Tom Quinn is transmitting super powers. Not the mutant skills of hackneyed Hollywood stories drawn from old Marvel comic books. No, these are more the special abilities conveyed in epic Indian books of poetry like The Ramayana, the kind of capabilities fostered by ancient spiritual practices. “Hanuman is a Hindu deity, a Varana or a monkey-like humanoid,” Tom explains at the start of his Level 1-2 class at his Yogaview Lincoln Park studio, one of three in the Chicago area, including Wilmette and Wicker Park. “Devoted to Rama, he was sent to find a healing herb, but when he’s unable to locate it exactly, he lifts up the entire mountain where it grows and delivers that instead.” This is just one of several colorful stories, anecdotes and poems Tom Quinn uses in the singular teaching style of one of the Chicago area’s most learned, yet refreshingly laid-back, yoga teachers.
From rugby to reverse warrior
Referencing a Hindu symbol of physical strength is opportune and to the point, considering Tom is 6’ 4” and 240 lbs. It is no surprise then that athleticism played a role in his initial pursuit of yoga. Quinn recalls “during college at The University of Illinois I played rugby and was selected to the Junior National Team. After moving to Chicago, I was introduced to yoga by taking Gabriel Halpern’s Into to Yoga course. Initially, I found this statis form of Iyengar Yoga with a lot of stretching really challenging. But Gabriel also turned me on to a lot of cool philosophy, feeding my interest in Eastern spiritual practices – Hinduism, Buddhism, others forms of meditation and liberation practices. It all resonated, and a seed was planted.
“Fast forward a few years later, and a sabbatical had me traveling around the world, visiting Tibet and India, far-away places that blew my mind, bringing about a major shift. When I went back to rugby, I was on tour in England, and on the first play, the kickoff, I tackled someone and my whole side just went dead. As I was lying there, I thought, ‘Yoga or rugby? Maybe it’s time to make the switch.'”
Retiring from rugby that season, Tom soon after seriously pursued yoga with a return trip to India. Eventually, he did a six-month study in Mysore under esteemed teacher Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, direct student of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, developer of Ashtanga Yoga, one of the most influential styles of practice today. Returning to the states, his learning continued with top American teachers like Boulder, Colorado-based Richard Freeman and Encinitas, California’s Tim Miller, credited with being the first to bring Ashtanga Vinyasa to the States.
Family Comes First
After traveling between the U.S. and India for a few years, the birth of son Galen inspired a return to Chicago. Along with his impassioned commitment to learning and teaching, being a father to Galen, age 14, and daughters Soleia and Serena, 11 and 5 respectively, guides Tom’s life as a “householder” (in Buddhism, a “householder” is used synonymously for a “layperson,” in contrast to a Buddhist monastic, or one who has “abandoned home”). Quinn shares that “after the birth of my first son I could have gone back to working in the business world, but I chose to keep teaching, which was really what I loved. Now, I’m supporting myself teaching yoga, raising kids and balancing all that with the responsibilities of running a business. It’s a blessing; it’s just a different kind of dharma as to my duties in this life. I actually think its more realistic in today’s world, when you consider where yoga came from and where its going; starting outside the boundaries of normal society and now becoming more mainstream. So here I am following a similar arc, if you will, as a householder, a father, a teacher and a businessman, and I really have to walk the talk. So yeah, it’s a full plate and we have a busy house.” A great boon is Tom’s wife Jessica, also a yoga teacher and massage therapist.
On death and spiritual liberation
Offering his many perspectives on teaching, learning and life, I asked Tom about death. “Unfortunately, I had to deal with loss first hand this year with the passing of my own father. Obviously it’s a powerful metaphor for the practice of yoga, or any spiritual practice, to face our ultimate common denominator, impermanence. Facing and living with that paradox, that mystery, allows us to live a richer, fuller life in the present moment. To me that’s what it’s all about. I think there’s that line that we work with, that razor’s edge, whether it’s meditation or yoga or the indigenous traditions (harkening to his exploration of other shamanic practices, working with Native American tribes in South Dakota and indigenous traditions in South America). “We work to balance on that edge, to understand what it means to be embracing everything fully and letting go at the same time. To me, that’s the practice.”
Dropping into pigeon pose and poetry
Life, death and silence all play parts in Tom’s yogic philosophy, as does right speech and even poetry. “I see the practice and poetry going together, this aspect of seeing things from a different angle. I would even consider Mary Oliver to be more my guru than anyone else.” Mary Oliver is the American poet known for her clear, poignant observations of the natural world, words that combine dark introspection with joyous release. “She’s an enlightened being offering simple, elegant, powerful perspectives on what it means to be alive. And I’m always blessed to be able to convey that.” At the close of class, this bigger perspective on life, death and spiritual practice has him offering up the sweet ending to Oliver’s “Peonies” as bodies surrender in corpse pose all around.
Do you love this world? Do you cherish your humble and silky life? Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?
Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden, and softly, and exclaiming of their dearness, fill your arms with the white and pink flowers, with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling, their eagerness to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are nothing, forever?
Paul Sarkes Tootalian is a writer, meditation teacher, shamanic practitioner and amateur herpetologist. Paul is often on the hunt for Cook County’s only poisonous reptile, the elusive Eastern Massasauga. When he isn’t busy unfolding rattlesnakes, he leads workshops and ceremonies that guide people in cultivating subjective states of compassion and love based on insight, then helps them translate that love into actions in the real world. Drawing his teachings from his own studies with the mighty meditation teacher Shinzen Young, Paul has worked with indigenous medicine people from the American Plains to the mountains of Northern Vietnam. He writes about it at www.thespiraljournal.com.