Questions for Brian Leaf
Interviewed by Vanessa Fiola
A little over a year ago, I interviewed Brian Leaf about his book Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi. And then, I had a baby and the sort of short-term memory loss that can sometimes accompany that life event. I forgot about the interview. Sorry, Brian. Fortunately, I remembered it just in time for his second book, Misadventures of a Parenting Yogi (which I probably need to read).
In the healing arts, anger is often a topic brushed under the yoga mat. We are led to believe, if by nothing other than omission of its subject, that enlightenment precludes anger. So it’s refreshing to see one yogi tackling the subject head on. Enjoy.
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I think the thing that struck me about your book is how you were able to weave humor into your anecdotes and your experience with yoga. I wanted to get your take on the importance of humor.
You know, funny enough, I didn’t really think about it while I was writing. I really just felt the urge to write this book, and then I wrote it—and that’s sort of how it came out. But in hindsight, as you know, one of the main messages from the book is about becoming real. And most “real” is pretty funny. Life is imperfect; we’re just these kind of silly, crazy beings.
I found that some of your “keys to happiness” led back to this overarching message of just, like, be yourself!
Definitely, yeah. I agree with you. At some point when I was writing the book it occurred to me that the book was really an homage to tapping into your true self and following your intuition. Years ago I would say to myself, why do we need to read new articles about yoga? Why do we need new yoga books? I mean, yoga is a couple of thousand years old. But I think it is helpful to hear different ways, at different times, from different people. And you’re right, more than two of the keys to happiness in the book overlap. And so do the Yamas and Niyamas, for that matter.
Ultimately, the book is about tapping into your true self and living from that place—and that is a funny place.
I found your exploration of anger interesting, too. In my own experience with the yoga world, there can be this sort of whitewashing of anger, so I thought it was refreshing that you were like, yeah, I beat a mattress. I beat the shit out of a mattress. I was like, well, that’s one way to approach it!
But mostly what I found interesting was your willingness to talk about what happens when you don’t express anger: it comes out as passive-aggressiveness.
Yeah, definitely. It’s just my constitution to be kind of mellow. I’m tall and thin and I have a beard and I’m mellow. So, it’s pretty easy for me to fall into the trap of being like this equanimous yogi, you know? But it’s not the way toward vitality, peace, happiness and freedom. I think being real is the way.
It was my proclivity to repress my own anger, to repress my feelings, and to feel like that was the higher road, and then at some point I realized that it wasn’t—it was blocking my energy. Through working with my teacher, I realized I need to express anger and get it out. We brainstormed putting this mattress against the wall and beat the shit out of this mattress.
You said you threw your mat down, did some yoga and then you beat the shit out of the mattress… and then meditated afterwards or something. I was picturing this routine of getting up in the morning, doing some salutations or whatever and then saying, okay, now I’m going to go beat something.
There’s this scene in Rocky where he’s beating a side of meat in a meat locker. He’s beating the ribs of the cow hanging in a meat locker and there’s blood all over. I think it would have been good if I had one of those, but I didn’t.
All kidding aside, it is really important to acknowledge these feelings when they come up. The way toward freedom and peace and all of that is not to pretend that we feel peace and happiness. The way toward freedom is to be real with what we’re feeling all the time, until we’re free. We’re all imperfect and emotional and repressed and contorted in certain ways, and by staring at those things, by acknowledging and even by loving those contorting imperfect parts of ourselves, that’s how we get free. Personally, I definitely had to go into the anger.
It didn’t make me a sociopath or anything; the opposite, it freed me up. It’s only when things are repressed that we get kind of crazy. The more we can be real and free, and the better we can serve the world, the better parents, better people, better partners we can be.
Is it really our mission in life to become free?
I saw a talk once by Joseph Goldstein, a great meditation teacher. He thinks maybe this plane of existence is where souls go when there’s a perfect amount of pain and imperfection mixed with the perfect amount of perfection and freedom and ease. It’s a perfect plane for growth, basically. I like to think of it as a gymnasium where our soul comes to do spiritual pushups.
All I know is that I and everybody I know is imperfect. By allowing for and being real with that imperfection, there’s a lot of peace and happiness and vitality.
In your book, you said something about how nearly all owners of yoga centers and health food stores and New Age shops are absolutely batty! What is it that draws these sorts to the yoga world?
Number one, we’re drawn to this field because we have healing to do. Also, we all feel stuff, and once you make a commitment to opening up to uncorking it, things can get a little wacky. The owners of the (Joe) Center that I’m referring to in the book were actually studying Shamanism. They would go down to Peru and Brazil a couple of times a year. They weren’t superficial in any way, they were the real deal, going really deep. We are these imperfect funny creatures. They were going deep, and so they were kind of batty.
I have another couple that I’m friends with. The woman in the couple, who’s a big time yogi, is really quite neurotic and crazy; but the guy—who is not interested in yoga—he’s a pretty legitimately mellow dude. One day I realized, maybe he doesn’t need yoga, but it probably really is just that when you start doing the yoga, you unlock blocks, and you open a Pandora’s box. That’s why the yogis are bad.
It seems like you have to have a lot of patience to put up with that, because it can be a lifetime sort of exercise.
It’s about accepting it in ourselves. As we accept our own battiness, it’s much easier to accept other people.
On a related note, one of the things that I’ve struggled with and am curious to get your take on: when you find out about all of these different modalities and you understand the mind/body connection, it can become this cycle of “What’s wrong with me?” I’m just curious if you have experienced that sort of questioning of the fixing?
Sometimes when I explain this stuff to somebody who’s not into it, it can come off as “You screwed up, and that’s why you have this problem.” It’s easy to explain that physically you shouldn’t have eaten all those McDonald’s french fries, because now you have high blood pressure. But it almost sounds like a fault.
Then there’s like a harder level: you’ve always talked about how the world is not fair, so now you’ve manifested the world being unfair to you. To somebody who is not into this stuff, that can seem really blamish and bleak.
I think our goal should be to get our ego out of the way and be open to feedback and criticism. We have these egos.
On my cushion one day, I realized that I was rejecting reality, so I went on this mission to try to accept reality. In meditation, a voice in my head would say, what you’re feeling is wrong. You’re doing that wrong. That’s the wrong thought, that’s the wrong feeling—like anger. Oh, you’re feeling anger, that’s wrong! Don’t feel that! So I said, hey, what would it feel like to not do that all the time? To not fault myself and blame myself moment by moment, but instead to accept everything—both that I’m angry and that I’m not wanting to be angry. To accept, to actually cripple these two judgments.
My hope for this book is that it helps people, but I didn’t focus on that when I was writing it. I tried to just say what seemed true to me.