You may know Miguel Chen as the bassist of kick-ass punk band, Teenage Bottlerocket, but do you know him as author and yogi? If not, you should.
Miguel made the move from his birthplace of Mexico City to the state of Wyoming at the age of three. He grew up with a love for punk music and knew he wanted to tour the world playing the music he loves most… and he does.
Like many of us, Miguel found himself suffering from depression, anxiety, and struggling to deal with loss throughout his life. He found a quick fix with drugs and alcohol, until he felt completely disconnected from life. Rather than settle for the person he became, Miguel decided to explore mindfulness and yoga.
It was through this practice he learned to live presently, open his heart, and reconnect with both himself and those around him. Miguel continues his journey towards the best day ever (or, as his contemporaries would say, his quest for ALL) through simple, breath-focused mindful meditation.
Wanting to share his practice with others, Chen penned a book: I Wanna Be Well: How a Punk Found Peace and You Can Too (Wisdom Publications, 2018). In it, the punk rock yogi walks us through how he embarked on his spiritual path after years of running away from his problems, then lays out the required steps for looking inward.
As someone who reads plenty of self-help books, practices yoga, and reads up on the topic, I truly appreciate the ways in which Chen approaches the rather heady subject matter in such down-to-earth, relatable, and damn funny ways. He takes ideas and topics that may seem a little too easy to dismiss by the layman, and makes them approachable for all. Finally, a book that doesn’t make you feel like you have to live some hippie-dippy lifestyle in the mountains just to find some peace.
Forget that, you can find it right here, right now and still be totally you. Chen starts the book by introducing himself and explaining that he’s no different than you or I: “I’m just a dude trying to navigate his way through this life like anyone else.” Miguel creates an immediate trust by publicizing the fact that he’s made mistakes and will probably continue to do so, but that he also wants to know peace and be happy—and who doesn’t want those same things?
As you read through, you’ll feel like you’re talking to a life-long buddy who isn’t afraid to drop a fuck or shit into the convo. Fuck everything else that’s going on in your life, it’s just you and Miguel sitting down, talking about ways to become a happier, more open, person.
Miguel pours himself into the book, inserting humor and a humble approach: “If at some point you realize you are still walking but not breathing, you may have died and come back like in a George Romero movie. In that case, keep walking and find brains.”
Oh, and not for nothing, but knowing that a super cool guy from a band you totally admire deals with the same bullshit as you and I, but is still able to find balance, sure makes me want to dive in a little deeper to the goods that he’s offering.
Listen, I get it, not everyone enjoys reading, but trust me when I say that this is a book you’ll fly through… and be happy you did. If you still aren’t convinced, Miguel offers short TL;DR summaries at the end of every chapter. This book is for everyone.
So without further ado, let’s talk to the bassist, yogi, author, and super kind, funny, and awesome man himself: Miguel Chen!
RIOT FEST: The dual life as a musician in a successful punk band and as yogi living presently with the mindful medication, has that been difficult to have both those aspects of your life? Or an easy thing in your life to blend?
MIGUEL CHEN: I mean, it kinda just happened organically. Our band doesn’t tour the way it used to. We used to hop in a van and just leave for forever, we’d be out there two to three months. Now everyone’s a little bit older. We’ll fly somewhere and do a couple shows and then go home for a couple weeks, that kind of touring. If we go overseas, we go for a week, maybe two. It’s a lot less grind. That makes it a lot easier.
When you’re out for five or six weeks playing a show every night, you have to force yourself to meditate or do yoga, if that’s what you want to do. Otherwise, it’s easy to fall into the routine of ‘Oh, I’m gonna have a few beers tonight’, or ‘Oh, I’m just gonna sleep in for a little’, or ‘Oh shit, we’re back in the van’, and it just never happens.
Tour is kind of a daily grind, there’s lot of downtime and it can get pretty depressing. How does one practice yoga and mindfulness while on the road?
So when we were touring like that, it had to be a really conscious choice of ‘Okay, I’m going to go to bed right after the show’, because if I wanted to do that I had to wake up a couple hours before lobby call in the morning before we hopped back in the van. So it was that, and just a lot of trial and error. Now that we kind of do weekend gigs, it’s so much easier.
A lot of times I do yoga my own studio in the morning, and then that evening I’m playing a show in New York City or something. It’s a little easier this way; now we stay in hotels instead of people’s floors or couches. I’m glad we came up that way, I feel like we kinda earned our tooth-and-nail spot where we are by working hard and staying in punk houses.
It has to be a decision you’re making and sticking to if you’re on that daily grind, for when you don’t have the situation you’re in now, where it’s a little easier.
Yeah. It’s a lot of discipline. There’s a balance to be struck between the things you want to do to take care of yourself, and the things you want to do to have fun. Where’s the middle where you can do it all and be happy, instead of just torturing yourself? You’re not doing yoga just to be fucking miserable.
If you start to torture yourself, going down that road of being too disciplined, you’re kinda losing touch of that whole ‘perfect day’ you talk about in your book.
