Music

MC YOGI INTERVIEW

By Johnny Scifo

EstevanOriol - MC YOGI 1.jpg

MC YOGI has topped billboard charts (RITUAL MYSTICAL featuring East Forest), made history by going #1 on the Electronic charts, and now he is topping the charts with his book, Spiritual Graffiti, winning the Nautilus Award for Best Memoir. From living in a group home for at-risk youth to becoming known as yoga’s modern day ambassador to the West, this hip hop artist is on a mission to introduce yoga to mainstream audiences.The book is decorated with his unique artwork, filled with insight into the backstory to his hit album, Only Love is Real (album debuted #12 Billboard Heatseekers + #24 iTunes Hip hop), and demonstrates the power of yoga, true love, and the interconnected nature of the universe to keep us on our paths.

JS: What made you decide to write your memoir now? You’re still young and it seems like your career is taking off?  

MC: I got approached to write the book, so I didn’t pursue it; it kind of came to me. One of the reasons I decided to move forward with it was because a lot of my teachers who were really pivotal for me when I was just starting to practice yoga had passed away. It made me realize how precious and valuable time is, and I saw the book as an opportunity to pass down the things that they instilled in me, the inspiration they gave me.  

I wanted to use the book as a platform to help let their voice echo forward. And that was a real determining factor, because at the time – to be honest – I wasn’t really planning on writing a book. I was working on a lot of new songs, and writing a book pushed back my music a lot. I had been sitting on 20-30 new songs that I was really excited to work on when the book opportunity came.

I talked to my wife Amanda about it, and we agreed it would be a great way to honor our teachers. I had never really written anything like that before, and the only writing experience I have is writing songs. Basically, it became the longest song I’ve ever written, it’s like one long story. And really, it’s just the beginning of my story in a way, because the book really completes when I just become MC Yogi. Everything that’s happened since then is almost like a whole other saga. I felt like that was a good place to document those early years.

JS: Your story is framed with a large musical performance. What show were you framing the story with? What was the big show?

MC: Well, in my mind the big show hasn’t happened yet.

JS: What do you mean by that?  

MC: Life is like an obstacle course, right? What I’ve discovered as an artist and as a musician is, it’s just a series of problems that you have to solve in order to realize your vision, whether it’s an individual song, getting in and working through a lot of possibilities. Writing a song is infinite possibility. There are so many different directions you can take it, and so you got to hone your vision and develop focus, and discipline, and the ability to see something through, all the way to the end. Becoming an artist is like a stretched out version of that, where there’s a lot of ups and downs, a lot of obstacles, a lot of internal criticism that you have to kind of maneuver and navigate through in trying to discover your sound and your voice and what’s authentic and true to you.  

And so for me the big show, is sort of the culmination of being able to take all those lessons, all those things that I’ve learned, and be able to present those songs in that body of work in a way where it matches how I feel inside - which I haven’t got to that point yet. I feel like I’m moving in that direction but I haven’t quite realized my vision yet, which is good – that means that I’ve got ways to go and it keeps me sort of driven and humbled and hungry, and wanting to get better. So, the big show is coming, man, but you know, it’s a lot of little shows leading up to it.

JS: You make music and art, teach yoga, and now write books. Your artwork is featured in the memoir, and you have a clear vision for your music.  How do you know what to focus on in the moment?

MC: I don’t. Usually, it’s impulsive. I’m constantly hearing stuff out of the corner of my ear or seeing something, whether it’s a graphic or an image that kind of triggers or sparks something inside of me and kind of sends me down a path. But I don’t really know, to be honest. The thing that I keep coming back to is my meditation practice. It allows me to sort of land and come back full circle into the moment so that all those little journeys, all those little pathways, that ultimately they bend back in, and then I can kind of process all that inspiration and sort of filter it and develop it and hone it and put it into a story or a song or a piece of art, but it’s not totally linear or logical at all. It’s very messy.  

