"Am I bringing a pair of sledgehammers for you tonight?" That's not the email you expect to get when making plans for a hike. But when I opened my inbox a few weeks ago, that's exactly what I saw—a note from 42-year-old yoga teacher Josh Schrei (pronounced Shry) asking if I'd be partaking in his oddball workout up 8,577-foot Picacho Peak.
Fast-forward to later that evening. It's sunny—the first day in weeks without rain—with billowy clouds and a flamingo hue hovering over the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Schrei, a muscular 5'8" guy with Sanskrit phrases tattooed on his arms, a honey-colored tan and clear greenish-blue eyes, is standing next to his shiny blue Subaru Forester holding out a pair of four-pound sledgehammers for me. I decline, but follow him to the trail, intrigued. We climb fast, breathing hard up the steep path. As we hike, Schrei holds the sledgehammers up overhead by the bases of their handles with straight arms, simulating a Warrior I yoga posture, in which the biceps aim to kiss the ears. He tells me that by exhausting the arms, he's forced to use his core for stabilization, which builds up his ability to have explosive power for long periods of time. My quads are burning simply from hiking so fast, but he doesn't break, only rests the hammers down by his hips for a few minutes here and there until we reach the summit. On the descent, he bushwhacks down the hill at a quick-paced run. He's tucking his elbows into his ribs, holding the sledgehammers in front of his chest, bobbing and weaving among cacti, slippery pine needles and wayward piñon branches. I decide that it's good that we came to an unpopular trail, mid-week, late in the day. He looks like a savage warrior.
Schrei is a Vinyasa instructor at Body, Santa Fe's yoga and wellness basecamp, with a gospel-themed class on Sundays that's almost always wall-to-wall with sweat-dripping students soaking up his every scruffy-chinned word. Looking at him, you'd never guess that just two years ago, Schrei had a high-stress desk job in New York City as a vice president at a marketing firm. In the eight months I've known him, I've only seen him in loose-fitting yoga shorts and synthetic running shirts—and, most often, barefoot. It's even harder to imagine him as a suit given his past: He grew up in a Zen Buddhist commune in upstate New York. He was sitting in lotus (the iconic cross-legged yoga position) by age five and practicing poses from the book Light on Yoga with his friends as a teenager. His first real job—which lasted six years—was dedicated to raising money for Tibet. Now, it's his athletic prowess that fills his résumé. He took a ninth-place finish in his age group in New Mexico's 2011 Jemez Mountain 50K—one of the hardest trail races in the country, with 7,781 feet of elevation gain. He'd never run more than eight miles at any one time before he started training. A few months later, he ran 22 miles around northern India's sacred Govardhan Hill, shoeless, in 98-degree weather. It wasn't his feet or the temperature that gave him problems, though. "I had to dodge this big monkey brawl. Plus, they get excited when you're running, so they chase you," he told me. "That was an X factor I didn't factor in."
But Schrei says it's not about the physical feats. Sure, he smiles when he recounts his recent athletic achievements, but one of his real motivating factors is using his physical determination to help people, he says. His Jemez run raised $13,000 for Students for a Free Tibet, which aids Tibetan people in gaining freedom without violence, and his barefoot run in India brought in $2,000 for water.org, a nonprofit that turns donations into water access for families in need.
As much as Schrei says it's not about him, it's hard to believe an affluent, former New York suit isn't just tacking charity onto impressive personal goals. But his friend and training buddy Davis Evans, a 25-year-old Capoeira teacher in Santa Fe, attests to Schrei's magnanimity. He tells me that, at dinner parties, sometimes they'll bust out challenging yoga poses for each other. "But," Evans says, "it's not about pumping up the peacock. Josh finds excitement by seeing other people tap into that same inner connection as him. And, when he's out there running, it's not a physical feat for him; it's about paying homage to something bigger than himself and using that to help people. Yes, he's improving himself, but it's coming from the heart, not from a self-centered place."
