I just finished reading a great book, a hilarious and inspiring memoir called Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi by Brian Leaf. Typically, I’m turned off by yoga books because they can be so pretentious, excessively esoteric, or just plain absurd. Brian’s book is a breath of fresh air, though. He maintains a light sense of humor throughout, as well as genuine humility. Brian’s definitely had his share of crazy, out-there, New-Agey experiences, and he recounts them in great detail in his book. But, in the end, Brian is just a guy from New Jersey. I like that about him (and not just because I’m from New Jersey, too).
Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi is organized loosely around Brian’s “Eight Keys to Happiness.” Normally, this sort of thing would cause me to toss a book straight into the recycling bin. I generally dislike pop-psychology or self-help lists — e.g. “Five Keys to Success,” “Ten Steps to a Healthier You,” etc. — as they tend to be unhelpful and unrealistic quick-fixes to very real problems. But in the case of Brian Leaf’s book, his “Eight Keys to Happiness” are not only very reasonable; they are the result of lived experience.
Here’s an illustrative example of Brian’s wacky, but totally engaging, storytelling style. During a cross-country trip with a friend, Brian ends up at some hot springs in Arizona, hanging out with a passed-out Native American man, several twenty-something college women, and a group of Phish roadies. Of course, everyone’s naked. For some reason, it makes sense to Brian to leave this place and drive, all by himself, straight into a sand storm so he can practice yoga and meditate. Then he has an ice cream cone at Woolworth’s. The conclusion of this episode is one of Brian’s “Keys to Happiness”: Cultivate and Follow Your Intuition. How Brian gets from Point A to B is a bit of a magic trick. But somehow it works, and it even makes sense.
Yes, Brian’s book is filled with even more entertaining stories and misadventures. The greatest thing I can say about his book, though, is that it inspired me to take up meditation in earnest. I am 100% serious about this. Throughout my life, I’ve tried, and mostly failed, to take up a regular meditation practice. Sure, we’ve all heard that meditation is this great thing. There’s also mounting scientific evidence that meditation helps with all sorts of mental, emotional, psychological, and physical problems. But it’s damn near impossible for most people, including well-meaning yogis, to really commit to and stick with a meditation practice.
Somehow, Brian’s unique presentation of meditation did the trick for me. He describes meditation as a kind of “bushwhacking,” where you literally create new pathways in your brain’s circuitry. He also describes meditation as a kind of mental bench-pressing. This is language I can understand! For the last few weeks, I’ve been meditating every morning. It’s the first thing I do after brushing my teeth. I have yet to miss a day, and I am hopeful that this is the beginning of a sustained and consistent meditation practice. I’ve already seen tremendous benefits, and I can’t thank Brian enough for not only stressing the importance of meditation, but also making it so accessible. It’s one thing to read about a Zen master’s other-wordly experience with meditation. It’s a totally different thing (and more relatable) to read about a regular guy from New Jersey sitting down and meditating to deal with his ADD.
If you’re in the market for a good read, or perhaps a nice holiday gift for another yogi, I highly recommend Brian Leaf’s Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi. It’s easy to read without being simplistic. It’s enlightening without being pretentious. It’s philosophical without being esoteric. This is that rare book that can inspire you to make actual, positive changes in your life. It did for me.
Brian Leaf has graciously offered to do an exclusive Q&A with Om Shanti: A Yoga Blog. Below is the transcript of our e-conversation.
You offer and discuss eight keys to happiness over the course of your book. How do you define happiness?
Good question! I’d say happiness is an experience of energy flowing. This can come from a great run, connecting with a friend, time in nature, or an achievement at work. In yoga and holistic health, we talk about opening to our emotions and about “being present.” When we are closed to emotion and when we are distracted, our energy does not flow as well. In this case we need a great run, connecting with a friend, time in nature, or an achievement at work for us to accept reality and let the energy flow so we can feel happy. But, opening to our emotions and “being present” allows our energy to flow more freely all the time and we can feel happy with no particular reason.
You talk frequently and enthusiastically about meditation. “Meditation is the bomb,” to quote you directly. What’s so great about it?
