If you haven’t heard of Bryan Kest, you could be accused of living under a large stack of yoga bolsters. Kest is one of the West’s most coveted international yoga teachers whose presence in the yoga spotlight spans three decades. Each year, he criss-crosses the globe visiting 100 cities to teach sell-out master classes, teacher trainings and workshops at studios heaving with yoga teachers and students, all ears for his knowledge. Having taught an estimated 18,400 yoga classes during his career, this master teacher has seen a staggering amount of bodies on the mat. Just don’t call him a Guru.
Kest’s throaty voice resonates down the phone from Santa Monica, Los Angeles, home to his successful Power Yoga studios. “You ask any question you want, and I’ll answer it.” It is this honest, self-assured manner; coupled with a frank, accessible and inimitable discourse, which provides some of the most powerful attributes in Kest’s teaching arsenal.
At age 15 and living in Hawaii, Kest found himself in the position of being in the first Ashtanga yoga class outside of India. Fellow Island resident, David Williams – the Western pioneer of Ashtanga yoga to America – became Kest’s first yoga teacher, at the behest of his father. Kest Senior insisted that his children practice yoga or, as Kest recalls it, “get out of the house.” Perhaps somewhat ironically, Kest’s father – a former paratrooper – found in yoga relief for a bad back; although it was what yoga did for his mind that he came to value most highly. Bryan also found himself with back injury due to a car accident and sought solace in a deepened meditation practice.
Kest isn’t the archetypal yoga teacher. He never cues classes to start or end with ‘Om’ and considers stringent postural alignment akin to dogma. Discussion on alignment, which he prefers to refer to as “creating space”, might prompt Kest to request a copy of the “Yoga Rule Book.” As a student and former Teacher Trainee of Kest’s, I can also attest that he’s especially good at dropping the f-bomb during class; which grabs an easy headline wherever he travels.
At the very outset, as Kest recalls it, he didn’t have a jot of interest in creating another yoga ‘system’: “There is really no such thing as Power Yoga. Baptiste yoga, Jivamukti, Bikram and Ashtanga Yoga – these are all systems. Power Yoga is not a system.
You can take a ‘Power’ class anywhere in the world and it’s going to be different because there is no system. When you take my class, I’m really trying to encourage the whole mental side of things.”
During the 1990’s and outfitted with shoulder-length black hair and oodles of swag, Kest cut a path as somewhat of a yogi rock star, keeping busy as Madonna and Steven Spielberg’s wife’s yoga instructor. He popularised vigorous flow classes and coined the term “Power Yoga” – a name he’ll candidly tell us is redundant: “I used to think Power Yoga was a cool name as there’s nothing more empowering than doing a well-rounded yoga class but now I just think it’s a stupid name. It intimidates people as they sometimes think this style of yoga is too hard for them. I don’t want to alienate people. As soon as I find a better name, I’ll change it.”
In 1995, Kest released the sometimes-parodied Power Yoga with Bryan Kest videos featuring a young, darker-haired Seane Corn as a model yogini. It was from this era, which Kest rose to become the esteemed yoga authority he is today; stirring countless others along a yogic pathway. Kest hasn’t had a regular pay cheque since starting America’s first donation-based yoga studio in the mid Nineties. His incentive for opening a pay-what-you-can studio model was inspired from his understanding that traditionally yoga was originally offered for no charge and to make yoga accessible to everyone.
This all-embracing approach continues at Kest’s studios today, where the homeless plus everyday people and famous celebrities might be found practicing alongside one another. One Christmas, on emptying out the studio donation box, Kest found an anonymous note accompanying a $700 cheque – payment for three years of free yoga classes made good – testament to Kest’s mantra: “When you’re living your truth, somehow the universe takes care of you.”
Albeit, while Kest is renowned for teaching a complete physical yoga routine which he says is “intended to leave the student completely tension free,” he is keen to emphasise that the physical asana is just the tip of the iceberg: “Yoga is just calisthenics from India if you don’t practice with a yogic mentality. The real objective is to bring the qualities of meditation into your asana practice.”
While Kest’s asana practice extends 33 years, what is not so widely known is that he’s also assiduously followed a Vipassana Meditation practice for 27 years – likely inspired from his time studying in India with S.N. Goenka – the Burmese-Indian teacher of Vipassana meditation. As part of a year-long sabbatical living in Mysore, India, Kest also studied with the main proponent of Ashtanga yoga, K. Pattabhi Jois. Kest credits this time with Pattabhi as a formative experience: “It was a great time because I was there with Pattabhi by myself, so I really got to know him and I got to pick his brain… What I learned from Pattabhi is mostly everything I never want to be as a yoga teacher and that’s been really important to me to move forward. I needed to have that experience with Pattahbi to push me to where I wanted to go.”
At 51, Kest packs seemingly indefatigable energy and still practices six times a week, although these days he sports much shorter hair. What doesn’t appear to have changed from his early teaching days is Kest’s unflagging tenet – “there is no enlightenment at the end of a yoga pose” – a notion he continues to reiterate to his students.
A large part of Kest’s maxim is to encourage students to leave rivalry, judgement, narcissism and reactivity at the studio door: “A lot of people bring a stressful state of mind into yoga and end up perpetuating that mind state in yoga as they’re too busy trying to touch their head to their toes or do Triangle Pose correctly… That’s why I say people bring their rubbish to yoga and they turn their yoga into rubbish.”
Through an incessant dialogue, which is often delivered in first-person – “if there’s anything I’m holding on to, I can just let go” – Kest strips back any preconceived ideas that perfection has a place in yoga. At the very core, he wants students to enjoy yoga as the ultimate personal practice and emphasises the need to be on high alert of feeding negative mental habits – namely, comparison and competitiveness.
“I think we can all agree that we’re not going to heal relationships and solve problems with loose hamstrings. I encourage people to really figure out where they belong within the experience. We use basic, simple poses, which are approachable to everybody and encourage people to take those poses to their own degree… Basically, we can have a Grandma and Granddaughter, who are at different stages of their lives, using the same pose to find their own personal edge. It might look different but they both benefit equally.”
For Kest, the “teacher” doesn’t come as a Guru draped in orange robes and dreadlocks – rather, he considers life itself, with its myriad experiences, as the greatest teacher – even viewing injury as an opportunity for growth: “Injuries are your greatest teacher because you’re forced to become more sensitive, gentle and humble. All the qualities you have when you work with injury are the qualities that the yogis have always been aspiring to develop… Practicing intelligently means practising gently.
Practising gently really is impossible unless you are aware so you could say practicing with awareness. It’s a really strange concept to the Westerner; it’s called ‘moderation.’”
While direct references to Sanskrit are scant and sometimes the subject of satire in Kest’s classes – such as likening Parsvottanasana to “bending over my (insert expletive) knee pose” – the Yamas and Niyamas – Ahimsa, Satya, Aparigraha – are littered throughout his teachings, which he makes a point of instructing in English: “It doesn’t need to be said in a way that was spoken over 5000 years ago or in Gothic or Sanskrit. It can be spoken in plain English…
“All the great ones who have visited our Planet – Jesus, Moses, Buddha, Mother Teresa, Yogananda, Osho or Gandhi – were dedicated to the wellness, peace and uplifting of all beings by giving discourses on qualities of mind like love, compassion, gratitude and codes of conduct.”
Yoga’s ultimate goal, says Kest, is to eradicate judgment: “I have always felt the only way to judge your progress in yoga is how little you judge your progress in yoga, or maybe judge anything.”