Thomas Fortel's early spiritual awakening led him to follow a guru and live in ashrams. These days, he travels the world creating "mini-ashrams," or sacred spaces of student-centered learning, in which yogis explore their inner Self and learn that yoga is a path of self-devotion.
How did you get into yoga? I grew up as a Catholic kid in St. Louis, but when I was 10 years old, my aunt showed me some postures. When I read a yoga book by Richard Hittleman, I wanted to find a class. I tried yoga in 1982. I was in nursing school, and it was like I came back to something I had done in a past life. Working as an emergency-room nurse in a children's hospital in St. Louis in 1987, I read Play of Consciousness, the autobiography of Swami Muktananda, a Siddha Yoga guru. One night while reading, I got shaktipat, or the awakening of the kundalini.
What happened? A fountain of energy went through me up to my crown. I was having an illumination; my understanding became so much bigger, and there was a sensation of energy in my body moving up and down my spine. Everything was lighter and brighter. So that summer, I went to my first satsang, where we'd chant and meditate. I knew I had to go to the New York Siddha Yoga ashram. I met Gurumayi Chidvilasananda [Muktananda's successor] and started my meditation practice in 1987.
How did your family feel about your becoming a yogi? Leaving St. Louis in 1988 was a huge move for me. I learned to listen to my inner voice, and I went to the Manhattan Siddha Yoga ashram. I left the Irish clan—five kids, mom and dad, and cousins—despite my parents' objections. They wanted me to take care of my family and sisters, but it was important for me to expand my horizons. My family visited the ashram chanting program. It wasn't for them, but they saw how I was changing. And they accepted it. So I definitely see the value in helping other people accept themselves. As a teacher I really want to support and uplift people in their personal journeys.
How did you end up in California? While at the Manhattan ashram, I was doing hospice work. I'd chant in the morning, do a 12-hour shift with those near death, and then come back to a vi--brant ashram. Then I studied at an ashram in India for six months, where I met a lot of people from a Siddha Yoga ashram in Oakland. [They] said, "You should come out." I listened and moved to California in 1990. I started a three-year teacher training in 1994. I moved to Esalen in 1997 and learned massage and studied painting and astrology.
You are influenced by Iyengar Yoga. How do you teach now? I focus on the alignment of Iyengar and the Ujjayi breath [of] Ashtanga. I like flow, but with alignment. I'm also very influenced by Anusara in the way that I teach. I just freely speak from my heart. I'm opening my heart to seeing that God is in everyone. I want to honor Mother Earth—the sun and the moon and stars—and put the energy into that.
You also paint. How do art and yoga interact in your life? Creating art makes me feel like a child playing with colors and shapes. As a yoga teacher you take responsibility for others. With art I'm not responsible for anyone. It's pure enjoyment.