Walking the Walk
Matthew DeRubertis is a musician and yoga teacher in Akron, Ohio. He is the owner of Conscious Yoga and teaches at Yoga Squared and Lifesource Yoga. Matthew teaches from experience and has a way of inviting and guiding you into your Self to find your own peace and truth. In preparing for this interview, he invited me to share lunch and coffee, spiced with cardamom – yum. Après yoga, seated / lounging in his pillow corner, incense burning, and gypsy jazz playing in the background, Matthew discussed his journey of yoga.
Best way to start—how did you find yoga?
“I think there was an initial exposure I had to yoga through friends and me having some interest being, like, ‘Oh, what is that thing?’ And I remember doing a Barron Baptist video in the living room of Walter’s house, my good friend, with some other guys one summer morning. It was like, ‘Oh, that was cool.’ But I didn’t really have any idea what was going on.
“In college, I started to get into eastern ideologies more from a band that I was playing in. The drum teacher started this group that played the music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra which is this crazy, Indian-influenced, fusion music.
“I was intrigued by the songs which were exploring all of these eastern, Hindu, philosophical concepts. There was symbolism in the music and it all seemed so cool. At the same time, I was taking a World Civilizations class on India, learning about this whole new world, and yoga was part of that too. I wasn’t practicing regularly, it was all kind of revealing itself to me. Then, I went to India to do an artist residency where I was learning Indian music and they hosted yoga classes. There was an instructor, the classes were held at five in the morning, and we’d practice on this big stone platform in the village. I remember feeling like it was something that I had done before. It seemed like a perfect fit for me. And, of course, doing it in India—that all felt so right.
“When I got home from that trip, life got chaotic. I decided to leave a seven-year relationship, I’d gotten very sick before leaving from India, I’d recently graduated, there were all these things about my life in total question. I was very confused about who I was and where my life was going. One of my good friends said, ‘Matthew, you need to come with me to this yoga class.’ And, so, I went. It was at Sacred Ground Yoga with Rick Arko. I have this scene—I remember being in that room, the way it smelled, how the lighting was, and hearing the teacher’s instructions—I had this feeling of total knowing that I was in the exact right place. That this practice, with this teacher, was going to show me my next direction of where my life was going, of how to face the things that I was dealing with internally.
“‘This is it. This is the guiding thing that I need to follow right now.’ So I started practicing there several times a week with my teacher, Rick. He’s a very traditional Hatha yogi. His teacher is a swami from India, of the Kripalu lineage. It was a very inward, very breath focused, meditative practice focusing on one’s own experience, processing everything going on inside you.
“Being in that space regularly, I started to realize that there was this whole tumultuous experience happening inside of me. All this inner conflict that I was holding all the time, that I just thought was normal. I thought a normal part of existing was having this turmoil inside me, but as I developed more awareness through that Hatha practice, the layers started to peel back. I started to see where all this was coming from, that I was creating my own bondage and suffering, and that through this practice I could evolve and grow out of that. I was very dedicated to practicing in that way because I wanted freedom. To me, it wasn’t about the body benefits very much, it was this pursuit of getting out of my own traps so, Rick was really the perfect teacher for me in that regard.”
Matthew completed his certification, a program which spanned nine months, with Sacred Ground Yoga. “That was a super transformative period. Every session we had, we went many layers deeper than I had ever gone before within myself. We studied and did a lot of work with Paramahansa’s Bhagavad Gita. It was this like this endless onion, peeling back, discovering deeper layers of being and discovering the possibility of getting free from this giant cosmic drama that we seem to all be so entrapped in.
“This lit a fire within me. Through the teacher training program, I found the prospect of, ‘I can get free from all this and still live in it.’ To find this state of being where I am not subject to all these traps of lower level mind and ego functions. I was driven to discover the deeper layers and at the same time, I was very impatient. Once I found that it was possible, I wanted to attain it right away, when tremendous work needs to happen.
“After training was done, I was teaching some classes for friends in the park throughout the summer, but I wasn’t really finding a studio that was congruent with the way I taught because it is anti-western yoga. Western yoga can be like glorified exercise. The inner component is so meaningful to me that I wanted to be able to teach that way, so I started my own class in January 2016. I would rent space at Pure Intentions on North Street. There were some limitations of the space, but I taught there for a year. It was a nice way of developing my teaching because I had freedom to do it on my own the way I wanted to. Then, Yoga Squared opened up at the end of 2016 and I started teaching there, then Lifesource in 2017.”
