April 7, 2020

The Story and Evolution of POWER YOGA

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Power Yoga is one of the most popular styles of yoga worldwide. Its roots trace back to three teachers in the 1970-80s — Bryan Kest, Baron Baptiste and Beryl Bender Birch — the pioneers of Power Yoga.

This style of yoga is the ultimate cross train, encompassing all of the key components of fitness — strength, flexibility, balance and stamina. But Power Yoga is much more than a physical practice.

In this podcast we will explore the story and evolution of Power Yoga and why it is one of the most powerful practices on the planet.

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[The following is the full transcript of this episode of “The BE ULTIMATE Podcast.” Please note that this is direct from Travis speaking unscripted and unedited.]

Welcome to episode 60 of The Be Ultimate podcast, “The Story and Evolution of Power Yoga.”

This week, we’re going to be discussing Power Yoga. This is something that’s changed my life and something that’s a huge part of my life, and I realized that I’ve never done a podcast solely on power yoga.

Power yoga is one of the most popular styles of yoga right now throughout the whole entire world. Sometimes it might be called Vinyasa or hot yoga. But any type of yoga that that really flows and has an athletic component to it, typically falls underneath the umbrella of power yoga. And it’s really spread these last maybe three or so decades because of really a lot of reasons.

On a physical level, you get strength, balance, flexibility, stamina, and cardio. So it’s kind of like one stop shopping. You go to a good power yoga class, and you don’t need anything else. It really covers it all.

You also get a good sweat. So there’s an element of detoxification. It doesn’t require a lot of equipment. You don’t need to go get weights. You don’t need to go to the gym. You really just need your yoga mat, your body, your breath, and you’re taking care of a lot of different things all at once.

Now, the founders of power yoga, there’s really three who are credited with being the pioneers, and they all were creating this and coming up with this around the same time. These three founders were Bryan Kest, Baron Baptiste, and Beryl Bender Birch.

Now just so you know, Bryan Kest is somebody that I’ve had a lot of contact with and have known Bryan for many years. He started off as a teacher, and over the years he became a mentor, and then he became a friend. We used to get together and our families would hang out. So I know Bryan really, really well. Baron I don’t know, and Beryl Bender Birch I also don’t know. So I’m a little biased towards Bryan, but at the same time I want to make sure that we give credit where credit is due.

Now, for a lot of people, there is a stigma that is placed on that term power yoga, and usually the stigma is espoused by people that have never experienced it. And sometimes, that stigma is that power yoga is just for people that are ego driven and vanity driven, people that just want to go get a workout, they don’t care about the spirituality of yoga, they don’t care about the roots of yoga. Although that could be true for a certain portion of the population that goes to power yoga, from my experience is that a lot of people that have practiced power yoga and that have been my students over the years, we go to power yoga not just for the physical benefits but also for the mental and the emotional benefits.

Although the spirituality might not be shoved into people’s faces, power yoga, has really opened the door to make yoga mainstream. These teachers Baron Baptiste, Bryan Kest, Beryl Bender Birch, they turned on zillions of people to yoga. They changed the landscape. And because of that, deeply honored and grateful that these teachers have really paved the path for people like myself to get to also go out and spread power yoga.

I started going to yoga back in 2003. And if you’ve heard my other podcast, you’ve heard the story of basically after a year of being badgered by a fellow employee at a hotel, he convinced me to go to this yoga class. I went and took class with Govindas at a place called Santa Monica Power Yoga which was run by Bryan Kest.

It was phenomenal!!! It was love at first sight. The class blew me away because of everything that I just mentioned before. It was strong. It stretched me out, challenged my balance, I sweated a lot. It was also very soulful. Govindas sang a mantra prayer at the end of the class with this instrument called a harmonium. I had this real transcendental experience after having the best exercise that I’d ever experienced before.

Govindas and his class changed my life. You probably heard me mention him many times on other podcasts. I studied with Govindas for a couple of years, had a couple of near-death experiences, almost drowned in Kauai. I survived a tsunami in Thailand of 2004. Eventually, Govindas invited me to go to India with him. He’d been to India many times. But, it was my first visit, and we went and co-lead a yoga retreat in Goa outside of Mumbai.

