David Swenson, master of Ashtanga Yoga, after 42 years of practicing Yoga, he keeps his vivacious attitude to greet every weekend new and old faces around the world. His strong energy brings his character and his work to the best. David visited Vienna for an Ashtanga Yoga Workshop which I was happy to attend. The whole event had the same energy flow from the beginning to the end. I noticed he can coach you with a very strong hand and a big smile, you know what I am talking about if you have met him or see him on video.
I wanted to get him out of the same questions he might have been asked over and over during the years. Here is what we got into…
“A yogi is one who leaves a place just a little nicer than when he arrived!”-David Swenson Ashtanga Yoga
AF: Why did you start practicing YOGA?
DS: I grew up in Texas and I was thirteen years old, my older brother Dough heard about yoga when he was traveling and when he was doing some surfing, he first got interested. That was my first exposure to yoga, thru my brother Dough, we learned from books in 1969; I was thirteen and my brother was eighteen.
AF: How you guys got into it in the teenage years?
DS: Well we both were into surfing in Texas and California, he was doing some surfing and he saw this place called the Self Realization Fellowship Parahamsa Yoganda Ashram; he saw some people doing yoga, he started thinking about doing yoga and he got a book. When he came home, he had this book and we would go to the park and we would just practice by ourselves.
AF: Were you first curious about the asanas/postures?
DS: Yeah, just the postures were interesting. Whatever we could find in books, so the first was called “Yoga youth and reincarnation”. It was the asanas but also the philosophy and non violence, and things like that. And we practiced outdoors, at first it felt like it got us close to nature being outside.
Photo credits: Yogamelange
For me yoga is a tool for life
AF: What keeps you practicing yoga?
DS: For me yoga is a tool for life. When I practice yoga I feel better, and if I don’t practice yoga, life is harder so it is a simple tool for me; when I practice it makes other things in my life easier.
AF: When practitioners, beginners go over the limit physically when doing yoga and kinda hurt themselves for pushing the body further that they can physically take…
…if it hurts you are doing it wrong…
DS: Well, you have to understand not to go so far, we say if it hurts you are doing it wrong. So Yoga is a tool just like a hammer, the hammer doesn’t hurt someone, but if I pick up the hammer and I hit my own thumb with it I cannot say hammer is bad, or if I hit somebody we would say hammers are bad. Hammer is a tool, yoga is a tool. You have to learn to listen to your body; let’s say there is a marathon and you have never ran before. And you run 25km and you end up beat up because you tried to do to much, let’s say you have to learn from the mistakes. You have to learn that there is not all or nothing, because you would never run again…
…You have to learn to listen to your body…
Everything takes time, yoga is a life long journey, you have to think in terms of decades, in yoga, 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, 40 years; it’s not 6 months or one year, or 2 years, it is a long process, so you have to commit to practice. At first, I understand people are very enthusiastic and want to learn quickly, specially people that are used to pushing life to get ahead, this is true with athletes, with business persons, dancers, the way they became successful is they worked harder than anybody else. They pushed thru the pain and then they bring those tools to yoga. But then it does not work in yoga. You can’t hurry.
You think of yoga like planting a tree, the strongest the tree goes in the forrest the slowest; they don’t grow quickly, so it is understandable if you become frustrated but then what you have to do is to come back to it with NEW EYES, the yoga is just waiting for us to use it, and so well, if you say oh, I don’t want to do it again, I say “Ok”, I see I am doing to much, it’s like the food we like, we can eat to much food but then you do not want to have it again. The asana, the breath, the drishti, the vinyasa, the bandhas ; are tools that when you bring them together is an holistic experience but what you do on the mat is only one part, the mat is just training for the rest of the day.
…The mat is just training ground for my life…
It teaches us how we deal with postures we like and don’t like. How do we deal when we struggle, how do we deal with this things, we have to come back to the breath and be patience because we attend to do the same thing in life that we do in the mat, so you have to learn the lessons and say the mat is just training ground for my life.
And you learn from the lesson and come back, that’s why it is always call the yoga practice not the yoga performance.
