When we were first introduced to the teachings of Michael Stone, we could only muster up one term to describe him: mind-blowing. His mission? To explore the intersection of spiritual practice and social action. Michael is a psychotherapist in private practice, lecturer, yoga teacher and critically acclaimed author. As the director of Centre of Gravity in Toronto, he has toured the world leading retreats, lectures and workshops (check out his YouTube lectures and prepare for your mind to be blown), inspiring social change and truth in action. We had the honor of sitting down with Michael to discuss life on the mat and off – and how we can go about allowing yoga to change our world.
The Chalkboard Mag: What originally drew you to yoga?
Michael Stone: When I was about eight years old, I started to take the bus after school to go visit my uncle, who was very sick and hospitalized in downtown Toronto. He was my best friend. He would teach me about meditation practice by putting on The Beatles’ White Album and getting me to really pay attention to detail (sometimes he would even take his cigarette and put it on an ashtray on one of the speakers so that the smoke from the cigarette would make the shape of the music as it streamed upward). We would often read the Bhagavad Gita or the teachings of the Buddha together – so at a really early age, I was exposed to these more esoteric aspects of yoga. I didn’t completely understand what we were studying, but I knew it had something to do with being awake, working with your mind and love. He was really the anchor in my life – therefore, so was yoga.
More recently? When I was 20, I dropped out of university and really had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. My girlfriend at the time recommended I come with her to a yoga class. And I’ve got to say it was the strangest experience: As the teacher was teaching, I knew all the poses and had a feeling of what was going to come next. I just felt like I had been there my whole life. Now, don’t get me wrong – I was stiff and I couldn’t keep up with the breathing or movements, but I loved it. I had the meditative and philosophical side of yoga ingrained in me; it’s how I saw the world. But it wasn’t until that class that I realized there was actually a practice, that you also have to do something with your body, that yoga is an embodied practice in which we don’t separate our psychological attentiveness with what’s going on at a physical, emotional, and anatomical level. Something clicked inside me, and I really haven’t stopped practicing since then.
TCM: If yoga is not about the poses, then why do we do them? Why don’t we just sit and meditate?
MS: How yoga works is a really interesting question. As you go through each pose, breath by breath, you start to open up patterns of sensation. And you start to realize that those sensations are loaded with all forms of clinging and stories. When the mind starts experiencing sensations it doesn’t like, you create stories to get out of them, and then you experience getting caught up in narratives and images instead of the actual sensations of the postures. Often we think we are feeling sensations, yet we are actually just caught up in our idea of the sensations we can feel. And so this is the heart of yoga: a practice of concentration and mindfulness.
That practice is definitely possible sitting still. I highly recommend it. In fact, I think meditation practice in a formal, seated way is the center point of really learning how to work with your mind. At the same time, as we start to manipulate the breath and stretch it through patterns of poses, we find that we really start opening up all new areas of feelings that we might not get to (or not get to until very late) in meditation practice. So really, yoga postures and meditation compliment each other. The practice might begin with the breath drawing through the hamstrings, and it might transform into seeing how the mind holds onto viewpoints – and then link to how your mind clings to the problems you’re having in your relationships.
TCM: Yoga is about heart opening and mindfulness, but why is it that some people who practice every day seem to remain cold and rigid in their lifestyles? Isn’t yoga supposed to eradicate that?
MS: People who go to practice and keep on repeating the same old patterns… to me, this is a kind of addiction that has to do with not wanting to stop and look and how things really are. Most people don’t want to stop out of fear: fear of letting go of their viewpoints. If you don’t learn and embrace the deeper psychological levels of a yoga practice, then you start getting more energy from your practice and it just starts funneling through the ol’ plumbing system. You leave your yoga class and you have a fight with your spouse – and you have more energy for it. You have more neuroses and more anxiety.
