James Matthew Brown | The Journey to Connection
James is a new friend and a mentor to me, and I’m really thrilled to bring you this conversation. He’s had a fascinating journey, from taking his first class to ‘impress’ someone, to unexpectedly finding a profound sense of connection and purpose which lead him on a path of self-discovery and ultimately, becoming a teacher. We talk about James’ early teaching experiences, including working with influential figures such as Tipper Gore and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, to his close relationship with the late Maty Ezraty. James has so much wisdom to share… Enjoy!
Facebook: James Matthew Brown
so good to have you here. Thanks for having me.
I’ve been looking forward to this chat and this for my audience. James is a new friend.
Work together, we’ve started to work together in a mentoring capacity. And even just in our one little session, you helped me so much.
Kind of put my mind at ease about a couple things. And even that, one thing that you said to me was, start your practice by asking yourself what you want from your practice that day. And I’ve been doing that myself, but also in my classes, just asking my students to ask themselves out, and it’s such a powerful tool.
I’m so happy to hear that. Yeah. So thank you for that.
So I want to start, I know a little bit about your background, just from us chatting, and also from listening to you on Jays podcast, but, um, you have a really interesting yoga story. And so I thought that would actually be a really good place to start my yoga story, your yoga story. So what would like what was your first yoga class? Like? How did how did this all begin for you? Well,
I was, I grew up in a, in a fairly religious Catholic upbringing. And I, I really liked some parts of that, like, the connection to God part is the one that I liked the most. And,
well, just the
just, you know, the same reason that I think many are attracted to anything, you know, things that are spiritual.
But it didn’t, as I got older, I found that it didn’t really
it didn’t really do it for me. And, and I was disappointed in that.
for lots of reasons, you know, from the, from the church itself to the just to the way that sort of
works in the life of a practitioner. And so I, I was
a bit lost. And there was a person that I thought was really cool. And he, he did yoga, and I kind of wanted to be his friend. And I wanted him to think I was cool. And so I wanted to tell him that I also did yoga.
And so I saw a class and I went to it, and it was so serious.
I was in my early 20s.
So it was it was the 90s like
I was in my late 20s.
yeah, it was like it was the early 90s. Yeah.
Anyhow, so there was a yoga class that I saw advertised in a in the free local paper, it was being taught by a beginning yoga teacher who it turns out now I know what this means, but I didn’t then he was apprenticing with John Schumacher, who’s one of the seniors, a young guard teachers in America, who has studios in DC, and Virginia or did.
I didn’t know what any of that meant at the time. And, and this person wasn’t really advertising that but but it was it was it was a group class group thing that happened over the course of I think six or seven weeks in, in a church
church that that allowed the community to use its space.
And so I went to it and didn’t really know what to expect, but I had I had checked out a book on the bookmobile when I was little about yoga. The county librarian lived next door to me, so the book, the book, the bookmobile always stopped there, which is really wonderful. I
had access to bookmobile because I learned a lot. And so one of the things I did when I was little was I checked out this book on yoga, a paperback book on yoga that
I think was one of the ones that sold like 18 gazillion copies. And I remember taking it into my bedroom and like thinking okay, I’m gonna do these poses now, and I couldn’t do any any of them. And I was, I was, I mean they were it was the 70s that and
it was some crazy stuff. It was the the poses were not meant for like Main Street USA yoga studios, which became many years later. Anyway, I put it down. I remember spending about four minutes with it. And that was it. That was all my exposure to yoga before these classes happen. Yeah, much later. And so in the first class I
I thought it was really super boring. I did not expect it to be so boring the class
I mean, now, this only this didn’t last very long this feeling there’s a happy ending to this. At first, I thought it was so boring. But then because because we were in we were in I remember we started in your asana, Hero Pose. And you know how no younger teacher teaches that and, and especially when it’s in training, especially what your teacher in training. So we spent a lot of time in it to make a long story short, and the instructions were quite precise. And
I thought, what are we going to do the stuff that was in that book, you know, from the.
