David Swenson

David Swenson tours internationally as one of the world’s leading Ashtanga Yoga teachers. He has written several books, including Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual, and produced a series of instructional yoga videos as well as a series of audiocassettes. We caught up with Swenson in Houston, Texas, where he lives.

Yoga Journal: How did you discover Ashtanga Yoga?

David Swenson: I ran away from home. I had just turned 16. I sent my parents a letter explaining that I loved them and knew they loved me, but I couldn’t live in Texas any longer. Long hair, yoga, and a vegetarian lifestyle didn’t offend anybody on the West Coast, so I rented a room and got a job flipping hamburgers in Encinitas, California. One day, a surfing buddy invited me to a yoga class where people were doing these incredible, intricate, fluid asanas. Though this yoga was so hard I couldn’t finish the first session, I loved it. And I have loved Ashtanga ever since.

YJ: You eventually went to India to study with Pattabhi Jois. What was that like?

DS: There were four students in Mysore when I arrived there in 1976. We met three times daily for intense asana and Pranayama classes. These were incredibly challenging, enthralling, and transforming. It was perhaps the most difficult thing I’d ever done except for coming back home.

YJ: Home to Texas?

DS: Yes. It was a hard landing. I had to figure out how to integrate my experience in India within the “real” world. Nobody was interested in yoga. By and by, I started feeling bitter. I wrote Pattabhi Jois a long letter asking “Hey, what about the eight limbs? What’s the meaning of life? Who is God? Why are we here? And when do I get samadhi?” I thought these were reasonable questions, yet when he didn’t reply, I began to search for the answers on my own.

I looked everywhere, including astrology, parapsychology, palmistry—you name it. Then I ran into some folks from the Krishna temple. They had answers. I shaved my head and became a Hare Krishna on April Fools’ Day, 1982. For the next five years, I lived as a celibate, gave up asanas, memorized the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit, and traveled the world giving lectures and raising money. Until one day, as I stood hawking the Gita on a street corner in Houston, my mom happened by. She saw that nobody was buying books from me, so she walked up and said, “Oh honey, no one will take one from you. Give me one.”

A Texas mother’s worst nightmare. But she showered me with unconditional love. When I got back to the temple, they chastised me for not raising enough money. I’d had enough. It was time to move on, so I quit.

YJ: And went back to yoga?

DS: I bought a suit and went into commerce. I felt completely disillusioned with spirituality. I became a hard-nosed businessman and a closet yogi. But this didn’t work for me. Within a few years I found myself deep in debt and very unhappy.

Fortunately, my life has a life of its own. I happened to be in Hawaii in 1989 when Pattabhi Jois came to teach on his American tour. I attended; he didn’t remember me. Ten years had passed. I looked completely different. But at one point in the workshop, Jois put his hands against my spine to adjust my back and called out, “Oh, David Swenson,” then burst into laughter, and started chanting “Hare Krishna, Hare Ram.”

He had recognized me from touch! And he seemed so happy to see me that I suddenly felt my whole journey come to an end. I was home again. I had found the answer to all my questions.

YJ: How so?

DS: Jois says, 99 percent practice, 1 percent theory. Yoga takes care of you if you stick with it. You start to sense what’s right and what’s wrong, and you follow a path of moral living and meditation because it feels right. The answers are in the practice, and the practice never judges you. It’s ready when you are.

YJ: In one sentence, what did you realize about the meaning of life?

DS: That there’s a big difference between doing yoga and simply making an asana out of yourself.

Empty yourself of everything

“Empty yourself of everything.
Let the mind become still.
The ten thousand things rise and fall
while the Self watches their return.
They grow and flourish
and then return to the source.
Returning to the source is stillness,
which is the way of nature.
The way of nature is unchanging.
Knowing constancy is insight.
Not knowing constancy
leads to disaster.
Knowing constancy,
the mind is open.
With an open mind,
you will be openhearted.
Being openhearted,
you will act wisely.
Being wise, you will
attain the divine.
Being divine, you will be
at one with the Tao.
Being at one with the Tao
is eternal.
And though the body dies,
the Tao will never pass away.”

