Open your eyes of love, and see Him who pervades this world!
Consider it well, and know that this is your own country.
When you meet the true Guru, He will awaken your heart;
He will tell you the secret of love and detachment,
I began to practice
yoga three days a week-Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and occasionally on
Sunday when I had the day off. Brad and his assistant, Gary, began introducing
me to more of the primary series of postures called yoga chikitsa (yoga
therapy). Brad explained that the general purpose of the primary series is to
restore health to the body. It works very strongly on the gastrointestinal
system with a series of forward bends using different body parts to do
acupressure on specific organs in the abdominal cavity, such as the liver,
spleen, and colon. The primary series has a strong detoxifying effect and also
cultivates strength and flexibility.
After practice I would feel a warm glow in my liver, which had been a little swollen and tender since having hepatitis in 1976. My overall health was improving rapidly and with that came an increased awareness of the food choices I was making. For the first time I was realizing that my diet had some connection to my health, and I asked Brad for some recommended reading. He suggested I read a book called, Arnold Ehret's Mucusless Diet Healing System. Catchy title, I thought.
Arnold Ehret's basic premise was that the body is a vast network of tubing, and when the tubes get clogged by eating too much mucus inducing food, ill health is the result. This idea made a lot of sense to me. Immediately I shifted to a mucus free diet-no more eggs, dairy products, meat, or refined grains. I began eating a mostly raw diet-fruit, nuts, avocados, steamed vegetables, salads, potatoes, and twice baked bread. My body began to feel much lighter and cleaner and I became an outspoken advocate of a mucus free diet, much to the dismay of my coworkers at the hospital.
On my new diet I began to lose weight rapidly and within two months my weight had dropped from 160 to 140 pounds on my six foot frame. At 140 pounds I was quite thin and my friends and family began to grow concerned for my about my health. I assured them that I had never felt better. The truth of the matter was that I had been having some pretty wild mood swings, from euphoria to depression. Brad explained that this was due to the combined detoxifying effect of the yoga and the diet.
Around this time a book came out called, Survival into the 21st Century, by Viktorus Kulvinskis. He was a great advocate of wheat grass juice, all kinds of sprouts, rejuvelac (sprouted wheat water), sprouted breads, organically grown vegetables, and vegetable juice. After reading the book I planted a garden and grew radishes, carrots, beets, Swiss chard, various squashes, tomatoes, and wheat grass. In addition, I was sprouting alfalfa, mung beans, adzuki beans, wheat berries, almonds, and peanuts, and making sprouted wheat bread and wheat grass juice. Much of my free time was spent in food growing and preparation. It was almost as if I was trying to eat my way to enlightenment.
Now that I was practicing yoga consistently and eating consciously I began to feel a lot better about myself. There seemed to be some connection between self discipline and self esteem. A pleasant manifestation of this was that I was beginning to be noticed by women for the first time in ages. One evening about a month after starting yoga, three women followed me home from a gas station because they thought I was "cute." I think they might have been a little drunk, but still it made me feel good about myself.
At work I had been teaching a stretch class for the patients before I began practicing yoga, based on some very rudimentary knowledge gleaned from books. This class now became a yoga class and I shared some of what I had been learning. I told the patients that the keys to health were yoga and a good diet. Meanwhile, most of them were being heavily medicated with various anti-depressants, mood stabilizers, and tranquilizers to correct their "chemical imbalance." Occasionally I would clash with the powers that be, the psychiatrists, once making the unfortunate declaration that, "drugs are okay if you're weak." If the director of nurses hadn't come to my defense I would have been fired for that one.
My courage was waxing along with my self esteem and I began dating a couple of my coworkers. Around this time a beautiful hippie chick showed up at yoga class. Robin was from Santa Cruz and was on her way to Central America. We hung out for a few days and she tried to teach me the secret of the "valley orgasm." Sadly, she left before I could master the technique.
About four months into my yoga practice I began to realize that my work schedule was interfering with my yoga practice. Working the 7am to 3:30pm shift meant that I could only come to the 5pm class which was held three times per week. I wanted to practice every day so I started working the 3pm to 11:30pm shift. This enabled me to practice at 9am Sunday through Friday, Saturday being a rest day, along with full moons and new moons.
When I changed my work schedule I was doing all of the primary series with some degree of proficiency, so Brad started teaching me the intermediate series, called Nadi Shodana (purification of the little rivers). According to the ancient yogis there are 72,000 nadis, or energy channels, in the subtle body. The intermediate series is designed to clean them.
The most important nadis, ida, pingala, and sushumna, are all in close proximity to the spine, so the intermediate series consists of postures to release blockage in the spine-back bends, twists, and extreme forward bends. The work of the first series is to clean and tone the annamaya kosha (the physical body). The intermediate series works more deeply to clear the nadis so energy flows freely in the pranamaya kosha (the subtle, or energy body).
Now that I was practicing six days a week I began to progress quickly through the intermediate series, being young (27), reasonably strong, and naturally somewhat adept-with the exception of back bends, which remain my most challenging asanas. One of my fellow yogis told me years later, "I remember your first urdhva dhanurasana (upward bow)-you looked like a coffee table. The only thing that bent were your knees and elbows."
