We spoke to Eddie Stern about his new book: “One Simple Thing: A New Look at the Science of Yoga and How It Can Transform Your Life”
Tell me about yourself, how a kind of media person going to the saintly life of yoga and how did this transformation occur?
Eddie Stern: Okay super, well thanks for having me on
Firstly, I can’t say that I have exactly gone into the saintly life but I’ve definitely gone into the life of the yoga. I come from New York City I grew up in Greenwich Village in downtown New York, I came from a family that was a perfectly good, supportive, healthy, and happy family.
But from the time I was young I was a little bit questioning my life and searching for meaning somehow and I wasn’t finding that meaning in the regular school systems and so I wasn’t finding really what I was looking for and in school I didn’t like high school or anything like that I was not even particularly fond of education so I drifted towards music and I started playing music and punk rock bands and I drifted towards art and I thought maybe I would become an artist and that would be my expression in my life and all of the art and all the music kind of led me to the nightclubs and to playing in clubs then into everything that’s associated with that so it was not a very healthy lifestyle and so in that you know searching for creative expression I kept looking in different directions.
Eventually, I met somebody who was doing yoga and they started telling me about the benefits of yoga and the benefits of the vegetarian diet and I was really intrigued by that because I wanted to improve my life so I became a vegetarian I didn’t start yoga right away but first I became a vegetarian and pretty quickly I started seeing really profound changes in how I felt health-wise. I stopped eating all meat chicken and fish I was eating and cooking for myself all macrobiotic diet mainly a lot of rice, vegetables, tofu, and everything started to change I started to go to bed earlier and waking up earlier I started to do some meditation around this time I was about 19 years older so well and then I found to a yoga class in New York and I went there.
Did you lose all your friends?
Eddie Stern: Yes, I pretty much started losing my friends quickly and then you know when I started doing yoga then I started gaining new friends and I had a whole sort of new circle of yoga friends there were not a lot of people doing yoga back then this was 1987-1988 in New York City so they were about for yoga schools and not a lot of people doing it so that was that as soon as I started doing yoga very quickly I was hooked and by the time I was 20, I felt like this is what I want to do with my life so I went to India to Kerala and took a ship and on to teacher training and when I came back to New York at 20 yeah I had just turned 21 when I left for India and then I came back to New York a few months.
Question: What did your parents think when you say do you want to go to India and do yoga?
Yeah, they were quite concerned because they didn’t know anything about where I was going yoga was not popular they didn’t know if I was joining a cult or something or if I was becoming a heart Krishna maybe they really had no idea at all so that was that and back then it was considered that if you didn’t go to university and get a degree you had no options in your life for getting a job so they were very concerned that I wasn’t going to university but was you know going this artists route But I came back and they could see that I was healthy nose happy and I loved what I was doing.
Q. What was the Indian experience, you came to India, and what was that experience?
Well, the experience was fabulous remember I’m from New York City and I grew up in Greenwich Village in New York is also pretty crowded definitely chaotic New York in the 1970s and 1980s was not a clean and safe place New York was bankrupt for a time in the 1970s and crime was spiraling out of control and you know the area where I lived was run by the Mafia so you know it was not an ideal it kind of a you know very touristic place like it is now.
Question: Considering it was 1986, there was no internet to figure out the ashram how would you even know that this ashram existed?
Well I mean before the internet we still had ways of finding out information so you know you would meet people you would just go to you would go to a yoga school as Shivananda yoga school they would give you information about the courses or teachers who I was practicing with in New York had come to Shivanaada so word-of-mouth was how you found out about things but when I got to India I was used to chaos a little bit already and so I wasn’t I didn’t have culture shock it was actually people were very warm and very welcoming and I never had such hospitality anywhere as I had in India so immediately we felt you know welcomed all the Westerners who came sure have felt the same.
We went to Shivanaada and spent a month there doing the yoga teacher training and then I traveled from Kerala all the way up to Kathmandu well by bus and by train and from Kathmandu back down by bus to Delhi and then to Rajasthan and then went home from there so I was traveling with a friend of mine. Basically, we were going to holy places and temples all through the country for every stop and that was the itinerary that we had planned and all those holy places we would spend a few days we would do yoga and meditate and do Salah there and that’s where the yoga lifestyle really came alive for me in those holy places of India so that was basically how it started and it never stopped since then over the past 30 years.
