Eric Paskel teaches yoga to inmates at San Quentin, creating a “prison break” without ever leaving the prison.
It was not a hard sell when my teacher, Swami Parthasarathy, told me during one of our first meetings, “The whole world is a prison, and your only job in life is to get the hell out.” I did not even have to ask what he meant or where he got that information, because I knew I have always been in some kind of cell or another. According to Vedantic philosophy, freedom is defined by one’s happiness not being connected to any external agencies, i.e., people, places, and things (the world). Bondage (prison) is defined by one’s happiness being dependent on people, places, and things.
Consider Your Own Prison
I have never once, not even for a split second, felt happiness that was not connected to something in some way. Check it out: ask yourself if you are happy. If you said yes, there is most likely a reason linked to it. Hence, your happiness is because of something, someone, somehow. Believe it or not, that is not happiness. Why, you ask? Because whatever is making you happy has a shelf life! It may go away, or the pleasure you get from it will fade. But one way or another, everything in this world has a shelf life, even you! Ask your friends and family the same question, and if they respond, “I’m great,” ask them why they are happy. They will have a reason which will not be, “I Am.”
I do not care how big your prison is or what amenities you have. I do not care if you have a television and a nice kitchen in your cell. I care about getting out of jail! Sure, it may be easier gaining the grace I am looking for in the suburbs of Los Angeles, where I live, than it is in San Quentin State Prison. But every day, Beverly Hills folks imprison themselves and in San Quentin, inmates are finding freedom.
Finding Freedom in San Quentin
I visited San Quentin in March after having lunch in Marin County, California, with my yoga agent and friend Elana Maggal and photographer Robert Sturman, who made this visit/yoga class happen. The irony of pulling into San Quentin five minutes after dining in one of the most expensive suburbs in the country was astounding. Yet knowing what I know about freedom, I smiled and said to myself, “You are just leaving one prison for another.” I prepared nothing and had zero information about what was expected of me, not even how long the class was going to be. I quickly discussed with James Fox, the head of the Prison Yoga Project, what I could expect from the inmates. Before I could take it in, we were standing in the yard of the infamous prison, without an armed guard. Our only armor was two yoga mats!
The students entered class on time, participated in setting up the room (there were tables and chairs everywhere), introduced themselves, and then sat peacefully on their mats. The mats had to be set up in a semicircle, because the students are on high alert when someone is behind them. I was not allowed to walk around the class or adjust anyone. “Doing that could trigger a PTSD or fight-or-flight response, ending in harm,” I was told. I was, as were the students, completely at ease. The students were fully engaged throughout the entire class. The level of commitment on their mat was second to none. They listened to every word I said, and I could see them processing the philosophy in every breath. Yoga was being practiced! It was not in the poses. They understood all too well that yoga is not about posing. It’s about getting out of jail! We created a prison break without ever leaving the prison. I could feel their deep hunger for personal freedom, and that was their gift to me. Teaching yoga to anyone, anywhere, is a joy for me, but it’s not always easy. Teaching at San Quentin was effortless.
Finding Freedom Everywhere Else
In suburbia, there is a different kind of prison. It’s one where there are no bars, yet many are stuck in a box. The difference is awareness. The student in jail knows he is there. If he wants out, there is an attitude and energy that drives him. As for the rest of us, we do not see ourselves in prison, so there is no sense of urgency. There is a lackadaisical approach to life, to our yoga practice. Even those reading this are reading it for the most part for their entertainment, not their enlightenment. Therefore, teaching yoga to those who are unaware that they are not free is like prying gum off the bottom of a shoe. It’s a tough job and being a yoga teacher does not in any way place you above the people you are teaching. I see it the way the yoga scriptures lay it out: We are all in the same boat, until we are completely out of the boat.
I know one person who is free. But because I am not, I cannot really be sure of it. I just know he is different, and everyone else I have ever come across is the same. A conditioned person cannot know what being unconditioned is like until they are unconditioned. It’s like sobriety. An alcoholic cannot possibly understand sobriety, until he is sober. I am not sober, so to speak, and that brings me back to the beginning of this story … our only job in life is to break out of jail, to know our infinite self, to reach our ultimate state of pure peace, bliss, and wholeness.
I want to be free and by God, it’s difficult. I feel the bars even though I cannot see them. They come up when I lose what I love, or get something I do not want. The walls cave in when I feel threatened that something of “mine” will be taken away. I throw myself into solitary when I covet the careers of others or cast stones at those I do not approve of.
