Doug is a master yoga practitioner, philosopher, poet dedicated surfer and health advocate. He has incorporated influences from several different yoga systems along with his passion for nutrition and the environment to develop his unique approach.
We happened to visit his 3 day workshop in Minneapolis (USA), where we got introduced to Sadhana Yoga Chi, yoga adjustment techniques, raw food diet and of course discussed many interesting topics with Doug, which are presented here.
Doug Swenson - master of the flow
Maxim Yasochka, Olga Sydorenko
Three golden rules to live by, advocated by Doug:
- Think before you Act
- Think before you Speak
- Think before you Eat
Doug Swenson began his study of yoga in 1969, when he was 13 y. o. He has had the fortune of studying with many great teachers including Dr. Ernest Wood, K. Pattabhi Jois, David Williams, Nancy Gilgoff, Ramanand Patel, and others. Here`s how Doug recalls his starting practicing yoga: "I was raised in very conservative area, were yoga wasn’t popular. My parents sent me to Sunday school where we studied religion. There was a teacher, Dr. Ernest Wood, who taught us some yoga practices, but at that moment I didn`t know it was yoga. Only 2 years later I saw people on the beach of California, who practiced the same thing, which Dr. Wood taught me. I was told it`s yoga, up to that time I didn’t realized it"
Then went years of practicing by books, first by Dr Wood`s, then Doug studied books on Shivananda, Iyengar, Kundalini yoga and others.
Later, Doug and his brother David studied ashtanga with Shri Pattabhi Jois, David Williams & Nancy Gligoff, Ramanand Patel. He also perceives Bernard Jensen (diet and nutrition world), Maria Theresa and Gandhi as people, who had significantly impacted his views and way of life.
Over the years he has authored several books; "Yoga Helps", "The Diet That Loves You Most", "Power Yoga for Dummies" and "Mastering the Secrets of Yoga Flow". These days Doug spends much of his time teaching and giving retreats in Lake Tahoe and traveling around the world leading workshops. He is also fond of surfing, photography, writing and inspiring other people to search for balance & integrity with the inner and outer nature.
In our interview with Doug we covered such topics as different aspects of yoga practice, teaching, diet, religion, recent trends in yoga, etc. Enjoy!
Question. In Bhagavad Gita there is a statement by Krishna, that those, who practiced yoga in previous life, are to be born in the most favorable conditions to continue yoga practice. Do you feel, that this is true in case of you and your brother?
Answer. It's possible. I had a picture of me 9 y.o., where I'm doing a head stand. And you can see many children doing things they were not taught, so it's possible explanation. But I wouldn't say, yes, that's exactly what happened with me. I like to believe in reincarnation, but there are so many questions. And I`d prefer leaving many questions open for myself.
Q.People often ask, what is the proper beginning in yoga – shell they start from searching real Gurus and spiritual practices or just to start attending hatha yoga classes in the nearest studio? What do you think?
A. It's better to do something on your own, read some books to educate yourself on the subject. That gives you understanding of, what you would like to get, to chose preferred style. Then you can go and practice in the class while keeping an open mind.
Q. After practicing hatha yoga (which is the most widespread branch of yoga on the West) for some time, most practitioners become interested in raja yoga - in the practice of meditation. How do you think, why most western practitioners are inclined to try Vipassana courses and other Buddhists’ techniques rather than traditional Hindu techniques of meditation?
A.Here, in USA, there are not so much Buddhist's meditations in yoga world. We also have groups who are trying to combine yoga with different religions, e.g. christian yoga (for those, who were afraid that yoga is inappropriate for a devoted christians). Talking about deepening one`s practice, of course, people should look for more than just physical things in yoga and also to develop good thoughts and deeds. Because what you say, what you do, what you think affects not only you but future generations too. I think, body, mind & spirits are closely interconnected.
Q. Your practice / style combines hatha yoga and thai-chi. How did you come to this combination?
A. Me and David were learning through many different things, e.g. from dancing (our elder sister is a dancer), while surfing – from ocean… Long before thai chi we went to taikvando, judo… Then I just saw someone practicing thai-chi and thought, it was a nice thing. I started practicing it and it was good experience. It has a lot in common with yoga, because tai-chi is a moving meditation, it helps you to feel moving of the energy, feel the flow. Like sometimes in taikvando, judo in yoga people are trying to fight against energy – they are trying "to beat" this or that asana, beat the practice instead of going with the flow. But yoga instead of beating things is a kind of going with the flow, using gravity instead of fighting against it. So I incorporated all these things in my practice and that’s why I called my style yoga-chi.
