Govinda Kai was born Russell Paul Yamaguchi in the San Francisco Bay Area in the summer of 1959. His parents were the children of Japanese immigrants who were from the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. Govindaʼs mother was an elementary school teacher with degrees from the University of California at Berkeley and the College of Arts and crafts in Oakland. Govindaʼs father was a high school mathematics teacher and an Aikido instructor who earned his degree from Earlham College in Indiana.
Dark Family History
Both Govindaʼs parents and grandparents were held in “relocation camps” during World War II in the 1940ʼs. During this dark period of American history, those of Japanese descent, whether they were American citizens or not, were incarcerated for about three years. Govindaʼs mother was a child of eight and his father was a teenager when they were relocated. It was truly a difficult time for their families as it was for all who were imprisoned. Most of those imprisoned were either very embittered by the experience or driven intensely to prove their loyalty to America.
A Child of the 60ʼs
Govinda grew up in the San Francisco Bay area during the 60ʼs and 70ʼs and was strongly influenced by the chaos and unrest of the time. Those were times of major political, economic and cultural change and it was reflected in the music, arts, social and technological revolutions. It was a time when there were major battles going on, particularly for racial, women and sexual rights. Govinda was strongly influenced by these movements and by the massive changes that were taking place.
Son of an Aikido Sensei
Govindaʼs father, Edward Yamaguchi, was an Aikido sensei who received his training directly from the great master, Ueshiba or OʼSensei. Govinda and his younger brother (Tazuo, 7 years younger) and sister (Yukiko, 2 years younger) spent part of their childhood living in Kobubunji, Tokyo along with their parents so that their father could practice at the world headquarters in Shinjuku. Govindaʼs father was a deeply spiritual man, and his values and beliefs strongly influenced Govinda.
Early Exposure to Death
His father died suddenly at the age of 49 due to complications from cancer. Govinda was only 16 years old. The early exposure to death intensified Govinda’s inquiry into spiritual and philosophical matters. Govinda took his first yoga class at 19 years old at a local college by a martial arts teacher who was also an Iyengar Yoga instructor.
Blessed by a Guru
Also at the age of 19, Govinda encountered a very powerful, spiritual man at an ashram. Introduced by one of his teachers, Govinda met Swami Muktananda, the guru and leader of the Siddha Yoga movement and whose ashram Govinda was visiting. The experience in meeting this man was very powerful and life changing. Never again would there be any doubt to the power of yoga. Govinda felt his heart, mind, body and spirit touched in a way that was deeply real. He knew that his life would never be the same again. It has been through his connection and involvement with Siddha Yoga that much of Govinda’s devotional aspects of the practice, such as chanting, selfless service and philosophy, were learned and cultivated.
Nature As a Teacher
After high school, Govinda spent large periods of time backpacking and camping. The time spent in the wilderness of California, Oregon, Idaho and Washington had a strong influence on the way Govinda experienced the world. There was a beauty, balance and power in the wilderness that acted as a teacher about life. This strong connection to nature inspired Govinda to pursue an education in Biology and Natural History at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The main question Govinda asked himself was, “How can we bring the same beauty, purity and balance that exist in the wilderness into our everyday lives?” Once again, it was clear that there was something missing in our modern culture that could only be addressed by deep ecology, by the understanding of deeply spiritual matters.
A Great Tibetan Teacher
While attending University of California, Santa Cruz, Govinda had the great fortune to meet one of the more prominent spiritual teachers of our time, Sogyal Rinpoche. The young Tibetan lama had recently come to America after completing his Western education at Cambridge University in England. For the next few years, Govinda studied meditation and Tibetan Buddhism with direct instruction from Rinpoche while attending numerous retreats and intensives. This very special time deepened Govindaʼs thirst for the mysteries of the spirit immensely.
A Time for Business
After leaving University of California, Santa Cruz, Govinda thought he would take monastic vows and enter a life of spiritual solitude and reflection. However, his teacher, Sogyal Rinpoche, encouraged the importance of him to “be in the world”. Following his teacherʼs instructions, Govinda moved back to the San Francisco Bay area and pursued a career in real estate. Within a few short years, Govinda started his own company and for the next 12 years built up his own business. This time in his life was valuable for learning about the strengths and weaknesses, the joys and challenges of living a worldly life.
