DOWNTOWN — Modern yoga comes with a lot of baggage and stereotypes. Some people think yoga involves the metaphysical, chanting, incense, ambient music, pretentious yogi hippies or yogi yuppies and outrageous pricing for instruction.
Forget everything you think you know about yoga when talking to Bryan Kest.
Kest moved to Santa Monica over 25 years ago and has been teaching yoga ever since. He opened up the first donation-based yoga studio in the United States 14 years ago above the RadioShack on Sixth Street and Santa Monica Boulevard.
A lot of other yoga studios, some who charge $20 per class, thought that Kest could only could keep his studio running because he had minuscule expenses with a small upstairs space, he said.
“They were saying he’s in some dungeon above radio shack,” Kest said. “They we’re getting defensive even though I never said anything about them.”
Four years ago, Kest opened another space on Second Street that has the most expensive rent for a yoga studio in Santa Monica, he said while cracking his knuckles. Kest wanted to prove to the yoga community and the world that a large studio with significant expenses could run solely on donations.
“If we look out for [students], then the universe will naturally look out for us,” Kest said.
Kest originally opened up a donation-based studio because he wanted yoga to be available to everyone. Yoga is notorious for attracting affluent people because of time and money constraints. Poor people are too busy working to have time to do yoga, Kest said.
“We do get a lot of struggling artists … and more ethnic variety than any other studio,” Kest said. “It is kind of a luxury.”
This aspect of the class resonates with most long time students.
“I love that it’s donation-based. It gives a different spirit to the class,” artist Lola del Fresno said. “It helps me go inside, I go very deep.”
Kest, a Detroit native, started his yoga practice long before he ended up in Santa Monica. At age 15 he spent the summer with his father, who moved to Hawaii. For someone who is so influential in the yoga community, Kest discovered his practice in a rather unusual way.
“My father said, ‘Do yoga or get the hell out of the house,’” Kest said. “I didn’t have a choice.”
Kest’s father was so adamant about his son practicing because it was the only thing that helped his back problems. His father also knew if he didn’t push Kest then he would never practice because of his young age. It took Kest around six months to start appreciating yoga and its effects on the mind, he said.
In Hawaii during the ‘70s, Kest practiced with a nuclei of yogis that are partially responsible for the yoga explosion today. Under the tutelage of David Willams, the first American to teach Ashtanga yoga, many influential teachers such as Tim Miller, David Swenson and Danny Paradise spread the practice to mainland America, Kest said.
Kest ended up in L.A. for simple reasons.
“Every kid growing up in Detroit has a fantasy about coming to California and I just did it,” Kest said.
Santa Monica has a cleanest air in the are so he decided to open his studio here.
“You can go deep into L.A. and be in some of the most dirty air on the Earth,” he said.
At his studio, Kest teaches a variation of Ashtanga called Vinyasa or power yoga. This is similar to classic yoga taught in India, but changed to fit the needs of American lifestyle, Kest said. Out of the 5,000 types of yoga in India, power yoga is simply one more variation or correction on the other forms, he said.
“It’s deeply aligned with the principles of yoga that come from India,” Kest said. “I’ve definitely changed it to fit my own personal needs.”
No other exercise focuses on the stress and busyness that is ingrained in American culture, Kest said. Therefore he’s changed the practice to reflect a fast paced lifestyle.
Today, Indians have adopted a more Western mindset and looking towards America for yoga guidance. In essence we’ve switched roles, he said.
“We had organization, technology and this amazingly run capitalistic market … .They had depth, richness, culture and spirituality; and we are like we want that,” Kest said. “All this rat race left us feeling empty.”
Yoga removes people from the constant “rat race” temporarily by fostering awareness. Even though there are 5,000 types of yoga, the emphasis on complete concentration, focus and awareness binds them all, Kest said.
“If you’re practicing yoga correctly you’re meditating,” Kest said. “The idea [is] that we are all part of the whole and we’re trying to realize it.”
Meditation is partially developed by the workout during class.
“It’s still very intense, you’re going to sweat in my class,” Kest said.
The class’ rigor fosters mental patience and awareness.
Once people become aware of their surroundings they can ask real questions, especially regarding wellness.
It’s known in the medical community that 90 per cent of all disease manifests itself in the brain, Kest said.
“If you’re just a little smarter than a monkey and you want to be healthy you know you have to look at your mental state,” Kest said. “If you really want to be healthy take a long walk … get on the floor and do some stretching … don’t overeat and don’t under eat.”
Kest asked, “How come there are 20 machines for my butt cheeks and biceps and not one for my spine … or my toes or my wrists or my anal sphincter?
“It’s all like were a bunch of [expletive] drones going along with status quo,” Kest said. “It’s literally like we’re robots.”
Most Americans emphasis the vanity aspect of fitness, but disregard what’s known to promote wellness, Kest said.
“People bring their [poop] into yoga and turn yoga into [poop],” Kest said.
During the latest yoga wave, many teachers have come out against Kest saying that his yoga is sloppy. A lot of people don’t like Kest because he doesn’t fall into the archetypal or stereotypical mold of a yoga teacher, he said.
“A lot of teachers want to show you the way,” New Yorker Greg Gumucio, the founder of the only other donation-based yoga studio in America, said. “He doesn’t come across as some guru.”
Most would regard Kest as simple and straightforward. He’s just a yoga instructor.
“I’m not pretending to be someone that I’m not,” Kest said.