~ Lao Tsu-Tao te Ching

Coldplay – Magic

Call it magic, call it true
I call it magic when I’m with you
And I just got broken, broken into two
Still I call it magic, when I’m next to you

And I don’t, and I don’t, and I don’t, and I don’t
No I don’t, it’s true
No I don’t, no I don’t, no I don’t, no I don’t
Want anybody else but you

No I don’t, no, I don’t, no, I don’t, no, I don’t
No I don’t, it’s true
No I don’t, no I don’t, no I don’t, no I don’t
Want anybody else but you

Ooh ooh ooh

Call it magic, cut me into two
And with all your magic, I disappear from view
And I can’t get over, can’t get over you
Still, I call it magic, such a precious truth

Wanna fall, I fall so far
I wanna fall, fall so hard
And I call it magic
And I call it true
Call it magic

Ooh ooh ooh
Ooh ooh ooh
Ooh ooh ooh
Ooh ooh ooh

And if you were to ask me
After all that we’ve been through
“Still believe in magic?”
Well yes, I do
Oh yes, I do
Oh yes, I do
Oh yes, I do
Of course I do

Feelings like Clouds

“Whatever arises in our mind—whether it’s a thought, an emotion, a sensation, or a perception—is the arising of coemergent wisdom. It is the radiation of the mind’s emptiness and clarity. Every arising is a temporary arising—one thought comes and goes, then another thought comes and goes.

All our thoughts and emotions just appear and disappear.

This is very important, because we usually grasp at whatever occurs. For instance, when sadness arises, we hold on to this feeling and think, “I am so sad, I am so depressed.” But from the Mahamudra point of view, what has happened?

A feeling has arisen in the mind, like a cloud. Like a cloud, it appears and then it disappears, and that’s all there is to it. This time it is sadness arising, the next time it may be happiness, the next time it may be anger, and later it may be kindness. All sorts of things arise, like wildflowers in a spring meadow. All sorts of flowers grow; all sorts of thoughts and emotions arise. They are all okay; they’re nothing special.

When we understand what our thoughts and feelings are, and we experience them in this way, we are able to let them come and let them go.”

~ Confusion Arises as Wisdom: Gampopa’s Heart Advice on the Path of Mahamudra by Ringu Tulku

Quote of the Week

“When a rainbow appears vividly in the sky, you can see its beautiful colors, yet you could not wear it as clothing, or put it on as an ornament. It arises through the conjunction of various factors, but there is nothing about it that can be grasped. Likewise, thoughts that arise in the mind have no tangible existence or intrinsic solidity. There is no logical reason why thoughts, which have no substance, should have so much power over you, nor is there any reason why you should become their slave.

The endless succession of past, present, and future thoughts leads us to believe that there is something inherently and consistently present, and we call it “mind.” But actually… past thoughts are as dead as a corpse. Future thoughts have not yet arisen. So how could these two, which do not exist, be part of an entity which inherently exists?

However, that void nature of mind is not just a blank emptiness like empty space. There is an immediate awareness present. This clarity of mind is like the sun, illuminating the landscape and allowing you to see mountain, path, and precipice—where to go, and where not to go.

Although the mind does have this inherent awareness, to say there is “a mind” is to give a label to something that does not exist—to assume the existence of something that is no more than a name given to a succession of events. One hundred and eight beads strung together, for example, can be called a rosary, but that ‘rosary’ is not a thing that exists inherently on its own. If the string breaks, where did the rosary go?”

~ Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, The Heart of Compassion

Quote of the Week

“Ultimately there is light and love and intelligence in this universe. And we are it, we carry that within us, it’s not just something out there, it is within us and this is what we are trying to re-connect with, our original light and love and intelligence, which is who we are, so do not get so distracted by all this other stuff, you know, really remember what we are here on this planet for.”

~ Tenzin Palmo