We had the good fortune of connecting with Nishanth Selvalingam and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Nishanth, can you tell us more about your background and the role it’s played in shaping who you are today?
I was very fortunate in that I was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to a family of South Indian yogis. We lived with my Sri Lankan grandparents on my father’s side. They were both very devoted Shaivites (followers of the Hindu god, Shiva), my grandfather especially. He was a temple singer who centered his entire life around religious practices. Eventually, he set up a small ashram (a place of spiritual learning) right next to our family home and everyday he would sit me down before the big image of Lord Shiva and teach me to recite from memory the various ancient texts of Hinduism like the Shiva Purana, the Vedas and the Upanishads. As a young child, I was obsessed with the Star Wars franchise because I saw so many parallels between George Lucas’ depiction of the mystical Jedi Order and the yogic ideas I was learning from my grandfather. My love for Star Wars made meditation, philosophical contemplation and self-control (three key yogic ideals) seem fun and “hip” to me! My grandfather would often take me to the temple where I got very excited about the temple musicians because, again, I started to make connections between the powerful, loud music that accompanied the Hindu rites and the 70s hard rock vinyls that I was starting to get into at that time. Led Zeppelin sounded a lot like the carnatic drums and flutes at my neighborhood temple! My mothers side of the family is from Kerala, South India and while they were brought up Catholic, it was a very syncretic flavor of Catholic. For example, my grandmother, Mary, has an altar in her home upon which she placed a picture Jesus Christ right next to a picture of the Indian saint, Sai Baba which is leaning up against a little bronze statue of Krishna and Radha. As a child, I would look at this eclectic assortment of religious artifacts from all the different spiritual traditions of the world and feel like they were all pointing to the same truth. One year, I was brought to Sai Baba’s ashram in India. It was a sprawling spiritual community that attracted seekers from all over the world. While we were all sitting in the Bhajan Hall (where everyone got together to sing holy songs) one afternoon, I noticed a tall mediterranean-looking gentleman with flowing brown hair and a beard, wearing a long white dress. With great excitement, I exclaimed to my mom, “look, Amma! It’s Jesus!” I saw how people from all the different parts of the world came together to celebrate unity in diversity. They all had different ideas of spirituality but they could find common ground there in that ashram in India, singing holy songs together and feeling great.
In my adolescence, I joined the debate team (mostly because I had a crush on a girl who was on the team and wanted an excuse to talk to her…). This endeavour eventually led me down the rabbit hole of Western philosophy. I became very interested in the ideas of Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and the Greek philosophers, especially the more “mystical” ones like Plato and the neo-Platonists like Iamblichus and Plotinus. Again, I started making connections between Western and Eastern philosophy. For example, Aristotle had this idea of 7 planetary spheres that a soul would have to go through, one after the other on its way into a human birth. At each sphere, the soul would get one virtue and one vice. This sounded eerily similar to the concept of the 7 chakras in the Tantric systems of the East. It seemed like the Taoist concepts of Chi, the Yogic concepts of Prana and the Christian concepts of the Holy Ghost were all talking about the same vital life force! Whether one said Amen, Ameen, Amen-ra or AUM, it was all still the same Cosmic Vibration! It began to dawn on me more and more during this period of comparative study that all philosophy, all religion, all teachings point to the same set of universal facts.
Now, in Kuala Lumpur, it is not uncommon to see a mosque, a Hindu temple and a Buddhist temple all on the same street. Every evening, the air would vibrate with the song of the Azan, the Islamic prayer that they would broadcast from the neighborhood mosque for all to hear. Everytime I heard that chanting at sunset, I would feel a deep, pervading calm. I felt that same calm when my grandmother would light incense and ring bells at the Hindu altar in our home, after her morning bath. When I was visiting the Vatican in Rome, I felt that same feeling walking around the awe-inspiring churches. My entire upbringing has instilled in me this one unflinching belief that “truth is one, though sages call it by many different names” (Rig Veda 1:164). The reason I teach yoga philosophy today is to point out this one idea!
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
Life feels like it is living itself! When you fall in love with something, it takes you on a journey despite yourself. I am convinced that I am not in control at all and that I am just going along for this incredible ride. The dots seem to connect in the most auspicious of ways! My story starts in a bookshop in India. When I was a child, my parents brought me to visit Sai Baba, an eccentric Indian saint at his ashram in Bangalore. One day, at this ashram bookstore, I picked up my first copy of the Bhagavad Gita. I devoured it in that same afternoon in our little hotel room while my parents were napping. Since then, I became voraciously hungry for spiritual literature from all the different religious traditions of the world. My love for learning matured into a love for debating which culminated in an exciting journey debating competitively for Team Malaysia at the World Schools Debating Championships. Debating for the national team meant a very rigorous schooling in the art of persuasion and speechcraft. When I retired from the team, I decided to spend the next year teaching what I had learnt to the other debaters in my local community. This is where I first found my teaching voice.
