December 4, 2013 is when I started to do yoga every day. On the 23rd and 24th of that year, I was recovering from a minor medical test and was too out of it to practice. So nowadays I count the beginning date of my streak as December 25. And it was the starting of it all that was of utmost importance. “A journey of 1,000 steps begins with one,” Confucius said. What’s interesting to me, and hopefully to you, Dear Reader, is reflecting back on how it all began — my introduction to yoga and the ensuing years since. Why do I do it so religiously (especially since in most other senses, I’m an agnostic atheist)? Why did it take so long for me to develop a regular practice? What does it mean to me and do for me? And am I as bendy as Phoebe Buffet claims she is to Chandler on Friends?
The history of yoga in America is rich, long, interesting, and not without some issues. For me, who was raised as a Unitarian Universalist, coming to New England was a bit of a coincidence. Of course I knew about the American revolutionaries, but I wasn’t aware that it was a land of transcendtalists, mystics, spiritualists, poets, and philosophers. A few people I did know were early UU’s like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
As it turns out, they were influenced by the Bhagavad Gita, a tale about among other things, yoga, meditation and more in the Hindu tradition. At some point I went to swim in Walden Pond; but what I didn’t know was that I was in a region that had long explored alternate spirituality. There was probably something in the water that set people questing and questioning the nature of their existence, navel-gazing and generally exploring the unseen. I generally don’t believe in things that can’t be proven. But you don’t have to understand wind to know it’s real.
It was with this unknown backdrop that in the autumn of 1986 that I found myself, not at the University of Texas at Austin, near where I am now and where my grandparents met, but in New England. Specifically I was at a small college in southeastern Vermont, beginning the second half of my bachelor’s as an upperclassman. The campus was situated on a hill in a valley of the Green Mountains. Idyllic, pastoral and gorgeous hardly begin to describe the place. I don’t remember anything specific about my first yoga class, maybe just that it was prety cool. I do know the teacher’s name was Annie, who was also professor of graduate students. I was probably invited by my classmate Maya who was a dancer, artist and free spirit. I probably went more because of her invitation than any deep interest in yoga. But I must have enjoyed it, because I attended more. I figured it wouldn’t hurt, since I played soccer with the international students and it was good for limbering up the muscles.
Over the years I would take yoga classes here and there. The most I did was at the YMCA in Seattle. I remember the teacher there was a gorgeous, multi-ethnic goddess-like creature. Cherokee and Middle Eastern and Mexican, I think. She and her husband sang in a popular alternative pop band that put on wild shows with crazy costumes. I went to a couple of shows and was entranced by her stage persona and angelic voice — she just had an indefinable but very identifiable presence. In her yoga class, it was just about the poses. She definitely knew her yoga and respected it. It was challenging, and I sweated and struggled a lot, but she supported us, coming by making adjustments, encouraging us with a kind word, exhorting us to hold the pose just a little longer. I learned a lot and was progressing, at least physically. So I was sad when she moved on due to her fame and touring. The replacement teacher was also good, but I eventually left town, too. There’s something to that special reverence one has for a teacher. But you’re not bowing to them or to stroke their ego — you’re bowing to that of the universal within them.
Back in Texas, I still went to yoga class, but didn’t find a teacher I connected with, so I didn’t go as much. Yoga was always there as an option, and part of who I am, even when I didn’t do it. It provides a doorway into your own being, if you dare to walk through it. Even if I don’t look like one of those skinny Indian dudes performing tortuous postures or lying on a bed of nails in the movies, yoga works in subtle ways. “Those who say don’t know and those who don’t know say” is a saying I like about the spiritual path. Yoga only works when you actually do it. There are so many variations and interpretations that yoga in America today is like that idea of many blind people trying to describe an elephant. They’d all be right about each part but the overall thing is just too big to comprehend.
Many years later I would find myself back in the northeast, in Massachusetts. I spent a summer and a bit more doing a work trade at a yoga center. Ironically Maya visited one weekend, but we didn’t connect until after I’d left. That was a magical time for me, doing some pretty advanced yoga, taking classes with an adept who had been a monastic member of the center’s ashram before it became more secularized. Yes, there were cute women in the yoga classes there, too, but we had all taken a vow of celibacy. We’d swim in the lake, go on hikes, and sit for hours on the lawn having intense discussions about life, the universe and everything. It was spiritual boot camp, esoteric college, and summer vacation all at once.
The program I was in also involved other classes like chanting, meditation, and other aspects of yoga beyond just the physical postures. Roaming the campus with my friends, occasionally going into town for cheap chiropractic care or for some forbidden meat or ice cream, or even a night of karaoke — it all feels like something from a time and place long ago. It was like a reality television show without all the pettiness and meanness. There was drama of course, and some people dropped out. Overall, I remember it more like of a feel-good fantasy, though of course time has layered it with nostalgia. It was a lot of work. “The unexamined life isn’t worth living,” Socrates said. But the examined life can be pretty ugly sometimes.
