Chelsea Roff: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me Waylon. Many people know you as the founder of Elephant Journal, one of the most well-known publications out there covering yoga, mindfulness, eco-living, and conscious consumerism. I wanted to start by asking you a little bit about your personal journey… how did you come to yoga and meditation to begin with?
Waylon Lewis: Well, Elephant just turned 10. So my direct relationship with yoga dates back exactly 10 years, I guess. I was dragged into it, rather unwillingly, by the strange fact that (due to my writerly and business and Buddhist background) I wound up partnering in a little regional yoga publication called Yoga in the Rockies.
I think my first ever yoga class was at Corepower — hot yoga. I literally, literally crawled outta there. Then I did Bikram, then Richard Freeman’s Yoga Workshop, where I stayed and continued to practice forever.
As part of my work I was travelling around the Rockies, doing yoga at various studios… it was an amazingly diverse, both-feet-in introduction to yoga. Something I’d always viewed at arm’s distance as a sort of weird, love n’ lightey, airy-fairy kinda spiritual-lite community. But in Richard I found someone who cared about breath, meditation, lineage—he was humble, literally bored by any sort of special attention, and funny as fuck.
CR: Haha. I can totally see a very hot, sweaty, and shirtless Waylon Lewis crawling hands and knees out of Corepower.
CR: (laughs) Do you remember what thoughts were going through your mind during that first hot yoga class?
WL: “This is so hard.”
It felt like staying in a sauna too long—way too long. It wasn’t fun, particularly. I’ve always been somewhat athletic—basketball, baseball, swimming, now cycling, climbing—those are all fun. Yoga was hard. Humbling.
I still rarely enjoy it. One of the things I love about doing yoga with real pros like Richard or Billy or Seane Corn… with the best teachers…is that yoga is tolerable. And, of course, post-yoga is heaven.
CR: Can you put your finger on what felt different about those yoga experiences? Do you think it’s a different strokes for different folks kind of thing? And if not, what is it that makes them “real pros” as teachers?
WL: I absolutely do not think it’s different strokes for different folks.
Part of the problem with the (amazing) yoga generation is that we feel like we can take the salad bar approach to everything.
You know, “the customer is always right.”
There are two kinds of yoga: The first kind is “real yoga”—which, whatever the tradition, must involve one-on-one teaching, attention to the breath, and an emphasis on proper alignment. A sense of humor might be another tell-tale sign of whether we’re doing “real yoga”, as well.
The second kind is “whatever yoga.” It’s all good yoga. Yoga as aerobics, yoga as exercise, yoga butt yoga. This kind is equally important—yoga is for everybody. But this second kind of yoga, while important and accessible and fun and healthy—does need to be balanced with the first kind of yoga. As things are going, now, in a few generations commercial yoga may overtake and dominate lineage yoga.
CR: Why do you think it’s important for yoga to be grounded in lineage?
WL: Yoga, like gardening, can be be learned from books and videos. But as with anything, the devil (and the magic) is in the details. We need to be able to ask dumb questions, and having someone there to notice mistakes and breakthroughs that we can’t see ourselves.
Like, in my first class with Richard, we were doing a backbend. I have a tight lower back, especially back then. And I was trying super hard—huffing and puffing and focusing. And Richard came over, standing right over me, leaned down smiling, and lifted me up by my shoulderblades… and air rushed into my lungs, my heart opened up in a way it hadn’t, like, ever. I thought I was trying hard, diligently, when really I just needed a little help getting into the actual posture, and then I could relax and breathe.
CR: Okay, so that example speaks to the importance of having a knowledgable teacher. But do you think it’s also important for that teacher to uphold a tradition, a lineage-based practice that’s been passed down over centuries?
WL: Lineage, in Buddhism, is symbolized by a thread. That thread, uncut, winds down through the generations, straight back to the Buddha. Without lineage, there’s a danger that the teacher might confuse their charisma or the magic and power of the teachings and the adulation of the crowds with the Dharma or what they’re teaching. Teaching should be humbling, and frightening in terms of responsibility. And fucking fun.
CR: I’m sensing a theme emerging here.
WL: Of course, lineage on its own is no guarantor of quality. In the Buddhist tradition, there are plenty of half-baked “Rinpoches” who party and troll the sangha, or community, for gifts and financial support. But they never bothered to study, stew, bake, beat, open up…to cook themselves in the Dharma. It’s tough work. And fucking fun.