After we did the retreat in Goa, myself, Govindas, and his wife Radha, we flew up to northern India. We went to Delhi, and then we went to this sacred town of Vrindavan. Going to Vrindavan was one of the most powerful experiences of my life because there weren’t westerners there. It was a real immersion into the depths and the authenticity of where Bhakti yoga, the yoga devotion comes from. That deserves a whole other podcasts episode, so don’t want to go too far down that rabbit hole.

But what I do want to say about this trip to Vrindavan is that one of the things that I was really struck by was, I was surrounded by a lot of these spiritual sadhus and pilgrims, and many of them were very, very sick. I had this eye opening experience that this is why the physical practice of yoga is so important, that we have to take care of our bodies so that our body is strong and healthy, so that then we have the capacity to allow our soul, to allow our heart, to share its gifts, to fulfill its mission, and to be aligned with purpose. If you’re not feeling well and if you’re ravaged with disease and sickness, then you’re not going to be able to fulfill your mission.

So when I came back from India, I actually had a greater respect and appreciation for the physical practice. It was around that time when I decided to start studying with one of the creators of power yoga, Bryan Kest. Bryan was different than my first teacher Govindas. Govindas played music. Govindas, I guess you could say, was more spiritual. He definitely had more of a Bhakti component to him. Whereas Bryan, he was fierce and very, very masculine.

I learned so much from him. He swears a lot in his class which some people, they love because it makes it more real and makes it more accessible. Other people are turned off by the swearing, but Bryan doesn’t care. He doesn’t care what you think of him. He is who he is. He is the embodiment of somebody who exists in their authentic power. He’s the most passionate teacher that I’ve ever experienced. The way that he uses his voice and every word that comes out of his mouth is fiercely passionate.

He’s also one of the funniest teachers that I’ve ever experienced, probably “the” most funny teacher. I’ll never forget one time I went and did a weekend workshop with Bryan in Asheville, North Carolina. He starts off the weekend on Friday evening by giving a talk, and he spoke for probably about 90 minutes. At points in his talk, he had the whole room dying with laughter. And then 10 minutes later, he had the whole entire room crying. He has a gift of speaking and doing it in a way that pierces through all the BS, and through all the armor, and all the unnecessary stuff and really speaking these universal truths that you know to be true from the depths of your heart.

But he does it in a way that’s so ninja like [laughter]. It’s so skillful. He’s never jamming the spirituality down your throat. But at the same time, on some level, he’s the most spiritual guy that I think I’ve ever met.

I also learned a lot from Bryan about sequencing. He was the first teacher I was like, “Man, the way he sequences his poses are so elaborate.” He would spend sometimes 30 minutes just going through one side of a sequence, and then obviously you have to go back and you have to do the second side. But by the time you came back to the second side, it had been so long to go through the first side, that you forgot what was coming up. You forgot what you’re going to do next. I thought that those long sequences were brilliant because it kept you on your toes as a student. It wasn’t like you were just going right side left side, right side left side, where the sequencing can feel monotonous and predictable.

It was a beautiful long elegant series of poses. It would bring me into a profound state of presence and awareness which, of course, is the essence of yoga.

Bryan also owned “the seat of the teacher.” He took command of his classes. His classes would average over 100 people back in the day, just packed full of people. The beauty of what Bryan was also teaching donation yoga inspired by his time on 10 day Vipassana Meditation retreats with Goenka. He brought the donation philosophy to the yoga world.

So you’d be in these classes with 100, 140 people sometimes, and you’d have people that were multimillionaires, people that were soccer moms, people that were homeless. It was open to all walks of life. You got different ethnicities, different ages. It was probably the most diverse yoga studio and yoga classes ever. He would teach these really large classes, no microphone, no music, just with his voice, the power of his voice with command, with ferocity, and with passion. Being that he was one of the pioneers of power yoga, Bryan really embodied the energy of power and strength.

Bryan also didn’t have a monkey suit [laughter]. What I mean by the monkey suit is, he didn’t wear 10 mala necklaces. He didn’t have dreadlocks. He wasn’t wearing orange robes. He didn’t have a big gray beard. He was just a normal looking dude in his white V-neck and his khaki shorts. And that to me was really liberating because it said you didn’t have to play a role to be a yoga instructor. Just be yourself, and who you are is more than enough. You don’t have to put on a show. You don’t have to pretend like you’re somebody other than you’re not.

One time I was in his office and we were chatting, catching up, and I was telling him about how I was trying to save up money to buy my family a home, but I was I was short of cash. And without hesitation Bryan just looked at me, and he said, “I’ll give you some money. Let me help you out. Let me give you $20,000.” And I was so struck by that gesture of generosity because it just spoke to how beautiful of a person that Bryan was, and is, with such a big heart, and is so incredibly generous.