Q. What is the Yoga lifestyle?
Well Yoga lifestyle is outlined in the yoga texts like yoga Sutra by Patanjali and it says that there are some basic things that
you should be following in yoga the First the principles of ‘Yama’ which is ‘Ahimsa, Asteya, Satya, Brahmacharya, Aparigraha’ these are some basic guidelines for living how we have our interpersonal interactions with people we should be kind we should be honest we shouldn’t steal things we shouldn’t sexually objectify people and we should not be greedy for the things that we don’t have these are the basic principles for interactions and then there’s new ‘Yama’ which are personal things that we should follow and these include cleanliness and on contentment some type of daily discipline that we do ‘Svadhyaya’ which is either chanting or self- evaluation studying to see how closely we’re following along with the things that we say we’re committed to and then last is ‘Sharanagathi’ or surrender to God if you’re theistic and if you’re a non-theistic person you can still practice surrender through surrender to the unknown or feeling that every action I do I don’t know the outcome of that action but I’ll still do
it as fully as I can so this is the foundation of spiritual life and then the asanas and pranayama and meditation makes your body strong and healthy and make your nervous system balanced so that you can focus inwardly and also so that you can behave properly outwardly.
There must be some interesting memorable instances of your life with yoga so you know in things which happen to you people you met you know where yoga was a key part of the whole you know the reason that it happened are there any kind of memories of yoga that come to your mind two or three memories in your entire yoga career you mean in terms of like people you met or circumstances or interesting incidents which you’d like to tell your grandchildren?
Oh well I mean I guess have tons of memories of yoga in regards to people this is something that I get asked quite a bit because at our yoga School in New York we’ve had a lot of
celebrities coming through I don’t know how they found our way to us but it’s always kind of fun when they do I’d have to say I had been teaching for about 10 years already before Madonna walked into our yoga school for the first time a lot of the young kids now don’t even know who Madonna is but for people of our generation she was an important figure as a pop star and I remember that after I told my dad that Madonna had come to class was the first time he thought okay maybe this yoga thing is going be okay and I don’t have to worry about him so much you know at the time my dad was a stockbroker and so he was of course really concerned about this whole yoga thing.
Question: Does he think you had gone nutty?
I don’t think he thought that I had gone nutty but I think that he was he was concerned that it was going to be a sustainable income producing lifestyle but after Madonna walked into class he thought okay this is probably going to maybe work out around those years yoga started shifting and becoming a lot more popular in America up until that time it was a very fringe sort of thing it was still for the hippies but around 1998 to 2000 when some of the celebrities started doing it when it was getting more popular than it really became more involved into the you know the popular culture and so after she came than other celebrities started coming as well and you know people wonder what was it like having people like that in class and the answer is that those people got where they are because they’re very disciplined and they’re focused you don’t become successful as a musician or an artist without being super dedicated to your discipline to the art that you’re creating so when they’re in the classroom they’re focused on their yoga practice that’s they’re there to do yoga they’re there to work they’re not there to be adored and loved by people so they’re the same as everybody else and you have to treat them the same as everyone else.
Q. What are the keys to having good discipline how do you have it?
A. Eddie Stern:
Well if you’re a person who is not disciplined the key is sustainable goals you chew you pick off small little chunks of things that you think you can do and then you do them little by little so if you’re a person who really struggles to exercise don’t think about exercising for an hour every day or an hour three times a week do something for five minutes a day and say I’m going to do for Monday through Friday I’m going to do five minutes a day in the morning before I get ready for work that we can keep forever so the trick is to pick something small that we can do every day so we can do it for at least a five to six week period and then once we get there we’re going to wake up in the morning it’s going to be wired into our brain and we’re going to go- I’m ready to do my exercise of my yoga or my meditation or my prayer or whatever it might be for those five minutes and then from then if you need to you can increase you can go okay I’m going to do seven minutes or every other day I’m do 15 minutes and then you make that your habit as well so discipline is really choosing something that you can attain sticking to it wiring that habit into your brain into your nervous system and then it becomes part of you and then that’s who you are and then when you want to improve yourself a little more you choose something else that challenges you not too big of a challenge just something attainable and then you do that thing and then you become that thing as well so repetition is key for a new habit it could be a simple thing also an example. I like to give quite often because I’ve done this myself is if you’re someone who loses their keys all the time you know you come into your house you put your keys wherever and you can’t find them and then it takes you 15 minutes a to look for your keys and you get frustrated and it’s a big pain for everybody including your wife or your husband and you say can you find my keys and they get frustrated so you keep a bowl
next to your door and every day when you come in the first thing you do is you put your keys in the bowl and after about five weeks of doing that will be your habit you have this mechanical physical thing of putting the keys in the bowl which is lining up with a desire that you’ve created in your mind those two things become connected that wires into your brain in a through neuroplasticity and then every time you walk in the door your keys will automatically go in the bowl you’ll always be able to find them you’ll save time every day and you won’t annoy everyone because you can’t find your keys so from that one simple habit of changing something you can then begin to add habits on to it that you want to change you can do physical things you can do emotional things you can do mental things you can do social things like maybe I want to become a better listener and stop interrupting people and so because you know that’s something that a lot of people struggle with it they you know they don’t really fully listen to people so you would develop the habit of waiting until someone half finished their sentence and then you speak and then after a few weeks all of a sudden you become a better listener.