It’s like the universe - there are stars in all directions and sometimes certain clusters of stars will shine a little brighter. Then I’ll go into that sort of zone and develop some ideas, and then I’ll just put it on the shelf for sometimes like two, three years. It will be sort of somewhere logged in the back of my consciousness and I’ll forget about it, and then something will come around that will trigger it, and then it will flood back to the surface, back to the forefront, and I’ll know, okay, now it’s time to finish this one.  

With the book it was a time constraint. I wrote the book in six months while I was touring 30 cities. Often people will tell me, “I want to do this, this, and that, but I don’t have time.”  But the reality is that time is kind of an illusion. You’ll never have time. Time doesn’t exist. It’s whether or not you have the courage to pursue it or not is the real issue. It’s not about time. Because if you really say: you know what, I’m going to move into this creative process and I’m going to commit to it fully, whether the stuff is good or not, I’m just going to go in and stay with it, even if it takes years, I’m just going to stay with this process. That’s when the gold is discovered.  

I think the fear is the gatekeeper. You know, the “not enoughs,” the “I’m not good enough,” or “I don’t have what it takes or the skills” or whatever. But the reality is, all those things come, they all emerge through the process of actually just doing it. It’s like a yoga practice, nobody wakes up and is like born and is just amazing at what they do. You got to just go and make the mess, and mess up, make mistakes, stumble, and get lost. But in that process you will discover certain things about yourself that will make it easier moving forward to develop your unique path.  

It’s all connected. It’s expansive, it’s wild, it’s all over the place, but then one of the things as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized it’s good to create parameters, and it’s good to create limitations.The idea that you don’t have enough time is a good thing. Those things that are limiting, those will be your allies.  

When I write songs I put limits on it. There’s certain places I know I’m just not interested in going - like violence, for instance, or glamorizing misogynistic behavior or anything that is destructive in that way. I don’t go there. That’s not me. That’s not for me. I got into enough trouble when I was younger that I realize that those paths lead to essentially death and suicide and overdose and abuse. And I saw that all first hand with a lot of my closest friends.  

So, I just realized, when I started practicing yoga, I’m going to create a limitation. I want to stay focused on things that relate to my meditation practice, my experience, my spirituality, my devotion, and that’s going to be the path. Now, where that takes me – I don’t know. There’s going to be a lot of discovery in that. But that’s the limitation I need.

JS: It takes a certain amount of awareness to just know what to do in the moment. So as somebody who freestyles, has a meditation practice, knows what to focus on as the universe brings it to you - a sense of flow seems to be prevalent. Can you speak to flow in terms of your music, your meditation, and if there’s connection there?

MC: Flow kind of carves a path. I’m clear about that much, and so it helps me carve a path and the water can kind of flood and flow through that pathway. I’m not creating a lot of shallow holes in terms of trying to figure out what my direction is. I know that everything that I do is bending toward meditation, toward spirituality, toward yoga, and that helps create a vehicle, and then that path can get wider. What I started to realize was that it actually relates to everything. You know, that relates to life. But I had to get really specific and clear about what I don’t want to do, put those limitations on it, and then within that stay committed to that, committed to that, committed to that, create that groove, create that path, keep pouring water, pouring water, until that current really starts to become like a torrent, like it’s flowing in that direction, and now there’s momentum, now my creative process has fuel and energy; I know where I’m going. And at a certain point, you know, the river just takes you and you relax into it.  You don’t have to push the river but it’s important to create that groove, that flow first, you got to create that pathway, and then you can really give yourself to it.

JS: You have such a unique blending of music and yoga in your festival classes. What the relationship between music and yoga is for you? Are they separate? Are they the same or are there different elements?  

