‘A temporary thing’

Making the most of right now, with yoga and meditation instructor Tom Tobias

Written by, 
The Voice / January 2015 


Location: The Coffee House on Cherry Street
To drink: Chamomile Tea

Tom Tobias: So, I heard that your editors wanted you to pick out someone to interview, and you had already decided to pick me, and they couldn’t believe it because they kind of wanted someone like me. 

The Tulsa Voice: Yeah. It was weird. They asked me if I had someone, I told them it was you and they said, “Did we already discuss this?” But we hadn’t. It was just synchronicity I guess.

Why me?

I think they wanted to do some stories on exercise or health and wellness.

Well, I don’t really think of yoga as exercise …  It’s not to look more beautiful or to be able to do this pose or that pose.

Oh man, that’s something I really wanted to touch on—the boasting of the poses. Have you seen yoga accounts on Instagram?

Pride is a huge obstacle to seeing things clearly, and we all have that, but the irony is nearly overwhelming.

“Look at what I can do that you can’t.” What would Baba Hari Dass [Tobias’ guru] think about that?

Yeah, I don’t know. I would just like to take a photo of doing nothing—I wish there was a way of doing that, you know? “Look at how good I am at doing this!” [laughs]

How much time each day do you spend doing yoga? I mean, I’m guessing it’s not the same amount of time each day.

No, actually it is. My own practice starts when I wake up.

Which is?

4ish. I used to have seasons of depression, certain seasons were overwhelming. My body always wanted to wake up at 4, but then intellectually I would think, “Well, I need to be sleeping more.” 

So I would go back to sleep, but when I woke up I would feel terrible. So, I finally figured that out. And when I did, more or less, I feel awesome all of the time—not that that’s what it’s about, but when you feel good, you can grow. Steady supports steady. 

Okay, up at 4, then what?

I start with body purification breathing techniques, use a neti pot for cleaning, head to the studio and do my own practice for about an hour.

Is that breathing or moving?

It’s breathing practice for a good half an hour and then meditation. And then I do a class, and then meditation after class. And then I go home and take care of my dog—she eats and I eat—and then I hang out, maybe read, use Facebook as a way to gather inspiration from people I kind of follow, people who have “woken up.” Then I might take a walk. I do some private classes and massage, and then the rest of my personal practice isn’t until two hours before bed, so I have some time.

Do you mind me asking what you eat?

I eat the same food every day. I make Kitchari, which is a really easy-to-digest food. … I use red lentils, some quinoa or millet, and some coconut oil and turmeric, which is an anti-inflammatory. Diet plays a huge part in my practice. Some things I stay away from, like meat. Meat produces anxious thoughts in the body. Coffee, chocolate, even onions and garlic—all these things can produce a response from the body that are detrimental to the way I want to feel and practice. So, really most of the day I’m practicing yoga. 

When did you take your first yoga class?

My first wife … taught me sun salutations back in ’89, so that was my first taste. My first actual class was with Beth Field here in town; she’s great. 

Also, my daughter, she was autistic and nonverbal, and I wanted a deeper way to connect with her. She would do the most amazing thing—we would be on a walk, and she would just sit down and put her hands on the ground. It felt like she was saying, “Keep quiet. Listen.” And I could feel a sense of listening. 

And so being around that, wanting there to be more of a connection, I realized that I had to find a route that wasn’t verbal. That turned me on to meditation, to be at the same wavelength as her, and it was beautiful. There were so many times where it was so thick, that space between us. In ’95, I started to formally practice meditation.

You used to do real estate. Where’s the connection? 

In college, I sold ladies’ shoes at Aberson’s Alley, and I was really good at that. And then I worked at the Ralph Lauren shop at Utica Square, and I was good at that, too. One of my clients owned a real estate company, and he said, “You know, you’re really good at this, you’re good with people, would you like to come work for me?” So I said, “Sure.” I had a ball, and financially it was just crazy. 

So why not just make a ton of money, have some fun and then just take a few yoga classes?

I stopped selling real estate after my daughter passed away. I stopped for about 9 months, I couldn’t do anything. 

[Author’s note: Tobias’ daughter, Jessie, passed away after falling during a hiking trip. She was 7 years old.]

I don’t know how you got out of bed.

I know. Other than meditate, walk and read—that’s all I did for 9 months. I’d go backpack by myself and come back, stay for a couple of weeks and then go back. Luckily, I was able to do that. I didn’t want to distract myself from what was coming up.

You wanted to be in it.

Yeah. And when I did try after this 9 months to go back, I couldn’t do it.

I just remember crying at a listing appointment, and I thought, I can’t do this. I realized that it’s great that somebody does that for a living and I can admire that, but it was no longer for me.