A. What is your daily routine you know as because you must be having a very structured routine which a lot of people probably aspire to worsen what’s an ideal routine or an Eddie Sterns routine that people should aspire to like from the time you wake up in the morning till the time you sleep because life is a bit complicated it’s not about just getting up and having everything peaceful, now you as well you run a business is like any other business which involves travel which involves accounts which involves lawyers which are which involves you know marketing so how do you manage to have a structured routine with yoga.
Well I don’t with yoga I don’t know if my routine is something that people would want to aspire to I get up around 3:00 or 3:15
every morning well and that’s when my day get started I have a shower I brush my teeth I make a cup of tea and I spend the first bits of the morning while I’m having tea usually reading some spiritual books or anything that I’m studying at the time and then by 3:45 or 4:00 a.m., I begin my yoga practice and I make sure I do at least one hour practice every day if I have more time because I’m not traveling or I’m not teaching then I’ll do a little bit more and then I spend about 20 minutes or so doing pranayama and then I spend 20 minutes to half an hour in meditation and repetition of mantra so basically you know a minimum of hour and a half to two hours a day of my personal ‘Svadhyaya’ and then when I’m teaching the classes usually begin at 6 a.m. so I have to make sure that I get everything done by 6 a.m. so I can begin teaching my teachings is usually from 6:00 in the morning until around 10:00 or 11:00 in the morning and then after that I have my first meal I rest for a while and then the rest the day is for all the other types of work that I have to do.
Until 10 o’clock you don’t eat anything from 3:00 a.m. to 10:00 o’clock?
Eddie Stern: Sometimes I have like a small energy bar and that’s generally what I have when I’m done with practice I’ll have an energy bar and another cup of tea.
Question: Should one not have food for such a lengthy period of time or would you suggest that for everyone?
It’s difficult to suggest anything for everyone because everybody is different and has different needs right now it’s considered that it’s intermittent fasting it’s sort of a healthy thing to do so if you can avoid eating food for say a 12 hour stretch or even a 16 hour stretch that’s quite good for you on multiple
levels there’s a lot of research behind the intermittent fasting right now the Yogi’s would have called this caloric restriction or the restriction of food so that you only eat within certain time periods a day because if you’re eating too much food you have a harder time digesting it and the things that you don’t digest become toxic in your system and that leads to inflammatory conditions.
Inflammation is responsible for about 95 percent of preventable diseases that we have in our society today so inflammation is connected to cancer it’s connected to heart disease it’s connected to diabetes it’s connected to digestive disorders and it’s also connected to an anxiety and depression it’s also now been shown to be connected to Alzheimer’s as well so inflammation is one of the triggers which causes these diseases to become fully penetrate.
What is Inflammation and how does yoga help in stopping it or reversing it and what should be the low yoga lifestyle because probably even thyroid and you know some of these diseases also are triggered by information yeah and rheumatoid arthritis and some types of epilepsy as well. what is the yoga lifestyle to help avoid eradicate and reverse and have you had any experiences of people coming to your studio or your exercises who have seen very strong changes in their health conditions after yoga?
