Wildly Inspiring: Interview with David Harshada Wagner, Meditation Teacher

I’ve been meditating for 3 years — ever since I realized that meditation isn’t about sitting in a lotus pose surrounded hippies, pretending you’re as calm as Buddha, while pondering what’s for dinner and planning responses to work emails. Meditation is the best tool in the world — life-changing, in fact — for connecting with yourself and making your wildest visions come into fruition, as I’ve experienced in my work with David Harshada Wagner.

David is an NYC-based meditation and self-empowerment teacher classically trained in the Indian wisdom traditions of Yoga, Bhakti, Vedanta, and Tantric Shaivism. If none of these words mean much to you, let me just tell you this: working with Harshada is like waking up to your own life for the first time. His no-BS, non-preachy approach is refreshing like a delicious açaí bowl on a sizzling summer day in New York City.

I just got back from a spiritual retreat to India led by him, and it was one of those experiences that makes you completely change your perspective on what’s important. Put simply, David helps people to live in a state of joy punctuated by moments of forgetfulness, instead of living in a state of forgetfulness punctuated by moments of joy.

I spoke with David (in his first interview of this kind!) about simple ways everyone can live a more “heartfelt” life, how his method is different, why soulfulness is the new mindfulness, and how your diet can affect your spirituality.

David Harshada Wagner Interview

You’re a meditation teacher. What exactly is it that you do?

I help people to be really deeply happy and more fully alive. Meditation is something that’s really important for that, and part of what I teach. But I also teach people to find their vision, find what’s blocking them, and help them move those blocks. That can take so many different forms beyond meditation.

Put in simple words, I’m more of a self-help guru than a typical meditation teacher.

There are great people teaching yoga or some specific buddhist thing; I’m more of a big picture kind of a teacher.

What kind of practices do you use in your work?

Everything from different forms of meditation to paying attention to what you eat, making changes in relationships, exploring your sensuality, spending time in nature, doing creative projects… so many things! If someone’s training with me, we do private sessions together. People also do training with me through my my online courses and my writing. A lot of work I do is kinesthetic.

Meditation has a very spiritual connotation to it. Is that a barrier that is prevents people from trying it?

Even though yoga is a mainstream thing to do, people still get really freaked out once you start talking about things that are more intimate emotionally, or things that are profound spiritually. You could talk to someone all day about your colon, and that’s fine, but if you mention that you’re working on learning how to feel God’s love more, you can get fired from your job. That’s how it is with all things that have spiritual connotation to it.

David Harshada Wagner Interview

So how can we change that and turn more people onto meditation?

There’s no use to introducing anyone to spiritual practices unless they have that desire themselves.  And if they do have that desire, it’s important to introduce them experientially. So instead of just talking about the soul, turn them onto meditation so that they can experience the soul.

And that’s exactly what sets apart Living Meditation approach from many others.

I would like to think so. My approach is more experiential than philosophical.

Was that you intention from the beginning?

You can say so. My intention was to fill in the gap with things that I really wanted and didn’t see being offered.

Someone in class asked today if they’re doing the meditation properly. And in response, you suggested they try to be improper. What does that mean to you? Is it about being more experiential?

Yes. Sometimes I just tell people to start off wrong and feel out if it’s effective, instead of thinking in terms of right or wrong. Instead of following a formula, I’d much rather people be in the experience and what’s working for them individually, instead of what somebody else says.

So many ways to meditate, so many approaches. When you encounter people who have a different approach to meditation, what is the experience like?

Sometimes there’s a sense of orthodoxy that people have. You’d be surprised, but I don’t encounter them that much because most people that I work with and am surrounded by, are not from that spiritual scene.

Wait, you don’t consider your meditation classes a spiritual scene?

I do, however, people that come to my classes and retreats are not the “sceney” people. They’re not attracted to a typical spiritual happening, or they’ve been around the block, have dabbled into different things, and are ready for something more serious.

David Harshada Wagner Interview india

A photo of David I took in India

I find it fairly easy to come to class and meditate with you, but I’m doing it on my own or with your online YogaGlo classes, it’s tough to concentrate. Any recommendations?

