A “spiritual gangster” walks among us this week, but he doesn’t tote guns. David Sye’s weapon of choice is yoga.
The popular teacher, who is described as the “bad boy of yoga,” is here from London, where he’s well-known for Yogabeats — his self-created style of yoga — and the work he does with people at war and kids involved in gangs, prostitution, and drug and alcohol addiction.
It’s Sye’s desire that people question what they’ve been taught and break more rules that has earned him the “spiritual gangster” and “bad boy” nicknames. His yoga isn’t sandalwood incense burning in a studio as people move mechanically into postures and pursue “fake reverence,” he says. His intention is to move yoga from becoming an “elitist pursuit” and toward being the transformational tool it is.
“Only in risk do you come alive,” he says. “Most of the time, people dream their realities. They’re not really here.”
In his 20s, Sye was diagnosed with ulcerated colitis and a spastic colon. Doctors recommended surgery that would leave him with a colostomy bag and a severely decreased quality of life. He decided to try Tibetan yoga first, and it healed his body and changed his life.
It was a job as a radio journalist in Belgrade, Serbia, in 1990, that paved the way for Yogabeats. Living in a war-torn country inspired him to use Cuban rap music to drown out the sounds of conflict. He combines that fervent, thumping music with postures that move and shift.
Before arriving in Belgrade, he taught yoga to kids. When he asked them to hold still in a pose, they couldn’t — they would naturally wiggle. He incorporated those shimmies into his practice, thus breaking the rule of statically holding a yoga pose. Sye encourages spontaneous movement during practice — ripple-like motions of the torso, arms and legs.
“It’s a very vague format and I break the rules,” he says. “Unless I do that, people are never present — they’re on automatic. “I will bring in odd practices to break up the mindless flow. Otherwise, people get lost in their ego. You ask how often are they enjoying themselves and all you get are endorphins talking back to you. But when you get somebody feeling love, they’re blissed out of their heads.
“I get people to that place and that’s how I work with people in the streets who are violent and aggressive. Once you’re in bliss, you’re just happy. That’s why yoga’s such a fabulous tool, that’s why it must become more than asana, and we must go beyond the posturing. It’s a phenomenal tool. I want people to use that.”
Sye also is known for a 2006 class at a hotel in Jerusalem where he taught a combined group of Palestinian and Israeli women, groups not known for peaceful interactions. He caught two of the women hugging and crying. “It was one of the highlights of my entire life,” he said in an interview with Iain McNay on Conscious TV. “I thought, ‘That’s it, that’s my work.’ It’s saying that (yoga) works. You see the magic of transformation, the chemical transformation caused by this practice.”