"DIALOGUE WITH A YOGI"
“THE MAG” is proud to present a continuing dialogue with Mark Blanchard, “Mr. Power Yoga,” in a unique body of work related to the application of yoga to surfing. Co-publisher, Richard Hamar, will teach Mark Blanchard to surf while Mark will teach Richard yoga. After each surf session, Mark and Richard spend hours in Socratic dialogue deepening and refining their ideas. This project will be published in the next twelve issues of “THE MAG.” What follows is:
DIALOGUE I – FRESH IDEAS; THE YOGI ENTERS THE OCEAN:
Introduction to the Yogi, breathing, the wave, the core and floating above the board.
Mark Blanchard has been called “The Great American Yogi” by a Brahman King, Sri Branda Rava. On a more mundane level, he has also been called the Yoga master to the stars. It is widely publicized that he has recently trained Jennifer Lopez for Gigli, which includes yoga scenes. Mark was also recently on the CBS show, “Early Morning” demonstrating and discussing power yoga.
Mark was a child of the sixties. He grew up in the New York-New Jersey area as a star athlete in numerous sports. He still holds a home town swimming record today in the under twelve division of the 50 meter butterfly event. It was a serious knee injury that led 16 year old Mark to yoga. His enlightened orthopedic doctor shook his head at the disastrous injury that seemingly had ended Mark’s days as an athlete. Much to Mark’s chagrin, he recommended a yoga instructor.
In the sixties, especially to a teenager, yoga was about chanting and fanatically following Gurus with unpronounceable names and saffron robes. That was not going to cure his shattered knee and return him to the sports scene he craved. Finally, out of desperation, Mark followed his doctor’s advice and ambled up the steps to the small New York loft. Mark was surprised that Norman Allen and his yoga were nothing like he imagined. He saw steam coming out of his head. He was drawn to this practical man, his graceful, flowing motion and sense of humor. He was drawn to this style of yoga — and it was yoga that began to rehabilitate his knee. He studied with Norman Allen four days per week.
Mark not only recaptured his athletic prowess, he far exceeded any dreams and became one of the top free-style skiers of his era. Perhaps the greatest influence that yoga had on Mark was the creation of a belief system. When asked, he characterizes those values with conviction and without hesitation as, “acceptance of what life deals you, taking action gracefully and easily, staying in a rhythm, not judging and almost immediately letting go of those difficult moments.”
Mark is blessed with the kind of good looks that are not stereotypical. If you were to assume he was Italian because of his dark, Mediterranean look and New York style, there is an exotic essence to his eyes that reject that notion
On our first trip to surf in Ventura, Mark told me that his true name was a derivative of the Middle East, Boulbol, which means “singing bird” in Arabic. In fact, Mark’s father had emigrated shortly before Mark’s birth from the Middle East. Mark has an ample supply of Lebanese, Moroccan, Armenian and Syrian blood—and comes by his love of the dance of the deal through lineage. The counter-balance is Mark’s mother, “an old hippie” who does not look a day over fifty but must be. She adds Swedish, Danish and English blood to the mix.
Young Mark grew up as a profound reader and thinker of religious concepts. Realizing they were all trying to teach the same values with different traditions, customs and pathways. He was a serious student, attending New York University, with a stint at Columbia and a degree from Hofstra. Mark ended up at Hofstra as homage to Francis Ford Coppola while chasing the directing dream. Mark realized this dream by continuously and successfully directing theater in New York and Los Angeles. He was honored by being named The Outstanding Theater Director in Los Angeles in 1994. “I directed as I teach yoga, by example, Socratic Method and using an easy flow and graceful process.”
Although Mark Blanchard is synonymous with “POWER YOGA,” he did not coin the phrase. He thought it pretentious at first. The term was used by New York yoga icon, Beryl Bender (now Beryl Bender-Church) whom he respected. Mark heard it again when he took the classes with Bryan Kest in Santa Monica, California. He would learn that it meant that yoga is not static, thus it is powerful in effect.
