Sunday, February 24, 2013

Psycho-Spiritual Realizations from a Great American Road Trip with Author and Yoga Teacher Brian Leaf

I t should come as not surprise to yogis that Leonardo da Vinci made a habit of writing and walking backwards. If you’ve spent any time in head or handstand you know how yoga’s inversions are designed to stimulate elaborate reversals, to flip the world on its ear. Such adventures of life lived upside-down are part and parcel of the yogic quest, and if you asked yoga teacher and author Brian Leaf, he’d tell you that there’s no better way to gaining a backstage pass to your own psychophysical matrix than by getting in a van and driving across the country on an extended road trip. His book Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi chronicles his attempt to get off the known path, to sleep in the back of a van like a beat poet or itinerant, to bring life back to the bare essentials, making his existence itself one grand psycho-spiritual experiment.

Brian Leaf
Brian Leaf, MA, is director of The New Leaf Learning Center, a holistic tutoring center in Massachusetts. In his work helping students manage ADD and overcome standardized-test and math phobias, Brian draws upon twenty-one years of intensive study, practice, and teaching of yoga, meditation, and holistic health. He is certified by The New England Institute of Ayurvedic Medicine and holds licenses or certifications as a Yoga Teacher, Massage Therapist, Energyworker, and Holistic Educator. He also incorporates Bach Flower Essences, Cranio-Sacral Therapy, Reiki, Shiatsu, and Tai Chi into his work. Brian is the author of eleven books, including Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi. His books have been featured on The CW,, Fox News, and

Leaf’s book is a memoir of one man’s yoga experiments that invariably result in a host of absurd experiences. Uplifting and occasionally humiliating, the book is a comical and lighthearted marriage of the ridiculous and sublime that's a perfect fit for a Hollywood script. But as I found out in a conversation with Leaf, what preoccupies him in this landscape of the adventure chronicle is the role of yoga in developing intuition...that rapid fire cognition that Malcolm Gladwell talks about in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking... that knowing that comes on so quickly that you can’t quite justify it in common sense terms. In Brian’s words, intuition is the point of yoga, the very thing he was searching for in his psycho-spiritual experiments...
I knew I loved yoga so I went on this cross-country road trip to explore more styles of yoga mostly because that was right after Amrit Desai had been asked to leave Kripalu, and having been a student of Kripalu, I was really devastated. So I went on this trip to find other styles of yoga. And so I would do all of these programs and I'd go to ashrams and retreats and just always kind of searching. And so it turned out to be a big, long adventure. - Brian Leaf
Brian Leaf on the road

Priya Thomas in Conversation with Brian Leaf:

Priya Thomas: The book is quite funny. I laughed quite a bit reading it...probably because the laughs are rooted in some pretty awkward, even humiliating experiences.

Brian Leaf: That's great! You found it funny.. Yeah, for some reason that's just what came to me. The first draft was 15 pages that I wrote for my previous agent, my literary agent, were not funny at all. He didn't like them. When I would sit on my medication cushion, these things would just come to me, they'd bubble up. And I would sit down to write them. [laughs]

Priya Thomas: So what gave you the inspiration to write the book?

Brian Leaf: Well, it's a long story, I guess. I've always been a yogi and taught yoga and studied yoga for many years. And all along I've also been a tutor. I always did both things. And I had written a lot of other books that are all like test prep or study skills or vocabulary workbooks. But towards the latter books, I began to feel that I had really written books that took me away from myself. They weren't really who I was. And when I'm doing something that's a little bit out of alignment with who I am or what I believe, I find it very depleting, even if I don't notice it right away. But as I say in this book, I find that when I'm doing what really matters to me, what I really care about and what I really believe in, I feel best.

Priya Thomas: It's a yoga adventure chronicle, right? A story of a taking a trip bare-bones style, living in the back of your van, cross country with an equally zany college friend of yours...all in the pursuit of yoga...

Brian Leaf: Yeah.

Priya Thomas: So what gave you the idea to embark on a yoga adventure and then write about it?

