Bryan Kest started practicing yoga when he was 15 years old and has been practicing ever since. A yoga teacher for more than three decades, he is the original creator of Power Yoga, a unique workout for the body, mind, and spirit. His mainstream popularity is matched by an authentic foundation in the ancient practice of yoga, including a year studying Ashtanga Yoga directly with Pattabhi Jois. Bryan founded and teaches at two studios in Santa Monica, California, leads workshops and retreats throughout the world, and delivers an intensive teacher training program. In addition to many DVD series and audio CDs, Bryan was also featured in his own Warner Brothers video series.
His most recent endeavor is PowerYoga OnLine, where students from throughout the world can stream Bryan’s classes recorded live in his Santa Monica studio.
T.E. First of all, wanted to say that one of my first ever Yin Yoga experiences was taking your world famous LSD class. For people that are unfamiliar, what does LSD stand for?
B.K. Long, slow and deep. That’s where we got the name, it was just a description of the class. It’s long. It’s slow. And it’s insanely deep. But the interesting thing was I hadn’t really considered that the acronym was LSD. This class will get you more stoned than any other class you could possibly do. It is the ultimate drug. You leave LSD flying. Like it’s not safe to drive after that class, it’s not even good to talk. [Laughter]
T.E. How did LSD come to be?
B.K. I just was following my intuition and it led to that. The bottom line is that I had broken my shoulder mountain biking, and I still wanted to do yoga. So, I laid on the floor, I spread my legs open, and I fell forward. I started breathing, and I just decided to see what happens if I don’t come out of a pose when I want to come out as long as I felt safe, and I wasn’t going to hurt myself. I just stayed in the poses, and that’s where it came from. I stayed down there in that practice for, I don’t know, two or three hours. When I was done I, honestly, never felt more stoned in my entire life then after that practice. I knew I was onto something that was really cool. This predated Yin Yoga. Whoever created Yin Yoga hadn’t released it out into the world yet. No one had ever heard of Yin yoga at that time. Now, it’s really, really popular and for a lot of good reasons.
T.E. I remember when I took Long Slow and Deep, we were in Ashville, North Carolina. You were doing a workshop there. One of my all time yoga practice highlights, was when you had us hold Caterpillar pose for 10 minutes. It was one of the most challenging but rewarding things that I had ever done in yoga. How did you think of holding a pose like that for 10 minutes?! [Laughter]
B.K. I don’t know where any of this stuff comes from, I really don’t. You know the truth was, when we first started, we did every pose for 10 minutes. I noticed this weird phenomenon happening, people stopped coming to my class! [laughter] No one wanted it, it was just too much. So, I tried to figure out what’s the shortest amount of time that we can hold these poses and still get the effect of long holds. Right? That was really, about two minutes. Then, we decided to throw in an extra minute there as a buffer zone, just in case for some people two minutes wasn’t enough. So now, we hold the poses for three minutes each. But we always kept the 10 minute Caterpillar pose, kind of like a grand finale. It’s usually more like 12 minutes, because I always start it a little bit after I’m done doing my explanations. It’s otherworldly! [laughter] If you think about it, there’s never a time in your entire life, not once, where you’re still for 10 minutes. Not in sleep, not in your mom’s womb. There’s no time when you’re ever literally, completely still for 10 minutes. So, you could say that you’re actually addicted to not being still. The only time you’d ever be still is if you’re a meditator. So, you have to break your addiction to not being still which is very confrontational on so many levels. There’s a whole world, in the pose, to benefit from!
T.E. I want to go back to your first time that you ever did Yin, after you broke your arm mountain biking. What was your experience like?
B.K. What I do is, I’ll just randomly set a challenge for myself. So, the challenge is I’m going to hold this pose for 10 minutes. I remember once, way back, reading somewhere, I think it was “Light On Yoga,” but I’m not 100% sure. It’s was something Iyengar said, which, I don’t believe is true at all. He said, “If you can hold a pose for three hours, you’re enlightened.” Of course, this girl I was hanging out with at the time, her name was Ana Forrest, who’s another fairly well-known yoga teacher, who’s a physical freak, she did it. She held the pose for three hours!
T.E. Wait, which pose?!
