MC Yogi on finding his true path

David Briggs
Nicholas Giacomini said he relived important moments with his mentors while writing his memoir.  

So much in Nicholas Giacomini’s life is entwined with Toby’s Feed Barn. As the grandson of its founder, he got his first job there. It was where he married his wife, Amanda, and where the couple built a yoga studio. This fall, it was also the venue for the release party for the 37-year-old hip-hop artist’s new memoir, “Spiritual Graffiti: Finding My True Path,” that drew a crowd of family, friends and followers. 

Speaking with the Light afterwards, Mr. Giacomini recalled the event while composing thank-you cards for fans who pre-ordered his book. “I told the crowd, ‘How cool is it that instead of Barnes and Noble, we get this noble barn?’” He said the decision to put his story to paper was a way to honor his mentors who are no longer alive, and that sharing the less noble moments of his past—such as being arrested for graffiti or drug abuse—wasn’t difficult because, in part, he doesn’t feel confined to his story. But that story is compelling enough, as it traces his troubled teenage years to his discovery of yoga to the merger of that passion with another, hip-hop, in the form of his persona, MC Yogi.

Through his Dharma-infused rhymes and nearly 500,000 student hours of yoga teaching, Mr. Giacomini has amassed a significant following. He maintains a presence of positivity on his social media channels, with daily quotes and hand-drawn illustrations. His book features his sketches at the start of each chapter; indeed, he appears more confident with a pen in hand. 


Silas: When were you drawn to yoga?


Nicholas: I was never that athletic growing up because I was more interested in becoming a cartoonist. I loved to draw. I was a very quiet, shy kid and I didn’t really become physically active until about 17, when I started practicing yoga. I was never really drawn to competitive sports; it was never my thing. When I found yoga, I really gravitated to it because it was more introspective, more reflective and contemplative. And it was noncompetitive.


Silas: Was graffiti another first passion?


Nicholas: My first passion was comic books. The comics I used to read growing up were “Spiderman,” “X-Men,” “Fantastic Four.” And I loved anything related to “Star Wars.” All that kind of stuff. I remember walking through San Francisco when I was really young with my dad and seeing graffiti for the first time. I felt like I was looking at a comic book that came to life. I felt like I was inside the comic book. It was so colorful and there were so many characters that it really had a huge impact on my 7-year-old mind. The idea that you could put that much color onto a wall and everyone could see it was really exciting to me.


Silas: In the book, it appears that the night before you learned of your parents’ divorce you had that initial wash of consciousness. What millennials would call being hash-tag “woke.” 


Nicholas: (Laughs.) Are you a millennial?


Silas: Yes, I’m 25. 


Nicholas: I’m more of a bicentennial. But I might be Generation X.


Silas: To continue along your path, it seems like hip-hop and rapping became your next passion. 


Nicholas: Yeah, although the first music I really remember listening to, when I was little, was artists like James Brown, Chuck Berry, The Beach Boys, Fats Domino. It was old American music from the ’50s. And then when I got a little older I started to get turned on to The Beatles and Bob Marley. Hip-hop entered when I was around 7 years old, and I just really liked the energy. It was so different than any kind of music I had ever heard. It had a lot of feeling and style. It was big, bright and bold. When I heard that, it was like seeing graffiti for the first time. I felt really electrified by it and became really attracted to it. 


Silas: It’s interesting you associate electricity with these passions, since you seem like a very tranquil individual.


Nicholas: I think as a performer, when I put on my hat and glasses and go do a show, I sort of transform and become a different person. After the show, I go back to being a quiet person for the most part. I think when I perform, there’s a lot of energy and adrenaline and for me, it’s almost like a superhero jumping into the telephone booth and putting on the suit to go out and save the day. Before I go onto the stage, I go into a different mode. 


Silas: Does Eastern philosophy ever talk about the ability to switch lanes like that?


