I haven’t always looked or felt this good. There was a time when my ass didn’t exactly qualify for a Lululemon ad or when the only handstands I could do were by visualization.
An honest-to-god interview with Ahkila, founder of Ashwagandha Yoga (formerly, elephant writer Andréa Balt).
Good morning, L.A.! I always get a little nervous before approaching the mansion of yet another yoga celebrity to interview for our young but already prestigious publication. I can’t believe it’s only been four years since we started; or that the idea of funding YoGlam (short for Yoga Glamour) came to me before anyone else. If not my body, at least my mind was in shape.
But my new convertible doesn’t make things any easier today than when I first started interviewing these amazingly flexible and almost spiritual bodies (people). I park in front of Ahkila’s magnificent house and take a deep, long breath. She opens the door wearing the tightest, softest, pinkest, most comfortable, yogalicious clothes I’ve ever tasted with my eyes and I try hard to look her in the face. She is perfect. And by that I mean, well, perfect. (I don’t use a thesaurus.)
She leads me through luminous hallways covered in bulletproof glass—the latest trend in green luxury design. We end up in a living room that gently reminds me of a post-modern, zen Versailles salon. She makes me sit in what could only have been Louis XVI’s meditation chair (bought, not stolen); and as I lie back, surrounded by a thousand om-inviting cushions, I get a warm feeling inside—as if we had all the time in the world and I’m about to be raptured into the most flexible paradise. I am a feather. There’s no escape.
She relaxes in front of me and offers me coconut water out of a coconut that she picked right outside, from her own coconut tree, brought from Bali.
[YoGlam] This never happened to me before. I know I’m the reporter and I’ve interviewed hundreds of yoga celebrities but there’s something different about you.
(She laughs. I hear an orchestra. Heaven spins. Am I dead? She pulls back her long, blond hair in a Brigitte Bardot fashion.)
[Ahkila] Well, do you want me to tell you about my humble beginnings or what?
[Ahkila] It all started back in 2012. I was a writer and editor for elephant journal among other (let’s-just-call-them-freelance) jobs. I was starting to question my vocation (or more like the ability of my multiple business ventures to pay my bills) when I came across this article written by no other than legendary Waylon Lewis. Yes, this was before he got elected for GG (Green Governor) of Bubble Eco Hippie Town; he used to run this online magazine.
[YoGlam] Oh, that Waylon Lewis. Yes, I know who he is. How are you doing, by the way?
(She smiles and then turns sad and then smiles again in a matter of seconds; gulps down all her coconut water; drops coconut on the floor; rings a bell; a woman walks in; she asks her for Kombucha. Then she makes a quick gesture I can’t quite understand – I think she’s a body language polyglot of some sort; and after that, she goes through at least ten intermittent half-smiles for a full minute and unexpectedly burst into wild laughter; after which she cries a little but with no tears—soap opera style—saying things in a language that sounds like Spanish but could easily be German. She continues to alternate between happy and sad really fast, only to finally settle on happy.)
[Ahkila] Well, I can’t discuss Waylon with you here, I hope you understand.
[YoGlam] No problem. I just thought that… you know, it’s been a while since the divorce…
[Ahkila] We’re good friends and care deeply for each other, this is all I can say.
[YoGlam] Good with me. Carry on…
[Ahkila] By that time I was slightly in love with the man (I mean, who wasn’t? He’s so tall and imposing with the grave voice and all). So I took pretty much everything he said pretty literally and seriously, especially if it sounded—like me—pretty. And believe me, this did.
First of all, the article was titled: 10 Easy Steps to Becoming a Yoga Celebrity. Quotes like: “easy”, “celebrity” “$500/hour”, “Are you hot?”, “you’re Deepak” and “looking beautiful and humble” flirted with my wildest imagination. I highlighted them and put them in my gratitude journal.
I was a little skeptical at first but hey, if Mr. Lewis said it… Of course, I realize now that most of it was satire, but I was too young and naive to get it. Anyway, I’m glad I took it seriously.
[YoGlam] You should, look at all you’ve accomplished in only a few years. It takes most people at least two decades.
[Ahkila] Well, it took me 20 years as well (technically speaking… you know, if you add the metaphorical 15 years of experience any yoga celebrity is supposed to have – some of them started training at age 5!). But as you said, it didn’t take long before success came in waves. And I never looked back.
(I smile and hope she doesn’t think I whitened my teeth. Why does everyone keep asking me that?)
[Ahkila] Did you see me on Ellen this week?
[YoGlam] Of course, you were spectacular, as always. I mean, who doesn’t love you on TV?
[Ahkila] Right… Well, there’s a big, wide world out there, beyond L.A. Crazy but true.
[YoGlam] But my all-time-favorite Ahkila is still the one in those spicy Yoga DVDs. I hope I’m not exaggerating when I say, my God, no other yoga goddess has your style or guts.
[Ahkila] Why, thank you, dear. I guess you’re talking about the Belly Dancing Yoga Cyclist on a Rope Suspended at 300 Feet over a Swimming Pool Filled With Sharks one, right? I told them the title was long… that it wouldn’t sell. Obviously I was mistaken.
[YoGlam] Tthat was incredible. You have it in you, that’s a fact. But I was thinking more of the Acro Yoga with Wild Tigers DVD.
[Ahkila] Yes, I had so much fun doing that one. In fact, let me introduce you to someone.
(She rings another bell and a baby tiger rushes in. I try not to have a heart attack as he starts smelling my crotch and I pray hard in my head—even though I’m an atheist—as I try to keep my composure, “Please, Jesus, please, it’s my last testicle”.)
[Ahkila] Bipin, come here darling. His mother rejected him at birth, so I took him. Who could resist these eyes?
[YoGlam] Well, that’s truly humanitarian of you; at least you have the space. But be careful, they grow fast.
[Ahkila] Oh, don’t let him distract us. Come here Bipin, sweetie, kiss kiss on the lips lips.
(She seems to be talking to the tiger but she’s looking at me. I’m confused.)
So, as I was saying, I haven’t always looked or felt this good. There was a time when my ass didn’t exactly qualify for a Lululemon ad or when the only handstands I could do were by visualization.
[YoGlam] No kidding! So when did you realize you were Yoga celeb material?
[Ahkila] Well, back to Waylon. First of all, there were these stories he’d serialize about some Yoga Girl — kind of like autobiographical if you love it, fictional if you don’t, and in the end, a bit of both—in a more-real-than-not-sure style.
“This Yoga Girl must be the woman of his dreams”, I thought.
And I was just the opposite of Yoga Girl (this is another reason why I started dying my pitch-black hair blond; when I got huge, my agents made me keep the color). So, I thought—you know how all these deep gurus we all love… how they always say that we create our own reality, right?
[YoGlam] You are what you eat, right.
[Ahkila] And what you do, what you say, what you wear… basically you are what you want to be, what you consistently engage in day after day. As in, reality is not set or anything, it’s like a big mass of atoms or whatever stuff they use to measure the universe now; and you just rearrange the atoms according to your own inner script (or something like that). Well, I wanted to be Yoga Girl so I said, “yo universe, I’ve only got one life, what’s stopping me from becoming her?”
[YoGlam] Well, that’s just a brave thing, right there, challenging the universe like that.
[Ahkila] And I didn’t even pause to consider everything that could go wrong; even when most of my tortoise-shell-friends-with-glasses stopped calling and meeting me at our regular bookstore cafe. But it wasn’t just that I was trying to impress Waylon. I was actually really convinced and inspired by his article on becoming a Yoga Celebrity as soon and fast as possible.
[YoGlam] Oh, right, the article. So, how did you walk your (err, his) talk?
[Ahkila] Well, Ok. I’ll just go through Waylon’s 10 commandments to yoga stardom—step by step—and show you how I tried to become of benefit to myself (oh and to the world, yes, the world) through them.
[YoGlam] All ears.
[Ahkila] Step 1— “Create a Facebook Page”. Five minutes is all it took me and a stock image of someone who looked like me from far away in a place like Bali. By that time I wasn’t even able to do a dog down but you gotta’ get your page up first thing, he said. I named the page Flow with a Glow Yoga, against his advice of naming it just after my own boring self. Big mistake—I have to say—but I was able to change it later on a special request from Zuckerberg who came to one of my classes.
[Ahkila] Yes, we’re friends. Not a big deal, everyone likes him.
[YoGlam] Still, I mean, it’s like, hello, om shanté!
[Ahkila] Step 2— “Change your name to something Eastern sounding”. This was my favorite part. I searched for weeks, I tried to pronounce each one of my top ten choices with multiple accents ‘cause I wanted to be huge and international from the start. You know what they say, if you’re gonna’ go for it anyway, go big.
But most of the good ‘n’ easy ones were taken and I used to be more complicated back then; so I figured I’d stick with something longer and harder to grasp, so it’d actually make people think: Ahkilandashvara sounded perfect. And this is how you’ve all come to know me as Ahkila.
[YoGlam] Ahkila is probably as mysterious as it gets for me.
[Ahkila] Yea. I love my name and I don’t mind admitting it. I still get goose bumps when I hear it on TV, or any other place. Step 3—“Go to India”. Well this would have been easier if I hadn’t been broke at the time. In his article, Waylon suggested that daddy should pay, but I didn’t know who my daddy was. So I did what any independent girl with a mission (and her priorities straight) would do: get a daddy. Hey, it’s a tough world, shakti.
[YoGlam] Agreed. You did the right thing—at least from a liberal, feminist man’s perspective, like my own.
[Ahkila] I figured, since I don’t have too much time on my hands, what if I could get it all in one: guru, daddy, friend & lover? So that’s exactly what I did. There was only one prerequisite: my guru had to have a beard. If you’re a man, a beard will add 20 years of wisdom and at least 10 degrees of interesting to your looks.
It doesn’t matter what you look like beneath it or how much your mind actually weighs. Just scratch your beard every now and then in pensive pose and stare the yoga teacher aspirant in the eyes until she blushes and looks away. It’s a trick they teach at those infamous online guru schools.
But my guru was authentic. Falling for him was so spiritual I don’t even know where to begin. Suffice it to say that he brought out the naked, vulnerable side of me and freed me from all those social boundaries my parents tried so hard to install in my hard drive.
[YoGlam] Thanks so much for all these insights, you’re an inspiration to so many teens and young women around the world.
[Ahkila] Aww, you’re a sweetheart. But wait, it gets better. Step 4—“Are you hot?” God, I thought he’d never ask. Of course, I wasn’t as hot back then as I’ve become over the years; but this question motivated me. I thought, “I have the seed of hotness in me, now I just have to make it grow, get it right, make my abs tight.”
[YoGlam] And tight you got them.
[Ahkila] Well, it won’t hurt a girl to try, right? Step 5 — “Make sure you have a twitter account… Don’t tweet often, or folks will think you have nothing to do. Unless you’re Deepak…” That got to me, because see, I did think I had some Deepak in me after all … in a metaphysical, subatomic way, at least; so I wrote Waylon to ask him what he meant.
[YoGlam] That’s when you two started corresponding.
[Ahkila] Yes, he was fascinated by my question. I guess I used to be a good writer, but that’s all in the past now. I don’t regret my decision; I have so much to be grateful for that I didn’t use to have back then.
(She smiles again and then bursts into laughter and after that I can’t tell if she’s laughing or crying but this only lasts a second because there she is, making the strange gesture again, in that foreign body language I can’t translate.)
Step 6—“Get a publicist.” I was supposed to tell my publicist I was sponsored by any of the few smaller sponsors of Yoga Journal Conference. But I didn’t know any of them. Hell, (and by that I mean Naraka!) I’d never even read Yoga Journal and I still couldn’t stand straight on my hands. So I did what I knew best: make up a sponsor.
It’s something writers do, they lie a lot. This annoys me now that I’m so… you know, crystalline and all, but I used to think it was legit back then. I made a living out of it; a much poorer living than now that I speak the sparkling truth with my body and mind.
[YoGlam] Yea, that’s one thing I’ve been against ever since I founded YoGlam. I mean, I know we’re technically writers—or more like journalists, as some people like to call us—but we love the raw, unedited style of human nature. I think it’s more spontaneous. This is why we never edit our interviews. It’s all on record, every uninvited, comma, every typpo.
[Ahkila] Good to know. Now I’m gonna’ be all shy. But it’s for the best, since this is probably my chance to introduce the real person to the world… You know, the human being behind all those poses. I’m a human being, can you believe! (She sighs). But back to the story: I got a publicist, told him I was sponsored by some Yoga Pants Brand I made up, and this is how I got myself teaching at conferences. You know, I can be charming when I want to.
[YoGlam] You tell me. I fell in love you the first time I saw that video in which you do subaquatic yoga with killer whales. Just adorable. Were those trained beforehand?
[Ahkila] I can’t remember. I’ve done so many already… And I didn’t even talk in that one. So they loved me at the conferences, they liked it that I was edgy, ‘cause see I wasn’t even really a true Yoga Girl by then, I still had the bitchy, unsatisfied writer in me—though I tamed that lion long ago, didn’t like her roar (plus, I’ve long since changed my voice to a higher scale; the previous one was too low to also be sweet, and you gotta sound nice on this teaching job or else…).
[YoGlam] And then the big sponsors came running after you.
[Ahkila] Exactly. They said they liked my humility and my hair. And as time went by I was getting stronger on the mat. Or at least I could touch my knees with my head.
[YoGlam] Yea. You look cute in your first ads. So young.
[Ahkila] But don’t believe everything you see. It’s a photoshopped world, dear.
[YoGlam] Get out! I didn’t think they did that with Yoga ads too.
(She laughs hysterically. I wasn’t joking though. Then she pulls out something that looks like… oh my God, is that what I think it is? And she’s like… oh God… sniffing it?)
[Ahkila] Oh, don’t worry, hon, it’s just spirulina powder. See? It’s green! I’m a healthy girl. It’s absorbed faster through the nose. It gives me superpowers! You should try it.
[YoGlam] Wow, you scared the living joy out of me for a second there.
[Ahkila] Moving on. Step 7: “Oh, right: learn how to teach yoga.” For me it was more like, learn how to do and teach yoga at the same time. By the time when I could officially call myself a Yoga Girl (I don’t like the term Yogini, it rhymes with Bikini); I was already teaching other girls (and boys) how to add more Yoga mojo to their life.
[YoGlam] You’re good with words, I’ll give you that.
[Ahkila] Thanks… Wait, are you flirting with me? Never mind, don’t answer that! So I did exactly what Waylon pointed out in his article. (Although, I gotta’ admit I completed my first course online.) But by my third training, I was already as fit as it gets—and also bored.
I’d already learned all there was to learn. It was expensive, sure, but my Daddy paid for all three courses. He said once I was famous I should give him 10% of all I made. I said, you got it, Daddy. He’s happy with his investment now, we co-opened a center in India.
[YoGlam] That turned out well then.
[Ahkila] Why shouldn’t it? You have to be on good terms with all people.
[YoGlam] Even ex-husbands.
[Ahkila] Especially ex-husbands. Boy, you don’t forget, do you?
[YoGlam] Already have. Who are you? Why am I here?
[Ahkila] Haha, nice. You’re here so I can tell you about Step 8 to becoming like me. I started travelling all over the world. But this only came after —again, sticking strictly to Waylon’s advice—I did a nude yoga photo shoot and made a calendar. It got featured on the NY Times cover saying something like “Can Yoga Undress Your Body?” but don’t trust my memory.
I was super honored. My mom cried when she saw it. My dad didn’t want to look. I took them both shopping.
And it all cascaded from there. I had to have a bodyguard for a while after that.
[YoGlam] Wow, that bad, huh?
[Ahkila] Yes, got some serious stalkers who couldn’t see that what I was doing was Art. They carried these signs around saying that abortion is murder. I didn’t understand what that had to do with any of it.
[YoGlam] Oh, they might’ve been the fundamentalist and anti-pleasure folks, you know.
[Ahkila] Yea, the funny thing is that some of them ended up taking my classes. But I didn’t teach much at home anyway. As I said, I was travelling and writing my bio during the long, international flights and in my hotel room, at night. It was a tough life; I was lonely. But I had so much energy back then. My chakras were all aligned.
[YoGlam] And they aren’t anymore?
[Ahkila] Yes, but it gets harder with time. I know I have it better than most people but we all got our problems, life’s hard on all of us. And this gets me to the end of my story.
Step 9. I was riding the wave. It escalated, got huge. I had to start wearing dark sunglasses when I went to the grocery store. And I’m a firm believer in natural Vitamin D, straight from the sun. I’m not a movie star, for Shiva’s sake! But Hollywood did come knocking on my door. In fact, I’m reading a script they just sent (not sure if I like it). But at that point I felt like my life needed a turn.
I didn’t just want to teach Yoga. I wanted to be Yoga. Take risks, go far. I’ve always been addicted to risk. I used to collect Japanese swords from age 9 to 12. So I figured, what the Naraka, I’ll go all the way. I decided to branch out of the Yoga movement or more like, branch above – toward the sun, and fund a new Yoga inclination sort-of. (I don’t like the word “movement”).
I called my branch Ashwagandha Yoga. Yes, it’s named after a potent, very therapeutic Ayurvedic herb. You know, it represented the whole concept of balance, of living in unity with the soul, the body, Mother Earth, Ayurveda, the animals and stuff.
[YoGlam] Yes, I practice Ashwagandha Yoga daily, thanks to you. Can you explain why you chose to eliminate mats from your practice?
[Ahkila] Well, because through a mat you can’t feel the pure warmth of the earth, it interferes with your energy. Your practice is a give and take and it must involve the floor, to keep you grounded, right? So there’s like a love affair between your body and the earthy feeling emanating from below. If you place a mat in between, it interrupts the love flow, you get disconnected (divorced) from the Earth in a way.
[YoGlam] It makes total sense. I stopped using a mat shortly after I watched one of your first DVDs.
[Ahkila] Great! I see it caught on. I could sense this from the way you walk, but I wanted to hear it from you.
[YoGlam] Oh honey, you started a matless revolution. You don’t read the news do you?
[Ahkila] Don’t have too much time on my hands. And most I know about the real world out there I learned from elephant journal. So it’s good to know that so many people appreciate Ashwagandha Yoga now. It makes all my hard work count.
[YoGlam] And what about Step 10? Waylon is not very optimistic about your fate at this stage in the Yoga hall of fame.
[Ahkila] Oh!… Then I must have misunderstood that. I thought he was actually telling me to please, go ahead and have a meltdown crisis (even if I had to fake it). So I even made sure I went to Australia—and stayed at the exact hotel that he mentions.
I was a little empty, to tell you the truth. I was too immature at the time to deal with all the sudden fame; or more like just inexperienced, just a girl (in the world); a recent convert to spiritual materialism and loving it. But I wasn’t depressed or anything, I just needed a good cry.
So I followed Waylon’s instructions and ended up at a Buddhist center telling myself that none of it mattered at all and remembering—with a certain wave of nostalgia—my lonely days as a brunette, hungry writer (not that hair color matters, just sayin’ to add more contrast), typing for hours anonymously at a café; eating metaphors like junk food and making up story after story. I even made up an interview once —very similar to this one.
[YoGlam] Yes, I remember reading something like it when Yoga Journal republished all your old elephant articles.
[Ahkila] Well that was then. Things change. People too. As I was saying, I ended up at this Buddhist center in Australia, and I’d never actually meditated before, like really meditated… I’d just close my eyes during my teacher training courses and did the om and what not, but in my head I was always thinking about the next pose.
So here I am among these people in Australia (like, I always thought it was a continent, I swear)—actually meditating for real, and it was all so pleasant and calm that I was caught by surprise with all the silence and stuff; and everyone so solemn and it was like a beautiful, still picture with me—for the first time—in it… So I just burst out laughing in the middle of the temple from all the unexpected emotion or something; and I mean, uncontrollable laughter.
[YoGlam] Well, that’s funny (in a sacred kind of way).
[Ahkila] I couldn’t stop. Laughing like that is just another way of crying. Which is good; I needed to burst open and come clean, find a way back to myself. And maybe that was the real beginning.
[YoGlam] It sure sounds like it.
[Ahkila] And then this tall, reddish-haired man sitting in front of me turned around, looked me straight in the eyes and placed a firm finger on his lips telling me to hush down, crazy woman!
[Ahkila] I didn’t recognize him at first but it was Waylon.
I left Ahkila’s house a new man. I decided I needed to go to Australia too, because come to think of it, I’d also been in need of a long, heartfelt, good laughing cry for years now. To honor elephant journal as Ahkila’s first home, I’m offering them this interview exclusive, free of charge.
May it be of benefit and may you also laugh as you’re crying as you’re meditating as you’re abandoning as you’re sitting on a mountain top or bottom with your legs uncrossed and your little orphan tiger running around and your sad, beautiful smile putting the “Y” back into Yoga.
YoGlam is the Vogue of Yoga. Dedicated to bringing you the latest trends and hottest people involved in the Yoga world, it’s a source of inspiration for aspiring yogis and yoginis worldwide.
YoGlam doesn’t guarantee your future happiness but it will momentarily make you feel better and although it’s usually just about pretty yoga people ‘n’stuff there’s a chance of depth, pain and heartbroken truth in some of its articles that might help you cope with your own humanity and inspire you to offer free hugs to strangers on the street.
You can’t find YoGlam online, but you can visualize and it will magically show up on your mat.
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