From marine soldier to Ashtangi

American Mysore master Marque Garaux on rock climbing, clenching buttocks and getting up at 2:30 in the morning.

Meet our friend Marque Garaux, a 41-year-old man who after a Catholic upbringing and serving in the US Marines turned into a devoted Ashtanga teacher. Living with his wife Sarah in the middle of 8 acres of woodland in Ohio, he runs the only yoga shala within 20 miles in any direction. A large majority of his students drive one hour in each direction daily from Cleveland to attend his classes. When I point out the fact that it’s a pretty good score for him as a teacher, he laughs. If you subscribe to the idea that Ashtangis are non-smiling beasts, Marque will have your prejudices debunked. He speaks as if there is a soft laugh behind each word.

When I get Marque on the other side of Zoom, it’s 7:30 am, but he’s been up since 2:30. He looks disgustingly fresh. Tells me he wants to get his own practice done between 3 and 5 am, before the students come in. I do the Ashtanga second series and about half of third, no more than that, he says. It gives a good foundation for the day. I nod, pretending I´m on the same sort of routine, although nothing could be further from the truth. Surely, he wasn’t always like this, I think to myself. Or was he?

FS: You grew up in Canton in Ohio, about two hours from where you are now. I heard you had a Catholic upbringing. Was it strict?

MG: My parents were incredibly loving and have always been very supportive. But they were super strict, especially my mother. I sometimes joke and say I joined the Marines to get some freedom, haha. My upbringing gave me work ethics and discipline, as did the army of course. Going into Ashtanga was sort of an easy transition.

FS: How come you joined the Marines?

MG: My maternal grandfather emigrated to the US from Italy when he was eight years old. He joined the army in the second world war and was stationed first in Africa and then in Italy, which is where he met my grandmother. As a child, me and my older brother used to cling to him and listen to all his stories from the war. My brother joined the Marines, and I followed in his footsteps. I joined when I was 19 and served for four years. My brother is still in the army.

FS: I admit I have a vague understanding of what life in the US marine core is like, surely mostly derived from action films. What was it like for you?

MG: I first spent one year in Okinawa in Japan, and then three years in Northern California. I was stationed at a centre that specialised in rock climbing, mountaineering, skiing, things like that. We basically trained people in how to survive in the mountains. It was the best job ever, but after four years as it was time to renew the contract, I decided to get out instead of doing four more years. Me and my then girlfriend didn’t want to risk being relocated. It’s funny when I think about it, if I had stayed in, I could have quit next year with full pension, never have had to work another day in my life… 

FS: Let’s not think about that.

MG: Exactly, ha ha. Now I teach yoga instead.

Marque´s first encounter with yoga wasn’t exactly like most other people’s, but through a DVD he bought at a local gas station. He tells me there was an entire row of DVD:s on that shelf, but what caught his attention with this one was the cover. It had a girl doing Upward Facing Dog on top of a boulder with her back to the camera, and her back muscles were extremely well defined. It was the mountains and the strength that appealed to him, and so he used that DVD regularly at home. Only a few years later he came across David Swenson´s Primary Series Practice Manual. It seemed structured, which was exactly what he wanted. It presented a sequence of poses that he could learn and do in order on his own. In short, he spontaneously started a Mysore practice. For those of you unfamiliar with Mysore, it means you practice the Ashtanga series without anyone guiding. It’s the way Ashtanga is taught in the city of Mysore by the descendants of Patthabi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga. There are silent assistants giving adjustments, and on a lucky day the teacher points at you, saying that tomorrow you are ready to try the next pose, but there’s no talking. No-one explaining anything.

FS: That´s how you practiced at home with David’s book

MG: Exactly! I didn’t even know that’s what I was supposed to do, it just seemed natural. And then two years later, in 2012 or 2013, David came to teach a seven-day course in Ohio that I decided to attend. That was the first time I went to a led class. I was 31. Not long after I went to Miami to join Kino McGregor, Day Christensen and Patrick Nolan for a training. These were the guys who encouraged me to travel to India.

FS: You went to Mysore the first time in 2015. What did you think of it?

MG: The first 24 hours I was miserable! And then I fell in love with it, ha ha. Stayed for two months. Came home with a dog. And I’ve been back quite a few times since. Now I’m a Level 2 teacher, which means I’m certified to teach the second series.

