David Sye: Conflict, Dharma and Change
David Sye, the founder of Yogabeats, discusses conflict and Dharma with Miranda Taylor, ahead of the BWY London Yoga Festival and makes a plea for the real yogis to stand up and start making a real difference in this world.
David Sye is friendly and easy to meet and a real good conversationalist. ‘Hi my love. I’ll come and meet you at the tube station.’ We settle into a noisy Camden café, around the corner from his flat, he orders a large hot chocolate latte and when I raise an eyebrow, he laughs directly, ‘Anything that gives me joy goes. When a bullet has raced past your face, you understand that life is short and for enjoying.’ Having lived in Yugoslavia for many years during Milosovech’s war – he had some terrifying experiences. ‘When you live in a war zone, you say what you feel. Life is shorter than we think and people protect fake moralities and they live other people’s lives. Have the guts to explore your life. Have the guts to do what you want’.
Sye is a large personality clothed in a light, diminutive frame. He has the black goatie of an urban DJ, long, fine hair scraped back in the manner of a Brahmin priest, fine ethnic jewellery – a silver Ethiopian mandala hangs around his neck and a plethora of tattoos worthy of an Indie rock star. Along with the casual but carefully considered and well-fitting clothes of an independent traveller, and the seeking blue eyes of a philosopher – often he will stare off out of the window during our interview as though he might be missing something. Yet he really considers his words, he speaks fast and clearly and he always comes back to his favourite themes: sex, money and reconciling people with each other, even so-called enemies and to themselves. ‘I’ve never met an enemy yet – have you?’ It’s a big picture – passionate – some might call it fanatical - but certainly heartfelt.
Sye has agreed to open and close the BWY London Yoga Festival this year perhaps because the theme is Dharma – a concept close to his heart. He doesn’t, however, want to be categorised. ‘When gurus are taking huge sums of money, producing products that are purely commercial distractions – how is this yoga?’
We discuss the demise of the yoga community. ‘Yoga festivals drive me crazy’ and David gets going. ‘They are just markets, selling spirituality and misguided knowledge based on commercial principles. What are these positions? They are just a way in, just a door, but the ego grabs hold of the door and locks it’.
Sye is both serious and lighthearted. This constant play between what he says ‘Life is sexy’ is a recurring mantra and how he says it with such intensity is a real crowd puller. Many of his students agree – the girls love him, the guys want to be him and when he leaves you feel the party has gone with him. Known for his yoga raves, Sye teaches movement and music that really challenges a lot of what yoga practitioners may consider to be acceptable. Often he is bare-chested or strutting provocative slogans on his t-shirts, his classes are loud, fun, unorthodox. He leads, breaks all the rules, and people – especially people outside of the conservative yoga community – love it.
Yet dig beneath the surface and actually Sye’s approach and philosophy expresses what is very close to his family roots and those of his teachers. Born to a famous and talented father Frankie Vaughan Vaughan – a musician and actor – Sye too acknowledges his inner showman. 'I’m a DJ, dancer, an actor – I was put on the stage from the age of three, I did a tumbling act aged four.’ Working physically on stage with an audience was his training. And just as his father turned his back on Hollywood which he came to see as avaricious and immoral, Sye also turned his back on the establishment.
‘My mother is 88 now and she’s extraordinary – a research chemist and a great mind, very precise. But when I came back from Yugoslavia I realised that I didn’t know her. She’d been abused by her father, so she was still working through that. I was her first born so I gave her a lot of pain and so she cut herself off emotionally.’ When his father died Sye took his mother on all his yoga holidays and retreats and slowly they started to trust each other. ‘If you don’t trust your mum, you don’t trust women’.
‘My mother showed me a school report recently: ‘‘David is very intelligent but always a champion of the underdog’’. They saw me as creative, not productive, and this was a problem. He studied social anthropology and mythology at Sussex and then became more interested in the esoteric and the world’s divinities.
It was the failure of his first marriage in his early twenties and subsequent alienation from his daughter that caused him immense pain and took him to the edge, both mentally and medically. He recalls one such moment when he planned to jump of the Branco’s bridge in Serbia, ‘love can be so devastating,’ and the second time suicide beckoned he had the pills and the water and then decided to watch the film, Zorba the Greek, he explains, now laughing: ‘It’s hysterical and if you miss the joke you miss life.
‘That’s why the Buddha is always laughing’. Epiphanies and realisations set him free to be himself, to be free. There are these two lines in the film that gave me insight. ‘Life is trouble, only death is no trouble.’ And ‘In your lifetime you must have the nerve to take the knife and set yourself free.’ From this point on Sye declares he changed his life around.
However, back in London he found himself with a tumour, ulcerative colitis and a spastic colon, ‘I was dying.’ Desperate but unbelieving he took himself to the Tibetan monks in London who performed yogic rituals, demon-chasing ceremonies and instructed him in a breathing technique which he still teaches to this day called ‘Revealing Breathing’. ‘It’s a Tibetan birthing thing: a huge continuous breath – without any gap between the in-breath and the out-breath. You must be immobile while you are doing it. And when the body goes back to normal breathing afterwards, it has had so much oxygen, everything comes up. All your bullshit. You see it. It’s devastating stuff. So you need real support.’ He confounded his doctors who issued him a clean bill of health just before he was due an operation.
