Wellness Revolutionaries | Episode 07 | A Lifetime of Yoga with Peter Sterios
Listen as Blake interviews Peter Sterios, author, avid yogi, and Founder of Manduka, a company that has led the yoga accessories industry for over two decades. Peter details the story behind his very first yoga class, the evolution of the Manduka mat, and his approach to a yoga practice that unites both the physical and emotional dimensions of wellness.
Meet Peter Sterios [01:17]
Interview with Peter Sterios [04:32]
Peter’s approach to yoga [06:01]
The mind-body connection [09:11]
Peter’s foray into the yoga world [11:53]
A contagious practice [18:39]
Gripping vs. softening into the body [25:17]
The research into yoga [28:37]
The story behind Manduka [31:12]
Aging gracefully [40:10]
Emotional release and yoga [41:14]
Closing remarks [43:42]
Gravity & Grace: How to Awaken Your Subtle Body and the Healing Power of Yoga by Peter Sterios
Blake: [00:00:02] There's no question yoga is booming in the western world but the Wellness Revolutionary I talked to today says that some of the essential tenets of the ancient teachings seem to be disappearing.
Peter: [00:00:12] I think if you were to say what's the downside of the popularity of yoga is that some of the things that were so much part of my training that I did the year I lived in India, that kind of subtle body information that you learn over extended periods of time with a master teacher, that kind of stuff is hard to find in this day and age.
Blake: [00:00:56] Welcome to Wellness Revolutionaries, the podcast that shines a light on the leaders of the Wellness Revolution. I'm talking about the inspiring men and women focused on building a culture of wellness in America. I'm Blake Beltram MINDBODY Co-founder and Evangelist and your host, tour guide, and companion on this journey toward a healthier, happier us.
[00:01:17] Peter Sterios won't say it about himself but I consider him to be among the pioneers of modern American yoga. For one thing, Peter founded Manduka which is absolutely iconic in the yoga world. Their yoga mats set the gold standard as soon as they launched and if you've been around yoga for more than five minutes you've seen a Manduka mat with its squiggly frog logo which, by the way, comes from "Mandukasana" the Sanskrit name for frog pose and there's a good chance you even own one of their mats like I do. Peter talks in this episode about how he essentially stumbled into starting Manduka, which is a fascinating story, I learned some things I didn't know and Peter and I have some really interesting parallels. In 1998, within a year of him starting Manduka in San Luis Obispo, California, I was in L.A. starting Hardbody software which morphed into MINDBODY software and ultimately MINDBODY, which is headquartered in San Luis Obispo, just down the street from where Peter started Manduka. Some interesting similarities which Peter and I talk about in this episode. He has been a contributor to Yoga Journal magazine. He opened the first yoga studio in San Luis Obispo. He's been teaching for years and here's some breaking news about Peter, and I have a feeling this will wind up being a lasting part of his legacy, he has a new Sounds True book coming out called Gravity & Grace. I love the book. It's so well written and being a writer myself I can be somewhat of a snob about good writing. And Peter really nails it.
But here's why I think it's so important: Yoga has exploded so much in the last 20 years that, as Peter talks about, in many cases the original teachings have been watered down or even lost in some cases and some of what is in danger of being lost, as he talks about, are the deeper teachings at the core of this ancient practice which is precisely where some of the more profound benefits of yoga can be realized. This is only logical, right? When you consider that for thousands of years teachers were grown and taught and developed as part of a lineage rather than being certified after taking a 200 hour course. So Peter's book is partly an attempt to keep some of those ancient teachings of yoga alive and this is a guy who's been there he's been a yogi for over 35 years. He studied for a year in India, learned from a master, and so on. This is someone who's put in his 10,000 plus hours and continues to evolve and grow his own practice and his teaching methods. I took a great class with him myself the day before this interview. So perhaps as modern American yoga continues to mature and evolve more and more of the next generation of yogis will look to learn from not just the ancient texts but the modern masters like Peter Sterios who learned it the old fashioned way and the newer texts like his forthcoming book, Gravity & Grace. So talking about how he started Manduka, his fascinating journey, and his new book. Here is Peter Sterios.
Blake: [00:04:32] Peter, thanks for making the long trip to MINDBODY headquarters. That's about what a mile mile and a half.
Peter: [00:04:37] It took me three minutes to get here.
Blake: [00:04:39] So to set the context this is unusual. Usually when we do the podcast I wind up in L.A. or San Diego but this one just turned out to be convenient because Peter Sterios happens to live right here in San Luis Obispo. I think we live a couple of miles from each other and our daughters have played together and went to school together for a couple of years. So just to set the stage, we're in my office at the MINDBODY headquarters. But how long have you been on the Central Coast?
Peter: [00:05:02] I came here to go to college in 75 and I was here pretty much that whole time except for about 12 years in New Zealand and then in India.
Blake: [00:05:13] You grew up, where?
Peter: [00:05:13] In Fresno, inland about two hours.
Blake: [00:05:16] So you came over for college and basically never left other than spending 12 years.
Peter: [00:05:20] That's right.
Blake: [00:05:21] The first question I have for you, Peter: I took your class yesterday morning and my question is, what did you do to me?
