Rabbi Rami speaks with internationally acclaimed yoga teacher and public speaker Seane Corn, about her very first book, Revolution of the Soul. Full transcript of discussion included.
Full Podcast Transcript Below:
Rabbi Rami: From Spirituality & Health Magazine, I’m Rabbi Rami, and this is “Essential Conversations.” Our guest today, Seane Corn, is an internationally acclaimed yoga teacher who’s been featured in over 50 print and broadcast media channels, including the Today Show, Yoga Journal, and Mantra Magazine. She’s also the founder of Off the Mat Into the World, a collective of yogis, educators and activists working with global and local leaders to promote grassroots change through self-awareness. Seane is the author of a three-DVD set called Yoga of Awakening, and a new book called, Revolution of the Soul: Awaken to Love Through Raw Truth, Radical Healing and Conscious Action. Both of those are from Sounds True. So, Seane Corn, welcome to “Essential Conversations.”
Seane Corn: Thank you very much for having me. I appreciate it.
Rabbi Rami: Well, it’s our pleasure. This is going to be a very interesting conversation. There is so much in this book, Revolution of the Soul, that I think we could just get overwhelmed in the amount of time we have to talk. So I want to do an odd thing by beginning our conversation where you end the book. You can set this up for you, but I’m going to ask you, literally, to read the closing sentence of the book.
Seane Corn: Absolutely, you got it. Well, the story itself kind of ties up the entire book actually, in a singular paragraph. And what this was, my father who was also a yoga teacher, I became a yoga teacher before him. And actually, when I became a yoga teacher I was the butt of every joke you can imagine. This was back in the 90s when I first became a teacher. And at that time, it wasn’t mainstream in the way that it is today. And I come from Northern New Jersey, too, [from] a real no-nonsense kind of family. So any opportunity that my family had to make jokes about what I was doing, they did.
And the irony is, years later, my father who just paid attention, realized one consistent thing about my attitude. And that was that I was happy; I was consistently happy. And he, one day, decided to see what this whole yoga thing was all about, tried it, fell in love with it and started studying, and eventually became a yoga teacher.
Rabbi Rami: How old was he when he did that?
Seane Corn: My father started practicing yoga at 50, became a yoga teacher at around 57.
Rabbi Rami: And how old was he when he passed away?
Seane Corn: 67.
Rabbi Rami: Okay. So he was teaching for 10 years.
Seane Corn: Yeah, more or less. So our relationship was very bonded because of this practice. And there was a lot of depth in our dialogue. And now granted, my father was also a typical Jersey dude. Very straightforward—like I said, no nonsense. So, my father was diagnosed with cancer at around 60, actually. He was sentenced to death; he had only four months left to live. It was kidney cancer. And because of my father’s flexibility, they were actually able to lift up my father’s rib cage and cut out one of his kidneys. Normally they have to break through the ribs. They were amazed at my father’s resiliency. And he was convinced it was because of the practice. And he was also convinced that he could survive kidney cancer even though it was terminal.
So, they gave him four months to live and my father ended up living about seven or eight years past that date and did everything experimental that you could possibly imagine. We used to call him cockroach daddy because nothing could kill him. And then one day, there were no more trials. And there were no more experiments, and no more medicine. And nothing was working anymore and they told him that he had to prepare to die. So, he came home, and I remember him saying to me, “Well, I’m not cockroach daddy anymore. I’m cadaver daddy now.” And we both started laughing because my father, he had a dark humor. And we both started laughing until we just couldn’t. We realized the permanence of what was about to happen.
The next morning, my dad woke me up and, it’s super early in the morning. He said, “Get out of bed. I want to go for a walk with my daughter. I want to talk to you.” My father brings me down to the lake, and the sun is rising over the lake, and we’re both just watching it. And my dad says to me, “Let me tell you a little something about life.”
He said, “It’ll (beep) you in the (beep).” And when I went to protest, he then grabs me and he pulls me into his chest. And he said, “But it’ll also give you this daughter to hold. And it’ll give you this sunrise. And it’ll give you more beauty than any one of us ever deserved.” He said, “I’m not going to lie to you.” He said, “This next part’s going to get really tough.” He said, “It’s going to break your heart. Let it. Let it crack you wide open. Feel all of it. Don’t miss a moment. Because,” he said, and I remember him turning me around so that I could look directly at him, “for you to hurt this bad means that you got to love that big. And if that’s all you get in a single lifetime, you are more than blessed.”
