Or, What I Did, Have Done and Am Doing On My Yoga Vacation
I started flirting with yoga while I was in high school. The attraction was purely physical. I would take a copy of The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga by Swami Vishnudevananda into my room, lock the door, and practice as many of the postures as I could. I skimmed the parts about philosophy, diet, astral bodies, etc. but it was the physical postures that intrigued me most. I wanted to beat old age - the book promised it would help me do that - and thirty wasn't that far off.
One night a friend of mine and I were talking with his absurdly serene older brother, who looked a lot like the hippie Jesus (long flowing hair, beard, thick robe, sandals and beatific smile) about his "exercises". He told us of his kriyas, his cleansing rituals. How he would floss his nasal passages with a cotton cloth and swim into the ocean, take his intestines out through his anus and wash them, then put them back. The later process, he warned, should never be attempted without the help of a Guru, and I believed him. He recounted, in the same peaceful manner, stories of how he reached blissful states of awareness and had serpents of energy coiling up and down his spine and lotus flowers sprouting out of his third eye while chanting in Sanskrit, the language of yoga. This blew my mind. Clearly this yoga was even better than pot!
Still, I only dabbled in it for years, probably a little fearful I might get too serious and meet a Guru who would suggest we remove our intestines together. Without even knowing it, I was searching for something spiritual and being physical took me closer to it. I'd been a highly competitive athlete since I could remember, winning the President's Physical Fitness award in elementary school. I was a Little League and Babe Ruth All Star, and was first string on every team I tried out for, excelling at wrestling and track. I was even a boxer for a while. Well, a streetfighter, anyway. One of my older brothers and his hoodlum friends would pit me against bigger kids to see me get beat up while they drank beer and cheered me on. I'm sure this helped steer me toward non-violence, or, Ahimsa as it is called in Sanskrit.
Through the years, trudging the road of happy destiny as an actor, yoga has always been part of my training. But it wasn't until 1999, when I was forty-five and well into the old age I was convinced in high school that I could beat through a yoga practice, that I discovered it was more than just physical exercise. It became, through my first substantial encounter with a yoga teacher, a way of life.
My wife was pregnant with my son when I met Frank White. He was 78 years old at the time, and the picture of health and vitality. That wasn't always the case.Frank found yoga in his mid-sixties as a "walking question mark" as he put it. Fifty or more pounds overweight, heart problems plagued him - he smoked four packs a day - and was a serious drinker. He took the teacher training at the White Lotus Foundation in Santa Barbara and he was born again, sober and clean and on the yogic path. His resurrection was legendary. He started teaching free classes to senior citizens and AIDS patients and eventually became one of Los Angeles' most respected teachers. His classes were highly regarded for how challenging they were. If you wanted to see God - or your deity of choice - while having your ass handed to you, go to Frank's class. I stumbled in, just out of a horrific job in the theatre and demoralized by it. I was ecstatic about becoming a father, but needed to be shown the path of least resistance to the changes and challenges in store. Frank guided me toward my rebirth.
After two years of almost daily practice with him, he convinced me to train to become a teacher with Ganga White and Tracey Rich at White Lotus. Frank helped me put my practice in context: a purposeful life of service, lived fully, in the present and with conviction; in other words, no more dabbling. He was adamant that I pass it on or I couldn't keep it and that I could only really live it if I could give it. One of the greatest moments in my teaching life was the day he walked in to a class and sat and watched me lead a practice. It was the moment he promised would come; I was teaching him. The best teachers understand that day will come and make you believe it will happen. Then they are humble enough to let you know when it does. Frank always reminded me to look within, pass it on, and question authority. And he taught me how to breathe again, like a child, full of life and free. I practiced and taught along side him, until his death in 2005 at 85.
