In his poker-playing days, he won big tournaments in Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands. He made final tables at the Master Classics of Poker in Amsterdam and at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. He ran the biggest poker website in Holland before he sold it to Everest Poker. He ran forexfox.nl as well, but poker was always his main focus.
We're talking about Sijbrand Maal.
About two years ago, things got rather quiet around Maal. He didn't show his face as much and wasn't in the spotlight anymore. His Facebook profile started to show more and more updates on something called The New Yoga School — something completely different than poker.
During Michiel Brummelhuis' preparation for the WSOP November Nine, we ran into Maal, who was at the table to help his friend out. Maal turned out to be one of the instructors at the yoga school and one of the owners, and was kind enough to sit down for an interview with PokerNews. We met with Maal, who does something completely different than poker now, in the living room of his newly-opened yoga school.
PokerNews: How did you end up here?
Maal: I've been into yoga for some time now, even when I was still playing poker for a living. Back then it was just once a week in the gym. I liked it, but not much more than that. Bit by bit I got more into it and I started to do it more and more. I subscribed to a dedicated yoga school and soon found out what it did to me both physically and mentally.
Every now and then I used to get into a special flow during the poker tournaments I played. Afterwards, I asked myself what exactly it was that I had experienced. Why couldn't I just turn on this state of extreme focus and concentration whenever I felt like it? Why was I always so restless? Why did I make such stupid mistakes from time to time, while at other times I would be razor sharp and look right through people? When I started to do more yoga, I experienced this state during my yoga practice as well.
My wife Mariken and I travelled to Bali as she was enrolling in a training program to become a yoga instructor. I came along as a spectator, and I wasn't thinking about doing the training myself at all as I was extremely stiff at the time. So Mariken went to the training and I dropped her off with our scooter at half past six in the morning in a small little village in Bali. The woman who would be giving the training asked me why I wasn't joining.
“Are you insane?” I asked her, knowing I had no business there at all.
“Well, I think you're ready” she said.
“This is ludicrous,” I thought. It was the first time she ever saw me.
“Give it a try for a day and make your decision after,” she finished.
When I gave it a try, it felt like coming home, it just felt right. After that, things went really fast. It was a month of super-intensive practice. Seven days a week we would start at seven in the morning and it would last till seven in the evening. It was really both physically and mentally a big challenge. They break you down to build you up again.
We read a lot of books about awareness and similar stuff. One of the books we had to read was by Eckhart Tolle, an enlightened mind that propagates and teaches it as well. That book touched me and made me even more interested. I went deeper and deeper. We stayed for six or seven weeks, I think. Just practicing yoga and we didn't drink a drop of alcohol.
After the training, we came home and didn't really knew what to do. I wasn't playing all that much poker anymore for the last year and a half — poker had become a hobby for me instead of my income. I couldn't beat poker anymore and I didn't really have the drive to get to the level to beat it again. I was kind of done with trying to improve.
Right off the bat, I had the feeling we had to do something with yoga, maybe start a little yoga school. We thought about starting something small in our neighborhood and see who would come in. We started out giving yoga classes at gyms and people's homes.
I taught someone that knew Johan Noorloos, a rather famous yoga instructor. He wanted to start his own yoga school, but that was too big a project for him. He needed people and that's where my wife Mariken and I came in. It was a good match as I had some experience running a business, and Mariken has lots of experience in marketing. We started talking and one thing led to another. Now I'm one of the co-owners of the biggest yoga school in the Netherlands. All of the sudden, I have to work really hard.
How have people reacted?
Lot's of people were skeptical, like "What's this fool doing now?" But it wasn't even such a drastic change, of course, people around me knew what I was doing. It started out with healthier eating, more exercise, less drinking. Even that will lead to resistance. You change a little, but things like that go bit by bit. But when people come in here, they are still amazed. Even for my parents it hasn't really sunk in yet what I'm up to these days, and maybe things haven't even really sunk in for me. Things have gone so fast.
Your ambitions to start a a small little neighborhood school didn't materialize. This place is massive. How long did it take you to get to this point?
