Back in November I spent a week in Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands at a yoga retreat, as part of a humanitarian campaign called Yogabeats. The objective, via raising £17,000 – to pay for visas and a safe passage out of the West Bank – through crowdfunding and other means of fundraising, was to bring out 20+ Palestinians to complete their yoga training in a safe environment, away from tension and conflict.
During the week, I managed to sit down with humanitarian, yogi and singer, David Sye. Being the son of Sixties singer Frankie Vaughn and relative of the late Amy Winehouse, Sye was very open about how yoga saved his life, as well as many others he teaches.
Yoga is the thing that I do. I got it from being very, very sick and on the way out. Yoga cured me of things that the medical profession could not cure. Not only did I survive but also I felt better than I ever felt. But then, I’d been doing everything such as being a social anthropologist, run radio stations; I’d been chef, driven lorries and worked on oil rigs.
I once went to run a radio station in Belgrade. As a DJ we got bombed out and found myself between a rock and a hard place. I had my passport stolen and I was on the run from the military police in Serbia. I ended up in a war zone and took as many drugs and booze as possible, that’s how you escape and survive the war. But one of my drugs was yoga. I used it anaesthetize myself from the traumas of war which was dreadful and I also used to play loud music to drown out the sound of war.
The soldiers used to come and train with me and they’d give me food. So literally survived with no money, no passport, I had nothing. When I got back to England my yoga teaching was frowned upon and there was a statement made in the press that ‘David Sye Destroys 5000 years of Yoga Tradition’, which was kind of a fuck up. Clubbers and dancers would come to my classes and 5 years later, the press came back and honoured me by saying that they’d like to make me a yoga elder, which is a high nomination.
And now I treat the very people who knocked me, which means it’s all come full circle!
Do you find yoga to be a motivating factor in terms of your own personal life?
Oh yeah. Just for the fact that I was in a war and survived. I see that the west is in a war with itself, which is one of individual stress, internal strife, people are divided and they want their lives back. I think in yoga they start feeling that possibility and I think that’s why people take it up, although there are other personal factors as well. Yoga is great for you physically, but what it does is put the person together as a consequence of the practice, but not directly consequentially, thus being able to get their lives back. Rather than being productive, they start being creative. I think that’s an interesting paradigm shift for people.
Being in a creative profession myself, I’ve noticed how yoga has amplified my personal creativity. Do you think that is just for the exclusivity for those who have a creative spark?
No, I don’t think it’s exclusive. I think that yes, there’s a pre-disposition towards creativity. I’m definitely, like you and others like that. But I think people who are in very mundane jobs or who lead a rather robotic life suddenly start finding that they become creative. And I think the process of moving your body, breathing, having ownership, is the most exciting thing. What that does is that they feel the interior world, but they also see the exterior world in a very different place. Whereas before it was all about ‘what can I gather around me? What can I purchase? I can’t live without that jacket.’ Well obviously you can live without it, but what I’m saying is that they get addicted to these things. Society is always drawing us to it and bombarding us with things to buy. But what we have (internally) is priceless. And I find that very nourishing.
I often find that people realize this when it’s too late though.
(Pauses) I agree, but that’s why I think spreading the teaching of yoga is fundamental. That’s why I think the knobs that I see on Facebook in these ridiculous positions, thinking that they’re showing something that’s called ‘yoga’ are telling a lie. What these idiots are actually doing – and I’ll categorically call them idiots – is that they’re debarring people from possibly feeling better than they would do. So basically, they frighten people away from yoga and think that it’s all about getting into positions – it’s not. It’s simply the ability to be happy and to like oneself. That’s clearly a major factor for human beings and to change people from being just functional to ‘I’ve got my life back again!’
So to anybody that is doing that acrobatic stuff, please have a look at the knock-on effect you’re making, because it’s quite profound.
I do think that people looking at yoga from the outside can seem quite anodyne, which can often be seen as fear in their own mind towards the practice. Do you find that your mind is your biggest stumbling block or you quite a resolute person?