Nicholas: The quote that’s in the very beginning of my book talks about that and it says, and I’ll paraphrase, that when you commit yourself to a purpose that’s bigger than yourself, you transcend all your limitations and your mind breaks all the bondages and you literally become someone greater than you thought possible. For me to be MC Yogi and go out to perform in front of, like, 10,000 people or teach a huge class, I think there’s this experience of making yourself really big so that you can hold space for that many people but really bring the energy and get everyone to dance and have a good time, be uninhibited and free themselves. (The music really helps.) And then after, the yoga helps make yourself very small, working to stay humble. A seasoned yogi, according to the philosophy, is able to fluctuate between being really big and really small and can navigate when to do what.


Silas: You mentioned putting on the hat and glasses; is that a reference to Run DMC? With the fedora-type hat, or is that a coincidence? 


Nicholas: Sure, there’s an homage to New York hip-hop. The glasses are just because I’m nearsighted. 

Silas: You said you were 17 when you started practicing yoga. Who passed you the torch?


Nicholas: My father was my first yoga teacher and he taught me yoga by example. He was practicing and I saw that it was having a real benefit in his life. It inspired me to start practicing. It all started here in Point Reyes. This room was the first place I ever practiced yoga. And I got married in the studio here to my wife, Amanda. And we’ve taught 10,000 hours of yoga classes here, since we started in 2002. I consider Point Reyes the “point of rays.” It’s the center for me. Anything good in my life is thanks to my dad and thanks to Point Reyes.


Silas: Did you struggle with the book? 


Nicholas: I think the writing process was pretty fluid to me because I’m used to writing songs. For me, writing the book was like writing one really long song, and I felt pretty comfortable sharing a lot of the stuff in there because I don’t feel trapped by my story. I feel like my origin helped create who I am, but I’m not my story. In the beginning of the book I was going to say, “This is my story and I’m not sticking to it.” I think there’s something liberating when you tell your story and realize that you’re not bound by your story. Some people say they really struggle writing books and I can appreciate that, but for me it was a pretty joyful experience because I got to relive some incredible moments in my life where I had received so much wisdom from my mentors. And I got to be with them while I was writing about them. I wrote about my dog, who is no longer in his body. It made me grateful to be alive. When I look back to all the things that I survived, it makes me appreciate every day more. It makes me value my time. 


Silas: Was there anything that you saw in a different light when writing about it? 


Nicholas: It made me really appreciate my health and all the unhealthy things I did when I was younger. I wish in hindsight I would have known how important your health is. Now that I’m a little older and I travel a lot, I just really value being healthy and having energy to be able to do what I love. My grandpa Toby used to always say, “Health is the greatest wealth.” He used to say that all the time and I used to just smile and nod, but now I really understand what he meant. 


Silas: In the book you talk about your teenage years and your relationship with drugs. When you’re in your deepest form of meditation or yoga, do you feel like you access a similar high?


Nicholas: No, it’s way bigger and deeper. It’s longer lasting. You don’t get a hangover with meditation. It’s a long, rolling wave of clarity and calm that carries you though the day just from meditating for 15 to 20 minutes in the morning. It’s not an upper or a downer; it’s more centering. 


Silas: Is that part of your daily routine? 


Nicholas: Same as brushing your teeth. 


Silas: Were there any stories that you couldn’t fit in the book or that hit the chopping block?


Nicholas: I talk about at least two major car accidents that I was in. I was actually in four major, life-threatening accidents. The others were when my friend was driving drunk in high school and we hit the side of an embankment. And another one where I flipped a car in haste trying to get to class on time. I didn’t put all those accidents in there because I figured no one would ever drive in a car with me again. 


Silas: What do you take away from that? They were life threatening and you walked away. 


Nicholas: I travel a lot and am pretty much gone every other weekend of the month. I know how important it is to be safe when you’re traveling. In the old days, when I was younger, I was reckless. Now we say a prayer when we travel. I just feel real lucky and I try to be really safe. 


