In 2001 I drove an Indian Brahmin teacher I call Acharya to Lesley’s house in Boulder where Japanese Zen master, Kobun Chino was staying. Kobun and Acharya immediately challenged each other and laughed together as if they been long time friends. Kobun said, I make really good food. I could cook for you! (In Acharya’s lineage there are rules about cooking). Acharya said his lineage was so small it fit behind a leaf! Kobun said, his lineage is so old it goes all the way to Shakyamuni Buddha! I turn away for a moment. When I look back they are both on their knees doing full prostrations to each other.
In 2001 I drive Kobun Chino to Lafayette, Colorado. We pass olive trees. They are invasive. I say Have they bloomed yet? He says. Do you ever think bad things about anyone? I say. Yes we all do, and there is something bigger. The thoughts are not the end, he says. What is the end? I ask.
My memory stops here.
Yoga teacher Richard Freeman said the practice is easy if you ride the breath and I believed him. The Ashtanga Vinyasa saying was “Ninety-nine percent practice; one percent theory.” This means do a zillion sun-salutations with other asanas inbetween jump throughs, flying through our hands and into the next posture—diving into the pits of body/mind. We lodge trauma, emotions, events in our bodies and then when we do certain postures the body re-members. Poet, Matt Reek wrote “The Body as Archive.” Massage therapists say, “The issue’s in the tissues.”
The Vinyasa system is accumulative and linear. I pass a posture or don’t. The teacher shows me or talks me through the next one. I already know what to do. While practicing in a small room mat to mat I have seen this posture out of the corner of my eye, and there are calendars, magazines, and there is a poster on my wall I gaze at as I wake and before sleep. I try to balance, one hand and side of a foot on floor, raise the other leg and grab the big toe. I try to tuck the right leg behind head and then wrap other leg behind it, cross ankles, feet firm and toes spread to help the whole thing stay together, then clasp hands behind back. Mostly after yoga you feel a Yoga high but if you push too hard you get Yoga Fever. I woke up with chills and it lasted until the next day.
At the Yoga Workshop in Boulder I broke my index finger by rolling over it. Everyone in the room hears crunch. I get up and run cold water over it. It swells. I begin practicing again with a piece of toilet paper around my finger. Mary Taylor, Richard’s wife, talks me down. I need to do the finishing postures to complete my practice. Then I’ll go to the emergency room. I say to her. Maybe this one time you could skip them, she says.
Richard and his assistants (sometimes me) walk silently around the Yoga Workshop in Boulder helping students into postures by grabbing a hand and clasping it to the other one or holding someone’s knee, or chin, or back, whatever needs grounding so that the person can touch her head to floor or lift legs in the air. Bodies are also for weighting other bodies too. Rather than using props to ease us out of the depth of poses, the assistant’s bodies help practitioners go farther into postures. Everyone sort of winks and giggles as they quote Pattahbi Jois, the Ashtanga Vinyasa lineage holder, who says, Fear, not tightness or body structure (think, bones) blocks my way from going into any of these postures to their full expression.
Anyway, that’s what we did for a couple hours on Sunday afternoons. In the mornings I sat with the Zen group in Lafayette. The other days were led classes. I practiced at home. I practiced instead of going camping, or a walk around the lake, or to see a movie or friend. I practiced while visiting parents, while in motels, hot springs. When I led retreats I woke up early and practiced before I taught.
I had never experienced this kind of presence from anyone until I met Richard. And then it happened again, meeting Kobun Chino. Hello, hello, you are a fine human. There was nothing I was supposed to do to make me a better person, human, teacher. I mean, they were real people. I cleaned Richard’s house for a trade and he asked me to spray paint a hammock stand because he didn’t want to breathe in that toxic (green) paint. I saw Kobun give a Dharma talk completely drunk. (Playing in the snow is nice, he said).
If you said to Richard’s teacher Pattabhi Jois, “My knee is bothering me today.” Pattahbi Jois would say, “What knee?” Even to have a body— even to be born is a karmic event.
So, in 1997 I went to India to study with Pattahbi Jois.
In Mysore, South India there was all this time because our practice for the day was over as the sun was rising. I poured buckets of water over my head and soaked my feet, wrote all the names of Indian spices and recorded everything I could, and rode my bike and found a philosophy teacher to study with we called Acharya. The Western students I knew were crying and angry or extra quiet after morning yoga practice. I felt kind of blissed out. I wasn’t advanced enough to do drop backs. At some point I guess I was ready. There was Pattabhi Jois holding my upper back. I crossed my arms in front of my chest and arched my back and looked up between my eyebrows. I saw the floor coming and then inches away from the floor he kind of dropped me on the crown of my head. Then he lifted me up again, looked into my eyes and said, “heavy lady! Ha ha!” Then that was every day. Then I began to feel things.
Performance artist Laurie Anderson, in her brilliant film, “Heart of a Dog” quotes a Buddhist teacher who said, that the idea is to feel sad, don’t be sad.
Sitting is a big experiment. Last night I watched her film so today I try, feel sad don’t be sad. I get it a little. I breathe into a sort of bigness and then I also feel sad. For moments there is no particular story to go with it. I decide that’s the clue. The more I tell my story a particular way the more solid and repetitive my sense of self becomes.
Driving Kobun to Great Mountain Zen Center in Lafayette traffic is slow so we can see Russian Olive trees had olives in their branches and on the ground. At the Zen Center someone asked what to do about anger. Kobun, really surprised said, I listen. We all laughed. We were used to teachers saying that anger would only mess up everything.
I imagined inside of Kobun, thoughts are new friends. Everything that rose up was the first meeting. Gertrude Stein says, “There is no such thing as repetition, only insistence.” I imagined Kobun was floating in a big ball of sweet scented permeable jello and these thoughts came floating and bouncing and slurping in like interesting bits of live news feed.
Richard said to his assistants that the Mysore style of Yoga practice was like monks in cells. The teachers walked around telling the monks helpful stuff to assist their awakening. To me it was like an improvisational dance structure. Some things were the same. You shared doing a sun-salutation with the person next to you, then you went into your own next position.
In this segway from my teachers to me to my students, I have already failed. I am not great like these teachers, jello like, hearts blasting, eyes full of empathy. No one is bowing to my feet.
There are all these stories about the dharma where they say it’s for anyone. Like you can be dumb and it still works.
I heard this story about a guy who was not given permission to teach the dharma because he wasn’t ready. He walked hillside and taught it to deer. The deer all became enlightened.
At some point in my Yoga and sitting practice I know these practices are not about proving I am best at something or passing on the perfect form or getting to some forward and better self. And I don’t get anything from anyone. If it’s about any kind of hierarchy I am lower. Humans and animals being together. Maybe, if there is a doorway, I say, after you.
In 2001 Kobun is at Denver Zen Center about to give a talk. He sits on the edge of a couch in the green room holding a lit incense stick, smoke going straight up. He asks me if it’s pretty soon, and says he is nervous. Oh. You could exhale, I said.
The crickets are up all day today and when things finally cool and it’s night I am inside sweating under a single sheet. They sound like a giant wheel turning in reverse.
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