In April of 2013, we had our first conversation, so things went really fast. Johan already had all the plans, but there was lots of work still to be done. He already had his eye on this location, but things still needed to be financed. As we joined the team everything got more pace. I invested some money and I work for free till the moment we're making profit. That makes things a bit easier.
Yoga did a lot for me — and not yoga alone, but also meditation and awareness. As I said in the practice just now, you can get into a sort of state, a flow I experienced in poker as well. It makes you get rid of your shit. It can get you rid of your demons from the past — family issues, you name it. So there's a method to get rid of stuff like that, and I experienced that myself.
I came back from Bali and was released of all stress. I had some stuff that would always stress me out, every day. After Bali, all that was gone. It didn't faze me anymore. "What the fuck? This is cool!" I thought. You'll only know what it's like when you've experienced it. If someone just tells you like I do now you'll just think it sounds good, but when you experience it you'll know. And that's what has happened to Mariken and I. And, in my case at least, you'll want to share that. It's really super cool. I wanted to really propagate it as widely as possible.
And tell as many people as possible.
People have to be openminded about it. That's the first step; you have to be open to it, otherwise it'll be an agony. We wanted to create a safe environment in Amsterdam where people would be able to develop themselves with self awareness and yoga, all on your own level. A place where you could feel at home. Even if you just want a cup of coffee or tea, or just something to eat, that's fine as well.
How does a typical day for you look these days?
I only give two classes a week, but we're open a hundred hours a week in which we offer about sixty classes. So yeah, there's a lot of stuff to be done. We have thirty instructors working for us, and then some people for the catering. On top of that, we have about 20 volunteers. It's a big organization.
It really is awesome, it's like a dream coming true. It's not a dream I've had my entire life, though. A year and a half ago, I had never thought about this, but it is a dream. I'm full of joy and I want as many people as possible to give it a try and have an open mind about it. Once you've experienced the feeling, that's just cool. And you'll profit from it for the rest of your life. You can really make your life that much easier going. You can improve your physique, you can make your body healthier and clear your mind. You can make the shit in your life livable, you can let things roll off your back.
They call it enlightenment. That doesn't mean you're walking around in a white cassock, it just means you're free of a lot of ballast. It'll make you a happier person. It's my ambition these days to help people experience that, and that's what life is really about, right? If you can make people walk around with a smile on their faces, what's better than that?
Are you yourself happier than back when you were sitting at the poker table?
I was happy back then as well. Nowadays, I'm just a lot less fickle. Back then, I went from highs to lows, not just bankroll-wise, but also in emotions. Now I'm a lot more stable. I think these days I would be able to enjoy it more as well. Back then, I was worrying way too much. Things like "I have to be successful, this has to work out! Things can't go wrong!" would spin through my head all the time. I was scared.
With this project, you're taking a much bigger risk than you were at the poker table, at least financially. But it doesn't nearly stress you out as much?
Yeah, I simply don't care. If things go wrong, that's just that. You see, I won't be on the ground if things go wrong, I'll just take a really big hit. But these days, I can let things like that go.
Of course, when I'm behind my computer for an hour and a half and let's say my file gets corrupted, I again feel angry like I used to. But these days I know that that's not me. That's quite the progress to make as a person, but once you realize that it's not you but just the thoughts in your head, it won't have as big of an impact as it used to. I can still be sad, but I won't lose myself in it as I know that's not really me.
For you, it's really a new project, after playing poker for a living now you're into yoga. The two things almost look opposites of each other — from enormously crowded and busy, like, let's say the Amazon Room at the WSOP, to a state of total relaxation like in your classes here. Do you think yoga can be good for players still playing poker as well?
Yeah, of course. If I would've had the mental state that I have now when I still played poker competitively...
That's just it you know, I lost from myself as well. You can drive yourself crazy when you're playing poker. You know how it goes with bad beats and tilt, but if you learn how to handle things like that, that's a huge asset to have as a poker player. But it's something you'll have to chose yourself, you can't just take 10 lessons and be ready. It's hard work to become good at this, just like poker.