And then he said, and this part I’ll read from the book, this is the very last paragraph, so he leaned down and kissed me, and then said, “One day if you ever write a book, tell them you got this from your dying dad, love big, forgive always, do good, and don’t be an (beep)hole. That’s yoga, that’s a life well lived. It’s really that simple, end of story.” And that was, really, I would have to say, the inspiration for my writing this book, was that last line. “Love big, do good, forgive always, and don’t be an (beep)hole.” Actually that’s not the right order. It’s ...
Rabbi Rami: No, we...
Seane Corn: “Love—
Rabbi Rami: It’s a good—
Seane Corn: You get it—
Rabbi Rami: It’s a good motto, yeah.
Seane Corn: Yeah.
Rabbi Rami: Yeah. I love this idea of letting the reality that he was going through and what you’re going through in your own way ... Because dealing with his dying and then with the grief that comes with both, dying and then his actual death, just let it crack you wide open.
Seane Corn: Yeah.
Rabbi Rami: And it occurred to me when you just said that, and I’m asking for your opinion on this, isn’t that what yoga does?
Seane Corn: Yes.
Rabbi Rami: It sort of cracks you wide open.
Seane Corn: Well, literally, what it does is by expanding the musculature and creating space within the cellular tissue, and even in the energetic body, it releases both, physiological as well as the emotional toxins that reside in the body that keep us contracted and compressed. And it’s that contraction, a sensation we’re actually addicted to individually, and as a society, that keeps us reactive. So that when you breathe and move, and you stimulate the energy, it literally expands that coagulation and allows you to experience yourself in a way that’s more vulnerable. Not vulnerable as a weakness, but vulnerable as a state of being that allows for more availability emotionally.
So it gets you out of your head and drops you more into your heart. And that’s where we can access a relationship with God. And so, yeah, yoga cracks you open.
Rabbi Rami: Okay. I’m going to have to ask you about God in a second. But, well, I guess when I read Yoga Journal ... I don’t mean to pick on a specific magazine, but when I read yoga magazines or talk to my friends who are into yoga, the last thing that I get, especially from people I know, is that yoga is about cracking you open, expanding your heart.
Most of the people I know are doing it to look better. It’s just a physical thing. And I get a sense that in America, maybe this is true worldwide, though I want to believe it’s different in India, I get a sense that in America, whether we’re talking about meditation, or we’re talking about yoga, or qi gong, or tai chi, we always turn it into some self-help thing. Whereas, I got the impression from your book, Revolution of the Soul, that we’re talking about a self-transformation thing.
Seane Corn: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.
Rabbi Rami: So you don’t agree with that. Tie that into God for me.
Seane Corn: Well, first what I’ll say is, what I believe in the practice of yoga is it meets you where you’re at. And for some people, it has to begin in the body because of the relationship with the body, because of their ego, because of so many different reasons. For me, I didn’t have an emotional experience of yoga for probably seven years of doing hardcore asana. And it often has to do with trauma, personal trauma, cultural trauma, historical trauma, ancestral trauma that lives within the body, that creates this armor of protection around you so that it’s not safe to actually release the tension. The tension becomes the way in which we actually anesthetize ourselves from our pain and from our suffering.
And so, when you first start doing yoga, yoga just kind of meets you in your body. You feel a little bit better. You start to make, maybe in time, some healthier choices. Maybe you quit smoking, drinking, eating foods that aren’t necessarily good for you. And as the layers of tension start to chip away, and your nervous system becomes more regulated, in time, there can be, not always, but there can be a shift. And it’s that emotional shift where the emotions that have been trapped within that tension arise.
And that’s this whole other level. And it’s not until you can get to that level that you can really begin to open spiritually. Because spirituality is a felt experience. It’s not theoretical necessarily. Because if we approach it intellectually, we’re limited by our five-sense reality. It’s only through our emotions that we can begin to transcend the intellect and it becomes this felt experience. And the closest that we can get to really understanding and defining God is through love. And our emotions is what opens us through surrender, to the experience of love. And then, therefore, to an experience of God, a God within.
And yoga can do that. But it doesn’t necessarily happen—for some it happens the first class. But you have to, as a teacher, I have to not project onto the student, where I think that they should be in their path. All I do is to create the environment for transformation to happen, whether it’s physical, emotional or spiritual. And all I am is a bridge that delivers them to their next teacher and to the next part of their awakening, whatever that might be. But the timeline for that awakening is between each person and the God of their own understanding. And so I just got to stay on my side of the street.
So, I believe that yoga is magikal, magik with a K, magik as alchemy, as transformational. I believe that alchemy happens in time, with patience and with a lot of self-acceptance. And so, I have a lot of confidence in the practice of yoga. And I think it’s amazing that it’s in the gyms and it’s in the most unlikeliest of places. Because I don’t know when it happens. I don’t know if it’s, like I said, one class or a hundred classes for that person to go right up against their own heart. I just hope I’m there to bear witness to that moment of transformation. Because I know their life will never be the same.