Peter: [00:05:28] Are you sore?
Blake: [00:05:28] Yeah. It was so interesting because I've been pretty frequent. You know I take yoga three or four times a week. And I didn't think too much of it really felt a great impact from the class right afterwards. I went back to do class this morning and I was sore in places I'm not normally sore and I almost feel like I've been worked out from the inside out a little bit.
Peter: [00:05:48] That's a great description.
Blake: [00:05:49] Yeah, it felt like my organs maybe been wrung out a little bit. And it's a good tired, it's a good kind of sore, that feels like, oh wow, I worked out some parts of my body and being that I don't normally get to.
Peter: [00:06:01] Yeah, I have been looking at how to design a balanced practice for 15-20 years now. And what's important for my approach to yoga is that in every workout you try and hit every major joint in the body in as many directions of movement as possible. You know in Vinyasa, Vinyasa is probably one of the most popular styles of yoga right now. When you look at the average Vinyasa class, there's actually quite a limited range of movement. It's very repetitive and I just was blessed with a lot of injuries before I came to yoga, playing rugby for almost seven years before I started yoga seriously, and my joints needed a full workout. And typical Vinyasa wasn't doing it and I was actually reinjuring myself a lot mostly through repetitive movements. When I was a weightlifter, when I was playing rugby, we always used to work out shoulders one day, legs another day, arms another day, to kind of give the body some time to rest. But you know these unlimited membership passes people come to yoga every day going to basically the same type of class every day. It's why people are getting hurt in class.
Blake: [00:07:11] I guess I'm one of those people, I found that out after attending your class. So you were working out pretty much every major joint in my body in ways that I'm generally not getting to those joints.
Peter: [00:07:21] Yeah, a lot of the movement has been inspired let's say by some of the soft style martial arts and also I had so many injuries: shoulders, rotator cuff tears, ligament tears in the knees, meniscus tears, I had to explore what was first safe and then how do I approach those places where I'm limited because I don't want to just ignore those places where those tears were.
Blake: [00:07:48] It had an emotional impact on me as well. Your wife happened to be in the class and made the mistake of coming over and asking me how things were going and having some, you know, some challenges with my daughter and I just sort of broke down in tears and started crying in front of your poor wife. But I'm confident that that was related to the practice that I had just been through in your class.
Peter: [00:08:10] This is a big topic and as I told you after class I just finished writing my book for the last two years and Sounds True really gave me space to do a lot of research and the research that I uncovered with say connective tissue, you know you hear "the issues are in your tissues" as kind of a slogan and it's true: the way connective tissue works, it actually can feel the effects of your thoughts like If you have grief or anger or any of those emotions that produce kind of a negative vibration, the connective tissue can actually store some of that. So when we do a well-rounded practice, that's kind of moving into place you don't usually go in those places you don't usually go are usually the places where all this stuff resides.
Blake: [00:09:00] A lot of us know that our emotions get stored in our body. We talk about that a lot and I've done a lot of personal work on that. But you've actually been able to look at that scientifically? Help me understand how you can see those stored in the connective tissues.
Peter: [00:09:11] As I was researching for my book, I'm starting to find all these scientists that are out there doing research on connective tissue, independent of yoga. They're starting to understand how this kind of model that we have with the muscular skeletal. Like most of us grow up thinking OK we got these bones and we've got these muscles and we kind of understand what tendons and ligaments do but we're basically just bones and muscles and we kind of move that way. But what they're finding is that the bones are actually suspended in a web of connective tissue. And if you can think of an image let's say of something called tensegrity, it's geodesic dome is a perfect example of this crazy architect. I think it was in the fifties or the sixties, Buckminster Fuller. He came up with this understanding how to create rather large structures with minimal amount of material and he figured out that we have these rods and these tendons let's call them and basically the human body is exactly that. The rods are the bones and the tendons or muscles and connective tissue. They're all in this net and where in the past we thought well maybe one joint works independent of another joint with the tensegrity model. Every joint in the body affects every other joint in the body every connective tissue fiber has a connection to every organ, every muscle in the body. And to me that's fascinating. Because oftentimes over, you know, 45 years in doing yoga, I'll injure myself and if I go to a doctor and he'll say you hurt your knee. And in reality I actually hurt my hip and it just refers to the knee me and I'm trying to understand well how exactly cause the muscular skeletal model doesn't explain it but the connective tissue does. This web is not just a mechanical device, it's a psychological store or I don't know like if you understand fully that body and the mind are inseparable, that any thought is going to produce a sensation or an energy that is traveling and if there are stagnant places in the body, those energies tend to just collect there. And what causes stagnation? It's usually dysfunctional attempts at emotions like if we get angry, all of us have different places where we store that kind of subconscious tension. So if we were repetitively angry or repetitively driving on a freeway stressed out about traffic, that residual psychological stuff tends to go into these places which we habitually hold.
Blake: [00:11:48] And is it different for each of us? Am I going up be possibly store my anger in a different place in my body that you're going to store…
Peter: [00:11:53] Totally. And here's what was so fascinating to me, this is years ago, when I first started doing yoga, it was purely a physical practice and I started in the seventies when it was definitely not cool for a guy to be doing yoga.