There is much to do in order for me to gain my freedom. The good news is I have the key: it’s me!
Let’s begin by identifying an oxymoron: men and yoga!
Generally speaking, it’s like oil and water. But men that practice yoga are smart, period. As for those that don’t, well… let me to try to help you.
Let’s face it, we men do not like being vulnerable in front of each other, let alone the opposite sex! And going to a class filled with sweating, half-naked women, and then being asked to move our bodies in ways we never have, is a tall order.
So gentlemen believe me, I get it. But here’s what you’re missing…
If you don’t practice yoga but you consider yourself an intelligent person, did you know that “smarts” alone aren’t always enough? There is a fundamental difference between knowledge and wisdom.
Knowledge is knowing and wisdom is doing. Knowledge is sight and wisdom is insight.
Yoga teaches us how to convert a head full of information into a life filled with peace and prosperity, and that it’s not what we do in life that ultimately matters — it’s how we do it!
Every man could use this lesson. The job does not make the man. The man makes the job.
Yoga teaches us there is no place for the ego if we want true peace in our lives. The ego only produces fear. Without fear, we are not concerned with what we will lose or never gain in this world. We are simply delighted to use our talents and resources to serve all of humanity.
A Navy Seal that recently attended my class said to me, “that was the toughest workout I’ve ever had in my life, even tougher than Seal training.” Yoga will prepare you for every sport and every activity. But nothing prepares you for yoga.
Clint Eastwood stated in one of his finest movies, Sudden Impact, that “a man’s got to know his limitations.” Clint’s a smart man and a serious meditator. Like Clint, yoga will teach you how to honor your limitations.
Yoga also makes us more comfortable in our skin and feel really good about ourselves. We learn to see ourselves through a different kind of mirror — an internal mirror. You can look good on the outside, but that does not mean you are going to feel good on the inside. But once we feel good from the inside-out, we are going to look really good as a result.
So guys, try to remember that yoga is not easy in any form, but it will make your life a whole lot easier. If you consider yourself a smart man, then get out there and try some yoga today!
This article was published in MindBodyGreen.com
A beautiful share from one of my first yoga students, Lisa Chottiner.
“Do yoga,” said the infertility doctor. “You need to calm down to become pregnant.”
I was willing to do anything to have a baby. So I prepared my Type A overdrive for chanting, meditating, and levitating with a tiny man in a robe.
Instead, I found myself rocking poses to Cat Stevens, The Stones, and Jay-Z. My tattooed teacher seemed more suited to hang with Bret Michaels than the Dalai Lama.
This everyday guru, Eric Paskel, was the rock star of yoga. It wasn’t because of his killer good looks or his awesome playlist. It was because of his words. Eric was the first person to say he was full of sh**.
But he understood the human spirit and he had the power to express it in between calling out the poses.
Eric scraped souls.
He scraped mine.
After years of yoga classes, five failed IVFs, and a surrogate attempt that belongs on Dateline, Eric said, “wanting to have a child of your own is a selfish act when so many children need your love.”
I hated him.
He didn’t care what I thought. He spoke the truth.
Eventually, I knew it too.
So when the phone rang and the person on the other end said, “A baby girl was born.” I took a deep breath and was ready to welcome her home with less than 14 hours notice.
Three months later, the doctors said my baby girl was blind. I took another deep breath and knew this was a very special call to service.
My daughter is six years old. Each day brings new challenges, but also new joys.
It’s all because of the wisdom of my everyday guru.
Addiction is a fixation on anything outside the self that you believe can deliver your happiness. Anything. Drugs and alcohol are givens. But also included are romantic relationships, clothes, cars, money, prestige, jobs, adventure, and excitement.
These enticements are cunning, baffling, powerful, and no one can escape this dragnet.
So much time is wasted worrying about marriage, jobs and money. When people lose these things, they act like their worlds are destroyed. That’s no way for a human to live.
We continue to smash our heads against the wall because our happiness is dependent on some external agency.
This is the hallmark of addiction. It’s a clinging dependency, despite negative or even catastrophic consequences.
I speak from experience.
I knew early on in childhood that I was destined to become an addict. I was never comfortable in my own skin, and I never felt part of the world. This made it easy for me to pick up the booze at age ten. I was getting high at age 12. By 14, I was snorting cocaine. By 15, I was dealing drugs and smoking crack. I was thrown out of two high schools and the family home, and I had been held up at gunpoint.