Rabbi Rami: So, you’re much more forgiving than I am about different yoga things. And I appreciate that. In the mid-90s, you’re studying with a yogi and I’m ...
Seane Corn: Pattabhi Jois, I imagine you’re talking about.
Rabbi Rami: No, Gurmukh.
Seane Corn: Oh, Gurmukh. Yes, Gurmukh.
Rabbi Rami: So, I was really taken, you’re in a class with him, and you’ll tell us about him in a moment.
Sean Corne: Her.
Rabbi Rami: Her.
Seane Corn: Gurmukh-
Rabbi Rami: Sorry-
Seane Corn: ... Her. Yeah. It’s okay.
Rabbi Rami: You’ll tell us about her in a moment. And then she asks the class what they’re feeling at the moment. And then you felt yourself inwardly shout, “God!”.
Seane Corn: Yep.
Rabbi Rami: Which I just thought was amazing. And now I know what you mean by God, so, love. Of course, when most of us hear the word love we’re going to think all the wrong things, romance and all that kind of stuff.
Well, I want you to tell us about Gurmukh, but I also want to explore love with you, too. Because I get a sense, and you can correct me if this is not what you mean. When I’m listening to you say that, I’m hearing you say absolute relationship with the universe.
Seane Corn: Yes. Yeah, not romantic love. You see, in the practice of yoga, there’s these eight limbs. And the final limb is Samahdi, which is liberation or bliss, or enlightenment. Over the years, people have asked me to define that and I realize I can’t because I have never experienced it, and because I’m limited by my five-sense reality. And so I realize the closest that I can get in my limited vocabulary and experience is truth and love. But even in that I’m wrong. Even in that I’m limited, because my understanding of love is still familial, it’s still romantic. And yet, the essence of it is as close as I can come to understanding that lack of division, that lack of separation, that awareness of wholeness.
And so I choose to use that language to suggest that God is that which exists within acts of truth and love, and that which exist within all. And that this truth and love, this God, is not something we seek. It’s what we awaken to, it’s already within us, fully and completely and holy. And the only thing that blocks us from our capacity to connect with the divine is really our ego and our limiting beliefs. So the work that we do in this conscious state is to confront those limiting beliefs, learn from them, see the ways in which they’re designed to help our soul mature, and then move, sometimes messily, sometimes gracefully, towards a higher relationship with ourselves. And when we do, we can’t help but see that same Self, with a capital S, in others. Because yoga teaches us there’s no separation.
And so this is the relationship that I have with God. But it was hard-earned. I was an atheist, I didn’t believe in God. I rejected, heartily. I was raised in an agnostic family, but in both a Catholic and Jewish household. And so there was so much information that in many ways were contradictory. And I had a relationship with this patriarchal energy that felt very judgmental and demeaning, and punishing. And I wasn’t interested in that.
But love is none of those things. And so I felt like, “I can get behind that. And I can live my life working towards being in relationship to that, whether it’s with the planet, or animals, or other people.” And if that’s all I get in this lifetime, in terms of a relationship with the divine, that ain’t so bad. If that’s what God is, and I’m able to live up to that particular ideal, I’d be okay with that. And if it proves to be something else, I’ll find out later. But in the meantime, I think that that’s something we can all strive for, is to love bigger than we ever imagined possible. And as a result, let that God-self radiate in all that we do, say and create.
Rabbi Rami: The book is part memoir, part yoga sutra, teaching us the wisdom of yoga, plus exercises that you give in the book. And there’s so much of your story that we just can’t get to. Let me just let the listener know that there’s so much more to what we’re hearing, not just the wisdom, but just to hear Seane’s story and all the people she’s met. And I don’t know if you want to say the tragedy you’ve gone through, or witnessed, or experienced, but your yoga, and the wisdom that you’re getting from yoga is really grounded, it seems to me in suffering, in the sense of the Buddhists. The Buddha spoke that it’s just in real life. And real life is both, on the mat and off the mat, which I want to talk to you about with your organization, Off the Mat Into the World. But real yoga is really real life.
Seane Corn: Yeah.
Rabbi Rami: So, just tell us a little bit though, about Gurmukh.
Seane Corn: Gurmukh is a teacher and mine and a dear, dear friend who’s arguably one of the most premier teachers of Kundalini yoga throughout the entire world, most certainly in the West. And I was working behind the desk at a school called Yoga Works back in the 90s, as a receptionist. And Gurmukh came in, all in white with a turban, so elegant and beautiful. And there was something about her that intrigued me. Maybe because it was the first time I had really met a spiritual leader that wasn’t a man. And there was something about her presence that I felt safe in.
