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Rising Stars: Meet Sean Gray

Today we’d like to introduce you to Sean Gray.

Hi Sean, can you start by introducing yourself? We’d love to learn more about how you got to where you are today?
This story, my story, the story of how I got to where I am today, started 20 years ago when I reluctantly walked into my first yoga class. That’s when the course of my life changed forever, and for many more reasons than just because I’m a yoga teacher. The practice has been the beacon of light through many dark nights, leading me to the safety of my heart through countless storms, and I not only wouldn’t be where I am today without it, but I don’t know who I’d be today either.

Before the journey began for me, I was very active – going to the gym 4-5 days a week, running 3-4 days a week, and surfing 5-7 days a week(depending on swell, of course). Some of my friends were going to yoga classes, but I wouldn’t ever join them. It wasn’t for me, I had what I liked doing, and it was working just fine for me. But the day inevitably came, and I went to my first yoga class. It was horrible, and I hated every minute of it. But for some reason, I found myself going back for another class and another. Before too long, I was no longer going to the gym to work out, I was only going to yoga classes. At that point, I decided to take my practice to actual yoga studios and not only take classes that were offered at my gym anymore. Being from and living in Santa Monica was highly advantageous at the time, there were so many great studios to choose from, with so many amazing teachers to learn from. One of the “big” studios also had a day spa, and they were offering a 30 day deal that I couldn’t pass up – unlimited yoga and spa use for $50. It was for one month only, but I jumped on it and committed to going every day. It was perfect. I was working nights at the time, so I would take a class in the morning and hit the spa afterwards. I went 28 of the 30 days, and I never felt better in my life. Yoga did it all for me – strengthened my body, increased my flexibility, calmed the mind, connected me to the Self, and gave me the space to cultivate awareness. All at the same time, I loved it. It was at the end of this month long challenge that I decided that yoga was what I was going to do to stay healthy from that day on, and it is to this day 20 years later.

Seven years later, I decided to leave the field of work I was in but had no idea of what I wanted to do. So I sat down and wrote out my three favorite things to do, knowing you can find a way to make a living doing pretty much anything. Those three things were: surfing, traveling, and yoga. This was a time for some harsh truths, as the outcome was going to be where my life would go for the next several years, possibly decades. As good of a surfer as I like to think I am, I knew that I couldn’t compete with Kelly Slater, and the idea of being in a wetsuit all day running a surf school wasn’t appealing to me. Ok, surfing is out. Next – traveling. I was traveling through Brazil at the time and thought I could start a travel blog to maybe earn a living doing that. So I did but learned fairly quickly by the offers coming in that this was going to be a very difficult field to earn a good living in, and my savings was running out. Ok, traveling is out. Next – yoga. No! I didn’t want to become a yoga teacher. There’s just no way I liked being a student, and being a teacher would change that. Nope, not for me. Then I thought it out a bit. “Am I really going to create a list of my 4th-6th favorite things to do because I don’t want to teach yoga? That doesn’t make sense.” Then it dawned on me – the resistance I was experiencing to becoming a yoga teacher looked familiar. It was the same feeling I had before taking on a yoga practice, and here it is in my top 3 favorite activities. Ok, yoga it is then.

My first teacher training was with Tamal Dodge at The Yoga Collective, when it was in Santa Monica, it was awesome, and I loved every minute of it. While in the training, I started giving free private lessons to friends to gain experience, as well as volunteering at Santa Monica high school who had yoga classes offered as a P.E. elective, and since that’s all I was doing at the time, I was practice teaching as much as I possibly could. Surprisingly, lots of friends wanted some free yoga with me, and the one yoga teacher at the high school was happy to have me assist them with their program as much as I wanted. So I was teaching almost every day and all day long, and I wasn’t even finished with the first teacher training yet. The day before graduation I was offered three classes on the schedule immediately following receiving my certification, of which I gladly accepted. Then I was offered two classes at another studio called Tru Yoga, then another couple of classes at Power Yoga, then a few at The Yogi Loft, then Laughing Frog Yoga, even holding classes in a friends converted garage, and I was off and running. It didn’t take long after graduating that I was teaching a full schedule all over Santa Monica & Venice.