Thirty-two days before my eighteenth birthday, I was living in a friend’s attic, listening to Cat Stevens’, “Tea for the Tillerman”, and filling a pipe with lint I picked up from the carpet. I caught a glimpse of my shadow on the wall.
I realized that I had hit bottom.
I entered treatment on January 24, 1986. I’ve been sober ever since.
I learned ten years into my sobriety that yoga was going to be essential in my ongoing recovery. Because as soon as I stepped onto my mat, I couldn’t hide from myself anymore. So I didn’t come back for three years.
Yoga offers a spiritual roadmap to find your individual truth, and that isn’t always comfortable.
Yoga and recovery are spiritual kin. Karma Yoga is the action of selfless service. Bhakti Yoga is the acute awareness of the infinite blessings that surround you. Jnana Yoga is the study of the universal principles of living. These yogic traditions are the heart of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12 Steps.
When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
I don’t pull punches. I want to keep it real. Yoga is not about poses or poseurs (not a typo – poseurs are people who try to be someone other than their true self). It’s not about trying to master a physical position. No matter how beautiful your warrior is, it doesn’t make you a warrior.
Yoga is not about standing on your head; it’s about getting your head out of your ass.
Based on an interview I gave to Nancy B. Loughlin, a writer and yogi in Fort Myers, FL
When I started searching in earnest for a yoga studio that would serve my needs, I was disappointed to find that there was nothing out there for me . Having overcome addiction and having practiced clinical psychology for a decade before coming to yoga, I was looking for something more than most yogis were looking for in their first trip to a studio. I began taking one “celebrity” yogi’s class after another, looking for a fit. Then I stopped looking to others and began looking within. Smile is my style of yoga. Strange, but it was non-existent.
I want to make this the easiest practice when you open the door and walk in. Easy as in: This is familiar. This is fun. This is relative. This is pertinent. Instead of the sounds of harmonium, chanting, and prayers to Hindu deities, my Yoga Shelter studios blast music you know, instruct in plain English, and welcome everyone–and their baggage–to join the party. A tight ass might be a byproduct of the Yoga Rocks workouts, but there is so much more.
A great body does not equate a great life. If you only have so much time in a day, how much of it are you going to focus on this great body of yours? It’s a no-brainer! If you’re not focusing on your body, what are you focusing on?
That’s where the critical part of the yoga practice comes into play. I take what I learn from my teacher, Swami Parthasarathy, a Vedantic philosopher in India, and break it down into terms everyone can understand; learning to live the life we should and need to be living. Off the mat, students need to begin questioning everything.
I practice what feels familiar, and music is a big part of that. Yoga is about creating a silence within you. But you do not need a silent room externally. Music can be a game changer, especially for newbies. It can take an incredibly deep spiritual discipline and make it friendly, familiar, and less intimidating.
Rock on. Now let’s get loud.
The other day I had the pleasure of having two yoga teachers visit me at my home and as we soaked up a few rays, we also soaked in some good conversation.
Facebook, like any other tool, can be used for good or for bad; can be positive or negative, constructive or destructive. As one teacher spoke about her feelings regarding a recent Facebook battle, she said this, “I was disappointed, because he is a yoga teacher”.
It is my hope that we all hold ourselves to the highest standards, both personally and professionally. That we have enough self awareness to realize that we do not hold the title of yoga teacher; we teach yoga.
There may be pages upon pages written to communicate the differences, but I will save us from reading them, in order to encourage our own introspection and reflection.
We teach yoga and that is an honor. Because we are up in the “lights”, we are looked upon in a certain way. Use that to lift you, but do not use it to fool you. We are just like the students we teach. We simply play the role of teacher. Our winning formula comes from this truth. It comes from being ourselves. It comes from being honest with ourselves, with the world and secure in that knowledge! We do not need to pretend or hide. We do not need to be on an endless chase or “knowing more”. We just need to speak to people’s hearts. We need to make a great playlist and have fun with it; let it do the talking. We need to get people sweating and thinking; that’s it!
What is clear is that we are not yoga teachers. We are humans just sharing our hopes, strengths and wisdom with others. There is no pressure to be great. There is only encouragement to be you!
Now that we understand that we share yoga and not teach it, lets push ourselves to be professional. It does not matter what anyone else is doing, or how they are behaving; be professional. Smell good, look good and be on time.