[00:12:07] Definitely not. Were you wearing your big baggy sweats and your white t shirt? Tell me about the first time that you stumbled into a yoga class in the seventies.
Peter: [00:12:16] This is such a great story. Thank you for asking. So I'm at Cal Poly and I had tried to walk on to the basketball team my freshman year and I just happened to be going by the group fitness room in the gym and the door was popped open just a little, I pushed it open and here's a class going on and all these women with a female teacher doing yoga. And I had no context for what they were doing. No I didn't even have a name of what they were doing I was like, what are they doing? I don't know what I was seeing. I just said, "Hey, what is this?" right in the middle class. And the teacher had a lot of compassion for me and she just said, "It's yoga." And then I said, "What's that?" And she says, "Well, do you want to find out? "Whoa, I'm on the spot now, you know, because I was just going next door to work out in the gym. And I said, "Well, sure." And she says, "Come back next week." And I said, "Okay." Now on my way to the gym, this is the seventies, I had long hair, ponytail, you know, no shirt on, tennis shoes with white socks, and gym shorts. And that's how I showed up to yoga that day. And the first thing that she said is, "Shoes got to come off." And then the second thing that happened is they started chanting. And I thought what have I gotten myself into, you know? I'm just this country bumpkin from Fresno, California pretty straight laced meat and potatoes kind of a kid.
Blake: [00:13:35] The future creator of the Manduka mat. How could you have ever imagined walking into that first class?
Peter: [00:13:39] I didn't. The only thing that got me there was the physical challenge. You know I'd been challenged by this teacher. Come join us.
Blake: [00:13:47] I'm just curious. Some guys wouldn't have done it because they would have felt a little emasculated or a little intimidated.
Peter: [00:13:52] I felt all those things.
Blake: [00:13:54] Did you? But you did it anyway.
Peter: [00:13:55] Part of the reason that I dressed that way is because the yoga room was right next to the weight room and I figured if any one of my workout buddies saw me going in I could say I got the wrong door, I could just walk into the weight room and keep working out. But after that first class I fell asleep in Savasana and half the class had left and the teacher tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Are you okay?" And I woke up, you know, and it was like every ache and pain I had in my body was gone. And she said, "How was it?" And I just smiled. There was no words that could describe what I was feeling in that moment. And I was hooked.
Blake: [00:14:32] You had that emotional connection from that first class.
Peter: [00:14:35] Oh my God. It was so, you know, in architecture school one of the major physical complaints was stiff neck because in the old days you're leaning out over a drafting table for 8-10 hours a day. And that was just what I did. And I ended up getting diagnosed with moderate arthritis in my neck at 20 years old. And so yoga was what really turned that around.
Blake: [00:14:58] So I'm curious, how was that class? When I think about a class at Cal Poly today, let alone in the seventies, I don't necessarily think I'm going to get the best, most experienced instructor in that class. So now that you're an expert teacher yourself, how would you rate that first class that you took?
Peter: [00:15:14] You know, she was older. I don't think she was a student. I think she may have been a faculty member and I'd never really developed a relationship where I could sit and talk to her. I would show up for class and I'd leave right after. But she'd obviously done some study somewhere and, you know, there were teachers like Baron Baptiste's dad, Walt, in San Francisco is training teachers in the seventis so it could have been that she had done a training in San Francisco and I think even Ganga White in L.A. was teaching teachers in those days. So…
Blake: [00:15:46] And the names that you're naming are what I associate with as sort of the founding fathers of modern day American yoga, some of them, and you became a part of that movement.
Peter: [00:15:54] I wouldn't say I was part of it.
Blake: [00:15:56] You were there.
Blake: [00:15:56] I was a kid in it, you know. I was actually participating in workshops and things like that in the late seventies and early eighties.
Blake: [00:16:05] The story that I tell, because when I started making software for yoga studios in 1998, the way I've always look back on it is I didn't know it but I was at kind of the epicenter, this is the way I tell the story and I'd love to get the truth from you, so I can actually tell the right story. But that I felt like I was at kind of the epicenter of modern American yoga because YogaWorks was there and I think they were one of the only places that were doing teacher trainings back in those days.
Peter: [00:16:27] Yeah that was later in the nineties.
Blake: [00:16:28] But in the seventies and eighties didn't that kind of slowly, incrementally lead up to that explosion that began in the nineties?
Peter: [00:16:36] There was no teacher training programs in the seventies, it was just students who were training with teachers and those teachers were giving committed students permission to teach. You know like in the old days you saw it after teachers with experience and obviously those two people that I mentioned, Walt and Ganga, those guys had a ton of experience because they went to India. So here they are back in California teaching students. But the committed students are like getting good and then the teacher would say you could teach.
Blake: [00:17:04] There was a real lineage. There was an authentic lineage from teacher to student at that time.
