I recently  attended a yoga workshop on the outer, northwestern ring of Atlanta: ten hours of yoga and talks spread out over a mid-winter weekend. We arrived on time and as my wife and I walked down the hall toward our room, I realized the teacher of this workshop was at the ice machine just behind us. “Welcome to the suburbs of Atlanta, Mr Schiffmann,” I said as he pulled up behind us. “I was at some of your workshops in Monteagle a few years back.” It was a nice way to start the weekend.
Friday. Erich is from California (he tells us all later), a former surfer. He shies away from terminology that sounds “hokey.” He is about six-six, maybe taller, a large man in perfect ease with himself so you don’t feel him as “big.” His face is compassionate and relaxed, ready to laugh but also deeply serious. He’s almost exactly the same age as me.
Many people are assiduously taking notes, but I resisted the urge to bring my moleskin notebook, wanting to let the information go directly into my head without having first translated it into my writing. Direct experience. There was an extended period of introduction and getting the sound right. He slides into his presentation with ease and humor eventually telling us the poses of the following weekend themselves would be not be advanced, but that the instructions for doing the poses would be advanced. He draws out words and breaks of quiet for emphasis. Eventually he commands, “All rise” which is the sign that asana work would now begin. We warmed up in his usual way and then did a subset of a vinyasa called “heavy-handed down dog.”
I had a perfect question to ask him, all about the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, whom Schiffmann had known and worked with as a young man. I had run across this philosopher as a teenager and was fascinated by his ruthless approach.
The question I formulated this way: “Why did I never read, in the books of his that I found, any statements by Krishnamurti advising us to at least try out techniques like yoga and meditation?” Though I didn’t get a chance to ask him at that point, later in the workshop Erich mentioned the Indian teacher specifically, even fielded a question about him, and I considered how it might now be the perfect time to ask this question, which I considered important to figuring out why I had developed along the lines I had – not along other lines. A perfect answer, of course, was neither expected nor exactly what I had in mind, but almost any good answer would do. “Which books [of K.’s] were you reading?” would probably fit the bill. “In some places he advised these practices, in other books, he did not” might also. Still, the session ended and my question remained unasked. Perhaps I’d see him again in the elevator and we could have a private talk about it.
Why did this question matter? you might ask. My answer is: If I had read in 1972 that this teacher, whom I greatly respected, thought it behooved us youngsters to delve into a study of physical yoga, well, I very well might have done it and have begun my practice at the somewhat more limber age of 20). As it was, I got bogged down in non-choice and stumbled along betangling myself in samsara for years, and years, and years. Where yoga, in Birmingham of the mid-seventies? The Sikh community certainly would have offered yoga at that time; perhaps I would have fallen in with them and taken classes at the then-brand-new Golden Temple. My physical yoga practice would have begun earlier.
Saturday. The rented ball-room holds fewer mats than the night before and is a-buzz, of course, with the excitement of people talking to one another. My attention is always drawn to those who might live at the edges of life, but this workshop contains mostly very normal-looking yogis and yoginis from who knows what varied areas of life and work. As usual at these events, I slipped into a by-now-familiar journalistic sort of duality and began to feel myself to be both participant and observer, an awkward stance at worst, useful for descriptions at best. I count mats, estimate the male/female ratio. I’m used to it. Each session begins and ends with meditation.
Gong. The first sit. Little instruction, just silence. Gong. “Take it easy on your body today,” advises Erich. “The practice will gradually get a bit more physically challenging as the weekend goes on, but remember to be kind to your body. You are the one who has to live in it the next day. Be kind to yourself. Pace yourself.”
Rather early the next Saturday morning, my bones a bit achy, it’s true, I walked across the four-lane street to Waffle House, where, amid strident waittresses and rambling customers I consumed some very bad coffee. The sun arose a deep shiny red between Atlantean skyscrapers but was immediately hidden by a screen. I paid and left the WH, walking up the hill to a Starbucks for decent coffee. On the trip back, I spied two hotel customers gingerly walking their cats.
Part of Erich’s message was to ask us to do some homework, that is, to sit in meditation twice a day, morning and evening, and also to practice seeing others as “brother” or “sister” first rather than seeing their perhaps most outstanding flaw/characteristic. This is a way of increasing empathy for others, and highly advisable as a daily practice, I thought. It is congruent with me noticing how I always seem to receive the faultiest of first impressions from people I meet; it is also congruent with my first, prime principle: ahimsa or harmlessness.