Silas: When you say a prayer, where do you think that prayer goes to?


Nicholas: To the universe. To whoever is looking out for me. I always feel like my grandpa is looking out for me. 


Silas: Do you say a prayer going through the Robin Williams Tunnel?


Nicholas: I always hold my breath. Every time. 


Silas: Earlier, you said that you don’t even worry about your own opinions about yourself. 


Nicholas: Yeah, opinions come and go. They’re like clouds. I’m more interested in the sun. 


Silas: How do you go about translating yoga into contemporary Western society? 


Nicholas: Yoga is really a science and, in my mind, a form of medicine. It’s a way of healing and calming your nervous system down to become more open and relaxed. It works really well in modern American culture because it’s the thing that we probably need more than anything else. Aside from a healthier food system and environment, we also need a healthy internal environment. I think yoga and meditation, whether it’s Buddhist, Hindu or any form of direct spiritual connection that doesn’t rely on some dogmatic authority, is more D.I.Y. You have to do work. I think one of the reasons it’s so popular is because it really does work. The more you practice it, the better you feel. 


Silas: I was looking over your followers on social media and there’s definitely a following. When did you realize that your message was being heard?


Nicholas: That’s just the nature of music. Music is like the wind: it goes everywhere. You can’t really control it once you put it out; it just travels. I think people have been connected by the music and all the events that we’ve done over the years. I think we’ve taught over a half-million people yoga in the past 20 years. It’s just a result of being out there and traveling. 


Silas: Have you thought about what part of your art tends to connect? 


Nicholas: When I share a lot of my yoga philosophy in my music, I always consider it to be like the comic book version. I’m just making it a little more fun and accessible without losing any of its juice. These are all things that I’ve been practicing for the last 20 years and I’ve devoted my life to really developing. It comes from a heartfelt place, because these practices have really helped me. I would go as far as saying they’ve kept me alive. And so if more people can benefit from that, I think that’s a real blessing. 


Silas: When did you start the book, and was it something you had thought of doing?


Nicholas: I started the book when we were touring about 30 cities. I got the call from Harper Collins, who said they were interested in doing a book. They had heard me on a [Rob Bell] podcast that I did. I ended up going to Maine, where I stayed for a week and just started writing like a madman. The book itself took about six months to complete, and it was all-consuming. I missed a lot of parties and being able to see family and friends, but I just wrote until it was finished. I wasn’t planning on writing a book; I thought I was going to make a record. But once the call came, I decided it would be a great way to share some of the things that helped me out along the way, thanks to my teachers. 


Silas: Writing a memoir requires a certain amount of audacity and vulnerability. What was that like for you?


Nicholas: I don’t think I had any issues with either of those things because I was used to sharing my story through music. Over the years, I’ve gone into juvenile halls to talk with kids because I used to live in a group home, for two years. I got used to sharing my story, so it was natural to share it one more time, in a different format. I was already in that practice of being reflective and looking back to see what I went through growing up and really working to turn those experiences into teachable moments or wisdom that I could share. To be honest, I wanted to do a graphic novel. I did do a lot of hand-drawn illustrations, like the chapter headers. That was probably the most fun.  


Silas: Growing up, did you think that Point Reyes would forever be your home?


Nicholas: This is my home. There are so many places in Point Reyes that really speak to me as a meditator. For instance, we have a place called Pierce Point. When you meditate, that’s what you’re doing: you’re piecing the innermost point of your mind. And then you have Mount Vision. When you spend time out here, there’s a real magic. Of course, that’s why people come here from all over the world. Having had the good fortune of growing up here, I think there was something that really affected me when I started doing yoga and meditating. I could really slow down and appreciate how incredibly beautiful West Marin is. I don’t think I could really appreciate it when I was younger, and I had to leave. When we came back and opened the studio, I was really appreciative of all the people who worked so hard to keep this place sacred and to take care of the land. The more I travel, the more I realize how precious this place is.