Around this time, I was also becoming very excited about the electric guitar. I started writing songs, putting bands together and playing in the local blues clubs in my Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where I grew up. What I really wanted to do with my life was to become a rock n roll guitar player in a famous band, touring the world and making records! Eventually, I moved to Los Angeles, California on a student visa to study Philosophy at UCLA but also to start a band and “make-it” in the music industry! While I was playing clubs up and down the Sunset Strip for years, I started to develop my voice as a performer, which really means learning how to transmit a vibration from my heart to someone else’s. I found so many parallels between coaching debate and playing guitar on stage but I didn’t really understand how to put the two of those things together.
One summer, I was walking down Main Street in Santa Monica and passed by the YogaWorks studio. I made some kind of joke about consumer culture and Yoga in the West! My phone heard me of course and the very next day, sent me an advertisement on Instagram of a free week at YogaWorks. I thought to myself, “hey, don’t knock it till you try it!” So that week, I signed up and much to my surprise, found the studio to be such an authentic place of spiritual learning! The vibration of Yoga that I felt back home in Malaysia at my grandfather’s ashram was definitely there too in the YogaWorks studio! I started taking more classes and becoming more involved with the yoga community here in LA. One thing led to another and soon I signed up for a 200-hour Teacher Training program with YogaWorks. I had no intention of becoming a yoga teacher. I was busy playing guitar, remember?
Anyway, something very profound happened shortly after I completed my training. My grandfather passed away, right before the pandemic of 2020, and the night he passed I had a vivid dream in which I was standing at the bank of a broad river and on the other side, my grandfather was waving at me from inside a small temple. When I woke up the next morning, I felt a newfound desire to teach yoga! And then I checked my phone and saw the message from my mother telling me that my grandfather had passed. How curious! That day, I decided to devote myself to teaching yoga, so I could pass on the spiritual lessons my grandfather had given to me as a child. I signed up for the 300 hour Teacher Training program with YogaWorks to complete my education and I took a position with the virtual studio Stay Om Yoga, teaching asana (yoga poses) thrice a week. Eventually, I started getting some privates and I started to be able to pay rent teaching yoga, which was very exciting for me. So I decided to do that full time! It wasn’t long before I realized what I really enjoyed teaching was Yoga Philosophy. So I would get some people together and we would meditate and then I would launch into these discourses on various topics like “what is death?”, “what is reincarnation”, “what is the purpose of life?” etc. I felt the philosophy of Yoga and Vedanta come to life in these discussions and I realized that all my training as a competitive debater and rock musician were coming together to equip me for this kind work! I felt an extraordinary sense of purpose everytime I teach yoga philosophy! My dear friend Dawn Stillo (an incredible yoga teacher and mentor of mine) was kind enough to offer me a spot teaching yoga philosophy every Thursday night at her new virtual studio, Yoga World Heart. So that’s how I eventually found myself here now, teaching yoga philosophy, writing books and making digital content to share with others how all the religions of the world only seem differ on the surface but upon taking a closer all agree on a universal set of principles that if applied correctly can cultivate a life of meaning and beauty for anyone, anywhere. What a beautiful ride so far! I am very grateful.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
The first thing I would do is take them to check out all the cool New Age bookstores in town! I’d take them first to the Spiral Staircase in Topanga and maybe grab a meal there at the Inn of the Seventh Ray. Then, we’d go down to Santa Monica to check out one of my favorite shops, Kathmandu Boutique. We’d pick up a few bronze statues and Tibetan shawls before grabbing a meal at Samosa House on Main Street. That same day, we’d probably go Thunderbolt, another one of my New Age bookstore haunts and maybe grab a meal at Heroic Italian right next door. You can tell I have a sun in Taurus because I really love food and shopping haha. Anyway, no trip would be complete without a meal at Bollywood Bites, my favorite Indian restaurant in Westwood that my friend Sanjay runs. Sanjay is a genius chef who makes the most innovative meals you can imagine, combining traditional Indian flavors with other cuisines! Then, we’d check out Mugu State Park and do a little hiking, catch a few sunsets or sunrises at one of the several lovely beaches along the PCH and eat at one of the several lovely restaurants there like Juicy Ladies or The Reel Inn. On their last day, I’d take them down to Palos Verdes to check out the tide pools at Bluff Cove. I find this to be a deeply spiritual and nourishing spot. And while we’re in that neighborhood, we’d definitely check out the Torrance farmers market because my friend Nagwa makes the best olive tapenade in the world and she usually sets up shop there! If we had the time, I’d insist that we check out Lake Shrine near the Getty Villa and also the Vedanta Society of California temple near Franklin, just ahead of where Amoeba records used to be. Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I would like to dedicate this Shoutout to my grandfather because in actuality, all I am is a messenger for his teachings!
I’d also like to dedicate this Shoutout to Vivica Schwartz, Carolina Goldberg and Dawn Stillo as well all my friends at Yoga World Heart. I have a found a family here in America among these powerful yogis and mystics and I am so grateful for all that they have taught me over the years about being a good yoga teacher.
Other: Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/yogawithnish Audio programs on Gumroad: https://gumroad.com/nishthefish Podcast: https://yogawithnish.buzzsprout.com/ Music on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/artist/3lNffK26CGgdt0ctrIlUsG?si=Ryv_Nlc9T6aHvwgSilQj8w
Hannah Stephens Kristof General Studio 22 at UCLA