Power Yoga Isn’t What You Think: An Interview with Bryan Kest
Let’s talk about “power yoga,” the misconceptions versus the reality. What inspired the name?
I called it Power Yoga because it’s incredibly empowering. Back in the ‘90s when I first came up with the name, I felt it was empowering because of the way you feel leaving a class—you leave feeling [expletive] awesome. That includes feeling light, free, energetic, crystal clear, calm, and connected. And what’s more empowering than feeling your best? When you’re feeling your best, you are at your most empowered.
And now? Is that still your definition of empowerment?
Yes, but with added layers. Being empowered includes developing the powerful qualities that lead human beings to cultivate wellness and healing. And those are the same qualities that enhance all relationships on earth and reduce stress (which seems to be the largest precursor to disease)—gentleness, calmness, patience, humility, compassion, and gratitude.
But I know you’ve considered renaming Power Yoga things like “Grandma Yoga,” “Flower Yoga,” and “Nonchalant Yoga.”
I love the name Power Yoga because of all the reasons I just listed, but my definition of Power Yoga seems to be a little different than the stereotype it is now. Years ago, I realized that people think that Power Yoga is something overwhelming, hard, insanely athletic—brutal, even. I looked up “nonchalant” in the dictionary and saw it meant “an easy unconcern.” That’s the attitude I want people to come to class with. Because while I still think “Power Yoga” is a great name, it unfortunately alienates people. I want grandmas to feel welcome in class because I want everyone to feel welcome and without all this performance pressure.
Well, your rhetoric has been the same for decades. You’re always encouraging your students to take breaks by dropping to child’s pose and/or modifying poses. (Check out this old interview from 1995, long hair and all).
To me, moderation and balance are interchangeable. I believe balance is another word for health, as well as another word for yoga. Yoga practice, of course, attempts to achieve a deep balance and harmony of the body, mind, and spirit. Moderation is the difference between potency and impotence, and moderation and balance are very personal. What’s moderate for you may not be moderate for me, so there can be no set standard—just the principle of moderation.
And this is where your emphasis on not comparing and competing comes in as a huge focal point in your rhetoric—again, the same rhetoric you’ve been emphasizing for decades. As someone who struggled with negative body image issues and disordered eating for most of my life, this teaching in your classes over the years was crucial in my development as a body image advocate and offering yoga practice as a tool to combat the cultural noise that encourages competition with ourselves and others. And, as you discuss in your essay, “Like Father, Like Son," in Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery & Loving Your Body, it’s one of the powerful lessons your own practice taught you, and helped shift the operating paradigm in your life.
All of our bodies, experiences, and needs are very different, and understanding this highlights the absurdity of comparing and competing with others. The shape of our body has a major effect on how we look in yoga postures, and no two people on the planet have the same shape, let alone the same diet, emotional state, genetic lineage, injuries, etc. Comparing and competing is really irrational when it comes to preventing injury and creating wellness. And comparing and competing does not have to extend beyond our self. We could be comparing or competing with some image or ideal we have in our mind. My experience is that we are all uniquely special, and the circumstances of our conditions lead us in the direction of finding and cultivating the special gifts and qualities that enable us to positively contribute to humanity in our own unique ways. I have always felt the only way to judge your progress in yoga is in how little you judge your progress in yoga. Or maybe how little you judge anything.
With that said, your classes have a reputation for being incredibly physically challenging. I recall you saying many times in the past that the real challenge is to our ego to take a break.
Yes, that’s right. I was giving a talk recently about how the healthiest exercise on earth is walking. It’s gentle and moderate—you’re not beating the shit out of yourself running, but you’re not just sitting around. And this woman said, “Bryan, you’re a hypocrite because you talk about gentleness and moderation, but now you’re about to teach one of the most physically challenging classes I’ve ever done.” I told her that may be true, but how do you practice getting out of your ego by putting your knees down to take a break if you don’t need to take a break because the class is easy? How do you practice staying calm in a difficult moment if we don’t have any difficult moments in here? Yoga class is training for life. Life is challenging, and how you respond to your challenges has the biggest effect on your health—it’s called stress. So I create a challenging environment to practice respecting your boundaries. I’m laying it all out there to give people a chance to work on this shit.
Over the years, you’ve come to emphasize meditation much more than you did when you started teaching and when I started practicing with you. Most classes now include an extensive meditation at the end, usually “gratitude meditation.” I know that’s one of the most important parts of your own practice and your role as a father.
Yes, my children and I do gratitude meditation every night, which I make a priority. Sometimes my three kids don’t want to do it, but there are a few things I make them do and I make them mention 10 things they’re grateful for that day to help cultivate that mentality, the attitude of gratitude. Planting that seed is hugely important to me.
What are the three things you are grateful for in this moment?
My life, my family, and my yoga.
Melanie Klein, M.A., is a writer, speaker, and Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Santa Monica College. She is the co-editor of Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery + Loving Your Body (Llewellyn, 2014) with Anna Guest - Jelley, a contributor in 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice (Horton & Harvey, 2012), is featured in Conversations with Modern Yogis (Shroff, 2014), a featured writer in Llewellyn's Complete Book of Mindful Living (Llewellyn,... Read more>>