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.