Vinnie Marino is one of the most popular yoga teachers in Los Angeles, known for making his students sweat to the tune of a rockin' playlist, all in good fun.
Devoid of spiritual arrogance, Vinnie's Vinyasa classes are brutal in the best way possible and the perfect combination of East-meets-West philosophy, according to celebs like Robert Downey Jr. and David Duchovny.
But before he found this path, he battled drugs since the age of 13. By 26, Vinnie was shooting cocaine and heroin, before he wound up in rehab. He moved to Los Angeles in the 90s, where he befriended Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane, got clean for good and rediscovered yoga.
To help maintain his sobriety, Vinnie devotes himself to a regular meditation regimen and devours Buddhist literature.
Vinnie recently led a series of workshops at YogaWorks in NYC, and MindBodyGreen caught up with him to talk about his journey from addiction to yoga king.
MBG: Do you feel that yoga that may have saved you from addiction?
VM: It was a combination of a lot of things. For me, it was really about getting clean and sober in meetings, and going to rehab. Yoga added to my recovery a lot. In my experience, I’ve seen people find a support group first to stop the drug use, and then improve their lives with yoga.
When did you start using drugs?
I was an early teenager in the 70s and my brother was much older than me, so I got exposed to hippie culture. But I also got into yoga as a teenager when I was using drugs and then I drifted way off into the drug part. There was a yoga instructor at that time, Lilias Folan, who was on television and I would do her show. She did half-hour Sun Salutations, and I was doing that as well as getting high.
Do you think that yoga enhanced your experience of getting high?
It was a searching. I think that people who search with drugs are looking for wholeness, completion, a slowing down of anxiety and feeling comfortable in their own skin. Without knowing all that stuff at the time, I think it was just part of the searching, whether it was with psychedelics or with yoga.
Do you think that your drug addiction was a necessary part of your life's path?
Everything in our lives has culminated to bring us to the point of where we are right now, whatever our past history is, whatever has drawn us right to this moment. There's a Buddhist philosophy that goes, “It is what it is — this is my history, this is my present, this is my past.”
I don’t have regrets about anything in my life.
When you finally became a yoga teacher, Grace Slick paid for your teacher training?
This is part of the magic in my life. Grace was one of my idols. Through a chance of coincidences, we became really close friends. For a while I was working for her as a massage therapist, and the a little bit as her personal assistant. I lived in her mansion on the weekends.
When I didn’t know what I wanted to do anymore, Grace told me my body was designed for yoga. I wasn't able to afford the training, so she said she would pay for it. She was very generous and very kind; we were almost like family. Her success and fire in life inspired me. I would say, “Well, I can’t teach yoga.” And she would say, “Why not? I would love to take a yoga class with you — you’re a real guy from New York." She convinced me that I could do it.
You said that you resisted teaching yoga for a long time — did you not think you would be a good teacher?
I was a bit worried how I would make a living from it, but it was more, “How am I going to do this? Will anyone listen to me? Do I have anything to say?” All of this was just fear.
But I think that’s a sign of a good teacher and a good person. I think you want some humility. It pushed me to keep practicing and studying.
That’s probably what Grace Slick meant when she said you don’t have any spiritual arrogance.
Grace is a down-to-earth, off-the-cuff broad. Coming from New York, I’m a little like that as well. She didn’t like the new age-y, airy-fairy stuff, which is funny because she comes from such a psychedelic era. She's spiritual in her own way.
Could you describe your first teaching experience?
Shock and terror. But there's fear and joy in excitement. I know at the beginning I was nervous. I had to talk myself down and take a class one pose at a time. I just had to be in the moment. 17 years later, it’s still the same way, but now the moment is just easier to be in.
What are your classes like and what do you think keeps your students coming back for more?
I grew up at YogaWorks and studied with Iyengar teachers in the 90s. I like the combination of flow with basic sequencing and putting poses together for a reason. It’s not just music and flow, it’s systematic. You’re going to get a physical release, but it’s the connection of movement and breath in a smart way that has a meditative effect on the body. All that stuff comes up as you practice.
I think people keep coming back because they feel great. Yoga is very popular in Los Angeles, and the music that I use speaks to a certain crowd of people. When I play Jefferson Airplane in my class, I tell the young people that this is what their parents listened to.
Why do you think that you became known as the “unlikely yoga king of LA”?
To me, that’s so ridiculous. That’s from a New York Times article. Maybe the author said that because of my New York, drug addict-in-recovery, no nonsense, regular guy-kind of vibe. I don’t think of myself as the king of Los Angeles yoga.
People go through phases of being popular in yoga. Maybe she thought “unlikely” because she had another idea of what a yoga teacher was, that they don’t come from this rock n’ roll, drug addict past. To me, it’s so hysterical. My friends laugh at that.
And what makes you a great teacher?
I don’t think of myself as a great teacher. I just think of myself as someone who is trying to teach a good yoga class, keep people safe, let them have a good experience, and go on with their day.
In terms of your own yoga practice, how do you keep things fresh for yourself?
I like trying different types of yoga and teachers. I went through many years of just doing strong Vinyasa flow, but as I’m getting older, my body doesn’t want to always do that anymore. I’m in my late 50’s! I really like Iyengar yoga these days because it helps my body and mind. To me, all of it is meditation. Just getting lost in a practice, whether I’m moving a little or a lot, is a form of moving meditation. When I do a great practice, I really feel like the best of me is there.
You’ve been teaching for 16 years. How have you seen the yoga industry change?
It's changed a lot. When I grew up in yoga, there wasn’t the frenzy of computer stuff. There wasn’t any way to promote yourself online, it was more word of mouth.
It’s very different now, but I don’t have that desire to promote myself constantly. I have a Facebook page, and I will read yoga stuff, but I never want to post pictures of me doing yoga. A few times a year I'll post to tell people I’m coming to New York to teach. But teachers who are 20-25 years younger than me, are all over the place with selfies to promote themselves. I’m old school, it’s not my thing.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.