It is so important that we learn some of the psychological tricks that lead into the poses, the ones we always hear about but at some level avoid in our practice. According to yoga psychology, the thing that keeps us repeating old habits in “Avidya:” not seeing. It says the root cause of our suffering is not seeing how things really are in our lives. We are addicted to pleasure. Yoga is about deep intimacy with how things are, but many people translate this with being one with pleasure. And in reality, yoga is about being one with everything. Being one with sadness, loneliness and anger is just the same as joy and peace. As your practice starts to deepen and you start to see how the mind clings to things that are pleasurable while avoiding what’s not pleasurable, you can start to see that your freedom is much deeper than just “feeling good.” There comes a time within our yoga practice where we need to make a choice between feeling good and feeling the way our lives really are.
TCM: Tell us about your studio, Centre of Gravity. What do you hope to cultivate there?
MS: Centre of Gravity is a community of people who are interested in yoga and meditative practices and in learning how to bring those practices to life in their messy, busy lives. My goal with Centre of Gravity has been to teach people how to create change by having a daily meditation, practicing ethics, have a daily asana practice and also studying the traditional texts that support these practices. After they’ve learned these practices at our studio, then the second phase is taking these teachings and actually bring them into our parenting, our food choices, the way we use money – bringing them into every aspect of our lives, so that no stone is unturned. It continues with taking care of the body and waking up the mind, all the way through what yoga calls “somatics,” which is a deep intimacy with the interconnectedness of life.
The paradox of a yoga practice is that the more we let go of our self-centeredness and our distractions, the more we want to help others; the more we want to clarify our relationships. And so the real secret of happiness is that we are most happy when we are helping others, because the core teaching of yoga is that we are all interconnected. It’s easy to walk around during the day and have a philosophy of interconnectedness, or hang out on Facebook and feel how we’re all interconnected online. But to actually feel that interconnectedness in a deep enough way that it spurs you to take action – that is the level of practice I’m interested in. It’s not just about giving people a new belief system from ancient India or China or Japan, but taking these trade practices and bring them to life in this time of global warming, of insanity around politics, and a very uncertain economic future.
TCM: You talk a lot about the interconnectedness of yoga, how as a society we’re missing out on some of the deeper levels of practice. What do you hope to see happen as the yoga scene evolves?
MS: Some of the values you hold at The Chalkboard have to do with connecting people with each other, and then connecting people back to themselves. In modern yoga, there is so much focus on pleasure and the geometry of poses. And I think we’re missing out on a few things. One: How can we drop down to the psychological level of practice so our emotion patterns are really changing? Two: How can we develop relationships with teachers (and cultivate a new generation of teachers) where the intimacy of the relationships between the teachers, students and community create real change in people’s lives? If you’re just paying $20 to go to a class and there’s no relationship with the teacher, then the class just becomes another product that you enter into anonymously. Thankfully, more and more of our studios are becoming more like community centers. And when there are enough people practicing in these community centers, they become a real force of positive change in the world. These values of nonviolence and kindness, generosity, the ability to give, the ability to drop our viewpoints – these are really values we need in our culture at this time. These values go against the stream of materialism and consumerism that is really making us lose track of ourselves. That is the kind of yoga I’d really like to see.
TCM: What is the biggest lesson yoga has taught you?
MS: Holding onto the way I think things should be always causes suffering. The real flexibility of practice is not just being flexible in my body, but being flexible in my viewpoints.
TCM: What is the biggest lesson you hope to teach through yoga?
MS: I hope that my teaching gives people the skills to develop deeper intimacy in their lives, with themselves and with others. Also, better communication, flexibility in the way we listen and the realization that everything leans into everything else. I hope to teach that the deepest healing possible – individually and socially – only comes through intimacy.
TCM: What are 5 things on your bucket list, personal or professional?
1. Be a present father.
2. Master kindness, in all aspects of my life.
3. Build a community that creates social change.
4. Learn how to be in the ocean and not be scared. Specifically, not be scared of swimming things.
5. Repeat number one.
TCM: What is your personal mantra?
MS: Include everything.