We are stoked to welcome Cambridge Graduate James Rafael on board as a Warrior Addict Brand Warrior. James had a fast-paced career in branding and marketing and eventually found his way onto the mat teaching hatha and vinyasa yoga in Soho, London. Here’s James’ story:
Let's go right back to the start, tell us about your link with the Canary Islands and your subsequent journey to London.
So I grew up in Tenerife and part of that has always saved me in the sense that my upbringing was this wild, outdoorsy upbringing. If you've been to Tenerife and you get outside of the crazy cities, it's actually quite a rugged, wild place. There was a sense of exploration and mystery and really being connected to nature that I've kept and is still part of me today. It's really important for me now, to stay connected to nature and part of the joy of the practices of yoga and mindfulness to me at least are that they help me connect to that sense of exploration and mystery, but in a way which is no longer facing outwards but rather facing inwards to exploring the terrain within and what lies inside.
How do you stay connected to nature when you're living in this big city? Do you get out of London often?
Yeah it's tough...I live in Soho so it's not the most conducive place in some ways but nature is everywhere, it's all around us. If you can get to a park, if you can even acknowledge that there's a tree in the street, as crazy as that seems, that actually nature is all around us and we are a part of it-even in the city-just being open to that possibility helps me to feel grounded, helps me stay connected to my roots. But yeah, as soon as you can get out of London and actually get into a green space, that's something different, that's something really special.
You had quite a hectic career in the beauty industry, what made you switch to a career in yoga?
I actually left really on a high and I left when I felt really competent in my job, I was really enjoying what I was doing and I finally got a good balance which seems weird to suddenly leave your job at that point but for me, I'd done everything I could there and my own personal growth and development stopped there. There wasn't really anything else to move into. So, as much as I loved the industry and what I did, it was the right time to move forwards. I'd been practicing yoga for quite a few years by that point. It had always been growing in the back ground and that wave just took over and I went with it and the opportunity opened up so I found myself doing something totally different.
So I know that you're a graduate of Cambridge, where does that sit in your time line? Was that before or beauty or after or?
So, the reason that's interesting and that's relevant isn't because its Cambridge per se, I mean, getting into higher education and as anybody who has been through the education system knows, it's very much kind of one pointed, you have to deliver in this very limited stream and it's really about achieving and getting through gates and getting certain grades and getting into certain schools.
And many of us are really good at that and many of us are kind of high achievers or type A personalities or might identify with that and are designed to kind of push and to be better and to be the best in that competition. And certainly, that was where I felt I had value and the only place I had value was by delivering, and so I ended up in that particular university.
It all becomes very interesting when you then take that kind of personality type and bring it to your yoga mat because the tendencies and the habits that we have in our daily life, (for example to push, to deliver, to be competitive) we bring to the mat right?
So, these type A's, myself included, come to the mat and we want things like Ashtanga, we want strong practices like rocket, we want hand stands, we want arm balances, right, you know, you hear me?
But the question that I pose to people is really, what groove are you deepening by being on your mat? If you know in your life you have a habit to push too hard and to burn yourself out, really consider what kind of practice you're taking on the mat because for me, for many years, I went hard and fast into physically challenging classes and whilst I still love that, where I found the most liberation, the most healing and the richest part of the practice, has actually been restorative practices like Qi Gong or Tai Chi which have a more introspective quality and actually that's what we need more.
So some people aren't that way, some people prefer something softer and more relaxed and they aren't kind of pushing all the time. And maybe they could benefit a little more from some of those stronger practices. So, how can the practice help round you out and help you find balance against your natural habits and tendencies.
We know that one of your passions is the preservation of the richness, the history of yoga. How do you incorporate that into your teachings?
Well right, it is a tricky topic isn't it? I mean, I'm white, I'm male, I'm middle class, living in England and I'm teaching something which in a lineage perspective is you know, it's four, four and a half thousand years old depending on how you view it, the way you draw your line in the sand.
But, it's still important to me to try and honor as much as I can in my teaching and in my own practice what I feel is the essence of the practice. But it's not to say that all these new, kind of exciting variations and the avenues that it's taking aren't relevant or enjoyable but, we have a responsibility, not just as students but as practitioners as to "What is yoga going to be in 50 years time?" and that's what's important to me, that question.
If I ask myself, what am I contributing as a teacher and where do I feel like I want to offer yoga, then it can't just be about purely physical practice because that's not true to me and it's not true to the tradition as I see it. So, to me, what I try to bring in class, is to draw in some of the deeper philosophical traditions and roots of the practice and consider Why are we doing this? What's the end goal with this? It's not about physicality.