But then I started to feel really, really good. Like, I started to feel like I was connected, like, and I realized that I’d never really felt that as an adult, like I was, I felt like I was in the right place doing something that I was meant to do. Yeah. And that, like, this was the thing for me. And I didn’t know what. So that’s what you mean by connected just feeling like you’re doing it. You’re you’re where you’re meant to be at that time. Yeah, I think that’s what I mean, that I that I felt like an outsider really, up until then. And and I think most people feel that maybe not everybody, but But I not only did I feel that, but I don’t think I was aware that you didn’t have to feel that way. I think I just thought I thought I think I thought that this feeling of isolation and, and disconnection
was the normal human state. And so when I’m in that yoga class, and I learned that, Does that upset your drawing? Yes, it made me really sad. Thinking that
it has a happy ending. Okay, good.
I was pretty happy. I just, I wasn’t like I was walking through like, super lonely, because I wasn’t Yeah, at all. I had a lovely, happy, good, great relationships. And, by the way, this person, I did go on to have a long, very happy relationship with the person that I was trying to impress. So so it all worked out. But But no, I just I didn’t know that I could feel like completely at peace with with who I was, and what I was, I guess I and I think a lot of people don’t don’t
relate to that I can totally relate to that yoga helped me in the same way. So I felt it in that class. And I thought, well, this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.
And I don’t know if I thought that in that class, but but I did know, I didn’t know that I really, really liked it. And I didn’t know why. And so, so yeah. So that’s how I got started. But that was my first.
Amazing. Sorry. I will Yeah, I mean, so I mean, I know, I know, some of the highlights. But alright, so you so you’re in your late 20s in the 90s. And yoga, yoga was really just kind of beginning to trickle into the mainstream at that time. Still a lot of church basements, like you said, or people’s living rooms or whatever. But it was starting to come into gyms a little bit. That’s where I first discovered it. Yeah, late night. Yeah, yeah. Because that’s actually how I,
first of all, I feel so lucky that I started to teach at that time, because I can’t imagine what it would be like to start right now. Yeah.
Because at that time, first of all, just to learn to teach, there was no set path, like you, you learned how to teach.
There was no,
there was no, somebody that knew that was a really good teacher, and like you worked with them until. And so I understand that, that, that that’s not, you know, scalable, and, and didn’t work out as the, you know, the model for how it expanded. But I’m lucky at that time that that’s how it was because I did learn how to teach but also the opportunity for me to teach, I was able to create this, you know, I fairly quickly was teaching
at a university and teaching really high, you know, sort of a lift private within like a year of starting to teach, and it’s because there weren’t any other teachers
and and so, to get my first job first I rented a space at the Washington Ballet and my friends came to that and that was one second. How did you go from that first day underclass to then teaching?
Oh, well, it was it was two years later. It was about three years later. I
I practice more with that person i i studied at at Johnson mockers studio unity was not not with him because he either didn’t DC and he taught in Virginia, but really good teachers there. And then I started doing Ashtanga Yoga and
with with David Engels, who just very recently retired, just like I think last year, and I told my teachers
I wanted that I wanted to start teaching privates. And so I did.
And, and I taught, you know, in the Washington Ballet and I taught friends. My very first classes I taught were in my house, I worked at the analytic Washington, which is a Michelin three star restaurant, in the mountains outside of DC. And I went there to sort of,
I just, I just fast forwarded really far in my story. I was a nightclub promoter, when I started doing yoga, living a very unhealthy lifestyle, and yoga made me realize that I needed to stop doing that. It made me value my breath, maybe value my breath and value my body and think, Well, maybe I shouldn’t sleep until 4pm. And,
you know, maybe I, I can work in the daytime, and NOT.
NOT late at night. And, and every and I,
it seriously, what made me start to think that was my ability to monitor my breath. And so after nights of partying, I noticed that my breath was really different. And like a, like a person that was like 50 years older
than the day before. And so I thought, This isn’t good. And so I went to work at this really, really gorgeous restaurant, in the mountains in Virginia, that where I got to work with all these different in all these different roles, with this world famous chef, Patrick O’Connell, who’s,
who taught me even though I don’t work in fine dining, he taught me so much about what he influenced me so much. And so about the perception of basically the guest, you know,
and how, how careful one has to be with that and, and how you treat people. But also just that the pursuit of making things better is like just never, ever done like that. So you can even consider that something is good enough, is just, like, Sure, it’s okay for some people not but not not in his kitchen,
in his restaurant, and so we don’t apply that to everything in life. But it really really had a big impact on me. Anyway, so So while I was there, I started teaching yoga classes in my house that I rented out there. And I just talked to locals it was a very small town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
And I would put them dinner if they would do do yoga with me. And there were no yoga classes. So this is another this is what I mean by like, why I’m so lucky. Because now lets you do that. And many people do, like I’m becoming a yoga teacher and teaching some classes in my living room, you’re not as likely to get people to just signed on but, but I had, you know, eight or nine people that would come and I did that four or five times. And then I moved back to DC, where I had been a nightclub promoter and I and that’s when I rented the stuff at the Washington Ballet and
and then I went to the there was a really well designed gym that was like, won all these awards for being like best gym in America. And so I thought, well, I could teach there. Well, first, I called Unity woods.