On Oct. 5, Schrei will use the explosive strength he’s been building over the last couple of years in a feat that he hopes will demonstrate the transformative power of yoga. He’s planning to do 3,000 sun salutations—each one a series of 10 yoga movements that entail forward bends, jumps and low push-ups—around another of India’s most sacred mountains, Arunachala, in the sub-tropical south. This time, the path is only nine miles long, but he expects it to take him 30 hours. “Hour 27? Who knows what I’ll be feeling, but I’m looking forward to knowing what it’s like.” He sounds masochistic.
If you ask him why he's doing it, he waxes philosophical. "I'm not doing it to prove how strong I am," he says. "I'm hoping to show what's possible through yoga, practice and devotion. In yoga, we bring breath to obstacles to relax, let go and eventually surrender. Through that process, we can go deeper than ever imagined." He tells me about something he witnessed as a 13-year-old in India: a person holding his arm over an open flame while having a minute-long conversation without being affected at all. He then goes on to explain that it's the union between sustained physical effort and spiritual orientation that enables humans to do extraordinary things.
His trainer, Steve Ilg, owner of Durango, Colo.-based Wholistic Fitness and a self-proclaimed "mountain yogi," embraces this technique. Ilg's company blends Western physical training regimens (running, weight-lifting and hiking) with Eastern mental practices (meditation and yoga). Call Ilg's cellphone and he welcomes you warmly on voicemail: "Namaste, beautiful warrior. As long as your breath and posture are strong and sincere, leave a message."
Ilg may sound like a new-agey quack, but his accolades are no laughing matter: He's podiumed over 200 times in 23 different sports and holds five world championships in four sports including snowshoeing, sport climbing and big-mountain skiing. He's trained Olympians, and Outside magazine once called him "America's Multisport Mutant" because of his undeniable force in road cycling, ultrarunning and rock climbing. He holds 75 first ascents for all types of climbing (rock, ice and alpine) and a championship in a winter quadrathlon from earlier this year. Did I mention he's 50?
So it's hard to brush off Ilg's training regimens as wacky, even when he makes Schrei do jump squats up 12,622-foot Santa Fe Baldy or ascend Atalaya three times in a row: first walking, then running, then doing jump squats. "For someone like Josh, who fires from a very lofty spiritual maturity, I integrate his mantra," Ilg explains. Schrei often repeats the mantra "om namah shivaya," which connects him with the fiery energy of the universe. "Instead of counting repetitions at the gym, he'll say a syllable of his mantra," Ilg says. By teaching his clients to pair mantra with the most intense part of a workout, Ilg gives them a sense of calm focus and a level of surrender to that intensity. "It becomes a very sacred ritual," Ilg says. "It gets athletes outside of the biomechanics and into the psycho-spiritual side of themselves and sets up a larger reason to work out."
There's living proof that this approach works. Ashrita Furmen, a 56-year-old health food store manager from Queens, NY, holds Guinness World Records for extreme athletic endeavors like somersaulting the longest continuous distance (12.2 miles) and skipping (yes, like a 6-year-old girl) a marathon in the fastest time (just under six hours). He uses a technique his teacher, Sri Chinmoy—a yogi famous for surreal weightlifting feats and 3,100-mile ultrarunning races—taught him that involves tapping into his spiritual self during intense physical pursuits.
But Schrei's goal is much less gawk-inducing. As he repeatedly salutes the sun around Arunachala, Schrei expects to encounter hundreds of other pilgrims, even old women, bowing and offering respect around the sacred mountain. And while he's sort of trying to say the same thing as Furmen and Chinmoy—that the power of spirituality can translate into an otherworldly level of strength, drive and focus—he's taking it one step further and using it for a good cause by crusading again for water.org. "India's given us so much with yoga," Schrei says. "It will be nice to give something back."
According to the nonprofit's chief community officer, Mike McCamon, 130 million families in India live without water in their homes. Often, up to 100 families have to share one tap at a communal standpost. And the wild card is that water doesn't flow freely from that tap—it often comes through once a day without a set schedule. Because of that, most community members plan their days around when water might come. McCamon also emphasizes widespread sanitation problems. More than 600 million Indians—almost double the population of the United States—lack toilets. Many defecate in open fields, contaminating local water supplies and spreading disease.