The effect of the intermediate series was quite different from the primary series. Instead of feeling like I needed a nap after practice, I felt very stimulated and energetic. Sometimes during practice I would have what I figured must be "kundalini" experiences. The kundalini shakti, or coiled up energy, is thought to reside at the base of the spine and some asanas, like backbends, twists, and extreme forward bends, are designed to uncoil this energy so it rises up the sushumna nadi (the astral spine) towards the crown of the head. Occasionally I would experience great lightness of body or the sensation of an umbrella opening at the crown of my head.
I loved being able to practice yoga every morning and applied myself diligently to learning the intermediate series. Working the swing shift at work was much more relaxed than the day shift. The psychiatrists made their rounds in the morning and the hospital's administrative staff all left at 3:30pm, so basically the nursing staff was running the hospital. I also shifted my work station from the adult "open unit" to the "locked unit" or ICU. The ICU had 12 beds and locked doors. The patients on this unit were either psychotic, suicidal, runaway risks, or elderly people with dementia. It was an interesting environment to hang out in for eight hours and my yoga practice was helping me to maintain some sense of equanimity through it all.
Around the beginning of July the buzz around the yoga shala was, "Guruji is coming!"
"Pardon my ignorance, but who is Guruji?"I asked Brad.
"Guruji is the Master teacher of this yoga lineage, K. Pattabhi Jois, from Mysore, India. He's coming to Encinitas to teach for three months at the end of August," Brad informed me. This was exciting news-a master yogi from India was coming to teach at the church!
Based on the recommendation of my friend Nate, I had been reading a series of books called, The Life and Teachings of the Masters of the Far East. These books told of masters in India who had transcended the laws of time and space and could perform miracles of many kinds, including manifestation of objects out of thin air, bilocation, omniscience, healing, energy transmission (shaktipat), and many others. I wondered if Guruji was one of these masters...
When Guruji first entered the yoga shala at the end of August, I thought he looked fairly ordinary. He was wearing dark, horn rimmed glasses, black loafers, a short sleeved white dress shirt, and a white lungi (traditional South Indian waist wrap). He removed his glasses, shoes, lungi, and outer shirt to reveal a very fit looking 63 year old in a white t-shirt and gym shorts. All the students had already begun their practice when Guruji arrived. We wondered what the proper protocol was so we all stopped and waited for Guruji to speak. Guruji looked at us and, sensing our uncertainty, said, "Yes, you do!" and then chuckled. He had a dazzling smile, but even so, he seemed rather terrifying.
Guruji prowled around the room, watching us, grunting, making corrections and adjustments. Whenever he was in close proximity to me, I worked especially hard to convince him of my dedication, afraid of being adjusted, and perhaps even more afraid of being ignored. Guruji was quite strong and his adjustments were very firm, almost surgical in nature. The energy in the room was electric and everyone was pouring sweat.
After class the older students would walk over to Guruji and pay their respects in the traditional Indian manner of touching his feet. Initially, this struck me as somewhat bizarre and even cultish behavior. As the weeks wore on I began to develop a strong appreciation for Guruji's presence and one day I decided to pay him my respects by touching his feet. The notion is that the Guru has walked the path of yoga for a long time and during his journey has accumulated dust on his feet. The dust symbolizes his vast reservoir of experience, knowledge, and energy. The student takes the dust and applies it to his eyelids for the purpose of his awakening and to show his great respect and appreciation for the gift of yoga he has received from the Guru. I approached Guruji shyly and knelt in front of him. As I touched his feet a powerful current of energy surged through me and I felt like I was being showered with Grace. As I brought my hands to my eyes I realized I was crying, joyful, cleansing tears. Looking up at Guruji, I saw he was smiling at me very lovingly. Tenderly he touched me on the shoulders and said, "Good."
As I walked home from class that day I was feeling extremely emotional, but also very happy. The connection I had just experienced with Guruji had been very deep and profound, and timeless-like we had reestablished a connection that went back several lifetimes. It had penetrated into my heart and released some of the pain that had been buried there. I felt at the same time both extremely vulnerable and intensely alive, like some kind of doorway to a deeper level of being had been opened within me.
Guruji began to teach a yoga theory class three nights a week at his son, Manju's, house. He would chant long passages from the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and other Sanskrit texts, or tell stories from the Ramayana or Mahabharata in his native Kannada, sometimes laughing and sometimes moved to tears, then look to Manju to provide a translation for us. Manju would give us a highly abridged account of his father's version. It seemed to me that we were losing a lot in the translation. At the end of each class Guruji would have us chant the "Guru Ashtakam"-eight verses in praise of the Guru-- not to exalt his own status-to me he always seemed very humble-- but to help us realize the importance placed on the relationship of student to Guru in India. The chant said, in essence, that one may have achieved all worldly desires, but without the Grace of the Guru, what was any of it worth?
