Indians Don’t Need to Be Taught Yoga, They Live Yoga: Claire Diab, the first Yoga Teacher of the US Military

Indians Don’t Need to Be Taught Yoga, They Live Yoga: Claire Diab, the first Yoga Teacher of the US Military

Claire Diab’s introduction to Yoga began in the 1970s not in a Yoga retreat or ashram but at the most unlikely of Yoga spots - the Short Hills Mall in New Jersey. Ten years old, she followed her mother to her four week yoga class, and sat at the back colouring. When she went to college, her mother gave her the book which was the foundation of the class - Get in touch with yourself through Yoga by Tillie Mia, the lessons of which have stayed with her throughout her life.

Gentle speaking Claire is the founder of The American Yoga Academy, a Yoga Teacher Training School headquartered in Summit, New Jersey and has designed the Yoga programme for US Naval Seals. She also trained fire fighters in New York and New Jersey in Yoga, after September 11, 2001 when the world watched in horror the attacks on the World Trade Center.

The US Navy picks its Seals through one of the most rigorous of selection and training programmes in the world. Lieutenant Commander Mike H, the executive officer of Seal Team 10 says, Today, our primary weapons systems are our people’s heads. You want to excel in all the physical areas, but the physical is just a prerequisite to be a SEAL. Mental weakness is what actually screens you out”.  

And yet, Clair has said earlier “they (the Seals) often need more flexibility and balance”, due to the stress of prolonged deployment, grief, guilt and fear inherently involved in combat and the trauma of war zones.

She was asked to teach Yoga at San Diego at the Naval Training Center in the early 90s, at the time of Desert Storm. She taught yoga for two years to the marines and the Navy Seals at their fitness center. “It was a beautiful experience. I was possibly the first person to bring Yoga into the Navy. A lot of it was about stress management, focus, and dealing with PTSD that some maybe experiencing.”

While she is no longer associated with the military, there are personnel, both in active service and post-retirement who reach out to her. “There is research now which shows that yoga, the meditative aspect of it, the breathing, staying in the present can actually alleviate trauma and stress syndromes.”

As to why Claire was handpicked to train seals and is sought after for her teacher training programme is probably because her programme encompasses the whole philosophy of yoga. “There may be teachers who have been teaching for 15 years or more and taken a 4-5 year teacher training programme but they might not necessarily know how to be a teacher who is professional, safe, flexible, able to offer variations.”

The Yoga Academy, she says, welcomes everyone whether you have been practicing for many years or are new to the experience. “I have had a teacher training without an arm. We have had teachers training who have physical limitations and they have had to sit in a chair, and they have learnt to teach from a chair and also to teach chair yoga. You can teach yoga flow without demonstrating if you have the proper words and the awareness of all students."

Rigour in teacher training has been a point of departure between schools.  B K Iyengar's programme, the first to come to the United States, was of seven years duration and in the UK the programme is usually of four years. But Claire has different views and her teacher training is between six months to one year. “I can’t believe we need this much time. We would not have had so much Yoga if we had to study for so many years before teaching. I think it is important to get this beautiful way of connecting body, mind and soul, the philosophy, the meditation, the asanas, sooner than the many years it takes otherwise.”

She says that she has seen great success in her programmes, emphasising that she does not teach people to “do headstands or arm balance or arm stands. Maybe you would need more time with the more advanced asanas. My training is more about a beautiful Vinyasa flow and really connecting people with their breath and their body. I am big on offering variations.”

I was surprised (remember though this was 25 years ago) that there were no Yoga studios in Bombay. I realised that they (Indians) live yoga - Claire  Diab

Claire says she can teach a class of 400 people, which she has done travelling with Dr Deepak Chopra, world renowned author. She would do yoga and meditation at the seminars which he would be leading. She created the yoga programme along with Dr Deepak Chopra and Dr David Simon at the Chopra Center for Well Being. She helped the Seven Spiritual Laws of Yoga Programme. She was also reponsible for their Yoga and Ayurved Teacher training programmes. “Deepak Chopra  from nearly 27 years ago was my first teacher who taught me the deeper meaning of Yoga, and David Simon as well.”

She visited India with him for a seminar called “Seduction of Spirit’. She was in Goa for two consecutive years for 12 days at a time, over 25 years ago. “I loved Goa. Goa is to India what San Diego or California is to the United States. I loved the Indan food, and the food there with the Portuguese influence.”

She then went to Bombay as her father had grown up in Bombay, he was of Middle-Eastern/Turkish descent. She went to meet some of his family friends and where her father grew up. “I stayed in their apartment with them. And I was surprised (remember though this was 25 years ago) that there were no Yoga studios in Bombay. I realised that they (Indians) live yoga. They do Yoga in school while growing up, so Yoga studios were not really popular.”

When she was at the Ayurveda center in Goa, there were Yoga classes, but “it wasn’t like the Yoga Studios in the United States.” Claire says the teachers there thought Americans were a little ‘funny’ because they couldn’t do Yoga without their mats, and yoga bag and blocks. “They said they do yoga anywhere - in the jungle, on the beach in their living rooms, and they didn’t need a mat of blocks and straps.”

Asked if Yoga in the United States had moved away from its altruistic roots, Claire says “I think for a while they had got too commercial. But if we have to show it to be a cool thing to do, if that is how we have to get people to Yoga, that’s okay. Because a lot of movie stars - Demi Moore, Sting, the musician took to Yoga and that made Yoga more popular.”

She says that in 2020 and for the past five years or so she has seen Yoga teachers keeping the philosophy and the eight limbs of Yoga and weaving the yamas and niyamas into it. “I think it is coming back.”

One of the key methods that Claire employs while teaching asanas and training students, is to teach the pose, name the pose, remind them to breathe and only then tell them the benefits. “Yoga means union, put simply. It means being in union with our bodies and understanding that this is not just a stretch class. It is what is happening inside the body - the strengthening, to lengthening, the nourishing, the organs, the glands, and creating space in the body.”

When CSP asked Claire whether she refers to India in her training, pat comes the response. “Absolutely. I honour and respect this beautiful philosophy of Yoga that originated in India and I always connect it to India, honouring India, honouring the beautiful Sanskrit words and the beautiful philosophy of Yoga that is taught and lived in India. It is so much more than an asana.”

(Video of the interview: