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An Interview with yogi Marc McDonald

In late December, I had an amazing opportunity to nterview one of my favorite teachers, Marc. I try to take his morning yoga class twice a week at my local gym, and find that when I miss it, my life feels off-kilter, completely off-balance.

Marc is an OG yogi, a yoga purist, if I may. I don't mean that in a stuffy or snobby way - I mean that he is traditional and true. He promotes moving with one's breath in classes as a way to go inward, focusing on one's self versus what's happening in or out of the room. He offers music that is purposefully selected to avoid being a distraction, but to help induce a meditative state. His presence is strong yet utterly calming, and his sequences are based in Ashtanga yoga, but (forgive me) use more common sense. He meets each class where they are: there's no pressure to hop up into a handstand or slide into a split. The focus is on moving with breath, with intention, with purpose, with an awareness on alignment that doesn't jerk you away from the flow. He doesn't want you to go deeper physically if it's not there - he wants you to feel your body and move into what works, versus forcing something that can potentially cause harm. There's no judgement; there is an expectation of discipline and respect for the practice and for one's body.

I'm so grateful to have sat down to interview Marc. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I enjoy [read as: live for] his classes. 

...yoga saved my life,
and that’s why here we are
17 years later.
— Marc McDonald

Tell us about yourself: where are you from, are you a full-time yogi? 
I grew up in Leominster in Central Massachusetts. I’m an only child from a middle-class family, and spent most of my life in central MA. I moved to Boston when I was essentially forced to – I was kicked out of my house after having struggled with addiction for many years, and it was the last straw. At that point I was ready and knew it was time. Staying at home was just too toxic, being in Leominster was toxic. After a week in Detox, I went off to a thirty-day treatment program in Mattapan. Once I completed that program, I went on to a half-way house for three months. Even after all that effort, I still relapsed and needed one more detox and and outpatient treatment. I went to AA but never felt it was the right fit for me. I tried, I really tried. I don’t think people truly understand when I say this but yoga saved my life, and that’s why here we are seventeen years later. I wasn’t expecting to be a yoga teacher; yoga becomes an everyday practice and it doesn’t always involve asana - the real practice is an everyday mindfulness and it’s constantly monitoring the fluctuating emotional waves that happen inside, knowing when you’re going to a place that can lead to self-destructive behavior, when you find yourself eating too much or spending too much…. Yoga is with me every day, all the time. I’m always thinking and aware of how I’m feeling, “should I say yes to this, no to that?” The more we look for an escape, the less we’re present in our lives. What we need today is a real effort to be present, understanding how one thing leads to the next, what the consequences of actions may be. Sobriety is real, raw living.

What brought you to yoga? 
I started teaching indoor cycling in 1996 and at one point I was teaching fifteen classes a week. It’s still something I love to do. My first yoga class was in 1998 after I was asked by a yoga teacher to come take her class. She had asked me many times before but this morning I had some time free from clients and decided to give it a try. I was also still busy teaching cycling classes and weight training so I figured I could use it. It was a traditional Ashtanga class and it was painful, intense, but it reshaped the way I look at fitness. I remember a good seven days after, I could still feel that practice (residual soreness)! Oddly enough, I was hooked from the get-go. I think it’s because I realized I couldn’t do it, and I thought I was pretty fit, but there was a huge blind spot there that I wasn’t addressing. I knew deep down that I needed the spiritual aspect as well, having left religion behind without looking back.

Where did you complete your first teacher training? 
I completed my first training in 1999 in North Easton, MA with a woman named Maria and it was probably about 80hrs total, maybe; it was before the 200hr teacher training was a thing at all. I then completed my Ashtanga teacher training that same summer in Vermont at Yoga Vermont with David Swenson. I met David through my longtime mentor, Kathy McNames. I met Kathy at a workshop hosted by Brad Crews at the gym I worked and practiced at. I became really attached to her, it was love at first asana! We still talk, I still see her, we send texts here and there. She’s authentic and skilled at moving and living, she is who I would still consider my teacher; you can’t not want to be around her, she exudes calm and openness and love for everything and everyone. It was all about her way. Kathy has a way that, to me, speaks volumes about the potential for yoga to change a life for the better and inspire others to do the same.
 