Brian Leaf: Well, while I was taking the adventure I wasn't thinking about a book. When I took the adventure, I really just for some reason that's the way it always occurred to me to live. Originally I had thought about calling the book Psycho-spiritual Experiments....just these experiments in trying to figure out how best to live, how to be in the world. And so I didn't plan on having a big adventure. I just lived as life occurred to me.

And when I was at Georgetown in college I got really into yoga. I knew I loved yoga so I went on this cross-country road trip to explore more styles of yoga mostly because that was right after Amrit Desai had been asked to leave Kripalu and having been a student of Kripalu, I was really devastated. So I went on this trip to find other styles of yoga. And so I would do all of these programs and I'd go to ashrams and retreats and just always kind of searching. And so it turned out to be a big, long adventure.

Priya Thomas: So these psycho-spiritual experiments.... when did they start? In the book you mention that you started yoga after a serious bout of ulcerative colitis. Right?

Brian Leaf: That's right.

Priya Thomas: But did you actually start experimenting with your life in some way even before that? Or did yoga start to figure more prominently in your life after you found a need for it? Was it an experiment for its own sake?

Brian Leaf: So that's interesting. I mean, I guess now that I think about... Did you ever see that movie August Rush?

Priya Thomas: No.

Brian Leaf: It's a cute movie. I mean, maybe someone would consider it a little cheesy. But it's a cute movie about this kid and he's a musical prodigy. And he grows up in an orphanage and there's no music there for some reason. I can't remember why. But he hears it. He knows that there's this thing. I mean, it's kind of a metaphor for what we all feel spiritually.

So there's this thing and he knows it's out there. He just doesn't know what it is. And then finally he leaves the orphanage and goes on this big quest and he finds music and he becomes this musical prodigy. But not to call myself a prodigy [laughs], I don't mean that at all.
But I guess I always knew I was hungering in some way for this thing, even before I had something to call it. But it was in college that I consciously started doing these psycho spiritual experiments. 

Priya Thomas: In the book you also talk about how yoga can bring awareness into the body... At one point you talk about how a lower back injury that you acquired through a skydiving injury set off a whole chain of events, a whole cycle of unforeseen emotional responses...

Brian Leaf skydiving
Brian Leaf: Yeah. And as I mentioned in the book, in Ayurveda, if one were to repress anxiety, it literally would lodge and become kind of a toxin in the colon. Or if one were to repress anger, it would go into the liver. And so the skydiving injury had hurt my lower back. I didn't quite make the connection then, but in hindsight I see that during yoga class, when I would be doing belly down postures, cobra, anything pressing my torso, my belly, my pelvis particularly into the ground, I would get really, really angry. And at the time, it didn't even occur to me that that was weird. I just said, oh, I'm so angry. And I would leave the room.

But sure enough about maybe a year later, one day the floodgates just opened. And I was overcome with emotion. And I was doing yoga very intentionally and with a lot of force. And just belly down posture after belly down posture, pushing hard. And then I had this big cathartic experience, which I think really unleashed all this emotion that I had trapped in my body, allowing me to be more free. And then once I opened the doors, it just allowed me to feel my heart a little more, which is a beautiful experience.

Priya Thomas: What’s your explanation for that?

Brian Leaf: I love the model of Ayurveda and how they speak about things. They say that when something in the body is blocked, it finds an incorrect way to come out.
And that's true literally, like you shouldn't stop a sneeze because it can exert, what, I don't know, pressure on your ear drums or something, right? And that's true literally with the sneeze. It's true metaphorically, or even literally, with everything. If anger is blocked, it will find some other way to come out.

Priya Thomas: Did you have bodily practices before you came to yoga?

Brian Leaf: No, not at all. That's the thing. I remember actually when I first went to Georgetown, I was not an athlete in high school at all really. And when I first got to college and I started taking yoga, I had never really stretched before. I hadn't been on any school teams, really. I mean, of course I played in the backyard and stuff when I was a kid, but I was very much in my head. So I didn't have any practices before that.

