What exactly is happiness?
How do we find it and why do we so often miss it?
And how can yoga help us discover a personal path that will guide us?
For years, I wouldn’t even entertain the idea of trying yoga. My impression was that yoga was the territory of lithe, Paltrowy girls and snobby instructors who would tell me I was doing it wrong. No thanks.
Fortunately, during a particularly adventurous fitness month, I found a beginner yoga class led by Sam Chase. By the end of 60 minutes on the mat, my perception had transformed. Sam created an atmosphere of exploration and acceptance — in the heart of Soho, no less. For the next four years, I spent Monday nights allowing my practice to unfold under his gentle guidance.
Sam’s new book Yoga and the Pursuit of Happiness: A Guide to Finding Joy in Unexpected Places frames yoga in a context perhaps more palatable for those of us who value physical and spiritual development, but need a scientific spin to satisfy our analytical sides.
You were the primary influence on my own yoga journey because the energy in your class is “do your best” versus “get it right.” How did you shape your approach?
For me, this ethic comes right out the scientific research into flow and peak experience — a psychological state of deep absorption and engagement. This kind of state only happens when we’re doing something which the challenge of the moment and the skill we bring to it really intersect. When skills exceed challenge, we end up bored. The other way around and we’re anxious. And if we turn a yoga pose into the pursuit of some abstract and increasingly complex shape, we’re continually cutting off the potential for flow. The pose is always somewhere else. So I try to build the yoga practice around the notion that the pose is not an ideal end-point, but a spectrum of sensation. Then your job on the mat becomes to find the expression of the posture that challenges whatever skill set you’re working with. And then when you change, the pose changes with you.
What was the inspiration for Yoga and the Pursuit of Happiness?
I have always been interested in psychology and neuroscience. My wife jokes that if I were to be reincarnated, I’d come back as a zombie, because I just love brains so much. When I was in grad school at Harvard, I would sneak into psych classes even though I was in a totally different department. Today, I browse academic journals as obsessively as most people scroll through their Facebook feed. I began to see a huge overlap between the scientific research into happiness and the philosophy underneath the practice of yoga and meditation. There are echoes between them that I thought deserved to be a full-fledged conversation.
What do you hope people take away from this book?
I think a lot of people familiar with happiness-related research are looking for simple ways to put these ideas into practice, and meditation has a pretty rich toolbox for that. On the flip side, I think a lot of people approaching yoga and meditation pull back in the presence of “new-agey” language and mysticism, and could benefit from understanding that there’s a lot of hard science supporting the promise these practices hold out. I just hope anyone who reads the book comes away with some good fuel for their pursuit.
You didn’t start out as a yoga instructor. What was the pregame to your yoga career?
I went to school with a major in Economics, and my main study was game theory, which explores how people behave in competitive and collaborative environments. I had a knack for it, and a great love of the theory, but really no passion in my heart for the practice.
In my final year, I was about to graduate at the top of my class, and was invited to compete for the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships, which would have sent me for a PhD at Oxford. When the British Consulate phoned and told me I’d won, I threw up and had a panic attack. It was supposed to be the best day of my life– the thing I thought I wanted more than anything else–but suddenly, I just couldn’t stare down four or forty more years of equations and spreadsheets. Fast forward through about a year of aimless, creeping depression and that’s when I took my first yoga class.
Yoga is a practice of transitions — did the nature of the practice make your career change more fluid?
Well, the transition I just mentioned was anything but fluid. And to be honest, when I started yoga, I really just wanted to be able to touch my toes. But after a while, I was breathing easier, feeling more energetic, and finally started to get acquainted with the part of me that freaked out and bailed on the successful career laid out in front of me.
Nowadays, as a teacher, I tell people that yoga and meditation is essentially a practice that puts you face to face with who you really are, and gives you a toolbox to work with that honestly and skillfully. For me, it was instrumental in coming to understand why I couldn’t live the life I’d so neatly plotted out, and in helping me to see what I could do as well.
Do you navigate your work differently as a male in a female-dominated community?