B.K. Paschimottanasana (Caterpillar). She came out of the pose and said, “Well, I refuted his theory. I didn’t reach enlightenment!” [laughter] It didn’t work, but I think that was in the back of my head or something. Everybody always comes out of the poses when they want. Nobody stays longer than they want. So, what happens if you stay longer than you want, if you’re safe? We’re not talking about putting yourself in a dangerous situation. We’re not talking about risking injury or anything. We’re just talking about challenging yourself. It’s like people ask mountain climbers, “Why did you climb the mountain?” It’s really difficult to express, unless you do it. Just facing challenges alone can be gratifying, it can have an endorphinal release in your body, can get you stoned, and can have a really nice effect. On the level of health, I’m not sure that a 10-Minute Forward Bend is going to change your life. I’ve heard some people tell me they’ve had huge releases. So, the possibility’s there, because people have a lot of stuff going on in their bodies and different things will affect that stuff. So, there might be a coincidental chance that that’s what that person needed to release something that was happening in their hip, or their hamstring, or their back. Nothing else was working, but they just needed to stay in a pose longer. So, I’ve had some great feedback of how transformative that 10-Minute Forward Bend is. I’ve also heard that feedback from someone spending just one minute in Pigeon Pose (Sleeping Swan). They’re like, “Oh my God. Something released.” So, that’s just par for the course when it comes to yoga. You just throw a bunch of shit on the wall and hope something sticks. Because all this stuff has the possibility to be transformative because we, all us humans, have all this stuff locked and lodged throughout the body. So, who knows what’s going to actually jar it free and have this tremendous release. On the level of something incredibly unique, that 10-Minute Forward Bend is a great thing.
T.E. When you did your sequence for LSD, how did that sequence come to be? Was that something that evolved over time? I see it as being a very intricate yin yoga sequence.
B.K. No, that happened that first day. I used to be really good at sequencing. I used to be really good at it. Now I’m not. Now my classes are boring. [laughter] Now I make up for my lack of sequencing with philosophy. I used to have a body that was game to do anything. I could get on the floor and I could play with my body. I could wake up in the morning and wherever I wanted to go, my body would follow. I’d create these amazing routines and I think that laid the foundation for my career. But now I’m with two titanium discs in my spine from a car accident and my experimentation is limited. I’m probably not going to please the masses, especially the young ones, because I can’t go there anymore. Part of me wishes I could, but I’ve also accepted the change and realized that this is going to open new doors for me. I’m just going in another direction. So, back then the creativity on the physical level was flowing. It’s the same now, but now it’s more about the mind state and the philosophical. It’s about motivating people to work on this, not for the physical benefits, but for the benefits of your mind state. As amazing as that 10-Minute Forward Bend is and as amazing as that long, slow and deep routine is, as amazing as any of this Yin yoga is and Restorative yoga or Hatha yoga is, all of it, it’s not going to improve your relationship with your father. It’s not going to improve your relationship with your mother. It’s not going to make you a more humble, compassionate, gentle being. It’s not going to make you more forgiving. Because it’s limited. It’s just physical. Eventually, you have to look at the mind state that’s manifesting everything, right? So, that’s what I’m into now and I try to bring that into my yoga classes, whether it’s long, slow and deep or whether it’s any of the other types of classes.
T.E. Absolutely. I talk about in the book how the very first physical yoga there ever was would’ve been Yin Yoga because you have yogis holding a seated posture for long periods of time, and that’s Yin yoga.
B.K. Yeah, that is Yin Yoga. I mean, in that sense, it is. Now, I’m not an expert on the Yoga Sutras and I never read them, actually. I keep falling asleep. They’re so fucking boring! [laughter] I’m hoping someday someone will write an interesting version. Even though I know everything that’s said in those Yoga Sutras is powerful medicine. Just like there’s powerful stuff in the Bible and just like Rumi speaks really powerful stuff. I mean, truth is truth. You can get it where you want. In the Yoga Sutras, if I’m not mistaken because I’ve only been told this, that they don’t mention yoga poses. Except for Padmasana (Lotus) and the reason is because they want you to meditate, right? Everything in the Yoga Sutras, every single thing, has to do with your mind state. Just like every great person that walked on the planet never said, “Stick your legs behind your head.” Every single one of them. Jesus is considered a prince among yogis in India and he never said, “Tie your legs behind your head.” Buddha is considered the greatest yogi to ever walk on the planet and he never gave any instruction on asana, because it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t. It’s nice for a maintenance routine. It’s nice to release the tension from your body, get the blood moving. That’s supposedly where the poses came from. They were sitting all day in Padmasana and their bodies were falling apart because they weren’t exercising. So, they were like, “Shit. We need to exercise.” But they didn’t create an exercise for beauty because they didn’t want you to look pretty. They wanted you to look ugly, right? Because they realized vanity was the scourge of humanity, but they also realized that attachment leads to suffering. They didn’t want you to be attached to how you look. When they created something, they didn’t create it for beauty, they created it for wellness. When you create something for wellness, you think about touching everything. Just like how you think about brushing every tooth in your mouth. So, that’s ultimately where the poses came from, they were just really to keep the blood flowing and keep the muscles toned so they could meditate for longer periods of time. If you want to have healthy relationships in your life, if you want to have the healthy relationship with yourself, if you want to be peaceful and happy, you’ve got to look at your mind state.