The convergence of yoga and the entertainment business was a marriage made in heaven for Mark and the artists that he dealt with. He began teaching them privately, and this grew into the schools for all committed yoga students on both sides of the Santa Monica Mountains. Mark has also produced a successful Video of his Power Yoga. From personal experience, I can say that his class is a cross between boot camp and ballet; terribly demanding but humorous and gentle when it needs to be. I feel challenged, yet safe. One never needs to look at the clock in Mark’s class because there is nothing to escape from. The lessons, like his method of directing actors, are subtle and self-actualizing. Before you know it, you have “Mark Blanchard Arms” and you are not tripping all over yourself.
Present at my first interview was Mark’s daughter, Rowan. She was beautiful, intelligent and played the piano very well — especially for being 21 months old. Mark is a devoted father whose life has changed only in that Rowan is what everything flows into, while Mark is still able to love his wife, students and life with even more passion.
Our interview in my back patio was accompanied by a Halibut entrée with cherry tomato-cilantro-balsamic vinegar sauce. It followed Mark’s first assignment of studying ten Longboard Magazines while looking for yoga positions in the great surfers of the world.
It also followed my first surf lesson. Humorous because of his complaints about the 4:30 am start time, the wet suit he put on backwards and the run back to the bathroom when we were finally about to enter the water, it was quite another matter once on the board. Although photographer and video photographer, Maria Hamar, and I expected a fine effort, we were shocked at how many waves Mark rode and the style in which the waves were ridden.
Mark Blanchard lives with his wife, Elizabeth, who is about to Bless the family with another child, and their daughter Rowan in Beverly Hills. Mark Blanchard’s Power Yoga Studios can be found in West Los Angeles and Studio City. For more detailed information: markblanchardspoweryoga.com. Our Socratic dialogue follows:
Surfing Teacher: With your love for the ocean, swimming records and So Cal exposure, what took you so long to discover surfing?
Yoga Master: I actually surfed in New Jersey as a baby. My mother would throw me in the ocean almost every summer day while still in my bassinet.
Surfing Teacher: Your mom got away with that in New Jersey, but please don’t try that in the Pacific Ocean. I restate my question.
Yoga Master: I always knew I would find surfing. I was confident that I would retain my youth and get to all of the pleasures life has to offer. I saw “Blue Crush” last year. I was inspired by the wave, the power of “Pipeline” and the fact that it could be ridden so gracefully by women. When you walked into my class and sensed I was ready, I knew it was time.
Surfing Teacher: What did you particularly like about the experience at “C” street in Ventura?
Yoga Master: I liked the fact that you taught me the basics and then kept your distance, allowing me the opportunity to figure out how I wanted to approach standing on a moving board. I also liked the people in the water with me, who were not only tolerant, but cheering as I would get up. I had heard surfers could be competitive in the water. We were all in this together.
Surfing Teacher: You called me a few hours after we surfed, blissed out. Why?
Yoga Master: I realized that I was made to ride waves because my belief system is based on breathing and I saw a connection between the breath and the energy of the wave. I knew that I was meant to surf.
Surfing Teacher: Then how important is breathing to surfers and what should they do about it?
Yoga Master: Breathing is an essential tool to an athlete and performer. I teach Ujayi breathing and I used it while surfing.
Surfing Teacher: Is that Hindu, and what does it mean?
Yoga Master: It is Sanskrit, which is the oldest working language. Many of our thoughts and words are derived from Sanskrit. It means, expand your breath for success while breathing in a calm manner through the nose.
Surfing Teacher: Out in the ocean, how does Ujayi breathing apply?
Yoga Master: For one, it is an indicator of focus and whether one should even be riding waves. If my breath were ragged and not under control, I would lie on my board or head to the beach. Secondly, if one masters Ujayi breathing, one would be more focused and able to ride waves in natural harmony with the force of the wave.
Surfing Teacher: What did you discover from the homework assignment I gave you?
Yoga Master: The great surfers in the magazine were often in positions similar to yoga stances. However, most were just a little off.
Surfing Teacher: Are you saying that you could help even the best surfers in the world?
Yoga Master: I know that this sounds arrogant and down right pretentious; but YES! Most of these surfers could achieve more power, speed and drive in their turns through yoga. Their balance would also be better if they paid more attention to yoga principles and practiced balancing postures.