Peter: [00:17:08] Exactly. That was the precursor, let's say, to the modern teacher training movement. And I think it was Chuck and Maty at YogaWorks in L.A. in the nineties that figured out, oh this is a good business, this like training teachers and kind of franchising studios. And I have watched this happen for 40 years and I think it's a powerful thing that's happening in the U.S. and Western yoga, frankly. It is being commercialized but when you think about the impact that commercial yoga has had on the world, it's everywhere now. You were lucky if you found a place to do yoga in the seventies and now it's like everywhere.
Blake: [00:17:47] Yeah.
Peter: [00:17:47] So, that alone, to me is what'd you say before we started: "How's yoga going to take over the world?"
Blake: [00:17:53] Save the world. Yeah. Can yoga save the world?
Peter: [00:17:56] Well the first step is showing up, putting people in front of a yoga teacher and right now yoga is blazing that trail.
Blake: [00:18:04] It's everywhere.
Peter: [00:18:05] Yeah, people are able to show up for yoga.
Blake: [00:18:07] Even in the nineties it wasn't very prevalent. I mean when I got started in the late nineties, I actually thought indoor cycling was about to take off. I didn't know that yoga was really what was about to mushroom. There were maybe a half a dozen studios even in Los Angeles at that time. You know you had YogaWorks, and there was Yoga Center down on Larchmont, and The Yoga House in Pasadena -- they had been there for a while, they were client number five -- Maha Yoga, Steve Ross's studio was in Brentwood but that was about it, you know, there was about a half a dozen or so studios around. And that went on until the mid to late nineties and then it just started to mushroom.
Peter: [00:18:39] It's a natural evolution I think of something that people are feeling the effects of and it's contagious.
Blake: [00:18:51] Contagious is a great word for it. Twenty years ago, relatively few Americans were practicing yoga or had even taken a yoga class. The estimate now is that about 35 million U.S. adults practice yoga and of kids between the ages of 4 and 17, roughly 5 million of them have been bitten by a downward dog and now practice yoga.
Peter: [00:19:18] Anything that grows that quickly, though, it loses some of the impact; it gets diluted when something is so popular and widespread. And I think if you were to say what's the downside of the popularity of yoga is that some of the things that were so much part of your original training -- like my training that I did the year I lived in India -- that kind of subtle body information that you learn over extended periods of time with a master teacher, that kind of stuff is hard to find in this day and age and that's what your experience was in my class yesterday. I'm trying to get people to move from the subtle body first and the subtle body is this understanding that we have a physical body and then we have all these layers of, for lack of a better word, non-physical bodies. We have an emotional body, we have an intellect body. So how do we have a personal relationship with those subtle bodies? And it's frankly through sensation and sensation, most people approach yoga for the first time, the only sensation they're aware of his pain. But there's a lot other sensations capable in yoga and I used a lot of language, I don't know if you caught some of my language in class, but the word "soft" I use a lot. And this word, in particular, shifted for me when I started doing research for my book because when you take that old muscular-skeletal model of the body and your idea of stretching, how can you go to yoga I like to stretch, or whatever it is. But most people think that yoga is about stretching and that term "stretch", the way it's been understood, let's say, it has a two dimensionality quality to it. You know there's a insertion and an attachment where that muscle connects -- origin and insertion, sorry -- and in that linear aspect of a muscle we're kind of stretching but connective tissue, what they've found is, originally I think the first model that I understood connective tissue was like a wrap but they're actually finding that connective tissue is multi-fractal and it actually goes in and through muscles and organs. And there's a three dimensional quality to it. So when we're stretching a muscle in a two dimensional mindset that doesn't adequately portray the actual physiology of the muscle, when you use the word soft, soften into your hip or soften into your shoulder, that quality of what soft is three dimensional. It moves in directions other than just this linear model. So the beautiful thing about that class yesterday was I was cueing you without you knowing it to move three dimensionally with inside your body. And as you literally put your attention into your body, or you embody your body, you find pockets where all this kind of subconscious tension is.
Blake: [00:22:11] So I'd love to draw a line between that experience and saving the world if we want to take it all the way out.
Peter: [00:22:17] Yeah.
Blake: [00:22:17] The numbers, right now, are super bleak when you look at the rates of mental illness and addictions and depression. You know we've seen suicides on the rise and all these kinds of things that we talk about that a lot on this podcast. We're really in a downward spiral here as a culture and we need to do something to turn this thing around. But there's not really a macro answer, is there? The macro answer is the micro. It's millions of us or billions of us making these little shifts, like I experienced. It seems that the answer to saving the world really does come down to these little micro experiences.
Peter: [00:22:50] Totally.
Blake: [00:22:50] So do you see it that way? And can you kind of draw a parallel between the experience I had in your class with my emotions and where society is so balled up right now and how yoga can help turn the ship around?
Peter: [00:23:02] Yeah. I heard in one of my teacher trainings, last year, one of the students answered a question about this subtle body movement and she called it "millimeter miracles." It was such a perfect term because what we're talking about on a micro scale is that each individual who comes to yoga has the ability to experience himself at the subtlest levels to see that connection between what my thoughts are and what my body is capable of doing. And when you get to that point, which I think, ultimately, anyone who steps on the map for the first time their destination, let's say, for their yoga journey is that ultimate experience of their own subtle body because ultimately yoga is about that connection, taking what is one viewpoint of who you are and connecting it with a more universal viewpoint of who and what you are. So this idea of saving the world, it does, it's going to happen one by one. And that's the beauty of this growth of yoga right now is because of the exposure. For whatever reason, for whatever technique, commercialize, whatever you want to call it, I think it's all good.
Blake: [00:24:10] And then is the next step helping it to mature? Helping the industry to mature in the way that you've been around this for…
Peter: [00:24:16] 45 years.
Blake: [00:24:16] 45 years now. Do you see a parallel between the experience of yoga in America and it being, kind of, in its youth and the potential for it to mature as it moves forward?
Peter: [00:24:27] What I see, because I travel a lot to teach, and the people that are attracted to the classes that I offer, like if I were to just describe the typical person coming to my class, it's someone who's reached a certain level in their practice and they've kind of leveled off. They're kind of in a rut. They're good at what they do but they don't feel the same enthusiasm and excitement that they felt when they first started yoga but they don't know where to go. The group classes that they're going to are just repeating the same thing over and over and over again and they come to my class and, just like your experience, you're my target market, Blake. The poses look different, the movement looks different, the queuing is different; and at the end of it, what happened, you know?
Blake: [00:25:08] That's exactly how I felt. I was really surprised at how my body felt immediately after and how it feels today, the next day. I was really shocked by that.
Peter: [00:25:17] And the beauty for me is there's this whole system that I have uncovered within my own injuries and limitations. It can be boiled down to three simple things. The first one is back body breathing. And if you noticed, I was cueing the breath into remote places in your body and I use this term "back body breathing" as a placeholder for this idea that your breath follows where you put your mind. So, if we have a stiff shoulder or a stiff hip or anywhere in the body, we can hold our attention in that spot, follow the subtle movement, and the inhale is subtle expansion. So on the inhale you have this subtle expansion of buoyancy feeling in your body. You can carry that to any where you place your tension. In the beginning, you may not feel it physically but you can visualize it. The nervous system doesn't know the difference between a visualization and a physical experience of something. You know, you can trick your nervous system until at a point where you actually start to feel something subtly moving inside into that area where you place your attention and back body breathing is great for when you start to recognize where you hold subconscious grip to actually breathe into those places. And then the exhalations cycle is one of softening. So inhale is subtle expansion, exhale a subtle softening. And what happens when we soften into something that's chronically gripped. Think of someplace that's super tight in your body and just imagine it releasing right now, just like that, just thinking about it. Feel it. What's the feeling?
Blake: [00:26:46] It feels good.
Peter: [00:26:48] And spacious. That's the cycle of the breath where we move deeper into poses on the exhale when you create that soft, spacious feeling inside. There's an invitation to move into that space that you create. And my cues in class -- they're always on the exhale -- there's something to release and then there's something to expect or engage. And that's how it works. You inhale, it's like a pause in a way, as you let the breath expand subtly into those remote corners of your body and the exhale is this warm softening that opens you up. And then there's this intuitive response to move into it and that's all I'm doing as a teacher these days. I'm not teaching how to get into alignment, I'm teaching you how to open up your body and move into it.
Blake: [00:27:31] So interesting. You know, sitting across from you right now and hearing you say that, I'm actually feeling some of what you're saying and experiencing. I'm noticing subtle shifts in my body and my physiology just as you're talking and I'm realizing that a lot of what you're doing in class isn't even necessarily about the body itself, is it? You're cueing those triggers in my mind that are cueing those shifts in my physiology because I feel like I'm taking a little bit of a yoga class right now just sitting across from you.
Peter: [00:27:58] There's a transference. It's just sitting in proximity. When I first learned, I studied with one man for 20 years, and when I met him the first time in New Zealand when I was playing rugby in New Zealand and we used to practice together in the mornings when I would travel, assisting his programs. We would practice in the morning before he taught and often there was no words exchanged; It was just like follow or watch, some mornings he'd just say, "Sit and watch me."
Peter: [00:28:24] I learned so much just from that transference, what you're talking about.
Blake: [00:28:28] It's so profound. You know, how do you help take this thing that's so subtle and yet so profound and expand it out to where it's really making it a difference in the world?
Peter: [00:28:37] The thing that's exciting about the book for me is that I uncovered brain research, heart research, connective tissue research, gut research, even cellular biology research and all the authors, all the researchers are using the same language for their little piece of this holistic picture of the body and I just thought all these people should be talking together. So, in my book, I'm trying to bring all these ideas from different parts of us and weave it into the structure of what the yogis understood the body to be the coaches.
Blake: [00:29:12] Sounds like you're having the same experience that I'm having and that is that there's a sense of an unfolding that is taking place. There is some mysterious force out there that is unfolding, that is expanding, that it's fueling this movement. You know, we call it the Wellness Revolution, that's just one term maybe for one part of it. But that indicates that there is some sort of a shift that's really taking place and when we're tuned into it maybe it works out a little bit better than when we're callous to it. And the practice that you're talking about maybe opens us up a little bit more to be in tune with those synchronicities and that guidance.