Yoga teachers should spend more time talking about life than muscles and bones. Talk about your music, or more importantly, why you play it. Even if the same dialogue is used in every class, make it meaningful. Have conversations that everyone is afraid of having and make them comfortable. We have the opportunity to touch people in a moving, meaningful way, every day.
Lets seize the opportunity and bring our strengths and our weaknesses into it.
I can’t, we can!
WWJD – Yoga?
A national yoga leader responds to Christian vocal opposition.
By Eric Paskel
Yoga has allowed me to recover from addictions, to build a livelihood and a mission greater than a paycheck, and to have a satisfying, long-lasting marriage. I am not preaching on street corners nor banging Bibles. Yoga is not my religion, but it allows me to find faith and focus.
After hearing Southern Baptist Seminary President Albert Mohler’s objection to the physical practice of yoga, calling for Christians to not practice, I cannot stay silent.
“That’s just not Christianity,” Mohler told The Associated Press. He said, “Christians who practice yoga ‘must either deny the reality of what yoga represents or fail to see the contradictions between their Christian commitments and their embrace of yoga’”.
He is not the first to oppose this healing, powerful practice for millions of Americans and humans around the world. He will not be the last either.
Leaders from many major religions have charged their followers to avoid yoga, fearing it is a “false religion” or incompatible with their teachings. In this most recent outcry, Mohler said yoga is not a Christian pathway to God, objecting to “the idea that the body is a vehicle for reaching consciousness with the divine”.
I agree with his last statement. A physical practice cannot get you to a spiritual place. A yoga pose does not help you meet God.
But it does create a release and relieves the pressure, so those who practice are in a more conducive space to connect to something higher than their self-centered ego. The physical yoga he is talking about is just a beginning.
Nowhere in the coverage of Mohler’s statements did he mention that he tried a yoga class. Ignorance had Blacks as slaves, millions of Jews killed and Arabs dismissed as a race of terrorists. Ignorance creates fear and loathing of anything we do not know. Ignorance creates a reality that is not real. FEAR = False Evidence Appearing Real. It is perhaps the oldest story.
Yoga is nothing more than a process for attaining Self-realization. The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit yuj – which means to connect or to join. The word religion comes from the Latin religare – which means to join or to connect.
A physical yoga practice, known as Hatha Yoga, is nothing more than an exercise to cleanse and keep the body fit. The real practice of yoga is found in three parts: Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga and Gnana Yoga.
In Karma Yoga, the body is used as a vehicle of service to help others and serve the world to make it a better place.
Bhakti Yoga, is when all emotion is directed toward a universal identification with all beings. It is where one sees the touch of God in everything.
Gnana Yoga is the practice of the intellect, where one studies scripture to stay focused on life’s highest principles. It was Jesus Christ who said “the Kingdom of God is within you”. Yoga positions a person to love all and serve the world.
If that conflicts with any religion, then those religious leaders must not be interested in helping others, in loving others, in studying universal teachings from great masters who have, frankly, spoken those identical words.
At the root of physical yoga is breath and movement. Go for a jog, ride your bike, spend time at the gym on the treadmill – breath and movement. Are those physical exercises not considered Christian, even if they give us the peace of mind needed to make a difference in the world? If these disciplines give us the clarity to focus on what is really important, the meaning behind the madness, are they not Christian?
Hatha Yoga has a ceiling. It is a great way to get started, to dip your toes into the philosophies of the other three streams. We are over-amped, overstimulated and undernourished. Physical yoga levels the playing field, bringing people to a starting point to figure out their higher purpose.
People are so out of control that when they breathe deliberately and move the body, it creates calmness, space and clarity. Positive energy to eliminate stress, tension and confusion.
Jesus Christ was perhaps the greatest yogi who ever lived. He embodied every value of yoga. Just as Christianity is misunderstood and misrepresented, so is yoga mistaken for a cultish belief system. In reality, yoga is nothing more than a path for clarity and peace.
The great Vedanta scholar, Swami Parthasarathy, says in his book, The Eternities, “There is enough bad in the best of us and enough good in the worst of us that it would behoove all of us not to judge any of us”.
I put that before Mohler. Jesus Christ said: “Greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world”.
Yoga brings you to the precipice of looking inward, so you can do the real work.
Eric Paskel, owner of Electric Soul Yoga. He is based in Los Angeles.