Hold the Enlightenment
I am not a yoga kinda guy. Yoga people are sensitive, aware, largely sober, slender, double-jointed, humorless vegans who are concerned with their own spiritual welfare and don't hesitate to tell you about it. They are spiritually intense and consequently enormously boring in the manner of folks who, in their own self-absorption, feel you ought be alerted as to the quantity and texture of their last bowel movement.
Or so I used to think.
But there I was, taking my first yoga class, in an open-sided bar/restaurant while, a few hundred feet below, the Caribbean Sea exploded off the high coral cliffs of Negril, Jamaica. I was doing some position, an asana, that was something like what I'd call a wrestler's bridge: it required balancing on my head and hands up top, and the soles of my feet below. Hotel employees had removed tables and chairs from the restaurant for this class, and, because I was apprehensive, I'd positioned myself in the area where I felt most comfortable, which is to say, next to the bar. In the field of my vision, I could see an upside-down line of several bottles of rum, and, above them, a black-and-white picture of Bob Marley, the patron saint of Jamaican reggae. There is a picture of Bob Marley in every single bar in Jamaica. I know: I've done the research. One of Marley's best songs has a line that goes "Every little thing, is going to be all right." That, I decided, was my mantra.
I'm a writer, of sorts. My job, such as it is, requires me to travel to remote countries, where I have, in the past few decades, covered the drug/guerrilla war in Colombia, investigated the murder of an American in the jungles of Peru, dived with great white sharks off the coast of South Africa, and sat negotiating my fate with Tuareg warlords in the southern Sahara. Pretty hairy-chested stuff, but the truth is, I was a little scared about meeting all the yoga folks in Jamaica. There's a lot of testosterone involved in what I do. I assumed that yoga people would perceive me as some sort of throwback: a Neolithic macho, and an abyss of awareness.
Well, everybody wants to be liked, and I deeply feared the scorn of the assembled yogis and yoginis. The books I read before coming to Jamaica had calmed me somewhat: yoga, I learned, is not a religion, and you can take from it what you will. Go only for the physical benefits: fine, yoga doesn't have a problem with that. Use it for stress relief and meditation: sure, okay. Or a person might opt for a total yoga lifestyle, which includes diet, meditation, and the search for enlightenment. Take from it what you will: yoga, according to the books, doesn't give a rat's ass.
But I assumed that people who would choose to spend their vacations doing four hours of yoga a day would be lifestyle folks, the kind of weenies who might sneer at my own rather soiled lifestyle. I feared my classmates would be holier than thou, or, in any case, holier than I, which is pretty much a slam dunk.
In fact, my classmates-a couple of dozen of them-did not appear at all the way I thought yoga people were supposed to look. The men were not little weenie guys, for one thing, and there were several of them there-I only say this out of journalistic integrity-who probably could have taken me at arm wrestling. The women-whose ages spanned a couple of generations-were not hippie burnouts and acid crawlbacks. None wore patchouli oil, and an extraordinary number of them were highly attractive. The rest were just conventionally good-looking. Don't misunderstand: I was with my wife, and I am not single and looking. But if I were, I'd take yoga classes, if only to meet chicks.
Our instructors were John Schumacher, founder and director of Unity Woods, a studio with locations throughout the East, and Barbara Benagh of Boston's Yoga Studio. We had started the class by introducing ourselves and talking about our experience with yoga. Several of the students had studied for twenty years or more. My wife and I were the only total beginners, but, when my turn came, I told the assembled yogis, "I haven't done any yoga physically, but I've read three entire books and figure I know everything there is to know about it."
There was a brief moment of silence, and I thought, yep, humorless. And then the class burst into laughter. Not a lot of it. It wasn't that good a joke. I looked up at Bob Marley and thought: Every little thing, is going to be all right. The books in question had been sent to me by Todd Jones of Yoga Journal, who had asked me to write a story about my first yoga class. Todd said he was looking for "a view of our little subculture from the outside." That seemed fair enough, and I asked him if he could mail me some introductory texts.