Peter: [00:29:47] Yeah, science, right now, is kind of knocking on the door of the places that yogis understood 3-4-5000 years ago but they're reporting kind of secondhand information. They're studying, you know, samples of different types of people with different situations and as a researcher from a distance, trying to evaluate. What's going to shift, I think, in the future is when scientists are meditating or doing yoga. And it's not secondhand experience they're reporting on, it's firsthand experience they're reporting on.
Blake: [00:30:15] I saw a story, a lady named Sara Lazar, who was going to yoga classes for some reason and hearing that it had all of these physiological benefits on the brain and she was thinking to herself, yeah, yeah, yeah. So she became a researcher and herself proved that meditation and yoga increases four parts of the brain, specifically, thickens four parts that are beneficial, reduces the size of the amygdala. And there you go, it came from somebody who is a scientist, a neuroscientist and having that experience herself.
Peter: [00:30:38] Yeah, that's more and more common these days.
Blake: [00:30:45] You can hear neuroscientist Sara Lazar tell her own story in a TED talk about how she went from skeptical scientist to practicing yogini to researcher and, ultimately, scientific authority on how yoga and meditation literally reshapes our brain. Just search Sara Lazar, L-A-Z-A-R, to find her fascinating Ted Talk.
Blake: [00:31:12] You started, in 1997, Manduka How did you go from a kid walking by the yoga class at Cal Poly in 1975 to launching Manduka?
Peter: [00:31:23] It literally showed up on my doorstep. My teacher, Shandor Remete, who was, you know, a global traveling teacher in the seventies and finally started coming to the United States, I think in the late eighties, he would always come from Germany on his way to California to teach and one year he showed up with this thick, black mat. And I said, "Where'd you get that?" He said, "I got it from Klaus" and I go, "Can I call Klaus?" And he said, "Sure." So, literally, I pick up the phone and we call Klaus in Germany and I asked him. I said, "How can I get one of these mats?" And he says, "Well, I can sell you a few." And I said, "How many is a few?" He said, "Well, minimum order is twenty five thousand dollars." I said, "I wasn't thinking about that many mats." He says, "Well that's kind of where this business is going, if you want to sell them in the U.S." And I said, "Oh, okay, well let me see what I can do. I'll get back to you." And I thought about it for a day or two and then I just realized, you know what, I don't know how many credit cards I'll need to sign up for but I need to figure out how to get $25,000 together and start this company. So that's what I did. I signed up for like 3 promotional offers on credit cards and got convenience checks worth $25,000 and wrote the checks and, you know, about a month and a half later this container truck shows up on my doorstep and says, "Where do you want me to park this container?" And I said, "Well the only place is my driveway." And that was the start of it. And in those old days there was no internet to speak of so it was ads in Yoga Journal and either letters with checks in them or the answering machine that I had in my house taking orders. The first several months it was, you know, good business. But something happened. And if there was one person in those early days that had the biggest influence on my business. It was a yoga teacher in L.A. named Eric Schiffman and I'd only briefly met Eric at YogaWorks, he was a teacher there, but he liked studying with Shandor when Shandor would come to L.A. and so I met him there. And I gave him one of those mats because I thought he'd be a good ambassador and something weird started to happen. I would check my answering machine on Monday morning and there'd be like 40 or 50 orders from Omaha, Nebraska. You know and I was like what's in Omaha? You know. And this went on it been like Topeka, all these kind of remote Midwestern places. And I don't know what got me to think well maybe it's Eric and I went on his website and he had his schedule and there was all these places that he's teaching and it was like, oh my god. So I ran into Eric about a year later and I said, "Eric, what do you say in your workshops that make people want to buy these mats? And he says, "I start every weekend program by saying, 'Okay, I want to get this out of the way, so you know. I don't get any money for saying this but if you're serious about yoga, you'll get one of these mats.'"
Blake: [00:34:14] Wow.
Peter: [00:34:14] And that was how that business started and grew. Literally word of mouth.
Blake: [00:34:19] You were doing viral social marketing.
Peter: [00:34:20] Exactly.
Blake: [00:34:22] Before Facebook and Instagram. And the mats were truly different. I'd never seen anything close to it, if I'm right.
Peter: [00:34:28] That's right.
Blake: [00:34:28] I remember when Manduka mats came out, it was a completely different thing.
Peter: [00:34:32] It was completely different and three times the price of a normal mat.
Blake: [00:34:35] Which was what in those days?
Peter: [00:34:36] You could buy a yoga mat in studio for twenty bucks. And it was an eighth of an inch thick, green piece of carpet underlayment that was cut up, off a roll,and it would peel and break down in six months if you were practicing every day.
Blake: [00:34:49] Just a piece of crap. And they were, they were made from junk.
Peter: [00:34:51] Well they weren't made from junk. That was state of the art for carpet underlayment, but they weren't engineered for, you know, the factory in Germany does quality stuff. They weren't engineered for yoga.
Blake: [00:35:01] So did you come up with the name Manduka and that was basically your wholesaler was Klaus or someone in Germany? So you were sourcing…
Peter: [00:35:08] Klaus was just a yoga teacher in Germany who was friends with the factory manager and the factory manager would invite him into the warehouse from time to time and say, "Hey, what do you think of this for yoga mat?" And the black mat was backing for astroturf.
