Sarah Dawson interviews: Yoga guru and peace activist, David Sye

First rights feature published in Spirit and Destiny magazine, August 2013. For syndication requests, please contact Sarah on email:
david sye true life cover“I believe that the world can be saved by yoga.”

As the son of the late legendary 1960s singer Frankie Vaughan, yoga elder and Yogabeats creator, David Sye, spent his childhood travelling the globe immersed in a razzle dazzle show-biz lifestyle. He tells Sarah Dawson his story from life-threatening illness, to yoga in the war zone and resolving conflict from Brixton to the West Bank.
“Each morning after my cup of coffee I roll out my yoga mat, crank up my stereo and stretch, move, and flow to funky rhythms. If someone had told me when I was younger that I’d teach yoga to Serbian soldiers in a war zone, demonstrate to drug-addicted street kids that yoga is a better, more natural form of “high”, or bring Palestinians and Israelis together in No Man’s Land for a massive Yogabeats party, I’d have thought they were joking, but here is how it happened.
I was born in London into a Russian Jewish family, and my early years were a whirlwind of planes, coaches, cars, and fancy hotels as my father, the late artist/performer, Frankie Vaughan, performed at variety shows around the UK and abroad. When my family and I weren’t on the road our home was teeming with celebrities, I met some fascinating and funny people, Morcambe and Wise, Tom Jones, and actors like Sean Connery and Roger Moore.
Despite living an extraordinary and theatrical lifestyle my father was a great leveller, a real master to me. I recall sitting on the banks of a river while he discussed trout fishing with world renowned brain surgeons and celebrities. One day he explained that while some people appear rich and successful on the outside they are often empty on the inside, and this made me think about what true happiness really means.
At 18 I went to university to study social anthropology and fell head over heels in love with a Jewish girl. I craved social and emotional security so we got married and soon after we had a baby girl, but we were too young to deal with it and our relationship broke down.
I left university to find a job and look after our little girl, but the stress nearly killed me and I became seriously ill. I developed ulcerated colitis and tumors in my gut, which went into spasm through stress. At hospital the doctors talked about an intestinal bypass, a huge and risky operation to remove part of my bowels, and needing to wear a colostomy bag.
Desperate to try some alternative healing some friends mentioned Tibetan Yoga, an ancient ritual involving movement, breath, meditation and positive thinking, practised by Tibetan Lamas to increase lifespan and wellbeing and introduced to the West by a retired Army officer in the 1930s.
As well as balancing the body’s psychic energy systems (the chakras) it was deemed excellent therapy for the digestive and nervous systems, so I went away and learnt the Five Tibetan Rites and after eight weeks the attacks had stopped, and I felt full of energy. I returned to the hospital for a full body scan and the doctors couldn’t believe it, the tumours had disappeared. The stress of being a single dad had made me ill, but I was grateful for the experience because it had unlocked the door to self-discovery, and to yoga.
I decided to train as a yoga teacher, alongside great masters including Iyengar, then my guru, the late Clara Buck, a friend of Krishnamacharya, one of the most renowned yoga teachers of the last century. I gained insight and access to a therapy [yoga] that transcends life times and creates new levels of health on a cellular level (I believed my body was renewed through yoga as my colon condition completely disappeared). I started teaching but in the late eighties yoga wasn’t very popular so I took different jobs – DJ, chef, then restaurant manager in a popular London vegetarian restaurant.
In the war zone
In 1990 I was offered a job as a radio interviewer at a non-political station in Belgrade (I had previously done broadcast work for the BBC overseas service), run by a business man and international journalists. It was well paid, but as the war had already broken out I flatly turned it down.
That night I meditated on whether I’d made the right decision and for reasons I couldn’t explain I felt it was my karma to go. The next day I took the last non-restricted plane from London into the danger zone and when I arrived I couldn’t believe the devastation. Buildings were being blown up, and soldiers were returning from the front line in a state of confusion and disillusion.
Each morning I did my yoga practise to escape the devastation, I drew on the techniques I had learned from my masters and despite what was going on around me nothing touched me, and I felt great.
However, one day I walked out of the station and a bullet literally skimmed my face. Every day I was so close to death that I was acutely aware of being alive, of surviving and living right on the edge. I felt extremely lucky, and I’ve never lost this sense of the miracle of being alive.
Then the station was bombed, my passport stolen and I was stuck in a land of desolation where I went hungry and dodged bullets. As the sounds of war became louder I cranked up the volume on my stereo and performed my asanas (movements) to really loud Cuban hip hop and rap to override the sounds of gunfire. Here, against the backdrop of war, the concept of Yogabeats was born.
Through yoga I wanted to help others transform the misery of war into the calm acceptance that I experienced from my practise, and one day the Serbian army saw me doing handstands on the grass, and asked to join in. Thus began an exchange – I taught members of the Serbian army yoga poses like headstands and backbends to the sound of hip hop and break beats, and in return they gave me food.