Can I answer your question about that? Yeah. I’ve been meaning just since we’ve known each other I’ve been meaning to ask you about this. So I know a couple of DC teachers from that era and I always wondered if you knew him Moses Brown? No, I don’t know many people. Okay, Betsy downing she was a big in the NGO world.
No, unity was had three locations. And I think I know that Liz was was my main teacher, but I can’t. I think her last name was Mark with I think it’s Liz mark. Okay.
I feel like they were on like, Willow street something or something like that. Like, was it Woodley Park? No, there was the studio, it ended up this would have been more in the early 2000s. Will it was something around the bay way. Okay. It was gone by then. I was in LA. I was in LA by 2000.
But 2001 Okay. Anyway, so. So I went, I went to the studio and I to the to the gym, and I said, What’s the thing is I was telling people like that I met that I was becoming a yoga teacher in DC and there and they were all saying, Well, I’d be go get my gym, but the guy is not very Nagesh teacher. And I heard this. I heard this in a lot of people like I like it’s what everybody would say is I tried it. And it was a very popular gym. So everybody met. And there was only one teacher. And so I thought this is an opportunity. I’m not mean.
And so I went to the owner of the gym, and I said its sole proprietorship, which is great. And I said, I’m just starting to teach. I will teach here for free for a month. And then after that, if you think I’m any good, I want you to pay me this much. And it was kind of a lot. It was actually I’ll tell you that it was it was $75 a class which now
Oh, I would take
I mean, I mean, that’s not bad for a group class. And Jim.
You know, even now my point is it was a lot. But sure, I made sure that in those four weeks, I gave people just an extraordinary experience. And, and I had been a nightclub promoter and and I knew how to host. And I think that those are the skills that really got me through the first few months was like, I took people through a relatively safe, boring, not boring, relatively safe, not
not any sort of groundbreaking, or bells and whistles, sort of yoga practice, but in an environment that that sort of felt like you were doing yoga, like, for example, I burned incense in my classes, always like a lot of it, which I would never do now like that. That really messes up some people’s breathing. Yes.
That sounds really, really not considerate. So. So anyway, I sort of coasted but I was really into it. And I think I was very sincere, and my practice was, was definitely very effective with me. I, you know, it was, so I had a functioning practice. So, you know, I wasn’t, you know, quite a fraud, but I had not yet learned how to articulate how to even know, like, what are the elements of the practice that I really want to convey?
That then a person can use, you know, in whatever way works for them, I was sort of imitating, I was imitating and then delivering that a lot of new teachers do it that way. Sure. That’s what I was doing. So it somehow worked. And, and I got, I started teaching. Well, my friends that were coming to those first classes were well known musicians, and then independent music scene at the time.
And so they, I know him from the nightclub world, and they were coming to my classes. And then
I was also teaching the the vice president’s family, his wife and children
during the campaign, Al Gore’s family. And so all these things sort of came together in the summer of, of, well, no.
How did how in the world did you get in touch with the Gore’s?
Well, it’s this, nobody ever asked the story. I’d love I.
I’m so excited to tell you. So in teach in teacher training, I often use this story as an example. I don’t teach the training anymore. But when I did, as an example of why it’s good to just put yourself out there. Even even you know, if you’re trying to build your career, yeah, that you that you want to let people know what you’re doing.
And here’s an even if it’s even if it’s somebody that you probably think can’t help you.