Do you practice a particular style of yoga, and what attracts you to this style?
I practice and teach based on the principles of Ashtanga Yoga. Ashtanga is the traditional practice which has birthed Vinyasa, flow or power. The problem is that it’s quite difficult and many of the poses/sequences may be unachievable for many bodies. There’s a brilliance to the way it flows and connects to breath. The simple basic structure of the practice can be altered to make it more beginner friendly or more open to different populations. 

It wasn’t the postures - it was the simplicity of moving and breathing, learning to move with breath, to watch your breath, it’s meditation. That's all meditation is, and it doesn’t have to be practiced in a traditional sitting pose.
 
I learned how to meditate practicing Ashtanga. I remember one time I walked out of the gym after an Ashtanga class and I realized my mind was clear. It was such a moment, and it also taught me that I was overthinking all the time - with addiction overthinking is huge. Meditation through yoga practice taught me to simplify and break down the fog, flatten it out, brush things off to the side, to be able to see the different things that existed in that fog… I could look and see clearly that I have a choice, I could see what’s in front of me. That moment of clarity was my lightbulb moment.
 
The genius of vinyasa is that you’re learning to meditate.
 
Asana makes yoga sexy - but what makes yoga so priceless is meditation. The thing that people focus so much on isn’t what’s going to change you. You can take the most basic postures and be transformed. I wanted to find a way to avoid going backwards, and yoga did it. I can tell you definitively it is not asana that saved me. I enjoy asana and know its usefulness in reducing pain, physical dysfunction and improving overall health, but It’s about the way not the thing, it’s not the pose, it’s not getting to a place, it’s the way and how you do it. That gets lost.
 
If you want a nice ass and abs, go take a fitness class and lift some weights. I’m happy to tell you not to expect it all from yoga. If you want to change the way you look at the world and how you take in the present moment, practice yoga and do it today. Get in there and do it and breathe in the present moment now. 
 
Do you practice at home or do you attend classes? 
I practice at home and at my studio but it isn't always physical, it can be having an hour to myself. I don’t attend classes with other teachers; part of it is timing, and I do other things physically for myself like weight lifting, cycling. I try to weight train two to three times a week, something I’ve valued doing since ‘96. I’m at a point where I have figured out what yoga has done for me and why, and what I need from it is very different now than it was eighteen years ago. In terms of asana, what I need doesn’t take as long; if I get to the gym and do my thing, I’ll spend some time in asana, getting my body into balance. But I go to the gym and put my headphones in and train - It’s meditation for me. I continue to watch my thoughts; I’m rarely someone that sits without thoughts, which is a curse when you don’t know what to do with it. I’ve learned how to channel all that thinking into a more positive and useful device. I used to overthink and suffer a kind of mental paralysis from it. I practice mindful living and being present as often as I can. So, I’m practicing right now.

How did you come to own your own studio, Om Warrior?
It was serendipitous; I was at Sports Club LA for many years and had just left a management role behind when this opportunity presented itself. The women who owned the previous studio had some internal shifts to the business and offered it to me because they thought it may be a good fit with my new level of freedom. I didn’t have to do much to own the studio as it was already set up with a clientele and I had been teaching there already. It was something I had always wondered about, so I thought it was the perfect opportunity to remove the ‘what if’ from my future. So, in August of 2009, Om Warrior was born.

What inspires your sequences and practices? 
I don’t prepare ahead of time anymore. In many ways the first few min of any class and who I see in class and on the mat, will dictate what I’m about to teach. I have some classes populated by older adults and beginners and others with younger and more seasoned practitioners. Both classes may be called ‘Vinyasa’ but each will have a different feel and quality to match the audience. Its necessary to have a framework but also to understand the pliability of that framework to suit your students needs.
 
I’ve lived with the sequences for so long and teach them so often I can usually create the flow in the moment; they’re pretty similar, they make sense to me in the way that they unfold physically, in a physical fitness way. It has to make sense in a physical structure: there needs to be a warm-up to prepare for what you’re about to do, and then there should be easier asana to wake up outer layers and to bring awareness to different parts of your body. Then, as practice continues, having that knowledge of where you’re at you may be able to go deeper, to not, it’s a conscious choice. Then we move into savanasa so the body can be still.
 
