Turning up the Consciousness in Hot Yoga

An Interview with Ted Grand and Jess Robertson of Moksha Modo Yoga International

April 18, 2017    BY Kathleen Kraft

Having set up their hot yoga chain, Moksha Modo, at 74 locations in Canada, the United States, Switzerland, and Australia (with another opening soon in Paris), co-owners Ted Grand and Jess Robertson have been paving an alternative hot room path since 2004. Originally human rights and environmental activists, their transition to yoga grew out of their abiding dedication to ahimsa (non-harming). Trained in various different practices with leading teachers, including Bikram Choudhury, their interest in therapeutics and accessibility led them eventually to depart from Bikram’s system. That interest also inspired Moksha Modo’s anti-hierarchical management structure, its strong community-building ethic, a minimization of the health claims related to hot room yoga, freedom in sequencing for teachers, plus a chainwise eco-policy minimizing the heating footprint. And it has informed Grand and Robertson’s strong social service and outreach work.

I spoke to them recently about Moksha Modo, their beginnings, and what they’re currently working on.

How did you pivot from Bikram to where you are now? You’re worlds apart from Bikram, and yet there’s a thread of heat and sequencing between the two.
Ted: Tony Sanchez, who was one of the original guys in the Bikram community, put it really well in saying the community has never been a static type of culture—it’s always been changing. Jess and I were at the tail end of the period of small trainings—only 60 people. Bikram was very involved and still somewhat humble. It was when the trainings started getting massive and there was a push for growth that Jess and I decided to leave.

There was a big clash between our own philosophical and leadership ideas and Bikram’s—our ideas in many ways ran directly counter to what he espoused. Two things we cared a lot about that he personally ridiculed were having eco-studios and offering karma classes.

Tell us about the features of an eco-studio and of karma classes.
Ted: We put down reclaimed hardwood floors or sustainably harvested cork floors instead of carpeting. We use nontoxic paint; low-usage lighting, washer-dryer, and toilets; and energy-efficient heating panels. Our karma classes are by donation or free if you don’t have any money.

What was hard was that we had no intention of growing. From the beginning our mantra has been, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”

Jess: Another aspect of yoga that was important to us was physical accessibility—we felt that if someone needs a strap or a block to make a posture accessible, then we should provide them at our studios. The idea of pushing through pain and limitation did not resonate with us at all. We were criticized for that as well, but we continued with our approach in spite of it. It was only a matter of calling ourselves something else, because it wasn’t Bikram.

The idea of pushing through pain and limitation did not resonate with us at all.

We also don’t teach from a script as you’re obliged to in Bikram. We make modifications based on abilities, body types, and in some instances personality.

Your Seven Pillars of Yoga mission is a contemporary interpretation of the eight-limbed path. How do you see your role in the transformation of modern yoga?
Jess: I’m celebrating what’s happening in the yoga world now—acknowledging privilege, acknowledging white privilege, and taking a true and open look at the history of yoga from India to the West. Making yoga an on-the-mat practice at a community level is my imperative. Yoga has a lot to say about this world and the lack of balance in it. Concepts like the yamas (ethical restraints) and niyamas (observances) are always relevant. Our green policy comes straight from ahimsa—our take on it is that we are living in a dying environment and that we can do something about it when we come together in community.

Ted: One of the things we’re trying to do is to maintain our connection to our previous lives as activists. So we ask ourselves, “What can we do to transform the imbalances in the world?” I wouldn’t say it’s unique in modern yoga, but we are dissatisfied to a degree with contemporary yoga, selfie culture within yoga, and its being a predominantly white upper-class endeavor. Every meeting we have we talk about ways we can be more effective in reaching out to NGOs, charities, or in talking about how we can include in our social media strategy more people of color and range of body size. There’s a lot of opportunity in yoga right now for this kind of embodied activism.

You talk about Moksha Modo being a circular, nonlinear yoga practice. What does that mean in terms of the physical practice, and what does it mean in a spiritual sense? How is it integral to your mission?
Ted: I talk about it in our teacher training in a lecture series called “How and Why We Practice.” We use the story of the Zen monks who, as a practice, draw circles over and over again. The practice is not one of creating the perfect circle, but of doing the circle. In contemporary yoga, a lot of the focus is on what’s spoken, what’s taught, and in visual learning as well—you’re moving in a linear fashion toward an end pose, or even an end result. Our hope—since day one—is that there isn’t an obsession with getting to this place or that end pose, but rather to keep coming back to a beginner’s mind where we can say: “What am I feeling in this moment? In this experience? And how is my body feeling today relative to another day?” It’s that therapy of working within range of motion, not bringing in the ego, not encouraging a pushing through, in how we teach—and in our own way, drawing our circles.

Jess: One of our studio owners said it well: “It doesn’t matter how great your scorpion pose is if you’re still an asshole.” In other words, is this practice working? There’s a purpose to this practice—to live this life that lets everything in, and is authentic, and if that doesn’t include the philosophical tenets of yoga as a result of your practice, then we might not be doing it right.

In light of global unrest and the recent election in the United States, what are you doing right now to stay grounded in your practice? And how are you addressing this need in your community?
Ted: I feel inclined to mix the personal with the community here because we’re going through this as a community. We have a forum on Facebook where the teachers’ group can be expressive; it’s activist oriented. There’s a lot of hurt and a lot pain right now, and to a certain degree a bit of questioning as to what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. That’s probably the most effective and the most challenging thing: trying to be integrated into a conversation where you want everyone to do everything, while on another level you feel you’re not doing enough. It’s a tough experience but also a very rich experience working in community. It’s about how we move forward in terms of action and feelings.

Jess: We took our nonhierarchical organizational structure from the nonprofit world. We give two months’ proceeds from our karma classes at each of our studios to a cause that we vote on as a community. This year we’ve chosen to support 350.org’s campaign to stop the Dakota Pipeline, and [this month we began] “Grow Your Yoga,” which focuses on conscious water consumption. We actually chose it long before Trump was elected, and before the Dakota Access Pipeline was in the media. We’re really hoping to make the campaign huge and to get some great exposure and support for the concept that protecting water is a collective responsibility.

Closing thoughts?
Jess: Do your practice and offer it as a way to connect with others that leads to compassion and understanding. Stay informed and speak out against the fundamental human rights abuses that are taking place, and funnel that into action campaigns.

Kathleen Kraft
Kathleen Kraft is a yoga teacher, poet, and freelance writer. Her chapbook, Fairview Road, was published by Finishing Line Press, and her work has appeared in many journals, including Five Points, Gargoyle, and The Satirist. She lives in Jersey City, NJ.