A Yogi in Vegas


ashleyThe invitation to spend an entire week in Las Vegas teaching yoga to poker players at the World Series of Poker was perhaps my most challenging feat I had faced as a yoga teacher thus far. I have taught yoga in the 45 degree dust storms at Burning Man. I have sat for 10 days of silent meditation at Vipassana. I have taught yoga in foreign languages and across foreign lands.


But was I capable of preserving my lightness and my lessons in a city defined by sex, drugs and gambling? Could experiential wisdom and a genuine desire to help others surpass the inevitable emotional roller coaster of the World Series of Poker and bypass the sexualization of everything, including myself, as a rare woman here at the Rio? Could yoga actually help a culture in Vegas that is often intoxicated with liquor, marijuana or coccaine? Was insight yoga really welcome in this place?


Despite it being so bright and full of light, there is an awfully alluring dark side to Las Vegas. I had no choice but to find out for myself.


The Dark Side of Poker

My first day here, I stood on the stage in one of the games rooms and looked down upon the thousands of players heads locking eyes with their hands (and their I-phones when they were sent to break). Players are herded in like cattle to tournaments and placed in terrible conditions – poor air quality, fluorescent lighting, unhealthy food choices and everything but ergonomic chairs. Betting and playing and buying a piece of one another – this is how they keep their skin in the game by always having action even if they aren’t sitting at the final table.


For 12 hours onward these folks (men and women alike) sat at a table placing bets, making money and losing money. From the view up here, this looked like torture. Spines were completely out of whack only to be rescued by the massage therapists that rushed from table to table offering deep tissue relief for the players who had struggled with back and shoulder pain from such long hours of sitting. Hips were tight and shoulders tighter. It looked dreadful! This is anything but the dream young poker players imagine when they think of making it to the World Series of Poker- excellent marketing of the game makes it look like lots of players cash out big, when in truth, the real profit goes to the House and often even the 1 million dollar winners only receive a portion of their winnings after paying out all of those who ‘bought into’ them.


By day 2 and 3, I was gifted the rare opportunity to spend hours and hours of intellectual conversation with the men here. Men who are unquestionably some of the most intelligent people I have ever had the privilege of meeting – from CEO’s of billion dollar corporations to 21 year old millionaires with IQ levels that top the charts. When it is just us, and we are talking philosophy, science, math and even yoga, the otherwise totally encompassing presence of raunchy debauchery seems impossible.


Nonetheless, I was exposed to addictions to the money, but also addictions to the game itself. Not a moment goes by without checking out stats and women, hopping off one table and onto another table, playing online between playing live, drinking when they have a bad bust, drinking more when they have a good bust. The humanism is not dead here, but the culture certainly does not create a nurturing place to just be. In the words of one player “these are not lost souls, they are simply a bit misguided, hyper focussed on a few specific things that keep them running on fumes”.


Can I stay here? Am I strong enough to do this work? Are my light and shakti powers capable of enlightening you? Or will you all just take my time and energy and keep the millions to yourself? Only time will tell.


Bringing Yoga to the World Series of Poker

ashley1“Vegas showed me there’s a fine line between wild perseverance and addicted gambling. Hopefully I’m on the right side of it. Hopefully the Yoga will take off and poker players will be less depressingly out of shape and grumpy” – Yoga student in Vegas


Yoga and meditation are becoming more and more promising solutions to the high levels of physical tension, emotional anxiety, stress and burnout from 12 hour days, limited sleep and the use of drugs and alcohol to stay awake and engaged. By day four, I was happy to evolve from strange Canadian girl in yoga pants into a more nurturing role – ‘yoga mom’ to an eclectic group of poker players that had spent many of their days isolated in their apartments playing online poker or stuck at a table in a tournament. After some mild convincing that yoga was good for them, I then had to change my own expectations of what teaching yoga in Vegas would look like. This was no 889 classroom.