In September Brad taught me the last poses of the intermediate series under Guruji's supervision. The prevailing belief among the students at the time was that the faster you could complete a series, the sooner you would be enlightened. Having completed the intermediate series in about nine months, I felt like I was on the Samadhi express! For the poses that weren't done to Guruji's satisfaction, he would give us strong adjustments-teaching with his hands instead of his voice, since his command of English was very limited.
Brad was always trying to extract as much of Guruji's knowledge as possible and managed to convince Guruji to start teaching a pranayama class in October for the intermediate and advanced students. About half an hour after we finished our asana practice one day Guruji gathered us in a circle of about 20 students. He explained that we would be doing a technique involving breath retention, which he called kumbhaka (literally, the water pot). We would be doing two types of retention-first following the exhalation and then following the inhalation. Guruji emphasized the importance of maintaining an inner lock he called mula bandha, which he described as, "taking anus control." He said he would indicate the retentions by moving his right hand downward for the exhalation and upward for the inhalation.
Before we began the pranayama practice Guruji removed his shirt and folded his legs into padmasana. The men in the group also took off their shirts and we all sat in lotus posture, ready to begin. As Guruji took his first inhalation his chest kept expanding to what seemed like double its original size. I was reminded of a big bullfrog blowing himself up, or Dizzy Gillespie's cheeks when he played the trumpet. With that first breath I knew I was in trouble because Guruji's lung capacity seemed about ten times greater than mine. Having a much shorter breath meant that all the retentions were much longer and I soon began to sweat profusely as I struggled to keep up. As we continued, my body began to tremble as well. Looking around at the other students, I noticed that they were sweating and shaking too. Somehow that made me feel a little better. The pranayama concluded with some Sanskrit chants that Guruji had us repeat after him. The whole session lasted about 20 minutes. It was probably the most intense 20 minutes of my life!
We were all a little shaken by this experience and Guruji had us lay down for a few minutes, saying to us, "Pranayama is very difficult at first-some sweating, some shaking. You take practice-after, some smoothness is coming." That being said, Guruji smiled and left us there to recover. We all looked at Brad as if to say, "What have you gotten us into?"
Guruji continued to teach us pranayama every day, and it did start to get a little easier. One thing I noticed, however, was that it was creating a lot of internal heat in my body, so much so in fact, that I began to experience diarrhea. A little concerned about this, I confided to Guruji that I was having some "loose movements."
"Going bathroom 10 to 15 times daily?" he asked. When I nodded he laughed and said, "Some internal cleansing, that's all, you don't fear." With Guruji's assurance I continued with the pranayama and things soon began to firm up, so to speak.
Another thing I noticed about the pranayama was that afterward I felt like I was surrounded by a protective bubble. Curious about this experience, I looked in the Yoga Sutras and found reference to a state called pratyahara, an inward turning of senses, that was associated with the practice of pranayama. It was particularly helpful to be in this state when I was at work and surrounded by a crazy environment such as the locked unit of the hospital. I felt very aware of what was going on around me, but at the same time, detached. Because of this detachment I wasn't getting sucked into the craziness around me and working at the hospital was becoming less stressful.
At the end of October, Nate left for Guatemala and I inherited his job of cleaning the church in exchange for my yoga classes. I had already paid the staggering sum of $75 to study with Guruji for three months. Before that I had been paying two dollars a class. Teaching yoga, in 1978, no matter what your credentials, wasn't a high paying job. Guruji obviously loved teaching yoga and didn't seem particularly concerned about the financial reward.
By November, the weather had turned cool. There was no heat in the church, or electricity or plumbing either, for that matter. There was a port-a-potty outside the church when nature called. The concrete floor was covered with carpet remnants to provide a little cushioning. Students used smaller carpet remnants for their personal practice space. Since mornings were chilly. We would start our practice in sweats until we warmed up sufficiently to strip down to shorts. It was all very primitive, but still, the 30 or so students who had gathered in Encinitas to practice with Guruji felt very blessed to have this rare opportunity.
Among those 30 students was a group that had come over from Maui to practice with Guruji, including David Williams-the first American to teach Ashtanga Yoga. David first met and studied with Guruji in India in 1973, eventually settled and began to teach yoga in Encinitas, and brought Guruji and his son Manju to the U.S. for the first time in 1975. When David moved to Maui in 1976, Manju took over David's yoga shala in Encinitas. Brad and Gary had originally been David's students, and later became Manju's students. Brad had eventually started assisting Manju with his classes until some falling out had occurred between them, which had led Brad to open his own place at the church.
Whatever was going on behind the scenes had no effect on Guruji when he was in teaching mode. He worked us over relentlessly every day and we all made great progress in our asana practice. The pranayama became more manageable, but was never easy. We even began to memorize bits and pieces of the "Guru Ashtakam" from chanting it at the end of every theory class.
On his last day Guruji addressed the class briefly. He urged us to continue to practice every day, warning us that some pain was coming, but that his was, "very sweet pain." If we persevered in our practice, Guruji said, "all is coming-good health, long life, good prospects." Even though, at the end of those three months, Guruji still didn't know my name, he had left an indelible impression upon me.