Later in the weekend he revisits the concept, adding that that even if we see others as “brother” or “sister” it does not mean – as with our own brother and/or sister – that we have necessarily to like them a whole lot. But we can make the effort to see them as related, as someone who we’d cut some slack. “Until proven otherwise, we cut them slack, as we would our blood brother or sister,” he smiles. “That’s all.”
Big mind is little mind, little mind is big mind. Scrub the thoughts, suspend thinking for a while, get smoo-o-oth and connect to big mind, ask big mind what now? Be willing to be led. Make up your mind not to make up your mind.
Why should it seem so difficult for me to conceive of the non-reality of death? This is one of his subjects, brought up just as casually as you might mention the weather.
There is, after all, that sense one almost always has in dreams of the absolute aliveness of someone who has died. We greet them, chat about this and that, never mentioning the large pachyderm in the dream-room; we hug them on exiting and when we wake feel as though an important revisitation has happened.
Our teacher, asked by someone else, brings this subject up, mentioning an experience of his dad about a week after his dad’s death, where he appeared at a red light where the son was stopped, just appeared and said, “Whelp, you were right. It goes on forever.” Or words to that effect. He’s pretty excited by this new feeling he has, that death is not real, and he’s sharing it with us all through our asanas and accompanying meditations. After pondering it, I hear the old traditional song hollowly echoing within my skull: Death don’t have no mercy in this land. I hear my wife quietly say, I have looked upon the face of death. I think about how much I miss those I have lost and how tempting it would be – could I consider it at least plausible? that death is miscomprehended?
Sunday. Erich brings in a banana this morning, and explains to us that a friend sent him a YouTube video of a monkey opening a banana – how the monkey pinched the little black stub at the bottom of the banana, easily revealing the fruit within. “All my life,” he said, “I’ve been opening bananas on the other end.” The room exploded with laughter.
At another point in the workshop, he mentioned the strict, unbending nature of his one-time teacher, Mr Iyengar. His teaching methodology was “very rajasic.” He told us how his days as an Iyengar teacher ended when he had eventually decided it “didn’t matter if you held your hand in certain exact position” – demonstrating – “during virabhadrasana two (warrior pose). In other conditions, in other places, other hand positions were eminently okay….” Questions were again fielded for a good hour. At one point we could hear the faintest country music coming through speakers high on the ceiling of the ballroom – soon after someone left the room (staring upwards), the music stopped.
There were two “lotus virgins” in the latter sessions, people who had gotten into lotus for the first time that weekend. Forward folds and twists with the legs in various positions as the leadup to the attempted padmasanas worked phenomenally well, making my lotus very comfortable, especially on one side. No knees were damaged in the construction of this pose. I could probably have sat thus for fifteen minutes if necessary. It occurs to me how much time I have spent sitting, the entire weekend, since Friday morning in my regular class before the workshop up until now, near the end of the workshop.
Meditation is the main thing, reiterates our teacher. I recall this emphasis from a few years ago in his workshops in Monteagle, Tennessee – one element of his teaching that apparently does not change much with time. He gives tips on how to practice meditation, five handy tips (scribble scribble) where and when – as in: try sitting in your hotel room where you wake up, push your pillows behind you, sit up, hit the snooze button, and sit for a few minutes. If you drift off, fine, the snooze will awake you. You can do it again and again. “It works well for me, while traveling.”
There is a certain clear, sharp feeling one gets after intense yoga practices close upon one another, which I feel to be an increase in buddhi – which might be translated as “intelligent, awakened light.” I can only say that I feel it shining undividedly out of my eyes. When the practice has been an intelligent and thorough one, you feel very much at home in your body and there is an absence of kinks which is delightful for those of us who still suffer (on other bodily occasions) from sleep-stiff necks and frozen mouse shoulders. Then one can be said to truly delight in the absence of tension; the spine is a proud collection of bones twisting upward into the lower realms of heaven – even if you are now in a car being driven westward, toward home, firmly attached to earth.
© 2011, 2020 Thomas N. Dennis