The Light of Yoga Grows Stronger
While the light of yoga still burned in Govindaʼs heart, the daily practice of yoga took a less prominent role during the years of building his real estate business. Naturally, the act of putting most of his attention into material and worldly matters took its toll on Govindaʼs spiritual life. He began to feel an emptiness and dullness within his heart and spirit. It was during this time, in the early 90ʼs, that Govinda discovered the practice of Ashtanga Yoga. This particular style of yoga practice immediately took root in Govindaʼs heart. Ashtanga Yoga had an intensity and vitality that stirred deep feelings of passion and inspiration. He met and studied with a few influential teachers, including Tim Miller, Richard Freeman, John Smith, Eddie Modestini and Nicki Doane. All of these strong and wonderful teachers encouraged Govinda to travel to Mysore, India and practice with the guru of Ashtanga Yoga, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.
First Trip to Mysore
In 1995, Govinda made his first trip to Mysore, India to study with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. The trip was especially momentous as it was also the grand celebration of Gurujiʼs 80th birthday. In India, oneʼs 80th birthday is particularly auspicious. A large gathering and celebration was planned with Gurujiʼs oldest and dearest students coming from all over the world. The chance to meet and to practice with the worldʼs most respected Ashtanga teachers (including Tim Miller, Richard Freeman and countless others) made a particularly lasting impression on Govinda. His first trip lasted about three months and was one of the most powerful experiences in Govindaʼs life. The power and depth of the practice intensified during this time, which resulted in some very deep and lasting changes on a physical, mental and spiritual level. The experience was a kind of a “homecoming,” a chance to drop down deeper into his true self more than before. Govinda knew that his life would never be the same. Since that most memorable visit to Mysore, Govinda has returned nearly every year since then. Indeed, he considers Mysore his second home.
Major Life Changes
￼￼After returning to America following his first trip to India, Govinda felt everything had changed. He knew that he could no longer work in business the way he did before. He knew he needed to make many significant changes. The first objective was to gain complete freedom from working in real estate. In order to do so, he wanted to save as much money as possible and in as short of a time as possible. He immediately moved out of his apartment and began living out of the back of his pickup truck. One might think that this would be a very difficult way to live, but in fact, Govinda found the life of not being tied to any one place as very liberating and he was able to save significantly in the process. After two years of living like a nomad, he saved enough money to leave for India and not return for a few years. Having the freedom to travel wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted and to practice as deeply and as regularly as his heart desired was a true dream come true. Govinda discovered a kind of happiness and freedom he never imagined could be real.
Into the Heart of the Big City
In 1999, Govinda moved to New York City. Little did he know just how powerful an experience it would be to live in this great metropolis. He immediately began working at Jivamukti Yoga School under the direction of Sharon Gannon and David Life. The quality of the students and the atmosphere of this large and well known yoga studio was a wonderful place to teach and learn about other aspects of the practice that Govinda had not been exposed to. There were regular visiting teachers and kirtans (devotional chanting). It was a great opportunity to teach intimately with a very dedicated group of students. The energy of the city and the community of yoga students was a great atmosphere to learn about the practice and life itself.
September 11, 2011
Just as Govinda was completing his time at Jivamukti, there arrived one of the most significant days in the history of America and of the world. During one of Gurujiʼs visits to New York City, two hijacked passenger jets crashed into the World Trade Center Towers. The resulting chaos and trauma would change thousands and perhaps millions of lives forever. Just being in New York City during this time was an immense lesson in the fragility and preciousness of life. The disaster interrupted the nornal day-to-day workings of many peopleʼs lives in a way that rarely happens. Certainly something happened to the soul of the city and of America that would never be the same. It was a very special process to watch Guruji deal with students and the situation. The immense amount of compassion, strength, sensitivity and love that Guruji expressed during this time was a true testament to the real power of yoga practice. The lessons that Govinda learned during this time were invaluable to his development, both as a teacher and as a human being.
Working with Celebrities
During his time in New York City, Govinda had the opportunity to work with numerous celebrities and high profile individuals. He spent significant time teaching private sessions to Christy Turlington and Sting and his wife, Trudie. Less time was spent with Tobey Maguire, Gwyneth Paltrow and other high profile clients. Teaching yoga to celebrities afforded Govinda a chance to meet and get to know people living extraordinary lives under extraordinary circumstances. To be able to know and observe people like this gave Govinda many insights into the psychology and inner workings of culture, society, fame and the human condition that would have otherwise been difficult to see from any other perspective.
Great changes are sweeping our world right now. Many beliefs and institutions that we took for granted as being the foundations of our society are either crumbling or transforming entirely into something else. This is most certainly an incredibly challenging and exciting time to be alive.
This phenomenon we call yoga is both a driver of this change and a tool that helps us to cope with the change that is happening. Let us join together more than we ever have to encourage and to inspire each other to seek out the highest expression of ourselves and of this life. Now, more than ever, is the time to gather to discuss, to debate, to practice, to sing, to dance, to cry and to laugh. Let us explore the great tradition and practice of yoga together in ways and with a level of passion and enthusiasm that we have never given before.