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interview with gary kissiah, a yogi's lawyer

interview with gary kissiah, a yogi's lawyer

by misha bell
The Business of Yoga | Legal

Gary Kissiah is a pioneer in the field of yoga law. Uniting his passion for yoga philosophy and his experience as a partner at the large international law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, he has founded his own boutique law firm that specializes in representing yoga studios and other wellness businesses. Gary frequently teaches workshops on yoga and law through Yoga Alliance, and has authored two books on yoga law: Light on Law for Yoga Teachers (Lilalabs, 2013) and Light on Law for Yoga Studios (Lilalabs, 2013). These comprehensive guides to legal wellness for contemporary yoga studios and teachers are destined to become essential texts for every yoga studio and teacher. A teacher of yoga philosophy, Gary has also authored an innovative commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, entitled The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: Illuminations through Image, Commentary and Design (Lilalabs, 2011). Yogi Times editor Misha Bell speaks with Gary about his journey from “big law” into yoga and the successful bridging of two apparently disparate worlds through the niche practice of yoga law. 

Misha BellYou left a very successful career practicing corporate law in order to serve the legal needs of the yoga and wellness community. What prompted you to make this change? 

Gary Kissiah: I spent most of my legal career practicing “big law.” This means working for either a big law firm or a big corporation. Most of my practice was transactional – either doing complex corporate deals or finance. This type of practice tends to be intense, stressful, adversarial and demanding. It is very difficult to find meaning in this type of practice and there is little concern for human sensitivities. Although this can be dynamic and exciting, at some point most lawyers burn out on big law and either exit the profession or find another type of practice. Over time, the lack of meaning, the travel, and the workload began to wear on me. I started looking at alternatives.

During the last ten years of my career, I had a yoga practice. I found that I kept my yoga life and my work life completely separate and, over time, I began to wonder if there was any way to integrate the two. 

Misha: What was the greatest challenge that you faced in starting up a practice dedicated to yoga law? 

Gary Kissiah: There were several challenges. First, I did not want to practice any type of law at all! My original idea was to start a publishing company that would publish books in the wisdom traditions. That was the idea behind Lilalabs Publishing  Company LLC. It is the publisher of my first book on the Yoga Sutras. After I published my book, I began to get workshops and teaching opportunities and, inevitably, the studios began asking me legal questions. In 2011, Yoga Alliance held its first Business of Yoga Conference in Palm Springs. I volunteered to speak and gave a workshop. The response to the material was very strong. This led to a program where Yoga Alliance sponsored a series of five national webinars devoted to yoga law. Again, there was a huge amount of interest and I received many inquiries about doing legal work for studios and teachers. Finally, after a lot of reflection, I decided to launch my own law firm and specialize in representing yoga studios and other wellness businesses.

The second challenge was educational. Historically, the yoga world has not used lawyers and is generally not strong in business experience. So, I have to provide a lot of education to the community to help them understand where legal problems may arise. My desire to provide education and to empower the community to “self-help” their way through many legal problems led to writing the two books on yoga law. My hope is that they can avoid legal problems altogether or, if not, hire the right lawyer to resolve the problem. 

The aspect I did not understand before I opened the firm was the fairly high level of latent anxiety that many owners of yoga and wellness businesses feel. They know that there are many legal risks and liabilities affecting everything that they do. However, they do not know what the legal issues are nor whom to turn to for help. Both the books and my services have provided a lot of comfort to the community around their legal needs. That, in turn, has proven to be quite gratifying and energizing.

Misha: What motivates you to serve the yoga community?

Gary KissiahThe heart-felt belief that the more people practice yoga the better off the world will be.  Building strong businesses will increase both the quality and quantity of yoga.  

Misha: How do you define dharma? What do you consider to be your dharma? 

Gary Kissiah: I define dharma as the universal truth that supports the order of the universe. It is based on the interconnectedness of all things that flows from the fact that all form is a manifestation of divine consciousness. Thus, all actions have consequences to the universal order. 

Lately, I have been thinking about an ancient Sanskrit saying: “ahimsa paramo dharma.” This means that ahimsa or non-violence is the highest dharma. This is why Patanjali names ahimsa as the very first of the yamas (yogic restraints).

