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Enlighten up: Baron Baptiste

Published in Sweat Equity Magazine, April/May 2016 Issue

Baron Baptiste on teaching his first class: “I got forced into teaching my first class by my father, who was leaving town and wanted me to substitute. I didn’t want to, but I went and taught it anyway . . . . He pushed me over the edge of the cliff, and instead of falling, I flew.”

Far, far away in a small rural town by the name of San Francisco lived a humble revolutionary family of five yogis (mother, Magna; father, Walt; two sisters Sherri and Devi; and a son, Baron). This was an ancient time (before 1950), when the word ‘yogi’ invited images of near-naked ascetics on nail beds and long-bearded men in remote caves, venturing out only for a handful of wild berries before returning to meditation. Yogis weren’t always as sexy and as athletic as they are now.

Walt and Magna opened the first-ever yoga studio in San Fran in 1955, paving the way for Baron to emerge as the leader of a more Americanized generation of spiritual aspirants, the leader of a flock arguably more interested in aesthetics and athletics than enlightenment, a flock that would come to be known as the power yogis. But what many people don’t know is that this attractive middle-aged father of three was doing yoga when the western world considered it a cult. By age 10, Baron had already travelled to India, and his uncle was a direct disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda. That’s about as Celebrity Yogi as it gets.

Baptiste’s life has been steeped in the tradition of equanimity, personal power, and service. And yet, despite all the holy karma surrounding the high-flying Baron, he doesn’t escape the trials that our decadent human lives afford us. He beseeches his students to “fly to new spiritual heights” on nothing but a dream and a bandana, while he duck dives his own human foibles, such as suing or countersuing colleagues and (allegedly) fraternizing with students—lending credo to the claim that “gurus are only human.”

But that’s why we love him.

What Baptiste offered then and continues to offer now is a spiritual tradition stripped of its more elusive elements to reveal the barebones of an accessible physical practice that brings students face to face with themselves. His philosophy speaks to all of humanity. His ‘guru story’ mirrors the experiences we’ve all gone endured at one time or another: the angst of imperfection, the anxiety of expectations, the grief of loss, and the fear of not being ‘good enough.’ He shares openly about these struggles, and his students just get it.

The courage to be honest in a judgmental public eye, the strength to acknowledge mistakes that were made, and the conviction to keep going, keep learning, keep growing: these are the markers of enlightenment.

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