Really practical; you'll stay calm and you'll see what exactly happens inside when you're facing something at the poker table. You observe your own emotions. I used to get really tilted from time to time. I could sit behind my computer and really punch my own leg after receiving a horrible beat, I would get so mad. My mind would play tricks with me and let me face extreme scenarios like, "Why am I always so unlucky? If I lose this pot, I might have to quit poker. If I quit poker, I'll have to find a job again and work for a boss as I'll soon run out of money. But I don't see myself working nine to five, what will I do?" In poker, you have all the time in the world to think and your mind can really make you upset. That's what happens.
Gaining control over those feelings is a huge asset for a poker player. I'm looking forward to making my comeback one day. I just want to see what playing poker with a mindset like mine will be like. I used to be my own worst enemy, I could be extremely concentrated but also full of self-pity who claimed to be super unlucky all the time. That's all different now.
Are you going to make that comeback?
You know what, I'm not sure if I miss the dream or the game itself. Playing poker is really romantic. I've had a couple of fantastic years playing poker. I'm not sure what it is exactly that I miss. Do I miss to travel to exotic locations with my friends? Do I miss going deep in tournaments and winning big sums of money? Or do I miss the game itself?
There's a lot of sadness at the poker table. It has become a lot rougher and tougher to beat. People have become less sociable at the table, I think. And there's a logical explanation for that, things aren't as easy as they used to be. There's a bigger pool of players battling it out for the same amount of fish.
With yoga, you have a group of people that are together in search for the same. With poker, you'll see the other end of the spectrum — people in a negative state of mind. I'm not sure if I want to be in between those people for too long. That's a choice. It's not like I can't anymore, more if I want to or not. I'm not yet sure about that.
Also, if I want to make a comeback, I'll have to study real hard. I really have to go for it, otherwise they'll eat me alive. At the moment, I don't really have time for that.
I started my poker career by going to the local casino for six months straight and just watched the game and read about the game at home. After a half year, I thought I was ready and I started playing. I never looked back and never dipped to zero bankroll. Something like that will have to happen again for me to think of a comeback, otherwise it will just be like setting money on fire. That can be fun as well of course, I'll play a tournament every now and then just for fun. The poker world is amazing and I still have a lot of friends playing. It's a beautiful world with all of its ups and downs, but as a poker player you're really living the life. I enjoyed it a lot.
Practicing and teaching yoga appears to be something like the opposite of the egocentric existence of a poker player who tries to exploit other people's mistakes to financially benefit from it. But that's not mutually exclusive to you, is it?
The ultimate goal of poker is to get someone else's money, but to me that isn't what poker is about. To me, poker is a fantastic game where you compete with others who are all self aware of what they're doing. The competition is what drew me to the game. I never saw it as a way to amass as much money as possible. I was in it for the love of the game, not the love of the money. I really think the only way to last is if you're in love with the game. In that regard, the two can go together.
If every time you sit down you say to yourself that you're going to destroy everybody at the table, that you're going to get everybody's money and afterwards you'll get drunk at the bar, maybe combining poker and yoga won't really work out for you.
It's all about self awareness, being aware of what you're doing. If you're drunk every day you're not really self aware, you're really unaware of what's happening. If you're like that, yoga and poker will be really far apart for you. But I think the two can be a good combination in most cases, especially attitude-wise.
You were part of the crew that helped Michiel Brummelhuis out during his preparation for the November Nine. Did you give him any advice?
I think Brummelhuis' biggest talent is his equanimity. Nothing really fazes him. He's either a natural, or he taught himself really well, but either way I think his state of mind is his greatest asset. He really has a talent for that.
Of course, inside of him a lot of stuff goes on, but he won't let it take over. You'll see him do some crazy stuff in tournaments from time to time, but I always feel it's part of the plan, that he's alright. He might do something crazy, but he's aware of doing it and he does it for a reason. So no, I didn't give him any advice.
As a yoga instructor, you have to be really open about things. At the poker table, that might not be the best approach. Was that a big turnaround for you?
I've always been quite open. At the poker table, that wasn't my strongest point maybe, but I've always been able to see people, understand them. That comes in handy now.
During my classes, I'm really open, I'll share everything. What people think of me is still important, but not as important as it used to be. It doesn't bother me that much anymore. I am who I am, and I'm not afraid to show it. What people think of that is up to them.