FS: And you invite people into your shala for both Mysore and led classes. What is your own teaching style like, do you push and pull a lot, are you a quiet teacher who points?

MG: No, not at all. I mean, in Mysore most people already have a solid practice or are teachers themselves. There’s no real “teaching” going on there. Whereas most of my students have never done yoga before coming to me. I help them a lot, I try to modify, break things down, explain things to them. I try not to be too dogmatic. As students, we don’t learn too much from what our teachers say. Where we learn most is from our own practice.  What works is what is best, that’s how I stand. There is so much room for variation in the body, and it’s all about the experience in the end.

On that note, I ask Marque about his back. One of the reasons he turned to yoga was to heal from a severe lower back pain. He tells me that because of bad posture and carrying heavy loads for too long in the army, he herniated a couple of disks in his lumbar spine. He was also super tight in the hamstrings. When he started yoga, not very surprisingly it felt good doing forward folds. But what made the whole difference was when I started doing proper backbends. I nod vigorously, having had the same exact experience.

FS: I find deep backbends with an activated core and relaxed back muscles are what relieves the pain for me. What about you?

MG: I really like exhausting the glutes before a deep backbend, perhaps do a static bridge pose for a minute with the glutes tight. That makes the psoas muscles relax properly and creates less of a pull in the lumbar. My back is good if I’m careful and don’t get sloppy in my practice. And it’s all about consistency. I’m very stiff after a resting day. And I can’t really have two days in a row without yoga. 

FS: The body is quite fragile, in a way. We might have to do yoga until our very last days! How do you see ageing in relation to the body and the practice?

MG: There will come a point when you won’t acquire any more poses. And there might also come a day when you will have to start “giving postures back”. But the practice is a tool for the mind, a tool for life. If you are too concerned with what the poses look like and achieving the next asana, you lose the essence. You need to practice from within and look for the sensation more than anything.

FS: Do you meditate regularly?

MG: I did a lot of hiking as a child, so early on I established an important relationship with nature. And then in the army we were outside all the time. But it was very on and off. Extremely challenging at times. I used to sit down in silence in nature in between to calm down. I guess I was meditating before I knew it was called meditation. Nowadays, it’s goes in waves. I sometimes meditate 30 minutes a day, sometimes once or twice a week. But I’m also outside all the time in the woods, I go rock climbing a lot. I still find the best meditation in nature.

FS: I guess you don’t see yourself as Catholic anymore, but do you consider yourself spiritual?

MG: Yes, definitely. I love a lot of the philosophy in the Hindu tradition and yoga. I love going into the Sutras, breaking them down and seeing how they apply to us today. And I have always been a person who prays. I find a lot of peace in prayer. I’m definitely very spiritual, but I don’t know what I’d call myself. I’m not Catholic. Not Hindu. Not religious. But I pray to the divine power.

FS: And now you will spend the rest of the day taking care of your woodland outside. Tell me about that.

MG: I do maintenance pretty much every day. Before I go to bed at 7-7:30 pm. I really enjoy it. I try to get rid of dead trees, old ones who block smaller trees from growing. It’s very rewarding to know that the trees I plant now will be here for longer than I will. The yoga goes away, but the trees will stay

FS: Your land is as far North as you can go in Ohio, right on the shore of Lake Eire. North of that is Canada. How did you and Sarah end up there? It’s not exactly a given.

MG: It was quite random. After getting married, we lived for 10 years in a small house more centrally located. We had a dream to buy property and build a house on their own, some kind of retreat centre, but there was no way we could afford it. Then one day as we were driving out towards one of our favourite hiking spots, we passed by a sales sign. We weren’t actively looking at that point but decided to stop and get out of the car. And there this place was, with one main house made up of three apartments, and a separate house with one apartment. It was a no-brainer really. We have turned that single house into a yoga shala. The plan is to be able to invite people here to stay when covid is over for trainings and retreats.

I hum, suddenly extremely interested. My travel-starved nerves are firing on all cylinders. I thank Marque for the chat, wishing him a good day in the woods. And tell him to sign me up.

Marque gives IRL classes in his own shala Great Lakes Ashtanga Yoga and is regularly invited to give workshops around the world. Find him on Instagram @yogamarque and on his website