Mark McDermott

Ancient wisdom for modern living: Max Strom, author ‘A Life Worth Breathing’, comes to Yoga Loft

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Max Strom at Yoga Loft in Manhattan Beach last year. Photo by Meaghan Kammerman

by Mark McDermott

Shelley Williams didn’t seem like someone in great need of personal transformation.

It was 1996. Williams was a young dancer working professionally in Los Angeles who’d emerged from UCLA’s World Arts and Cultures program, earning a B.A. with an emphasis in modern dance, intercultural performance, West African Dance, and integrated arts education. But she was also working as a waitress and struggling to keep up with the pace of her life.

“I was kind of spinning my wheels, running around like a chicken with my head cut off,” Williams recalled.

Then one day one of her restaurant patrons made a suggestion that would deeply alter the course of William’s life, and as a result, the lives of hundreds of people who live in the South Bay.

“You need to come to a yoga class,” the man said. “And not just any class: you need to come to Max Strom’s class.”

She arrived for a class at Maha Yoga in Brentwood; from the moment Strom stepped into the room, Williams knew she’d found one of her life’s great teachers.

I just felt this incredibly strong, calming, and kind of secure presence about him,” she said. “And I had never taken yoga and I wasn’t sure who he was or what was going on, but I felt held —  I felt I was in the hands of an elder. And he is older than me, but I felt that there was just this ancient wisdom that he possessed, even though I couldn’t put a finger on it.”

As the practice progressed, the experience deepened.

“I was really moved by Max’s ability to both guide us through movement but connect us to our breath and our consciousness in a way that I’d never experienced in my years of training in professional dance, ballet and gymnastics,” Williams said. “Everything I had experienced up to that point was performative and an outward expression, and so this was a huge turning point for me in finding this symbiosis of my physical expression and my internal environment. And what I was so struck by was his ability to do this in a very simple, succinct, direct way, with very few words.”

Williams became a student of both Max and another teacher, Shiva Rea (originally from Hermosa Beach), and when he opened up his own studio, Sacred Movement, she followed. There, she would eventually train with him to become a teacher. As the years passed, she was continuously struck by Strom’s presence.

“Max has an incredible gift to sense the energy in the room and to really take care and guide the experience of everyone in the room,” she said. “Sometimes he’d be across the room at Sacred Movement… and we’d be in a room filled with 100 students and he literally would be in the opposite corner but he would speak to me from across the room, whether it be metaphorically or literally. He’d be working with a student hands-on in one corner, but looking across at the same time. ‘Shelley, breathe more deeply.’ That was amazing to me, how he could really tend to the whole family of the room together.”

Max Strom and Shelley Williams. Photo by Meaghan Kammerman

Williams would eventually become one of the foundational teachers in the South Bay’s burgeoning yoga community. Strom’s journey as a teacher was also just beginning. He would became a teacher known worldwide, not just for his work on a yoga mat, but as the author of one of the seminal books in the yoga movement worldwide, “A Life Worth Breathing.” His teaching has moved far beyond the mat. He’s a featured TEDx speaker, and earlier this year spoke at the World Government Summit in Dubai.  

Yet in the course of his global travels, Strom still manages to touch down from time to time locally, particularly to reunite with his former students. On Sunday afternoon, he’ll give a workshop —  “Crisis as the Axis for Transformation” —  at Yoga Loft, a little yoga studio overlooking the Manhattan Beach pier where Williams is among the teachers.

Yoga Loft founder and teacher Suzy Nece said the experience of learning from Strom is as invigorating for yoga teachers as it is students or even those who’ve never encountered yoga before.

“He has a way of demystifying yogic philosophy and talking to everyone,” Nece said.  “I always feel empowered for a fresh start when I hear him speak. It’s motivating and I feel deeply rooted in myself and profoundly connected to this beautiful yoga community of seekers and survivors.”

Plus, she added, “The dude is cool.”

 

The Seeker

 

Max Strom’s arrival in this world didn’t come with auspicious signs that he would one day become a yoga practitioner much less a preeminent teacher. He was born as a 12-pound baby with clubfoot, and spent the first six years of his life in a series of casts and braces meant to straighten his feet. After two corrective surgeries, he was finally able to walk somewhat normally (his feet were three sizes different from each other), but the time in casts left his hips so inflexible he couldn’t cross his legs. He’d also broken his thigh bone at age 4 and his elbow at 10 (falling from a tree), the latter which caused him to lose 40 percent of the use of his elbow joint.