In order to make yoga feasible for this community, I had to adopt the willingness to teach yoga at random hours, in random places, at the last minute and even after players had enjoyed a beer after a bad bust. I had to let go of my judgement of poker culture and open my arms to people for the sake of helping them improve their game (and ultimately their life). Soon enough, I began to see poker players regularly and walk them through everything from alternate nostril breathing to yin yoga poses to savasana with adjustments (most for their first time ever!).


The Light Side of Poker

“I went into the summer at the World Series of Poker having tried Yoga a few times before but had never taken to it. Luckily I was introduced to Ashley and I never looked back. After some of my toughest poker sessions ever she was there to guide me through poses in a way other teachers hadn’t, which left me feeling refreshed, clear headed and ready to go again, not to mention the physical benefits. I would seriously recommend it to any other poker players out there, or anyone with stress in their day-to-day lives, it works!” – Ben Heath, Final Table Contender, World Series of Poker


The light side of poker can be a path to freedom and creativity and financial gain if players are connected to the greater good. Without this, it can become no different from a mundane 9-5 without greater ambitions and dominated by unconscious behaviour. On Day 5, I was honoured to have an introduction to a Poker based charity called “Raising for Effective Giving” managed by one of the female superstars in the Poker World, Liv Boeree, who genuinely believes that “the money won in poker can do so much more than just benefiting ourselves. By donating a portion of these winnings to the most effective charities of the moment, it helps the people and issues that are in most desperate need.”[1]


ashley2Despite my initial reactions to the downsides of this game, I came out after seven days with a great recognition of my own judgement of this culture and started to see the goodness behind the game. In befriending the players, in understanding their personal paths to get here, and the struggles they had faced en route, I unleashed a great empathy for this collective of brilliant misfits in the world.


Often folks who simply didn’t fit into the default worlds expectations, but who had brain power that was beyond normal, poker offered a deeply intellectual and social space to excel. And excel many of them did, as the characters in my Vegas adventure went on not only to win great games, but also went on to practice yoga with me, to question the cultural norms of the game and even to hold back from playing when their brain and their body harshly said no.


A peek into another world is nothing but absolutely fascinating. And it is not all bad. In the end I met players who ate Vegan diets (think Daniel Negreanu[2] who includes on his WSOP profile that he has been vegan since 2003). Andrew Lucky Chewy, another poker star, is openly devoted to his yoga and meditation practice and his raw vegan diet and even wrote a book called “Yoga of Poker”. The 2014 Main Event winner Martin Jacobson was a major advocate for yoga and one of my housemates, Greg Merson, who won just over $8 million in 2012 said that being in the best shape of his life played a huge role in surviving the battles on the trenches on the tables. In fact, many of the BIG winners are deeply involved in yoga and self-care practices.


Finally, there is Evan Jarvis, a regular yin yoga student of mine, who invested loads of time and energy to recruit myself and two other healers, to come down for the World Series of Poker and offer love and light to the players. Having been deep in the poker culture for years he saw a dire need for healing and faced resistance with great poise to make it happen. Liv Boeree called us the booth of “love” for players when they were down and out. Antonio Esfandiari salivated at our green juices stacked with traditional Chinese medicine herbs. We even bumped into some of the winning players at the Sensory Deprivation Tank in downtown Vegas. I think Daniel Negreanu says it best – “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a lot of the young players at the highest levels, playing the super high rollers and other high stakes poker, also spend a lot of time thinking about life at a higher consciousness.”[3]


Poker is not bad – the culture can be, and the absence of nurturing people to genuinely take care of the players makes it hard to move forward. Alas, after a week immersed in the highs and the lows of the game and its players, I am wholeheartedly convinced now, that we can transform this culture often ridden with greed, ego and sex into something mindful, something heartfelt, something sustainable and something respected both within and outside of the community itself. But damn is it ever going to be hard.


Wish me luck.


Check out Ashley on PokerNews


Check out Ashley’s online yoga for poker course



[1] http://www.livboeree.com/charity/
[2] http://www.wsop.com/players/playerprofile.asp?playerID=267
[3] http://www.cardplayer.com/poker-blogs/2-daniel-negreanu/entries/562007-mindfulness-in-poker


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