T.E. Beautiful. Being one of the most traveled teachers on the planet, are you seeing a greater demand for Yin Yoga?
B.K. Yeah. Yin yoga is becoming as equally popular as the most popular Yoga out there now. I would say Vinyasa yoga is still more popular, but when you talk to the people who own yoga centers, they’ll tell you their Yin classes are packed. So, in a general sense, it seems like Vinyasa is more popular. It seems like more people are talking about Vinyasa. If you open up a yoga magazine or whatever, there’s going to be more emphasis on that kind of active yoga practice. But when you talk to the studio owners, they’re telling you their Yin classes are packed. There is no doubt Yin yoga has swept over the yoga world and it’s here to stay, and it’s beneficial and people love it. It’s not surprising that the most popular yoga, like vinyasa, is the busiest yoga. So, really busy people have chosen really busy yoga so they never have to feel how fucking busy they are, because now they’re doing busy yoga. You can easily make an argument that says, What we all really need to do is slow down. “Oh, no! I don’t want to fucking slow down because if I slow down, then I have to feel how busy I am, and that’s going to be uncomfortable. I’m going to feel my anxiety, and my nervous energy, and my antsiness. I don’t want to feel that so I’m just going to do busy yoga, right?” So, the argument is that busy people need to do slow yoga to balance off their business.
T.E. Why do you think that so many people in our society are swept up in the rat race? Where do you think it’s coming from?
B.K. We’re all dominated by our cultural values. I mean look everywhere you go, every billboard, every poster. Look at the way all the women now look. The girls are brainwashed from a young age. “This is what’s beautiful and you need to be this, otherwise, no one’s going to be attracted to you.” And the men are brainwashed too. Look at who we grew up with our role models like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Clint Eastwood. A man is big, bad, and tough right? I mean it’s called a ‘gentleman,’ not an ‘aggressive man.’ All the men we worship, the sports stars, the movie stars, they’re all big badasses right? Where is the gentleman that’s up there on the silver screen? Also, from an early age we’re taught getting old is bad, wrong, and ugly. Then we start to age and people fight to stay young. They destroy themselves trying to maintain something that’s gone. The whole thing is sad and sick. I can’t buy into it even though I understand, and I just try to bring that awareness to people. Yin Yoga is more aligned with accomplishing wellness rather than accomplishing vanity. That’s important, too, because that vanity is dominated by fear. Any action that’s coming from fear, you’re not going to have good results.
T.E. Absolutely. It sounds like a lot of what you’re saying, without really saying it, is this idea of the Tao and nature. So much of our culture is trying to fight and resist this nature, which creates more suffering. Whereas the yogis and the Taoists were all about yielding to nature, not fighting it. Are you seeing a huge demand for Yin Yoga on your “PowerYoga OnLine” streaming service?
B.K. No doubt. It’s my job as the proprietor of PowerYoga OnLine to make sure that I’m catering to everybody’s wants. You better believe I’m gonna put Yin yoga on there. I wouldn’t even consider you a valid streaming service if you didn’t have Yin yoga on there. Listen, if you’ve just lost a loved one, that can affect your energy level. You might not feel like doing a lunge and an arm balance. You might not feel like doing a handstand. But you still might feel like doing your yoga practice. So, Yin yoga also gives you a choice. People might have injuries, people might just be getting old and their energy level is decreasing. People might have emotional stuff going on in their life where they’re not into a strong Yang practice and so it needs to be there. A Yin practice is just as valid as a Yang practice, it’s just different. It depends on what you need?
T.E. What’s your favorite Yin Yoga pose?
B.K. Two of them just popped into my head. One is that 10 minute forward bend (Caterpillar), not that you’ll see me there a lot. [laughter] The other one is a simple Double Pidgeon (Fire Log).
T.E. You mentioned the spinal injuries from the car accident. Did Yin Yoga help with your healing and recovery process?