Q. Who were your teachers of thai-chi?
A. I learned thai-chi from my friends, not big name people. I better prefer flexible teachers – innovative ones. While traditional teachers are usually not flexible enough.
Q. Are you familiar with tradition of kriya yoga of Lahiri Mahasai taught by Paramahamsa Yogananda? (I’ve read that you had been attending classes in Society of Yogananda).
A. In fact, it was Swami Self-Realization Fellowship. Mostly we talked about philosophy, consciousness, and that what was interesting for me. There it was the first time I eat veggie burger ☺ But there was a structure, which I find limiting one`s mind, and there are a lot of tales and thoughts which you are not supposed to question. So I didn't hang on with that group for a long.
Q. What is the meaning of brahmacharya for you?
A. It's like integrity of the relationship rather than continence. There must be something more than just lust or a profit, there must be love in the relations. If someone forces people to maintain brahmachariya, then they are going just find more ways to sneak around.
Q. What is success in terms of yoga for you?
A. Well, it's supposed to be enlightenment, but it's a very generic term. Success in yoga is finding yourself, realizing yourself. Different techniques and Gurus are just catalysts to make you find yourself, for no one could make it instead of you.
Q. How did you come to yoga teaching? What made up your mind to become a yoga teacher?
A. I didn’t intend on teaching yoga. I was more in surfing than a yoga person. I had a friend who told me that things were going bad and I just told him do this and that, to breath deeply and it worked. So I had some friends whom I thought yoga and then I realized I can get paid for it. My first official job as a yoga teacher was through college. Then I taught David, my younger brother – I was his first yoga & surfing teacher.
Q. Did you do anything else before or along with teaching yoga?
A. Yes, since yoga was not that popular, David and me had other jobs. I was doing construction (building). Then, I worked for health food industry - I managed health food restaurant. However, yoga took more and more of my time while becoming more popular, so I just decided to quit all other jobs and see just what happens.
Q. What is self-expression for you?
A. Yoga is self expressive for me. I was one of the first yoga teachers, who start doing adjustments during the class, taking about diet & nutrition. I developed a kind of vinyasa system 10 years before getting acquainted with practice of Patabhi Jois. That's why I tell people to learn yoga but don't let yourself be pushed into a box.
Q. What do you do except practicing & teaching yoga in terms of self-expression?
A. All the things I do are self expressive for me, like hiking, biking, running, surfing, etc. I like writing, music, thai-chi... I've started writing years and years ago, after a serious injury, when I couldn't walk. People not always are ready to listen when someone just lecturing and telling things, but they might listen to a message put into poetry, music or philosophy.
Q. Which of two ways of self-development do you find a better one – to attain deep knowledge & to develop in one field or to become versatile - to know a little bit of everything?
A. I have different interests - I like surfing, climbing mountains, taking pictures, hiking, etc. I like trying different things and experiences. I always was more inclined to pick those things which I liked, found interesting and not to stick to any particular school. For I don’t like when being told to do things in only one particular way as if any other way is wrong. One must think outside the box – to be flexible. I’m just trying to pick up something from everyone I liked.
Q. Which books and spiritual writings do you like? Why? Which ones are inspiring for you? In what way?
A. The Prophet (Khalil Gibran) The Native Americans' philosophy Bhagavad Gita In terms of say sutras of Patanjali and other ancient texts, there are lot's of useful things there, but they were written thousands years ago. And if we take them as a law, there is going to be no evolution. That's why I don't believe in everything they say.
Q. What do you think about distance teaching / learning with regard to yoga practice? Would you give e.g pranayama technique via phone or e-mail to a person, whom you’ve never met before?
A. There are some circumstances when people can only get information in this way, e.g. there are women in Pakistan who ask me for an information on yoga via e-mail because there it is not allowed to practice yoga. But of course mainly you need to meet in person to get some feedback.
Q. Lots of people, who are practicing yoga, would rather spend their whole time on practice than on social career. What do you think about it? Do you find it necessary or at least useful to withdraw from social life?
A. It's just a matter of your choice. You don't have to do either. I think one should be comfortable in both worlds, because it's a part of the reality. And it's always good not to have fear to try something different. I often go long hiking by myself or practicing yoga up in mountains and become a kind of observer - very detached. But than I return to the society because I like to feel myself a part of it and to learn thing from different people. In terms of the attachment / detachment, the fact of having or not having some stuff doesn't make you automatically more enlightened. So again, it`s just a matter of one`s joice.