Our little group became quite close; in some ways it was not just a retreat but almost like rehabilitation. We’d sit in small circles and talk about whatever experience we had been through. Let’s just say that the yoga we were doing and studying tended to bring up one’s personal history in dynamic, sometimes very emotionally raw ways. I can’t say I did a lot of crying or primal screaming but some people sure did. But we all got in fantastic shape, eating healthy vegetarian food, doing asanas sometimes two hours a day, and not having the pressures of outside life weighting on us. Looking back now, I was very fortunate to have applied and been invited. One time, Bikram, he of the expensive hot yoga concept, visited with is entourage. He apparently demanded meat and caused a scene. What an asshole. He’s hiding out in India avoiding rape charges.
We all did seva, or service, which was cheap labor for the center. But it was how we earned our room and board. I worked in the gift shop, restocking yoga mats, bolsters, straps, leotards and the like for the wealthy retreat-goers who were the center’s bread and butter. There were books, gifts, cans of ginger beer and organic snacks. Sometimes I’d work the shop register, too. At least I wasn’t cleaning toilets or chopping vegetables all day. I may have tried to start a bit of a labor strike, because the place wouldn’t run without us, but the rich visitors had it so much better. Yes, they were paying guess, but I though maybe another day off or a free class wouldn’t hurt. Management didn’t agree so nothing came of it. I probably got a reprimand or black mark in my file, but I wasn’t kicked out, and I wasn’t wrong. It was an unjust caste system just like in India where yoga comes from. They’ve since cancelled the volunteers work-trade program.
That endless, beautiful, Western Massachusetts summer faded into fall, and soon the program was over. Another group would be starting. We had a celebratory but somber closing ceremony, all of us wearing white, with flowers, chanting (I never got into the whole devotional part of yoga) and much bowing to our teachers and classmates. It was a bittersweet time because we all had to say our goodbyes. I’d also made a friend, a former program participant who lived across the border at a Sufi Center; we were also having to part ways. We all promised to stay in touch, and email was still pretty new then, so addresses were exchcnaged for letters and postcards. Some of us did manage to stay in contact for a while, but that’s all faded away now.
For the next year, I lived and worked in a big northeastern city. I took yoga classes, and even substitute taught a few. But I was alone without knowing anyone and experienced several key losses. After a year I found myself again back in Texas. I had lost the passion and discipline for yoga and healthy eating; it was much easier to avoid junk food and television at the yoga center. I still practiced on occasion, and finally, I came to being in a place where the yoga challenge my sister-in-law told me about made sense. I did it for around 20 minutes a day for 21 days. She and my brother also gifted me with a subscription to Yoga Journal. A year went by and the magazine had a Boost Your Willpower program. I timed it to begin on December 4, so that it would end on December 31st. That way, I would have no excuses to not have a New Years resolution and to continue with a daily practice. I didn’t know how long I’d make it, but it worked. A month became two, then a season, then a year. I didn’t dare stop out of a fear I wouldn’t start again. In the ensuing years, I took classes from Abby, a teacher from the same center where I had lived. She asked me to be in a DVD that was for, shall we say, fellow fathletes. Eventually I found Yoga With Adriene, met and kinda danced with her. (She has just a scant 8 million followers on YouTube!)
My history with yoga unfolds to this day. Though mostly a gentle practice to help me with my bicycling, it still informs my life. Doing something daily for seven years is a) not easy and b) not something I would ever have believed I could do. Have I started after midnight one night and done it before midnight the next? Probably. But in any given 24-hour period, more or less, I’m doing it. No. Matter. What. Even after I had my bike crash with a curb, I did some gentle stretching. In a previous post, I put a screen shot of my Insight Meditation Timer page for proof, at least for the last several years. Sometimes I take a yoga power nap on the mat and then get up and do it. Leaving the mat out is the best thing I ever did to trick myself into doing yoga, and I still do that, too. Someday maybe I’ll take up more study and get back into the other areas of yoga. Maybe when yoga class is no longer a risk factor for dying from coronavirus, and I’ll go again. I still tune into Adriene sometimes, with her goofy but real and accessible classes.
Until such time as I become enlightened and transcend my physical body, you’ll find me on my mat, trying to deeply inhale, and maybe waiting to exhale. Finding a little me time — some dude time for A Dude. To disconnect from The Matrix and to be one with the universe. After all, yoga comes from the Sanskrit word for “to yoke” — to connect. I hope this post connected with you somehow. If so, leave a comment below about your own history with yoga.
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