Yes so what happens with inflammation is, it is triggered by the sympathetic nervous system and so we have two branches of our autonomic nervous system the sympathetic and parasympathetic the sympathetic moves us towards activity parasympathetic moves us towards rest sympathetic nervous system also perceives threat and the environment could be our body it could be bacteria or viruses it could be when our body mistakes something that is in us for something which is dangerous like a cell that it needs to fight off even though the cell might not be harmful so one of the ways that the body is going to deal with bacteria or a virus or perceiving threat may be it could be we have a cut or we sprain an ankle or we have some type of injury is it’s going to release adrenaline and cortisol which are going to go to that area it’s going to release anti-inflammatory biomarkers to go to that area and start fixing the area or fighting off the disease so this is this is called an acute inflammation response where we there’s a problem say a cut and then the body is going to send the white blood cells and cortisol to that area to begin to repair it cortisol is inflammatory on its own it’s not bad for us it can help protect us the problem becomes.
When our body senses something which is a threat and it isn’t a threat and it still continues to release the inflammatory cortisol so for example if we’re getting stressed out repeatedly through the day or we’re continually causing a lot of injury to the or harm to the body or we’re eating foods that the body doesn’t recognize or can’t digest we’ll start to create this condition where the sympathetic nervous system is responding by releasing these stress hormones into the bloodstream and they can’t get themselves out from the bloodstream quick enough so normally cortisol is going to be absorbed back into the red blood cells or we’re going to release it through urine and sweat and but we need time for that to happen because cortisol is slow acting and takes a while to leave the system but if we are triggering the adrenals to release it repeatedly throughout the day our body can’t get rid of it quick enough and so then it gets stuck in our bloodstream it goes to the brain and attaches to the receptors in the prefrontal cortex and to many other areas and we kind of start to create a toxic condition of inflammation in the body.
One of the ways the body deals with monitoring and controlling levels of inflammation is through the ‘vagus nerve’ and when there’s too much inflammation in the body the vagus nerve temporarily gets impaired and it can’t control these levels and it also begins to disrupt heart rate variability and other physiological processes so the way that yoga becomes very helpful is that there are four basic things which will help to restore vagal tone so if the tone is low that means messages aren’t getting sent back and forth from the body to the brain if the vagal tone is high then the messages are being sent in the vagus nerve can control inflammation it can control the messages that are going to all the visceral organs and also receive the information coming from the organs up to the brain so what are those four things that really work well number one are postures because they’re doing postures even like sitting up straight when you’re meditating you’re sending messages to the baroreceptors at the carotid arteries to monitor and balance blood pressure this is a very important part of cardiovascular health the next thing will be breathing through slow rhythmic breathing as the belly comes in and out we’re sending messages through the vagal afferents in the abdominal region up to the brain of rhythmicity of calm of safety of contentment so when there’s stress or anxiety or a lot of or any hints of disease our breathing patterns get interrupted so if we restore a smooth calm intentional breathing pattern that will send those messages up to the brain as well.
The next thing is going to be vocalization Pranayamas like ‘Bhramari Pranayama’ where we make the humming sound like they’d be the sound of a bee or the ‘Ujjayi Pranayama’ where we make the hissing sound in the throat this will stimulate the vagal nerves in the throat again toning the information flows that are passing there and as well chanting or singing is very good for vagal tone e2 and then the last is behaviour feelings of kindness appreciation and gratitude will strengthen vagal tone and heart rate variability and anger and anxiety will interrupt postures are often us in breathing as pranayama so the first four things of ashtanga yoga basically seem like they were designed in part to balance the vagal tone and strengthen vagal tone so we have smooth communication flows between the body and the brain and as well when the vagus nerve is toned we see a reduction of diseases including cancers certain types of cancers , certain types of diabetes, digestive problems reduce, anxiety can reduce and that’s that so there is some research behind this that you can find on PubMed in other places and there is you know a continual amount of research that is being included but the vagus nerve is very much a hot topic right now and has been last several years because of how closely it’s linked to inflammation and how inflammation is linked to 95 percent of preventable diseases that we have in the world today preventable and non-communicative.
Is that the reason why we are seeing such a high incidence of non-commutative diseases or NCDs as we call it in pharmaceuticals especially India surprisingly is the home of yoga and we are also the capitol of diabetes in the world 50 percent of the world’s diabetes patients are in India we are also going to be the cancer capital of the world I don’t know if you are aware of that we are also the cardiovascular disease capital of the world. Do you see you have seen India for a long time do you think that what is the problem of is it our lifestyle or is have you seen a change in because you’ve been coming since 1986 so do you see a change in the do you see any signs of change in the food or the lifestyle. What is the reason that we are in this disaster?
