Chapter Two: Second Trip to India
That fall the teacher from Seattle invited me to come play a kirtan with him in his studio. His wife was in Mysore, and it was just the two of us. I grew up on a farm and would go back and drive truck for harvest. I was there and we finished just in time for me to drive home, catch a bus to Seattle, play the kirtan, and take yoga classes. He was preparing to go to Mysore, but I did not tell him I was also planning to go that fall as I did not think he would approve. The first time I had gone to a Siddha Yoga Meditation with Shankara in the early 80’s I had a vision of a short, dark person, wearing military epaulets, and an inverted triangle on his chest with an upward spiral within it. When I was at the Yoga Teachers in Seattle, he had a painting he had gotten in India sitting against the wall where we were practicing for the kirtan. It had an image of the person I had the vision of years ago. It was a Hindu God named Vamana. I was shocked. I also had a dream while I was there where I was in some sort of store, and I went down a few steps into an area that had a barrel full of inexpensive cooking paraphernalia.
The night before I was ready to fly out of Missoula for Seattle and on to India, I received a call about ten o’clock that woke me up. It was the teacher from Seattle, he was calling to tell me if I took tabla lessons from Sada Shiva Swami instead of a teacher lined up for me by his friend Ravi, he would no longer play kirtan with me when he came. This was very disconcerting because I had formed a real bond with Sada Shiva Swami and had already sent him a letter telling him I would be arriving in Mysore in December. He sent me a reply telling me he would be looking for me. I found out later it was the woman who owned the yoga studio in town who called the teacher in Seattle and told him to call me and tell me this.
When I got to Mysore, I contacted Ravi, and he lined me up with a tabla teacher who did not speak English and I was put in a class with a group of young boys at a boy’s school who were learning tabla. It was fun and they acted as the translator between me and the teacher. In India your teacher or guru is supreme, and you stay with the one teacher no matter what for the rest of your life. A woman was taking lessons from Sada Shiva Swami, and he sent messages to me through her, but I ignored them. Essentially by listening to the teacher from Seattle and not studying with Sada Shiva Swami I made a huge mistake. The woman who owned the yoga studio had said to me she could not have me as a teacher as she could not control me. I was not going to India to become a teacher, but to improve my practice and enjoy the community. “When a toxic person can no longer control you, they will try to control how others see you.” I feel that if I would have taken tabla from Sada Shiva Swami as I had planned the following would not have happened, as I would not have been on the street in front of the boy’s school.
I had tried to rent a bicycle in Gokulam to take back and forth to tabla class, but I could not find one, so I walked, as I was too cheap to take an auto rickshaw. The boy’s school was across a side street from a college. One day as I was leaving tabla class, I was approached by a thirty-year-old Social Studies professor. He told me I reminded him of an American professor he had worked with in Indonesia and asked me to go to coffee. I reluctantly agreed. He asked me to give a lecture at his class on the differences between India and the West. I had no experience in public speaking and was horrified. He told me he knew a place by the lake he could take me where I could practice tabla, and no one would bother us. It was at this point I realized he was trying to pick me up! I was in shock and dissed him, which was a total mistake. I should have handled it more tactfully. He wanted to take me to meet his parents who would make me a non-vegetarian meal. He assumed I would appreciate this. He also took me to a rooftop where him and several other professors at the school had modest rooms.
When I first got to Mysore this trip an auto rickshaw driver gave me a ride from the train station to a hotel which was closer to Gokulam than the Kaveri Lodge. He took me to a money changer, whereas before I had always gone to a bank to cash my traveler’s checks. They were a motley crew and when I went to count the cash, the guy became very irate and the rickshaw driver said, “Let’s go!” Rupees are in odd denominations and if a person is not used to counting them, they are in trouble. The ceiling in the room was very low and there were Oriental Carpets rolled out all over the floor. Guys were lying around with backpacks partially open exposing cash from many different countries. I didn’t know if these guys were money launderers, but I felt very lucky to get out of there alive and never went back.
The rickshaw driver wanted to pick me up every morning at the hotel and take me to practice. It was a little room with a small television and limited reception. The rickshaw driver also took a load of children to school in the morning, so it was awkward arranging my ride. One morning I was standing outside the Shala waiting for a couple of English women to finish their practice, as they had invited me to breakfast. A Swami named Shiva approached and asked if I was looking for lodging as he had a small house on a roof that had just been completed and was available. I asked to look at it, it was incredible. The main house was on top of a hill, so the roof dwelling had an amazing view. The bathroom contained what was called a geyser, which was a hot water heater, I would not have to take cold showers. When I had gotten moved in a woman from the flat below came up and stuck her head in the door and asked what I was going to be doing besides practicing Yoga at the Shala or school.
I told her I was going to be taking tabla lessons and she said she had just run into a woman in Sri Lanka during her layover from Heathrow who was looking for a tabla player as she played Kirtan. I said, “great!” introduce me. The next morning, we walked down the hill as it was going to be the first day of class at the Shala. When we got inside the room, we were the first ones, and she went up and threw her mat down in the front row and I threw my mat down next to her. It was shortly after this a woman came in and threw her mat down next to me, and it was the woman who was looking for a tabla player. She immediately started calling me Darling and I responded with Honey, this is when my trouble began. Fortunately, she was married and said I looked like her husband in Colorado and started calling me her “Mysore Husband”, I felt safe
She rented a luxurious flat on the second floor of a building where a family lived where the husband was involved in horse racing and what he called “Black Money.” I am not sure what this was, but it was obvious he had a lot of it. I was in seventh heaven; I had a room full of people to practice yoga and a person to play kirtan. She had a kirtan every Tuesday and Friday night and would fill the room with about thirty to thirty-five people. Tuesday was Hanuman Day, so she would start with the Hanuman Chalise and Saturday was the day of rest at the Shala since it was ruled by Saturn, which is very constrictive, so Friday was not a school night. I was having the time of my life.
There were senior Ashtanga Yoga Teachers from all over the world. This was because Sharath’s father had suddenly died upon returning from the Arab Emirates where he worked. All the Old Students of Guruji knew him and they came to pay they’re respect to Sharath and his mother Saraswathi, who was the daughter of Guruji. One morning the Kirtan Woman invited me to breakfast with her and John Scott a yoga instructor from New Zealand and his wife at a woman’s house named Nagarathna who served breakfast to yoga students. The Kirtan Woman was busy talking to John when his wife turned to me and asked, “Who might you be?” I replied, “Nobody.” Other teachers were there as well, such as Tim Miller and ones from around the world that I was not familiar with. It was an incredibly intoxicating scene for one who lived in isolation.
At lunch a couple of days before I was to leave, I had mentioned to the Kirtan woman that the woman who was managing my apartments back home had been able to pay off my credit card. The next morning, she showed up at breakfast at the restaurant where the yoga students ate. She did not usually come there, but I was going to be leaving the next day. I found out later when she married her current husband, he had two or three credit cards and juggled the balance between them. He had a gambling addiction and regularly disappeared to Las Vegas.
When the three months were up and it was time to go home, I was devastated. The night before the morning I was to leave we played a Kirtan. After we were through the Kirtan Woman locked arms with me and walked me back to my flat. It reminded me of the time George on Seinfeld took Susan’s parents to see his house in the Hamptons that did not exist. When I got back to Missoula that spring there was a yoga workshop being taught by the teacher from Seattle. When I told him I had met the Kirtan Woman and had a great time playing music with her, he said, “She’s not my friend.” I was shocked. I thought yoga was a spiritual practice and that all the practitioners created a Sanga, and everyone got along. This was not the case. I was to learn that it was an incredibly competitive scene and that one had better watch his back. Not good when my mantra was “Just Trust.”
When we were playing a kirtan on Shivaratri the energy became very intense. It is a festival on the New or Dark Moon as they call it in India in late February or early March. It is when Shiva takes the night off and the rest of the world chants Shiva’s name to cover for him. Chanting his name one time on this night is like chanting it a thousand times any other. The Kirtan Woman raised the energy so high it was as if the room was filled with serpents. It was at this point I looked into her eyes and told her she was my favorite Kirtan Wala. At which point she asked me to come to Berkley in the fall to play a Kirtan Saturday night of the Workshop she was giving. Without thinking, I said, “sure!”
The woman who was married to the yoga teacher from Seattle told me the Kirtan Woman had been married three or four times and all the yoga students knew everything about each other. The Kirtan Woman told me once she was sitting on her deck at home sunning herself and the doorbell rang. She went to the door in her bikini with a snake wrapped around her neck and when she opened the door the Seventh Day Adventists ran in horror!