Music for class is always purposeful: the music at the start is more energetic, the music at the back is more calming. I use stuff that I like and try not to be too depressing, I like a lot of music, but there is stuff I would never use; I think its important to be careful about what you choose. A friend of mine used to use Johnny Cash's song “Hurt” toward the end of class; it’s a great, powerful song, but I’d never use it in a class.
 
I look at the physical practice to ensure people are safe [during their practice]; I try not to use overly complex asana because it’s too easy to overthink it and not meditate. What’s so great about Ashtanga is that you don’t have to think about it over time. When you know the sequence, that’s it - it’s all there is. You don’t have to think; you can meditate and get into the deepest aspects of the work. Constantly giving people new things isn’t helpful, people are too busy thinking about the directions.  People need space, they don’t need overly complex-sequencing. People need the room to be with themselves, this is what we lack in our modern life; I don’t mean being alone, but actually being with yourself, to really be in your body and experience the self. That’s incredibly powerful.
 
You should learn a solid, basic foundation of anatomy to have the underlying knowledge in order to teach asana, and to know potential risks. However, anatomy and alignment to the Nth degree can be tiresome, and can hold you back from a deeper meditation. I focus on proper alignment to get you to tune into your blind spots; we often physically go into more habitual patterns. I try to get you to a place where you’re uncomfortable but not in the painful sense. Movement should come from a place of strength and awareness. There’s a real difference between being in a pose and posing.
 
I’m aware though that focusing to deeply on alignment can be detrimental, in the sense that we become fixated on details; there’s a loss of freedom with overemphasis on details. Alignment is the map. There are many ways to get from point A to point B, there’s no right way necessarily, but there are certain ways that make more sense. It leaves room for personal experimentation and leaves room for what you feel. The width of our hips are different, the head of the femur is different, the muscles around hip joint have different lengths and different strengths…every pose will be a little different. You can wander a little bit if you understand basic structure and basic guidelines, and as long as you don’t experience pinching/sharpness/pain/you’re not overworking anything; there should be a level of comfort and you can remember your breath. Alignment is a great guideline, but it’s not a way to live. For example, there are the eight limbs: things are suggested. The body has suggested movement patterns that are better for you with health and wellness, so we will all need something but it’s different for everyone. Anytime I hear someone start talking about the only way to do something, I wonder what they’re selling. America loves an expert. If you make up your own style of yoga, you’re the expert. Its the best way to sell something.
 
I’m also careful to not promote perfectionism in classes; someone will always be better at practicing asana than you. Yoga happens from a place we cannot see and it is only judged from a place that you can feel. People try to place judgments on something that has no form. I don’t like when people say ‘she has such a beautiful practice.’ When people say that I think, ‘does she? I really don’t know, I can’t see it.’ It can only be experienced by the individual, and it can only be learned by slowing the fuck down. You cannot speed this process up.
 
What is your most embarrassing teacher moment? 
I’m certain it's fart related.
 
Do you incorporate any yogic virtues into your daily life? How do you live the eight limbs?
I lost my dad when I was 13, he was 42 years old, so like your mantra ‘everything is temporary,’ I think about often how I should’ve died myself during my bought with alcohol, that I shouldn’t be here…I went through a pretty deep and low depression, I felt that I had nothing to live for. I remember thinking to myself ‘nothing makes me happy,’ I asked myself and literally came up with nothing. Now, this cup of coffee makes my day, the music in my phone brings me joy, I look at my cat and that makes me feel joy…I laugh a lot, I can make fun of anything, I have a pretty good sense of humor, so for me the mantras are there, a constant running dialogue checking in all the time. Routine in and of itself is a powerful mantra, very important in mental health. And having purpose. I am essentially in ‘self-check’ mode most of the day which I learned from this practice. We learn so much about ourselves in this practice and living the eight limbs is essentially mindful living. Be good to yourself, your friends, family, pets and strangers. Try to speak truth and not be an asshole.
 