Priya Thomas: And yet you seem to have taken to the discipline of it pretty easily, from what I can tell in the book.
Brian Leaf: Yeah, it's true. On day one it was like I found my home. It was like I was meant to do it and I just never had access to it. I don't know that I could have put words to it the way I can now, but in that first class I literally knew that I'd found something really important. I mean, kind of like when I met my wife I would say on that very first meeting, I knew I had met somebody really important in my life. And on that very first yoga class, I knew I had experienced something really important in my life.

Priya Thomas: And you talk about that in the book...about intuitions. In fact, I think you mention Malcom Gladwell's book Blink and the importance he places on intuition. Have you always trusted your intuitions?

Brian Leaf: Well, I’m not sure what I did when I was a kid... But this teacher I used to see at Kripalu for many years, I think one of the main reasons I sought him out was because he believed in intuition too and had been using it for a much longer time than I had. And so I think one of the problems in our culture, for example, is that we're taught to go through the mind.

Even in Malcom Gladwell's book (which is such a good book) each concept is backed up with study after study after study. Which is ironic in a way. I mean, it's useful because it speaks to people and it allows them to receive it. But it's ironic because ultimately the studies don't really matter. It's tuning into and hearing and listening to this universal flow of prana, which is just benevolent and I believe intelligent and speaks to the most abundant and pain free way to move in life.

Priya Thomas: Were there things in your childhood that would have supported this kind of world view or was it a real change for you to come to yoga and start to understand, as you say, this kind of force of the universe as being benevolent. I mean, for some that would be a pretty difficult transition to make if they came from an alternate worldview.

Brian Leaf: Right. Yeah, that's a good question. I don't know. For some reason, again, it would be like a wanderer who suddenly just came upon their home. I just feel like it wasn't a transition so much, it was more like a a switch turning on, and a remembering, like, oh yes, this is great. For example, in the book I talk about how I used to be a debater in New Jersey. I was the first place debater in high school debate. And I was good at it, so I received praise, so I continued to do it. But I was never comfortable. It kind of made me sick, really. I was kind of miserable. But when I found yoga, it felt more like me just waking up to who I am.

Priya Thomas: I remember in the book that you mention this charismatic sociology professor who among many other insights also gives you the motto, “fearless, honest, relaxed...” But in speaking about teachers, you also mentioned that you were lucky not to meet any renowned spiritual teachers in your early years. Now, why do you think that was important?

Brian Leaf: Well, when I was 17, just getting into yoga, I was really looking for somebody to do the work. I guess if I had met a charismatic spiritual teacher, there's a pretty good chance I might have just joined up full tilt and kind of given away my own quest, in a way, and just gone on their ride, on their trip. I think the goal for me was to wake up to me. And actually, again, my whole mission is to wake up to and live from my own inner knowledge. Dr. Edward Bach, who popularized Bach Flower Essences, one of his big philosophies was he said that any disease is the dissonance between the callings of our deepest self and our personality, or the way we live in the world. The difference between those two, the friction between those two is the reason for disease.

Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead
Priya Thomas: Yeah. Do you want to talk to me about Jerry Garcia? He makes quite the appearance in your book...

Brian Leaf: So yeah, there's a chapter in which a friend and I go to a Dead show. And I had only been to one other Dead show. And traveling is a fast route to that anyway because you're really out of your normal routine, especially one in the open you can have some pretty unusual transformational experiences. I went to this Dead show and... what happened? And I didn't even know the music really well enough to sing along to the whole thing. But I was trying to sing. So at some point I just surrendered to just try to feel the music, to let it in my body. It was just another one of those many experiences of trying to surrender and release and drop into my body. So anyway, I dropped into my body and I just started feeling the music. And then it just really overcame me in a way that now I've experienced occasionally like in a kirtan. My body is like vibrating with the music and it's filling me with energy and it's really becoming ecstatic. And then all of a sudden out of nowhere, this I've never experienced before or since, I would say. All of a sudden out of nowhere, a green light sprang between me and Jerry Garcia. And when I tell that to people, they ask if I'm on a whole lot of drugs. I was not, as far as I know. [laughing] So this green light sprang between my chest and my heart and Jerry Garcia, particularly his guitar. And then just a green light, just like a force started pushing me back. And I was just bursting with this love and feeling and energy and vitality.

