The Feet of The Yogi
Yogiji was everywhere. In addition to teaching in the morning and the evening, he danced with us in large circles, directed Kabaddi competitions, served mung beans and rice, and yogi tea, and wandered around the camp, engaging people in conversation. Where ever he went he laughed, blessed people, said insightful words and inspired everybody. He was so much fun, so uplifting and filled with such joy that the Solstice celebration was infused with open hearted love and awakening of spirit. Just his presence alone carried the entire camp.
Why did he do it? We (most of us anyway) were just a bunch of crazy, drugged out hippies who just happened to like to get high doing yoga. Of the three hundred and fifty people who were there, probably not more than fifteen of us are still associated with 3HO and practicing his teachings forty years later. Yet in that remote mountain valley, from morning to night he gave selflessly, served everybody and he never stopped. What did he see in us?
To better appreciate just how special and unique was this Yogi, a little background information is helpful. He came from an upper class family in India. His family had land, wealth, servants, education and a very high degree of cultural sophistication. He personally knew the Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi and many of the other top social, political and cultural leaders. Yet he who traveled among the elite of India was throwing in his lot with barefoot, ragged clothed, scraggly, long haired young people of USA who looked like the disparaged outcasts of India’s lowest untouchable class and who didn’t even know how to clean the dirt between their toes. Why did he do it?
One thing is for sure, it was not to get rich. His early students were so poor that the only donation they could bring to class was the few coins Yogiji left outside for them to pick up. It also was not to become a popular yoga teacher to the stars. The Kundalini Yoga he taught was much too demanding for any mass popularity. It was not about sex. At one point he was offered one million dollars to have sex with a very rich admirer. He politely declined. It was not about power. The life he left in India offered every conceivable path to wealth, power and prestige. What motivated this Yogi was something entirely different.
All we saw was a big yogi having fun and being a teacher. We did not have the slightest notion of who he really was. Unlike us, with our limited vision, he did see us, clearly, who we were and, most importantly, who we could be. He saw our potential. Behind the crazy, drugged out hippy, space cases there was the potential for fully enlightened warrior-saints who would live to serve the humanity with love and express the highest ideals of spiritual life. He saw the possibility. Not only did he see it, he served it with unlimited energy, true humility, grace and love.
He often said that each of us has a destiny written on our forehead. We may not know it or even be aware of it. But he sees it and he serves it. His job as a teacher is to awaken us to our destiny. In his words, “You are here, not that you were spiritual; you are not here because you are to be spiritual; you are here because it was your destiny. I play my role. It is up to you to play yours.”
One bright and sunny afternoon Yogiji called a group of men together for Kabaddi. He enthusiastically explained that this was a yogic competition that involved breath, strength, teamwork and speed.
I was up for it, it sounded like fun, I’ve always done well in sports and I liked a good competition. Still, I had my reservations. Wasn’t yoga all about self-discovery and personal enlightenment? Where did competition come in?
He divided the men into two teams and had us strip down to shorts; no shirts, no shoes. By this time the whole camp was crowded around the sides and the excitement was high.
“Listen,” he ordered. “One team chooses a raider. The other team is the defender.” He instructed someone to cut a mark through the grass between the two teams. To me it sort of sounded like something akin to British Bulldog or Red Rover, Red Rover.
“The raider must Inhale deeply and repeat, “Kabaddi, Kabaddi, Kabaddi.” We all stood there repeating “Kabaddi, Kabaddi, Kabaddi.” I wondered if it was some kind of new mantra.
“Good. You should be able to keep this up for a full minute without taking a breath.” I would have been lucky to get twenty seconds.
“So, you be the first raider.” He pointed to a well-known teacher from California. He was a big man, muscular, with a full mane of hair and growing beard. He strode forward, enjoying the attention and ready to show his skill.
“Okay, when I say, you take a deep breath and start repeating Kabaddi. On this one breath you cross the line and touch a member of the other team and try to get back before you breathe again. Understand?”
Then speaking to the other team, “As soon as he touches someone on your side you must prevent him from returning to his side.”
Uh oh, I thought. This could get rough.
“Are you ready?” Yogiji asked.
“Yes,” the man replied, having no idea what was to come.
“Inhale!” The man filled his lungs.
“Kabaddi, Kabaddi, Kabaddi….”
“Go!” The man leapt across the dividing line and lightly slapped someone’s shoulder. The other team members surrounded him and prevented his return. He finally inhaled with a big breath.
“What was that?” Yogiji asked as if the man had failed miserably. “You were supposed to fight. How can you get back if you don’t fight?” Fight? I wondered. Since when does fighting have anything to do with yoga?