How would you define “yoga” in one sentence?
“Yoga is the practice of cultivating deeper self-awareness.”
To expand on that, he said, “I think yoga is so, so many things. The awareness component, to me, is the most important. No matter what the practice is: if it’s physical, if it’s breath oriented, if it’s meditative, if it’s dietary, ayurvedic, medicinal, whatever—if that self-observing component isn’t there, or that inward focus isn’t there, then it’s so easy for it to turn into something egoic. Especially an intense physical practice. Without the self-awareness component, it becomes glorification of the body.
“Ayurveda could even be the same thing. If one is on this pursuit to make their body this extremely healthy, fortified, temple of awesome, if they lose sight of why they’re doing that—to purify the vessel to hold greater awareness—it just becomes an egoic pursuit of building up something that is temporary.
“I carry the awareness component into all aspects of my life. Everything that I’m doing: relationships, my career, music, creativity, physical exercise, movement—carrying that component of being self-aware in everything and asking: “What is this experience trying to show me? What is there to learn? What blockage or blind spot is this highlighting? How can I open myself enough to learn from this experience?”
When I asked the question, “How would you describe your teaching style?” Matthew flipped the question on me to see if his teaching intentions were coming across.
At the time of the interview, I said, “It’s very thoughtful. Definitely focused on the breath and awareness—lots of guidance there. Simple…and strong, because it’s still challenging, but it’s simple.”
To expand on this—by simple, I mean focused and grounded. The postures are traditional, and the sequence always flows nicely which allows you to really tune in to the movement of the body and connect with the breath. This allows for an easier transition into a state of awareness and connection.
Matthew: “Simple and strong. I like that. Yeah, if there’s a goal that I have for people taking my class, I want to facilitate people having an experience that is outside of their normal state of mind. Through practices of breathing, slowing down, and really tuning into your present experience, people can come to see that, ‘Woah, there’s all this stuff going on.’ And, then, learn to step back from it a little bit, and by the end of the class find a different state of being.
“I think that’s so important for people to get that experience. There is so much stuff coming at us all the time, especially for people who are super busy, dealing with a lot of people. We carry all this crap with us that we’re getting from the outside world, all that energy, all that stuff, and when we don’t have a chance to rinse that out and step back from it, it just keeps accumulating. All this stuck energy. So I want to give people a break form that, then equip them [with skills] to experience life differently—to become aware of when they’re building stuff up and then learn how to release it, or prevent that from getting built up. When they come to a yoga class, they can really empty out and get totally into that different space that I like to go to.”
Where is that space?
“I refer to this a lot in my class—it’s the shift from mind-doing state, where we’re just in the business of everything we have to do and we’re thinking, thinking, thinking, we’re engaging in these delusive realities and just mulling shit over. You transition out of that and you get into more intuitive, heart-being space where you have this greater, deeper, felt sense of the present moment.
“Existing in your body, in this moment, right here. [When you’re in that space,] you’re much more open to what comes out of that open expanse of consciousness, you know, that creative void. Things just—the ideas just come, the intuitions just come, and you’re calm enough to hear it and process it. Whereas, in mind-thinking state, those things—intuitions—can still come, but it gets met with all that chatter. So I might have an intuition that I need to do a certain thing or make a certain change, but as soon as that comes in, I start throwing it into thought loops, and questioning it, and processing it. Whereas, when you’re in that really calm, being state and you get an intuition about something, you can just receive that message in a pure way. You can feel the knowing, rather than try to justify the knowing, or not even being sure.”
What’s your favorite part about teaching?
“That is my favorite part of teaching—facilitating that experience for people. Seeing, feeling people’s shift from when they got there to when they leave. There’s this thing I see in people somewhat frequently—especially people who haven’t taken my class before—where class is over, and they say, “Wow, that was nice.” It kind of hits them over the head a little bit, but not in an aggressive way—it’s like being tucked in.
“[Teaching] keeps me consistently connected with that space for myself too, because I don’t always get that feeling in my personal practice. Sometimes it’s a little more invasive to find that total stillness and presence when I’m practicing on my own because there’s things to do and I’m looking at my to-do list on the whiteboard. I, typically, always leave a class that I teach feeling really connected to the practice, and to other people, and I like consistently reaffirming that connection for myself. Especially when I’m feeling a little disconnected from my practice, then teaching usually always brings me back to it.”