YOGA AND SPORTS
AF: What is your opinion about athletes incorporating Yoga to their training like CROSSFIT, WEIGHTLIFT or MARTIAL ARTS?
DS: You can use yoga as a tool, I worked with elite athletes, runners, football players, weightlifters, any sport. Yoga will help you with everything you do, the other thing won’t help yoga but yoga will help anything else you do. If you think about lifting weights, you get muscles for lifting weights, yoga tends to create muscles that are diverse, because you need FLEXIBILITY and STRENGTH not one or the other, there is a balance between both; strength and flexibility. And, Crossfit and fitness, it’s good people do what make them feel good, make them feel alive, happy and strong.
You can use yoga as a tool to incorporate to your sport, things that you enjoy or make it a way of life. It is up to you to decide, how to apply it.
But certainly, as I said I worked with all kind of athletes, and they found benefits from the yoga practice as well.
…People should practice yoga because when they practice they feel better…
AF: And because they found spirituality?
DS: well what is spirituality? People should practice yoga because when they practice they feel better. I show people how to practice I don’t tell them what the practice should do for them. But, If you talk to people they will tell you all the benefits they get in their life; it helps them to remain FOCUS.
The concept of yoga rather than using other things you use your own body. Charles Atlas, he used only isometrics, pushing and pulling with his own body, so you don’t need straps because you can use gravity, your own body pushing and pulling to achieve any effect, so in Ashtanga yoga we have that, pushing and pulling create flexibility. Ashtanga could be mobility training but without all the stuff, all you need is a little space on the ground and your breath, the main tool we use is our breath.
AF: When you do a training either is strength, met or martial arts, would you say do yoga before and after.
DS: Yoga is a tool you can use the yoga to warm up, if you do sun salutation A 3 times, your body is warmer, you use your breath to create heat in your body. When you heat the muscles from inside out your body become more mobil you can have strength and flexibility.
NUTRITION AND HEALTHY LIVING
AF: Nutrition, how important nutrition is for you?
DS: Well, it is important for anyone, the food that we eat is the fuel, so if you put bad fuel in your car is not going to run properly. But what nutrition means is a little bit different from everyone, right? In yoga is an idea of been a vegetarian but even as a vegetarian you have to understand how to eat healthy. The more processed the food is the less nutrition value. So eat things that are closest to their nature state. and get fresh air and sun shine, those are the main components of health.
…happiness is a big part of health…
AF: What is your idea of creating a healthy life?
DS: You gotta be happy, happiness is a big part of health, some people do everything possible to make their body healthy, but maybe they are not happy, so then what makes someone happy? Happiness doesn’t mean doing what you have to do in life, happiness is figuring out what to do and doing that, whatever that is.
People that are the happiest are people that have found their purpose and they throw themselves so whole-hearted into it. And from that happiness there is of course the idea to eat healthy, all of those are component of health and happiness, but if you have one and not the other.
AF: Do you ever get energetically tired?
DS: yeah, everybody gets tired, sure, well travel is not so easy, getting in a plane, and time zones and all that stuff, but I love what I do, so I also get energy from it. If I feel tired and I walk in into the room and the students were enthusiastic, I feel happy, fortunate, lucky to be there, and I couldn’t survive teaching another thing, I have done a lot of different things in my life; In the old days you couldn’t make money teaching yoga, I’ve been a waiter, I’ve been landscaping, I sold cars and done construction, I painted houses, I have been a sales man, I had an art gallery, I’ve done everything to pay my rent.
Been tired is ok, because sometimes life is hard work, you have to work hard, Patthabi Jois worked hard. Working hard is ok, to be tired is good, sometimes you need to be tired because you work really hard, and then you also learn how to rest, and how to unplugged and relax, and recharge.
David Swenson Ashtanga Yoga master is available around the world. I tried to catch him years ago in my home country. Life brought him to me this time to Vienna. I was happy to hear stories that him, his life partner and wife; Shelly Washington and my beloved one have shared 20 years ago.
To find more about David Swenson Ashtanga yoga: www.ashtanga.net