But what Williams surmised within seconds of encountering him —  that he was an elder, a carrier of ancient wisdom —  was a quality that emerged early in Strom’s life. Though raised by an atheist father and agnostic mother, Strom was a born seeker. At 15, Strom, who is from Santa Cruz, found himself drawn over and over again to solo trips into the nearby woods. Without knowing it, he’d found meditation, though he may not have called it that at the time —  he’d sit on a mountainside and find stillness. Around the same time, he began experiencing profound, mystical, almost prophetic dreams. The experience shook him, and sent him on his own self-studies. By 19, he’d studied Taoism, modern and esoteric Christianity, Sufism, Buddhism, and Qi Gong. What he had not found, however, was a teacher.

“My eyes and mind had been opened, but my heart was sad,” he writes in “A Life Worth Breathing”. “Like a penniless, hungry man standing outside a bakery, I could see and smell the bread through the glass, but I couldn’t eat it.”

So he abandoned his studies and became a musician, first with a progressive rock band and later a New Wave band, and later a working screenwriter in Hollywood.

At age 34, he realized that though he’d gained a lot of knowledge, and even some fame, in the swath he’d cut, his life was bereft of meaning. He hit a crisis point; he went financially bankrupt, and came to the profound realization that he was not happy and never had been.

On his 35th birthday, a friend, as a gift, insisted Strom come to YogaWorks in Santa Monica for a class. By mistake she took him to an advanced class. It felt disastrous; Strom sweated, shook, almost threw up, and fell sound asleep at the end of class. But afterwards he was utterly shocked to find himself in a state of euphoria that lasted two days.

Soon he was practicing four days a week. He was awful, compared to the other students —  he had no flexibility, and nothing came easy. But as he dropped his competitive nature and accepted his limitations, a funny thing happened —  those limitations disappeared.

“I was always melancholy,” Strom said. “I had some depressive tendencies when I was a teenager….My demeanor had always been heavier, darker —  not mean, but brooding —  but when I started yoga within a year my personality changed. I became a kinder, lighter, happier person. People would come up to me and say I was the happiest person they knew.”

“That was a big change for me. I attribute that to the fact that we are so often burdened by our body —  but our body, mind, and emotions are not separate. For me, the key was having a physical spiritual practice.”

Becoming a teacher was hardly a choice. It came to him, literally —  friends began seeking him out. Max Strom, clubfoot, rock star, lost seeker, had found his path.

 

Heart attacks and healers

 

I started a yoga practice three years ago. I was 47 and my body, due to 10 years working in the Alaska fisheries, had a lot of miles on it. A friend dragged me to Yoga Loft in Manhattan Beach.

Suzy Nece taught that first class. I sweated and struggled and felt ridiculously awkward; I couldn’t touch my feet much less stand on one leg for “tree pose” or with a leg folded under me for “pigeon pose.” In fact, I could barely walk on my right leg —  the years of slipping and leaping on boat decks were catching up with me, and it seemed knee surgery was unavoidable.

But Nece, who is also a comedienne, somehow made the discomfort more comfortable. Everybody in the class of about 20 people laughed throughout the 90 minutes; she seemed to be everywhere at once, guiding, cajoling, delivering one-liners. The soundtrack featured everything from Indian ragas to Rickie Lee Jones’ “Chuck E’s in Love.” Afterwards, I felt more alive, with a warmth coursing through me unlike anything I’d previously experienced.  It was a natural high, one that came with clarity rather than fog.

I returned several times over the next few weeks, and began to understand basic asana practice. But my knee made a lot of things impossible.

“I think I’m going to have to take a break,” I told Nece. “I’m going to have to have this knee operated on.”

“Give me one month,” she responded. “Once you get cut, you’ll always have to get cut.”

A month later my knee’s pain had subsided and its flexibility increased. Three years later, my knee is stronger than it’s been since I was 25, and my yoga practice has transformed every corner of my life. I’ve dropped 20 pounds, I eat more consciously, my home got cleaner, and I like to think I’ve become a kinder, somewhat more conscious person. Yoga has, quite literally, taught me how to breathe.

Which brings us back to Max Strom.

My second yoga teacher was Shelley Williams. As noted, she was drawn into yoga through profound encounters with Shiva Rea and Strom, the latter who later asked her —  much to her surprise and initial reluctance —  to train with him to become a teacher. A decade and a half later, she is, along with Nece, a much-revered teacher of teachers. Strom is not from the South Bay, but he’s impacted hundreds of lives locally through his former student and the teachers she has taught; it’s all a big circle.

Max Strom. Photo courtesy Max Strom

“Max just has an uncanny ability to really teach yoga, which to me is much deeper and much more than just physical poses,” Williams said. “A lot of times in the West, those of us who are exposed to yoga at first come to it through the physical doorway, which is wonderful but it’s a much deeper, more holistic practice, which really involves your state of consciousness and your state of being —  being present, being unified with all the layers of being. The word yoga means to yoke, to join, to unite; you know, your brain with your heart, with your body, with your spirit, with your breath, with your community, with a greater consciousness. And Max’s ability to teach yoga beyond asana is the most inspiring to me and what I try to align my teaching with as well.”