B.K. I don’t know if it helped but I wish I would have done it earlier. As I mentioned, I have two titanium discs in my spine. It started in a car accident. I was rear ended and two of the discs supposedly exploded on impact. So, it was pretty ugly, pretty bad. I really feel like more damage was done after the car accident with my aggressive practice. I wish I had Yin yoga back then because I really feel like most of the damage was done with the aggressive practice after the accident. My ego was so much a part of my yoga practice. I was so strong, and I could do so much physically. I was so enamored with all I could do, so full of myself. I had achieved so much, after the accident I didn’t want to take any time off. I didn’t want to do anything gentle because I didn’t want to lose what I had achieved. I went straight back into the strong practice. I can’t prove it, but I really feel like I did more damage to myself after the accident due to the Yang than I would have if I would have had Yin back then. I benefit tremendously from Yin just like I benefit from all practices. I don’t think Yin is more beneficial. I think they’re all beneficial. They’re all tools in the tool chest. It’s like they’re all equal. It just depends on using the right tool at the right time. This is a really good example of how I think Yin yoga practice would have helped and enabled the healing process, as opposed to the Yang practice which actually hindered the healing process. So that’s where I think that the Yin yoga would have really, really benefited me. But the ultimate healing is here in the mind. All of the tension in your body, and most of the disease, is just due to your mind-state. At some point you have to say, “I’m cool just the way I am.” That’s what the yoga was created for. Start loving and accepting yourself. The path towards wellness is self-love. And that’s the beginning of being able to love all others.
T.E. Do you have a least favorite Yin Yoga pose?
B.K. Yes and no. The truth is no, because you can always tone any pose down to fit you. But that Frog Pose is pretty brutal! [laughter] You know the pose I’m talking about?
T.E. Oh yeah! I’m with you, Frog pose will have you screaming for your mother!
B.K. Yeah, that one is pretty….revealing [laughter], not to say the least. It’s pretty confronting. I mean, it doesn’t even feel like the human body is meant to do shit like that. [laughter]
T.E. Well, and Half Frog pose isn’t really any better.
B.K. Yeah, but the cool thing is, what’s supposed to be happening is you taper this stuff to fit your uniqueness. One of the reasons it’s so intense is because a lot of people are doing it like they’re supposed to do it, instead of how they should be doing it. People say, “This is the right way to do it.” My belief is that there’s not one way to do a yoga pose. There are seven billion ways. The interesting thing is most of this physical yoga is coming directly from Krishnamacharya. He’s supposedly the teacher of Pattabhi Jois and Iyengar, which are the two biggest influences on Western yoga. His teaching at the end of his life and through his son, Desikachar, was every single person should have their own personal yoga routine that fits where they are uniquely in their life. That yoga routine needs to be flexible enough to change according to when the body is changing. So, the teacher of teachers is saying that there’s not one way, yet his two main students are saying there’s only one way. Pattabhi is saying, “You have to do this sequence,” and Iyengar is saying, “This is the right way to do a pose.” Even though right before Iyengar died, Iyengar’s last thing he said was, “Iyengar yoga is only for Iyengar.”
B.K. This was mind blowing! Like holy shit, the guy figured it out. What he did, is he really inadvertently taught a lot of people how to fucking disrespect themselves. Then he slapped them and would say, “Bad man!” if they couldn’t do the pose like he thought, and then tell them “Good man,” if they could. His intentions were I’m sure completely benevolent, but it was kind of like a football coach. “This is the way to do it, you’re bad if you can’t do it and you’re great if you can do it.” That’s where I think a lot of the popularity came from, because that mentality was familiar. That’s what we wanted. We wanted to be told we’re wrong but someone can fix us. And we want to be told we’re right. “We accomplished it. We did it.” That’s exactly what that guy was doing. But, at the end, he said, “Iyengar yoga is only for Iyengar.”
T.E. That’s pretty incredible. Why do you think Pattabhi Jois never held floor poses longer. What was it, like five or eight breaths?
B.K. Yeah, It was either five or eight breaths. When I first started doing Ashtanga it was five breaths and by the end, it was eight breaths. Somewhere it changed. Nobody in the world knows where Ashtanga came from. From all accounts, it looks like Pattabhi Jois made it all up, and fine, that’s cool. We all can make it up, no problem. But he didn’t speak any English so no one really knows why he did what he did. Some people derive amazing value from his sequences. I think most people find it to be a really good starting point because you can slip in, you can do it, and hopefully, eventually, you can tailor it to fit your uniqueness. Supposedly it’s only for 15-year-old boys. My teacher, David Williams, was the first person on Earth to bring Ashtanga Yoga out of India. He started his class in Encinitas, which is where Tim Miller and David Swenson started doing it. Then he disbanded that class and opened the same class in Maui, which is where I started doing it with him in the ’70s. Nobody from that era, David Swenson, Tim Miller, myself, David Williams, Danny Paradise, nobody is doing those sequences anymore, nobody, because you can’t. I mean, a 50, 60-year-old body is not going to do that stuff. It’s just overwhelming.
