Interview with Yoga Instructor!

Next up I’ve got an interview with yoga instructor and Lighthouse Yoga & Acupuncture studio owner, Thomas Zwergal. We had a super long interview and I got some good answers from him about the relationship between yoga and happiness. His answers were unlike the answers I’ve gotten from my other experts so that was exciting and different. I’ve been going to some yoga classes and have been trying it out myself so look out for that post coming soon! For now here’s the interview!

Here’s Thomas’s website:

You can also listen to the interview here:

Lily Dube: Can you start out by telling me what you do and what your job involves?

Thomas Zwergal: Sure, and I’ll give you my name too. My name is Thomas Zwergal and I’m a yoga teacher and I own a yoga studio along with my wife, Tracy, and my sister is an acupuncturist who also works out of our space. So we have a nice little family business. I’ve been teaching yoga in and around Evanston, Chicago, Wilmette, for the last fifteen years. And we opened the studio two and a half years ago, so we feel really lucky that we’ve been successful.  

LD: How would you say your work makes you feel?

TZ: That’s such a good question because when I’m working, like when I’m teaching a class which is most of what I do, I don’t feel like I’m doing anything. And when I’m not teaching, you know, my body feels fatigue, things like that, but I can’t imagine doing anything other than what I’m doing. When we were opening the studio we were meeting, my sister, Tracy, and I were meeting and it came up only one time and we all in the matter of 10-15 seconds unanimously agreed failure wasn’t an option. Like if we’re not doing this, what in the world else would we be doing that would give us as much joy and fulfillment as creating a space where people can come and take time out of their day and just enjoy a little bit of space and of course moving the body is really important and all of that, but most of what we wanted to create was a heartfelt/heartfilled space that people could come and feel comfortable letting down some of their boundaries and armor and shedding some of that thicker skin.

LD: What would you say the level of happiness is of the people that come in to your classes? Are they unhappy in one area of their life or in general?

TZ: That’s a good question. I generally feel like most people are stressed out. And that’s not a judgement on them as people, I think that’s more a commentary on our society, on the pace of our lives. Yoga, you know, most of the meditation techniques whether whatever school it falls under everybody agrees multitasking is a fool’s errand. More and more scientific studies are coming out that it’s not even possible because you’re only ever doing one thing at a time, and usually you’re doing multiple things badly as opposed to one thing well. Things like that. I think most people come that come in are stressed, you know, they have a lot going on, they’ve got lives. People have really busy lives, it’s amazing. The level of happiness is a little more difficult to gauge, mostly because not everyone will share. Like some students I’m quite close with and I’m proactive with getting to know people, but in terms of getting personal I’m open with having that kind of a relationship but I let them come to me if they want to share something about their life. And in terms of happiness, to go to the overarching theme of all of this, like yoga really has a different perspective on happiness. Most people, they think happiness is ‘I have what I need or I get what I want or I have good relationships or finances are good’ you know all the things that typically stress us out. ‘I don’t have a companion, I don’t enough funds, I don’t have all these things that are really challenging for us.’ But in yoga I mean what we call happiness is truly independent of circumstance. So, getting what I want, not getting what I want are not related to my sense of happiness and my sense of wellbeing. In this way we say happiness is unconditional, like love. It’s entirely uncaused and the circumstances have no bearing on my level of happiness. And is that true for me? Not all the time. There are definitely times teaching, when I’m meditating, when I’m doing my own practice, where I feel like connection, and in those times you could certainly argue that the meditation is giving me peace, but ultimately if yoga, meditation, if it’s really working it’s removing sort of the distractions that we all have in our head, all of our worries and anxieties, and when we can let those go there’s just a natural peace that rises to the surface. The metaphor is always like ‘a diamond in the rough’ it’s like you need to get rid of, you don’t need to create the diamond, it’s already there, you just need to get rid of all the dirt and all of that.

LD: How would you say your work affects your happiness, and how does your happiness affect your work?

TZ: That’s a good question. My work affects my happiness tremendously. So now I have to just let everybody who might be listening and yourself know that I’m completely contradicting what I just said. Because that’s kind of a cause of what I consider to be my happiness, but I do feel like it does affect my happiness because the work that I do helps me to remove some of my anxieties. It assuages fear, I really feel that teaching is reassuring to me, it like restores my faith in people, things like that. And that’s what I mean like it’s a really collective process because I’m here I’m teaching and it sort of looks like I’m giving a lot to people but I’m getting so much back. So that definitely feeds me. And it’s reassuring and gives me confidence, and makes me feel good for sure. The other thing is, I’m overjoyed when people come and say not for me but for them that it makes a difference in their life. And obviously people keep coming back to class and they keep coming back and practicing and they’re getting something from it that, if it has anything to do with me it has just as much to do with them. And there’s nothing I don’t think better than that. If there was another job that I could do that I could have that kind of dynamic with other people, I don’t know what it is, but I’d be happy to do it. But that kind of relationship is really really crucial and it definitely feeds my happiness. Now the other end of the question is how does my happiness feed my work. That’s the really really good question. So I’ve come to teach a class from places where I’ve just had an argument with my wife, had been in screaming battles with the kids, stuff like that or you’re rushing, you’re stuck in traffic, and you’ve got to be there, you’ve got to get there. It’s tremendously stressful and you come in frazzled. And if you come and teach a class in that state, it’s gonna fall flat, people are gonna know, I’m gonna know, so in that sense my level of happiness affects my work tremendously. But, it’s precisely the practice, the meditation, the yoga, all the awareness practice, allows me to set that aside at least for the time that I’m teaching. It allows me to get into a different headspace really quickly. If not completely circumvent like the reactive stage, you can feel and see your reaction come up, you can feel your breath stopping, you can feel your heart rate rising, you can feel yourself getting frustrated, or you’re already frustrated and you see ‘okay here I am caught up in this whole whirlwind of like anger, worry, and anxiety. Completely helpless. And of course a that’s a sense of stress too. But you come to that feeling that you can put a gap there, you can see the futility of getting angry or frustrated and you can breathe and you can then say ‘okay there’s nothing I can do. I have to accept this situation. ‘ And you realize that that’s actually a place of great power and strength to accept a situation and to see the situation for what it is. And then to allow it to be that way. And that’s really what the practice does on every level. And that’s more of what it’s like when I’m having a stressed out day.

LD: How do you see what you do make people happier?

TZ: Aside from them directly telling me, I see them walking out of the room in a better state than when they came in. Again, to say that people keep coming back, they return again and again, coming back to class, coming back to the studio, to me that means more than anything that they’re getting something from the practice. And I think just on a general level, you start to have conversations with people and you hear their perspective shifting. I’ve sort of talked about what the definition of what yoga says is happiness which is this sort of uncaused, unconditional sort of buddha like state, kind of an enlightened state where you’re just sitting around and are blissful all the time. But to me, my own definition of happiness is partially that, is to be content and yoga has this notion of contentment which is you have what you have, and you don’t hold on too tightly to the things that go, you don’t grasp too eagerly, too greedily for the things to come, and that state is more akin to the equilibrium that yoga brings. The way that yoga looks at it is, you’re supposed to not care about happiness or sadness, like you’re supposed to look at them both with indifference. For me, seeing people have perspective, shifting their rigid belief structures, I think all of this leads to a generally happier and more satisfied life. Not demanding circumstances should fit a pattern, or should be consistent. People realize that things can change. People can see that things aren’t as rigid.