Priya Thomas: What do you make of it? Do you think this could happen anywhere or with anyone, or was it really about Jerry?

Brian Leaf: At this point, it's speculation, right? But I would guess that Jerry Garcia was probably in the same way that many gurus are. I would say Jerry Garcia was a channel for some really powerful, mystical love and energy. And it makes sense given the culture that sprang up around him. He obviously was a medium of some kind for this beautiful energy. Oddly enough, I've already heard emails and Facebook from readers of the book. And several people, almost you could say many people have expressed having somewhat similar experiences with Jerry Garcia. He was like a guru. I think he was a channel. He was giving out either Shaktipat or some kind of energetic experience. And I think that's what a lot of the Deadheads experienced through him.

Priya Thomas: Well, I hate to hijack your story in any way, but I did have a dream once of Johnny Cash and he asked me for space in our kitchen cupboard. Because he was so insistent in the dream, I woke up the next morning and I labeled the cupboard “Johnny Cash's Cupboard” emptying it out of a wealth of non-perishables. (laughing) And it stayed that way for a year. But does that say something about me or about Johnny – I don’t know (laughing). I personally don't know much about Jerry Garcia, but I’ll take you at your word!

Brian Leaf: A lot of the powerful musicians might be the same way. I mean, they might be channels in their own way of energy. I mean, the kind of person who can draw 40,000 people to a stadium, if not just the quality of the music, right, there's got to be an energetic experience that the listeners are having that is energetic and spiritual.

Priya Thomas: I guess. Do you want to describe your meditation practice?

Brian Leaf: Well, my meditation practice... I mean, let's see. The meditation, I have an altar and I sit at my altar. And my meditation practice changed over the years, as I'm sure many people's would. My current meditation practice is I sit and of course I first spend a few moments getting centered and listening to my breath. And then open to the feeling like sensations of just being aware and mindful. Becoming mindful of the ways in which I might be rejecting or trying to change my reality. And just allowing that space. And then that way I suppose you could say it's a mindfulness meditation practice.

Priya Thomas: your wife is Canadian, is that right?

Brian Leaf: Yeah, yeah.

Priya Thomas: You talk about Canadians being extremely polite. I wondered if you had ever taken a yoga class in Canada. [laughs]

Brian Leaf: [laughs] No, I haven't. That's interesting. Is it different?

Priya Thomas: Well, I don't know, I'd be curious to hear from you about that. I forgot how you put it. I think you said your wife “reads all of the instructions on boxes...”

Brian Leaf: Oh, she follows the directions. Well, I'm from New Jersey. And do you know the reputation of New Jersey?

Priya Thomas: A little bit. [laughs]

Brian Leaf: Well, you know, everything is more crowded and you have to kind of fight for your elbow room a little bit. And there's just different assumptions in different places. Right?

Priya Thomas: Sure.

Brian Leaf: So, for example, if I'm walking down the street and I bump into a friend and we stop to say hello, we would just stop in the middle of the sidewalk and people would go around us. And in New Jersey that would be totally normal. But to my wife that's like such a terrible faux pas to stop in the middle of the sidewalk and make people go around you. She gets really uncomfortable and kind of pulls me aside to the side of the sidewalk. [laughs] But in New Jersey, that would be somewhat normal behavior. But in Canada, I think it's not.

So there's a lot of things like that. I think Canadians are just very – Michael Moore did a little bit with that, didn't he? There was some kind of funny thing about how he went around, I can't remember where it was, in Canada and tested to see how many people had locked their front door.

Priya Thomas: Yeah, yeah. I'm pretty sure every American thinks that everyone in Toronto has their doors wide open. [laughs] Does your wife do yoga?

Brian Leaf: Oh yeah. She and and I met actually at the Kripalu Yoga Ashram in Western Mass. A lot of Canadians go there. Do you know Kripalu?