You might think that in a field dominated by women, we could hope for a little more freedom from the usual crap that women have to deal with in careers all over the country. Sadly, I don’t see it. Many of my female colleagues have spoken about the intense pressure to look a certain way, to wear certain brands or win their sponsorship, to have X number of Instagram followers in order to be more hireable.
As a white guy approaching middle age and losing my hair, nobody cares what I wear. When my son was born, I probably gained 15 pounds and nobody said a peep. I have no idea how to use Instagram — I don’t have to know. I feel like I’m appreciated primarily for my skill as a teacher, and it saddens me to see so many of my female colleagues who really have to compete on all these metrics that have absolutely nothing to do with teaching.
So the main way I try to navigate differently is by recognizing that I have a certain privilege as a man regardless of the demographics of yoga, and to do what I can to make sure lots of voices are heard and people are seen for who they are, not who follows them.
How do you balance your family life with your work?
Seldom as well as I aspire to. I have a propensity to take on a lot of projects, and work with tons of different groups all over the place — you should see my tax return, it’s chaos. Because I’m an independent entrepreneur, that means no matter what I’m doing, there’s always work I could be doing.
But a few things have been really helpful, most of all having a wife who’s willing to call me out when work is taking over, and giving her full permission to do it. Tara’s incredibly, ridiculously supportive of my career, and because I have total faith in her commitment, I know that if she says it’s getting to be too much, then it’s time to rein things in or let things go. I’ve also learned that I can’t do anything else when I’m walking home from the subway. No texts or emails or podcasts or news–I have to just walk. It helps me shift gears so that when I come home, I can just be with my family.
Who inspires you?
I’m all for role models, but most of my inspiration comes not from a “who,” but a “what.” I’m inspired most by actions of compassion–by anyone who has a measure of power, or freedom, or ability, and uses it to reach out beyond themselves and help someone who’s struggling. And I like to focus on the action rather than the individual because I think it can be too tempting to idolize our heroes and make them into something distant. But when I see a generous or compassionate act, I remember, “I can do that too.” We can all do that, wherever we have ability or wherever we find someone struggling.
Do you see anything problematic about the mainstreaming of yoga culture?
Certainly, as popular culture takes up yoga and meditation and tries to cram it into a soundbite or turn a profit from it, that brings all kinds of problems. Yoga in particular has taken on this weird Dr. Seuss quality — you can have it with a fox or in a box or with a mouse or in a house. Nowadays, you can do hot yoga or nude yoga or hot, nude yoga or yoga on a stand-up paddleboard or yoga with wine or chocolate or beer or pot or probably all of the above. And if you think of yoga as primarily a therapeutic tool, that trend looks really nonsensical. I mean, nobody would advertise “psychoanalysis and a scotch tasting” or a “colonoscopy retreat in Costa Rica.”
But I will also say this: my mentors and teachers fought to get yoga and meditation into popular culture. In the 70s and 80s, no one was paying attention, and now you can’t avoid it. And for every ad I see today for “hot nude yoga for wine lovers with gluten-free dogs,” I also see research studies on “meditation for PTSD” or “yoga for cancer survivors” or “mindfulness for recovering addicts,” and if the pop culture nonsense is the price the field has to pay to have serious scientific attention paid to these practices, I think that’s a fair trade. Because the research has exploded in the last 15 years, and the results so far are profound. The hype will pass, but the research is compounding.
How do you define success?
You know, I really try not to. I know metrics are important and all, and what fun is a race without finish line? But what I value more than accomplishment is engagement. And this is something pretty central to the philosophy of yoga — the idea of action without attachment.
External accomplishments are motivating, no doubt about it, but I think they can also be really tricky. My own story is a great case study in that: at a very young age, I had a ridiculous amount of accomplishment, but no deep engagement with what I was doing. And I was suffering for it. Nowadays, I try to do my best to make sure whatever I am doing is challenging me, and calling upon skills I feel are essential to who I am and of value to the communities around me. That’s where peak experience and really engaging service are likely to happen. And then I try to just let go of the outcome.
If you could have any other career, what would it be?
Scuba diver. I’m a sucker for sea creatures.