When I ask Schrei his reasons for choosing water.org as the recipient of his fundraising, he explains that it's personal—he spent many of his formative years here in the desert. But it's also much larger: "Water is fundamental," he says. "The fact that millions of people die because of lack of access to it is indicative of the spiritual and physical imbalance in the world today. We, in the US, just turn on the tap and have unlimited access to it—we're disconnected from the blessing of it."
Schrei tells me about this ancient tale that's been pushing him along on his workouts. In it, the Hindu deity Shiva is sweating profusely. Everywhere the deity sweats, a new wellspring of water comes to life. "It's inspirational to think that through shedding my own water, I can help bring water to other people," Schrei says.
And indeed, the donations are already coming in. He's well on his way to generating over $25,000 for the charity with this project. Of the $8.4 million donated to water.org in 2011, only a handful of individuals and families offered up more than $25,000—it's mostly foundations in that bracket. To celebrate his sun salutation effort, Schrei has recruited 20 yoga studios—from California to New Jersey—to hold benefit classes on Oct. 5; proceeds will be donated to water.org on Schrei's behalf. Laura Lester, owner of The Yoga Room in Oklahoma City, which will hold one of the benefit classes, says, "Students often feel change within when they're on the mat. When they step off, they offer change to the community. Josh's upcoming voyage to India is a beautiful example of yoga off the mat." Water.org's McCamon says that it only takes $25 to bring clean water to one person for his or her lifetime. A donation of $25,000 could potentially help upwards of 1,000 lives.
But for Schrei, that's not enough. His master plan is to raise $108,000 over the next three years for water.org—enough to complete infrastructure for an entire Indian community. When I ask him how, I'm expecting him to respond with another superman-like project. But he surprises me: "I love linking deeply transformative practice with the ability to give back. But I don't want it to be 'Here's Josh doing another crazy thing.' The point isn't to focus on me—it's to raise money." He admits that the Jemez 50K run was something he wanted to check off his life list, and also recognized as a great opportunity to be altruistic. Over time, though, he's moved away from that self-serving approach: He wants his projects to include other people. In the coming years, he envisions group bicycle trips around sacred places in India, like the Ganges or the 12 Shiva sites, and getting more studios involved on an annual basis, all in pursuit of his water.org goal.
Charity work isn't foreign to Schrei. He spent the first decade of his life at a Buddhist Zen center in Rochester, NY, where his parents worked and meditated several hours a day. He remembers it—with its Japanese gardens and woodwork—as a very serious place with a lot of sitting and stillness. And just like any childhood, Schrei's had its drawbacks ("The people there were enlightenment seekers—family was not the first priority.") and benefits ("I felt the truth about what they were talking about—like the kindness to animals and preciousness of this life."). Like most kids, he'd stay up after his parents told him he should be asleep, only he wasn't playing with a toy airplane or reading a mystery novel—he was meditating. He jokes about the hippie private school he attended, where he mostly hung out with other children from the Zen center. "My little Zen clique with our vegetarian lunches," he recalls. "I would go to kids' houses who weren't from the center, and they'd struggle to make me dinner. Vegetarianism was extremely rare in the 1970s, especially on the East Coast. It was like I was from Mars—they thought my parents were abusing me by not feeding me meat."
In 1980, when Schrei was 10, his family moved to Santa Fe to start a new branch of the Rochester Zen center on Old Pecos Trail called Mountain Cloud. Three years later, the Zen center offered Schrei's family the opportunity to explore the roots of Buddhism for a year by traveling in Asia. They went to Sri Lanka, Thailand, Japan and India, staying in ashrams and studying under renowned teachers. "At first, I felt like a 13-year-old who'd been ripped out of everything he knew," Schrei says, "but then I realized how colorful and rich and full India was. Suddenly, my world was expanding and I was having experiences with death, poverty and spiritual traditions that I had only dreamed about. It blew my mind wide open." He picked up an education in Hindu philosophy through vibrantly illustrated Indian comic books, many of which he still has today.
