A Quiet Yoga Revolution: Q&A with J. Brown
J. Brown will be leading a retreat — Gentle is the New Advanced — at Feathered Pipe Ranch from July 14 – 21. He shares details of how his personal practice has evolved over the years, the challenges of being a yoga teacher in today’s consumer-driven landscape and the yoga industry as a microcosm for a greater paradigm shift in the U.S. and throughout the world.
AV: You talk openly about the challenges you faced after losing your mother at a young age. Is this how you originally came to begin practicing yoga?
JB: There were a string of events in my young adulthood that really led me to yoga. My mother passed away from leukemia when I was 16 years old, and at the time, I was emotionally incapable of dealing with this enormous loss, a grief unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I was distraught but tried to live my life, so I went to acting school—which has a way of really beating you down. Then Kurt Cobain died, and that was rough because here he was, a famous guy my age who was just as confused and mad at the world as I was, and he couldn’t deal with it anymore so he ended his life. I was at a sort of rock bottom, and a friend asked me, “What do you want to do?” The only two things I could come up with that brought me any sort of joy were playing bass and practicing yoga. So, I decided to do those two things—and do them obsessively.
AV: What was your practice like in the early years compared to now?
JB: I became an instructor and specialized in power vinyasa style; I was known for making up new sequences every class and being able to push my body past its limits. One day I was put in front of the class and told to do a headstand—which I did—and my teacher said, “This is what we’re all working towards.” My ego was stroked, but on the way home from that class I had a dark realization that I was still so messed up—in chronic pain and still very much grieving my mom’s death. I was not okay at all. If this is what we were working towards, we were screwed.
As a last-ditch effort to save my relationship with yoga, I went to India to find a guru. Instead, I found Swami P. Saraswati in Rishikesh. He had me do wrist rotations then stopped and asked me how I felt. We would do another simple movement, and he would ask me how I felt. After a few days of responding with some anatomically correct statement, I finally broke down and said, “I have no idea HOW I FEEL!” And he smiled real big and said, “Okay, let’s go get pizza.” It dawned on me that the poses didn’t really matter, and they certainly weren’t goals. Up until that moment, I hadn’t associated yoga with my emotional being at all, and now it was like he was giving me permission to be my own guru, to practice how I want to practice and decide how I feel.
When I came back to the States, my personal practice completely transformed from wanting to push boundaries, achieve poses and use yoga as a way to transcend my life to a much gentler practice that was truly focused on breath, using a similar sequence each day that allowed me to notice the changes within me whenever I came to my mat. It took a while to integrate this new outlook into my instruction, but I eventually stopped teaching vinyasa at all the local studios. Because my way of teaching was breaking down a lot of the conditioning that mainstream yoga exacerbates—the illusion that achieving physical poses or a certain body image is going to bring you joy, satisfaction and meaning—I didn’t necessarily “fit in” in to the trendy yoga scene anymore. So, I opened Abhyasa Center in Brooklyn, NY, and ran that for 10 years, providing a place where teachers and students could focus on being gentle, seeing themselves as whole, finding balance and joy, setting boundaries and staying within them.
AV: And you just sold the center and moved from New York to Easton, PA. What’s that transition been like and what are you focusing on now?
JB: Well, it’s definitely been interesting to get back out into yoga studios after having my own for so long. I’ve been teaching at three centers in my new home state, and getting reintroduced to what’s going on out there. I’m still known as the “slow flow” guy or the teacher who only sees students who are hurt—which of course is not true, but that’s what people sometimes conclude when they hear the words gentle or therapeutic. I had a student tell me the other day in a one-on-one class that what I was asking her to do—movement following breath—was exactly the opposite of what every other teacher has taught her to do. I saw the moment when her breath and body synced, and it was magic. I’m continuing to hold workshops, retreats and online classes to reach those who are ready to receive these new ways of practicing—and being.
At the same time, my podcast listenership has grown dramatically in the last year, and I think we are really getting into some great topics and discussions that people are hungry to hear. It seems like there’s a huge shift in the minds of yoga professionals. Many people who listen to the podcast and attend my workshops are teachers who have had to admit to themselves that some of the things they are teaching in their classes don’t work for them in their own practices; they’re becoming disillusioned and they’re at the crossroads of following their intuition or continuing to teach how they were trained because that’s how they’ve built their careers.
AV: So, you are seeing a shift among yoga teachers toward a more gentle approach?
JB: There are a lot of dynamics at play, and I think the yoga industry is a microcosm for the bigger movement we’re seeing across the country and the world. We’re in a paradigm crisis: The previous paradigm that we operate under no longer works and we all know it; but nobody knows what the new paradigm looks like yet. This is true for the yoga industry, as the Internet has changed the face of yoga—or what people perceive to be yoga—and is feeding into our innate insecurities. When we teach a style of yoga that challenges the “no pain, no gain” idea and allows people to wake up and see themselves as miracles that don’t need fixing, then it breaks down the entire economic system that thrives on the constant need for self-improvement and achievement.
Many yoga students and teachers come to this non-dual approach after they’ve gotten hurt by rigorous repetitive motions or they’ve gotten burned out or they simply aren’t feeling fulfilled. I think these kinds of realizations are happening across the board right now, and things have to change. If we can change the way we see yoga, maybe that can help to reshape the frame in which we viewing everything in our lives—at least I hope so!
AV: And how does your retreat at the Ranch play into this? What made you want to return to teach another summer retreat amidst your busy travel schedule?
JB: The Feathered Pipe is really an ideal place for me to teach because it’s still independently owned and operated, still deeply rooted in the values of old-school yoga and it allows us to begin the process of deconditioning with others who are looking for the same thing. It’s like Timothy Leary used to say, “Find the others.” There’s a whole network of us who are tired of striving, of fixing, of always trying to get somewhere—and when we find each other, it’ll be instant connection. Plus, I am bringing my wife and kids this year. There aren’t many retreat centers these days that encourage you to bring your family along for the experience!
We invite you to join us at the Feathered Pipe Ranch this summer, July 14 – 21, for Gentle is the New Advanced: Yoga’s Quiet Revolution.
*Special thanks to friend and freelance writer Andy Vantrease for this wonderful interview