No, I definitely had to break through my mind before. I see it as some sort of survival monster. You’re clinging on to those things that you think will help you survive. And I think that because I was in a war where I got stripped back of everything I owned, or everything I handled in the grips of my reality, suddenly those handles weren’t there. I started to see what yoga was giving me was an internal mechanism that I previously didn’t have. It was so nourishing, that when I got back to the west I didn’t need any of that stuff from there.
It’s interesting how you found it in Belgrade, rather than going even further east to ‘find yourself’ and returning to find yourself spiritually in tune living off daddy’s trust fund.
You don’t have to go all the way to India; you can find yourself in Croydon! (laughs) And also, people ask themselves ‘what is spiritual’ or high up in the hierarchy of human evolution, which has to have a white beard, dark skin and have a dark Indian accent! They think because it’s exotic, it makes it all the more spiritual. To me, this is just theatre! I think we need to all stop nodding towards India. We’ve got to understand that yoga is an international facility that is holistic. It’s not a physical practice and it’s not a competition. So practices like Bikram and others since the seventies have been erudite about it. It is just nonsense. I pull really advance postures but I would never, ever do them in front of my students because it would put them down. My thing is to put someone up. And I think that has to be reinstated in yoga.
Do you think that you’re taking yoga back to basics?
Yes, in a sense I’m taking it to its core, which is benign. Benign to life at any level, like if you’re paraplegic for instance. It doesn’t mean you can’t practice yoga.
What is the biggest misconception surrounding yoga?
I think that there are many. If you just take the spiritual side, I think this guruism is a stage as I mentioned earlier, for human evolution. Let’s not call it spiritual – I don’t even know what that means anymore. I just can’t stand the phrase. And also with the idea of a guru of just being one, like there’s one lord. We have 300+ religions on this planet, do we need that many? Also these gurus compete with each other. What’s the point?
There’s a story I have from when I went to the Mind, Body and Spirit Festival and there’s a woman that came up to me and asked, ‘are you David Sye?’
I said ‘yeah’.
And then she replied, ‘I really like you’.
‘Thanks very much.’
‘Oh, I met this enlightened master and he’s absolutely wonderful, you should go and see him. He gave me his business card.’
‘Could I see that please?’
So she pulled out of her bag, a business card with his name on it, a lotus flower underneath that, with something else written below that entitled ‘enlightened master.’ I was really gagged! But honestly, there’s one born every minute!
It’s such a circus of nonsense now. Understanding fundamental rules that apply to all life and the universality of spirituality is something that must be taught, and it’s what I do. I’m very vocal about debunking this stuff because it doesn’t have any place.
I think consumerism has done a lot to damage the reputation of yoga.
Oh absolutely. Even at the Mind, Body and Spirit Festival I just mentioned that took place in Manchester, I walked out of it. They saw my class and they wouldn’t let me speak about the Palestinian work I’m doing with regards to the conflict because they had a lulu lemon lycra legging convention. I said to them, ‘are you serious? Are you telling me that leggings are more important than the work being done in a conflict zone? I don’t want to sound pumped up about what I do, but honestly I think it’s worth a little bit more interest with the public.’
Then I said, ‘if you insist on going ahead with this lycra convention, I’m not turning up.’ And they said ‘you can’t do that’, to which I replied, ‘watch me.’ And I didn’t turn up. All my students completely understood and gave their full support. I’m not cow towing to that as a yogi, if they’re not doing something that’s important I’ll say something.
I also think a yogi should be beyond price. What I mean by that is, in terms of real human evolution or what we call, if you like, spirituality, the universe recognizes that which is friendly towards it and vice versa. So with this situation with which we had to raise money to bring the Palestinians out to Fuerteventura, at one point it seemed like it was an impossible task. And I said to Sarah Stephen (organizer of fundraising for the yogabeats event), ‘I honestly don’t give a shit. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.’ If it’s meant to be, it’ll happen. I don’t want to get into this frantic, working people for money mentality, which is what every charity does and it’s why I refuse to become one.