What is your favorite way to hit reset/detox/retox?
An important part of the practice is knowing when the candle is burning at both ends; that’s when I know that I need to be alone for a few hours or a day or whatever I can do. For me being alone at times is being at peace. Learn that saying no is OK. Pleasing someone else to do anything isn’t a good idea, with respect to your own sanity. I can be really outgoing at times, and at the same time I find it exhausting to where I need to retreat and listen to music, sit at home, watch a movie, and be away from crowds. Teaching can be very draining. I love people, but I also need to be away from people; if I’m going to be good at what I do, I need the away time. This is about service - we’re serving others. And people do it and then don’t serve themselves. I’m also an only child, I think it’s hard-wired [to need to be alone]. A yoga retreat for me is a day at home with nothing to do.
 
Any morning rituals?
I wake up early and start the day with coffee and a small bite to eat. There’s real joy in coffee and a pastry. That not to say that pastry is a daily breakfast. Just for the record, I love me some coffee and a cookie! There’s some real simple joy there. Then, I’ll look to see what’s going on via email/the news/social media, and I just sit, an hour of quiet time before I need to leave. With my 6am class I get up at 4:30am to just be with myself and my coffee before I leave the house, it’s grounding. I have done this for many years (having an hour to wake/eat before leaving) and I can’t imagine how people get up, shower and run out the door to work. That sounds like hell. It would be life in panic mode for me. I don’t like to rush. Whenever I can, I create space to avoid rushing - I swear it takes years off your life.
 
What wisdom would you want to impart on someone planning to pursue yoga on a deeper level, or even just to practice more of it?
Stop working so hard at asana. Learn how to breath. Slow down and watch your steps. Listen. Listen again. Listen to to your breath. Create space. Pause in practice and feel whats going on in your mind and body. Work on deflecting the chaos of noise coming from all angles about who and what you should be. Seek the self in its unadorned form. Try to keep it simple.
We get caught up in feeling connected to others in a superficial way, like through social media or by watching TV, when our own world is so small. There are many who could tell you more about the Kardashians than their own circle of friends. Try to keep this practice sacred. It’s become an accessory. The clothes, the mat, the labels have all become part of a new status symbol. “This celebrity is doing this style of yoga and so am I.” We get caught in these meaningless, silly traps. Yoga is so many things. It has a great capacity to heal and nurture the spirit. Find the right teacher, the one (or many) that speak to you in a way that makes sense and reveals truth. Then, let go of all the desires to be in this pose or that pose and to just be alone on your mat (at home or in a large class), in your body with the desire to listen and affect positive change in yourself and others.
 
We get caught up in uncertainty or become wishy washy about the easiest things to figure out, like ‘where do you want to go eat tonight?’ but other things like buying clothing are more impulsive, easy decisions. I struggle with wanting to be minimal but I also love stuff; I love books, vinyl records, artwork, technology…I love shit but at end of day I hate how it crowds my life. I have an extensive vinyl record collection, I started collecting on September 12, 2001. I’ve been selling some little by little but at one point I had about 2000 records. I love all music, except country and hip hop; as a kid, there’s a photo of me on a rocking horse wearing headphones. Ever since I was really young it’s been a therapeutic escape.

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What advice would you give to someone looking to complete a yoga teacher training or looking to teach yoga as a profession?
First of all: it must be about the teacher!!!! Period. You must take a training from a teacher you like, you believe in, and who speaks to you, do not take a training because it’s convenient and works for your schedule and it’s the right price. If you want to teach, teach. There’s no other thing to wait for; if you want to share it, learn how to teach and teach. A year into it practicing asana I realized I wanted to teach. I talked with Kathy [McNames], and she said ‘do it, start, you’re ready.’ She never held me back.

I’ve heard many people question their ability to teach based on what poses they’re capable or incapable of practicing… I don’t give a shit about what you’re capable of doing asana-wise; I’m never going to do a split, but I can align someone, I can understand the anatomy and help them into the split (if that’s your thing), but I’m never going to get there. It doesn’t make me incapable of teaching it.

As a teacher, it’s important to look at how to teach your students strength and stability without hurting themselves. Each asana has a risk versus benefit. If you cannot get to a point where the benefit outweighs the risk then it’s not worth teaching or practicing. It’s not to say that people aren’t capable, it’s about what purpose the pose serves. People don’t necessarily need to learn handstand or a big backbend, they need to learn how to sit still and be with themselves.
 