Fast forward one year, teaching was going great, my classes were full, but I felt like my personal practice wasn’t getting something it needed. I wasn’t sure what was missing, but I knew there was a gap somewhere that wasn’t being filled. So I started going to all the highly advanced classes, and that wasn’t it. Went to all the famous teacher’s classes, and that wasn’t it. Maybe it was just me? Could it be a feeling of lack that comes from within me, and my practice was enough? I wasn’t sure. Then a friend of mine invited me to a Mysore Ashtanga class at Yogaworks Montana, and I was like “Nah, I like my flow classes. I like to have music playing and not be limited to a set sequence.” But my friend insisted I try it at least once, and then she’d never bother me about it again. “Ok, I’ll go. But I’m sure this will be the only time.” We walked into the room and it was packed, and I had to squeeze my mat into a little space in the corner. In a Mysore Ashtanga class everybody is doing their own practice and going through different parts of their personal sequence. So every single person was doing something different. As soon as I rolled my mat out, the teacher, Sonya Cottle-Hanlon, walked over to me to introduce herself and asked about my practice. I told her that I was a new teacher and had been practicing for about nine years. She asked if I knew what ujjayi was, I said yes, and then she said “great, stand here with your eyes closed practicing ujjayi until I come back.” I stood there for about ten minutes… just breathing. No joke. She then came back to me and had me do Surya Namaskar A’s and B’s, led me through some of standing sequence, told me to take savasana, and come back tomorrow. The practice was probably only 45 minutes long, and I remember it vividly. When I walked out of the room, I said to myself “that’s it, I found what my practice was missing!”

After six months of a committed Ashtanga practice, the teacher, Sonya, asked if I would be interested in assisting her. To which I obviously said YES. She told me we would have to get through all of primary series first, and then I could start to assist her one day a week. So, we got to work, and I moved through all of primary series. It wasn’t easy, but it was awesome! As soon as I did, I started assisting Sonya, and she started to teach me how to give adjustments and follow the rhythm of the room. A few months after I started assisting her she asked if I’d be interested in subbing for her. “Thank you for the offer, what an honor”, I said, “but I thought in order to teach at Yogaworks you had to go through their teacher training?” She told me “ashtanga is different because Yogaworks doesn’t have an ashtanga training program it’s up to the teacher to decide who subs for them.” And of course, my only response would be “ABSOLUTELY YES, thank you!” Soon after, I had a meeting with the studio manager to fill out the paperwork, and during that process she asked me if there were any other classes I wanted to sub – vinyasa flow, Iyengar, restorative, etc… “Sure, I can sub vinyasa flow classes too..?” I asked. She said “yes, anything else?” and away I went. I started subbing for Sonya, and shortly after that I started getting asked by other teachers if I would sub their flow classes as well. Unknown to me at the time, Sonya’s class was filled with a lot of the most influential people in Yogaworks. Sonya had been given the class from the previous owner and founder of Yogaworks, Maty Ezraty, so she was quite influential, and her class was attended by lots of teachers and people who worked in the corporate office.

Not long after I started subbing some vinyasa flow classes, I got a call from one of the ‘higher ups’ in the corporate office and a regular in the ashtanga room, saying that I wasn’t supposed to be subbing the flow classes. That there were a lot of Yogaworks 500-hour trained teachers not getting the call to teach those classes, and they needed to have priority since I wasn’t Yogaworks trained. But I could still sub the ashtanga class. To which I responded with “of course, I totally get that. I thought that was the case, but since I was getting asked I wasn’t going to turn them down.” But then they came back with “but if you’d like to teach vinyasa flow for us we’d like to offer you a 200-hour teacher training, and we’ll allow you to teach after completing that training. We usually require teachers to go through the entire 500-hour program before they can teach for us, but since you’re already teaching at other studios and subbing ashtanga for Sonya all we’ll ask of you is the 200-hour. Are you interested?” “WHAAAA..?!?! HELL YES! But just to be transparent with you, I’m planning a trip around the world that will start shortly after the training is scheduled to end.” She then asked “are you coming back?”. “Yes.” I said. “Oh, ok. You can start teaching for us when you get back.” she replied. So I took the Yogaworks 200-hour teacher training led by Jesse Schein and David Kim, and as soon as it was over started subbing all over Yogaworks.

