In 1992, a 30-year-old Englishman by the name of Dorian Yates stepped on stage inside the Helsinki Ice Hall in Helsinki, Finland for his first Mr. Olympia contest. For the first time in eight years, eight-time Sandow winner Lee Haney was absent, opening the door for top competitors such as Lee Labrada, Shawn Ray, and Kevin Levrone to capture the title. However, it was clear upon Yates’s first back double-bicep pose that the $100,000 cash prize and title of Mr. Olympia would be his. 

Yates did more than win his first of six Olympias that night. At about 260 pounds, “The Shadow” coined the term “mass monster” by setting a new standard of size while maintaining a level of conditioning that many akin to being chiseled out of granite. In the gym, he forwent the typical high-volume used by most competitors and popularized his now-legendary high-intensity style—performing six to 10 sets per body part with one to two all-out sets for each exercise. It was brutal, yet effective. All of a sudden, everyone was playing catch-up to Yates.  

Now, 22 years since his last Olympia win, Yates is on a completely different path—one that emphasizes yoga and Pilates, marijuana, and ayahuasca [an herbal brew that elicits hallucinations]—and is adamant on sharing it with others. We caught up with Yates to discuss his transition from bodybuilding icon to an enlightened spiritualist, his psychedelic drug use, and what he’d like his legacy to be. 

M&F: You’re looking pretty slender nowadays.

Yates: Yeah, I don’t really care about having a bodybuilding physique, and I have all of the injuries that I’m carrying from all of the heavy training I did. [Yates has torn both a biceps and triceps muscle.]

So you don’t miss being that size?

That was a look that I had for competition. I was always quite removed from it. As far as the physique, [it wasn’t] really me, just a physique I was working on. My body now is the vehicle that I use to experience life, and I need it to be as functional as possible. The look that comes with it is the look that comes with it, and I’m still lean with good abs. 

Considering that bodybuilding is a 24/7 job, I find it hard to believe that you were “removed from it.” What do you mean by that?

It was different. That was a project I was working on, and I can present the results at the end of the year to my peers and they’re going to judge me. I couldn’t give a shit what people think in the gym or walking down the street, I have no interest in their opinion. Like an artist, I didn’t want to unveil the painting or sculpture until it was finished. So, I treated it like that. 

I was able to find your one and only Muscle & Fitness cover, and you looked quite uncomfortable. What’s the story behind that? 

I guess it comes across exactly how I felt. I think this photo was taken in 1991 or ’92, and I could not smile for the life of me. That’s fine for FLEX, but this was Joe Weider’s attempt to put me on a Muscle & Fitness cover. I was next to some skinny little model doing this foo-foo shoot and that’s not me. I’m not from fucking California; I’m from Birmingham, from the pits of gym hell. I couldn’t smile. So in the end, Joe just throws his hands up in frustration, and I got a lot more FLEX covers. 

Courtesy of Weider Health and Fitness / M+F Magazine

Courtesy of Weider Health and Fitness

Bodybuilding comes down to showing off your physique, and it sounds like you resented attention. What did you get out of the sport?

I was sort of an anti-bodybuilder. Peter McGough, the editor-in-chief of FLEX at the time, told me that I was the opposite of the stereotypical bodybuilder. I didn’t like people looking at me, I didn’t like being on stage. I was introverted. To me, bodybuilding was a mission of self-mastery. I love the training, I love the challenge, and I love the individuality of the sport—it was all down to me. It was about how hard and smart I trained, and how well I did with my diet. [Also,] probably not having a father as a teenager, these guys become surrogate male role models for me to look up to. 

Were you happy in your competitive days?

I wouldn’t say I was as happy as I am now. I was so intensely focused on the mission of being the best bodybuilder that I could, it was a really extreme approach. As far as total dedication to a task, I can safely say that no one’s done that before and no one will do it again because it was just so extreme. Everything else in my life was on the back burner, and bodybuilding is all I thought about. There was no room for spontaneity and joy. 

At what point did you decide to stop training like a bodybuilder?

It was around six or seven years ago, but it wasn’t overnight. I asked myself, “You’re doing this bodybuilding training, which you’re struggling to do because of injuries, why are you doing it now?” I enjoy training and enjoy pushing myself in the gym, but [I realized] that there are other things that I could do that may be more beneficial. I just let go of my ego. 

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You’re 57 years old. What does your training look like now?