“Who’s next?” he asked looking at the other team. One of their larger members stepped forward. The spectators cheered. He started hyperventilating to build up his oxygen supply. “Go,” screamed the yogi.
The man inhaled deeply, started repeating ‘Kabaddi’ and ran forward. He struck one of our team members hard in the chest with both hands, knocking him off his feet. He tried to dash back but was not quick enough. I tackled his legs, someone else grabbed his waist. With the crowd screaming encouragement, he struggled mightily, striking one of our members in the mouth with his flailing arms, trying to break free and dragging me on the ground. He finally collapsed gasping for breath but with part of his body over the line.
“Point!” yelled the yogi. “Good!”
The man had several scratches on his back, one of our team members had a bloody lip, one had the air knocked out of him and sat gasping and my arm hurt were it had been trampled on. We staggered to our feet. It was our turn to send a raider.
A short stocky man volunteered. He dashed across the line and ran around inside a semi-circle the defenders had created. He suddenly lowered his head and tackled the defender on the end of their line. He hit him so hard and at such an angle that the impact carried both of them across the line to our side.
“Point!” screamed the yogi, jumping out of his chair. The poor defender looked like he had been hit by a truck and had to be helped off the field.
We were now the defenders. The raider circled around our defense and tried the same tactic as before, this time on me. He charged like a bull. I feinted and jumped clear. He came back at me but ran out steam and had to inhale. Our point.
Suddenly it was my turn. Physically wrestling with guys one hundred pounds heavier than me was out of the question. I took a deep breath and moved slowly across the line. The opposing team spread out trying to trap me in. I quickly reached out with my long arms, touched someone on the chest and darted back across the line before they could get me.
“Good, good!” Yogiji bellowed.
It was hard, exhausting and nobody who played escaped without some scratches, cuts, bruises and loss of blood. The more physical the fight, the more Yogiji loved it. I think we were lucky there were no broken bones or serious injuries. The fact that Kabaddi was never repeated at subsequent Solstices is probably due to a legally minded person warning the yogi of the dire consequences of someone getting seriously hurt and a resulting lawsuit. However, many years later at our school in India, Kabaddi became one of the favorite intramural sports.
This was my first brush with the warrior side of Yogiji. Of course, I was still steeped in the hippy peace and love, everything is beautiful, flowers and incense fantasy. During the sixties I had proudly marched against the Vietnam War and had been tear-gassed on a couple of occasions. I was a dedicated peace-nik and the whole idea of fighting repulsed me. The fact that the yogi loved it bothered me considerably.
He not only loved it but he jumped up and down, yelled encouragement and seemed to get most excited when the fighting got roughest. When he yelled it seemed the ground shook and fire shot from his eyes. I could easily imagine him with a sword raised high, galloping furiously on a huge stallion and leading an army into battle. The whole idea was crazy. I had never read of a yogi who was also a warrior. In fact I thought the two were mutually exclusive. It had me seriously questioning his credentials. But what did I know? I still thought spirituality meant renouncing the world and living in a cave.
As always, Yogiji was teaching us, even when we didn’t think he was. He lived the ideal of a soldier/saint, the yogi/warrior. It came through in his teachings and his actions, even if I chose to see only the yogi/saint side. In his own words, "Human is a blend of saint and soldier; this is a complete person. If you are not a soldier your sainthood will be kicked around. If you are only a soldier, not a saint, you will start kicking others around."
The whole soldier/warrior side of spirituality was so new, so threatening and so contrary to my preconceptions that I sort of blocked it out. It would be years before I embraced it. At this point it was a stretch for me to participate in competitions, let alone see them as possible spiritual activities.
So the yogi enjoyed simple fun and games, even the wrestling and fighting. It seemed that spirituality and earthly fun were not necessarily incompatible. In fact, it was possible that they could be parts of the same life. If fun and games could be part of a spiritual life, then what else might be included?
I thought spirituality was sitting in meditation, communing with God and being holy. I thought a spiritual teacher walked around, said wise things, taught masterful classes and stayed above the fray of life. But here was a spiritual teacher jumping up and down and shouting encouragement while a group of men fought, wrestled and bled. Here was a spiritual teacher who did not stay above the fray. In fact, he was in the thick of it.
My eyes were slowly opening. Maybe a spiritual life could include fun, games, competition, fighting, laughing and maybe even getting hurt. Maybe a spiritual teacher could find ways to challenge his students in seemingly unspiritual ways. Maybe a novice like me could break out of his very limited concepts of what was and was not spiritual and see God in all. Nothing was impossible. -- Chapter 10 Part III is next.