Blake: [00:35:21] What?
Peter: [00:35:23] Klaus was selling, literally, the backing for astroturf to his yoga teacher friends in Europe. Shandor got one, brought it to the states, and it turned out there was a company in New Jersey that was the regional distributor for carpet underlayment for this company in Germany and they were slowly getting into the yoga mat business and I think there were even some people selling the black mat in the early days without any branding on it and I was the first one that came along and said, "How are people going to find this if there's no branding?".
Blake: [00:35:50] Yeah.
Peter: [00:35:50] So I started branding it Manduka.
Blake: [00:35:52] And did you have to have the mats shipped here and then have the stamp put on them, the Manduka label?
Peter: [00:35:57] That was my business in the early days. The mats came in boxes of five. I would open the box, take the mat out, stick a label on it, put Manduka's story packaging on it, put it back in the box, and ship it.
Blake: [00:36:08] And that was astroturf underlayment that you were selling? Just cut in the shape of a yoga mat.
Peter: [00:36:12] Well, no. So one of the first things that I did was, I looked at the mat that I received, the first shipment. I looked at it and I said, "This is good enough to give away but it's not great." So after that, I gave half of that $25,000 first investment away. I gave it to all the celebrity yoga teacher friends I had, 40 or 50 of the top teachers in the U.S. and some in Europe. And then I went to Germany and I said, "How about if we do this on the top surface and this on the bottom surface?" And so they tweaked the rollers that they kind of extrude these mats through and they created these new textures and then it was a yoga mat.
Blake: [00:36:48] I always thought that you invented the Maduka mat and you effectively did, starting with a core. But...
Peter: [00:36:54] That's right. I saw this product and went, "This is great but we can make it greater." And that was just sitting at the right place at the right time.
Blake: [00:37:03] And they retailed then for around $60. Weren't they bigger as well? I thought those mats were a little bigger.
Peter: [00:37:08] Yeah. We had the 72 inch mat which is four inches longer than a typical mat of the day. But then we had this 100 inch that we made for Eric Schiffman and Eric, you know, he's a big guy. But there was people wanting it, so we were selling it. But then about four years later we found a lot of people didn't need the full 100 inch but 85 was, like, perfect. People were cutting 15 inches off their mats. So we stopped the 100 inch except whenever Eric wanted a new one he would give his mats away and ask for a new one. And we made the 85 inch mat and that's where we are today.
Blake: [00:37:39] How did you know those 40 or 50 celebrity yoga people? That sounds like just about everybody.
Peter: [00:37:44] Well it was through connection through YogaWorks and through Shandor. We would travel around and Shandor was a very well-known teacher that anyone in the Iyengar community knew who he was in the United States because he was really one of Iyengar's top international students. So I met them at YogaWorks, I also traveled, you know, like I'd go up to San Francisco anytime there was a workshop to do, Tony Briggs was a popular teacher in San Francisco, Ana Forrest was a popular teacher in L.A., so anytime Donna Holliman would come from Italy and teach, I was there because I didn't want to go all the way back to India. I wanted it here. So yeah, that's how I met them. And then I think also writing for Yoga Journal. I had met James Bailey and Shiva Rea in L.A. at YogaWorks, she was a big teacher there and I think James was even teaching-- that was her husband in those days--and I get this phone call from Shiva one day and she said, "Hey, have you ever done any writing? And I said, "No, except in college, papers and stuff." She said, "Well, I just put your name in at Yoga Journal for my yearlong beginners column. So if they get in touch with you, you should have an answer ready for them." I said, "Okay." So they reached out and they said, "Okay, you're one of 40 instructors we've invited to submit a test article, 1,500 words, and here's the list the poses that we want you to write about." And luckily on the list the poses was Child's Pose because that was the pose I felt the most passion about. So I wrote this 1,500 word article on Child's Pose and I got the job and I was curious how I got the job because there were some well-known teachers that had applied and I wasn't well known. I was teaching in San Luis, that was pretty much it. And the editor of Yoga Journal said, "Anyone who can write 1,500 words about Child's Pose, that's the kind of writer we want."
Blake: [00:39:24] That's amazing and I remember before I ever met you I remember seeing your contributions to Yoga Journal for quite a while.
Peter: [00:39:30] Well, it was a year at first and then they would ask me once a year to write some kind of feature article.
Blake: [00:39:36] That was probably the year when I was taking the addresses of all the yoga studios out of Yoga Journal to send them marketing materials for the software.
Peter: [00:39:45] Yeah, we should have worked together in those days.
Blake: [00:39:46] I know. Well you do hold another distinction and that is that you taught the first yoga class for MINDBODY employees. We took the entire company to your studio to take a yoga class. All nine of us came over to your studio by the train station.
Peter: [00:40:00] We should try and do that again.
Blake: [00:40:02] Let's get us all. Do you think we could all fit in one room? Yeah, we're going to need a stadium now. There was about nine of us, nine or ten of us that came over and took your yoga class.