MC: They are individual, they’re unique, but they lead me to the same place. Yoga is the process and the goal. Yoga is stillness, oneness, unity within diversity. It’s the direct experience of that all-encompassing connection, that pulsing energy of the universe of life, of love, harmony. And music is similar in that way where it’s a process, like you have to work to harmonize, you got to tune your instrument, you got to strengthen your chops. But it’s also the goal because when the music is happening - when there is harmony - you have a direct experience of unity. And so, they are different paths that lead to the same thing. But there is also the yoga sound and there is also the music. I mean they are braided, right?  You an easily thread them together. They work well. They are friends. And so, for me, the music and the yoga go hand in hand. Essentially, they rhyme with each other.

Music can also be a destructive tool. Yoga can be used to grow your spiritual ego.  It can be used as an escape from reality. It can become a costume or a wardrobe or something like that, or a mask. And so with both things really, it goes to the intention of the user, because they are pretty neutral. If you look at the tradition of yoga throughout the ages, there have been great tyrants and demons who have used their yoga practice to build strength and become more demonic and more vicious and more powerful.  Same with music.

So it really depends on what your purpose is, and I think that that’s really what meditation, contemplation, self-reflection, all the tools and techniques that are in the eight limbs, help you to clarify your purpose so that you can avoid some of those pitfalls and traps, that obstacle course that we’re all involved in called Life. You know, we mess up, dude. We’re humans, it’s not easy, and there’s a lot of times I’m out of pitch, out of tune, and that’s why I got to come back to my practice over and over again, because there’s no way of getting around the need to practice.

JS: In the book you talk about a phase growing up where you had to let go of a lot of the artists you were listening to because of the negative content within the music. Do you have any advice for people as far as how to choose what media to consume?

MC: Yes, in the same way you choose your food! You’ve got to develop your taste, and if you want to be healthy, then you become more discerning. You tune into better music, better art, better movies. You just develop a taste for things that are more subtle, more refined.  You don’t want to get too puritanical about it either because some people will be light chasers. They will be so far into that space where they can’t deal with life, and it becomes an escape as well. To really develop and hone your heart through spiritual practice and meditative practice is to be able to sit inside the center of life and see how there are really diamonds shining in everything, and you have to develop that ability to really look deeper, and listen deeper, and feel deeper.  

From the Buddhist perspective, to really be able to look through the layers of suffering and develop compassion is a wise response - as opposed to just turning a blind eye and just running and chasing what’s pleasant, which leads to addiction and destruction. Patanjali talks about in the eight limbs: if you become too obsessed with your likes and dislikes, you can create a fantasy world for yourself where you’re not actually grounded in reality.  We run that risk all the time if we are just constantly chasing pleasure, running from pain; it creates a lot of turmoil, a lot of suffering.

JS: Do you have any musical artists that you would like to highlight that you think support this message?

MC: I mean, I always go back to MCA from the Beastie Boys because he was a real outspoken advocate for Buddhism and he’s always been a huge influence for me. But there’s a lot of artists, to be honest.  It’s a long list, man. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll find it.

JS: In the book, you say life in the group home was really supportive to you, because it was so structured.  Your life on the road, I’m sure, is not. How do you maintain your sense of structure and equanimity with such an unconventional schedule?

MC: My practice of writing music, making art and meditating kind of ground me wherever I am and help bring me back to something that’s productive and skillful. Throughout my life, I’ve made so many mistakes and done so many stupid things that it’s a miracle I’m alive; but one of the things that kind of kept me going - kept me alive - is having some kind of interest, being a creative person, wanting to make music more important than drugs. Making art more important than running around and acting crazy.  Waking up and realizing that if I want to get good at those things I would have to put other things away. That’s a constant check-in all the time. If I’m really serious about being a yogi, about being an artist, being a musician, I just have to constantly check-in and take inventory and make sure that I am prioritizing those things above other more superficial things that are not going to be healthy in the long run. It’s a challenge, but it’s a good one.

JS: I personally struggled with drugs as well, and one of the things that was really beneficial to me was creating rituals that basically moved me away from those behaviors.  Do you have any rituals you would like to share?