Today Sye’s link is still strong with the Dalai Lama who supports his peace work through yoga all over the world: in war-torn Palestine, a future project in Syria and closer to home on the streets of Glasgow and Brixton working with young disadvantaged kids.
‘We take them to Skye and drag them up the hill. Through yoga these kids get a vision for their life. As a yogi, this is my dharma, to show people they can give themselves a vision that is better than the mundane. What is the point of being a slave to paying bills? It’s like a jailbird falling in love with his jailor. Most of us are terrified of love and freedom'.
What is he most proud of? Tears spring from his eyes and his voice cracks as he recollects the meeting he arranged in 2006 between the Israelis and Palestinians – which took many months of negotiation and ended with him being a mule, carrying large buckets of humous between the two sides. ‘Palestinians have nothing, yet they are the most generous people on earth. ‘This is my mission in life. I don’t want to do anything else. I don’t care about trikonansa. I don’t care about the third series any more. Why would I in the face of this? This is what I want to die for. If I die for anything, I will die for this. So that is my dharma right there’.
It wasn’t always so clear. He got caught in the commercial trap himself in the 90s when he set up a studio called Third Space in central London. ‘I was head of the department. I hated it. I got caught by it because the prestige and the money was so big. And I realised that yoga was no longer yoga any more but what I call Boga.’’
Nowadays he lives extremely modestly, depending on the belief and support of others – be they students or crowd-funding for his work. He can honestly say, ‘I’m a yogi, you can’t buy me.’ He recounts many tales of hugely lucrative film and festival deals from governments, large companies that he flatly turns down. ‘If it doesn’t feel right I don’t do it. Money comes from the source, life itself.’ By his own admission he is not good with money.
So how does he keep himself in check? ‘I hang out with people. I immerse myself in their lives. I don’t separate myself from them. I’m truly a student and to the degree that I’m a student maybe I am able to teach a little’. The biggest mistake a teacher can make he maintains is to look for an outcome. ‘This is an ego position’.
‘Our world is at war: ignorance and conflict is on the increase. The yoga community should be the first on the planet to take responsibility: these idiots in lycra with their matching mats…’ his eyes drift off to the distance of Camden High Street. He is horrified by these diversions. ‘I’m a yogi not a yoga teacher. There’s a big difference. I want to put people up not down. We need more yogis in the world.’
When Italian Rolling Stone magazine labeled him the ‘Bad boy of yoga’ it really stuck. Does he mind the label? ‘It’s ridiculous but I said I break the rules to find the truth. For me the great yogis are people like Bowie’.
His own personal practice is dedicated to his ancestors, deities, ‘my pagan roots, I do my pranayama, a few postures, I ask my body what is would like. Every time I practice I notice the voice, the Ego, you have to be super sensitive to notice it.’ Years of ashtanga practice have taken their toll on his super flexible hips and Sye is due to have a hip operation soon. ‘Pain is our teacher.’
He reminisces about his own teacher Clara Buck who was a student of Iyengar. ‘She was a little old Russian woman, living on the Finchley Road.’ The first thing she said to me was: ”Do you drink? You’re Russian you must drink.’’ I knew it was a test so she poured me a glass of pear liquor and just as I was about to knock it back, she stopped me: ‘slowly, slowly. Sip it. Smell the pears.’
He had found his guru. ‘A total iconoclast. She broke all the rules. She spoke about living to the full, telling the truth 150% and she didn’t give a shit what people thought of her.
‘The second thing she said to me was: ‘Don’t miss out on your life because you are a scaredy cat.’ Then she made me practise in front of her – so I did this full-on practice with lots of complicated asana which I was really proud of at the time and when I’d finished she didn’t say anything and I got really annoyed.’ All she could do is stroke her own hand softly. ‘All these cells in our bodies, love, love your body.’ He smiles remembering: She was supreme!’ The other thing she taught me is: ‘Life is sexy. Otherwise you wouldn’t be here.’
This message of embracing life, facing your truth, exploring your individual path Sye has no problem working with true diversity: from a 30-strong group of celibate Brahmin priests in Colorado; turning women on their heads in Palestine, to the young addicts and dispossessed in Glasgow, Liverpool and Brixton; and rocking out crowds ravers at music festivals such as Womad and Bestival. Sye moves from the sublime, through the challenging, to the ridiculous with real conviction.
Miranda Taylor is a mother, writer and yoga therapist working privately in west London. She trained as a journalist in Paris with the International Herald Tribune, went on to be the editor of two travel magazines, Traveller and Geographical, before giving up full-time office work to look after two growing kids and train as a Yoga Therapist. Miranda can be contacted on email: firstname.lastname@example.org or mobile: 07803609445.
© Miranda Taylor