Being well known as the bassist in Teenage Bottlerocket and as a yogi, and now an author, do you find that your mindset is different now than it was before when performing your set?
I think when I’m performing, it’s kinda the same. And whether or not most performers realize it, when you have that moment and you’re doing the thing you love to do and you’re not thinking about anything, you’re just doing it. That part has stayed the same. My mind kinda shuts off, I play bass, and I’m really connected. it’s awesome.
What has changed a lot more is all the thinking around a show. It kind of used to be more like, ‘All right, we’re a bunch of punks, we’re gonna party our asses off’, and ‘I’m playing these shows because I wanna be a punk rock star’. I’ve evolved a little bit, that stuff’s all stupid. You know, party with your friends, it’s fine, it’s fun. But it’s a lot less about me and what do I get out of this, and more about if someone after the show wants to talk and tell us about how much one of our records meant to them or talk about the book. These connections and these opportunities to see that I’ve had a really positive impact on a few people.
Have you found being on tour that people have wanted to talk about your book since you released it?
Oh, yeah. The book came out in February, so we’ve done maybe three short runs, probably ten or fifteen shows. Every single show I’ve signed a few copies and had people approach me to just tell me how much they love it. It’s been so rewarding, and when I was writing this book…I mean, the whole time I was like, “Fuck, I can’t believe this guy’s getting a book deal”. It was crazy. It felt like a lot of weight. I had a really special opportunity to help people on another level, and I had to really shift and work with that. But I arrived at a place where I thought if even just one or a handful of people get something positive from this book, then mission accomplished. When I accepted that as my mission, I was able to write more fluidly. And then it came out, and the response has been greater than I could ever hope for.
You talk about a lot of things in your book that happened in your life that led you to want to live differently. Was there one low point or an ‘a-ha’ moment that led you to explore yoga and meditation?
Yeah, It was a real fight. Yoga and meditation felt so dense. Everything I thought I was and everything I thought I stood for, it was really inch-by-inch. Moment by moment, I started to open up to it a little bit. There were a couple of years there that everything was going so good for the band. We were doing so much more than I’d ever had imagined we would do. I would come home from tour and it didn’t matter what had just happened or what I had accomplished, I would just crash and be so down and so depressed. I kinda just tried to drink my way through it. And then that carried on into tour, and then all of a sudden I’m on tour again, and it’s like, on paper I’m doing everything I want to do, so what’s the problem?
I think a lot of people can relate to that. You talk about anxiety, depression, and sometimes it just takes that feeling. Everyone has that day where we think: What’s going on here? Something’s gotta change in my life.
Absolutely. The optimistic side of me wants to believe that everybody at some point reaches, at some point, this more ‘awake’ level. But if I think about it realistically, it’s sad to think that for a lot of people the moment it happens is right immediately before they die. Imagine how much more time in their lives they could have spent actually working towards happiness, instead of just getting through another day.
For me, I have to relate and understand better than just reading a book and thinking “Oh, I’m just going to wake up one day after doing all this stuff and feel great, and it’s always going to feel this great”. It is always a work in progress. You do a really awesome job of talking about keeping your heart and mind open every day and working towards that every day; It’s not just something that’s going to happen with the flip of a switch.
It makes me happy to hear that this particular language works for you, because I was really in my head a lot, too, when I was writing this book. Obviously I studied this stuff a lot, very extensively. I traveled to learn yoga and meditation. But I always think about this: What’s the book I wish that I had? What could I have read earlier in my life that could have saved me so many problems earlier? So I was really conscious trying to write that.
When you were writing the book, did you find it difficult to publicize personal problems and struggles that you’ve faced?
Not really. Whatever that battle was in myself, I think I fought it a long time ago. At some point in my life, I kinda gave up whatever shame or not wanting to share weaknesses about myself I. That’s all long gone. It was pretty much, you know, the internet and Facebook exist, if people wanna learn about me…
…They probably already know it all anyways.
[laughs] Yeah. It feels relieving to be vulnerable, it feels real. I’m not really afraid to share, especially if one or a handful of people can gain something positive from my sharing. Totally, easily worth it.
Would you say that having that openness and not being ashamed about downsides or struggles in your life is part of the process of living this mindful way and being open?
Absolutely. You’ve gotta stop lying to yourself first, right? Once you really stop lying to yourself, then opening up people around you inherently becomes easier.
When you were writing the book, what would you say was your favorite part about writing it?
I’m not entirely sure, it just turned out that I really loved writing. It’s a bizarre thing looking back at my life and looking now; I never ever thought I would want to write for fun. It used to be that you have to write because you’re high school or college, and you have to write. Before I started doing some articles that led to this book, I wouldn’t do [writing] as much, and this process really connected me with it. I actually love to write!
I can relate to that as an English major. You’ve kinda talked about this throughout this conversation, but what was your inspiration for the book, and what are you really hoping people get out of it?
As far as my inspiration, I’d like to believe that all of us are teachers in some aspect. Of course, all of us are students in some aspects, but I felt a great opportunity to share with people who are like me, people that see books by the Dalai Lama and think it’s laughable. There’s still valuable ancient teachings in that text, so I’m just going to package it differently for people like me. These are teachings that you can tell people, and it’s valuable for them to read and learn about, but no one can really understand these things unless they try it and they learn it for themselves.