I don’t think I can give a reason for why there are such high rates of cardiovascular, diabetes, cancer in India definitely all of these diseases are linked to food the types of food we eat are going to affect the microbiome and the microbiome is very much responsible for different types of health in the body including the cardiovascular health digestive disorders and moods and emotions so eating too much sugar eating a lot of oily foods eating fried foods eating foods that you know don’t have the proper amount of nutrients in them are all going to contribute to inflammatory levels of the body too much sugar definitely not good for you fried food definitely not good for you to eat more fresh vegetables and more fruits it’s very good for you so in India you also have the ancient system of Ayurveda
which has many guidelines for food and lifestyle that’s probably a good place to start looking in terms of what type of food should people be eating that is suitable for them that will help support their health I’ve also followed an Ayurvedic diet at different times in my life and it’s always been really beneficial for me.
Can you tell us a little bit of what that diet is about?
For me because I you know that’s about Vatha,Pitta, kapha dosha. Dosha means a defect so this is how you tend to go out of balance I tend to go out of balance with Pitta which is fire I have you know I have a reddish complexion I had red hair when I had hair I’m a little bit fiery and active by Nature I have a lot of energy my body is the right characteristic for Pitta. The foods that I should avoid are a lot of foods that are hot , fiery, red and orange in that spectrum and I should eat more cooling foods that are more in white, green, purple, blue, brown sort of region and less Tomatoes, less chilli, less yellow foods as well as well as particular types of tea like peppermint tea for example is quite good for me while ginger tea which is heating isn’t going to be so good for me.
I knew follow these ,learn these guidelines and you have someone who can help you have a lot of area medical physicians.
do you recommend any particular apart from the book that you have that you have written which is ‘One Simple Thing’ which is a book that you’re releasing in India which I have bought and I have entirely enjoyed because it’s a very interesting book on yoga because it interestingly doesn’t probably have a single picture of a posture of or yoga posture though it’s a yoga book and it’s all about healing your mind body and soul and you have gone through the entire the more in-depth and structured.
I don’t even know how to describe it but the more in-depth form of yoga and a mental framework for yoga probably before you do yoga you need to read this book to understand what your mind should be set for so tell us a little bit about your book. Why all the things that you have put into it just describe it for the listeners and then if there are any other books that you suggest or you have influenced your life. I know you’ve done a lot of work with Deepak Chopra as well I have been looked up your work so he’s also on similar lines so tell us a little bit about your book to begin with and just describe it for us.
The book ‘One simple thing’ a new look at the science of yoga and how it can transform your life. Introduction was written by my friend and colleague Deepak Chopra it came out in India in October published by Pan Micmillan and thank you for the compliments on the book by the way.
What I had noticed was two different things number one that you could have a bunch of different people with different complaints walk into a yoga class and all come out of it feeling better even if one person went in with some back pain and other person and with some anxiety another person went in looking for meaning in life because they’re on a spiritual quest another person just needed to stretch their body someone else wanted to relax and you have those five people that we all go to the same me over class we do the same poses we come out we all feel better like that thing we went in for was being addressed and wondered house as possible and because as you run a science company and you know about the pharmaceutical world you can’t just give the same medicine to every single person who has five different you know five different people with five different diseases and expect them to get better you target the medicine you give them Yoga do seem to need that.
Another thing that I noticed was that if you grabbed five or 10 random people off the street and you ask “do you do yoga?” and they say “yes” you say “how does it make you feel?” they’ll say “I feel less stressed and more relaxed I have deeper connection to myself I feel more grounded my body feels better I feel healthier my digestion is better my sleep is better I’m more flexible I’m stronger and I feel an increased sense of knowing who I am”. These will be the common things that everybody says and then you say to them “what kind of yoga to do you do?” and one person will say “I do ashtanga yoga, I do aayanga yoga, I do hot yoga, I do kundalini yoga, I do Shivananga yoga, I do integral yoga, I just chant mantras” all the different types of yoga’s people will tell you that’s what they do yet they’re all getting the same basic effect so then I also started to question how is it that no matter what kind of yoga you do you end up feeling better with the same reported benefits.