The practice of yoga is 5,000 years old. Sages throughout the centuries —  including the authors of the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, and the Yoga Sutras —  are in this manner still teaching even today’s spandex-clad generation of yoga practitioners. What Strom has done, particularly in his books (his second is titled, “There is no App for Happiness”) is adapt this ancient knowledge to specifically apply to the unique dilemmas of 21st Century life. He warns against the danger of “a near-life experience” that can result from allowing technology and the wild fluctuations of our mind rob us of the precious moments that comprise our lives. 

Most of the lessons are timeless.

“Have you ever wondered why you cannot remember most of your life? It is because you weren’t really there,” Strom writes in “A Life Worth Breathing,” noting how our lack of calm,  our worries about the past and the future at the expense of the present, impacts everything we do. “It is the storm in your mind —  the mental stress, negativity, and the endless inner monologue —  that causes so much of your emotional suffering and ill health. It is by teaching your intellect to become quiet, and learning to be still, that you can become happier, healthier, and more emotionally stable.”

Quotes from the Bible, Lao Tzu, Pythagoras, the Buddha, and the Bhagavad Gita adorn the facing page; Rumi, Thoreau, Gandhi, the Torah, and Mother Teresa make appearances later.  The wisdom of the yoga sages is consonant with the wisdom all the great elders passed down to humanity through the ages.

What Strom has done is look deeply into the particular ills that afflict modern society. Our technological wonder world has achieved much to amaze and often better humanity, Strom notes in “There is No App for Happiness,” yet it’s come at a cost. In 2009, suicides outstripped car accidents as the leading cause of injury death in the United States. A 2012 West Virginia University School of Public Health Study found that suicide rates had increased 15 percent in a decade.

Strom, who started teaching yoga just before the dawn of the internet and the cell phone, has noticed a change in the afflictions affecting his students since these technologies ascended to the center of American life. His fundamental job, he said, is as an observer.

“I think I’ve always been a good observer of people,” he said. “That is one of the gifts I came into the world with. But there is another part of teaching yoga people don’t realize: if you are dedicated, and not necessarily someone who just shouts out postures and plays music, but if you give your attention with conviction, you spend most of the 90 minutes giving your attention completely to your students. So you learn a lot about your students —  when they are winded, tired, sweating, if they are experiencing grief, if they are in the habit of being late, being early. Alcohol, you can smell on them —  if they smoked pot and drank wine last night, they are unaware —  they may think we don’t know, but we do.”  

And what he has noticed as technology has creeped further into the fabric of consciousness in an increasing disconnect —  between people, and between each individual and his or her own inner life. Strom is not against technology, but he warns of a physical and spiritual malnourishment that is often attendant with its overuse.

“If you use it too much it will kill you,” he said. “And it is wiping a lot of us out. We need air, we need water, we need food, and we need sleep. And a lot of people really don’t breath or eat well and don’t sleep much. And through living that kind of life, you are really damaging yourself.”

Shelley Williams, Max Strom, and Suzy Nece. Photo by Meaghan Kammerman

Last Nov. 20, Strom was scheduled to give a workshop at Yoga Loft. The day before, shortly after giving another workshop in Santa Monica, he had a dawning realization: he was suffering a heart attack. He calmly checked and found an Uber two minutes away and realized he could get to a hospital quicker that way than with an ambulance. Thirty-two hours later he underwent an operation to put  a stint in his heart —  a piece of modern technology that helps him remain a vibrant man.

“So I got another chance,” he said. “It changed the degree of vulnerability I was willing to convey. It’s taken another layer of armor off my heart.”

Two weeks later he came to Manhattan Beach. Nece said that workshop was transformative for everyone present.

“He was glowing, and everyone was ecstatic he was well enough and in such good spirits,” she said. “It was a celebration…We only get this one precious life, and he showed up to make the most of his.”

And that, said Williams, is also yoga.

“To me, it’s about bringing together community, it’s about re-informing and rediscovering our own alignment…it’s not just when we roll out our two-by-six mat but it’s how we live —  how we live yoga in each moment, and how sacred our breath is, that piece of really connecting our awareness to yoga, to ourselves, to each other,” she said. “[It’s about] how yoga becomes a part of everything we do, not just in the physical capacity, so that we can continue to really live an engaged, multi-dimensional, vibrant life.”

Max Strom leads a workshop, “Crisis Is the Axis for Transformation,” on from 1 to 3:30 p.m. August 6 at Yoga Loft (112 Ocean Drive, Manhattan Beach). $55. Bring a mat and writing materials. For more information see yogaloftmb.com or MaxStrom.com.

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