Yoga: A Yogi from the West

By Jennifer Jordan

Rolf Gates comes to the mat via AA and the military. yogaIn the interest of full disclosure, I must begin this profile with a confession; I love Rolf Gates. Truly.

I love him.

Not in the “Oh, I just love his classes!” kind of way. Although I do.

And not in the “Oh, I just love his writing!” kind of way. Although I do that, too.

No, I truly love Rolf Gates in the could-sit-down-forever-and-talk-about-life sort of way. I also love his wife Mariam, and his three-and-half year-old daughter Jasmine, and I’m sure I’ll love his six-month-old son, Dylan, but I’ve not met him yet, so that seems a tad presumptuous.

I love them all, but I particularly love Rolf.

So, if you’re looking for this to be Who, What, Why, When and Where straight reportage on yoga teacher Rolf Gates and his upcoming weekend workshop in Salt Lake, then you better turn the page, because this ain’t it.

And while I can’t promise absolute objectivity, I can promise you this. I came by this love honestly; I earned it.

Before I moved to Salt Lake in 2001, I lived five blocks away from a yoga studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As fate (some might say karma) would have it, Gates had just begun teaching at the studio when I wrote an article for a Boston magazine on the new yoga phenomenon called Power, or Hot Box.

Basically, Power yoga is yoga designed for A-type Americans, taught in crowded, cheek-to-jowl classes, with the heat hovering near 100 degrees. Hot Box indeed. After years of having punished my body with road running and triathlon racing, my aching bones and back needed the gentle stretch, while my brain still craved the heart-pounding workout. With Hot Box Power, I found both.

My research for the piece, of course, necessitated that I take a yoga class or two. After I had taken seven, with my editor clamoring for the article, I finally finished the piece, hit send, and walked down the street to the 5:45 class. I was hooked. On yoga, on its daily meditations, its mat-soaking workout, and on Gates.

He’s not what you’d expect from a yoga instructor. He’s black, bald, and thickly muscled like the Army Ranger he was trained to be (and he has the tattoo to prove it), and when he laughs he opens his mouth so wide you can count the fillings in his even, white teeth.

He’s also a recovered alcoholic, an author (“Meditations from the Mat,” 2002), a former social worker who worked with troubled teens, and the son of a minister.

There’s a lot of yoga these days — Ashtanga, Bikram, Iyengar, Kundalini, Jivamukti, Hatha, and if you’re into minimalism, there’s even a nude yoga, although one would think it would fare better on the beaches of Hawaii than on the benches of the Wasatch. Depending on your body, your mind, and the level of order versus chaos in your life, there is a style for you, but finding it can be daunting. If you’ve never been to a yoga class before and want to find a challenging but low-impact physical work out, Power yoga is a good place to start.

Yoga is many things to many people. For some, like me, it is a gentle yet thorough workout. For others,  it is a communal gathering, and for some it is simply a meditative calm in an otherwise hectic day. For Gates, it is the continuation of a life-long search for structure which began with the Army.

“I went into the military,” Gates says from his home in Tarrytown, New York, where he is currently teaching, writing and raising his children, “for the same reason people go to the yoga mat.”

Structure. Purpose. And yes, peace.

A product of East Coast prep schools and the 1970s sex, drugs and rock’n ’roll credo, Gates started using drugs and alcohol in the 8th grade and went from recreational to abusive “within about five minutes. All of my role models were addicts,” he says. “John Belushi, rock stars, the kids in my class—basically it was all unprocessed pain which they were medicating with drugs and alcohol.”

While away at summer camp, he was hit by a car and placed in a body cast for 14 weeks. After two weeks of nothing but watching television, one day he “was done,” turned off the TV and started reading. One of his first was a Time-Life book on World War II, and he became enthralled with the images of the soldiers, and in particular, the fighter pilots.

“There was a level of focus, of pranic glow to these guys” which Gates says he was determined to find. That journey for structure and purpose first took him to West Point, and then to Army Ranger school where the concept of squad and leader, of unit and individual, became central to his eventual understanding of class versus teacher.

“I wanted a crucible to develop character and spirit in a community. An army’s idea of squad, is the same as yoga’s concept of kula.” It’s not about leaders and followers; it’s about a shared energy, purpose, and pride, he says.

After retiring from the Army, having found the structure within which he could heal, Gates started attending Alcoholics Anonymous and working as a counselor with troubled teens, both of which brought him face to face with his own turbulent youth.

“I was now dealing with my own trauma as well as these kids’ traumatic history. So I had all this vicarious, psychic pain going through me.”

Part of AA’s legendary 12-step program is meditation, and like everything else in his life, Gates embraced its lessons and process entirely. Eventually, the meditation brought him to yoga, which he first practiced alone with yoga videos and occasionally in groups when he would travel to the Kripalu Center in western Massachusetts, all the while digging deeper into his own “unprocessed pain.”

“Yoga is incredible for massaging that pain out of your mind-body,” he says.

Then in 1999 he assisted with a yoga retreat in Mexico, where suddenly he saw roomfuls of people dealing with their pain and getting healed, all the while realizing a new tranquility in their lives, and he knew he’d found his future.

Now, seven years later, he’s earned several back-to-back “Best in Boston” yoga instructor awards, written a best-selling book with another on the way, and opened a new studio on Broadway in lower Manhattan. He leads sellout workshops across the country, the next of which is here in Salt Lake, November 3-5, at Dana Baptiste's Centered City Yoga at 9th and 9th. 801-521-YOGA.

“The goal of yoga is to connect us to the sweetness, the beauty, and the sacredness of life. The principles of yoga are the means for accomplishing that goal.”

You see why I love the guy, right?  u

Jennifer Jordan is a filmmaker and journalist. Her book, “Savage Summit: The Life and Death of the Women of K2,” was published in 2005. She lives in Salt Lake.

This article was originally published on November 28, 2006.