My real hope is that people will try the practices in the book, and maybe one or two of them will resonate. Even if a practice doesn’t work for them, maybe it will lead them to a path to a different practice that works. I don’t want this to be a book that people just read, I want it to be a book that people try.
In the chapter about forgiveness, you wrote that it’d be the practice that makes you most uncomfortable. What advice would you offer to anyone who’s afraid to reach out and say sorry to those that they’ve hurt?
There’s a couple points of advice. One, before you actually reach out to anyone, you can just practice it on yourself. You can sit in meditation and imagine the scenario of you reaching out and apologizing to that person and asking that person for forgiveness, because as far as our subconscious mind and our personal energy goes, there’s a lot of power even in just practice and imagination. That’s going to help you build the strength and build up the confidence to actually try to do this.
And then, really important, the people that you do reach out to, you have to understand that although you’re asking for forgiveness and you’re apologizing, they don’t have to give it to you, and that’s just okay too. That’s part of it. The only thing you control is your part, so as long as you do your part honestly and sincerely, then you’ll be free from the burden no matter what their reaction is.
I’ve done yoga for years, and I’ve always been drawn to the physical part of it. How you were able to connect your mindfulness and breath to the physical practice of it? That’s always been the hardest part for me.
I think a lot of people come to meditation one way or another. Some people come to yoga for the physical thing, other people come for the meditative thing. You always find the other thing. Inevitably through the process of yoga, people –– whether or not they realize it –– start breathing more deeply, and that leads to a certain sense of a calmness of mind. You’re aware of that happening. As your body starts to heal, all of a sudden blockages you weren’t even aware of start to clear up. Your breathing starts to get even easier, and your calmness of mind becomes more accessible. I can’t stress enough the importance of mindfulness of breathing in yoga. In traditional hatha classes, you spend a little bit of time in the beginning where you only work on breathing. If you find yourself in a class that’s like ‘Yoga Ab Crunch’ and they haven’t even mentioned an inhale or an exhale, alarms might start to go off. For true traditional yoga practicing, breathing is such a huge part of it.
Did you end up enjoying the more physical part of yoga?
Yeah, it’s crazy. Like I said in the book, [I thought] why would I ever want to do that? And now it’s two hours of my day. Stretching myself out, building strength in my body, making more space in my lungs, my rib cage, it’s strange. I assumed I would hate these things. It’s now one of my favorite parts of my day.
Is there something you’d say to people who think they’d hate yoga to change their mind?
I think I say it in the book, or at least I hope that I convey that yoga isn’t not the only way. It just happens to be really tried and tested, and works for me. It’s not going to work necessarily for everyone, but what is going to work for everyone is more connection in one way or another. If a specific practice comes kind of naturally to you, then maybe that’s the path you really want to explore. You can call it whatever you want, but as long as you are making efforts to connect yourself, then it’s going to be incredibly beneficial to your quality of life, whatever those efforts might look like.
Do any of your band members or friends join you in this while you’re on tour?
Yeah, I mean, on tour I end up doing a lot more yoga with…let’s call them ‘new friends’. [Laughs] My current friends, I usually just throw it out and say ‘Hey, this is where I’m gonna be if anyone wants to meet up for yoga or meditation’, or if I’m doing a Yoga for Punks, it’s pretty well publicized and people show up. I’m making a lot of friends through that.
As far as my bandmates, Ray [Carlisle] came to my class at my studio in Miami one time. He lately is more of a gym dude, so that’s fine. I’m just glad he’s taking care of himself. Cody [Carlisle]’s fiancé actually periodically drags him to a yoga class in Denver. So while he never joins me personally, he is dipping his toe in, and he always has really funny stories about it. I think they kinda land in classes that are upper level, so Cody’s just totally lost. But he’s trying! So that’s really awesome. [Darren] Chewka…I don’t know what Darren does. [Laughs] He’s an animal, he can definitely beat the shit out of his drums like very few people I know. But no, he doesn’t do yoga.
What do you feel like has been the reaction from friends and family of living a more mindful way?
I get a lot of both. You’ll get a lot of support, a lot of people like older punk rockers such as Trever [Keith] from Face to Face who’ve been around and seen some shit. Now they’re older, and as they calm down they have a deep real appreciation for this realm of people who try to be positive and take care of themselves and others.
Of course, there’s people where that’s not who they are in life, and that’s fine, too. I think it was the Dopamines—who are my super good buddies, I’m definitely not talking shit, I love those guys—they did one of their sets, and they were like [to me], “Hey, you know what’s more punk than yoga? The fuckin’ Dopamines!”
Do you have plans to write and release another book?
Yeah, I’m working on a second book. It’s really focused on death and that aspect of this whole living and feeling process. Like I said before, I feel like I have a unique opportunity to share and to hopefully help a few of people. So writing a book about death, hopefully a few people like it and we’ll go from there.