If you've ever been intrigued by the connection between ancient yoga philosophy and the current state of yoga, Jai Sugrim is the man to talk to. After taking home a World Series ring working as the New York Yankees personal trainer, Jai took a different path and looked for something deeper. That something was Jivamukti yoga, a more modern spiritual practice. I recently chatted with Jai about his marathoning past, his current vegan practice, and much more.
FitSugar: What drew you to Jivamukti as opposed to other yoga traditions?
Jai Sugrim: I initially started the practice [yoga] to get the physical benefit because I was training for the NYC Marathon. I simply wanted to stay healthy and prevent back pain with my high mileage. A couple of years into my practice I tried Jivamukti, and they were talking about the philosophy during the physical practice. That opened up the inner world of yoga in a way that other practices didn’t. It also started to give me tools in order to view things like relationships, coming into alignment with my passions, and how I really wanted to live. It was a more creative way of living once I found Jivamukti yoga.
FS: Given your marathoning past, what poses were the most difficult for you to get into?
JS: All of the forward bends! Especially the Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana). I couldn’t even touch my toes when I started. It was a very painful practice at first; I was the guy in the back with big muscles pulling and forcing himself and breathing really deep, loud, and not really getting it. But it was just a matter of persistence. I knew that if I listened to the teacher in time it would change. Even today, backbends are starting to open up in a very special way that they haven’t before.
Keep reading to learn what Jai's vegan practice means and if he ever did yoga with the Yankees.
FS: What’s your favorite pose to teach?
JS: I love to teach Surya Namaskar [Sun Salutations]; it's magic for students. Surya Namaskar teaches people how to connect their breath to movement in a continuous way. These days our minds are so busy and so full of deadlines and pressure that when you do Sun Salutations properly with the Vinyasa method — when you link the breath and the movement — your mind slows down. You’re not thinking about balancing your checkbook or that person you have to meet after practice. It taps you into the moment. Teaching a handstand’s spectacular, but what students really walk away from feeling good is the Sun Salutations, and that’s nice to teach. They’ll have it wherever they go.
FS: Speaking of handstands, what do you say to someone who’s really fearful of inversions?
JS: Work your way up to it. The headstand requires no flexibility whatsoever; it’s more a matter of trust and really taking the breath. Immediately when someone starts to come into it, their breathing pattern will change because of anxiety. I try to remind them to stay connected to the breath. For a new student, I keep their feet on the floor, and they’re just in a half-headstand. What characterizes that as an inversion is that the heart is above the head. We’re inverting the process of thinking. We’re trying to move intelligence into the heart and move compassion into the mind. That’s what’s key in an inversion is: to reverse the way you’re looking at things.
FS: What’s your diet like?
I have a vegan practice. In my house, I’m vegan, but if I go to my friend’s family’s house on Thanksgiving and his mom has butter in the sauce, I become a "gratitude-darian." I accept the food that’s given to me, and I don’t freak out. I used to be very strict and rigid, but I’m a very social person. I always refrain from meat, but if I’m in a social situation where it’s not so perfectly vegan, I’ll let it go . . . I love that it’s a practice that gives me a little flexibility.
FS: The Yoga Sutra text is intertwined into your practice and new show. How would you explain the Sutras to someone who had never heard of them before?
JS: Just like you have a user’s manual for your MacBook Air, that book [Yoga Sutra] is a user’s manual for your mind. Period. The word "sutra" means thread. When a surgeon makes a suture, the word is similar in the root. It means thread or stitch. One sutra is related to the next, and just like a garland of flowers . . . if you want to understand the psychology of your mind the sutras can show you.
FS: Did you ever do yoga when you worked with the Yankees?
JS: At the time, I had a very gentle practice, and I was really into weightlifting. I was a really jacked-up dude, and I would have given the guys on the Jersey Shore a run for their money! But it all has come together and feels much more balanced now. I’ve lived in a runner body, a weightlifting body, and now the yoga body. I feel like this is the best body I’ve lived in.
I can't wait to check out Jai's new show Yoga Sutra Now, premiering on Sept. 17 on Veria Living. In each episode, Jai looks back to the original Sanskrit text and its fundamental philosophy and relates it to a modern yogi.