The Adventures Continue…
I went to my first Hatha Yoga class at the Glenwood YMCA. It was with Lee Kirkland, who had learned the Kripalu approach to Hatha Yoga. She taught a gentle style of traditional Hatha Yoga and was a perfect teacher for me. I enjoyed dropping into her classes for several years. She eventually would attend my gentle hatha and meditation classes at my home beginning in 1980.
At that time in Kripalu which was started by Amrit Desai, there was a focus on moving with the pranic or energy flow of the body. Poses were held until you felt an urge to move and you followed that intuitive guidance. Some schools were concerned about their lack of alignment. In 1970, he had a Kundalini or spiritual awakening experience in which his body automatically moved through a series of flowing yoga postures without his direction. Today, stage three of Kripalu allows for spontaneous movement after learning alignment and holding poses to connect more deeply with one’s energy flow in stages one and two.
In the early 70’s the Shaktipat Guru Baba Muktananda, the head of Siddha Yoga began to offer intensives in the West. An intensive was a three-day program of meditation, chanting, and talks. During it, he would use his will power to awaken the kundalini in the students or devotees. Shaktipat means the descent of grace. The Shaktipat Guru is like a channel for the energy to awaken or to support the already awakened energy in the individual.
There are many stories about what people have experienced when this happens. Reports include waves of bliss and love, shaking, crying, laughing, deep stillness; out of body experiences or emitting spontaneous and primal like sounds like a lion roaring or bird songs which were explained as evidence of previous lives.
Some people would move in and out of spontaneous Hatha Yoga postures without any prior experience. Amrit would demonstrate holding a pose then start to move and “do his own thing” to his followers. Today, some teachers lead workshops in Prana Shakti Flow to support freedom of movement for their students. I have enjoyed exploring this in my practice and I enjoy watching my daughter move in and out of yoga and gymnastics poses in a spontaneous way.
In 84, I would take my first intensive with Muktananda’s successor Swami Chidvilasananda or Gurumayi to her disciples. Maybe you heard of the book Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert? She includes her experiences with Gurumayi. I will share some of my amazing experiences in Siddha Yoga in a future chapter.
I also began taking classes with Lilias Folan from her PBS program Lilias, Yoga and You. Some of her teachers included Swami Vishnudevananda, the author of The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga that I had been studying. He was a disciple of Master Sivananda of Rishikesh. She also studied Vedanta philosophy and meditation under brother monk Swami Chidananda. Years later I would be trained under brother monk Swami Satchidananda, the founder of Integral Yoga.
The Sivananda and the Krishnamacharya lineages have had the most influence on the development of Hatha Yoga in the West. The founders of Iyengar Yoga, Viniyoga and Ashtanga Vinyasa were taught by Sri Krishnamacharya. I eventually went to his school in Chennai, India.
I felt a kinship to Lilias and how she was presenting Yoga and especially Vedanta. Vedanta literally means the end of the Vedas or higher knowledge. The Upanishads (sitting down at the feet of a teacher), the Bhagavadgita and the Brahma Sutras (knowledge of the Self) constitute the basis of Vedanta. I was already a big fan of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita (the song of God). Years later I named my band Sangita. It means that which integrates song. For me, it refers to the song of the soul.
I was delighted to receive a master class from Lilias when I attended Kripalu’s Yoga on the Leading-Edge conference in the late 90’s. I enjoyed being with her again when I presented at the Yoga Alliance Teacher’s Conference in 2011.
I was feeling grateful for learning from “live” teachers outside of books. I was also learning that teachers come in many forms and in some cases, the most difficult ones helped me to learn more about myself.
In 75, I met my first Zen Buddhist and environmental activist, and for the first time, I felt the nurturance of shared core values. He was my first teacher of Zen meditation. My only guide to Zen was Shunryu Suzuki Roshi’s book Zen Mind, Beginners Mind. It was amazing to meet a practitioner! We saw each other at a philosophy lecture where I was attending college. He had asked the speaker a very nuanced question that he had difficulty answering. The next day I was walking toward campus and I saw him walking on the other side of the street going the opposite way looking at me. I crossed over and we began to talk about the lecture.
Our long-distance friendship has lasted for over 40 years. I stayed in his teepee outside of Keane, New Hampshire when he was earning his master’s degree at Antioch College in environmental education. We backpacked in Yosemite and meditated at the Green Gulch Farm in Marin County near Muir Woods. We worked in their gardens which provide food for the famous Greens Restaurant in San Francisco. Greens Restaurant opened in 1979 as part of San Francisco Zen Center, which includes Green Gulch Farm and Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. They have been the pioneer in the farm to table movement for over 30 years. Their cookbook Fields of Greens is a staple in my pantry.
One day I looked up from gardening and I noticed the monks were gone. My friend said I think I know where they went to take a break. We walked down the road to the Pelican Inn at Muir Beach. We found the monks enjoying a dark beer! We joined them for some conviviality. My experience of them had been in silence when working or meditating or listening to their talks. I had made up stories about their lives. It was my only time I was with them in an informal way. They taught me to balance the rigors of the contemplative life with a sense of lightness. I also visited their other centers to practice Zen meditation. The Tassajara bread book is another cooking gem.
Zen Meditation was initially very challenging for me. Meditating on the breath for long periods of time my body would sometimes ache. When monkey mind took over we were supposed to bow which signaled the teacher to gently strike us on the shoulders with a cane. That brought alertness to the mind. It was effective but I avoided bowing as often as my mind was busy or I would have been pummeled! If my head dropped due to sleepiness, a strike would snap me back to attention. I discovered fear kept me vigilant and focused. Maybe they knew what they were doing.
After these experiences, I was very attracted to the idea of an enlightened teacher’s energy stilling the chatter of my mind instead of using a cane. However, the Zen discipline was very good at training my mind to be present to the entire range of sensations, thoughts and emotions revealed at each sitting. There was no magic pill, no quick fix. Zen was doing the uncomfortable work of getting to know myself on all levels: the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly.
My first marriage was in 76 when I was only 22 and starting in 77, I would have five children in seven years. Raising a family and navigating a marriage at a young age would take everything I had learned and experienced to new levels of insight and understanding.
Great reflections, Michael. Memory is a collective experience and you’ve sparked and informed mine. It was good to see you in Cleveland and to catch-up a bit. We could reach deeper with more time. Time for a hike and a conversation.
Thank you for reading! I hope I can afford to come visit you some day and do some hiking! I want to make it happen.