How would you encourage new students to stay motivated? Someone new to yoga.
“Keep showing up.”
“I think it depends on what kind of challenges someone is facing. I feel like my experience is kind of different than the standard American yogi because a lot of people do get into yoga through the very physical angle. I hear students talk about, ‘Oh I really want to get this arm balance and I can’t get it.’ The challenges in yoga, for me, were never like that because I was never really doing things that were that physically intense.
“The challenges for me were more so, like, ‘When I’m going to yoga, the difficulties of whatever I’m experiencing internally are really getting highlighted and it’s getting really intense.’ But I remember my teacher said, ‘80% of the work is just showing up.’ If you keep going back, if you keep showing up, you move through things. You move past and, eventually, figure out what it is that is keeping you stuck. Even if you’re in a practice for a while and not feeling like you’re growing or deepening, like you’re up against some kind of wall, the only way that that’s going to get broken through is if you keep practicing. It might require a change in setting, or a change in teacher, or a change in community. [There are] different practices to be explored. Keep showing up to practice is rule number one.”
What’s been a struggle for you in your personal practice?
“Staying consistent and having patience has been tough for me because I want to see results so fast. That was more of an issue in my younger years of practicing. I was in such inner pain and turmoil that I needed relief so badly that I had this tremendous expectation that I would do some yogic practice for one week and then, all of a sudden, everything would be better. I very quickly discovered that that wasn’t true.
“Staying consistent with a practice has been tough. And letting things unfold over time. I see changes happen really fast for some people. There’s been some friends in my life where their life circumstances seem to change so much—all of a sudden. Throughout years of practicing yoga, I’ve learned that change unfolds a little more slowly for me, in my life, and that I need to be patient for it. To make the small shifts when I can and just let things manifest rather than trying to force things into happening.”
Who inspires you?
“I’m really inspired by Ido Portal, the movement culture guy. For a number of reasons. To me, he kind of has some of that Buddha-like quality where what he teaches is so simple, but also very elusive. And he encourages anyone to not take anything he says as gospel truth, but to explore it, and learn it in a felt way for yourself. That’s a big one for me because I always had a hard time with religion growing up because I felt like I was being told to just take all these messages at face value and just believe them. That doesn’t work for me. I need to learn in an experiential way so that I can have that felt knowing. And that’s something the Buddha taught—learning through that felt-experience. Ido teaches the same way with movement practice.
Ido teaches: “Start moving to start changing your movement patterns and turn your awareness inward to see what you’re experiencing in your body—to find your limitations and blockages. I really respect his dedication. He’s lived his whole life in the total pursuit of learning about these vast cultures and movement traditions around the world. There’s a part of me that wants to exist like that. Kind of leave typical life and society behind and just completely dedicate myself to learning all of the traditions and practices that I’m into—getting them from the source. So I respect that.
He “Inspires me to never settle into what’s normal or comfortable, and to continue to push myself and expand. Always expand, never settle.”
“I think studying yoga philosophy was a gateway into understanding the broader context of human spirituality. I remember something my teacher talked about was what’s known as Dharma or Damma, it’s kind of similar. It’s in so many ancient religions, and it’s this idea of there being a simple set of universal truths that come through just observing the ways that the universe flows. And when you observe these principals of how to live in harmony with things and move with the flow of how the universe works, when you start to feel that and know that and live that way, then things just start to open for you and your experience opens.
“That’s a common thread that weaves many traditions together and people get so caught up in the differences between all these religious—the deities, and the practices, and all the shit that people fight wars over. Everyone is really kind of going after the same thing just described in different ways.
“Arriving at a felt understanding of that has allowed me to explore all spiritual traditions from around the world with a great deal of curiosity and interest. I do not think that yoga is the only way. Or that Tibetan Buddhism is the only way. Or Shintoism, or whatever. I think that kind of thinking is very dangerous and divisive—to think that only one path is the way. I’m just fascinated by all these different approaches and paths to liberation that humans have carved out. I love learning about all the different ways because you pick something up from all of them. I think that that understanding is largely developed by the way that I was taught yoga and that opened up a lot for me.”
Thank you for sharing about your journey.
Your insights are powerful, and your wisdom is clearly genuine.