He sent yoga books appropriately addressed to dummies and idiots, along with Erich Schiffmann's Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness, which I found well written but a bit on the ethereal side, at least for me. I figured yoga kinda guys might get a lot out of it.
What I was able to glean from all this material was that the poses, or asanas, were developed thousands of years ago to give people control over their bodies. Such control is essentially for yogic meditation. The purpose and goal of meditation is the bliss of eventual enlightenment. That stopped me cold. Enlightenment? No sir, whoa Nellie. None of that whoop-de-do for me, thank you very much.
The Enlightened Masters I have read are invariably incomprehensible and the Masters themselves are entirely incapable of constructing a single coherent English sentence. I'm not discussing someone like Eric Schiffmann, who is actually very good. What I'm talking about here is Flat Out Enlightenment, which is mostly unintelligible gibberish and reads to me like someone swimming through a thick custard of delirium. And don't think I don't know my Enlightened Masters. I've been to ashrams in India, power spots, and convergence points and "vortices" in California and Colorado and New Mexico. I have spent time chatting to a woman with many, many followers who lives near my home in Montana and who channels Enlightened Masters all day long as if making calls on a cellular phone.
The link between them all-the convergence people, the gurus, the Enlightened-is that, in their written materials anyway, they don't make any sense at all. For that reason they all are self-published, which is to say, they themselves pay someone else to publish the work in question. As a professional writer, I prefer the opposite strategy, in which the publisher pays you. Enlightenment, my reading suggested, is an exceedingly poor career path for a writer.
Oh, I knew bliss and enlightenment aren't often achieved. It said as much in each of the books I read. One strives toward the light. Okay, I'd buy that, sure, but what if I turned out to be one of those guys who just happens to "get it" straight away? What if I was an anomaly? I'd crank out a few asanas, sit cross-legged, thinking- but-not-thinking, and all of a sudden, flash-bang, I'd see it all: the meaning of life, my own connection to the cosmos, and the blinding curve of energy that is the pulsing soul of universal consciousness itself, and I'd know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that at that moment, I was completely and irrevocably screwed.
Enlightened people are dead meat in the publishing industry. I'd lose my jobs, such as they are. My mortgage would go unpaid, my wife would leave me, and I'd wander the earth in ragged clothes, informing the less spiritually fortunate of a consciousness above and beyond. Perhaps those people might give me a few coins with which I could buy a scrap of bread. This is to say that, in my mind, enlightenment and homelessness are synonymous situations. I called Todd Jones back at Yoga Journal and said I'd take the course, but I intended to resist enlightenment. And if, through some cruel trick of fate, I did become enlightened, I was going to go out there to Berkeley, California, and kick his ass.
So, there I was, three days into the yoga vacation, with twelve big hours of yoga under my belt. I had feared, on the whole, that yoga might be too light a workout for me: a bunch of sissy stuff about standing on one leg for a couple of breaths. I typically run (or plod) two miles a day, occasionally lift weights, and stretch assiduously. I had called Todd Jones before I left and asked if he couldn't get me into one of the more sweaty disciplines, some kind of power yoga.
"If I put you, as an absolute beginner, in an ashtanga class for a week," Todd said mildly, "you really would kick my ass."
He was right about that. I was able to do many of the asanas, but it had never occurred to me that once you attained the position, it was necessary to keep working through it. It never got any easier. If you did it right, you were always working at the very edge of what you could do. In a typical four-hour day, I felt I'd gotten a pretty good physical workout, and each would have been a lot more effective if I could have done some of the more advanced work we typically did late in the session. Todd Jones was right about ahstanga.
I was standing at the bar after an afternoon class, having a beer and a cigarette, when John Schumacher stopped by for a chat. I was wearing a T-shirt I had bought from John, who runs the Unity Woods Yoga Center. The shirt featured a large triangle whose legs read: "serenity," "awareness," "health."
"I suppose," I said, "I'm a bad advertisement for Unity Woods."
"Not at all," John said. "We'll just add the words 'not applicable.' "
From the Hardcover edition.