Just before this conversation, I was asked by a private client that I had worked with if I’d be interested in going to London to work with her for six months at six days a week. We had just finished a three months run where we dove into her ashtanga practice, getting together for two hours a day six days a week, and her practice transformed. It went from a caterpillar to a butterfly right in front of my eyes, it was really cool to witness. This was an offer that I couldn’t refuse, so I didn’t. I was going to use that six months as a catalyst to start a trip around the world that was looking like was going to be a two years adventure. It was going to be awesome! I left all of my classes and clients, said goodbye to my family and friends, and was only a couple of days away from embarking on this journey when I got the call from the client telling me she had to cancel our plans. F#@&!! I was devastated. I didn’t know what I was going to do. This had been planned for months now, and I had dropped ALL of my classes. So I contacted all of the studios I worked with, telling them what had happened and that I was very available to take on any classes they could spare. Out of the 8-10 studios that I reached out to only one responded to my distress call – Yogaworks. Seriously, they were the only ones. They immediately offered my something like 20 classes to sub right away to get me working, and I gratefully jumped all over it!

After the extensive subbing tour began, I was offered my first class on the Yogaworks schedule – Saturday 10:45am at the South Bay location, I said yes. Then I was offered Monday & Wednesday 7:30pm at the Westwood location, I said yes. Then offered Tuesday & Thursday 6:00pm at South Bay, I said yes. And then offered Sunday 10:45am at South Bay again, and again I said yes. It was awesome, I had a full schedule at Yogaworks, and my classes were packed. It was a good time for my teaching practice, and I was really enjoying it. Then I got another call from the corporate office asking if I’d be interested in leading teacher trainings for Yogaworks and if so then they would like to offer me the 300-hour professional program. And of course I said “YES!”. I chose Joan Hyman to be my mentor, and the nine months of training went underway.

Teacher training are life-altering, that’s for sure. But something happened to me that I didn’t expect or see coming at all – I had a daughter. A beautiful baby girl that we named Sequoia. Sequoia had some complications at birth that caused her to be in the hospital for six weeks, and it was an extremely challenging six weeks for all of us. To support her in the healing process her mother and I decided we weren’t going to leave her alone for a single minute while she was there. Her mom took the day shifts, and I took the night shifts. I slept on the floor for the first two weeks and then was upgraded to a chair the last four weeks. In the mornings, I would leave the hospital to teach all day, then practice in the late afternoon before going back to the hospital to do it all over again. My practice definitely kept me grounded during that time and focused on what was important – supporting this new life that had blessed mine with her arrival. Sequoia made it through the ordeal, is now thriving in life as a beautiful and happy young girl, and fills our days with laughter, joy, and love. What a gift she is, and I’m so honored to be her daddy.

Not long after that training was over though I came to realize that I wasn’t going to lead teacher training for Yogaworks, and my time with the company was starting to come to an end. It’s tough when you’ve been working towards something for so long, and when you get there, you see it’s not at all what you thought it was. It seems as if life hands up these hard lessons from time to time to shake the ground underneath you to give you a little nudge to change, and that’s exactly what happened. But what was next?

Ever since my first year of teaching yoga, I thought that online was in the future. There were a few companies already doing online classes, but I decided to give it a shot myself. In 2018, I started to build an online yoga studio by creating content – vinyasa flow classes, as well as tutorials on peak poses. And in early 2019, after I had enough content, I tested it by starting a private group on Facebook and asked people for a small fee to be admitted into the group, and it went really well. Not only was I receiving great feedback from the people within the group, but I really enjoyed doing it too. So I continued making new video classes, and the memberships kept coming in.

In the summer of 2019, I made the decision – I was going to leave Yogaworks. It was difficult for a few reasons – it was the company I wanted to work with for so long, they had been so generous to me in the past, and I loved the community that I had built there. The first classes to go were the Monday/Wednesday at Yogaworks Westwood. Then shortly after that the Tuesday/Thursday at South Bay. The Saturday/Sunday classes were the tough ones because they were my babies. Saturday was my first class on the schedule, and Sunday was a class that I molded into something new for the company. I had a yoga/meditation retreat to Nepal scheduled for October of 2019, and I decided to leave the last two classes right before I embarked on the month long adventure through the Himalayas. It was a very emotional departure. The community was so special, and I loved being with them in class. We had spent years together, and all of us had gone through so much together. If it hadn’t been for them I probably would’ve left long beforehand. But all things must change, and it was time for me to go.