Essentially, I had no business being in the Ashtanga Community. I am gay and have spent my life hiding in the closet in denial. When I first read about Ashtanga Yoga in an article in the Yoga Journal written by Tim Miller, I knew it was the style of yoga I was looking for, because of the way it synchronized breath with movement and connected the asanas with vinyasa. It told in the article that Guruji and Sharath had teachers’ trainings in Mysore. I wanted to go but knew I would not fit in and that my personality was such that I would not make a successful teacher. Not only that, but I also knew intuitively the macho Ashtanga Practitioners would not accept me.
On my first visit I went to a restaurant on the edge of Mysore and a man sat down at the table with me. Which is common as there are so many people. He asked me what I was doing in Mysore, I told him practicing Ashtanga Yoga with Guruji and Sharath. He advised me to get out of there as his friend Ramesh, who was Guruji’s son, had committed suicide. This young man recognized I was gay and advised me to leave. Out of naivete I told him I would be fine. Which was totally wrong.
There were two Ashtanga Yoga teachers from California who came to my hometown during the summers in the 90’s. They alternated, one came one year and the other the next. In the spring of 1998 one of the teachers called and invited me to come to Mill Valley and stay at her house and attend an Ashtanga Yoga Workshop being presented by Tim Miller. I knew if I went, I would get into trouble and I told her no. She kept calling to try and convince me until I finally relented. When I was flying out to Oakland the flight had mechanical problems and was stuck on the tarmac for an hour. I should have taken this as an omen and got off the plane but sat it out.
I remember when she was calling, I was living downstairs in a three-bedroom apartment alone, as the woman I had been sharing it with met a doctor online and went on a date on Valentine's Day and a few days later moved in with him. She had come over while I was having lunch and suggested we split my assets just as I was taking a bite of pizza. I almost choked. I had a big old six-foot red vinyl couch sitting in front of the living room window where ferns were hanging. I had been reading the Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler and it was sitting on the arm of the sofa. I had only ten pages left, but I did not want it to end, so it had been resting there for a while. After my first trip to India, I became aware if I wanted to go back, I needed to upgrade the three-bedroom apartment, rent it out, and move back upstairs into one of the studios.
When I got to the workshop, I had a great time. I stayed in a tent in the back yard and on Saturday evening there was a potluck and I visited with Tim Miller. Everyone was drinking wine and the woman that invited me at some point asked if I were homosexual and I blatantly denied it. This should have been enough to convince me to stay away from the scene, but I was attracted like a moth to a flame. I even asked Tim Miller if I would be able to go to Mysore and he assured me I would. There was another yoga teacher from southern California also staying there for the weekend and we all ate our meals together at the living room table. This sense of family was intoxicating. The woman whose house it was, husband, young son, and daughter were there as well. It was especially exhilarating since I had no family.
I think I read about Guruji’s wife dying before I went to Mill Valley, so the bug was already embedded in my head. I convinced myself I could become a Gay Ashtanga Yoga teacher. This was an insane conclusion.
When I got to Berkley, I was trying to be with the Kirtan Woman but not close enough I would jeopardize my identity. I was relieved when she informed me on Saturday night a German friend of hers from Mysore, Rolf Naujokat was in town, and she was going to dinner with him. On one afternoon I had lunch at an Indian restaurant with the Kirtan Woman, Tim Miller, and an Ashtanga Yoga teacher from Norther California who was gay. I was intimidated, but at the same time reassured that it was possible. That weekend I was staying with a woman I knew from a Siddha Yoga Satsang in my hometown. I had called the Oakland Ashram to book a room for the weekend as I had stayed there before. When a woman at the front desk answered the phone, it was my friend and she invited me to stay with her across the street at a house she was sitting. This was an interesting synchronicity. When she arrived back after I had discovered what a blunder, I had made she was very supportive.
I went to the airport the next afternoon with the Kirtan Woman as our flights departed at similar times. I was completely taken by her. We ate in the terminal with plastic utensils, she said the next time we would eat with silver. When we were boarding, we were pulled aside even though this was only 1998. She felt it was because she was dressed radically with braids, denim, and pink high top converse tennis shoes. I was smitten.
When the woman who invited me to Mill Valley had been in Missoula she had come over to my house and used the telephone to call her husband. On the phone her husband asked where she was calling from, and she reassured him he had nothing to worry about as “he” was gay. I overheard this but was not sure who she was referring to. I realize now it was me. The whole time I felt like I was walking a tight rope as the Ashtanga Community is very promiscuous.