THE DAILY EXPERIENCE OF A MEANINGFUL LIFE (PART 1)
Max and I spoke first on Skype and then over the phone in mid-January. Part 2 of the interview can be found here.
Ivan Nahem, Yoga Teacher Magazine: We did meet in person once. I took your class up in September, 2011, at Bliss Yoga Studio in Woodstock. I introduced myself afterward. I was very impressed with the class.
Max Strom: Thank you. I remember your face. I don't remember names very well but I remember faces extremely well.
Nahem: Well thanks! So Max you have such a remarkable practice, both in terms of the yoga and the teaching. How did it develop? What was your training and who did you train with?
Strom: Well, my path was not a straight line. I began practicing meditation on my own at age 16. After a couple of years I met a fantastic teacher who taught Qi Gong and the internal martial art called Pa Kua. I practiced with him for three years before he moved out of the state. His name was Jim Keenan. He lives in New Jersey now, a very good teacher. He introduced me to breath initiated movement, standing meditations, as well as standing breathing. So that was what I would consider my introduction to yoga, although it was not Indian-based yoga. Qi Gong is from China but I consider it all yoga. I studied comparative religions quite extensively in my late teens and early twenties and studied some other spiritual disciplines as well.
I was introduced to hatha yoga at age 35; I'm 57 now. I was really at the right place at the right time. I started practicing at Yoga Works in Santa Monica. YogaWorks was at that time just a one room studio and they were about to open their second room. They had really good Iyengar teachers, such as Steven Freedman. The staff there at that time were many people who are now international teachers. It was quite an array of teachers: Erich Schiffmann, Rod Stryker, Paul Grilley, and Sarah Powers. Bryan Kest had just started teaching, he was a young kid then, and Steve Ross was teaching there. Ana Forrest had just left to open her own studio. David Swenson had just left. Of course the owners Chuck and Maty, the Ashtanga teachers, were there. So it was easy to get access to good teachers.
But the visiting teachers affected me the most in terms of me as a teacher but also in some of the deeper dimensions of my practice. The two most influential teachers that impacted me were Ashtanga teacher Dena Kingsberg from Byron Bay, Australia, and Senior Iyengar teacher Gabriella Giubilaro from Florence, Italy.
Gabriella used to come over regularly every year and teach for four or five days. She remains the most influential teacher I had as far as asana goes. I believe she is still an active teacher; she's probably in her early sixties now. She taught me alignment and how to adapt to different body types and different degrees of flexibility and weakness and so on.
Dena was more of a breath teacher. She now travels the world teaching and she had a big impact on me. She really taught me how to breathe and to trust my breath and to depend on my breath and to stay with it as a priority over the postures. And this had a tremendous impact and really was a catalyst for personal change in me, for emotional development and so on.
Around the same time I re-started my Qi Gong practice again with Master Hong Lu, who had moved over here from China and, with an interpreter, was teaching in the L.A. area. So Qi Gong has been a pervasive influence in my yoga.
I primarily practiced Iyengar for quite a few years and then switched to Ashtanga ‒ and then I started practicing each one every other day. There wasn't very much Vinyasa yoga then. In the very early 90s Vinyasa was just starting to become an alternative to Ashtanga. That's what it really began as. And at some point I realized I needed to adapt Ashtanga because I was really hurting my knees. And so I took the Ashtanga primary series and eliminated the postures that were really bothering my knees, not only mine but many other people I knew, and replaced them with similar but safer postures I had learned from the Iyengar system.
And this worked really well. I started practicing at home and then friends started practicing with me and then they asked me to teach it ‒ and that's how I started teaching. It was essentially a modified Ashtanga practice, but of course once I started teaching full-time I started bringing in the knowledge I had from my own life and this included the Qi Gong influence. And then as any good teacher knows once you start teaching on a regular basis you will learn a great deal just from walking into a roomful of people every day and watching people respond to what you're doing, so you can calibrate what you're doing based on this petri dish you're working in every day.
Nahem: It can be a wonderful laboratory.
Strom: It is, very much so, and so gradually over time I improved and personalized what I was doing and I found people really seemed to respond to the short talks that I would give, whether it was about self-transformation or emotional development, things like that. So, I began incorporating that more and more as I grew more confident and it just grew from there. Eventually a lot of things I did, I did because I saw when there was an absence of something that was necessary. For example, the first workshop I ever taught was a breathing workshop because I realized how important a breathing practice is, of course, yet I rarely saw a breathing class in L.A. and this was during the yoga explosion. So, I was astounded that there wasn’t anybody teaching breathing. And if they did teach breathing they taught something called pranayama and this made sure that nobody came because nobody knew what it meant. The more advanced people would come because they knew what it meant but it's a foreign word, so I changed the title to “Learn to Breathe” and the workshops just filled up. The second time we had 40 or 50 people, as opposed to seven which is what the other breathing workshops had. So I was really the first person in the Los Angeles area to really make breathing the centerpiece of my practice and my teaching.