Thank you, Yogaworks, for the many wonderful years we spent together, I’m extremely grateful for all that we’ve gone through, and I know that I would not be where I am today without you. You introduced me to so many influences in my life that I absolutely cherish. Including my life partner, my wife, my adventure companion, my ride-or-die, Megan. You brought us together, and I will always love you for that. My life has never been better than it is now, my heart has never been as full, and my future has never looked brighter. A million times THANK YOU!

While trekking to different Tibetan Buddhist sites throughout the high Himalayas, I gave myself the space to figure out what was going to be next for me, I didn’t know where my path was going to take me, and it wasn’t until towards the end of the month that it came to me – when we got back home I was going to dive into the online platform that I had started and see where that takes me. And that’s exactly what I did.

It’s called Vistara Flow. Vistara is Sanskrit for expansion, Flow is for flow state, which is being at one with what we do. Vistara Flow – to be at one with the expansion of all aspects of the Self.

First, it needed to get off of Facebook. It was a great testing space, but it was not only a lot of work to get the videos on the page with so many steps to take, it also lacked the quality of video I wanted due to the size restrictions. So I built myself a new website to hopefully host the videos there but learned during that process that on Squarespace, like Facebook, I would still have to host the videos on YouTube or Vimeo, and that’s what I was trying to avoid. Then I found another site, Teachable, that would host all the videos. But I had to build yet another website, so I did. A couple of months and two websites later, it was almost ready to go. I was smoothing out all of the rough edges, and COVID hit. So right when everybody on the planet was forced to stay home Vistara Flow was ready, and all I had to do was press ‘launch’. So I did, and it most certainly launched.

People jumped on it right away, and it started to expand quickly. Other teachers came onboard, we started hosting LIVE group classes, the on-demand video library grew tremendously, we started hosting workshops, we put on three online yoga festivals, and people were absolutely loving it! Then, one of the teachers that joined us, my mentor, Joan Hyman, who had also gone out on her own a few years back, asked if I wanted to co-lead a 200-hour teacher training with her and host it on Vistara Flow. As always, my response was “YES!”

We led a group of yogis that were located all over the world through a transformative journey that none of us will ever forget. It was awesome. That’s one of the benefits of where we are today – due to everything being online, we could host people from anywhere, and that brought different cultures together with similar interests which created such a unique experience for everybody included. It was truly magical to have all of these special ingredients come together, organically creating a recipe for an exquisite three months journey that will never be duplicated.

During the training something unimaginable happened that rocked me and my family to the core. My oldest daughter, Jasmine, died from a heroin overdose at the age of 26 on February 23, 2021. She had been struggling with the addiction for six years, and it eventually won the fight. She was a smart, beautiful, talented, funny, loving young woman, and I miss her very much. She came into my life when I was 18 years old, we grew up together, and she knew me better than anybody else did. Over the last six years, we all had gone through so much together. She lived with us a few times while going in and out of different rehab facilities, but that wasn’t sustainable because she was still getting high, and with Sequoia around, we had zero flexibility with that. It was such a challenging time for all of us. Jasmine and Sequoia had a very strong bond, loved each other very much, and it was heartbreaking to have to keep them apart.

Her last stay with us was from the beginning of October until just before Christmas of 2020. It was a challenging time for all of us, but time that I will cherish for the rest of my life. It was pretty clear when she got here that she was detoxing, her body was going through withdrawals, she was sleeping a lot, and her mood swings were severe. But we were happy she was under our roof and had the ability to really get some good rest, and when she was being her bright and shiny self, it was priceless. It reminded me of when she was younger before she got on the dark horse, and we would just laugh together. She inspired me in so many ways and gave me the opportunity to be the best version of me. I loved her so much, love her so much. She gave me the greatest gift I’ve ever received. She placed unconditional love in my heart. She was my first love. She also taught me how to be a man by allowing me to show up for her throughout her life. She influenced me and the decisions I would make since the day she was born. There were countless times when I would ask myself “is this something I’d want Jasmine to know about?”. More often than not it was a no, and I would choose to take the higher path. She truly helped mold me into the person I am today, without a doubt.

