Writing the narrative for my Teacher Training Fund was a challenging but very rewarding experience. I’ve always thought of myself as a writer, but, except for the year I reported for the Mammoth Times, have never spent any time writing original non-academic work. I’m going to spend the coming month reflecting on my yoga practice and take this opportunity to get some momentum going with my writing. I’ll start at the beginning:
My First Yoga Class
I first came to Yoga through my parents. My mother, Leora, was one of the founding members of the Tipheret Society, a small Ashram in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains in Independence, California, where my parents met. We left the community when I was four, and moved East, but when my mother’s breast cancer metastasized and spread to her back, she returned and spent her last remaining years being cared for by the people of the Ashram.
My mother’s death 33 years ago has been the defining feature of my life. Those of us – and there are many – who grew up without mothers know that there are holes that can never really be filled. My father, who found himself at the age of 33 the sole parent of an angry, willful, introvert of a child, certainly did his best, but my childhood and adolescence were turbulent and difficult – for me, and everyone around me.
I did manage to finish high school, and even was admitted to college, without getting arrested or killed (there were many close calls, though). However, once at college, it quickly became clear that I was not academically prepared or emotionally mature enough to make a success at college. Failing the majority of my classes, in fact skipping most of them, I tended to focus more on immediate gratification than any work. Emotionally immature, socially incompetent, and academically adrift, it was almost a relief when, near the end of my sophomore year, I was suspended from classes. I put what little I owned into a storage unit, packed a duffel bag, stuck out my thumb, and headed West.
The next 11 months were the most difficult of my life. In a rapidly disintegrating downward spiral, I went through a succession of jobs, apartments, and girlfriends, leaving anger, hurt and disappointment wherever I went. By my twentieth birthday, I was living on the streets of Northern California, selling photocopied sheets of poetry I had written for cigarette money and eating at homeless shelters and churches. When winter came, I managed to talk myself onto a number of couches, but that could only last so long.
The bottom came when, in early February, I hitchhiked back East to see family. A visit with my father ended with him having a police officer throw me out of his house with a bag full of wet laundry. I had nowhere to go, and no idea what to do. I had recently read that the path to wisdom required discipline and imagination. I decided the one I needed to work on the most was discipline. I thought of the ashram, and a yoga practice, and I headed back out West.
I hitchhiked through a terrible sleet and freezing rain storm. Pennsylvania, Ohio, then Missouri were all miserable. It was two days of near frostbite, trying to sleep huddled up in the shelters at rest areas. Then, after a long ride into Texas, I emerged into 80 degree weather. I slept that night under a bridge, feeling the relief of passing through the storm.
It took me three more days to make it to Independence. I arrived in the tiny, dusty, town (population 800) that I hadn’t seen since before my mother died. It took me all of eight minutes to walk across town to the ashram, near the Northern edge. I walked in, looked at the complex of buildings I only dimly remembered, and tried to find someone to ask for help. The only person at home answered the door and I introduced myself. Tamara brightened instantly when I told her my name, gave me a giant hug, telling me how she remembered me from when I was a tiny boy, and how much she had loved my mom.
Feeling an instant relief, but also ashamed at where I was in my life, I didn’t really know how to begin asking for help. I asked to speak to John, the Teacher, but she said he was away, in LA, and wouldn’t return until Monday, two days later. I told her I would come back then. She could tell I had seen better days, and asked me if I had a place to stay. I lied, and told her I did was going to stay with friends in Bishop and headed out.
I did go to Bishop. My half-sister, Sabrina, had grown up there, staying with an amazingly warm and kind foster family, the Kesslers. I thought maybe I could ask them to put me up for the weekend, but, once in Bishop, I got cold feet, and headed back out on the road. Just south of Bishop, there is a hot spring that I remembered going to as a boy. I got a ride there, and spent the next two days camping nearby. At night, when it would get cold I would sit in the warm water, then quickly get back into my sleeping bag to sleep until woken up again by the cold.
Monday morning, I packed up, and headed back down to Independence. John, in his sixties, with a graying goatee and a gold pinkie ring, was not the guru I was expecting. His whisky and nicotine saturated voice rang with the Eastern Texas twang he had been born to, and he had a way of laughing deeply, not from his belly, but some place lower, that left me feeling somewhat uncomfortable, but interested. I told him where I was at in life, a bit of the struggles I had had, and within about twenty minutes, he asked me if I would commit to practicing at the Ashram for one year. I gratefully agreed. He pulled from a thick pile a small, dark blue leather-bound book, with gold embossing of a pyramid and the title, “Light on the Path,” by Mabel Collins and a pen. He quickly inscribed the inside cover with the words, “For Jonah, from John, February 14th, 1994. Learn to know the truth, and then the truth will know you.” He told me, “In order to pass through the first gate, you need three books, this, the King James Bible, an ephemeral table.” “Why an ephemeral table?” I asked. “So you always know what time it is!”
We went outside, and walked around the a wading pool he was in the process of building. He asked me what I wanted to do. I told him about what I had read, about how I needed to have discipline and imagination, and I thought I needed to develop discipline. He laughed his goaty laugh and said, “You don’t develop discipline; you just are disciplined. What do you want to do?” I thought for a long time. I really had no idea. Eventually, I told him I wanted to write. “Ok, then,” he said. “Bennet’s a reporter. She’ll teach you.”
That was the end of my first yoga class.