Integral Yoga Institute is well known for catering to students of all abilities, but it may be the only studio in NYC with a teacher who instructs from his wheelchair. Sam Rudra Swartz, an ordained interfaith minister and spiritual counselor has trained in meditation and raja yoga. His accomplishments, as well as his gently wry sense of humor and soothing teaching style are the first things people talk about—not the fact that he’s not ambulatory. Suzan Colón talked to Sam Rudra Swartz at Integral Yoga’s New York ashram, where Rudra is in residence.
Suzan Colón: How did you get into yoga?
Sam Rudra Swartz: Good story. In 2001, I was a few months removed from chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s disease, and I’d decided to do a holistic fast. While I was on this fast, I was waiting tables and this woman ordered a bacon bleu cheeseburger. Halfway through the burger, she stopped eating. I asked her if everything was all right, and she said, “I’m a vegetarian at home, but on vacation I like to see what it’s like to eat meat. This was good, but I only wanted part of it.” The conversation came around to my holistic cleanse, and she asked if I practiced yoga. She talked about Integral Yoga, and Swami Satchidananda, and said she’d put some books and mantra tapes aside for me at Integral.
I was really interested in meditation; I wasn’t sure about yoga, but I went to my first IYI class in November 2001. I have an arthritis condition but I was still walking then, so I tried a gentle class, and I really liked it. I started coming more regularly—satsang here, kirtan there, take a therapeutic restorative class and stay for meditation. I was always just kind of on the fringe, though. My condition was in and out, too. It would get worse, then better, and worse.
SC: What is your condition?
SRS: I think when the Hodgkin’s Disease was going on I was not taking very good care of myself, but since then I’ve been involved in ashram life, practicing yoga, and I’ve still had big health scares. Doctors don’t know what my joint disease is. I feel like I want to run a marathon, but I can’t take one step. I’ve had two heart attacks due to a family history of high cholesterol. Doctors say, “We normally tell people to go on a vegetarian diet, practice yoga, and meditate. You already do all of that.”
SC: That must be frustrating.
SRS: It is. On the other hand, it seems there’s a greater lesson here. It’s made me be more self-inquiring and showed me that I have to be really practical and take care of myself, follow my intuition, and not get caught up in pain or not being able to walk or why did my heart do what it did. It’s as Indians say, “What to do? Nowhere to go, it’s just my karma.” It seems like a funny karma to roll into a yoga class as the teacher. Who would’ve thunk? Not me. If someone had said “You’re going to end up in a wheelchair, teaching yoga,” that would’ve sounded weird to me.
SC:So you really didn’t follow the usual progression of yoga student to yoga teacher.
SRS: No. It seemed like there was an invisible plan unfolding. In 2005, while I was working as a limo driver, I went on the website for Yogaville, the ashram of Integral Yoga in Virginia, and saw that Guru Poornima was taking place that weekend. I didn’t think I could get the time off, but just then the boss told me I needed to take my vacation days, so I went.
Two years later, my condition got really bad. I entered the Living Yoga Training program at Yogaville and stayed for 15 months. Then I moved back to IYI NY, and eventually I got an e-mail about a program at IYI San Francisco called Accessible Yoga Teacher Training. It’s the Hatha Yoga Level 1 basic teacher training that all IYI teachers take, but in a special program to make it accessible for people of any ability. Even if you can’t do the whole IYI Level 1 class, you can still learn how to teach it. That led me to get my certification to teach yoga here in New York. That’s the short version of the story [laughs].
SC: You’re also a spiritual counselor at IYI. What is that, exactly?
SRS: Spiritual counseling is a free form of counseling in that you don’t have to adhere to any one modality, so to speak. We’re trained mostly to listen, and if there’s anything to offer from a spiritual teaching, to offer that. It’s almost more like venting to a friend, but a friend who has spiritual trainings that can be related in a practical way. Spiritual teachings don’t always have a practical solution for somebody who is experiencing trauma. The last thing that person wants to hear is “It’s just your karma,” or something stupid like that. In a spiritual counseling session you try to give them the tools to look within, so a little yoga practice, a little meditation, pranayama breathwork, to get them to an intuitive place.
SC:You’ve had a lot of training in order to give to people. What have you received from these practices?
SRS: The biggest thing is acceptance. When I first started on the path I was trying very hard to yoga and meditate my way into overcoming my physical condition. If you’re really pushing for something, there’s a tension inherent in that, and it can be counterintuitive. The real practice of yoga, union, quieting the mind, is letting go. The biggest thing I learned is that I’m not doing this to achieve something. The best practice is to relax into it.
Mostly what this path has done is that even though I’m trying to control things, the real magical stuff happened when I asked, “What am I going to do next?” By calming the mind, this assistance comes. You connect with the quieter, subtler parts of yourself so that intuitively you pick up a lot more of that subtle voice. That has taken me from serving a bacon bleu cheese burger to living in an ashram as a yoga teacher.