Being genuine and enjoying the moment, no matter how tough, is so much more fun than the opposite—being fake and self-centered and confused and neurotic and taking ourselves too seriously!
And the yoga community does this constantly. My current pet peeve with the yoga community is our infatuation with “positivity.” It’s soooo rigid, uptight, superficial, and turns something wonderful (optimism, can-doness) into a sort of dogma or theology.
CR: Yes. And through the work that you do, you’ve really had a unique opportunity to witness these trends, as well as how the yoga and mindfulness communities have shifted and evolved over the past decade. Can you speak to the evolution you’ve seen — both what’s inspired you and caused you concern?
Yoga as club defeats the purpose. We as a community have a choice: we can fight over where to sit on the Titanic (climate change, inequity) or Save the World (and have a good time doing so). We have the choice to “pop” external clubbiness, just as our practice helps us to learn to make friends with our internal egos & insecurity. How can our yoga community stop our occasional silliness, and—perhaps more than any other community—be of (joyful) benefit to a world full of real suffering?
I think the yoga community—as is manifesting in movements like Yogavotes—but also in much more grounded, basic, everyday, personal ways with each of us—is perhaps the largest generation in history that’s focused around compassion, care for our environment, activism, as well as some spiritual discipline of trying to be a good, kind, soft yet strong human being.
It’s exciting. It’s timely.
With the world (only in some ways) going to hell in a handbasket—so partisan, politically—so blind, environmentally—we have the chance to really be of service and show that the way to happiness isn’t through selfishness, but through kindness.
CR: Can you say more about the opportunity you see for both the yoga and mindfulness communities to come together and for a real movement?
WL: The Buddhist community isn’t doing much, yet. It’s small and quiet and inward-focused. The yoga community is far more inspiring, from an environmental or political pov. That said, Buddhism was huge and happening in the 90s. It’s just that meditation is much less sexy. It’s harder to sell products around it, so companies like lululemon don’t form around it. There’s a whole yoga industry. That presents plenty of problems, but it also is a sign of the energy that comes together around yoga.
Way back in 2002, I was looking for a slogan for our little yoga magazine. I didn’t want it to be about yoga, but rather about everything that yoga people cared about. I wanted our community to face outwards, instead of being self-involved. So I settled on the word “mindful,” which at the time was only used in the Buddhist tradition to refer to a specific type of meditation practice.
“Mindful” isn’t the perfect word—it’s a bit boring—but it does bring together activism, care for our environment (say, remembering to turn off the light switch) with inward spiritual development, kindness, meditation. We have to do both.
So “the mindful life” became our slogan—and we said we were about “yoga, organics, sustainability, conscious consumerism, the arts, ecofashion, enlightened education, active citizenship—anything that helps us to live a good life that’s also good for others, and our planet.”
Now folks like Jeff and Sean here at Wanderlust are working on galvanizing this “mindful generation” to help gather and shape our compassionate energy. So, overall, I’m excited that we might start actually doing something for the world, on a grounded, practical level.
CR: I’m not sure if you think of yourself this way, but I think many consider you a leader in this movement you’re talking about. What is your intent in leading this community… what do you hope will come out of all the hard work you put into Elephant Journal and in supporting others doing this work?
WL: My intent is to make elephant huge, a real force a la Reddit or Facebook or Huffington Post… But in our case, for independent, grassroots media and community. And then, with my millions of dollars, to run for Congress or Governor and spend the last years of my tired, lonely, broken, senseless life in public service.
WL: I once interviewed an idol of mine, Lester Brown, and he leaned in with his light sky blue eyes and said: and I paraphrase… “the world is fucked. The only hope is media.” Media could mean communication, generally. Journalism. Education. You know, enlightenment!
CR: I think that’s a good note to end on. Thanks, Waylon.
How did you come to yoga? How is yoga transforming your life? How are you sharing the benefits of your practice with your community? Whether you’re on your mat, living your life, or loving those around you, Manduka wants to hear from you! Fill out this short questionnaire about how you’re living YOUR yoga to receive 10% off Manduka gear and a chance to be featured on their website, blog, or next Yoga Journal Ad.
The YOU Series features in-depth conversations with yoga practitioners and teachers from around the country. The goal of the series to chronicle stories of how people came to yoga and how the practice is transforming lives and communities. Read inspiring stories from yogis we meet at this year’s Wanderlust Festivals, and see the bottom of this post for how you can share your story as well!