Nahem: It demonstrates the importance of a good processing of a translation, as well as understanding your audience.
Strom: That's right. It's just basically human communication. A good teacher changes his or her style according to the student. And I just want to make a side comment about that because people misunderstand me sometimes when I say that. It's easy when you hear that to think, “Oh, you water down what you do.” No, never. There’s a vast difference between watering down, which means diluting your message, and distilling your message, using another water reference. When you distill your message you remove anything that is unnecessary, leaving only the most potent essence, so it actually makes it more powerful, not less.
Nahem: Yes, that’s a helpful clarification. So would you speak for a moment as to why breath is so key? What is it about the breath that it is so universally recognized as of prime importance by those looking for insight into the divine ‒ or even simply just more happiness?
Strom: Well, there are two forms of breathing essentially.
One is the subconscious autonomic breathing, that we're doing right now. As I speak to you now I’m not really thinking about my breath, it's happening on its own as my heartbeat is, and yours. So that's one type of breathing and that's how most people breathe almost all of the time. Many people never consciously intervene with their breath at all. Their breath responds to their situation. If they become angry their breathing pattern changes automatically, and not always to their benefit. And if they're in grief the breathing changes.
The second type of breathing is conscious breathing, where the conscious mind says I’m going to decide how deep to inhale, how long to exhale, how much gap between breaths. And that's what a breathing practice is, when you decide to breathe a certain way for a certain length of time. And breathing in various forms has different effects on the body, on the nervous system, on the mind and on one's emotions. The most potent and immediate response that my students receive when I lead them through breathing exercises is the emotional response.
The average human being in my opinion is like a grain silo, full of suppressed emotions from the past. When we think about stuffing our emotions, that's an apt phrase, because we do stuff them, we hold them and continue to hold them for long periods. And we see proof of this all the time, we hear a song that reminds us of a very emotional time or a love relationship from 20 years ago and we can burst into tears based on the remembrance. Whether it's a song or an object or a place that can move us emotionally, we have suppressed grief, anger, disappointment and we've done this because our society teaches us to. We do all kinds of bad behavior in public and never apologize for it, but if we shed a tear we immediately apologize. We’re ashamed of grief, we're ashamed that anybody sees it and we’re embarrassed by it.
Nahem: As you point out in your book, this is particularly so of men because we're really programmed in that way.
Strom: Yes. That's right. If you want your friends to stay away from you, just tell them that you're going through a lot of grief. And many of your friends won't call you during that time. So when we do certain types of breathing exercises, within just a matter of 3 to 6 minutes, a huge wave of emotion will come up, it's in essence purging past emotions and memories from the body. I see this every time I teach. You know I travel from city to city, about 45 cities and 10 countries a year, and no matter what the race, religion, nationality, gender, the response is essentially the same. Men and women alike will have a release of emotions within 3 to 6 minutes.
But I'm not traveling around the world to make people cry, that's not why I do it. It's the breath that makes people cry because it unlocks the padlock to your compressed emotions that wish to come out, so it basically just moves the obstacle out of the way, and if you have anything in there, which most people do, out it comes.
But the magical part about it is that along with the emotions come the memories, and clarity and understanding of what happened, what you went through. And so people can quickly process things that they couldn't formerly when they were younger, and are now able to take a new direction in their lives, whether it’s in their relationships or their behavior in general. So for example, someone who tends to have an addictive personality, this may cease once they have gone through a process like this, because the addictions are based on trying to keep their emotions suppressed. Sometimes positive behavioral changes occur quite quickly within a week to a couple of months or gradually over a year based on one or two of these sessions. And that's why breathing exercises are used in some forms of therapy where the therapist has the patient breathe extremely deeply for about 45 minutes and then they speak and whatever's suppressed will be revealed. So breathing exercises are fantastic for a jumpstart or an acceleration of your personal growth.
Nahem: I’ve been to quite a few yoga classes where ujjayi breath, also known as “ocean breath,” is instructed and for a few minutes most of the people give it a shot, and then after a time the few remaining participants become self-conscious, and then it dies out, after maybe a few more exhortations. I was quite impressed when I took your class with how effortlessly you gently nudged us to breathe together in stages, and it stuck. What specific strategies do you employ to teach breath practices?
Strom: There's a lot of trial and error in that because, other than the one teacher I mentioned, Dena Kingsberg, I didn't find very many teachers who were successful with guiding a group of people in breath.