T.E. I know, I had never been injured doing yoga until I tried an Ashtanga practice.
B.K. Well, the thing is, there’s a lot of aggression there. That came straight from Pattabhi. He would push on everybody. He’d push you so deep either two things happened, you either did it or you snapped. And then the problem was the people who did it, their chest got all puffed up and they thought they were so great. And the people who snapped, they got all depressed and bummed out because they thought they were lousy. So, then it’s the rat race again. You’re good because you accomplished it. You’re not good because you don’t accomplish it, right? I really feel like Iyengar and Pattabhi became so big because they were actually giving us what we wanted instead of what we needed. They told us we were wrong and they could fix us. That’s what we wanted, instead of telling us that we’re perfect and beautiful and that we don’t need anything. “Don’t we see how beautiful we are?”, they didn’t tell us that. They told us we were wrong and that if you did this, you would be right. That’s what we wanted. So, we found something to fit our mentality, and they played the role. That was it. And you know what? Maybe that’s what we needed to get our culture involved in yoga because maybe if they told us we were beautiful, we would have said, “Fuck you, I’m going to go find someone who can fix me.” [laughter] I do trust in the perfection of everything, and so, obviously, that’s what we needed in order to get us to where we’re at right now, which is appreciating other things, having learned the lessons.
T.E. I loved how within your path you adapted Ashtanga Yoga to what became Power Yoga. Then, oddly enough, after you injured yourself you spontaneously started doing Yin Yoga through Long, Slow and Deep. Had you not trusted your intuition we wouldn’t be in world where there was Power Yoga or Yin yoga on the level we know it.
B.K. Totally. There’s no rules. As soon as there’s rules, it’s not yoga, it’s religion. And this ain’t a religion. There’s no rules. And if there’s no rules, then you’re free. You’re free to explore. You’re free to do what you want to do and honor your uniqueness. If there’s rules, it’s going to be hard to honor your uniqueness because you’re unique. And those rules weren’t set up for your uniqueness. They were set up for someone else. So, yeah, I never said I’m changing from Ashtanga to Power Yoga. I never said that. My practice just organically shifted. I started desiring doing other things. And I was bringing those other things into my Ashtanga practice. But, eventually, my Ashtanga practice, which is already a normal two-hour practice, now, is becoming three and four hours because I was trying to do the other stuff that I wanted to do. And then one day it just became so long I had to make a choice. Am I going to do the stuff I want to do? Or am I going to do Ashtanga? So, I picked the stuff that I wanted to do. And that’s where my yoga practice evolved from. It was just, basically, bringing it into Ashtanga until, basically, my plate was so full I couldn’t eat all the food. Then I had to choose which items I actually want to eat on my plate. And I actually chose the items I cooked instead of someone else cooked. That’s all. [laughter]
T.E. I know you are a fellow Bruce Lee fan. Do you have a favorite Bruce Lee quote?
B.K. Well, the cool thing about Bruce Lee is Bruce Lee created a style called “The path of no path.” And I love that. He would have been an amazing yogi if he would have lived. He was on the path to power. He was on the way to realizing that path is found through love, not through aggression and violence, not through controlling things, but through letting go. He was just realizing this, amazing as he was. There’s a good chance almost nobody has achieved the physical prowess of that dude. But that prowess was incredibly limited. “Be like water,” was one of his quotes, be able to move with things instead of standing in their way. You got to figure this out. You got to wing it according to what’s going on in your life. If you’re stuck on one way, then you might not be open to all these possibilities that are opening all around you because you’re so stuck on it being one way. A story I heard was that he brought modern boxing techniques into Kung Fu. Of course, all the gurus criticized him because he was perverting it. Now, he’s worshiped as an innovator. He was basically saying, this is dead. You’re learning what the guru’s saying. And then you’re doing it the way they said. And then you’re teaching your students that way. And then they’re doing it. And it’s dead. No one is bringing anything into it. And this yoga has evolved over 4 or 5, 6,000 years. It’s not supposed to stop evolving. And we, you, me, anybody reading your book, they’re part of that evolution. So, we have to encourage people to be creative and to trust their uniqueness and allow this to keep growing and expanding!
T.E. Awesome! Thank you so much for taking the time to share. Love you brother.
B.K. Love you, man. Good luck with this.