As time went on, he asked me to start subbing his classes, and he had me teaching his prime time classes. He traveled a lot, so I had a lot of opportunity to teach. I got experience teaching these really big classes with 100 people in them. We would have a box in the back of the studio by the door, and people would drop their donation in the box. And that was their payment. Not everybody donated, but it worked out to where we had the best game in town financially as power yoga teachers. We really did.

I remember some of those classes, just going home with a backpack full of cash. It was amazing! I felt like I’d won the lottery. I was teaching yoga. I was doing what I loved, and I was also making a living now doing it.

Over the years I went on to become one of his senior teachers at the studio. And I just want to say, without any shame at all, that I’ve been heavily influenced by Bryan especially earlier on in my teaching, his vocal delivery, his sequences, the phrases, the languages, the vernacular, and even his jokes. And I have borrowed all that stuff, and I’ve used it in my classes. As I now tell my students when they do trainings and workshops with me, I’m like, “Take whatever you want. Take the jokes. Take the phrases. Take the stories. Take the clothes. Take whatever you want because that’s what I did from my teachers.” So just to say that he’s been a big influence on me.

Let’s talk a little bit about Bryan’s backstory because it’s pretty interesting.

Bryan grew up in Detroit Michigan. He was a rebellious kid and teenager. Because of bad behavior, he ended up getting kicked out of school at the age of 14. By that point, his mom was so frustrated with Bryan, and she didn’t know what to do. She decided to kick him out of the house.

So Bryan called his dad who at that time was living in Hawaii, I believe, on the island of Maui. Bryan begged his dad to come stay with him. His dad said, “Okay, but only under one condition.” Bryan said, “What’s that?” His dad said, “Only if you start doing yoga, can you come stay with me.” Bryan didn’t have a lot of options so clearly he had to say yes.

So he had this agreement with his dad that he would get to stay with him, but he would start doing yoga. And he stuck to his agreement, and he started studying yoga. One of his main teachers was a guy by the name of David Williams. David Williams was one of the main teachers of Ashtanga yoga.

Now just for clarification, there’s two different Ashtanga yogas. There is the original Ashtanga yoga. Ash in Sanskrit means eight. Anga means limb. So it means the eight-limb path. So the original Ashtanga yoga was created by the sage Patanjali.

But, David Williams taught a form of Ashtanga yoga that was created by the Indian teacher Pattabhi Jois. And Ashtanga yoga was an offshoot of something called Vinyasa Krama taught by Pattabhi Jois’ teacher Krishnamacharya.

So Ashtanga yoga was a set series of movements and sequences, breath linked to movement, that is pretty physical and athletic. You master the primary series which could take months, or even years. Once you master that, then you move on to the secondary series. So there’s a set sequence that you move through as an Ashtanga yogi. One of the great things about the Ashtanga yogis is how disciplined they are. They get onto their mat seven, six days a week, and they’re always doing their yoga. A lot of times when you see people doing fancy yoga poses, and arm balances, and inversions and whatnot, they have had a strong Ashtanga yoga practice.

So, David Williams who studied with Pattabhi Jois is now teaching Ashtanga yoga to Bryan Kest. After some time, Bryan decided he wanted to go study with David’s teacher, Pattabhi Jois, and go to Mysore, India and learn it straight from the source.

Bryan goes to Mysore for a few weeks, and studies with Pattabhi Jois back before yoga was cool, back before yoga was mainstream, back before barely anybody knew about Ashtanga yoga and Pattabhi Jois, who later on became so famous every day he would have hundreds of people in his classes. Pattabhi Jois ended up becoming very well known.

So Bryan goes and he learns Ashtanga yoga from Pattabhi Jois. Often it would be just Bryan and his teacher.

Afer India, he comes back and enrolls in his very first ever 10 day Vipassana meditation course with the teacher Goenka. If you’ve ever done a 10 day Vipassana, you know it’s life changing. If you haven’t done it, you got to go do it at some point, it’s like Navy SEAL training, but for your mind.

Bryan had done all this strong physical yoga, and then he goes and does the hardcore mental yoga. He does a deep dive into meditation, and gains a tremendous amount from this experience. At the end of the 10 day retreat, the way they do it on Goenka Vapasana, is that it’s all offered for donation. You give what’s called Dāna. 