It’s funny, I was doing my own YogaGlo class today, and I had to stop myself from looking at a text message during the meditation. Ultimately, you have to engage with it up to a point where you’re captivated, rather than relying too much on discipline. Finding what works for you and what “turns you on” spiritually will do the trick.

What are your 3 simple tips to be more mindful, grounded and connected daily?

I feel like the word “mindful” is being overused to much these days, it’s more about being “heartfelt” — living your life with passion.

1. Really feel your body. Experience your life with your body as much as possible — from feeling your bed, your sheets, the chairs you sit in, the environment you’re in, your clothes. Really focus on how the clothes feel on your body instead of just how they look.

2. Be connected to nature. Even if you live in a city, take time to connect with the sky, with the air and the moon. If you live in a more rural environment, try to get out and have some time in the wilderness. That’s a really important one.

3. Have some sort of a quiet sacred practice. It doesn’t necessarily have to be in the form of meditation. Find a sacred place place where you control the environment and are relatively undisturbed, light a candle, and connect to those subtle energies. Once you get a sense of them, you can retain that feeling of connection while you’re out in the world doing a million different things. That felt memory isn’t too far away if you just practiced it this morning. If you were doing it a month ago, it might be harder to connect to. That’s why having a regular practice can make a huge difference.

David Harshada Wagner Interview

David with students on India retreat

You’re finishing up a book on men’s spirituality. Tell me about it.

I’ve had a calling to work more deeply with men, because I feel that they’re underserved in this world. Our world in general is in need of men who a lot more strong and “switched on”. There’s a whole section for men on my new website, including the Wildman University and information on men’s workshops and retreats.

Is it always men coming to you, or is it their wives saying, “hey, why don’t you try that?”

It goes both ways.

Does it work when women send their men to you?

It works great. If they’re hesitant on reluctant, I can usually win them over, but I have enough of my materials out there so that they can check it out and get a sense of what I do. And the thing is, even if the men are skeptical, it’s not the transformational work that they’re skeptical of, but the style of transformational work that’s popular — it’s intensely feminine.

How is it feminine?

Think of a yoga class. It’s usually a room full of women. For a man to go to a yoga class, meditation, spiritual retreat, or whatever, they’re going to have to open up. It’s not that they’re against it, but it’s a turn-off. Imagine a woman wanting to join a transformational practice where she’s surround by men who are being very masculine and behaving in a way that is overtly strong, forward and action-oriented. It might just not be what a woman might choose.

Even though some of the most profound spiritual books are written by men — Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra — the requisite of a lot of spiritual paradigms now is softening, becoming more peaceful, guiding followers to get in touch with their yin quality. It’s coming from a very feminine point of view. That’s only part of what’s needed, even in my work with women. I actually often help women get in touch with their yang quality — their fierceness, passion, and power.

So men are staying at home while their women go on retreat. They’ll moan about it and sometimes even make fun of their women, but the truth is, we all have spirits in us, and can be happier. So oftentimes, I find that men are very excited to know that there is something for them.

A lot of men who are into the eastern spirituality thing, they’re into it because they’re in touch with their feminine side, by large. Those men need to find a way to connect with their masculine. It’s a matter of finding not so much a balance between the two energies, but wholeness.

Soulfulness is the new mindfulness

Do you think that in order to achieve a certain level of spirituality, you need to follow a particular diet?

I like Michael Pollan’s philosophy: eat food, not too much, mostly plants. Stop eating fake food. Fake food tends to produce fake people. Pay attention to what you’re eating. Eat like a wild thing: pay attention to what food you eat, don’t eat too much, and instead of going for what’s offered, go for foods that are as nutritious as possible as opposed to what tastes good.

If the question is whether people who meditate should eat vegetarian diet, here’s what I think. I was pure vegetarian for many many years, especially during my years of spiritual training – it’s very important in the yoga tradition. What I found is that a pure vegetarian diet does lend itself to a calmer mind and disposition. That’s not necessarily what I think everyone needs. Some people, on the contrary, need to turn up the volume in their life.