Peter: [00:40:10] You haven't aged a day, Blake.
Blake: [00:40:11] Well I think once I start being a regular in your yoga class it's going to actually reverse the aging process.
Peter: [00:40:18] Maybe so.
Blake: [00:40:18] Is that possible?
Peter: [00:40:19] Not possible. You know the thing about gracefully aging is accepting that what comes with age is a limitation. If you're grieving for mobility that you had when you were 20, that's going to be a lot of suffering. But what I've found, limitation to me is an opportunity. It actually helps stimulate creativity in a way. Like, okay, I may not be able to get my leg behind my head anymore like I used to. However, what can I do? And what is going to put me into that state? That awareness right where I meet resistance because ultimately our yoga poses are designed to just bring us into a deeper relationship with resistance in our body and resistance is either stiffness or weakness usually. So how do we meet and develop intimacy with the weaknesses in our body? How do we meet and develop intimacy with the stiffness in our body?
Blake: [00:41:09] That's interesting. Just to, I want to close on this note and get some personal advice from.
Peter: [00:41:14] Sure.
Blake: [00:41:14] What does one do with that emotion that comes out? You said that you've discovered, in your research, is that the emotions that we have that maybe we don't process properly literally lodge into our body, in our connective tissue. The practice that you took us through helped to release some of those emotions. What's the benefit of that and what does one do with that?
Peter: [00:41:35] The Sanskrit term for this kind of trapped psychic force in the body is called some "samskaras". So when we understand that this is something that yogis have known for thousands of years, that through the practice of yoga, we can release some of this subconscious tension in our bodies. The answer to your question, what do we do with it? Just let it come up and if it's in a yoga class -- I joke about this all the time -- like you can't let that kind of stuff come up in the gym. So what better place for stuff to come up than in the yoga center? We're in the business of releasing samskaras.
Blake: [00:42:09] Yeah, I've left my share of tears on yoga mats, that's for sure. I literally threw a yoga mat away once because of the nature of the tears on that yoga mat, I didn't even want any of the energy of that release left. I threw the yoga mat away.
Peter: [00:42:22] Some of the things you're saying I want to address because it's important. Tears on a yoga mat is actually one of the most efficient ways -- tears and sweat, because of the fluids that they contain -- is one of the best ways to break in a Manduka yoga mat. A lot of the complaints that we've gotten over the years is because they're slippery right out of the box, kind of thing. And what I've found, all Manduka mats, the Pro Series mats, have a break in period and we've studied what the most efficient way to break those in the quickest and it's sweat and tears as well because it's similar composition. And, in the beginning, when you're sweaty on a yoga mat, you slip and you just everyone that I know that loves their Manduka mat went through that same process. So, I just would encourage people who've got one of the mats and it's new and you're slipping, just keep slipping until it's not slipping anymore. [00:43:10][48.5]
Blake: [00:43:11] Wow. Peter, thanks so much for taking the time to…
Peter: [00:43:13] My pleasure.
Blake: [00:43:14] To come over and spend some time with me. It's been a real pleasure. We didn't get a chance to work together much in the past but hey there's always moving forward.
Peter: [00:43:21] I don't think it's an accident that we're in this town.
Blake: [00:43:23] I don't think so. So yeah I look forward to taking more of your classes and really appreciate being on this journey with you.
Peter: [00:43:29] Thank you, Blake.
Blake: [00:43:42] Peter recently started teaching a 6:30 a.m. class at SLO Yoga Center in San Luis Obispo on Thursdays and I've been taking it when I can and it's so fascinating to me because I've been doing a lot of yoga lately probably something like 20 to 25 classes a month. But in the days in the evenings after taking Peter's class, I truly feel a difference in my body, which is astounding to me. And after talking to him and reading an advance copy of his book Gravity & Grace, I now understand why it's not accidental; It's the net impact of a guy who's been at this for most of his life and, in fact, I was honored to write a testimonial for Peter's forthcoming book and I'd love to share it with you here. It reads:
"Gravity & Grace should be required reading, unquestionably for all yoga teachers and dedicated practitioners, but more surprisingly to me, for anyone keenly interested in living a happier life. Peter brilliantly illuminates how the conscious movement of our physical body influences our state of being and therefore ultimately our mental health and happiness. The book itself is a master yoga class. It changed me" -- and it has. So, a big thank you to Peter Sterios. His book Gravity & Grace published by Sounds True, comes out later this year and you can find out everything you want to know about his online courses, DVDs, and teacher trainings at levityyoga.com. That has one y in it. It's L-E-V-I-T-Y-O-G-A dot com.
[00:45:18] Be sure to subscribe to the podcast so you never miss an episode. Please write and review us so other revolutionaries can find and join us on this journey and if you like this episode or you know a yogi or yogini who might like this episode, please share it. Pass it on. Thanks to Jonny Lang for his song, "Make it Move" and to the podcast team: Shelley Northrup, Meredith Simmons, and Lauren McAlister. And last, but never least, I'd like to thank my producer, Brent Pierson. Of course, I appreciate you taking the time to listen. I'm Blake Beltram. The revolution is on. I'll see you next time.
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