It's one of those hot days in Los Angeles. The sun is beating down. On the west side near the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica, dozens of determined, rubber mat toting people are streaming into an office building. Some in office attire, others more casual in flip-flops. They give off a student vibe, but their stride is quick and resolute like businesspeople on a tight schedule). They want to spend their lunch break with Bryan Kest, the founder of Power Yoga.
Standing in front of Bryan Kest, you are immediately drawn in by his friendly charisma. He's average height with salt and pepper gray hair, he's got a bit of stubble and your typical Californian broad smile. He greets you right at the door: "You're new! Great to have you here!" Of course he picks up on the foreign accent immediately and asks: "Where are you from?" He chuckles when I respond with Berlin, Germany. "I go there a lot. I remember my first time there, in Munich, when I put on a few pounds thanks to the beer and pretzels."
His laugh and his way of talking offer a glimpse into how the laid-back lifestyle of Californian hippies must have been. It's also clear why many describe Bryan Kest as a guru.
Bryan Kest rose to fame in the '90s when he returned from India having come up with a different form of yoga, one that most considered simpler and, more importantly, less dogmatic. Originally from Detroit, he went to India for one year to study with Ashtanga Yoga founder K. Pattabhi Jois after his father got him hooked on yoga. Thereafter, he landed in Los Angeles where he developed Power Yoga. Kest describes practicing his form of yoga as "empowering", which is how he derived the name Power Yoga.
Simply stated, yoga strives to harmonize the body, spirit and soul. Kest enhances his yoga practices -- so-called asanas -- with everything imaginable. In addition to the classic poses, deep relaxation, breathing and meditation exercises, there was also fitness and muscle conditioning --along the lines of good old-fashioned push-ups -- and a whole lot of good spirit.
Yoga Trainer to the Stars
His yoga made him a favorite amongst the stars. Hollywood's elite like Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore and pop stars like Sting and Madonna went in and out of his classes gushing about this new form of yoga, and especially the yogi himself. He was so different: a funny Midwesterner from Detroit, who meditated but ate meat and looked good -- with his long hair stacked like a mountain atop his head. The name "sexiest guru alive" dates back to this period.
Power Yoga Santa Monica is warm, humid, comfortable. The floor is wood-paneled, the walls natural hues. The room quickly fills up with about 80 people who deposit their shoes on a shelf before entering. They roll out their mats and start stretching. There is a bit of whispering, some people know each other. An easy and relaxed anticipation spreads throughout the room.
Bryan Kest greets everyone and then jumps right into the different asanas / practices. There is no division of beginners and advanced here. Everyone does what he or she can. Kest's deep voice resonates as he makes jokes, something quite unconventional for yoga. "Yoga should be good for you," he says. "If a selfie of your face right now would scare your mother, then you're doing something wrong." Or: "Yoga is like a buffet. You take from it what you can use. What's good for my body isn't necessarily good for yours." And he never tires of stressing: "The most important thing is to concentrate on your own breath!"
And while you're listening to your own breath, Kest's words drift in and out. Sometimes he even rhymes: "Breath with me. Best as can be..." And then he throws out another one of his jokes: "Stop looking at the ass of the person in front of you. It's not about being sexy here. It's only about you. There's always going to be someone with a firmer ass. So don't even start checking everyone out!" Some people chuckle, caught in the act.
Not even four minutes have passed before you start sweating profusely. The combination of concentrating on your inner self, your own breath and the poses quickly starts to wear you out. The ease with which every pose is performed, peppered with Kest's witticisms, functions like a turbocharger. It makes everything less arduous and exhausting.
Power Yoga combines traditional yoga poses with everything possible. For example, sometimes you find yourself "sitting" with your back against a wall, minus the chair! Then the master instructs you to close your eyes and concentrate on your inner self and to "enjoy every breath like the waves of the Pacific rolling onto the beach in Malibu." After 3 minutes you have forgotten your shaking quadriceps. A huge and unbelievable expansiveness previously unknown to you spreads throughout your body.
Yoga, according to the master, should "neither be dogmatic, nor rigid." We are all familiar with the images of extremely flexible people contorting their bodies. Even Bryan Kest wasn't able to do some of those poses. Every body is different. And "it's not a competition, it's yoga!" It is this blend of good humor, lots of yoga, meditation, awareness of breath and especially Bryan Kest himself that makes Power Yoga so successful.
His charisma emanates as he walks between the rows of his students, speaking nearly without pause. He weaves in yoga sermons and every day applications. He cautions you to always heed your spirit as "many illnesses only exist in our minds." After another classic asana, he lets everyone rest for one minute in "child's pose."
Then it's a transition into a sort of push-up position, feet up against the wall. Now, we all have to crawl our legs up the wall until we're leaning against it in a variation of a handstand. "Impossible," is the first thought that pops into minds of all the newbies. But it works. And while holding this strange pose up against the wall, an unimagined strength emerges. With your focus inwards, concentrated on your own breath, you are able to hold it for a surprisingly long time.
Lined up like sardines, the yogis stand on their arms with their feet against the wall. You really need a great deal of strength, but somehow you're not aware of it. You simply rise above and beyond yourself.
After a brief moment in "child's pose," he guides us into a sort of push up position: "plank pose", as they call it in yoga. After a long meditative minute it's back to familiar territory: "cobra" with a flowing transition to "downward dog" -- the yoga classics.
This dynamic mix of old and new combined with Californian culture is what makes this form of yoga second to none. Who hasn't been annoyed by dogmatic yogis preaching exactly how everything ought to be. That's not to say that Kest doesn't step in with corrections. He just does it in a non-intrusive way, prompting you to find your own way, "pushing" you just a little bit.
And so it happens, this rhythmic transition from tension to relaxation, from traditional poses to tried and true fitness moves. The common denominator in the whole equation of movements is the breath, the inward focus, the meditation. You can clearly sense how body and spirit shift during this hour. It is shocking how the room suddenly appears lighter, how, despite a constant focus on your breathing, your creativity starts to run wild with crazy ideas and thoughts; how it is incredibly inspired; how you're wondering what the source of all this might be?
Donation Based Business Model
Up front by the door there is a little cupboard with a box on top. In front of it is a sign: Donate what you want. 15 dollars is the recommendation. Kest explains how he was "always annoyed, that not everyone could afford to do yoga," which led him to set up the donation box. Everyone pays what the course is worth to him or her. He says "yoga has a lot to do with trust. Trust in yourself, trust in your surroundings, trust in the universe. If you're good to the universe, it will be good to you!" That's why he "doesn't have to monitor." And you can see it works: everyone stuffs bills into the box. This business model has worked over the past 20 years.
After a good hour you're tired out, but not exhausted. It sounds like a paradox, but that's how it feels -- and you're in an incredibly good mood. That's Power Yoga!
The Kest fans depart in good spirits, most back to their offices, with a healthy dose of energy.