The time had finally come. I had arrived in Los Cabos, Mexico, to train with Tony Sanchez #willyousignmymat?!?! Previous to this day, he had been “the man behind the poster” to me.
If you’ve practiced Bikram yoga, you’ve seen the poster. It hangs in almost every hot yoga studio and it includes tiny photos of a man performing each posture of the elusive Bikram “advanced” series. However, you probably did not realize that this man is not Bikram Choudhury himself, but rather a man who Bikram once considered his protege. This series used to only be accessible if you were part of an underground network of yogis and teachers. You had to be invited and it was not an official class (#youcantsitwithus); however, I soon found that Tony made DVDs and they were available online. For some reason this man did not feel that he “owned” this yoga nor that you needed his or anyone’s permission to practice it.
In case this is your first time being acquainted with him, Tony trained with Bikram from 1976 to 1980 when he was certified by Ghosh’s College of Physical Education and appointed director of Bikram’s San Francisco Yoga College of India, (1980-1984). While director of the US Yoga Association and SF Yoga Studio, 1985-2004, he won 2 world cup titles in Yoga Sport from the International Yoga Federation, Argentina & Brazil; launched an award-winning yoga program throughout the San Francisco school district; produced 4 videos; 2 books and is one of the yoga masters featured in the Yoga Journal coffee table book, Yoga. He relocated to Los Cabos in 2005 where he was director of yoga at One&Only Palmilla until launching the Yogic Physical Culture Academy (2011). So basically, he is a #yogabadass if ever a thing did exist!
During our first session in Mexico, one of the students attending asked Tony a question about the alignment of a pose. Tony replied with his answer and the student began to counter what Tony said. The student said he disagreed and practiced it a different way. Tony listened intently and responded with a question -“why do you practice it that way?” Startled by his question, the student responded “because it feels better in my hips that way”. Tony responded “well then you should practice it that way”. Even more startled, the student quickly realized there was nothing to debate. It is so rare for a student to encounter a teacher who believes that the student himself is the expert, that it leaves you dumbfounded. This is the way of Tony. He is cool, calm, wise and thoughtful. He is the guide not the dictator of your yoga practice while you visit. You gain a deeper understanding of yoga beyond the postures and ultimately yourself.
We would start each morning with a standing meditation and would practice in a room with large open windows -allowing the fresh ocean air to envelope our senses. This was such a contrast to the hot, poorly ventilated, and stuffy studios were hot yoga is usually performed. “How can you revitalize the body with no oxygen in the room?” he would ask, making you think and wonder how the series was practiced before our yang-like culture turned it into a torture chamber of sorts. In the moderate climate of Los Cabos, without artificial heat, we would practice twice a day and I would find myself dripping sweat from the internal heat I had built (not a heater frying my eyebrows off). In the evenings, we would go soak in the resort hot tub to soothe our sore muscles as we ate fresh organic food purchased by local vendors. I no longer felt attached to the self-punishment of the studio heat and realized that I had never been as sore or in shape in my life as I was after I left that training. I left with a deeper wisdom that I am my own expert of MY yoga and MY body and no teacher could ever tell me otherwise.
These lessons have stayed with me long after the training ended. Recently, I took a hot yoga class and a teacher overheard me chatting about using a prop to go deeper into a posture. They told me I was a “cheater” for using the prop. They asked me repeatedly to name someone who benefited in that posture by using the prop. I simply responded “me, it has benefited me”. Some teachers will never realize that they do not own the right to tell a student what is helpful to them or not or even when they are ready or “allowed” to attempt a posture or series. But luckily, once you realize that you are your own teacher, the world of yoga opens up like an oyster.
Please enjoy some of Tony’s thoughtful answers to my questions as he graciously agreed to do this interview with me. Let me know your thoughts and if you are able, I HIGHLY recommend paying him a visit at one of his upcoming workshops. Word on the street is that he is now doing them in Malaga, Spain! Yoga, seafood, wine? Count me in!
1. Define yoga in 1 sentance
Yoga is the ultimate physical, mental, emotional and spiritual method of exercise that can be adopted based on each individuals needs.
2. What inspired you to begin yoga?
One day during my years in High School a close friend presented me with a copy of the Autobiography of a Yogi by Yogananda which I carefully read. That was my first introduction to yoga and my inspiration to embark on the path.
3. Who were your mentors
Bikram, Asis Bikram’s older brother and Biswanath Bishnu Ghosh’s son.
4. You were once close to Bikram, what happened?
During the seventies and early eighties I was very close to Bikram, he used to call me his best creation and did many demonstrations to promote yoga. After Bikram married Raj his goals for yoga changed. They decided to keep yoga in house and we parted ways.
5. What do you think about Hot Yoga?
I think that practicing yoga in temperatures above the normal temperature of the body can have adverse health effects. In my opinion, one should generate natural body heat by the simple muscle compression that takes place during the practice of yoga. That is the most effective way to gain the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual benefits yoga has to offer. Practicing yoga in high temperatures will eventually will cause unwanted health problems.
6. You disappeared in the yoga community for several years. Where did you go and why?
After running the SF yoga studio for over 20 years I felt a needed to take a break from the yoga scene and moved to Los Cabos, Mexico to reenergize and regroup. In 2012 We launched the first yoga teacher training. Since then we have been offering two training programs a year. In 2016 we moved the trainings to Malaga, Spain.
7. How do you feel yoga is evolving? Is it evolving in a negative or positive way?
My personal feeling about how yoga is evolving, in the sense that yoga is becoming very popular and accessible to many people is positive and encouraging. In the sense that many unqualified teachers are training students to become yoga teachers is irresponsible and dangerous.
8.You now offer intimate workshops. What do you hope to teach your students?
My training programs are small with lots of information that will make my participants more knowledgeable and better students and teachers. So, they will have the flexibility to organize their personal practice or their yoga classes with better understanding of the needs of their students.
9. Do you think yoga is a religious practice?
To me yoga is a lifestyle not a religion. One can practice yoga religiously which is the best way to practice it but it does not make it a religion. Religion requires rituals which in my opinion are not necessary in the practice of yoga.
10. You used to participate in competitive yoga. What are your thoughts on yoga competition?
When I was in my thirties I participated in two yoga competitions, one in Argentina and one in Brazil. I am proud to say I won “yoga sport” both times. In my opinion yoga competitions are inspirational and can motivate new yoga participants specially the young.
Well there you have it. Very rarely, does Tony share his beliefs. Instead of answers, you often hear him ask questions in return because he is always teaching his student to think for themselves and develop not only their body but also their mind. I am so honored to conduct this interview. Please visit Tony Sanchez’s site for more information about his upcoming workshops, trainings, and events. www.84yogis.com
Namaste, Bendy Babes!