There’s enough fitness in this world, why would you want to take such an important practice and turn it into another lame fitness class? It blows my mind. Do not turn yoga into another fitness class; it has the potential to save people. I teach from a place where I’m certain that it can save someone. Everything I say, I know that it works; it comes from experience. It worked for me and I know it will definitely work for someone else. I’m just an average guy and [yoga] saved me, I didn’t even think it would work; Ashtanga took me to that place and it just worked.
 
For new teachers, I imagine it’s difficult to find your own voice as there are so many ways to practice the same sequence…if I were new today I would find it very difficult to carve out my own personal belief as to what yoga is. I’m very lucky  to have started when there weren’t a lot of teachers. And those who were teaching did it because it changed their life. Most of the people I practiced with early on have gone on to teach and have been teaching as long as I have. It was a special time.
 
Steer your students in a direction that makes sense.  I want to confront you with the fact that you can’t sit still, we live in a time where people aren’t sitting still and aren’t paying attention, the world today tells you that multitasking is the way to go; but you aren’t good at anything until you do one thing at a time.
 
Biggest pet peeve?
People leaving during class or during savasana or arriving late as if we were waiting for them to arrive. I’ve started giving disclaimers in the beginning of some of my classes. There’s no level of respect anymore for teachers. It’s like, I didn’t learn this overnight, I practiced it for a long time, I’ve lived with it for a long time, so I do require a certain level of (mutual) respect, and if you’re not going to respect me I’m having none of it. Yoga is about being present, showing respect for yourself and for others. If you can’t come in with that basic principle, then you don’t belong here. Come back when you can act like an adult. Anybody who has the balls to get up and teach yoga deserves respect and if you’re not going to give it to them you don’t deserve to be there.
 
Can you recommend any literature related to yoga? 
The first book I was given was Heart of Yoga. It’s great because it’s an excellent overview of asana, pranayama, sutras, etc. without being too overwhelming. Light on Yoga is often recommended but can be a bit too dense and esoteric if you’re just getting into yoga. Read stuff that makes sense to you; it doesn’t always have to be related to Hinduism or the sutras, read something that gets you to think about why you’re here and what you’re doing. When you don’t know what the author is trying to say, that’s when you need to put it down; you don’t have to understand everybody’s voice. I tried reading Eckhart Tolle based on many recommendations and found it was a bit out there. I think he’s an alien. I find some people talk out of a somewhat manufactured sounding self-help filter, it just doesn’t resonate with me. When you start reading someone that sounds like you, talks like you, or sounds like a human being, read it.
 
I also enjoy reading books unrelated to yoga about people who I find authentic, different; it’s inspiring and it makes you take a look at yourself. I love getting into someone else’s world who lives in a mindful, unique way. I recently read Patti Smith’s M Train; I admire her tremendously for her creative outlook, how she doesn’t live on consumerism in a manufactured, materialism-obsessed world… I want to be more like that myself. I also enjoyed Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore - I was going through a lot at the time when I read it, I found it very comforting and though provoking. It also contained many interesting and sometimes challenging references.
 
If you could practice yoga with anyone, currently alive or deceased, with whom would you practice and why? 
Kathy [McNames]. Easy, I didn’t even have to think about it. She’s connected to a part of me that no one else is. It will always be Kathy, no one else will mean more to me in yoga than Kathy.
 
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You can practice with Marc at Equinox locations in Boston, and you can also find him at his own [incredibly serene and cozy] studio Om Warrior at 133 Pearl Street, Floor 2, in Boston’s Financial District. You can also follow Marc through social media sites including Facebook and Twitter – “I write every once in a while, when it comes to me. I write very quickly in a moment when I have an idea; forcing it doesn’t work.
 
I’ve always made a conscious effort to not be like everything else I was seeing - people do not need to see me in yoga poses anymore, it’s just not interesting. There are more interesting people to look at than I am. I don’t want to see myself in poses anymore, it’s played out. I have difficulty with the social media thing, which is why I only put out certain things, I don’t want to become that person who shares constantly to maintain a presence; it loses its importance, it becomes fabricated. The people that say less say the more important things when you listen.”

Thank you Marc for your invaluable insight and for always offering us all the space to move purposefully and mindfully within our bodies. 

Namaste,

S