The Blissologist: A Yoga Guru’s Revolutionary Approach to Wellness
Yoga star Eoin Finn believes he’s found a way to be the happiest, fittest Canadian. Now he wants to convince the rest of us.
Photos: Erik Isakson
Eoin Finn is probably not the first guy to get a great idea while lying in a hammock. But he may be the only one whose great idea was that more people ought to lie in hammocks. Not that Finn himself gets many such opportunities: At 44, this yogi is Canada’s hardest-working relaxation advocate.
Over the last decade, Finn has instructed hundreds of yoga teachers and trainers. His seven platinum-selling DVDs and free podcasts (with titles like “Tragically Hips” and “Yoga for Short Attention Spans”) have reached thousands more. Blissology, the company he founded in 2000, does brisk business in books, T-shirts, necklaces and yoga gear. He has taught NHL players and Olympic athletes. He tours constantly, and his classes-held from Halifax to Bali-are packed, despite minimal advertising. His fans even have a name: the Bliss Army. Finn has also stirred controversy thanks to an unconventional approach: the belief one can be utterly devoted to yoga, but still laugh about it.
Last August, at the Wanderlust yoga convention in Whistler, B.C., Finn introduced a variation on a technique called pranayama, in which students breathe in good intentions and exhale “what no longer serves you.” Finn told his class to sprinkle their good intentions onto imaginary paper, roll up an “intention joint,” then smoke it. To Finn, the lesson seemed unmistakable: everything we need comes from within, so drugs aren’t required. But when a photo of the exercise was later posted to the blog It’s All Yoga, Baby, it drew sharp criticism. “This is the dumbest thing I have seen in awhile,” fumed one commentator. “Are there people out there who are actually trying to make yoga a laughingstock?”
Yes-and no. “Yoga is serious business,” says Finn, who is a fierce believer in maintaining tradition. He contends, however, that the millennia-old practice, once premised on spiritual self-mastery, has been hijacked by obsessives striving for the perfect pose. Finn wants to jolt students out of that hard-core
stance. “One of yoga’s goals is to detach you from daily life. Humour can shatter attachment.”
“Yoga can often feel like boot camp,” agrees Deanna Spadafora, a manager at a yoga studio who was there that day. “Eoin told us to throw away our mats-to swim like fish, wriggle like snakes, do karate and surfing moves. It’s high energy and almost silly at times. There’s a real freedom and lightness to him.”
Finding unconventional and sometimes irreverent ways to tap into what Finn calls “yoga’s message of love, kindness and awe” is an idea he picked up from the late American scholar Joseph Campbell, author of The Power of Myth. Campbell-who famously told his audiences, “Follow your bliss”-believed that mystical experiences were still possible, but we needed to reintroduce them to the modern era. “The old models aren’t working,” Finn says. “I’m trying to find something that speaks to people.”
Eoin Finn was born in the bucolic countryside of Haliburton, Ont. His father’s desire to get away from practicing law in Toronto meant Finn grew up in a natural wonderland, though he eventually resented his seclusion. “My friends were going to Led Zeppelin concerts,” he recalls, “and I was stuck in the boonies.”
Finn soon rectified that. He attended university in Nice, France, where he first learned yoga. Then, in 1992, he travelled to Hawaii, where he spent the better part of a year surfing before eventually following a Canadian girlfriend to Osaka, Japan. While he was there, an acquaintance asked him for help acquiring home-building materials from Canada. Finn did a little research and discovered he could handle the importing from Toronto at considerable savings. Soon, he was running a thriving construction business. “I cut off my long hair and bought all these suits,” he says. “I went from this windsurfing, mango-eating dude to a young businessman. It was definitely about money, but it was also about getting respect from my dad.”
But Finn couldn’t entirely let go of his other life, and continued to jet back to Maui on surfing safaris. The island was becoming a hotbed of yoga culture. In the years before yoga studios spread to mainland North American cities, underemployed yogis congregated where they could live cheaply amid natural splendour. What they practiced was called power yoga, a less traditional variant of the Ashtanga style, which involved a strict sequence of poses. Power yoga adopts many of those poses but mixes them up, allowing yogis more freedom to design new routines, including some geared to Westerners (for example, fewer deep knee bends for bodies not conditioned by a lifetime of sitting cross-legged).
It was during Finn’s surfing trips that he began dropping in on power-yoga classes run by Nadia Toraman, and the experience was life altering. “Yoga was a very meditative activity to me,” Finn says. “But it never seemed a form of exercise. Power yoga, however, had a big gymnastic component as well as a very soulful side. It was the gym, the university and the temple all in one. It was what I’d been looking for.”
In 1997, Finn quit his business (“I didn’t even sell it,” he says, “I gave it to a friend”) and threw himself into what he understood would be his calling. “I felt like Harry Potter first discovering the world of magic,” he says.
Then, on a trip to Vancouver in 1999, he spotted signs of a yoga community taking hold. There were few commercial studios in the city at the time, but dedicated instructors-some from Venice and Santa Monica, Calif., two areas that already boasted large yoga scenes-began to offer lessons in community centres or set up yoga spaces in their own homes. Although he was in debt (after two years of yoga study in Maui, he had racked up a credit-card bill of about $16,000), Finn’s business acumen kicked in: he realized no one in Vancouver was teaching the power yoga he had learned in Hawaii, and decided to fill the void. He sold everything he had-car, surfboards, windsurfing boards-and began giving classes at the Kitsilano Neighbourhood House, a rundown former Greek Orthodox church. Word of mouth did its work. “It was very exciting and very pure. Everyone in class knew each other’s names. We were a tight circle.”
But something still felt off. It dawned on him that, in a way, things were no better than when he was running his construction business. “I’d wake up, read yoga books, meditate, do three, four hours of yoga a day, eat only organic food,” he recalls. “One night I ended up at a house party, dancing. And I thought, What happened to this side of me? In my quest to become healthy, I became kind of boring.”
So he made a pledge to bring more of that energy into his teaching, and blissology-as a philosophy-arrived at its most important idea: be happy, not perfect. Key to Finn’s approach is removing the fear of failure. “We all have an inner conquistador,” Finn says. “We want to conquer and win. That drive is important. Yoga takes discipline. But some get stuck in that conquest mode, and that’s how you get injured-in yoga and in life.” To be sure, Finn places a lot of emphasis on correct alignment and limb position, but his classes start with a hug and sometimes finish with students lumped together in a puppy pile. He encourages students to bring in beautiful objects and will throw impromptu dance parties to loosen people up. And unlike many yogis who expect students to ignore their next-mat companion, Finn makes his classes a collective experience. “I tell people to look at their neighbour and say, ‘Nice pose,'” he says.
Finn’s mentor Nadia Toraman, who still teaches her blend of Ashtanga in Maui, suggests that Finn represents a new breed of yogi pushing the cross-pollination of East and West into new directions. Finn seems determined to renew yoga: to take apart its clichés and turn them into something else. “We need both approaches: the traditional and the more experimental,” says Toraman. “It creates good balance in the yoga world.”
Chris Duggan, a former student of Finn’s who now teaches hip-hop yoga classes, says the Vancouver yoga scene has largely been shaped by Finn disciples. “He’s trained instructors at most of the big studios,” he says. He describes how, early on, Finn gave purists the impression he was too laid-back. “Eoin is an encyclopedia of yoga,” says Duggan. “He just found a way to marry that tradition to ideas of community and sharing. I try to follow the same principles. But are there skeptics? Sure.”
One of those skeptics was Finn’s wife, Insiya Rasiwala-Finn. The two met in 2002 when she worked for Vancouver-based yoga-wear giant Lululemon Athletica, which had retained Finn as an adviser. But like Romeo and Juliet, the two belonged to different houses. “At the time, I practiced Ashtanga,” Rasiwala-Finn says. “I heard about how Eoin’s classes were lively and fun. Frankly, it repelled me. The yoga I knew from India was quiet and serious. I was against all the hype.”
Still, the two stayed in touch. One day, Rasiwala-Finn was asked to fill in for another woman who’d been scheduled to appear in one of Finn’s popular yoga videos. The experience won her over. “There are a lot of Type A people in yoga-me, for instance. But I saw a man who used jokes to deliver important yogic concepts. He was zany, but Zen.” When they both found themselves single a few years later, they began dating. The couple married in 2007, setting up house in Ucluelet on Vancouver Island’s west coast (the family winters in Venice Beach), and today have a 21-month-old son named Ananda Lion.
Finn’s marriage-and men, generally-give him some of his best material. (“There are two things in life that speed up,” he once told a group clapping in time to a rap song he had composed. “Drums in a circle, and guys having sex-so can we keep it slow?”) One of his favourite strategies is something he calls “husband hearing.” During a class, Finn will assign an exercise with different levels of difficulty and say, “You might want to use husband hearing on this.” In other words: If you’re not up to the more strenuous routine, just ignore me and do what feels comfortable.
Husband hearing underlines Finn’s core belief that, when it comes to happiness, the goal is more important than the method. In fact, for a man fast becoming one of North America’s most celebrated yogis, it’s striking how little emphasis Finn places on yoga itself. He sees both physical activity and the appreciation of nature as means of getting in touch with what Joseph Campbell called “transcendent energy”-a force that lies outside of, and is usually drowned out by, the conscious mind. “Sometimes I’ll teach at big conference centres, and we’re two floors below street level with no windows,” Finn explains. “And I say to people-people who might think that doing the yoga poses will make them healthy-‘If you really want to get healthy, you should just go to the nearest park bench, sit under a tree and look up.'”
When the last study of yoga in Canada was conducted in 2005, 1.4 million Canadians were doing the downward dog-over five per cent of the population. Since then, as the industry established beachheads in cities such as Winnipeg and Halifax, the demand for instructors across the country has intensified. In 2010, YogaFit, a U.S. yoga franchise, held about 15 teacher-training sessions. In 2011, after they opened YogaFit Canada, they held 50. Last year, they closed at 100. Yoga, a global business netting nearly $18 billion annually, is now a part of most sports-training programs and has been incorporated into customized therapy, such as Yoga for Cancer. The once-ascetic discipline is now lucrative, and ubiquitous.
Finn is of two minds about this. He is a rising personality in the yoga world, and the craze has helped power his career. But Finn believes that yoga is now an industry in a hurry and has thus lost touch with one of its most ancient tenets: relaxation. “Studios need to get people in the door and out quickly in order to make ends meet. At the end of a routine, you do this thing called shavasana, where you lie on your back and recharge. I go to different cities and I hear, ‘We cut our classes down from 90 minutes to an hour-we just cut out the shavasana.’ So that’s the trend. I always tell people in our teacher training that, while our students will get a great workout, we want to be known as the yoga of shavasana.”
One early experience at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver confirmed for him that relaxation’s restorative power-which, he says, can turn existence into a “sustainable high”-needed to be a bigger part of people’s lives. Finn had been leading a class of 16 young women being treated for eating disorders. He asked them what sorts of calming activities they could list, aside from yoga. “Like watching the sunset, gardening, whatever,” he recalls. “Not one of them could remember doing anything like that. I was stunned.”
Finn eventually translated this philosophy into what he called “Hammock Enlightenment.” “It was in 2006 when I discovered the power of the hammock,” Finn says. “For all my years of meditation, the closest I got to enlightenment was lying in a hammock while on a retreat in Costa Rica. I thought to myself, If everyone did this for even 10 minutes a day, we’d all be much healthier and happier.”
When he returned to Vancouver, Finn set up “relaxation zones,” in which a dozen or so hammocks were strung up near busy streets and passersby were invited to stop for a swing. The success of the installations-in which the hammocks became a kind of poor man’s shavasana-encouraged him to recreate similar events in major cities around the world, including New York, San Francisco and Tokyo. It confirmed Finn’s intuition that, as a yogi, if he only taught students to stretch and strengthen muscles, they would eventually hit a plateau. “To go deeper,” he says, “you have to get in touch with the emotional body-what I call ‘issues stored in your tissues.’ Our bodies are a living record of every stress, trauma and hurt we have experienced. Stillness can help release some of that. That’s the bliss.”
At every hammock site, says Finn, bemused crowds would gather. Children would be first to scramble into the hanging beds, and sometimes, a breakthrough: a businessman resting for a few minutes, in mid-air.
3 Things Yoga Teaches us About Life
By Eoin Finn
In yoga, we learn our egos can cause us to ignore how our bodies feel. Fostering sensitivity to our bodies’ messages helps us avoid aches and injuries; cultivating this same sensitivity toward those around us helps us become kinder.
2. Let Go
Yoga is the art of using mind and body to maximize relaxation during challenging times. Whether it be sinking a free throw or speaking in public, if we’re too tense, we generate less power.
3. Relish the Moment
People think yoga’s health benefit comes in the form of fitness or flexibility. But the real gift is the state of mind in which we stop and take in the beauty of the clouds or the light of the stars.