Max and I spoke over the phone. Part 1 of the interview is available here.
Ivan Nahem, Yoga Teacher Magazine: These are challenging times to say the least; you talk about crises and how people are trying to escape themselves. Our focus is so much on our toys, such as our communication devices, phones, iPads, that we actually seem to become more isolated. How dire is the situation in your estimation and how do we respond to it?
Max Strom: It's very troublesome because at the moment the only way out of our situation is we ourselves have to take individual action. We can't rely so much on one charismatic leader or on someone passing a law to help us. We really are being tempted at the highest level now to tune out and to live in a state of distraction or virtual reality and I do believe that's one of the reasons why so many people are medicated now. It’s because of the lifestyle we ourselves are choosing and will even argue is valid. We’ll have 400 Facebook friends and spend almost no time with our true friends face to face, and then don't understand why we feel isolated. One of the most important statistics a modern person can know now is that 90% of human interaction is nonverbal. That means communicating via text is a 10% relationship and that is why we are feeling isolated. You can be on the computer or on your smartphone all day long sending and receiving texts and emails, and so you’re scratching the surface of your potential relationships.
And again I'm not against texting, I answer emails every day, I send emails every day and occasionally I send text messages. Texting is a useful medium to send and receive data, but not for human interaction. For that it's terrible, you might as well send smoke signals or use Morse code.
So if we want to be less isolated ― which we all do, almost everybody says they want more intimacy in their lives, and I'm not speaking only of physical, romantic intimacy, but friendship intimacy, the deepening of relationships ― you have to be there in person to do that. You have to be. Everybody knows that if a couple lives in different cities and they don't get to see each other, meaning be in each other’s presence, all the letters and phone calls in the world often will not keep that relationship together. You have to be in the presence of the person. But it's not just your lover, it's your friends, it's your family. A lot of parents today spend a tremendous amount of time driving their kids around to every kind of activity they can possibly think of, trying to be good parents ‒ I know that the intention is high-level, but I think the kids might be better off if the parents just spent time with them, rather than just driving them to this or that, being their chauffeur and their cheerleader, actually just hanging out with them, I think that's what kids really need, just the presence of their parents.
Nahem: As opposed to the electronic babysitter!
Strom: Better than just giving a kid an iPad, which is the TV of our time. It used to be the TV, now it’s the iPad, it's more interactive, kids are really glued to it.
Nahem: Fisher-Price sells a bouncy seat for infants with iPad attachment case. It’s come under a lot of fire, but it’s still being sold. Insane.
Strom: Yes. And again I don't want to be black-and-white about things. There's great good that is coming from the information technology that we have, great good, but it's up to us to decide if this electronic device I just bought is this giving me more free time or is it taking up more of my free time? And we have to really discern. I know I feel excited and entertained, but is being entertained the same as being happy or having meaning in one's life? Is there something else that I could be doing that would make me more proud to be a human being, make more of a difference in this world, rather than spending three hours a day blowing up virtual space battleships to conquer the universe? It's not wrong but is there something that I could be doing that would be more significant, more meaningful? And if I'm lonely maybe I should get off the Internet, maybe I should go toward where people actually are sitting, standing, moving, interacting with each other and not with everybody sitting looking at their smartphones ‒ which aren’t all that smart, incidentally.
Nahem: Indeed! What would you say to those who would object that your emphasis on self-transformation is overreaching or complicating matters? In other words, someone might say, I don’t come to yoga for therapy.
Strom: If someone is at a point in their life where they just want to work, have a great time, get in shape and date and they're not concerned about anything else, there are certainly teachers out there that can fulfill their needs. I'm not that teacher. I'm the teacher for someone who wants to have better health, more meaning in their life and more personal empowerment.