(Mark picked up several Longboard issues and pointed to several photos to illustrate his points)
Yoga Master continues: Their muscles are often tense. That is a detriment to an athlete—especially one that depends on liquidity and flow.
Surfing Teacher: Knowing what you know from our first lesson, what do you intuit about the process of going from a prone position on a fast-moving, downward-sloped surf board to a standing position?
Yoga Master: I would first engage my lower belly using uddi yanda Bhanda, or upward rising binding. At the same time, I would use mula bhanda, or root binding. This can be achieved with practice of the upward rising binding exercises. This gives lift to the pelvic floor, lower obliques and soaz muscles. It takes an enormous amount of energy and practice. I can do this automatically. This can be achieved with practice of the upward rising binding exercises.
Surfing Teacher: I can’t begin to understand any of that.
Yoga Master: It is best if we photograph these positions and video tape me doing just that. Stop trying to get everything in words.
Surfing Teacher: Would you then actually rise by first using upward facing dog (lying prone to the hips with back bent up and back, shins above the mat and toes dug into the mat) to take weight off the nose, as I suggested in our land lesson?
Yoga Master: No, if anything were used to take weight off the nose before I popped up, it would be cobra (similar, but notice the main difference in the explanation) because I would not want to place my toes down on the board as we do in upward facing dog. As I see this tonight, and understand that I need more time and practice in the ocean, I would float up to standing.
Surfing Teacher: As you ask our class to do into and out of chataranga?
Yoga Teacher: In the sense of a soft landing with a powerful take off. I would literally float from prone to standing.
Surfing Teacher: You don’t see that too often by even the smoothest, most powerful surfers.
Yoga Master: It is an ideal. But one I am sure I can achieve Thursday when we go again.
Surfing Teacher: Hey, what about me?
Yoga Master: I have been practicing for many years. You are making some progress in class.
(The Yoga Master picks up another ear of bar-b-qued corn. He eats his fourth ear).
Surfing Teacher: What did you not like about the first surf lesson?
(The yoga master puts down the corn husk and speaks bluntly).
Yoga Master: I hate getting up at 4:00 am.
Surfing Teacher: I told you that you may one day discover the purity of the morning and the glassy surface of the ocean.
Yoga Master: I doubt there is even a possibility of enjoying anything at that hour, but I know that is the only time we have.
Surfing Teacher: You said your philosophy of life is to let go of the unpleasant moments, yet you constantly blame me for getting you up so early in your class.
Yoga Master: I’m kidding.
Surfing Teacher: I think you are really still horrified at the thought of rising that early; you need to let go...Enough of this constant kafetching. That’s Yiddish—the world’s second oldest working language.
Yoga Master: While we are on the subject, that surf car of yours is a joke.
Surfing Teacher: I gave you a pillow and a blanket.
Yoga Master: I need my comforts. That thing is 1000 years old and smells a little like those booties you gave me.
(Mark gestures with total distain to the Surf Mobile that is parked on my back lawn in front of a chain link fence – that has been the subject of cries of anguish by my wife, who has called me trailer trash for parking it on the lawn).
Yoga Master continues: I was so hot in the Valley on the way back.
(The car at issue is a 1983 Mercedes Benz Diesel Wagon with over 400,000 miles when the odometer stopped several years ago. There is a dispute about value. When we get Mexican Insurance, I declare that the surf mobile is worth $9,500.00. That increases the premium by several dollars. My wife angrily contests this amount and argues that it is worth less than $800.00).
Surfing Teacher: That is not yogic!
Yoga Master: By the way, a friend is driving me Thursday so I can sleep in a decent car in comfort.
Surfing Teacher: And I suppose he is going to surf with us as well?
Yoga Master: Well he does want to surf with us.
Surfing Teacher: Totally out of the question. I pass!
Yoga Master: That is not yogic!
(The surfing teacher picks at some left over kernels on his one ear of bar-b-qued corn, stalling for time, sensing the conflict is interfering with the project).
Surfing Teacher: We can make a deal. He drives you in that fancy car of his. If you are five minutes late, no lesson. If you do arrive on time, I am polite to your friend, but he must surf alone. (The deal is struck--It should be so easy in the Middle East. THAT’S YOGIC!)