I do yoga, I do Pilates, and hiking, bicycling, and swimming. You know, cardio stuff. I don’t do the heavy training because I can’t really, but I also don’t need too. I have great cardio, mobility, and flexibility—way better than when I was 30.

How much do you weigh now?

I weigh 225. I was 260 pounds in contest shape.

What’s the best part about being smaller?

I feel more functional and mobile. It’s less effort to carry it around. Also, to my great satisfaction, I was able to walk into a Hugo Boss and buy a suit off of the rack. I always kinda liked nice clothes and fashion since I was young, but when you’re that size, I mean forget about it. 

Do you find it ironic that you’ve admitted to using anabolic steroids, but you’re getting more flack from your fans for smoking a joint and using ayahuasca?

Yeah, it’s funny. Some guys complain and say, “I’m going to stop following you and to tell my son, who idolizes you, to stop following you.” I feel like replying and saying, “Yeah, but the steroids and growth hormone you were cool with?” 

The performance-enhancing drugs have way more possible negative effects than smoking marijuana. I’m just honest about my experiences in life. I’ve done all kinds of shit. I’ve done alcohol, cocaine. If it’s disruptive, I’ve done it. Also, I smoke a little bit in the evening to relax, but it’s not like I sit and smoke all day. You could sit and smoke all day, and you can sit and eat cheeseburgers all day and get fucking obese—but should we ban cheeseburgers? No.

Chris Lund / M+F Magazine

Chris Lund

What was your first experience with ayahuasca like?

It was 2008. My wife, Gal, and I were on a boat with some guys on the Amazon in Brazil. Because of the cannabis community, I knew vaguely what it was and asked the guys if they could get us some for a couple of hundred bucks. At this point, I was still drinking and doing coke recreationally. When you do ayahuasca you need to go in totally clean—no sex, no sugar, no salt—for at least two weeks before. Nobody told me. I could have died. I got violently ill and was wondering where my spirit animal was, where were my visions and the wealth of information. But afterward, I did recall [hearing] a repetitive message in my head, which was, “stop poisoning yourself.” I dismissed it because of the negative experience. I’d rather smoke a joint, take some mushrooms, or drop acid and have a pleasant experience where I don’t get sick. But I realized how powerful she—I say “she” because everyone feels that [ayahuasca] represents feminine energy—is and that she gave me exactly what I needed, “stop poisoning yourself and then come back and see me.”

So you quit drinking and cocaine after that?

Not overnight. I was having fun, partying and all. It wasn’t all of the time; it was on the weekend once or twice a month—that was the circle I moved in. But at some point, it wasn’t fun anymore. 

In your prime, your back was considered to be one of the best ever. Now, you’ve covered it with this ayahuasca-inspired tattoo. Is that in any way symbolic of you moving on from you bodybuilding days for good?

It’s not just covered up, I’d say it’s enhanced. Like painting a wall doesn’t cover it up, it enhances it. I’m not going around throwing up back double biceps or rear lat spreads, there are videos and photos of that. My back is a big space, and the tattoo represents a big event in my life.

What does your tattoo mean?

The lion was revealed to me as being representative of my spirit. So that’s me, and I’m surrounded by plants and geometric shapes, and messages that come in symbol form. There’s a story about the plants, the universe comes through the plants, teaching me, and then I’m inspired to teach other people with the information I’ve got, and that’s one of my roles now.

How are you teaching others in real life?

I’m running these ayahuasca camps out in Costa Rica now at a place called Sultara. You go there for a week, and you take the medicine four times a week. You’re on a special diet, and you have shamans, psychiatrists, and medicine healers. It’s a healing center. I’ve seen people literally change their life, like, “Fuck this job. This is what I want to do.” I plan to continue that. 

You still train bodybuilding competitors. Has your weight training philosophy changed?

It’s not really different, apart from contest preparation where I ease back on the intensity and the weights because there’s too much vulnerability for injury with the dehydration and less body fat. Back then, I pushed myself 100% all of the time. I learned that sometimes you need to back off a little. 

Aside from your bodybuilding career, what do you want your legacy to be?

[Being] Mr. Olympia is a part of my experience, a very important part of my life, but it doesn’t define me. That’s not who I am. I can be, and am, a lot of other things as well. I hope to keep inspiring people to improve themselves and to be more in touch with their spiritual selves. We’re just getting started.