My relationship with Tracey and Ganga is unique and ultimately the most healthful in the way they regard the so-called "guru-disciple" dynamic. From the beginning, they introduced me to myself as my own guru and I was, therefore, able to stand along side them, rather than sit at their feet. That empowers a student more than any amount of knowledge that may pass between them. The pairing of these two charismatic artists, as teachers of teachers, is without equal. A poetic and beautiful soul, Tracey has the hypnotic gift of being able to convey the elegance of whatever subject she's exploring by how she talks about it like no one I've ever met. Ganga's anti-authoritarian approach to teaching is made even more alive and accessible through his dry wit and universality of experience. Together, they walk the Jnana yogic "path of knowledge" with eyes and minds open and a willingness to accept all who join them.
I've worked with some of the best actors in the business, but nothing compares to teaching alongside your teachers. I have taught with and assisted Tracey and Ganga in workshops and teacher trainings for a few years now. Sharing that role with those who've inspired us is the greatest gift we can get, it's the most meaningful professional collaboration we can have. The best way to deepen your understanding of something you are passionate about is to teach it. I've come to regard teaching as a gathering of fellow travelers on the journey between the head and the heart. I'm currently helping Yoga Works in Los Angeles design part of the teacher-training syllabus for new teachers on how they might best use their voices when they teach. The thrust of it is that any teachers' voice that reaches us on any significant level still resonates because it came from their heart, from their truest selves. When I'm at my best I'm speaking from my heart and allowing my head to listen. I'm observing my most genuine self be revealed. As someone blessed enough to make a living as an actor - an instrument of illusion - I'm constantly searching for balance through that which is real or genuine. Home and family comes first. But I've come to know that it doesn't get much more real than when, as a teacher, you are attending someone and they experience even a momentary realization of their potential for change, their truest voice. It compares to fatherhood in making you a possibilist.
My own yoga practice now is to be as present, curious, patient, attentive and persistent as I can be. That's my meditation practice, and as Ganga suggests it should be, it's one of being rather than doing, so it's liquid, very flexible. Mostly it involves teaching and learning tolerance. That means, I suppose, that regardless of our beliefs, as observers we can partake in another's need for doing without participation and with sophisticated judgment. In other words, without doing, just being and observing. Since enlightenment - or just seeing things as they are as the Buddhist sages tell us - is something we slip in and out of, I'm content when I get an occasional glimpse. The hardest part of my life now is observing the intermittent battle between my enlightened and unenlightened selves. The street fight between the kid being egged on by the drunken delinquents and the man I aspire to be, the man I know I am. It's a fight that keeps me from accepting and surrendering to the good in life - at the same time showing me the good in life - and I'm not sure it's winnable. It's Sisyphean. But, thankfully, it's constant and keeps pushing me up the hill to my physical practice, even though that stems more, even still, from my addiction to competition and beating old age.
One day recently after a class at the Center for Yoga, I was sitting on the steps putting my shoes on, rather dejected, approaching despondency. I know I don't have to be perfect to be effective, I learned that from my yoga practice, but during class, I had some alarming revelations about my aging body. Another teacher, a friend, sat down next to me and asked why I appeared so glum and I told him, "I'm not able to do some of the things I used to be able to do in my practice." He smiled, the same absurdly serene smile all those yogis get when they're ready to remind you what you've momentarily forgotten, and said, "It's a good thing we know that's not what yoga is all about."
Nothing I've found changes you quite like yoga does. How then can we not be open to changing our ideas about what yoga is and how we do it as we continue to practice and study? Beyond the holistic health gains through diet, increased strength and flexibility and calm and focus I've acquired through my yoga practice, I've learned moderation. I mean that more in terms of presiding over my life. This doesn't mean I've gained more control over my life as much as it means I've learned what I can and can't control. Through my yoga practice, I've been given the tools to observe more clearly and gauge my responses more accurately. I've learned how to control what I think and how I think it. As my chiropractor told me while treating me for a back injury brought on by too much yoga, "Yogis get more injuries than most people, but they heal faster, too." Through my practice, the healing is relentless.