She’s been in the dedication for my practice for many years and remains there to this day. Here’s how I begin each practice – “I dedicate this practice to Jasmine Marie, Sequoia Lenni, and Megan Elizabeth. I love you all so much and am extremely grateful that you came into my life as my daughters, as my partner, as my teachers, and as my lights. I promise I will continue to practice so that I may better serve you as a father, as a partner, and as a friend. And I can’t wait to kiss your beautiful faces again soon.”

Thank you, babe, for absolutely everything. You will always be in my heart and the light that guides me back to love.

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey have been a fairly smooth road?
The path has been riddled with struggles since the beginning and continues to challenge me to this day. But it’s just another example of how the practice can prepare us for any and all challenges. Like in a difficult pose – it may be uncomfortable, but it won’t last long, and if we are present to it and keep breathing, we’ll make it to the other side with more tools from the learning that is inherent in all struggles. For without struggle, there is no need for change. Keep on keepin’ on. I’ll often say in class, and I truly do believe that the path of consciousness, the path of awareness, the path of learning and growth, the path of love, is the difficult path to walk. Whenever we decide to go down this road, we will always be met with obstacles, with distractions, and with temptations that will try to divert our course. The hard part is that most of those diversions will be very attractive to us and will appear to make things better by making them easier. But once again, the path of the seeker in never the easy one. When we come to a crossroad along the journey and we don’t know which way to go, one of the tools I’ll use in order to help me decide which direction to go is – which one is the more challenging route. Often I’ll think of an interview I read with Mother Teresa where the interviewer said she must have loved her life and enjoyed waking up every day to do her work. Mother Teresa’s response was surprising as well as perspective shifting for me. She said something to the effect of “this life is hard, and I want to go home and leave this work every day. But the needs of the people here are greater than these desires of comfort.”

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your work?
The work I do uses the yoga practice as a tool to help people live their best lives. To feel the best in their bodies. To have clarity and focus in their minds. To have love in their hearts and in their relationships. To live an inspired life filled with compassion for themselves and others, connection to their family, to their community, and to life itself. And to offer the tools I’ve gathered along this journey to overcome the obstacles and challenges that prevent us from living a life of fulfillment, a life of joy, a life of love.

Can you tell us more about what you were like growing up?
I was a good kid growing up, didn’t cause too serious of trouble, raised an only child by a single mother, and we moved around a lot when I was young. My mom’s family was in Santa Monica, so that was our home base, and I spent a lot of my youth there. Because my mom raised me on her own, I was independent really early in life, and because I was an only child, I got very accustomed to spending time alone. There were lots of cousins around, and I had plenty of friends, but it never bothered me to go on solo adventures. Riding my bike all over the place and going to the beach were probably my all-time favorite things to do as a youngster. I’ve always loved the water, so it was often that I’d be spotted in the ocean body surfing at first, then bodyboarding, and when I was 11 years old I took riding waves to my feet and started surfing. I played a lot of sports, rode my skateboard a lot, would run in long-distance races starting at age 10, and loved being a junior lifeguard at the beach during the summer.

We lived in Salinas, CA. during my high school years, and that’s when I had to put the surfboard and sports jerseys away and join a martial arts school. Salinas high was a very scary place for me. It had lots of gangsters there from different gangs, so there were massive fights every day that would send kids to the hospital, and I not only didn’t know a single person there, but I was a total beach kid that didn’t look like any other kids there. On the first day of school, I saw 4 or 5 fights that involved 10+ people. I had never seen anyone get beat like that in my life. To the point where I wasn’t sure if they were alive or not. I was terrified. When I got home from day 1 my mom asked me how it went, and the first thing that came out of my mouth was “I want to take karate.” She enrolled me the next day. It definitely helped with confidence, but high school was a scary time for me, and it really toughened me up. As rough as it was, I’m thankful for that time, and the street smarts gained during those years have most certainly come in handy throughout my adulthood.

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