The first week of January holds special significance for me because it marks the anniversary of my first yoga class—January 6th, 1978. At that time I was employed as a “Mental Health Worker” at San Luis Rey psychiatric hospital in Encinitas, working long hours in a stressful environment for low pay. I was exhausted, stressed out, depressed, still recovering from the aftermath of a case of hepatitis, and hadn’t had a date since I moved to Encinitas in September of 1976. To add to my general feeling of malaise, it rained solidly for the first 4 days of 1978 and the roof in my house on La Veta Ave. leaked like a sieve. Finally, on January 5th the sun came out and I decided to take a walk to Stone Steps beach. Half a block north of my house was an old church—originally St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church--that had been vacant ever since I’d moved into the neighborhood. As I walked by the church I noticed that a garden had been planted in front and a new sign was up that read “Ashtanga Yoga Nilayam”. I had been teaching “yoga” at the hospital to the patients, based on my very limited experience of yoga through books while I was a college student, and had considered seeking out some actual instruction. Here, apparently was a new yoga school, half a block from my house. I looked around for some kind of schedule, but didn’t find one so I continued my walk to the beach. On my way back I passed by the church again and noticed a man working in the garden. I asked him about class times and he told me there were evening classes from 5-7 on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday as well as morning classes from 9-11 Sunday through Friday. The gardener introduced himself as Nate, short for Nature, and told me that the yoga taught at the church was a very rare and powerful style that could make me as limber as a gymnast in two months. My work schedule was 7am to 3:30pm, so I told Nate that I would try to make it tomorrow, a Friday, at 5.
True to my word, I showed up at 5pm the next day dressed in a flannel shirt and a pair of jeans thinking that I would be doing a little bit of exotic and painful stretching. Classes at the church were all Mysore style back then and I was a bit surprised when the instructor, Brad, took me aside and began to teach me privately. Brad taught me how to do ujjayi breathing and led me through several repetitions of Suryanamaskara A and B. In my jeans and flannel shirt I was soon sweating profusely. Brad proceeded to take me through all of the standing poses and about half way through the sitting poses of the primary series. When he thought I’d had enough, Brad had me sit with him and do some deep breathing at the end. The lotus position had never felt so comfortable before. Finally, Brad had me lift my lotus off the floor for some rapid and forceful breathing. He had me stand up, lace my fingers around my neck and bring my elbows together on my chest. Standing behind me, Brad wrapped his arms around me and encouraged me to exhale as he lifted me off the floor and squeezed. My spine popped in half a dozen places. Afterwards, Brad told me to lie on my back and rest for 15 minutes. He covered me with a blanket and left me to my savasana. As I lay there I felt a deepening stillness, expansiveness, and joy, and the presence of a deep sense of self that felt like home. My whole life changed with that first class and many good and magical things began to happen.