When I say empowerment I want to distinguish that from the type of teacher who wants you to be attached to them and need them like a child needs a parent. I want to empower students to rely on themselves, feel confident themselves and trust themselves. To me life is not just about working and being entertained and obtaining pleasure. I think true happiness comes from meaning and we need to find what our mission is in life and, once we find it, develop it, because that gives us the greatest meaning and the opportunities that we must fulfill, so that when we are on our deathbed we can look back and know we did what we could in this world to help others, as well as enjoy our life to its fullest. As opposed to: “God I spent half my life blowing up invisible battleships! Now I can't get that time back and now my life is over.”
Nahem: I noted your definition of happiness in There Is No App for Happiness as “the daily experience of a meaningful life.” That's a lovely objective I think.
Strom: Well thank you. I think once a human being has been close to death whether they've had a lot of death around them, for instance in the military, or some people have just suffered a lot of tragedies, or you've been close to death yourself, these things become much more relevant and in-your-face. If you haven't been around death you still are living the young person's illusion of body immortality and don't really yet understand the purpose of life on earth.
Nahem: I don't know if you know this by any chance but my 25-year-old son died in September and ―
Strom: No, I didn't know that… You must still be grieving, that was such a short time ago.
Nahem: Oh I’m absolutely reeling from it. But you know when I read your chapter on grief in There Is No App for Happiness it almost felt like it was written for me, that you were speaking directly to me during this period. I'm sure it would be helpful for others in similar situations. And yes one of the only possible positive outcomes for me is that it does bring me closer to that sense of what is life about, and what does it mean to be with people, to always keep loving. There are lessons there. I wish I didn't have to learn them this way, but I suppose sometimes it's dharma. Life kicks your ass.
Strom: I feel for you losing your son. I don't have children but I certainly have lost many beloved people in my life and I've been told that there's no greater grief than losing a son or daughter.
Nahem: Yeah, it’s huge. But I thank you for what you've put out there on the subject of grief, it has been helpful. Yoga has been very helpful to me in this time as well ― my work and doing the breathing and focusing on the now and focusing on letting the grief go when it's there to be let go of.
Strom: Good. I encourage that. When you're in grief you really notice the relationship between breath and emotions quite acutely because it feels like someone's standing on your chest.
Strom: And if you can get yourself to breathe deeply, for example in a yoga class, as soon as you start taking deep breaths, tears usually accompany that. It releases the grief from you. I'm sure you've noticed that.
Nahem: Sure. Yes. So Max I was thinking about how your voice comes through so clearly from your writing but you also have such a soothing voice in your physical presence. That's so important for a teacher, to use their voice in a way that effortlessly guides and befriends the students.
Strom: That's right. Unfortunately we have almost no guidance in so many critical aspects of being a human being and voice is one of them. Unless someone is pursuing a musical career generally they have no guidance or supervision on how to speak. And the way one speaks can attract or repel another human being, or cause the other human being to listen carefully, and we could all do well to develop not only the sound of our voice to be more natural and more musical, but also the manner of speech; the words we choose and how we deliver them can completely change our relationships with people, because speech is an art and refining the art of speech automatically refines our relationships. Relationships are to a great extent about communication. So as you develop your speech and your voice, your relationships deepen, and you are more heard by other human beings. It's critical in my view and it's also part of my teacher training.
Nahem: One last question, Max. What would you say are the priorities for a beginning teacher? What should they focus on as they develop their teaching?
Strom: I recommend learning three or four sequences from the teacher who you trust the most, and only teach those three or four sequences for the first two years. So that the sequencing is not an aspect of what you're teaching, it's a set pattern, doing one sequence one day and another the next, and so on. And your students will be fine with just three or four sequences. There are plenty of yoga styles that use only one. And with that off the table, without having to be distracted by “What am I going to do next?” or “What can I invent to do next?”, you know that your students are safe, they’re benefiting from the sequence and now you can spend more time watching your students, observing them, watching how the work affects them, so that you will then be able to help them to a higher degree and also you can start to understand what it is you're doing and why the sequences work. So basically, it takes a lot of the distraction off the table by using set sequences so you become a better communicator, a better leader, and a better teacher.
Nahem: Great advice. We’re all beginning teachers in some ways, so that’s profound and far-reaching advice. Thanks so much, Max.
Strom: Thank you!