Okay, so when I was a nightclub promoter,
there was a person named Jonathan, that was a creature of midnight that I would see in the, in the very, he wouldn’t even show up until like, 3am. And he had a big neck tattoo when No, nobody had. Like, it was serious. It was furious. Badass. Yeah, right. And he had one he was like, androgynous and, and like so. But he was super fun and hilarious. But also somebody that you really only associated with very late night
is one of those characters. And so, so as we all know, I rejected that world and entered the pure world of yoga and goodness, and I was walking in DC. And I saw Jonathan in the daytime, and I never seen him in the daytime, and I couldn’t believe it. And I’m like, Jonathan, what’s up? And he said, I he asked me, he asked me what was up and I said, I no longer do all that stuff. I have found yoga. I have found yoga. Wow. He said, he said, Well, I don’t either. I have found floral design. And I and I, in my head, I thought, well, that’s kind of different.
it you know whether or not it’s different. It was it was very sweet of him to say that. And so I invited him to to a yoga class,
which I saw I had been hired at that gym. And he came to the class and he was wearing pointy boots. He didn’t know that you had you weren’t supposed to wear shoes. And he had like a belt on and he had pads on. And he couldn’t take the belt off and have called it out. And any Oh, no, he really didn’t want to take his boots off. But he did. And he had a really wonderful experience. He really liked it. And
I think he did take his belt off at some point.
And when he left, he said, You know, I have a client that I think might like you to teach them. And can I give her your number? It’s when people still use numbers. Yeah. And I said, Yeah, and so this isn’t Bill Clinton was president and and it’s when money started to come
really, really huge, like big, big money started to become a thing in American politics.
like some some new thing had been, I think it’s when PACs were first formed. So anyway, I’m not you don’t know yet why I’m talking about this.
Australian, let me just describe a pack. So for my Australian listeners a pack is a political.
Yeah. Okay, yeah. So before that only individuals could could donate. I don’t know the rules. But basically, a politician could get many, many, many, many 10s of millions of dollars. And so anyway, the first client was the person that manage that for the Democratic Party. She was a National Finance Chair of the Democratic Party. And so she extremely powerful person,
and also extremely wealthy.
And all of a sudden, I was showing up at her house, and I just started teaching and, and like, she had just been with some Swami, his name, I didn’t, I saw him on a book cover. I’d seen him but I didn’t know anything about and here I am teaching her. And I think I was a little bit out of my league with her. I taught her for about six weeks, and I was late a lot. I didn’t know then that you really can’t be late. When you teach people like that you’re not you’re actually probably supposed to be early. And I didn’t know that at the time. And so she fired me. And so when, when her assistant fired me, she said, but we have another client for you. And I said, how nice and isn’t nice. Would you get fired? Yeah, and I guess she thought was somebody a little bit less demanding. And so that client was was the wife of a former congressman.
mass that’s, and, and, and, and I taught her for a while privately, and she kept saying that she had a friend that might come one day, and I said, that’s fine. It’s fine. If you have friends here, you don’t have to tell me into dance. And then she, she called me the night before one of our sessions, I taught her like three or four times a week. And she
called me and said, It’s the friends gonna be there tomorrow. And it’s Tipper Gore. And so chipper was the wife of the vice president. So Vice President Gore was Clinton’s vice president, and he had not yet announced his run for the presidency, but he was about to. And so then I understood why she had kept mentioning her friend. And, and I was really excited. You know, I was on that side of the political fence, and really, really happy to support them.
And so I went and met her the next day, I went and taught and I just, it’s the first she was the first celebrity, you know, she was I would never call color itself a celebrity. But she was the first person who I knew who they were before I taught, you know, to define it, define it that way. And she was just so
kind and, and normal, just so normal.
You know, she was just, it was really just this person’s friend that was there to do some yoga. She was sitting on the floor when I met her and she was like, hey, you know, it was it wasn’t a big deal. And so I went on to teach her for a few years and so so while the campaign was happening,
so back to like I was teaching. My first batches were with musician friend. And while the campaign was happening, the Red Hot Chili Peppers came to town and they were the number one rock band in the world at the time. It was the California Keishon tour, which is the number one album in the world. And my friends went to go see them because they were friends with them. And and they took me and and the chili peppers. I went backstage afterwards, and we had dinner together and
the chili peppers really had a thing about Tipper Gore so So typically, we’re headed a thing called the PMRC parents for
the basically the thing that in Congress, the Congressional congressional lights got together to make it so that music with explicit lyrics had to be labeled as such. And she was a she was a very hated figure in popular music, especially the kind that the red chili peppers made. And so when they met me, they thought it was hilarious that I was her yoga teacher. They thought it was so funny that I was Tipper Gore is yoga teacher and that my name was James Brown. And so but they had just they had just hired there they worshipped James Brown you know they’re there. Yeah. Not I realized people are younger and may not know who they are but the other white there know the Red Hot Chili Peppers or a white funk fan. Yeah. And so they they see James Brown is a God and Yeah, and so so to have Tipper Gore is yoga teacher and his name is James Brown. I thought I think they found amusing but also the the bands that referred me to them
did, I think meant a lot? So anyway, they had just hired their third yoga teacher for the tour, they just fired. So they just fired their third yoga teacher and hired, they’re there for, like, a couple of days before and I thought, Oh, they’re probably going to fire. That one, too. So this is a dinner at dinner. Captain Patrick Lee is telling me this, and I thought, Oh, you didn’t say it. But I thought you guys are probably gonna fire them too. And so there was a chart, the people, George Tonga will know what I mean, there used to be a chart that was circulated of the Ashtanga poses of primary series. And, like Mati we had that the studio where I practice, we had it, but we weren’t allowed to bring it in the room. Like all teachers have rules about this. Yeah, I don’t, I didn’t have I didn’t have any rules. And so he was like, our teacher won’t give us the chart. And I was like, I’ll give it to you.