This experience inspired Bryan to run a yoga studio also off of donations. And this became the beginnings of Santa Monica Power Yoga now famously located on the second floor above a Radio Shack. Back when Bryan opened the studio, there were no other studios in Santa Monica other than a Yoga Works. Now you go to Santa Monica, and there’s more yoga studios than Starbucks. So this was way back before the explosion of yoga.

Now around this time, Bryan one day had woken up and his body was feeling different, and he started to do his Ashtanga yoga practice. He’s going through the set series of movements, and his body is saying, “We feel like we want to do something else,” but the voice of his Ashtanga training is saying, “No, you got to stick to the sequence. You got to do exactly what you’ve learned.” So he had this little inner battle, “Do I stick with the sequence, or do I listen to the wisdom of my own body, and allow myself the openness and the space for spontaneity to be led by my wisdom, instead of by some rigid belief system and structure?”

Fortunately, he decided to be dominated by his wisdom, and he spun away from the main sequence of Ashtanga yoga, and started to move his body in more of an improvisational way.

This was profound because this was really the birth of power yoga. It was as if in that moment we had gone from classical music all of a sudden to jazz. Power yoga opened up the possibilities now for sequencing because you weren’t confined to a set sequence. There was a big backlash from the Ashtanga community, about how Bryan was bastardizing yoga. But despite all that, he stuck to his guns. And being the rebel that he always was, he went on and blazed his own path. He blazed his own path of teaching this new style of power yoga and presenting it in a way that was accessible to people. People didn’t have to go to his class and worry about it being religious, or being new agey, or being whatever. It was the real deal.

Now, one of the things that took Bryan to a global level was when he made a video with Warner Brothers called Power Yoga. It was a VHS tape that had three hour long practices on it. You can go look it up. I think they’re up on YouTube somewhere. But in some of the classes, he’s got cut off jeans. He’s got his shirt off. He has long, curly, brown hair, looks like Bon Jovi! I mean, it’s such a trip especially when you compare the 1980s, early ’90s version of Bryan to current day version. These VHS tapes became a global phenomenon and introduced even more people to power yoga based off what Brian was doing in Santa Monica California. He really went on to become a legend. And he is a legend. I don’t know if there’s any other yoga instructor on the planet that has taught more classes than Bryan. He travels a lot. He used to teach a full schedule of classes locally every week.

He mentored me a lot. And he said, “Travis, those first several years of teaching yoga. You can not take a vacation. You cannot take a day off. You got to build your momentum so strong it’s like a train. And eventually after several years of building up that momentum, then you’ll start to travel. But when you come back from your traveling, you’ll come back and the momentum will still be going because it’s been built up so strong. But if you don’t build that momentum up and you start taking days off and you start going on vacations prematurely, then you’re just going to lose your momentum.”

And I listened. I listened to everything that he said again. Again, Bryan, he to me was an example. He was a role model of somebody who had hit it big time with teaching yoga.

Bryan now talks about how he’s a little disappointed with the name power yoga. Because again, we talked a little bit about the stigma around it, but he feels like it is so much more than just a physical practice. In fact, he wants to change the name from power yoga to “grandma yoga” because he thinks that anybody should be able to do yoga.

One of these days, I want to get Bryan on this podcast. And I want to do a long interview, and then you can hear these stories straight from him, but from my best recollection that’s his story.

Now one of the other pioneers of power yoga is Baron Baptiste. Again, I don’t know Baron. I’ve done his DVDs and stuff back in the day, and I’m definitely inspired by his work and what he’s done as well.

Baron came from a family of yogis. He grew up in an environment where yoga was part of the daily routine. It was in his DNA. It was in his blood. Baron studied Bikram, Ashtanga and Iyengar and eventually started his own thing – hot power yoga. He heated the studio up and taught a flow style class. Baron brought, in his own unique way, power yoga to a mainstream audience as well through his DVDs. At one point, was working with the NFL team, the Philadelphia Eagles. He was on their coaching staff teaching yoga. He was one of the first teachers to bring yoga to professional athletics. To this day, he travels around the world and has his own Baptist power yoga movement.

Would also love to have him on the podcast at some point as well.