Then something pivotal happened: He met the Dalai Lama at a speech before one of his first Western audiences—about 80 people in a small room. At the end, Schrei remembers the Dalai Lama rubbing his head and chuckling. “To hear how he was not allowed to go to his homeland and to see the love and the devotion the Tibetans have for him was life-changing,” Schrei says. “Plus, Tibetan Buddhism has gods and goddesses and demons and dragons. For a kid, it was really cool.”
When the year ended, Schrei's family returned to Santa Fe. He plodded into high school with his mind made up: He'd study Tibetan language and try to get back to Asia. He helped build the Tibetan religious monument off Airport Road; spent a summer when he was 15 at a Tibetan monastery in Woodstock, NY; and, after high school, did a 40-day trek and spent a month at a Tibetan monastery in Nepal. While there, he witnessed a young Tibetan man almost beaten to death by Chinese police in Lhasa's main square. Tibetans all over would hand him notes asking for help with things like getting a family member out of jail. Those experiences stayed with him for years.
Once back in New Mexico, in 1990, a 20-year-old Schrei tried attending college at the University of New Mexico but dropped out after only one semester to pursue music with his rock band, Mobius Trip. Over the next three years, they opened for any rock band that came through town and played shows in the Railyard for crowds of 350 people. After moving to Los Angeles, they fell in with producers Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys and the Dust Brothers. Yauch and Schrei shared a love for Tibet and, after Schrei's band broke up, Yauch hired him to join his San Francisco-based nonprofit, the Milarepa Fund, which raised money and promoted awareness for the Tibetan independence movement. The team at Milarepa dreamed up a series of music festivals, known as the Tibetan Freedom Concert, that featured big-name bands and then donated the proceeds to their cause. The first one, in 1996, was a huge success. Its rockophile lineup—Red Hot Chile Peppers, Rage Against the Machine, Smashing Pumpkins, A Tribe Called Quest—brought 120,000 people into Golden Gate Park and raised $2.5 million for Tibetan social justice causes. Schrei worked with Milarepa for the next six years, moving with the organization to New York in 1999, until it closed its doors in 2001.
But soon, he found himself caught up in the New York City rat race, moving further and further away from the charity work he'd held so dear. He became the marketing director for Luaka Bop, a world-music record label owned by the Talking Heads' David Byrne; after a year there, he leveraged his skills into a job at a large agency called MKTG before becoming a partner at a music-promoting firm called Drillteam Marketing, LLC in 2006.
"That was the wrong choice, in retrospect," Schrei reflects. "Once I took all of the meaning out of my career, I was pretty vacant inside."
He filled that vacancy with a hard-charging lifestyle—work all day, party all night. Eventually, he developed a drinking problem. On occasion, he'd study with spiritual teachers and rededicate himself to yoga practice, but later he'd be sucked back into partying. By the end of 2008, it got so bad that Schrei checked himself into rehab.
"It took me a long time to accept that I couldn't fix this myself," he says.
In addition to rekindling his yoga and spiritual practice—he'd been teaching and practicing sporadically since 2004—he embraced the 12-step program, which is also rooted in spiritual tradition and resonated deeply with Schrei, who saw in it elements of yogic philosophy. And, just as he plans to achieve his goal of 3,000 sun salutations—with breath, practice and surrender—he was able to recover from his drinking problem.
In 2009, Schrei and his two partners sold Drillteam Marketing for a upwards of six figures, freeing him to embark on his next chapter. He started scheming up a $4.5 million business plan to create another marketing agency, this time centered on yoga.
As he was making his plans, he left for India to travel for four months. And then, as if to hammer a nail into the coffin of his formerly shallow existence, the universe brought Schrei back to what he'd learned from the Rochester Zen center, that life is precious.
