Iyengar yoga teacher Richard Jonas has been friends with renown photographer
Richard Phibbs since the ‘90s, when both worked in advertising—Phibbs as an art director, Jonas as a writer whose lines were uttered by the likes of Cindy Crawford and Melanie Griffith in national TV spots. (Revlon’s "Don’t lie about your age; defy it,")
In 2003, the two founded Children of Nowhere, raising $200,000 to help Romanian children with AIDS. More recently they turned to the plight of abandoned and abused pets, collaborating with the Humane Society of New York and Aperture to publish Rescue Me!a beautiful book featuring Phibbs’ charismatic photos and Jonas’s eloquent biographies of 70 rescued dogs.
A bad back brought Jonas to the mat in 1990, and when his ad agency folded a decade later, a generous severance package subsidized his start as an Iyengar yoga teacher. Jonas spoke to Margot Dougherty about Rescue Me!, his role as a dog godfather, and how his yoga has changed over the years.
Margot Dougherty: How did you get involved in writing this book?
Richard Jonas: Richard [Phibbs] was involved first. He’d been photographing dogs and some cats at the Humane Society and posting them on social media and the Humane Society website. About three years ago he lost a great dog, Huck, whom he’d found in the Caribbean, and he was reluctant to adopt again—there’d never be another Huck—but he did. The executive director of Aperture, Chris Boot, whose offices are in the same building as Richard’s studio, had also adopted a dog. Chris said we should do a book, which Richard had been thinking, too.
MD: Do you have a dog?
RJ: I don’t have a dog myself. I grew up with dogs and had a horse as a kid. I spent a lot of time with Huck, and have other friends whose dog sometimes spends a week at a time with me.
MD: You’re a dog godfather.
MD: How did you get the stories behind the dogs in Rescue Me!?
RJ: I wrote up a questionnaire and Sandra DeFeo at the Humane Society of New York sent it out to all the adopters. The histories of where they’d come from before came from
Sandra herself. She’s wonderful. She lives for this.
MD: I was amazed at the lengths the Society goes to for these dogs—acupuncture, laser treatments, behavioral therapy, sometimes months of rehab before they’re ready for adoption.
RJ: Exactly. They do such a good job of setting the adoptions up so they don’t fail. And they’ll always take the dogs back. Their motto is “If it’s not your animal, it’s our animal.”
MD: Did you ever feel overwhelmed by the sadness of some of the dogs’ pre-adoption lives?
RJ: Years ago I worked as a buddy for GMHC [Gay Men’s Health Crisis] and I wrote a slogan: “If I can help someone, I don’t feel so helpless.” If you can help a little, it helps distract from how horrible the stories are.
MD: How does your yoga inform your writing?
RJ: I was a writer first. When my agency shut down in 2001, I was already doing yoga and had done teacher trainings. I was assisting in the HIV classes at the Institute, and when I subbed other classes, I’d give the money away to charity—I never thought of yoga as a way of making a living. But as soon as I started teaching I got calls, so I’ve been teaching full time since 2001.
MD: What sorts of things do you write now?
RJ: I was the editor of Yoga Samachar for a while and I’ve written a lot for that. When I was
in Pune, in 2014, I worked on a biography of Mr. Iyengar, a summary of his lifetime achievements. He died that next summer and we used what I had written as the national obituary. There’s a teacher, Matthew Sanford, who is a paraplegic as the result of a car accident. I wrote about him, and Mr. Iyengar read the article and certified him. That’s my proudest achievement as a yoga writer.
MD: How has the focus of your yoga shifted over the years?
RJ: It’s a more organic experience. I spend more time thinking about the mind and the breathing, not the physical activity. I’m not that interested in mastering new poses, although it’s good to stay challenged. I focus on doing the physical action with the mind fully engaged and quiet, and what’s the impact of the breath? The true idea of yoga is not a physical discipline, it’s mind training.
MD: There are poses I can’t do anymore, but I’m just happy to be on the mat.
RJ: Sometimes people want to avoid it, but you’re not going to keep mastering poses. Geeta [Iyengar] says you have to work even harder as you get older, but in a different way. You have to work deeper. The muscles don’t engage so well, but the awareness you have more than makes up for it.
I have a friend who was a wonderful teacher well into her 80s. She has two broken hips and still has a practice of pratyahara [withdrawal of the senses]. You’ve always got to practice, no matter what happens.
MD: How would you advise someone looking for ways to take their yoga off the mat?
RJ: Mr. Iyengar said that if you aren’t doing the yamas [restraints] and niyamas [observances] you can’t do asanas. You certainly can’t do them correctly or fully. Ahimsa is the message of the book: nonviolence to all God’s creatures.
Since publication, all but one of the dogs featured in the book have been adopted. Gerard, a playful Bichon Frise, (look at that sweet face to the right) is still looking for a quiet home to call his own.
For more information about Gerard and other homeless, loveable creatures at the Humane Society of New York, email Sandra DeFeo at email@example.com or visit humanesocietyny.org