So, on one level it is working with ahimsa and another it is karma yoga – the yoga of serving others. 

Misha: Has your sense of dharma changed over time? If so, how?

Gary Kissiah: I have become more sensitive to ahimsa on many different levels- not only mind, body and speech but also politically and environmentally. It has been much easier to practice ahimsa now that I am out of the big law environment, which is oftentimes quite hostile and violent. 

Misha: What has been the most surprising result of your work to date?

Gary Kissiah: Gratitude. My clients seem to be genuinely grateful for the service and guidance that I provide. I do my best to ensure that they get incredible value for their money and to provide as many resources that I can. I love connecting people and providing insights into what I see happening around the country. In “big law” authentic gratitude is a rare, if non-existent, phenomena!

Misha: Your two books on yoga and the law: Light on Law for Yoga Teachers, and Light on Law for Yoga Studios, appear to be inspired by Patanjali. What role does Patanjali play in the style, structure, and content of these books? 

Gary Kissiah: That is an insightful question! I realized quite early on that the yoga and wellness world has very little interest in legal and business matters and even less in the academic aspects of law and business. Basically, they want the bottom line – what do they have to do to satisfy their legal obligations or avoid legal risk?

As you know, a sutra is a very short statement of a spiritual truth. Because they are so dense with meaning and are complex, it would be impossible to understand the Yoga Sutras without the commentaries. In fact, we have almost 2000 years of commentary on the Sutras!

So, I decided to use the sutra form to write the book. The rule or principle of law that the reader needs to know is presented in sutra form. The legal commentary follows the sutra. That way the reader can quickly gain the essential knowledge by reading the legal sutras and, to the extent they are interested, can learn more by reading the commentaries. 

It seemed to be the most interesting and efficient way to communicate information to a community who is not particularly interested in the topic. 

Misha: Are legal concerns just for yoga teachers and studios, or do they also effect yoga practitioners? If so, in what ways? 

Gary KissiahThere are two ways that this can affect practitioners. First, they will be asked to sign a liability waiver that releases claims that they may have against either the teacher or the studio. Second, if the studio does not properly classify its teachers and if it is audited for tax compliance, it could be shut down and the community disrupted. 

Misha: What do you consider to be the top legal issues facing the yoga community today? 

Gary Kissiah: Ethics and independent contractors. We all understand the toxic effect that lack of ethical behavior can have on our community. We see this at both the individual studio level and at the national level with high-profile teachers. As yoga has grown, many new studios and students have entered the community and many of them have little understanding of the yoga tradition. Accordingly, we need to emphasize the importance of ethical behavior by all three constituents of the yoga community: the studios, the teachers and the students. I am on a Yoga Alliance sub-committee that is working on revising the Code of Conduct to address ethical issues in our community.

On the business side, properly classifying yoga teachers is a huge problem. Most studios classify teachers as independent contractors based upon conventional wisdom. This view is wrong and, if a studio is audited, it may be found to have misclassified its employees as independent contractors and to be liable for heavy back-taxes, penalties and fines. Some studios are forced out of business over this. Many states are aggressively targeting the yoga community over this issue because they view it as abusive – especially California and New York.

Misha: What would you say to a yoga student, teacher, or studio that believes “legal contracts are not yogic”?  

Gary KissiahI would say that himsa (or violence) is not yogic. The main purpose of an agreement is to help the parties reach a “meeting of the minds.” This is a state where both sides have a deep understanding of the perspective of the other, compromises have been made and that understanding is reduced to a clear writing. The goal is to reduce the chances of a dispute or a lawsuit based upon a disagreement. This helps the parties maintain  ahimsa or non-violence in their relationship. If you have ever been involved in a lawsuit you will understand how violent and destructive they can be.

Misha: Before leaving private practice, did you ever intentionally bring your yoga skills to the legal setting? If so, what was the outcome?  

Gary Kissiah: Yes, I did. I found this very difficult to do because big law is not a yogic environment! However, I did start using my breath and a yogic perspective in negotiating sessions. I intentionally started becoming more and more calm as the stress and anger increased in the conference room. By sending out waves of peace and compassion (even to the other side!) I noticed that the entire room calmed down. Sometimes this led to progress in the negotiations and the deal.