MC: I think one of the biggest rituals is, I got married. That was one of the best rituals. Amanda, my wife, is amazing. She’s also an amazing street artist and she sculpted 10,000 Buddhas. She’s been painting these buddhas all over the world and she’s on a similar path as me. I think the rituals are staying connected to good people and spending time with family, yoga of course, and meditation. Really making an effort to have a better, more healthy diet and sleep. It’s all a work in progress, because life is hectic, man.  

But I’m grateful and I feel really blessed. Thanks to my dad, my teachers over the years, my wife, my friends and family, I’ve been really fortunate. I discovered yoga when I was 17, and everyone in my life was really supportive and really kind.  I’ve made an effort to really surround myself with those loving people. But I think it definitely starts with yourself. You’ve got to develop that ability to be kind and caring towards yourself. Because you can be surrounded by all the best people in the world but if you’re self-destructive, you’re self-destructive.You can be surrounded with the worst people in the world but if you have that desire to take care of yourself and live a better life you can also lift up out of that situation, so it really begins within. And just developing those habits and those practices and those rituals.  

One of the main things I do, is wake up and meditate first thing in the morning. Have a deep practice of really sitting with gratitude, and not just the surface layer of gratitude, but really getting into gratitude like “Oh my god, I’ve got a phone? I got a phone that can take pictures?”  And like, “Oh my god, this coffee! I’m so lucky.” Just like, the little, basic things. I got lungs that work, I got a heart that beats. My eyes work. Really getting into that mode. And really feel deep soulful consistent powerful practice of gratitude and giving thanks throws the doors open, and gives you access to that space of grace. I can’t recommend that enough. Just giving thanks.

JS: One thing that stuck out for me in Spiritual Graffiti as a male yoga enthusiast and teacher, is that you had a really strong set of male yoga figures in your life at a young age: your dad and Larry [Schultz] . I feel like that’s kind of unusual.  Is there anything that you can say that could help us bring more men to yoga? Any advice that you can give people that are trying to get the men in their life to practice?

MC: Well, in some ways its very unusual. I hear that. But actually, in the grand scheme of yoga, it’s actually the norm, and it’s very unusual for this many women to be practicing yoga, which is essentially a revolution, which is amazing because in the old days in India, it was mainly men - monks and ashrams. There were definitely women practicing, but the majority were male, and so now to have this renaissance and this revolution with this many women practicing is a huge blessing. In terms of men coming to yoga, I think that -  I’m not really into engineering stuff, necessarily. I like to engineer music, but I can’t really judge yoga too much.

I feel like yoga is so much wiser than I am, and I feel like it lands in people’s lives. For me, it just happened when I was 17. It’s hard to explain but it just kind of happened and I think that it’s not the type of thing for me where you kind of get into your head and design stuff. I don’t know. Just being a good example of a guy doing yoga. I feel like that’s enough.  

In terms of how yoga works and operates, I really try not to judge it because it’s so much bigger and so much more wise and intelligent than my individual pea-sized brain is. I just trust it because it has worked for me, and I know that the people who come to it are the people who need to get there.  

And it’s like nature: how do I explain how my heart is beating, my eyes are blinking, my wounds are healing? Where do these thoughts come from?  How am I breathing? It’s so much bigger and beyond my rational mind and my ego that I just have to surrender to it and just trust that there is a power greater than me that is working. And thank God for that, because if it were up to me and my devices, it would be a mess. I trust yoga. I just trust the practice is going to do what it needs to do.

JS: Is there anything that you would want to add at this point to the release of your memoir, or anything that didn’t get included?

MC: The main thing right now that I’m really excited about - I was in the studio for 10 days working on a bunch of new songs that I’m hoping to be putting out very soon. The main thing is new songs, and just really [how] all my music is kind of a meditation on things that I’ve been studying and focused on in my life.  Just being able to get to share that is a real joy for me, and I look forward to people getting a chance to check out the new music.