David Swenson Treats Yoga Like Medicine

We said, “we’re just breathing and stretching, officer!” 

They said, “the neighbors called and said you’re doing some kind of devil worship,” because we were scantily clad hippie boys under a tree. So that was the environment. 

How was yoga in the 70s different than now? 

Yoga was gaining some ground in the late ‘60s, early ’70s but it was nothing like it is now. It was more of a spiritual quest, because the people who did it were the hippies of the Baby Boom. When I was growing up there was a great big question mark because people didn’t want to live the lives their parents had, like what was represented by the perfect families on those 50’s television shows. So hippies started doing yoga and taking drugs and traveling to India, and the Beatles chanted and went to India, and all this stuff was percolating. 

So there was this word yoga going around, and we found these books. California had more of a resonance for yoga than Texas, and that’s where I ended up finding out about this system of yoga I’m still involved with today called Ashtanga yoga. But initially it was just those books. There were no yoga studios, no yoga clothes, no yoga mats. Nothing. You just had a book and a desire to do it. Our yoga mat was a bed sheet or a beach towel. We wore were either karate pants because they were nice and baggy or a Speedo bathing suit. (Fortunately, the Speedo has gone away in the world of yoga.) But it was very simple, you just got a book and practiced. There weren’t really teachers. There wasn’t this whole industry. I feel a little like an old man telling stories, but it’s true. 

When did you begin teaching yoga? 

I had all manner of jobs. I worked construction, I sold Honda cars. I did whatever to pay for the cost of living while practicing yoga. I never really wanted to be a teacher, but then you’re practicing and someone says “what are you doing?” and then you teach them, so you become a teacher. 

When do you think yoga became more popular? 

It wasn’t until the ‘80s and ’90s. It used to be just the fringes of society, hippies looking for the meaning of life, but by the ‘80s something changed. There was an interview with Joni Mitchell where she said something like in the ’60s my generation wanted to change the world, now we just want to get rich. People wanted to get fit and streamlined and then got into things like running and aerobics and Jane Fonda and big hair. Then, in my opinion, what happened was in the ’90s, my generation realized OK: we have all the material things we wanted, the car, the house—but something is missing spiritually, and there was a turn back to the 60s, and to yoga. Around this time something came into being called “power yoga” which two of my friends, Ashtanga practitioners, came up with at the same time, separately, on different coasts, where people wanted both: I want to be fit, but I want something spiritual or philosophical, something deeper than just doing aerobics.