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Yoga Journal: Tell me about how you found yoga.
Tony Sanchez: I finished high school and was thinking about college. Someone gave me Autobiography of a Yogi, and it fascinated me. When I went to Bikram’s studio for a class, I gave the guy behind the desk $50, but he didn’t have change. He said, Give me $20 more, and you can get 10 lessons. When I met Bikram, he shook my hand and wouldn’t let go of it. He may have recognized the potential in me, but I thought, this guy is weird, give me my hand back. It was the beginning of an apprenticeship and a 23-year friendship.
YJ: Now you are teaching yoga in elementary and high schools in San Francisco?
TS: Originally we [USYA] taught yoga to 12 teachers in the district. They went back to their respective schools, and they’re still teaching yoga as part of their physical education program. But they are also using yoga across the curriculum, with something we’ve developed called the “Yoga Science Box.” For example, in elementary schools, teachers can pull out a card with a posture that corresponds to a lesson in anatomy, physics, or geometry. They may use Triangle Pose to teach the Pythagorean theorem.
YJ: What is your motivation for teaching yoga to kids?
TS: Originally we thought we could organize some kind of yoga competition among the schools. But once we saw the dismal state of children’s fitness, we saw they were a long way from competing. First we have to work on their health.
YJ: You have done some yoga competitions yourself…
TS: In 1994 I saw a small item in Yoga Journal about the International Yoga Federation’s competition in Argentina. To everyone’s surprise, I managed to win. When YJ wrote a small article about it, subscribers got very upset because people in the States are not into looking at yoga as a form of competition.
YJ: What was your reaction to the outcry?
TS: I feel that there is room for everything. The competitive aspect takes place in the realm of hatha yoga. There have been yoga competitions in India for a long time. Also Japan, South America, Europe. The only place there’s a lot of objection is here in the States.
YJ: Why do you think that is?
TS: Here, yoga is an oasis where people don’t have to feel the pressure that they have to be better than the next guy.
YJ: But you still feel that competition is true to the spirit of yoga?
TS: By seeing people who are really good hatha yoga practitioners, we can be inspired. But you can practice hatha yoga forever and you will never reach the same level of enlightenment as if you were practicing bhakti or raja yoga.
YJ: Do you think that hatha yoga practice is spiritual?
TS: It’s transcendent, but in order to be truly spiritual, you need to meditate.
YJ: Do you meditate?
TS: I try to, but sometimes I feel I’m not ready to devote myself 100 percent to the meditative aspect. I love the world and what it offers, and when you get into the spiritual aspect of yoga, you have to shed all of these things.
YJ: What are some of the things you love?
TS: I love food. I eat well. I enjoy a glass of wine here and there. I’m intrigued by the different shapes of bodies. I drive fast.
YJ: What are you hoping for in your future?
TS: I try to live in the present, but one of my dreams is to fulfill my karma so that I can go into deep meditation and experience these things the great masters talk about. I think I’m just beginning, and there’s a long way to go.
Born in Chicago, Sanchez moved to Mexico when he was 3, and then to East Los Angeles as a teenager. Sanchez started studying Bikram Yoga at 19. He founded the San Francisco Yoga Studio and United States Yoga Association (USYA).