But I found that it wasn't that difficult if you basically covered a few steps. And one is that you have to tell a group of adults why they're doing what they're doing. You can't just boss them around, especially if they're going to do something that seems a little strange to them, especially women, who may feel it's a little unladylike to make this sound.
So the way to motivate people is to bring up the nervous system disorders that we have in our culture that they can immediately relate to. For example I tell them that 80 million people in America are taking sleep medication every night. In 2012 the Center for Disease Control declared sleep dysfunction an epidemic. And so about 30% of your class is sitting there thinking, “Well that's me, I take a sleep aid every night and I would love to be able to sleep better!” Then you bring up more statistics: one out of four women in America is taking anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medication. Well that's either the same people, or another group of people in your class. If you just stop there you've already reached people where they live, because they're very troubled by their depression, their anxiety, or their sleep dysfunction. If they hear that breathing in this kind of strange way can help get them off the drugs they're taking, now they're motivated. So that’s the first crucial thing: motivate the students to try it. As opposed to this is what my guru told me to do so this is what you should do. There are people who will respond to that but the critical thinker will not.
Nahem: It has to originate in motivation from within.
Strom: Yes. And we're dealing with adults mostly so they want to know why they're being asked to do this, and so if you can say to people dealing with sleep disorder, this can get you back to sleep at night, back to sleeping in a regular pattern, people are exhausted, so they’re very willing to try something new.
That's the first technique. The second technique is to stand them up to breathe, rather than having them sit. When human beings are standing they tend to be more attentive than when they're sitting. And if you want someone to breathe with you, have them move their arms while they breathe, rather than have their arms static. When the arms are moving they tend to get into a rhythm of bodily movement and breath, and it helps them get into a sense of peaceful and harmonious feeling in their body while they do the breathing. And this is why Qi Gong is done standing with the arms moving, in almost all the cases of Qi Gong breathing I've ever seen. And when we do it all together in unison with the sound the whole room starts to sound quite beautiful. I think it inspires people to just stick with it.
And if they don't do it, and here's the real critical thing, this is where a lot of yoga teachers miss the boat: you have to supervise it. Just because you asked them to breathe doesn't mean they're going to do it. And if they don't you have to stop the class.
Nahem: That’s exactly what I’ve seen in other classes. It comes across as too tentative. A few feeble exhortations and then it dies out.
Strom: That's right. So those are my essential principles of teaching breathing. Of course there are a lot more details than that. I have certain exercises that I teach that excite the breath. But those are the basic ones that I think yoga teachers might try.
Nahem: I know I personally will experiment more actively with these techniques. So Max, you give teacher trainings and you have one starting this year, in three segments over an 11 month period. Do you go deeper into more advanced breathing exercises, do you teach the more classic pranayama to any extent?
Strom: Yes, I do teach additional breathing exercises other than the ones I teach in a general class. But I find that the real key to having breath have an impact is doing it every day. It’s not about, “Is this breathing exercise more esoteric, more difficult, than the other one?” For example, alternate nostril breathing. If you do alternate nostril breathing in its most basic form, a count of four in, four out, without holding the breath in between, if you do that four times a day, it's going to have a big impact on your life. Whereas doing the fancy ones once a week or twice a week, I don't think it's going to have a huge impact. The body responds to repetition. So creating a daily or every other day regime is important, and will have an impact. Even if you just stay with the basic principles of movement, of postures, of breath, of meditation, if you just stay with the fundamentals but have a consistent practice, it has a tremendous impact. We tend to want to go on to more complex postures, more complex breath, etcetera, because that's our nature.
Nahem: Sometimes we make it too much about the exploration and pioneering, whereas regularity and a simple working from the body inward has a more direct impact on our practice and our lives.
Strom: That's right. Let's take a really basic example. If you did 100 push-ups a day, your chest, shoulders, arms and some of the back muscles would be in great shape. You don’t have to go to the gym and do a whole complex weight regime. I mean if you want to be a bodybuilder and be in competitions, of course you do. But if you do 50 push-ups twice, you're going to be in great shape in terms of certain muscle groups. But we like to make things very complicated and of course people want to sell us things. They want to convince us that you have to do this and so you have to buy that. You really don't.
[Continue to Part 2 here]
Max Strom teaches his unique method of personal transformation worldwide and is known for inspiring and impacting the lives of his students. His methods address the internal, emotional, and spiritual aspects of our life, as well as physical healing and vitality. He has taught tens of thousands of students, and trained several hundred teachers. He is the author of A Life Worth Breathing, and his new book, There is No App for Happiness. A dynamic speaker, he has presented two TEDx events and a keynote on ethics in business at a Fortune 500 management conference. He is also known for his practice DVDs, Learn to Breathe, To Heal Yourself and Your Relationships, and Max Strom Yoga – Strength, Grace, and Healing. www.maxstrom.com