Meditation trains the mind to focus and also to choose what to focus on. It’s like bench-pressing for your mental muscles of concentration. Plus, when you are mindful of your thoughts and your experience, you identify with your deeper, true self, rather than with the thoughts. Even if for only a moment, you become grounded in the unflickering flame of your true self. For a moment you achieve the very aim of yoga.
You say that a “green light” shot out of your chest during a Grateful Dead concert and traveled all the way across to Jerry Garcia’s guitar. Really!?
I know, crazy, right!? Although, now that the book has been out for a few weeks, I’ve actually heard from several Deadheads that something very similar happened to them! This is like shaktipat in yoga. There’s no doubting that Jerry was a medium for energy. What else could explain the community of hundreds of thousands of devotees that gathered around him?
What are yamas and niyamas, and how have you incorporated them into your own life?
The yamas and niyamas are the Ten Commandments of yoga. They come from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, written about 2100 years ago. Patanjali is very famous as the author of the sutras, but in reality, he was probably just compiling and categorizing existing knowledge. He was sort of the yogic Wikipedia of ancient times.
The ten yamas and niyamas are nonviolence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), nonstealing (asteya), moderation (brahmacharya), noncovetousness (aparigraha), purity (shaucha), contentment (santosha), discipline (tapas), self-observation (swadhyaya), and meditation on the divine (Ishvara-pranidhana).
Swami Kripalu, the namesake of Kripalu yoga, taught that the yamas and niyamas are like beads on a necklace — if you pick up one, they all follow along. Actually, he said it a bit more poetically, “By firmly grasping the flower of a single virtue, a person can lift the entire garland of yama and niyama.” In other words, dedicated practice of any one of the yamas or niyamas will result in cultivation of them all.
This works because, for example, if you follow nonharming, you can’t lie to a friend because at some level the lie would harm her. Swami Kripalu also meant that practicing any one of the rules builds consciousness. And increased consciousness will make a person desire the peace and joy that comes from adhering to all of these rules.
During your post-college road trip, you tried to live by the mantra “fearless, honest, relaxed.” Does this mantra still guide you in some way? Would you recommend this mantra to others?
I don’t repeat this mantra now like I did during my trip, but actually, I think it has infused the way I think and behave all the time. I try to be brave (open to new possibilities, not limited by old thinking and habits), honest (this allows energy to flow much more freely), and relaxed (I hate the feeling of being stressed and tense).
People talk a lot these days about living with “mindfulness,” but sometimes it’s not entirely clear what they mean. How do you understand mindful living?
I call this becoming most real. Becoming most real means becoming aware of what we are doing and feeling all the time. It means noticing not only our imagined or desired reality —the one we’re cooking up in our mind to soothe our discomforts and fears — but also the reality that actually exists, the one that is most real.
Here’s an example. Yesterday I was stressed about a deadline for a few chapters I owed my agent. I was all worked up and feeling pretty miserable. I figured that if I could just stop feeling stressed and feel relaxed instead, that then I’d be happy. So I breathed deeply, I meditated hard. I struggled. I pushed and fought — trying to talk myself out of it, trying to shift awareness, trying to trick myself, if necessary, into switching from feeling stressed to relaxed.
But then I asked, “What is most real?”
I noticed that I was feeling tense and stressed. That I knew already. But I also noticed that I was struggling to change things, trying to force myself to feel relaxed. And that was the key. Because then I went from being lost in the struggle to being aware of the struggle. I went from identifying with the struggling to identifying with my deeper self that sees the struggle. For a moment I was grounded in the unflickering flame of my true self. For a moment I achieved the very aim of yoga.
You can practice being most real by asking yourself, “What am I trying to feel right now, and what am I actually feeling right now?” These two are related: What you are trying to feel right now, or more specifically, the fact that you are trying, is what you are actually doing; it is most real. Most real is not the state you are trying to achieve but the state you are in. That’s where you’ll find the greatest vitality, peace, and happiness.
A lot of Americans are skeptical about the esoteric, spiritual, or religious aspects of yoga and Ayurveda. What do you have to say to these people?
I say, “Get over it, man.” This is probably the first time in history in which people need a double-blind study to convince them they should poop when they feel the urge. The body and gut and intuition and inner wisdom are genius.