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The Occidental Guru
US-based Yoga expert, Richard Rosen is changing the fitness paradigm in the West, with not just his guidance but also with his excellent books on the subject

For someone who has dedicated his life to the practice and dissemination of Yoga, Richard Rosen made a rather late start. At 33 years of age, he tried his first Yoga asana. Soon he experienced the joy and pleasure of Yoga that lies beyond the initial physical challenge. Eventually, he started teaching Yoga at the Piedmont Yoga Studio with partner and friend, Rodney Yee. In his one-room school, he has taught Iyengar Yoga for more than 25 years, bringing health and happiness to his students. In this exclusive interview, Richard Rosen takes us through his fruitful Yoga career.

When and where did you first encounter Yoga?

I took my first Yoga class in May, 1980, at the Yoga Room in Berkeley, CA

Tell us something about your first lessons in Yoga; an asana you found particularly difficult to master or an anecdote perhaps?

At the time I started I was 33 years old, and being stiff, I found most of the asanas difficult and rather painful. After about 18 months of taking lessons, I was practicing one day while visiting my parents in Phoenix, when I realized that the asanas were not meant to be painful, that instead they were really meant to be a source of pleasure and joy.

What made you a disciple of this path?

I really can’t say. I think at first I enjoyed the challenge the physical practice presented, and intellectually the literature was engaging and thought-provoking.

How was crossing over from being a student to being a teacher?

The crossing was definitely not easy for me. As a rather shy and non-confrontational person, I found getting up in front of students and commanding their attention a real challenge.

When did you set up the Piedmont Yoga Studio? What is taught there and how has it grown over the years?

I opened the studio with my friend Rodney Yee in March, 1987, so we recently passed our 26th anniversary. It began as a “one-room schoolhouse” with 4 or 5 teachers, and today consists of two large studios with about 30 teachers. We teach several different styles of modern, asana-based Yoga, along with meditation and Pranayama, as well as classes for disabled students, students with Parkinson’s, pre-natal students, teens and seniors. We also have an advanced training program that helps students lay a strong foundation in the Yoga tradition. I stepped down as director at the beginning of this year, and turned over the position to my friend, Zubin Shroff.

What place does Yoga have in the American society, or the West as a whole?

I can’t speak for the West as a whole, but I believe there are two “streams” of Yoga in the US. One I call the “exercise stream”, that is, classes in asana-based exercise which is favored by the majority of students, especially the younger ones. This isn’t obviously “Yoga” in a traditional sense, though it’s technically the first stage of traditional hatha yoga. The other I call, for lack of a better term, the “searching stream”, students who are searching for ways to develop a truly self-transformational practice appropriate for the contemporary West. This group is currently in the minority, but my sense is that it’s slowly growing. I want to emphasize that the latter group isn’t “better” than the former, and that practice in the former often leads students to join the latter.

There have been a lot of fads lately in Yoga, especially with many celebrities vouching for the likes of Hot or Bikram Yoga. What do you think of those?

All experimentation with new styles and approaches, as long as it respects the capacities of the students and doesn’t push them egotistically beyond reasonable limits, causing injuries to body or mind, is good. They all contribute to the great project of developing an effective Western Yoga.

Do you support the ‘evolution’ of Yoga by combining it with other modern fitness practices, or think that it should be maintained in its original form?

There’s no such thing as an “original form”; there are many schools of traditional Yoga, all of which evolved over the centuries. As long as it respects the tradition as its foundation, combining Yoga practices with modern fitness practices is acceptable to me. What I object to is presenting modern hybrid practices as traditional in order to give them the cachet of ancientness.

Have you ever travelled to India to learn or teach Yoga? What was your experience like?

I have been to India, but not to study Yoga. I went there simple as a tourist, and spent five weeks traveling in the north, to Delhi, Varanasi, Agra, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaiselmer, Udaipur, Mt Abu. It was all very exotic to me, my experience of the country and the people was like nothing I’d ever experienced before, and by then I’d been to China, Tibet and Nepal in that part of the world. What I liked most about the country was all the beautiful colours, it was a real treat for the eyes. I was also charmed by the architecture, the temples especially, and the old palaces.

What do you think of Yoga being taught in spas and wellness resorts?

I think the more places where Yoga is taught the better. My only concern about the spread of the practice (and here I only have experience in the US) is the quality of the teachers. Many teachers nowadays lack proper training and experience, which puts students at risk and, when injuries happen, detracts from the public’s opinion of yoga. My one recommendation for any place hiring teachers is that their background and training be carefully checked, and that initially they be closely monitored to make sure they’re teaching is appropriate to the experience level of the students, and that they have the range of skill to work with a variety of students.

Tell us something about the books you’ve written on Yoga?

I’ve written two instructional books on Pranayama, a book that presents traditional practices, mostly from the Gheranda Samhita, appropriate for the modern West, and a book for students over 50 years of age. I’ve also produced a set of seven instructional Pranayama CDs.

What does it take to become a good Yoga teacher?

To always remember you’re working not just with peoples’ bodies, but also with their souls.



Nationality: American

Education: BA English, MLS (Master of Library Science), graduate of the teacher training program of the Iyengar Institute of San Francisco.

Favourite (form of) Yoga/Asana: Iyengar style

Hobbies/interests: Sanskrit study, photography, writing children’s poetry (a self-published book, The AlphaBetiZoo)

Favourite cuisine and beverage? Indian, lime drink

Your idea of luxury: A day free to pursue my interests and watch a baseball game

Your inspiration: The late Georg Feuerstein, a friend and mentor

Most memorable moment? Waking up this morning.

Most regrettable moment? Having to stop reading a new book of essays last night and go to sleep.

Career high: Each and every class I teach.

If you weren’t a Yoga teacher, what would you be? A novelist like Thomas Pynchon or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the shortstop for the New York Yankees, or a performer like Bob Dylan

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