Misha: At what point did you know that yoga would become a personal and professional centerpiece?

Gary Kissiah: Fairly recently. This has been a process of evolution and openings rather than the execution of a roadmap that I wanted to follow. As I mentioned, my original idea was to start a publishing company to publish wellness books. After I published my book on the Yoga Sutras, that led to teaching workshops and yoga philosophy for teacher training programs. That led to the legal practice and publishing two books on yoga law. All of this led to retreats.

Misha: How would you describe your philosophical and technical orientation to yoga? Do you align with a particular yoga lineage or yoga guru?

Gary KissiahMy first love is yoga philosophy. I enjoy diving deep into the philosophy. I find it endless, complex and fascinating. I greatly enjoy teaching yoga philosophy; that is my dharma as a yoga teacher! 

I am a student of Integral Yoga. The Integral Yoga Institute in San Francisco is a beautiful place to practice. The guru for Integral Yoga is Sri Satchidananda. I like this practice because it is grounded in authentic devotional and yogic practices that are rooted in India.

Misha: What are some of the connections between yoga philosophy and legal theory? How does your legal experience help you untangle and teach complex philosophical concepts and systems, as well as pithy aphorisms? 

Gary Kissiah: Another excellent question! Paradoxically, my legal background was a huge help in writing my book on the Yoga Sutras as well as learning about and teaching yoga philosophy. This is in the face of the fact that I kept my yogic life and legal life completely separate for many years. 

I found that my training in understanding complex legal concepts and writing about them in plain English was invaluable for writing my book on the Sutras. The Sutras are incredibly deep and complex and Iyengar has even said that his masterwork on the subject only scratches the surface! This training also helps me understand works on yoga philosophy (which tend to be dense and complex) and to teach them in an understandable way.

There is an interesting analogy between the sutras and commentary on the one hand, and a statute and judicial opinion interpreting the statute on the other. As it turns out, legal training is an excellent background for writing about the Sutras and other works of yoga philosophy. 

Misha: Can you provide us with an example of how you might understand and teach one of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras through a legal lens?

Gary KissiahThe law of karma comes to mind. Every action we take has a karmic consequence. That consequence may not manifest until a future life but there will be a consequence of the action at some point in time. This will manifest in the circumstances in which we are reborn. Although it is a law, it operates as a matter of universal inevitability. That may be contrasted with our legal system where we may face a legal consequence in this life if we violate a law. But that is only after a court will have heard the facts and rendered a decision on the merits. Although we may win a large judgment in court and get lots of money, no court can enter a judgment that will affect the state of our rebirth!

Misha: Which teachers have most inspired you? How is their influence evident in your work?

Gary KissiahGary Kraftsow was the teacher who introduced me to the Yoga Sutras. Before I took his workshops I had never heard of the Sutras! Sally Kempton is an excellent meditation teacher and has a deep practice in Kashmiri Shaivism. Ana Forrest has a connection with Native American culture which resonates with me since I grew up in New Mexico. She is a powerful teacher and her approach works for me. Seane Corn because of her incredible work in bringing yoga off the mat and using it to do good works in the world.

Misha: Looking ahead, what plans do you have for your yoga law practice, and for your work teaching yoga philosophy? 

Gary KissiahI have evolved a business plan that seems natural and authentic: teaching yoga philosophy, writing and publishing yoga books, representing and counseling yoga and wellness business, and leading teaching and trekking retreats! Over time I would like to expand those offerings and bring them into a better state of balance. 

I also plan to release an app version of the Yoga Sutras that will allow readers to press an icon and hear the chant of the sutra as well as view the Sanskrit sutra, the English translation, commentary, and an image. 

Misha: If you could choose moksha (liberation) or reincarnation at the end of your life, which would you choose? Why?

Gary Kissiah: I would chose reincarnation because I believe in the Bodhisattvic vow. I feel it would better to come back and work for the ending of the suffering of all beings rather than to merge with divine consciousness. Although I am sure it would be really tempting to spend all eternity in bliss, somehow that seems self-indulgent with so much suffering remaining in our world. But I assure you that I am a long way from being a Bodhisattva!

Misha: Thank you, Gary. As always, it’s a pleasure and an inspiration to speak with you! Namaste.