Seane Corn: And so, eventually I decided to take one of her classes just to see what that was all about. Now, Kundalini yoga is a very different kind of yoga than I was accustomed to. I was a Vinyasa Flow ParaYoga student, so it was very physical, Ashtangi, if you will. And Gurumukh does a lot of kriyas, breathing exercises, these rhythmic arm exercises that are meant to stimulate the currents of energy from within the more subtle body. I had never done that before, and it’s super hard.
Now remember though, I’d been doing yoga for eight years, so my body was primed for this level of release that I ended up having in her class. As she traveled through the different chakras, she also was naming the different qualities and information that lived in those chakras, and the different body parts associated. The deeper I breathed, and the more the energy moved through my body ... And then she was playing these gongs, and the vibration, it was just resonating through me. I felt myself getting higher and higher in a way I’d never experience in the other yoga classes that I had taken. And I felt faith enough in my body that I didn’t resist it. I just let myself surrender to these, it was really waves of ecstasy.
And as she traveled up these channels and it hit me into my third eye, I just felt everything expand and dissolve. I didn’t quite know where my body ended and the space around me began. It was the most euphoric feeling, ecstatic. And then she said to name how you feel. And there was no thought to it. I just felt God and got a real sense of, “Oh, this is what it is. It is nothing and everything all at once. There is no ego or expectation, or time. There was no future or past. There was just presence.”
And, of course, that feeling didn’t last, but I had a glimpse, for that split second, of what was possible and it opened my heart. And it really propelled me into the next level of my journey, which was looking for a teacher, only to discover that it was always within. And so that’s who Gurumukh is, and she’s an incredible teacher still, to this day.
Rabbi Rami: She is a disciple of Yogi Bhajan.
Seane Corn: Yes, she is.
Rabbi Rami: So, I’d met Yogi Bhajan back in the 70s. So, he was just a very powerful presence.
Seane Corn: Yeah.
Rabbi Rami: Yeah. I have a lot of respect for the tradition out of which you’re coming. We are running up against the end of our time. And I just want to ask you one question so you can tell us about this other work that you’re doing. Tell us about Off the Mat Into the World and how that expresses where you are as a practitioner and teacher of yoga.
Seane Corn: Like I said, there was this interesting evolution in my practice, from the physical to the emotional, to the spiritual. And it took many years and a lot of practice of just living in the world and embracing the challenges that exist within my own humanity. And really, the inevitable next step of my practice, it came about now that I’m happier and I’m healthier, and I have fairly good tools to regulate my nervous system so that I don’t get reactive in crisis and in chaos. What do I do with this? And I know very well from the practice of yoga that our liberation is bound, that I can’t be free unless we’re all free.
And so, therefore, service became the inevitable next step on the path. And so Off the Mat Into the World is a leadership training organization that bridges the gap between yoga, transformational work, social justice and action, and it trains people within the yoga community to actually, but in a conscious way, go out into the world and go towards where there’s imbalance, where there is suffering, where there is oppression and transform it. But we can’t dismantle the systems that exist out in the world that create this oppression unless we first dismantle the systems that exist within ourselves that participate in that oppression.
Seane Corn: So, it’s just one more, deeper level of yoga that we have to unpack within ourselves. It’s very confrontational but it’s necessary. Otherwise, we will just bypass our complicity in the creation of suffering and not actually make any change. And Off the Mat Into the World teaches us how to make that inside-out change so it’s sustainable.
Rabbi Rami: Very powerful stuff. The revolution we need is not an external revolution. First we need that internal revolution. So, absolutely, we are on the same page and your work is just really powerful. Our guest today, Seane Corne, is the founder of Off the Mat Into the World, and the author of Revolution of the Soul: Awaken to Love Through Raw Truth, Radical Healing and Conscious Action. You can learn more about her work at seanecorn.com and at offthematintotheworld.org. Seane, thank you so much for being with us on “Essential Conversations.”
Seane Corn: Thank you so much. I’m very, very grateful.
Rabbi Rami: So are we, thanks. “Essential Conversations with Rabbi Rami” is the bi-weekly podcast of Spirituality & Health magazine. If you like the show, I urge you to check out my new podcast, “Conversations on the Edge,” brought to you by the One River Foundation. “Conversations on the Edge” features a variety of iconoclasts, apostates, and free thinkers who are trying to change the world for the better. Also, please be sure to rate and review this podcast in iTunes, or your preferred podcast platform. “Essential Conversations” is produced by Ezra Bakker, and our executive producer is Ben Nussbaum. I’m Rabbi Rami, thanks for listening.