One-on-one with the ashtanga master whose students include Madonna and Sting, we get up close and personal with Danny Paradise, to find out what he has in store for Wonderers.
How did you discover ashtanga yoga?
I was invited to a demonstration by David Williams and his wife Nancy Gilgoff on Maui, Hawaii in May 1976. Besides their previously initiating 65 young people in southern California, this was the first time the practices had been shown in the western world and no one had seen anything like it before. The day after the demonstration they taught the first class. I was overwhelmed by how deep just the beginning movements were and how interconnected to the breath the whole practice was. I broke out into a sweat within 10 seconds. Nothing had ever made me sweat so fast and I felt elements in my body (and mind) that I didn’t know existed. A group of 35 young people from all over the world came together every day in beautiful locations for the next several months; there were surfers, artists, hippies, musicians, Hollywood actors, Vietnam vets and travelers, who all became a close group of friends through the daily classes in which David and Nancy taught us very carefully and slowly. It was the beginning of a revolution of yoga, organic agriculture, health food, music and consciousness.
Who were your teachers and greatest influences?
Having studied with David Williams and Nancy Gilgoff, I later learned with their teacher, Sri K Pattabhi Jois. I’ve also studied tai chi and kung fu, which I continue to practice. I owe a great deal to the philosophy and teachings of Krishnamurti as well as shamans of Amazonian spiritual traditions, who have led me to understand the profound connection between all indigenous shamanic traditions and the shamanic path of yoga.
What sort of reception did yoga have when you first started teaching?
Ashtanga yoga provided the doorway for deeper explorations of yoga in the west. I began teaching the forms around the world in 1979 and each year as I traveled and taught in the same places, the groups would get larger as everyone told their friends and family about the tremendous positive results they were experiencing from the discipline. It actually didn’t take very long for the practices to spread from the introduction of ashtanga yoga in the west in the mid 1970s to a worldwide phenomenon by the early ’90s.
Who are some of the people whose lives you’ve seen changed by yoga?
I’ve taught in 40 countries around the world since 1979. It’s been my good fortune to introduce ashtanga yoga to Sting, Madonna, Paul Simon, Edie Brickell, Donna Karan (DKNY), members of Pearl Jam – Eddie Vedder and Jeff Ament, and the Grateful Dead – Bob Weir and Micky Hart, plus John McEnroe, Chris Botti, Dominic Miller, Luciano Pavarotti and many other world-renowned athletes, musicians, dancers and actors.
What do you think draws artists, musicians and rock stars to yoga?
Yoga may have started with a group of shamans and renunciants in ancient Asia and then entered the west via travelers, freaks, artists and hippies, but it is designed for the human race. These are teachings that have powerful healing effects to make students stronger, more balanced, calmer, more vital, flexible and energetic. People notice right away that their immune system is boosted; they detoxify and learn an ancestral practice that is designed to help people age with vitality, energy and clarity. All the people I’ve introduced the practices to have taken the disciplines very seriously. To remain successful in the entertainment business (or life in general), one needs discipline and of course great health, stamina and vitality.
Can you describe how your practice and teaching has evolved over the years?
Once you’ve studied yoga for a period of time and developed a practice, as far as I’m concerned it’s wide open to interpretation. With your intelligence as your guide, you can determine how to practice each day; nothing is fixed in stone. My daily practice includes the pranayama (breathing) routine from ashtanga yoga as well as an extended asana routine based on one of the ashtanga yoga sequences. I practice the sequences of ashtanga and add in derivative poses and variations that I have learned from different traditions of yoga, as well as tai chi and kung fu.
What can Wonderers expect from your session here in The Fields?
I’m always interested in turning people onto the ancestral teachings of ashtanga yoga and movements and postures from other lineages of yoga, tai chi and kung fu. All my classes are suitable for all levels, from beginners to intermediate and advanced practitioners and teachers. I always begin my classes by reminding people of the connection of yoga with indigenous cultures and to show how yoga is influenced by shamanic cultures from north and south America, Asia, Tibet, Africa, and so on. All these ancestral cultures developed their own shamanic ceremonies and practices to help heal, to create personal authority and personal responsibility, to connect people to their souls and the Great Soul and to nurture evolutionary consciousness, compassion, happiness and freedom. In Thailand, for example, the rich tradition of Buddhism represents meditative elements that clearly connect to the practices of yoga. The two are linked, especially in the teachings of non-violence, compassion, truthfulness, contemplation and deeper levels of meditation. My goal is to help people develop a sacred, personal, joyful, healing, meditative, lifelong practice.
You’re no stranger to Thailand and its neighboring countries, having lent your skills to social initiatives. Can you explain how the ‘Children of the Forest’ project came about?
I met the brilliant musician Matthew Kelly through Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead. I was teaching yoga to Bob and he invited his friend Matthew to join us and play music in Krabi, Thailand in 1994. Matthew and his lovely wife Mary lived in Thailand. Later they created a philanthropic organization called The Amicus Foundation and sometime around 2004 they began supporting Children of the Forest in Sangkhlaburi near the Burmese border. Since I return to southeast Asia every year to do yoga retreats and workshops, I would often see them and in 2013, they invited me to visit Children of the Forest and teach yoga as well as play music for the kids. I was very impressed with the whole place and the work that they were doing to protect, educate, house, feed and help impoverished border children from Mon and Karen tribes. Some were from broken homes or had escaped from traffickers, many were stateless and with no identity papers. Children of the Forest was trying to help each child get their identity cards so they would be free to travel and eventually work in Thailand without fear of being arrested by police or kidnapped by traffickers. All the children at COF are healed of their traumas by being in a beautiful environment with hundreds of kids and a small group of loving adults. The following year we came up with the idea to do a documentary on the Children of the Forest as well as the dangers that the children face in the region from networks of traffickers and criminal gangs. Financed by Matthew and Mary Kelly and Amicus Foundation, we all went to Pattaya in February 2015 to interview and film the work of an amazing man named Khun Jaa who had been fighting traffickers in that area for 25 years. Khun Jaa has a compound outside of Pattaya where he takes care of 40 children whom he has personally rescued. After three days with Khun Jaa, we went off to Children of the Forest to film there as well. I had written a song a few months before about my experience there the year before. Shortly afterwards, Matthew and the founder of Children of the Forest – Daniel Hopson – were invited to give a presentation at the United Nations in New York about ‘Children’s Rights Worldwide’. Matthew decided that we could do a film with that song – Love Will Rescue You as part of the presentation at the UN and now it’s available on Youtube. The amazing Brazilian animator Ceu D’Ellia created the animated sequences in the film.
And finally, what are you looking forward to at Wonderfruit this year?
I’m looking forward to meeting new friends – people from Thailand as well as people from around the world, who are coming together to share music, healing practices, consciousness, community, joy and fun. After all, if it isn’t fun and joyful then we wouldn’t come together to share!