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Charismatic guru Michael Stone popularized ancient ideas

Yogi and meditation guru Michael Stone devoted his life to the study of Buddhist tradition and modern psychology. He taught yoga while studying philosophy and psychoanalysis at the University of Toronto, wrote several books, hosted a podcast and would wake up as early as 4 a.m. to practise.

Ian MacKenzie

While he struggled privately with a debilitating mental illness, the world knew Michael Stone, who died in Victoria on July 16, as a charismatic yogi, Zen Buddhist teacher, activist, speaker and author.

He had a devoted international following for his teachings, which blended ancient ideas with mainstream psychology and showed people how enlightenment could come through mindfulness and action in everyday life.

He shared his ideas in five published books, including his most popular, The Inner Tradition of Yoga (2008), for which he recently wrote a new edition. He taught and spoke at retreats, workshops and other events in Canada, the United States, Thailand, Denmark and other parts of Europe. He ran the podcast Awake in the World and nurtured a virtual community via social media and a website loaded with content, including videos and writings.

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While many leaders in the North American Buddhist community were from an older generation, Mr. Stone was the "fresh, new voice," says Elaine Jackson, a friend and former student.

"He saw ideas in everything," Ms. Jackson says. "He made things feel sensible and relatable and modern."

Mr. Stone often combined complex ideas with humour. "All my friends have Buddhas in their homes now. Zen has become an acceptable way to decorate your house," Mr. Stone wisecracked in a 2014 TED Talk filmed in Toronto. (The joke followed a quick but intelligent history of physical representations of the Buddha.)

"He knew the moment when to drop a pop-culture reference in the midst of telling an ancient dharma story that would make it much deeper," says Ian Mackenzie, a filmmaker who featured Mr. Stone in his short films Reactor and Love and Shadows in the Occupy Movement.

After the Occupy Wall Street protest started in September, 2011, Mr. Stone began speaking out in support of the movement, eventually travelling to protest camps in several cities. He felt there was a link between the Buddha's teachings and the developments he was seeing.

"These protests are exposing the gap between democracy and capitalism. The way democracy and capitalism have been bound is coming to an end. We want democracy but we can't afford the runaway-growth economy that isn't benefiting the 99 per cent," he wrote in an essay for Lion's Roar, a Buddhist magazine.

While his earnest activism was heartfelt, he also made space for humour and levity in his everyday life. Mr. Mackenzie recalls seeing a boyish playfulness in his friend when he was with his young sons. (Mr. Stone wrote about fatherhood and thought in his 2014 book Family Wakes Us Up.) "It was like a party broke out wherever we went," Ms. Jackson recalls. "We'd go to the park for a picnic and ended up making a human pyramid."

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Much of Mr. Stone's success traces back to a mind that his wife, Carina Stone, calls "rapid fire and wide open." She adds, "I think his neurological wiring made him a certain kind of genius and also vulnerable. A coin has two sides: the light and shadow."

Mr. Stone had bipolar disorder, a condition many of his students and followers did not know about, though he had disclosed his diagnosis to close friends and family in recent years. Mr. Stone had been taking medication under the care of a psychiatrist and had changed his prescription recently because of concerns about his kidneys. Though he had increased the dose, it was not controlling his moods. "It was exhausting for him," Ms. Stone says.

On July 13, Mr. Stone left his home on Pender Island, B.C., and went to Victoria. He had previously spoken about trying to find a safe, non-addictive opioid to level his moods. That day, he called a substance-abuse and addictions pharmacy, probably to request such a medication, but he was refused. He then purchased a drug off the street. When he did not return home that night, Ms. Stone called the police. He was found unconscious not long after and was transported to a hospital. Initial tests suggest that he had opioids – possibly fentanyl – in his system, but conclusive results won't be available for months. He was declared brain dead on July 14 and for two days was kept on life support, while his lungs and kidneys were harvested for donation. He was 42 at the time of his death.

