You know that old chestnut: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears?” I can tell you for a fact that it is more than a cliché. Though I didn’t meet Greg Marzullo until well into my yoga experience, I knew instantaneously that he was my teacher. I have learned far more in the few years that I’ve known him than I did in all the years preceding our acquaintance.
Greg is the real deal. He is a legitimate spiritual guide, having a strong working knowledge of many of the world’s lineages. How many Catholic-raised former cantors/shamanic apprentices do you know who also have spent time in Buddhist temples? Couple that with his near flawless recall of sacred texts — the seminal as well as the esoteric — and you begin to understand the depth of the Greg Marzullo experience. In addition, as a former actor and dancer, he’s hugely entertaining. A Greg yoga class is performance art and stand-up comedy combined with worship; in short, a sweaty, transcendent party.
After years as a beloved teacher in the D.C. yoga scene, Greg is about to share his wisdom and singular voice with the world. This week, he is launching his book, Bad Yogi: A Guidebook for the Rest of Us. For those of us who know him, our collective response is: “it’s about time!”
I had the honor of interviewing Greg about Bad Yogi recently. Really, I just used it as an excuse to pick the brain of my guru about the meaning of life, yoga and God – you know, a light, breezy conversation. Here’s what he had to say:
In a nutshell, what is Bad Yogi about?
I believe that yoga, as we’ve been exposed to it, is not the full story.
Approaching yoga from a dualistic perspective — good vs. bad, right vs. wrong— hinders our spiritual growth. We end up trying to live up to an ideal that, for most of us, is impossible. And then we demonize other paths. The result is that we end up heaping a lot of guilt on our heads.
I wanted to provide a counterpoint to what we often think of as being a “good” person. Looking at the classic Hindu myths, we see Arjuna, the hero of the Bhagavad Gita, slaughtering thousands of people. How does that square with the concept of ahimsa (non-harming)? Mahananda, a prostitute goes to heaven. The great demons seek — and often find — moksha (liberation).
In our culture, we’re told that only “good” people go to heaven and that “bad” people are punished. But our notions of right and wrong are completely illusory. We cling to them because they make the day-to-day bearable. And yet, many of these stories show us that there is something else going on that we don’t understand. They turn our beliefs of right and dharmic living on their head.
So you wrote the book as a counterpoint to the “goody two shoes” school of yoga?
I wrote the book because I am concerned that the increasing popularity of yoga is bringing with it a watering down of the hope it can provide to people. It’s being sold as something that will make people happy. Though I do believe that yoga can help to make people happy, it’s not about this “be good/not bad” dualism. Yoga, as it is currently portrayed, is at risk of being dismissed as yet another shallow fad.
In my own experience, though, yoga has helped me to be a “better” person – more “good” and less “bad,” if you will. It’s helped me to be more compassionate – with myself when my darker demons come out to play, and with others who, in the past, I might have wanted to throttle. What say you to that?
Listen, yoga has certainly changed my life for the better. I am definitely a more balanced person. I am a kinder person to myself and to others. I’d like to believe that I have more insights into my own traps, tricks and lies. I definitely believe in yoga’s power to change our lives for the better. I wouldn’t be teaching it if it didn’t.
But I notice a lot of people trying to mold themselves into what they see as some sort of yogic ideal and, as a result, they are not necessarily being nice to themselves. Yoga has become bastardized as a weapon that people can use against themselves.
I interpret your message as, “Enlightenment is right on the other side of all your shit, so the first step is getting on your hands and knees and crawling through it.” Does that about sum it up?
It’s said in the Vedas — I’m paraphrasing here — that 99 percent of the souls in the world don’t want to wake up. And can anyone blame them? Committing to knowing oneself with complete and utter honesty is a terrifying thing. Who wants to plumb the depths of who they really are? Deep down in those depths, there are monsters.
But knowing those monsters is essential to knowing the best parts of ourselves. Perhaps the monsters are the best parts of ourselves. In Hindu myths, it’s often the demons who deliver the most eloquent speeches on dharma and right action. That’s something to look at in terms of how we approach our own spiritual work.
Speaking of dharma, you focus on it a fair amount in the book. Can you explain what it is?
The explanation I like the most is from one of my teachers, Brendan Feeley: dharma is how we make meaning of experience. We go through something really horrible or really wonderful and try to figure out the meaning behind it. If we can do that, suddenly our experiences are no longer random, but part of a bigger story.
Author and mythology teacher Joseph Campbell, someone who has had a big impact on the way I view the world, defined dharma as following your bliss; following what brings you to a state of rapture.
Personally, I wonder if our dharma isn’t something that we discover at the end of our lives; when we look back over the course of our lifetime and say, “Oh, this was the theme of my life.”
Ritual plays a big part in the way you teach. Can you explain why ritual is so important to you?
Ritual makes a mythic life possible. It can make everything you do an offering. It’s a way to sanctify a life that otherwise could become stale, dry and have no meaning. It can take whatever form works best for you – chanting, drumming, dancing, high drag, whatever.
People need to reach ecstatic states of consciousness regularly to stay healthy, physically and mentally. Our psyches, souls and spirits need to know that there is something bigger than just the day-to-day existence. When we are sitting for hours every day in cubicles under fluorescent lighting or in a car stuck in traffic, is it any wonder that people get depressed? Why wouldn’t they be? There’s no zest in life. Ritual takes us out of ourselves, out of this day to day and into an ecstatic state.
I feel like yoga in this country is understood largely only as asana. What do you think about the emphasis on the physical practice?
Everyone gets sucked into the physical practice because it works. It’s embodied metaphor; a way to physicalize the philosophy. After all, we are primates, and kinesthetic learning is in our DNA. I worry, though, when practitioners are only exposed to the necessity of core work and getting a yoga butt.
My own relationship to asana has changed so much since I first started practicing yoga. These days, I want more stillness, quiet and peace. Now, meditating is my bedrock. I also chant and try to do pranayama. Those are my main practices.
What do you think enlightenment is?
I honestly don’t know. But I fantasize that it’s a cessation of all my own craziness. I hope it is a true, soul knowing — not just an intellectual understanding — that all things are sacred; that this is just a game. One with no winners or losers; just a game.
What does “God” mean to you?
I search for God all the time. It torments me. It’s where I find my rapture. And I’ve experienced that rapture in many of the forms I’ve looked into. Whether the object of devotion has been Kali or Jesus or Allah or Krishna – the same spiritual ecstasy has been present. And that confuses the hell out of me.
So much in yoga and in other philosophies tells us to take one form and stick with it. But I wonder if the various forms are all just different masks that God wears. They each give us qualities to relate to, but ultimately they are all masks worn by the same, singular being.
A question I continually ask myself is: can I be satisfied with just one of the masks or do I need to remove them all and find out what’s underneath?
And there you have it, friends – just a tiny peek into the Greg Marzullo experience. You want more, don’t you? I knew you would. Bad Yogi is available on Amazon. And check out Greg’s website, where he offers mind-blowing spiritual missives regularly.