Q. Are you religious?
A. I think religion is a structured spirituality and I'm very unstructured. So I don't know. I worship nature, energy, you may call it God as well… I have a belief. But I don't like to be told to do this and do not do that, or to worship in a particular way. I question everything and I believe in everything, I just leave it open, I just try to be a good person. True spirituality for me is to embrace kindness, compassion, and selfless giving. At the same time to hold peace in your heart and become a vehicle for all that is good to channel through your body and mind. But I don't believe, that if someone else is not sharing my believes he's going to go in hell. And most religions tell you must not kill, but at the same time they all kill in order to support their religion. So I often call myself just a human, I belong to a group of humans, not a Christians or Hinduists.
Q. Why do people need religion & belief?
A. People need religion because of in-permanentness of life. We all need something that can't just be over, something more. So it's nice to believe in the heaven, then you have something more. I think everything might be possible if you believe in it ☺
Q. What is the nature of mind for you?
A. I think, the nature of mind is self-awareness. Also mind can be your consciousness, your ego, your experience. What we are now is the evolution of past people's mind. A cell is a conscious entity by itself, it's structure is the same as structure of galaxy. So I believe when a thing or a person passes away, they become a part of the next things and humans. But anybody who says, this is exactly what happens when you die, is just showing his ignorance. Cause no one knows it exactly. And I think, people often overthink things and just drive themselves crazy by trying to think too much.
Q. How many times have you been in India? What was your first impression from the country?
A. I've been there only 3 times. I was really interested. There are many good things as well as bad. The bad thing in India is that women are just subservience for males, or when a 9 years old is to marry an old man. That's just a part of their culture which doesn't seem very spiritual to me. But then, people are very colorful and happy. There was a cultural shock for me to see how many people are there and that everyone was trying to sell me something all the time.
Q. When did you visit India for the first time?
A. The first time I visited India might be around late 70th. The most recent time - was 3 years ago. But my brother David goes there all the time, he even bought a house at Mysore.
Q. How would you describe your attitude to this country / land?
A. India is considered the "third world" country, but I've been in many places like Mexico, South America and I learned a lot from being there. People just need to go somewhere to find their Guru or religion or spiritual path, but one could get a lot the same experiences by going somewhere else. Instead going to India all the time I can go to Central America or any place I've never been before. Personally I don’t believe in necessity of having a Guru or picking a Guru. We are all out searching for a Guru and answers and then find they're all around us, all the time - sometimes it's something your mom says, or the kid down the street says, or it's in nature. It's everywhere. Sometimes you can find people who act as if they were enlightened while not being and at the same time there are people, just ordinary people, who never practiced anything but who are in a way enlightened.
Q. Most of your retreats are held in beautiful places / sanctuaries. Tell us about your relations with nature. What is the role of nature in your practice?
A. Practicing outside has inspired my practice the most. Since young age I practiced a lot outdoor - in the yard of my parents` house. Then I moved to lake Tahoe, there are beautiful mountains and waterfalls. And when I go to the ocean or into the mountains I took my practice with me, for I like feeling energy of different areas. And I take people to mountains to waterfalls just to feel the energy of different places. Practicing in nature is a wholistic experience and yoga is a form derived from nature. In today’s hectic world we have become very disconnected from nature and its flow of energy. We tend to fight against nature and the laws of nature rather than going with the with the natural flow of energy in the universe. A lot of yoga schools do not advice to practice outside. But if you think a little, where would the fish or an insect poses come from if they had only practiced inside. So for me it doesn’t make sense. I think a lot of these rules were picked up by the franchising system without taking into consideration every possible local conditions of the practice.
Q. Please tell us about your diet. As far as we know you are a vegan. You do not eat diary products. How would you comment Ayurvedic and other recommendations given in the classical yogic texts regarding usefulness and even necessity of milk & ghee for yogis; and undesirability of purely raw food diet for its heightening effect on vata dosha?
A. I know about all those things. I think that everything should be questioned unless it can be proved different. We are mammals and there is no other mammals on the planet, who drink milk after first 2-3 years cause it's totally unnatural and unnecessary. And we've been brainwashed that it is. Ayurvedic recommendations were wrote thousands of years ago, and they didn't have cows fed with steroids & drugs, they didn't pasteurize milk. I think it's not necessary to consume diary and there is no evidence that it's necessary. I have not been eating meat, fish, eggs and diary products for 40 years.
Q. How did you come to this diet?
A. When I thought that an animal must die for me to eat, I realized that I don't want to do that. Most people do not want to see this, they don't think about it but I just chose to think about those things. It was uneasy to quit diary products. I missed milk, etc. But we have plenty substitutes like fake milk, fake ice cream, so it's much easier now.