When I practice yoga with you I get a workout, a therapy session and church all in one sitting. That being said, why can’t I haul my ass out of bed and make it to class when I know I need to?

[laughs] Inertia is really strong. Through the years, I’ve known so many who say, “Hey, I’ll see you at 6:30 tomorrow.” Nowadays, I go, “Okay, great.” But I know that the likelihood I will see them is 10 percent. Maybe. Maybe more like 5 percent. 

Not everyone really has the blessing—if you want to use that word—that I have. Look, I know everyone suffers in this life, but for some reason what happened with me and Jessie, that loss just woke me up to where I realized that I have to, it’s my duty, to show up—and lovingly. …  I have degenerative disc disease in my low back, and I creak when I get up in the morning—but you have to tap into something that’s bigger than you, and that was laid right out in front of me. So, in that way, it’s kind of easy for me.

There was almost no choice, correct?

I was going to kill myself. If it weren’t for meditation, I wouldn’t be here with you right now. I was so, so close. There was no taboo for me, but I realized—thank God—that that path would have just been running. 

I’ve been given so much—a healthy body and a healthy mind. My guru, Baba Hari Dass, has a saying, “When you bring flowers to the guru, you bring fresh flowers.” 

It’s like, I don’t want to try and meet my maker—or meet the source—when I die or when I’m on my deathbed. While I’m at my peak, I want to offer myself to my source and let what is, be.

"These are the things that keep us dreaming, the things that keep us sleepwalking through the world. It’s like people are trying to cultivate a better dream as opposed to simply waking up." 

In class you often say, when we’re in the middle of poses, “Make sure to let go of any stories.” Is this the key to living the enlightened life, to let go of the past and stay out of the future? It sounds easy, but as you well know, it is extremely difficult. 

One person might put it that way; another might say, “Let go of desire.” There’s a lot of ways to say it, and they’re all correct. 

We have so many emotional ties; we get so caught up—think about break-ups. … The pain is in the remembrances of the good times in the past, and the projection of some kind of lack of those good times in the future. But those thoughts are not necessarily true. 

To be really skillful in awareness is the key. The past and the future are fantasies, there’s no reality there. People say, “Well, that’s not true. I remember my past.” And I would say, “No you don’t.”

We’ve filtered and conditioned our past to fit our story of who we think we are.

Can yoga cure depression and anxiety?

I think, yes. To the point, the cure may be found in not caring. 

I don’t know if I understand.

Well, to see these struggles for what they are and not to give them any more power. So, to say, “I feel this certain way, and it’s uncomfortable, and that’s okay.” Not tying any more of yourself up to those feelings. If you can stop identifying and buying into the idea that these feelings make you less of a person, then attrition will begin, and you stop feeding the disease. It’s all about—and I don’t know if people get this, because I don’t say it—but you have to stay on top of it, to stay awake and aware.

It’s really hard to stay awake in Western culture.

Yeah, you’re constantly being told that … you are too dumb to realize what you need, so you need to be told by other people. 

I don’t know if there’s any truth in this, but I think that happiness is found when we let go of wanting. 

When you gain an object that you desire, it’s obviously not the object—which is temporary—which brings any happiness. But for some small period, there is created a brief cessation of desire. You got the thing, so now until the next thing comes into view, desire is temporarily halted. That’s where the peace comes in, where the wanting is gone. But you can leave wanting alone without having to pursue things. You can have something and no longer want it, so you know it to be true. 

Wholeness is in each one of us, at all times. It’s not out there. There’s nothing more to be. There’s nothing more to do. You are enough, just as you are. You’ve got to let go of all of those messages and just be. 

And wanting is so … tied to the past. We don’t want this—we’ve experienced it before, and we don’t want it—that’s fear. We do want what’s been pleasurable, we want more of that—there’s desire. And those two things are running the show. These are the things that keep us dreaming, the things that keep us sleepwalking through the world. It’s like people are trying to cultivate a better dream as opposed to simply waking up. 

So couldn’t you just do this on your own? Do you just feel compelled to share it?

I see (people) suffering, and I know enough to know that might be the very best thing for them at this point and time. But there is a part of me that wants to be there to help when they’re ready for relief. 

You’re kind of hard to find, you know?

Yeah, I’m not super self-promotional as far as my business practices. I just kind of put it out there and if it resonates, it resonates. I realize it’s not going to for most people, because a lot of what I say is going to be counter to what someone has been taught, or maybe they might be confused, and that’s fine. It’s the way it should be. 

I’m just here. I’m just a temporary thing. I have no idea how long I’ll be here, but I want to make it available because this way of life has been so good to me. 

I’m doing this, and I started doing this, so that I could be content right now.