By the time he met his teacher, K. Pattabhi Jois, Richard Freeman had practiced yoga for 19 years, visited several ashrams in India, and taught yoga to Iran’s royal family. Less than a year after meeting the founder of Ashtanga Yoga, Freeman became the second Westerner certified by Jois to teach Ashtanga. Today, Freeman lives with his son, Gabriel, and his wife, Mary Taylor, in Boulder, Colorado, where they run The Yoga Workshop.
How did you first come across yoga? When I was 18, I reread Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, which talks about the Bhagavad Gita. That led me to [Ralph Waldo] Emerson and the Upanishads. My family was uneasy with the fact that I was studying even Western philosophy, because it’s possibly the least useful in terms of a career. So without their blessing, I embarked on the yogic path at the Chicago Zen Center. Later I studied Iyengar Yoga, Sivananda Yoga, bhakti yoga, Tantra, and different Buddhist practices. It wasn’t until 1987 that I discovered Ashtanga Yoga and met Pattabhi Jois.
What made you think "Yes! This man is my teacher"? When I went to one of his workshops in Montana, I could already do most asanas well. However, the way he linked them internally was interesting, because I was able to go into the midline of the body and into the nadis [energy channels]. We had a strong connection; this is where my previous studies really paid off. His English isn’t very good, so we mostly talked asana in Sanskrit.
This wasn’t the first time you worked with a cultural barrier. What were some of the challenges of teaching yoga in Iran? A friend invited me to teach at his studio there. For four years I taught yoga to the empress, the princes, and other members of the royal family. They were mostly Muslims with a strong conception about the Divine. I had to be very careful to not use terms that suggested I was trying to convert them or speak of idolatry and reincarnation. Working across cultures, I had to become honest with myself about what it is I actually know, what are theories or metaphors, and what is essential spiritual teaching and practice.
So what is essential? Meditation. It’s focusing the mind on any pattern or thing that comes up. This mindfulness practice is something you could do as a Hindu, Christian, Jew, Muslim, or Buddhist. I enjoy quiet time. I go outside and contemplate insects, my dog’s nose, the rabbits around here, or whatever presents itself. Everything is connected, and so I feel a natural affection for these things. My wife is a chef and does most of the cooking, so I make washing the dishes my meditation. I pay close attention to my breath and what I’m doing.
How has fatherhood changed your practice? It’s been enlightening. I had to let go of some poses and studies a bit; as a father you deal with moments of crisis, which can happen at any time. My practice is more internal now—I might have time just to sit down and do a tiny little Pranayama. Still, there’s no other medium that’s quite as potent as raising a child with someone to either drive you crazy or open up your heart and mind to compassion to yourself and others.