Priya Thomas: I haven't done a lot of Kripalu myself, but of course I know of it.

Brian Leaf: Yeah. So she and I met there. Yeah, she's really keen with it as well.

Priya Thomas: In your book you talk about meeting Bikram as a turning point...

Brian Leaf: Yeah. I mention him a few times because of various reasons. It was kind of like an of the many epiphanies in the book where I come to realize – and I think this is so important for any yogi to do because it's so easy to become almost jingoistic, to think that your yoga is the best... So I think that I had always unconsciously judged the more physical yoga. I'm a vata type person. I just benefit from gentle grounding things, and I'd always done more gentle grounding type yoga. And so I think I had always secretly judged the more physical, the more vigorous, the more jumping around kind of yoga. And it was interesting when I met Bikram to realize like, oh, maybe these people who do Bikram yoga aren't seething, masochistic people. But maybe the different styles of yoga are really just appropriate in the different constitutions and the different types of people.

In the West there's sort of a one size fits all approach. Spinach has iron in it, so it's good for you.
But in Ayurveda spinach may or may not be good for you, depending on how you digest it. So it was like, oh, Bikram has not necessarily created this bad thing. It's just that his yoga might be appropriate for some other people. And in my experience of him in the locker room, naked together [laughs] at Kripalu, he was just a sweet, jolly fellow and I enjoyed meeting him very much.

Priya Thomas: But spinach (if you will) offers a kind of order, right? (laughing) And if you throw that order around, I mean, if you start experimenting with everything because you realize that spinach, or how you cook it, may or may not be good for you, you could end up just sort of experimenting for the rest of your life. And for some people that's a happy place to be, and possibly for others it's a little bit frightening. What do you make of that?

Brian Leaf: Just experimenting forever?

Priya Thomas: Yeah.

Brian Leaf: Well, actually I wouldn't see it that way because I would say two things. One, what I love about Ayurveda is I feel like Ayurveda is like the instruction manual we were never given. When I was a kid there was this TV show called Greatest American Hero. And he gets this superhero suit, but there's no instruction manual. It's kind of how we are. All of us, we're like this superhero without the instruction manual. And I feel like Ayurveda kind of gives you the instruction manual a little bit. It says, hey, you know how things are hard for you to digest? That's because in your constitution that makes sense. If you do these things, you'll digest better. I feel like it kind of takes away the need to experiment a little bit. And I would say ultimately to me the goal would be to tap into the intuition. My experiments I would say were to bring me to following my intuition.
T he other night I dreamt of a friend. It was nothing spectacular, rather ordinary actually. (And yes, I’m aware of John Updike’s caution that talking about a dream means losing a reader). Anyway, in my dream, a dear friend told me about an unfinished project, the subject of a study begun many years ago. I had often wondered about this long lost project; I might even have asked once but we never had a chance to talk about it. When I woke up, I had no idea if anything I had seen in my dream was accurate, but I felt closer to the person anyway. Now, maybe I was like Brian Leaf, realizing that questions I’d never asked were still stuck in my blood, bones, tissues and sinew. Maybe I was finding out I didn’t know people quite as well as I thought I did. And because life doesn’t usually give us the answers we need, (at least not without some struggle) I did what Leaf did... I spent much of the day processing this false information, experimenting with its possibilities in the safety of my intuitive space.

As Brian Leaf says, the yoga journey gives you something discursive thinking can’t actually touch... like dreams, its technicolor beauty runs counter to everything in the waking world, replacing “what is” with extraordinary “what if’s”....making a blue moon of an ordinary night. I’m guessing that’s why Brian Leaf would journey so far to execute his grand life experiments....
Cos even if the Jerry Garcia experience only lasts for forty-five minutes (I think that’s how long they say the last dream before morning lasts) we all learn to carry a bit of that around, suspending our breaths at the top of an inhale like deep-sea divers, and then letting it all hang out out like this exhale will be our very last, as we hang out upside down at least once a day feeling the blood rush to our heads, intuiting the velocity of life is best felt when you're swimming upstream.

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