Even when I was in Milan speaking to 400 people about this, I told them I didn’t want their money or support, just to let them know about this thing going on. I said the reason that I do this, is for me. I’m not even doing this for the Palestinians; I’m doing this for me. I need to make peace with my war. I have a war inside of me like everybody else. So this is a very selfish act on my part!
The word selfish has many connotations though.
Totally. I think it’s the fact that you have to approve of your own actions to yourself without anybody else’s approval. The world may say this and that but it doesn’t really matter. You have to be able to stand on your own, at least that’s what I believe. This is the idea of power.
In 1994, I interviewed a guy called Dennis Banks; he’s a guy who’s like the Nelson Mandela of the Native Americans. Leonard Peltier was his best friend as well. Banks said ‘Power is putting a circle, a medicine hoop around your feet, seen only by yourself, through your own eyes.’ So I think one has to see themselves through their own self and ask ‘what if this is my last moment?’ I feel very good doing this humanitarian work. None of us do this for money; we do this because we feel compelled, from something inside of us, deep within us that feel profoundly good about doing this.
A businessman listening to me would think I’m insane. But that’s fine, that’s where he’s at. I’m not saying that I’m wrong and he’s right, I’m just saying that this is what pleases me.
I think we can borrow the adage from Mahatma Ghandi where he said, ‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.’
I think it’s extraordinary how this has come about. I couldn’t sleep for two nights; I was that excited to come here. Of all the things that I do, I said to myself that if I died at the end of this week with the Palestinians, I’d be happy just to have lived and gone through two wars to see this. And all the people that died along the way helping me in the West Bank doing what I did for years in silence. Nobody knew what I was doing. I was running classes in Israel and I used other people’s money to run classes in Palestine to teach them, like a madman. In the words of Abraham Maslow, ‘People in touch with their souls, they’re individual, eccentric and mad.’ They do things their way being mad and with passion. They’re not looking for approval and they don’t give a shit. They don’t care whether people like this or not.
We spoke yesterday evening at dinner about the levels of consciousness and vibrations. Could you elaborate further on that?
Sure. The human protoplasm has a vibration and you can measure it. When someone is ill it has a measureable lower vibration, which can be measured on a scale from 0-1000. For someone that’s ill, the calibration or correlation is usually under 200. As you become well and happy, intelligent – as opposed to clever – there’s a higher vibration. You can see that when it goes above 200, they become more open, less overt. They become generous, light-hearted, nothing’s too heavy or serious, so they become more playful.
In terms of musical influences, have they influenced your yoga in any way?
I’m a DJ and a singer, plus I also write music. I’m as deeply influenced by emotive music like black gospel music, stuff like Andrae Crouch, Billy Preston, Sixties soul, I kinda got off on that tip. I grew up on black music, no rock n roll at all. My father was into black jazz like Miles Davis and all that stuff. In fact he took his style from black singers. So, I suppose that soulful groove tip is what I love. In terms of DJ’s, Theo Parrish are the sort of people I’m talking about, as opposed to other DJ’s and other styles. My own style is music goes off in that direction too.
But I suppose that the Semitic tribe influences me, which is a Jew-Arab thing. That occidental, oriental thing, which is what I am, is very emotive for me and I’m drawn down that path.
If we can talk about Amy Winehouse briefly, I remember watching you being interviewed on Sky News where it felt they were out to get you, but you were having none of it.
I’m very comfortable stating on record that she wasn’t looked after and that Amy didn’t get the right advice. I think it’s very obvious that anybody looking at that media machine and how it works, will know she was deeply exploited at a time when she needed to be in care, not on stage. All my family said to me ‘God I wish your father were still alive, he could’ve really helped her.’ I told Mitch to make her come to me, but he didn’t for whatever reasons that were going on. Then there was a second escapade where the Winehouse family wanted help, but they didn’t ask at all for whatever reason. The next thing we knew, she died.
I can draw a lot of conclusions about it, but for sure, the help was not taken up. Had it been taken, it would’ve been a lot different. I was left with tremendous frustration about it, but I put that aside for a song called ‘27’ because of that.
