1978 began on a dismal note. It rained solidly for four days-the roof leaked. Gloomily I sat, reading depressing short stories by equally gloomy Russian writers. Finally on January 5th the sun came out and I went for a melancholy walk on the beach. I pondered my current state of depression and my seeming inability to find much meaning or purpose in life.
Since September of 1976 I had been living in Encinitas and working at the local psychiatric hospital. It was a stressful and low paying job, but interesting. I worked as part of the nursing staff, helping to care for the patients. My social life consisted of getting together with co-workers after my shift to drink and smoke cigarettes and complain about how horrible our jobs were. I hadn't had a date since I moved to Encinitas.
Walking home from the beach, I passed what I thought was an abandoned church on the corner, half a block from my house. A garden had been planted in front of the church and a man crouched there, nibbling on some blades of grass.
"Try some wheatgrass," he suggested, "very high in chlorophyll. You know, the chlorophyll molecule is very similar to hemoglobin so eating wheatgrass increases your blood's oxygen carrying capacity-it makes you high!"
Skeptical, I chewed a few blades. My new friend introduced himself as Nate (short for Nature) and showed me some edible weeds in the garden. "This is lambsquarter, here is malva, and these are dandelions. They are all very good for you liver-put them in your salad." Having recently had hepatitis, I looked at these plants closely.
Nate began to tell me about himself. He had been a successful businessman and bicycle racer in Florida until one day he decided he'd had enough of the corporate world and started wandering. He traveled by bicycle throughout the states, Mexico, and Central America, living on about a dollar a day, picking fruit when he could find it, eating weeds, and raiding supermarket dumpsters. He asked if I was aware of the yoga classes taught at the church. I confessed my ignorance.
"It's a very high, very powerful teaching, "he said. "It has helped me a lot. In two months you can be as limber as a gymnast." That claim seemed a bit far fetched, but it did arouse my curiosity. I asked Nate about the class times. He said there was a class Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 5pm. I told Nate I'd be back tomorrow, a Friday, to check out a class.
The next day I wandered down the block to the church at five o'clock. Approaching the front doors apprehensively, I noticed they were painted in a mysterious way. The branches of a tree supported two figures in meditation, the right one silhouetted against the sun, the left one in front of the moon. The door knob was cleverly disguised as a knot in the tree trunk, as if whoever was inside didn't really want any one else finding their way in.
Entering the church, I was surprised by the roominess inside. The high pitched, open beam ceiling and uncluttered floor space made the building seem much larger inside than out. In the dim light I could make out a few people doing yoga.
A guy who was lighting candles walked towards me, smiled, and introduced himself as "Brad". Brad had long golden hair, receding a little in front, a full beard, and twinkling blue eyes. Wearing only a pair of Speedos, Brad's short, muscular body resembled a small oak tree.
"Are you a teacher or a student?" I asked.
"Both," was his amused and ambiguous reply. "Are you here to do some yoga?"
"I guess so," I stammered, trying to sound non-committal and suddenly aware of the inappropriateness of my attire, dressed as I was in jeans and a flannel shirt.
Brad asked me to remove my shoes and directed me to a place on the carpet. He explained that to warm up we would do a series of movements called Surynamaskara (salutation to the sun). We did several Suryanamaskaras and Brad taught me how to synchronize my breath with the movement. Satisfied with my progress, Brad demonstrated a second, more complicated version of Surynamaskara. This was more difficult and I soon began to perspire in my jeans and flannel shirt as I struggled to keep up. After half a dozen of the second Surynamaskara I was drenched in sweat.
Brad explained that getting warm served a dual purpose-it made the body more flexible and sweating removed toxins through the skin. I noticed that I felt considerably looser than when we started. He showed me several standing poses then led me through the movements of Surynamaskara as far as the downward dog. At this point he lightly jumped through his arms to a sitting position. He indicated that I was to do the same. Clumsily, I attempted to mimic his maneuver, landing noisily in a heap beside him.
We began to do some seated forward bends with one or both legs bent in interesting ways. Between these poses Brad showed me how to lift myself up with my arms while crossing my legs, then jump back into a push up position. From there we inhaled to an upward dog, exhaled to a downward dog, then jumped through the arms again. Brad called these movements "vinyasa". "The vinyasas," he explained, "make you pay attention to your breathing, keep your body warm, build strength, and put your spine back into neutral between the sitting poses."
After about an hour of this I began to show some signs of fatigue, so Brad had me lie down and showed me some variations on the shoulder stand. He explained that the inversions cooled the body down and helped restore energy by supplying fresh blood to the brain. Following the shoulder stand we sat cross legged for some deep breathing. We sat for a few minutes in the lotus position and Brad explained a kind of breathing he called "ujjayi'-the victorious breath. "Breath in through the nose but from the throat so you can hear the breath as it passes through the throat." I had never been comfortable in the lotus position until this moment and the ujjayi breathing was having an intoxicating effect. Immersed in the sound and fullness of the breath, I felt like I was floating.
Suddenly Brad extended his arms downward and lifted his lotus off the floor. He began to breathe in a rapid and forceful manner and I tried to do the same. We did about a hundred breaths like this until my arms began to shake. After lowering my lotus to the floor I struggled for a moment to release my legs, which by now were completely numb.
Brad grabbed my feet and stretched my legs out to get some circulation back into my knees and ankles. Once I had some feeling back in my legs he asked me to stand up and clasp my hands behind my neck, letting my shoulders relax so the elbows came together on my chest. Standing behind me, Brad reached around me with both arms, lacing his fingers together around my elbows. "Take a deep breath," he said. As I exhaled, he lifted me off the floor and squeezed me against his chest. My spine cracked in half a dozen places. "Lie down," Brad suggested. He covered me with a blanket and said, "Rest now, for at least fifteen minutes."
As I lay there I noticed that my whole body was tingling. A relaxing warmth spread through me and a deep sense of stillness came over me. Accustomed as I was to my habitual anxiety or depression, with the accompanying mental chatter, I was both surprised and delighted to find myself feeling so peaceful. The sound of other people's ujjayi breathing accented the stillness.
A feeling of familiarity, of being at home-but a home I hadn't visited in a long time-came over me. The candlelight flickered on the walls and cast dancing shadows. I felt my heart beating slowly and strongly in my chest. A few people began to chant in a resonant language I figured must be Sanskrit. I could feel the vibrations of the chanting in my body. It felt good and strangely reassuring.
When the chant ended I got up slowly and folded the blanket. Brad walked over and took it from me. "Thank you," I said, feeling the words were terribly inadequate to express what I had just experienced. "You're welcome," he replied. "I'll see you Monday," I promised. "Good," said Brad.
Outside the stars were sparkling in the crisp winter night sky. A faint scent of the ocean mingled with the smell of night blooming jasmine as I walked back to my house. My skin felt deliciously alive, my senses alert and receptive, and my mind remarkably uncluttered and peaceful. What a difference from how I was feeling before the yoga class!
The date was January 6th --the Feast of the Epiphany--the traditional Christian celebration of the manifestation of the baby Jesus as the "Christ" to the three magi. This was considered the official end of the holidays when the final gifts were given and received. When I got home I looked up the word "epiphany" in the dictionary-"A spiritual event in which the essence of an object of manifestation appears to the subject, as in a sudden flash of recognition." Recognition was the key word for me. I felt like I had recognized a part of myself that seemed very familiar and homey, that felt like me, and I had heard a comforting voice within saying, "Welcome home."
Looking through my bookshelves I came across a copy of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a required text for a college course I had taken some years before in Indian Philosophy. The second sutra was Patanjali's definition of yoga-"Yogas chitta vrtti nirodah"-yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. The third sutra described what happened once the mind was still-"Tada drastuh svarupe avasthanam "-then the self stands revealed in its true nature. What Patanjali was describing was the very "Epiphany" I had just experienced. Within the space of an hour and a half I felt like I had been reborn. My whole perspective had shifted and I had found something I had been seeking for a long time. I was suddenly very excited about being alive and couldn't wait to take my next yoga class.