Q. Did you have any problems with health after quitting diary products?
A. No. Never. I'm 58 and I still can climb mountings, go surfing, run and do other things.
Q. And you consume mainly raw food. Why?
A. Mainly yes. I try to eat about 90% of raw food. Well, no other spices on the planet consume cooked food. Moreover, the more raw food I eat the more life force I got. At the beginning it's hard. Not only because we become addicted to what we eat. It's written in the genetic code what your parents and grand parents had been eating. When it happens that I eat cooked food, like steamed vegetables, brown rice I feel really bad after that - like being more tired. I'm never sick when I eat raw food. And it generates a lot of energy.
Q. Would you please describe recent tendencies in western yoga world?
A. Now there are more and more yoga schools. Some people practice yoga for 3-5 years, attend yoga-teacher's courses and then act as if they know everything. Some times it is quite annoying for those who has experience of tens years of practicing yoga. But we all change, I've been watching BKS Iyengar & P.Jois have been changing, it's a kind of evolution. And besides they've all been marketed by the organizations which supported them and told them what to do. There are money, commercialization, different authorities that tell you need to do yoga in such and such a way. And it makes yoga deluded.
Q. What is your attitude to the new styles / schools of yoga widely appearing recently?
A. It's a kind of deluded yoga but it reaches those people, who otherwise would never come to yoga. People find their version of yoga and it's good.
Q. Do you think that traditional Hindu yoga schools do not fulfill all needs of western people?
. Tradition is good because it preserves integrity of something that had been created.
And is bad in terms of flexibility – it’s a kind of stuck. Sometimes tradition even creates a kind of segregation. For me, traditional schools behave like in the story (about holding elephant’s different parts) but they all talk about the same. The things are changing and the whole world is changing, in order to adopt you need to change. And people, who now are perceived as being traditional, they’ve took something from the previous tradition and changed something (Patabhi Jois, Iyengar, Disikachar). It’s good to put something new in.
Q. How do you think, which tendencies are going to be observed in yoga world in the nearest 2-3 years?
A. Ah, If I knew I would be enlightened... Everything goes in cycles. Yoga was quiet for a long time then it become popular, probably it will become even more popular and then it will come back and sit quiet for a some time.
Q. And traditional final question: What would you wish to Wild Yogi magazine readers and to practitioners who are on the path of spiritual search?
A. Just be happy, be yourself and keep an open mind. ... and don't watch the TV, you'll live longer :)
(Questions by I.Zhuravlev, M.Yasochka, O.Sydorenko)
We`ve also collected some of Doug`s recipes for you, they are very easy for cooking and take only 10-20 minutes to make.
Spinach Fruit Smoothie
• 1/2 cup apple juice
• 1/2 bunch spinach, chopped
• 1/2 cucumber, chopped
• 1 banana
• wheat grass powder or other greens
• 1 tablespoon ground flax seeds
Put all ingredients into the blender and let it fly. I recommend putting the lid on the blender to speed clean up.
This is an excellent morning meal, as well as vehicle for herbal extract/tincture supplements.
Spicy Red Pepper Soup
• 1 large red bell pepper, chopped
• 1 roma tomato, peeled and chopped
• 1/4 cup sweet onion, chopped
• 1-2 cloves garlic, pressed
• 1 small jalapeño, seeded and minced
• 1/2 cup water
• 1 tablespoon cold pressed EVOO
• 1/4 cup fresh cilantro, leaves only
• juice of 1/2 lime
• 1/4 teaspoon cumin
• 1 teaspoon sea salt
• 1/2 avocado
Place all ingredients except for avocado in a food processor or blender. Blend until smooth, this may take a few minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings to liking. Refrigerate until you are ready to serve. When you are ready to serve, add 1/2 chopped avocado and blend until smooth. The avocado adds a creaminess to the soup. If you don't like spicy food just leave out the jalapeño, it's still an awesome soup.
Blueberry Greens Smoothie
• 2 cups water or juse
• 1 cup spinach
• 1 1/2 cups frozen (or unfrozen) blueberries
• 1 frozen (or unfrozen, frozen is better) banana
• 1 tablespoon EFA oil
• 2 tablespoons (or to taste) agave nectar
You DO NOT taste the greens so don't be put off by the combo! Drinking this smoothie makes me feel great. I love it in the morning or even for dinner.
Put all ingredients into blender and blend it for about 1 min or until the spinach is totally obliterated.
If you didn't use frozen fruit this smoothie will not be as thick. You can always add some ice to it if you like it chilled.
As Doug says: «I feel marvelous after drinking this smoothie, which I make almost every morning and even for a dinner».