The Amazing Adventures of a Yogi in America
By Michael Plasha
(To my dear readers this is a memoir in the form of a serial blog. It will be released every Friday until it is finished. I hope you enjoy my adventures!)
In the Beginning
I was sitting in a hot tub with Richard Freeman, a wonderful Ashtanga teacher, and a master teacher during the Yoga at the Leading-Edge conference at Kripalu in 1999. We were discussing Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. I was very excited to have a conversation about the sutras with anyone, let alone Richard Freeman.
During a pause, he asked me, did you develop your understanding of the sutras with other teachers? I explained I had studied them and whatever I could find out about all aspects of yoga alone for about 25 years until I went to my first yoga teachers training. I shared that I had felt isolated over the years since there were very few classes or teachers when my interest began to bloom. He said I think that you have had a powerful opportunity to trust your own understanding and insights and develop your own approach to teaching. His words erased years of doubt and insecurity. I thanked him for the support. We talked a bit more, then went on our ways.
Today, unless you are literally living in a cave, the teachings of yoga are available at the touch of a screen. I am glad I started off the grid. I think if I was just getting interested in learning about yoga, I might be overwhelmed by the range of rhetorical opinions about what is “real” yoga. However, I do appreciate the ease of gathering information and observing the yogic swarm of ideas, attitudes, and insights. My personal and contemplative journey is now balanced with the community and social networking.
My journey began in the early 60’s during elementary school. A middle-class lifestyle in suburban Cincinnati next to a nature preserve looked idyllic on the outside. A closer look revealed anything but ideal. My good-natured dad did not like his job and carried that stress at home. My oldest sister had OCD which we knew very little about. She was afraid of germs to the extent that she roped off half of a bedroom she shared with my other sister and would not let her on her side. She inspected the silverware at dinner and if it was not spotless would yell at my mom, throw it on the floor and stomp away. My parents would try to appease her to no avail. Mom would cry and dad would go outside and work on the yard. I would either help dad or go to my room and read or escape to the woods to play.
Outdoors and reading felt safe to me. There was no Google then but I did have the library and my beloved 1958 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia. It was my Google. I devoured it. I was fascinated with the section on India. It seemed familiar to me. I most enjoyed reading about their holy men and their music. I saw my first sadhu and sitar. I would find books about India at the library. My parents and sisters thought this was very strange so I kept it to myself. A few years later I heard the sitar for the first time on Norwegian Wood from the Beatles album Rubber Soul. I was hooked.
When I wasn’t reading, or listening to pop and classical music on my little radio, I was hiking in the woods near our home. I still recall the distinct smells, sights, and sounds of each season. I fell in love with the freedom and spaciousness of my wanderings in fields and woods and by a creek. I would be in the present moment fully attentive to sensory impressions and lose track of time and experienced what I read about years later that was described as a sense of being complete. I would have moments of wholeness and worthiness.
This feeling became a shield to protect me from the rigidity of school, the fundamentalist Christian values of my parents, and the expectations of others. I was awkward, skinny, weak, insecure and nervous. I was not an athlete but I loved little league baseball and felt supported by most coaches and some peers. I was a C student. I did not have a lot going for me so I read, walked, biked and enjoyed playing board and war games with friends. I can very much relate to the character Ralphie in the movie Christmas Story.
As I walked outside, I felt the energetic support of the vastness of the universe. This feeling was so different from the deeply contracted smallness I felt inside about myself. I did not know how to put it in words. It felt sacred so I kept it a secret. On Sundays at church the predominant message was I am a sinner; I am unworthy. Keep in mind I was hearing this from the ages of 7 to 12.
At home, I would hear mixed messages like “you can’t do anything right to you are very special and there will be many opportunities for you.” There was a preoccupation with what the “neighbors” might think. There was an understanding we might burn in hell if we did something “wrong”. I became more nervous and conflicted.
These uncomfortable feelings were temporarily relieved by reading, music, and hiking. I remember trying hard to figure out how to get people to like me. Like my parents, what the “Other” thought became important. Their approval briefly puffed up my fragile ego and their disapproval ate at my heart for days. Attempts at people pleasing were met with mixed results. The “perfect” kids teased or bullied me but kids like me were nice. But I wanted approval from the smart, athletic and attractive kids.
By sixth grade I had made progress and had been accepted by some of the kids then my world was turned upside down.
To be continued…