As I was writing the song in my grief, it was pretty obvious to me that it was more expansive than Amy that all the other people such as Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix had died when they were 27. They were in some strange, enigmatic club, which I know is a cycle of human time – 27 is the first stage. It seems that they didn’t want to go any further than that. I got it confirmed by several metaphysicians in England and America and when I wrote the song, I just kicked it around. Maybe it’s hokey-pokey, I don’t know. But for a time, it’s where many people die. Nobody seems to really understand it but for sure, that’s when Amy kicked out.
Also, one must ask the question: why were her records brought out so close to her death? For us as a family, we were deeply disturbed by it. But then again, record sales go through the roof when an artist dies; it’s the best career move you can make! It sucks, but those who were close to Amy, they could have resisted that but they didn’t for whatever reason.
As for fighting Island Records, my family and the Winehouse family were pretty distant regarding this matter. So basically, my father’s sister Carol married Neville Winehouse who was Mitch’s cousin. A distant cousin, but he’s family nonetheless.
Where’s yoga going in the near and distant future in your heart of hearts?
I hope that yoga in the future goes the way that my darling teacher Sama Dhista teaches it. She’s a wonderful lady that embodies the true spirit of yoga.
Because she has great love for what she does. She takes yoga to a place where it’s very palatable for people and very easy for them to understand. There’s no competition, it’s not about postures or fashion or anything. It’s something to do with much deeper implications. I believe that unless it goes that way, yoga will fade away, because as I mentioned, it’s got to a point of ridiculousness.
The very fact that we can be here in the Canary Islands or the West Bank where up until 2013 we were working with Palestinians and Israelis together or working with traumatized street kids whom no one wants to know about, getting them off heroin, is testament to the fact that this really works. Unfortunately, the fact that it’s not promoted or acknowledged or subsidized by the government shows that nobody gives a shit. People don’t want the health, but the productivity of people. I think what’s going on now, is that they’re starting to wake up. They’re saying ‘actually, I want my life back, I don’t want to be so fucking productive, I don’t want to wait for the weekend to enjoy myself or when I retire.’ In Sweden for instance, they have a four-day week now and I believe it’s all starting to happen in the west. I think it’s a great turning of the tide and I think yoga will be part of that if it can wise-up on its lyrca, idiotic, contortionist image.
Also, these contortionist athletes are deeply depressed. They’re not happy people! I also think that it’s a disgrace how in this century, we’re still at war with each other, that after thousands of years of education we’ve learned nothing. I think we’ve learned how to make weapons of destruction but not much else. I think that’s because in our nature, we are still working on a low vibration. I think it we could raise the vibration of ourselves, which is predatory, to someone who’s addicted to a narcotic for instance and you raise their vibration, which can be measured by kinesiology above a certain point, that very same person becomes generous and open.
I’ve worked with mass-murders in Milan when I visited a prison that took part in a yoga class! I really didn’t know what to expect! These people were incredible. They’d had enough and wanted the good stuff, which comes from the practice but also on an inner level. These incredible devotees came and hugged me before I left, which was the highlight of my visit to the city. I called my mother after that and I told her all about it. She said ‘Oh I’m so proud of you son. You made them feel good.’ And in our family this is a high point. Can you make yourself and someone else feel good? I think this is the highest wealth for a human being.
Do kids nowadays have the same state of mind, thanks to an inter-connected world indirectly via social media?
I think kids are very frustrated because of social media. They absolutely want to be connected and I think that’s a bonus. But I think they’re very frustrated: say you’re a kid in the West Bank who has fuck all and seeing all those people in the west with all these new products and stuff, it makes you angry. There’s a terrible anger and frustration because we’re all getting addicted to this commercial market. But the other side of it is that there is a huge intelligence network that is taking place, which I’m very happy about. There are certain bodies that are using the media to give danger and threat to governments who are stepping out of line. I think it’s very healthy. Everybody should be up for scrutiny and I think people are starting to look at yoga teachers and ask questions such as ‘hmm, is it really what it looks like?’ or the sort of duplicitous, predatory teachers that are two-a-penny. We’re living in a good time where information can flash quickly, that’s why the Chinese are clamping down on the Internet.
Part 2 to follow shortly.