I made a pledge there and then that if I got out of the war zone alive I’d devote my life to teaching yoga and helping to create peace in communities of conflict. My mother, who I hadn’t seen since before the war, located me and managed to get the documents I needed in order to leave. After five long years, at the end of 1995, I went back to London.
When I returned I couldn’t believe how much food was in the supermarkets, and it was a cultural shock. In Yugoslavia there was an external war, but here in London there was an internal war taking place, people were running from their lives, finding solace in drink, drugs and shopping. I wanted them to realise that abundance is not about a fancy car, or high salary, but about the joy and reverence of being alive, and the love you can share with people, because I had seen that in one second it can all end.
The bad boy of yoga
While I was away, yoga had become very fashionable so I started teaching classes in my new Yogabeats style with the emphasis on fun, not austerity. I was quickly nicknamed ‘the bad boy of yoga’ by the yoga authorities who believed my radical approach was destroying 5,000 years of classical teachings. I don’t think my tattoo covered arms and torso helped, but all I was doing was adapting and reacting to the circumstances in the Bosnian war.
After a while I wanted to branch out from mainstream yoga and help people in vulnerable communities. In the sixties my father tackled street crime (he built a community centre at the Easterhouse estate in Glasgow, an extremely deprived area), and I was drawn to teaching young people who were totally out of it on drugs, and hooked into a life of crime. It was risky but I’ve been in risky places before and thrived.
I launched the 409 project, working with street kids in Brixton, and the Kids Company, teaching yoga to asbo youths. I knew that to get and keep their attention I had to be very accessible, so I acted the fool, I didn’t care what they thought about me, and I swore to demonstrate how yoga can give a more natural (and legal!) high by changing the body’s chemicals. The kids tried some the moves, and were blown away.
I don’t believe in standing up and preaching about yoga. I turn up the volume and my students see me having a great time and they want to experience it too. I want the young people to realise their life’s potential, and I believe yoga can help them do this.
No Man’s Land
I became more and more committed to teaching yoga for social change and decided I wanted to take my yoga into Israel, because if I could help bring peace there, it can happen anywhere as this is the oldest war there is. In 2004 I was invited to teach at a festival in Israel then went into Jericho to teach Yogabeats to Palestinian women. We were on the lawns in front of the mosque, the women dressed in traditional clothing, and there was my Egyptian break beats blaring out and the call for prayer in the background. It was an astonishing experience.
One of the biggest highlights of my life was bringing together both Palestinian and Israeli women for a Yogabeats class in 2006. At an Israeli teaching convention I explained how I believed that yoga brings about peace and transformation, and they invited me to teach a yoga session with both Israeli and Palestinians.
Of course I rose to the challenge. Various Israeli foundations, like the Peres Peace Foundation, helped arrange passes for nearly 20 Palestinian women to come across the border and meet with their counterparts in a hotel. Beforehand, the Israeli women were terrified, but when the Palestinian women arrived, they came together and hugged and sobbed, it was a tremendously powerful experience.
We didn’t need a single politician or member of the UN to be present, these women from two conflicting sides met on a human level, and in peace. We did Yogabeats, their egos were removed, they became humble and it gave them the chance to come together, say sorry and make amends. This is what I consider the ‘real’ yoga. Afterwards, we had the most amazing party.
I repeated the experience again last year in No Man’s Land between Israel and the West Bank. In June this year I’ll be going on a tour of the West Bank to some of the worst affected areas, teaching Yogabeats for the Palestinians living in devastation. The work I’m doing is growing bigger and bigger. In October I’ll be taking some teachers and filmmakers to bring the Palestinians and Israeli’s together again. We’ll film a massive video, and have another Yogabeats party.
I know the work I’m doing is risky, but I’ve been close to death so many times and I have a great appreciation of my body and the preciousness of being alive. I follow what my yoga gurus taught me, I surrender, let go and live life, enjoying the ride as long as it lasts. To me yoga is not about the positions, it’s about liking myself, and living life with joy. I’ve found that when I take a risk I come out the other side and find love and joy.
I’ve never been interested in the austerity or seriousness of yoga, a few years ago I launched Chocolate Yogabeats, where students savour high quality cocoa during the session to enhance inner joy, I love drinking coffee, enjoy retail therapy and I eat what I like. I don’t believe we need any more niche yoga, all I’m interested in is proving that peace is possible, whether its drugs, crime, or war, transformation can be made through yoga.
David’s not-for-profit international conflict in the community work is supported by his Holiness the Dalai Lama and other political leaders. Visit to find out more.

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