In-fact there was a study done it was a meta-analysis by a doctor named holder Halter Cramer from Germany and he did a meta-analysis on 307 different yoga studies randomized control trials and there were 52 different types of yoga in all of those trials and these include things like Sudarshanakriya, Shivanaada, Ashtanga works it has the same positive outcomes no matter what kind of yoga you do and the reason that people will do different types is only because of two reasons one personal preference and number two availability so whatever kind of yoga is close to you that’s what you’ll end up doing even if it’s just YouTube and the benefits you’re going to get are basically the same as everybody else.
I wanted to look at what are the underlying neuro physiological mechanisms that make yoga effective what’s happening underneath the hood it makes yoga work no matter what kind of yoga it is and no matter what it is you seem to be looking for in your life to improve yourself and that’s what the book is basically about!
what did you find in two minutes if you could tell us a little snapshot of what you found?
A snapshot is what we talked about earlier that the first four limbs of Patanjali ashtanga yoga are geared towards toning the vagus nerve and balancing the information flows between the body and brain that’s number one and that’s going to affect him support homeostasis in the body as well which is our body’s innate ability to restore balance if we support homeostasis by exercising breathing deeply sleeping at the right time eating a proper diet and you know in getting along with people in sort of pro-social ways through monitoring our behaviour what happens is that our homeostatic functions are supported and if there’s something wrong in the body homeostasis knows how to repair but if homeostasis is not supported then we continue to weaken our system so all we need to do is support the mechanism in us it restores balance and we will come back into balance that is one of the big findings.
Awesome so well it’s just a good question how long think a person should do yoga what should it be what should his is it a one or is it one and a half or like what do you think is the ideal time or an ideal and how do you divide it between the asanas, the meditation and the pranayama ?
In Ayurveda they say it’s not what you eat but what you can digest and the same is true with yoga it doesn’t matter how long you do it for what type you do as long as you can digest the practices that you’re doing that’s absorb you can assimilate so if someone does for one person a 15 minute yoga practice if their body is weak it might be too much for them maybe they should only be doing 10 minutes for someone who’s a little bit more fit who needs to challenge and push 30 minutes so a lot
of it is person dependent which is why teacher is necessary so you do enough every day here are the guidelines that you look for not how much that you do but what are the outcomes and effects of the practice we want to be building vitality building energy through our practices so it’s good to do a little bit of movement every day it’s good to do at least a few minutes of some meditation or mindfulness practice so we can really self- evaluate and come in touch with our emotions and our mental states that’s very key and then some pranayama can be simple breathing practices for maybe four or five six minutes is enough and as you your system becomes stronger up to 20 minutes is fine too but you don’t really need to put a time limit on what you should do is find someone who can guide you there are a lot of yoga teachers in India a lot of wonderful ones and find someone who can guide you and then make sure that the practices are making you feel better if they’re making you feel weaker or throwing you off or you can’t maintain them then it’s not the right practice or your discipline needs to be worked on so look for the outcomes of the practices not for what you think the structure should be well.
We could go on and on because I you’re an amazing person with yoga and I’m very passionate about yoga so we could but I know you’re pressed for time and thanks so much for giving us this time to talk about it. What are your future plans I know you’re in India for you’re doing a session on yoga your I think they’re doing a few classes over here so What are the plans ?
Yes I’m on a little bit of a book tour for ‘One simple thing’ so we’re in Mumbai for four days, Kolkata for two days for classes and lectures and Patna for one day, Delhi for two days, Chennai for one day and Hyderabad for two days and we’re doing a lecture in yoga class in each of the cities in support of the book and also in support of the great appreciation and gratitude that as Westerners we have for this amazing practice
and culture that India has given to the world so we’re you know my entire life really has been shaped by everything that I’ve learned in this country and it’s really humbling.
We have a prime minister who is also mentioned in your book who has promoted it very well.
It’s very humbling to be here in India talking about yoga and I walk very carefully through this country talking about it in ways that I’ve understood it and not trying to preach the Hindu philosophy back to the people of this country already know your culture you know your philosophy and the findings that the yoga and science have brought to us are really what I’m talking about.
Thank You, Eddie and It was a brilliant talk with you.
Thank you for having me.