the US.