Last Thursday I was sitting in my room in Tulum looking out at the ocean. It was a stormy day with lots of ominous rainclouds and whitecaps. I found myself feeling melancholy and nostalgic, thinking of my dear friend Rich McGowan back in Encinitas, dying of cancer. For several minutes I felt Rich’s presence very strongly, as if he were sitting beside me and we were sharing a last bittersweet moment together before he said goodbye. When I arrived home from Mexico Saturday evening I was not surprised to hear that Rich had passed away earlier in the day. Even though all of us who were close to Rich knew it was coming, it still felt like a sledgehammer to my heart.
For over a decade Rich was an integral part of the Ashtanga Yoga Center—co-teaching with me in Mysore classes, leading his own classes, assisting me in teacher trainings and workshops, and playing the dumbek when we sang the Hanuman Chalisa. He was always dependable, consistent, loyal, humble, and generous. Over the years some students have asked me to give them a spiritual name, perhaps hoping that it would help to unlock some inner potential. Rich never asked me for a spiritual name—he would never do something so self-serving—but I gave him one anyway because I thought he deserved it. The name I gave Rich is Lakshmana, the name of Rama’s devoted brother in The Ramayana. As Rama is about to enter the forest for his 14 years of exile, Lakshmana says to him, “You must take me with you. I will carry your weapons and clear your path before you. I will gather fruit and hunt for you, while Sita and you walk together on the mountain slopes.” Rich fully embraced Lakshmana and Hanuman’s example of selfless service. For Rich it was always, “What can I do to help?” and never, “What’s in it for me?” He was always happy to be my right hand man, the second banana whose ego never got in the way of doing his job. On the surface Rich was the archetypal surfer dude—tanned, laid-back, with a warm, friendly, down to earth manner. Underneath this exterior shone a heart of gold and a soul of rare sincerity and purity. Everyone loved Rich for his sweetness and gentleness, his easy smile and his twinkling blue eyes. He had a gift for making people feel comfortable in his presence. Just today one of my students said to me, “For the first six months I came to class you wouldn’t even look at me, but Rich always knew when I needed help and was there for me.” Another student shared today a piece of wisdom she received from Rich, “Never stop having fun.” Surfing, playing beach volleyball, drumming, teaching and practicing yoga, and making friends were some of the fun things Rich liked to do.
As Rich’s illness progressed he was gradually forced to give up many of the things he loved. He kept fighting till the end though, and even as late as last summer showed up every day to assist me in the teacher training and repaint the yoga studio. As long as he still had enough strength in his body, Rich was still being of service—teaching yoga to kids with cancer at Children’s Hospital, assisting in yoga classes at the YMCA, helping me as much as he was able to. During the last few months of his life, Rich’s illness progressed rapidly and he finally had no choice but to surrender to it. It was devastating for all of us who were close to Rich to watch our strong, beloved brother being taken away from us. The last time I visited him he was still upbeat, talking about watching the whales, dolphins, and surfers from his window. In The Ramayana during Rama’s battle in Lanka with Ravana, the demon king, Lakshmana has been gravely wounded and lies close to death on the battlefield. Rama kneels beside him and says, “If my brother dies, I care not if I win or lose the war. I do not desire the kingdom or even my life. I seem to have lost the desire to even rescue Sita. A wife like her may perhaps be found, but I will never find another like Lakshmana.”
Rest in peace dear brother. Know that you touched many lives in a good way and you will always be loved and remembered as the embodiment of a true yogi.