The other pioneer of power yoga was a woman by the name of Beryl Bender Birch. Her story began back in the 1970s. She had been studying yoga for quite a while. Eventually, she got on the Ashtanga yoga train as well. She’s studyied with some of the senior teachers of Ashtanga yoga. And then eventually, she goes and studies with Pattabhi Jois as well, and goes on to help coordinate his trips to America. She wrote a book called Power Yoga, along with others, and contributed equally, in her own way, to the whole movement of power yoga.

Hopefully that gives you a little bit of the backstory of power yoga.

For me, Power Yoga is an athletic moving meditation. I love the athleticism because we need strength. We need bodies that are powerful. We need bodies that can withstand the curveballs that the Universe throws. We need a body that can withstand the storms we have to go through. If we’re weak, then we’re going to be taken down. And it’s almost like the Shaolin fighting monks that were inspired by the Shaolin tree that could withstand these storms because they had both strength and flexibility. Power yoga really gives you that and makes your body strong, but it also makes your body supple, and it brings you into balance.

There’s many forms of fitness. You can go to the gym and you can lift weights, and you can get huge chest muscles and back muscles and quadriceps. But if you’re just doing strength stuff, then the stronger you get, the tighter you get. And the more you limit your range of motion, then eventually your range of motion is so limited you can’t even use your strength. You can’t even move your body because you’ve now become imbalanced, and the imbalance is usually because somebody in their mind wants to have big muscles because their ego thinks that in order to be cool they have to have big muscles.

That’s being dominated by your ego and your vanity, whereas power yoga is about being dominated by your wisdom. And wisdom says it’s not about imbalance, it’s not about ego. It’s about taking care of your whole entire terrain of your body in a way that is thorough, compassionate, gentle, sensitive, sensuous, but the same time taking you to your edge.

You see, the reason why it’s called power yoga is because it’s meant to empower you so that you’re not dependent on an external teacher. You’re not dependent on anything outside of you. Because if you’re dependent on something outside of you, whether that’s a person, an object, money, the projection of an image or status, then you’re giving your power away. That would be powerless yoga.

So power yoga is about saying, “I’m not going to be swayed by external validation and external circumstances to bring me to wholeness.” The true wholeness, true meaning, true fulfillment, true happiness, true joy, it all comes from within.

And this is why I teach power yoga. I teach it to empower you.

I teach it to empower my students so that they too can find this from within. Because the more of us that are empowered and switched on that way, the more of us that are lit up like this, then the more that we’re going through our day, throughout our life, and we’re also creating a ripple effect where we’re also inspiring other people to do the same. And then eventually, we reach critical mass within the collective consciousness where enough of us are empowered, enough of us are awake, enough of us are in a state of wholeness, where all of a sudden the problems of the world just start to diminish and maybe even go away. This is the mission I’m on.

Now technically, my style of yoga I teach, I don’t call it power yoga. I call it holistic yoga flow, and that’s where I’ve evolved power yoga to the next level that resonates with me. And that involves what I call the six dimensions.

The six dimensions are body, energy, mind, heart, awareness, and six, soul.

So I use yoga practices, breath work practices, information, neuroscience knowledge to feed the mind, gratitude, loving kindness compassionate meditation practices for the heart, other forms of meditation for the awareness, and then the soul, the soul that is just inside of us all, the soul that is beyond time place and space, the soul that’s the dimension of us that is beyond the physical. The soul is the part of us that is unlimited. It’s eternal. It’s divine. It’s pure. So taking the best of power yoga and also moving in this direction where those six dimensions get addressed.

I may teach a class and I call it power yoga. But really, what I’m teaching are those six dimensions. And that’s why you have a powerful experience in that class because it’s not just addressing your physical body.

So for me power yoga, when I teach, is really the perfect combination of athleticism with soulfulness.

So try power yoga class if you haven’t already. Go check out the founders. They’re around. Go check out Bryan. He’s got an online site power yoga on demand. Baron Baptiste teaches. Beryl Bender Birch has lots of resources. Take some classes with the founders.

You can also check me out. I have tons of free classes on YouTube. You can also practice with me on my online streaming site, Inner Dimension TV.

All right, thank you guys. I hope that this was helpful. I hope that it was educational. I hope that it shed some light so that now when you practice power yoga, you’ll kind of appreciate the backstory of how this has all come to be. Thank you for tuning in.

Let’s finish now with the ultimate prayer.

“May we bring strength where there’s weakness.

May we bring courage where there is fear.

May we bringing compassion where there is suffering,

and may we bring light where there’s darkness.

May we be ultimate.”