How one man’s unconventional life journey led to him becoming a yoga teacher and running popular retreats on an idyllic Greek island.
With an eclectic background as a musician and dog trainer, Jon Garstang first turned to yoga in his last push to escape the destructive habits he had spent a lifetime practicing.
After his relationship of ten years broke down, he knew he had to find something that could help to bring him into the present and realign his focus. One thing led to another, and after a couple of years, he decided to enroll in a 200-hour yoga teacher training course at The House of Yoga in Putney, London.
The practice of yoga was to take him overseas and deep into the unknown. After a decade running a dog training business, he decided to follow his dreams and move to the Greek island of Rhodes to open and nurture the Rhodes Yoga Experience, a retreat and sanctuary focusing on helping people find freedom by emancipating themselves from their comfort zones. There he offers daily yoga classes, paddleboard yoga and a range of exciting activities such as cliff jumping and windsurfing, all while supporting local communities.
Jon is a creative and talented individual, his practice of yoga goes far beyond the mat and supports him throughout his life. His teaching and lifestyle choices reflect his steadfast morals and values that lay deeply ingrained in all that he does.
What did your life look like before yoga?
I grew up in an old cottage on the Somerset/Devon border in the UK. My youth consisted of cider, driving cars round fields, and blowing things up. As a distraction from all this, I discovered guitar and music.
After leaving school traveled in North America and New Zealand playing many gigs for my supper. When I finally returned home, I attended Royal Holloway, University of London and studied theatre.
I quickly bonded with a small group of people who would become my band, Wanderlust, and after three years of playing the London circuit and recording, I was ignominiously sacked for excessive drinking and drug misuse.
Upon fleeing back to the countryside to sort my head out, I started working as an apprentice at a dog training company. This was to be the start of a long career in dog training.
My new work led me back to London (for love what else!?) where I started a dog business, For Dogs’ Sake, which I ran for the next ten years.
I also spent three months in Lusaka, Zambia working at the Lusaka Animal Welfare Society as an advisor. I trained the dog handlers and established new routines for the animals to make it easier for them to be re-homed.
How did you discover yoga?
I discovered yoga at the end of a failing relationship. It was one that had played a part in my life for the best part of a decade. I was scrabbling around searching for any type of emotional glue that might bind us back together. A month before we broke up, a flyer came through my door offering yoga classes nearby for an introductory offer. I suggested to my girlfriend that we should go together. My attempt to try and recreate what we had lost. Sadly this never happened.
After we broke up I struggled to keep my mood stable, I became incredibly concerned about falling into the self-destructive behavior which had informed a large part of my history, so, I turned to yoga.
Do you remember your first yoga class?
Yes, and my first teacher was exactly what I thought a yogi would look like! At the front of the class stood an old, Indian man. He appeared to float around the room and I speculated that survived solely on vegetables and probably had around three hours of sleep a night.
A Polish lady at the front demonstrated sun salutations, and I remember how beautifully serene yet strong she looked during the sequence. As a reasonably fit guy, I loved how seemingly simple the asanas (poses) seemed but how challenging they were in reality. The class made me feel amazing, so like anyone with an addictive personality, I was quickly hooked.
What did your early practice look/feel like?
My first teacher was Sivananda trained, and I remember him being extremely strict, but his classes worked for the purpose I had sought them for. My body shape and focus changed within a month.
We always started the class with at least fifteen minutes pranayama (breath exercises) and the flow part of the class was extremely challenging. The teacher had a wonderful balance between alignment and dynamism which suited me well. I learned headstand in my first week — he was that kind of teacher!
Beginners classes were on Champions League (soccer) football days which worked well in my favor. I would turn up at the intermediate classes full of yoga teachers and get totally schooled. It was difficult at first, but it definitely helped to deepen my practice quickly. Everyone thought I was super driven when in fact I just didn’t want to miss the footie!
What does your practice look like now?
I had a long break due to a wrist injury but came back to yoga at the place I would eventually train — The House of Yoga in London’s Putney district. What I learned here helped to mold my practice into what it is today.
The teaching was entirely different to what I had experienced previously. I liked the variety of teachers and loved the sense of community surrounding the studio. Thanks to the various learning approaches I was subjected to here, my practice became more structured, and I was able to adapt more as a teacher. Here I also discovered Yin Yoga and explored floor work a lot more, helping to improve my flexibility and ultimately my strength.
When did you decide you wanted to become a yoga teacher?
After my long break with the wrist injury, I drifted into a different pattern and a more destructive way of life in general. As an animal behaviorist in my other world, and with my past addictions, I have learned to see clearly the power of habits and how they dominate our existence. I genuinely believe that I moved back to yoga when it was the right time and was ready to embrace it completely. It was a bit like returning to a long lost lover.
Choosing to do teacher training was very impulsive, as are most of my decisions. It inadvertently led to the structuring of my exodus by giving me a timetable to adhere to, coupled with the obvious benefits of meeting amazing human beings and learning about how I interpret my own view of reality.
Tell us about where you are based now and your retreats.
After ten years working in the dog business, I decided it was time for a change so packed my knapsack and headed to Rhodes.
It was my dream to set up holidays and excursions based on mindfulness and living in the moment. I established the Rhodes Yoga Experience, a sanctuary, and retreat nestled on the Mediterranean Sea between iconic cities of Lindos and Rhodes. There, I teach meditation, yoga, paddle boarding, and snorkelling.
Whether people want to unwind with their family while experiencing the natural beauty or fill every day with excitement, it’s a place that has something for everyone.
I’ve also inadvertently discovered that while doing this work, I’ll be bringing business back to the independent local concerns which the large “all-inclusive” hotels have wrecked over the past two decades.
My guests stay at George’s Studios, which is a family run business with bright, clean rooms a stone’s throw from Stegna Beach.
I also work with another local business called Paddle Paradise, which offers stand up paddleboarding (SUP). Unlike traditional surfing where the rider sits until a wave comes, stand up paddle boarders stand on their boards and use a paddle to propel themselves through the water.
I also teach Paddle Board Yoga, which is the art of practicing yoga while stand up paddleboarding (SUP). We do it while the board is in calm water.
After we get back, I often take the group to Taverna Limnioni where the friendly owners serve local fare.
When I have time, I also volunteer in local animal shelters with the Rhodes Animal Welfare Society.
What does your daily routine look like now?
On a good day, my routine is a short meditation upon waking up, followed by lemon water and bulletproof coffee. I grind my own beans from the local roaster and have organic butter, coconut oil, and sometimes 80 percent grated dark chocolate in it. It’s essentially drinking a cake. It reminds me that it’s the simple things that maintain not only our happiness but also our sanity.
I either do some yoga and/or kettlebell exercises followed by a swim in the sea, then a well earned breakfast.
Living on the island has also allowed me to embrace my teaching practice, mainly to people with little experience of yoga. I like to keep it light and fun yet still challenging. I believe it to be an essential balance to strike.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Advice that I would give to anyone is to listen more and always try the path of least resistance. Listen to your instinct and develop that muscle. Surround yourself with positivity in all ways, but also embrace the negative in whatever form it arrives, rather than hide from it.
What advice would you give your future self?
My future self does not need to go to every party every night!
How does yoga help with your daily challenges?
I try and adhere to a morning meditation and yoga practice. This helps me immensely with my work — with both animals and people. It’s important that I can give my clients the best possible yoga experience and invest myself entirely in the moment.
It’s vital for someone of my character to have this anchor. It calms me and helps me observe my behavior as well as making me sweat… Then a dip in the sea is extra special!
Interview and writing by Rachael J Haylock.
Original article can be found at Medium