"I was in a restaurant in Ladakh talking Hindu philosophy with some fellow travelers when the sky opened up and poured and hailed into one of the driest deserts in the world. No one in written or living memory could remember a storm like this," he recalls. It was Aug. 6, 2010, and mudslides poured like concrete into 25 towns, killing hundreds of people and obliterating entire villages under 30 feet of mud and rock.
"I had plans to go to a guest house in a neighboring village the night it happened," Schrei says. "I decided not to go at the last minute. That guest house was leveled."
Of all of the seminal moments in Schrei's life, this one was the heaviest. It made him reconsider everything—including his multibillion-dollar yoga-marketing firm, which suddenly looked a lot like what he'd been doing at Drillteam Marketing. "Confronted with death like this, I started to think, 'Is this really what I want to bring forth in the world?'" Schrei explains. "I realized I needed to reevaluate from my heart and not let there be any other determining factor. While I was digging families out of the mud, I realized I wanted to devote my life to helping people."
It's Sunday just after noon, and the studio at Body, with its Japanese white paper ball lanterns overhead and gong on one wall, is mat-to-mat with yoga students dripping as Schrei plays a soul-lifting series of hallelujah, it's-good-to-be-alive gospel music.
He started the class by talking about the heart—that you can't walk around with it too forward or you'll get hurt, but you can't walk around hunched over it because you'll be too withdrawn. It's about balance, he says. His words seem obvious, but it's these grounding remarks that bring people to class. That, and the challenging mixture of arm balances, nonstop sun salutations and heart-pumping pace.
He demonstrates a difficult inversion in front of the class—crow pose (an arm balance where you rest your knees on the backs of your biceps) into a tripod headstand, and then back into crow pose. He instructs the class to try the same: "We try something. Maybe we can't do it. Maybe we won't ever be able to do it. I know there are poses I won't ever be able to do in this lifetime." He pauses dramatically. "So what?" The class chuckles. "There you have it," he says, referring to the fact that yoga—and life—is a practice.
Chimayó native Ofelia Nieves, a gospel-yoga regular and former Body Yoga School student of Schrei's, says, "I repeat things he says almost like mantras because he is always trying to come from his truth, both in his life and in his teaching." When I ask another of his students, 23-year-old Meaghen Brown, if she ever senses a phony vibe from Schrei—as can be the case with yoga teachers—she quickly retorts, "Have you met the man?!"
It's a testament to what he set out to do after the moment in the mud when people were wailing and praying and reminding him what it means to be human.
His tattoos are testaments to his goals, too. Two of the Yoga Sutras—the oldest principles of the yogic tradition—adorn his forearms. The first he got shortly after rehab. "When people suffer with addiction, it's because we're letting the chatter in our minds determine our lives," he says. "So this is a very clear reminder, right where I can see it, that my practice is to still my mind." His other sutra tattoo is also prescriptive. He translates its meaning: "In order to build a strong foundation, it needs to be done every day over a long period of time with my feet on the ground and the love of God in my heart." Schrei recognizes that he had all of the tools in hand for years, but he chose to ignore them. "We all have this huge amount of information in front of us about what brings each of us contentment, I mean what really brings us deep contentment," he explains. "Our practice is to understand how we're going to transform ourselves so that that is how we're living."
The humbling thing about Schrei is not only his resilience and honesty, but also his commitment to truly transforming himself. And it's not self-serving—he truly believes that the more we transform ourselves, the more we transform the world. It's like an energetic butterfly effect.
His sun salutation efforts will only further his life's new mission. His trainer, Ilg, has his clients—not surprisingly—channel animals that relate directly to their goals. Schrei's animal is the frog. But it's not just that Schrei will be doing a lot of hopping. In Native American tradition, Ilg explains, the frog symbolizes cleansing, healing and purification. Schrei will be showing that sweat can be sacred—not only for himself, but for thousands of other people.
Josh Schrei will host an evening of poetry and music to benefit clean water charities in India at Body at 8:30 pm on Wednesday, Sept. 12. To get involved, visit give.water.org/f/sunsalutes/