I faxed it to them the next day, with my phone number on and of course, and lo and behold, three weeks later, I got a phone call. I was a dog walker in DC, and I was coming back from dog walking. And I got a phone call from fleek saying, Will you join us on tour tonight? We’d like we’re gonna send you a ticket. And can you come meet us in Canada? And so I did. And I said, Yes. And
the pay was just unbelievable. I was really nervous to ask for a certain amount. And they offered me more than three times the amount that I was afraid to ask for. And I just thought, This is insane. Like this is I’m gonna go on tour with a rock band and make so much more money than I ever made in my life. And I’m not even very good at what I do.
I mean, I’m sure I’m nice to hang out with, but, but um, I mean, I guess I was good at it. But but I had not yet figured it out. But but um, I just didn’t think I was good at it. Anyhow, I went on tour with him the next day. And so for that summer, I was going then Albert was a presidential candidate. And for that summer, I was going between DC and teaching Kipper, when she was in town, and then going on tour with the chili peppers. And then and then in the fall, you know, the election happened. And spoiler alert, Al Gore did not become the president. Right. So at that point, the chili peppers invited me to come to LA and teach them. And that’s actually where my story begins. Yeah, but
that was just the intro. I’m just kidding. So that that’s toto said come to LA and then I came to LA and met it. And that’s the chapter one. So let’s let’s go back for people. So in Australia, not not I mean, a lot of people do know who it was, but not everybody. So I think it’s probably worth
explaining. explain too much. He was. I can. Okay, go. Maki was the founder of yogurt. She wasn’t the original founder. But she bought it really shortly after it was founded in
certain materials for it. And so
what YogaWorks was, was one of the first studios where people have different sort of lineages and techniques sort of work together and taught their individual thing, but also talked about how it was different and, and that cultivated this
attitude and culture of questioning that didn’t really exist with yoga. Before then it was more like we do what we’re told, can you know, we do it, whoever taught us told us what to do, how to do it. And so
that was really becoming very effective. And at the time that I got to LA in 2001, Yoga works is really certainly one of the premier
for people that really wanted to study yoga. Seriously. And for the casual practitioner, it was it was a place to it was the place. It was, well there was there was two of them. Okay, and it also was driven. Okay, I don’t think
spread spread out as much as quickly as YogaWorks did, I guess? I don’t know if their influences Jeevan Okay, I think was a more Well, Jim, look, it was not,
did not did not bring in a lot of different styles, right? It was just the gym with the style. So I guess that’s the main difference, but I never want to say that her place was like the premier one because I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. But it was it was
just turned up and I didn’t know that because I wasn’t really into I didn’t even know like the studio culture really existed before I went to LA, you know, I was just teaching privately and teaching my classes and didn’t really follow people and there was no social media and, you know, I got Yoga Journal and looked through it, you know, that was about the extent of it. And so, I got to LA and I was really cranky about my delay to teach this rocker and I was very upset about it because I really wanted Mr. Gore to be the president. And so yeah,
I really thought I really thought it was the worst thing in the world that I had to go to LA. I was a real baby about it. And so I thought, well, let me just see if maybe I can find a teacher and write study really seriously and actually get better at what I’m doing. And Mati was the only like, candidate. She, I asked around, like, who should I practice with, and, and everybody said, Marty, and so I called her so. So back to the politics.
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