At its heart, vinyasa's preparation for pranayama and breathing practices, meditation and higher states of absorption, leading to enlightenment. When the practice itself becomes the end, I think we're missing out on a lot. I think if we look past the physicality of the practice to what else we can unlock in terms of healing, in terms of freedom, in terms of liberation, then it becomes interesting.
Negotiating those topics, bringing those questions into a class I think is really important because without it, we're missing out on a lot of richness of the tradition, which to me at it's root is about liberation and healing and freedom.
Are you able to talk to us about how you were able to overcome your history with addiction with the help of yoga, with meditation?
Interestingly it was an overuse of drugs and alcohol and the fact that my life was spiraling out of control that brought me first to meditation and meditative practices. In the early years, it took the edge off for me. It helped occasionally get a bit of control around going out every single weekend, around using drugs during the week and occasionally, that meditation practice just helped calm me down enough to ride out the urge to use.
That led me into yoga practices and the same thing happened. Yoga gave me a different way of looking at myself - it gave me a very different way of looking at my body and particularly as a man in London, as a gay man, the kind of focus on what my body should be, what it should be for, what it should look like as this kind of hyper masculine, icon of what a body should be. Yoga also taught me that my body could actually be considered attractive or beautiful or interesting because of what it could do, the way it could move rather than purely the aesthetic aspect of it.
Then there was greater and greater freedom and greater realisations that opened up to me over the years of the practice and just this ongoing process of letting go, letting go of the expectations I'd put on myself, letting go of the expectations that other people, that society puts on me and something about coming back to the mat, over and over again, helps you connect to what is present and to what is true.
And when you get a taste of that, you move towards that and those addictive habits and tendencies start to soften. And, that's not to say that I could've got clean and sober without recovery programs, without the help of amazing drug services based in London and Soho and without the work of things like Narcotics Anonymous, like Alcoholics Anonymous, all of that was an integral part of my recovery.
But, without yoga, without mindfulness, I wouldn't have stayed clean and ultimately it's those practices that now bed me into the present moment and keep me feeling satisfied, help me feel calm but ultimately, help me see the bigger picture: that there's more to life than going out every weekend and there's more to life than thinking that happiness and fulfillment lies in purely the way that I look or what I do or activities at the weekend. Yoga is a liberation and it liberated me.
For guys that are thinking of taking up yoga but you know, there's something that's always stopping them, what would you say to them? How could they overcome that?
It's a difficult question. I think for a long time my answer would have been that lots of men feel intimidated to come to yoga studios, they feel like it's a women's practice, all this sort of stuff. I don't necessarily buy that anymore, I think most guys or a lot of guys who are aware of yoga don't see it as this kind of easy, lounging around, stretching out, not for me kind of practice.
I think there's been enough time and enough of people being vocal about the benefits of yoga for support, about the benefits of yoga if you're lifting, if you're doing weights and also just about the benefits of yoga for kind of mental wellbeing and how to manage your stress, so I think that guys are much more open to it.
Now, bridging that gap between being open to it and getting into a studio, I think there's a few things that can help. Firstly, work at doing stuff online, using the videos of Warrior Addict, really work into those and explore a little bit in a safe environment, what it feels like to move, what it feels like to get into body. Then, maybe that is enough encouragement for guys to move into the studio environment.
My advice would be to look around, there are many men's yoga groups who specialize in working with men's bodies particularly. That environment maybe less intimidating to some guys who don't want to be emasculated by a super bendy, super strong lady.
Also, I would just throw the gauntlet down and say give it a go, life is nothing if it's not for you to experience new things and to have new challenges and we're perfectly happy to accept challenges in specific ways, if its to do with work or if it's to do with lifting weights or something like that. What's a real challenge is getting outside of your comfort zone, going into a space and doing something which you've never tried before, there is rich reward in that. So the gauntlet is thrown and dig deep. Take the plunge!
Before you go, could you just leave us with some words of wisdom?
At the heart of yoga, it is about freedom, it is about liberation. Whether you view that as being liberated from a body which has become tight or stiff, whether its about liberating yourself from stress, from the pressure of society and the work place, or a bit of family life or whether it's a deeper liberation away from the paradigms, the habits, the mental structures that you've had for your whole life that you think you have to live by, through the practice of yoga, somehow, they can crumble and there's an opening up to the possibility of being and doing and having so much more than you thought you were supposed to. For me, yoga then is a quiet, active revolution because not only does it change ourselves, that spreads out in a wider sense and it's starting to change society and the way that people view their place in the world.
Finally, where are you teaching in London? Where can people come to your classes?
I tend to teach mostly in Soho and West End but I'm teaching across Triyoga centers also a fabulous studio called Good Vibes and also at gyms called the Third Space. For more information about James' classes and workshops, including a link to his own website, check out James' Brand Warrior page here
Watch the full interview on Youtube here: