How could we not do a teacher feature about the notorious Joel Pier, original yoga gangster? Many long time students consider Joel their yoga dad – and the new students who walk through the door and are lucky enough to have Joel as a teacher are probably like, “what the….?” Let’s face it, Joel is really a one of a kind person, powerful teacher, and full of love and we are blessed to have his presence at Hot Yoga Philadelphia. So what’s his story anyway?
Joel Pier was born on a farm in Michigan in September 1946. His childhood was like any in that era: full of adventures that our generation only sees in the movies. By the time he was ripe for exploring the world outside of the small town, yoga was being newly introduced to the west.
(In the late 60’s) yoga exercises were ancillary to the psychedelic seekers who were interested in Indian mysticism and getting high.
“Now you have to understand the way it was back then,” says Joel, describing small gatherings in parks and one on one teaching sessions where people were really into the idea of transcendence, meditation, chanting and breathing exercises. The yoga exercises were ancillary to the psychedelic seekers who were interested in Indian mysticism and getting high. So this was the yoga climate during Joel’s first experiences with yoga. No Lululemon.
Spiritual Seeking in the 60’s…
A copy of “Autobiography of a Yogi” by Paramahamsa Yogananda, touted as one of the most influential yoga books of all time, soon found its way into Joel’s hands. After this, he decided that if he was to be serious about this yoga business, and he was, then he’d need to find a spiritual master. It was in 1966 when he first saw A.C. Bhaktivendanta Srila Prabhupad, who would become his actual guru many years later. But he continued to seek and work odd jobs which included working on a shrimp boat and guiding a juvenile delinquent wilderness correctional program.
Bhakti yoga was supposed to be the highest form of yoga – of course Joel was interested.
Finally in 1972, he came in contact with bhakti yoga. A friend and fellow seeker had told Joel that is was supposed to be the highest form of yoga. Of course Joel was interested. It was Srila Prabhupad who initiated Joel Pier into the parampara (lineage going way way back) of the devotees of Krishna. Through his relationship with the devotees, Joel was able to travel to India where he practiced bhakti yoga, ran a dairy farm, and studied Ayurveda (the sister science of yoga). Joel spent the better part of 20 years of his life starting in the mid 70’s living an austere life in the temples in India, serving his spiritual master and the devotees of Krishna.
Yoga in India…The Real Deal
It was in West Bengal, Calcutta where Joel first encountered a bonafide teacher of hatha (physical) yoga. This particular teacher, would prescribe postures to Joel. He’d go home, practice the postures, and return to receive further teaching. It just so happened that this teacher, one of the Das brothers, was part of a network of teachers that instructed Bikram and Rajashree well before they traveled to the west and started a yoga empire. Although he had no direct contact or conversations with Bikram or Rajashree at this time, he would later develop a close relationship with them. He witnessed first hand, the famed “yoga demonstrations” where yoga practitioners performed anatomical feats like bending knives against the eye without causing a lick of damage, or, being trampled by elephants while lying peacefully in savasana…all done in public places to gain wealth and fame for the teachers and schools with which the student was affiliated.
“I knew after the first class that this yoga would heal my body,”
Discovering “Bikram Yoga”
By the late 80’s, Joel was still living in temples continuing his affinity for physical labor and spiritual studies. He eventually traveled to Japan where he lived for some time and of course became attracted to martial arts. Old injuries began to haunt his aging body. It was in Japan where he moved away from the temple community before returning to the United States and landing in Key West, Florida where his friends owned and operated a yoga studio where they practiced Bikram’s method. “I knew after the first class that this yoga would heal my body,” says Pier, very frankly and unapologetically, I might add.
By 1993, Joel traveled to LA to meet Bikram and take his teacher training program. It was the third training program Bikram had ever offered and Joel was able to stay in LA after graduating. He lived in Bikram’s school and learned first hand how to teach this method from Bikram himself. Emmy Cleaves, a senior instructor of Bikram yoga was instrumental in his development as a yoga instructor and also spent many hours studying with Joel. The later generation of teachers only dream of having such close contact with Emmy and Bikram.
Bringing Bikram Yoga to Philadelphia
In 1997, Joel landed in Philadelphia, where he and a couple of yoga teachers opened a studio. Now keep in mind, his hot classes were held at 6am and it was just him practicing. Eventually, students became attracted and wanted instruction. He began teaching and soon gained a reputation as that “strict yoga guy teaching hot yoga.” Joel, being the gangster that he is, needed to fly solo and eventually opened his own studio. In 2001, he opened the doors to 1520 Sansom Street. Classes became so packed that he needed to open the 4th floor. If you were around at that time, you remember the “honor system” leave a dollar for water and sign in on this tablet before you go into class…it was a very sophisticated setup. Chris Fluck became a devoted student in 2001 and I took my first class in 2003. Nearly all the yoga teachers, studio owners, and self proclaimed yogis in the Philadelphia area started as students of Joel’s.
When I asked Joel what he invisions for the future of our yoga community, he simply stated that he hopes, “bhakti yoga and kirtan will rise to the top.”
Between the years of 2008-2012 Bikram yoga peaked in class attendance in studios around the nation and Bikram’s teacher trainings were packed. Joel wished to get back to temple life and decided to sell the studio in 2011. It took us 3 years to close the deal, during which time I “apprenticed” under Joel, learning his ways of running a business. During that time, I learned two very important lessons in business from Joel (whether he knows it or not). Number one: nothing belongs to me, and number two: the more you give, the more you get. These are my only two philosophies of business and I’m convinced it’s better than anything you can learn in an MBA program at Wharton.
The Future of Yoga
Joel continues to teach in the area and as fate has it, he actually took ownership of another studio in Reading, PA. He practices renegade style. Early in the morning while the world sleeps. He prioritizes meditation and spiritual studies but maintains a physical practice. If you ask me, he’s still one of the strongest people I know. When I asked Joel what he invisions for the future of our yoga community, he simply stated that he hopes, “bhakti yoga and kirtan will rise to the top.” I think he’s right. And if you’re reading this and haven’t heard about bhakti yoga and kirtan…I’m confident that soon you will. Because yoga is more than just contorting and stretching. The strengthening and physical conditioning is but a step in the journey of self realization. Thanks to teachers like Joel, we know that.
We shouldn’t take it for granted that we have access to such a knowledgable teacher like Joel. Make the extra effort to take one of his regularly scheduled classes. Peep his schedule here.
Written by Katelynn Ingersoll