Michael Jason Stone was born on Aug. 19, 1974, to Henry Stone, an architect, and Bonnie (née Eckler) a teacher. His parents split up when he was a young adult and his mother remarried. Michael's brother, Jayme, was a few years younger and his sister, Sunny, was a decade younger than he was. The family lived in Toronto's affluent Forest Hill neighbourhood.

As a child, Michael would visit his uncle Ian, who had schizophrenia, in a mental institution. The two used to listen to the Beatles' White Album and read aloud from Buddhist texts. "The core of the Buddhist teachings is going against the stream and that's what you need to do, Michael," Mr. Stone once quoted his uncle as saying to him.

As a young adult, Mr. Stone started practising yoga regularly and soon took teacher training. "Anything he did, he could do it well immediately," says Simone Moir, a long-time friend. He taught yoga while studying philosophy and psychoanalysis at the University of Toronto. Meanwhile, he was reading about Eastern philosophies, particularly Zen Buddhism, and incorporated those ideas into his yoga classes. Ms. Moir says other teachers would often talk about spiritual ideas they had learned from their own teachers; Mr. Stone got his content from the original texts.

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Mr. Stone then completed a master's in psychology from Vermont College of Fine Arts and started a private therapy practice. Around that time, he did formal training in Buddhism and gave his first dharma talk, a public discussion of Buddhism, at a Toronto yoga studio. Ms. Moir recalls he was so confident that he made an audio recording of that talk

In 2003, he founded Centre of Gravity, a sangha – or community – that focused on yoga and meditation, and ran it out of his garage in downtown Toronto. The same year, his son Aryln was born.

A few years later, he and his partner, musician Michelle McAdorey, broke up and the sangha operated out of different locations in the city. It grew in popularity: He would have 40 students on an average Tuesday night to do yoga, meditate and listen to a talk. At one point, his weekly events were garnering huge lineups.

By 2008, Mr. Stone had fully wound down his private psychotherapy work, published his first book and turned to his writing, teaching and spiritual work full time. He ran his own retreats, including an annual New Year's silent retreat, first in Ontario, later in upstate New York.

He published a book a year for the next three years. In early 2010, he began dating Carina Lof, a chiropractor who was then one of his students at the Centre of Gravity. (She left the community for a few months at the start of the relationship to avoid any concerns about conflict of interest).

The couple had their first son, Olin, in 2013.

"He was overwhelmed," she says of that busy time. "He needed nature around." In 2014, they moved to Pender Island, which was near her parents and sister. Other members of the sangha took it over and renamed it Gravity, while Mr. Stone focused on his freelance work. In 2015, the couple got married and a few months later had another baby, a boy named Hudson. Ms. Stone is currently pregnant, with the child due in December.

At the time of his death, Mr. Stone was involved in a myriad of projects: He had a busy travel schedule ahead – his long-time personal assistant had just increased her hours to help – and was working on several major writing projects, including a book on trauma and one on mental states.

Mr. Stone was deeply committed to the ideas he wrote about. He often rose as early as 4 a.m. to practise yoga and meditation. When family life made that difficult, he would incorporate meditation into everyday acts. He worked very hard, often doing his writing in airports and on planes.

"I've seen him working when he could barely stand up," Ms. Jackson recalls. He accomplished a great deal thanks to his quick mind and that was bolstered by a strong belief in himself. "He always had this incredible confidence and this manner of moving across the room where he just commanded attention," Ms. Moir says. "The charisma was really strong."

Mr. Stone leaves his wife, Carina; sons, Arlyn, Olin and Hudson; father, Henry; mother, Bonnie Lewis; brother, Jayme; and sister, Sunny.

"It may be hard … to imagine how he could take such a risk with a young family, baby on the way, with such a full life and such fortune," said a statement by Mr. Stone's wife and senior students, which was posted on his Facebook page. "It could be easy to shake one's head and think, what a shame. Culturally we don't have enough language to talk about this. Rather than feel the shame and tragedy of it, can we find questions? … What am I uncomfortable hearing? What can we do for ourselves and others who have impulses or behaviors we cannot understand?"

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