Everything you eat affects your mind, and the subtle essence of the food becomes the mind. That’s the yoga teaching. So, whatever it is that you’re eating, is going to affect your consciousness for sure. When I was in training, we practed radical celibacy. To be able to do that as young man in his 20s, you have a have to follow a very specific diet, with limited spicy and sweet foods (especially ice cream!). There’s not one prescription. It really depends on the effect that you want to get. Today I eat omnivorous diet, and if and when I want to do some deeper training on myself, I will go back to being pure vegetarian.

It’s not just about what we put into our mouth, it’s about what we put in our mind, into our ears, and our eyes, even what we touch with our skin.

Have you tried vegan, and if so, what was the difference between how you felt as vegetarian and vegan?

The difference was more physical than on the level of consciousness. What I do notice is that a raw vegan diet can make you a little ungrounded and intense in a way that probably doesn’t serve a spiritual person.

If you think about the energetic quality of cooked food versus raw food, raw food has that raw and young energy to it. Imagine the difference between going through a pile of raw kale and what that entails physiologically and energetically, versus a bowl of super cooked collard greens. The latter will have a settling quality to it.

Oftentimes what I find is that people who are eating a raw vegan diet are also often eating all these superfoods like almond milk. If you think about one of my smoothies, it probably has the essence of between 30 and 50 almonds. That’s a ton! Every one of those almonds comes from a separate piece of fruit on a tree and was picked, shipped, processed, distributed.

So with almond milk, cashew cheese, flax oil, and tahini, if you think of every one of those seeds or nuts being an individual being, one meal is a whole population! For the sake of comparison, when you eat an avocado, it’s just one seed, one fruit. Tahini, in its turn, is one of my favorite foods, but geez, can you think of how many seeds it takes to produce a spoonful?In ayurveda, they say you shouldn’t eat more than four almonds a day. Rarely people are living at the level of passion where they’re able to use all of that energy. For some people, it may come out in being self-righteous and edgy.

Even when eating a salad, the leaves of the lettuce might not be from one plant. And then when you put dressing, and all this other stuff on it, it multiplies.

Myself with David in India

Myself with David in India

What does your typical breakfast look like?

My typical smoothie is usually blended with everything organic: almond milk, bananas, blueberries, Tera’s whey proteinField of Greens raw food powderflax seed oil, bee pollen if I have it, raw greens like kale, almond butter. Sometimes I put ayurvedic herbs in it like shilajit (invigorating) or ashwagandha (mind soothing). I don’t usually have maca at home, but when I get a smoothie out, I usually add it. Because this smoothie has both protein powder and almond butter, it has density and thickness that I really like.

Do you feel different when you make a smoothie in the morning versus grabbing something on the go?

Definitely. Breakfast is super important. With my lifestyle, I will oftentimes skip breakfast and just have tea, and later in the day grab a smoothie. I always feel so much better on days when I have a little more time and space to start my day with an early morning smoothie.

It’s not just about what we put into our mouth, it’s about what we put in our mind, into our ears, and our eyes, even what we touch with our skin.

I’m in a motorcycle club, and I’ve taken a vow a few months ago to not eat any biker food, and smoothies have been a great portable alternative.

What is “biker food?”

Oh, biker food is the worst. Imagine that you’re out of the city, upstate somewhere, with limited options. The food can be from very poorly sourced diner food or something you grab at 7/11, to hot dogs and sad hamburgers that they barbecue at dealerships.

When I go on a long ride, I have to really think about how long I’m going to be out, and how many meals I potentially need to replace. That usually starts with a really substantial and voluminous smoothie that I put in my saddle bag. Sometimes I’ll also go to Juice Press and get some other juices, or pack baby food packets (like pureed baby food that we feed to our son Jackson). You’ll see me with all my biker guys – they’re all smoking cigarettes, and I’d be eating my baby food and drinking a smoothie. It’s actually a super cool feeling.

What’s the best way for people who want to experience your teachings to dive into them? 

Come to my retreat in Kripalu in Febuary. It’s a 3-day weekend titled “Your Next Step to Radical Happiness: Big Vision, Spiritual Healing, and Total Empowerment”, and it’s the perfect context to introduce my work.

David Harshada Wagner Retreat

My online course Way Of the Crow is another great way for people to have an infusion of the teachings in their daily life.

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