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YJ Interview: Mind-Body Scholar

Through the lens of yoga, Gary Kraftsow studies health and religion.

By Kathi Black

At 19, Gary Kraftsow went to Madras (now Chennai), India, where he began his study of yoga with T.K.V. Desikachar. Today Kraftsow, who has a master's degree in religious studies, is a leader in the field of yoga therapy. After helping many to heal from illnesses, in 2004 this author of Yoga for Wellness experienced his own healing journey after being diagnosed with a brain tumor.

What was your introduction to yoga? In 1974 I went to India. I had a private tutorial with a renowned mystic. At the same time, I met T. Krishnamacharya [the father of modern yoga] and [his son] Desikachar and learned about the practical aspect of yoga. My deep interest in religion, the experience of mysticism, and this very practical science of yoga that Krishnamacharya taught combined to create a pivotal experience in my life. I realized the power of all of this to help people grow and transform.

What were your yoga studies like? Desikachar was an engineer; he pushed me in the direction of studying the science of yoga for health. He taught from the perspective of helping others—from people in wheelchairs to pro athletes. asanas came easily to me because I'd been a gymnast in high school, but I was grateful to study Patanjali, because that was my deeper interest.

You use yoga as a means to help people who suffer from injuries and illness. How does yoga help them? When people have life-threatening illnesses, we first manage symptoms and disease. But we also need to support their minds, self-image, and emotions to keep a sense of the positive and be proactive in the face of these conditions. I never anticipated the extent to which yoga has meaningful solutions for people. Yoga has so much to offer. And it's so underappreciated. In the West yoga is often thought of as exercise; it's all asana. If somebody has a life-threatening illness, asana is helpful—but there's so much more.

You were diagnosed with a brain tumor a few years ago. Was your practice helpful? There was just one week from diagnosis to surgery, and they couldn't tell me whether I would live. My yoga was mostly chanting and meditation to keep my emotions balanced as I faced the terror of the unknown—I was afraid of not seeing my young son grow older. Yoga brought me into a positive frame of mind. After the surgery I couldn't move for days. I couldn't even breathe deeply. That time very profoundly affected my experience of yoga, but not in a way that people who do only asana might understand. I had direct, personal experience of esoteric ideas I'd studied.

You lecture on yogic philosophy. How can most people effectively align intention and action? People need to understand themselves deeply and come out of denial to see if their intentions are their own or if they're just fashionable. Look at the choices we make every day; they show us something about ourselves. As long as we think we have forever, we avoid figuring out our priorities. Life is impermanent. Turn the mind from daily life to see how fleeting it is.

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