Thomas Merton, Kanchenjunga, Mysore

Why do you do Ashtanga? What brought you to the practice? This post will be my story, but I would love to hear from any of you. Tales of  bodily and mental transformation, maniacal obsession, intimidation overcome (or not), gentle delight, whatever. I welcome any replies to this: a story, impressions, what drew you in and what it was like at first, what it became over time, anything. Just leave a reply at the bottom of this post.

My story: I was raised in Santa Barbara and went to college in LA. It usually felt like a gigantic morass of very weird madness down there, and I engaged my share.  But in my studies at Occidental College, I gravitated toward Comparative Religions, seeking meaning and solace. The on-campus evangelical Christians actively attempted to draw me in, and I learned quite a bit from them but didn’t buy the party line. One Christian thinker who compelled me however was Thomas Merton and  my Bachelor’s thesis drew heavily from his writings. The one that really hit me was his Asian Journal, which captures his thoughts and acts leading up to his death.

He was an unusal combination of monk and popular writer. His writings were subject to the Catholic censors and much of them feel stifled by an authoritarian tone, although his profound spiritual realization is unmistakable. But the Asian Journal and his posthumously published journals reveal a different voice, at times in clear conflict with the Church, very human, funny, delighted, anguished. Nonetheless, the substantial royalties he earned through his writing all went to his monastery in the woods of Kentucky, and he remained a monk in poverty, praying for the rest of the world.

He deeply understood and appreciated yoga from Asia in its various forms. Year after year of arduous practice in the Catholic monastic tradition transformed him into an awesome yogi indeed, and an accomplished Tibetan roshi recognized him as such. He used mountains as a metaphor for stages of spiritual development, and his final mountain was Kanchenjunga, the Himalayan peak on the border between Nepal and India. He photographed it obsessively on the journey on which he would die in 1968.

It would become my first mountain. I was 22, it was 1989, and yoga was just beginning its transition from curiosity to actual cultural force in the West. I met a great man in his late fifties, Virgil Day, therapist, buddhist, mountaineer,  the father of my girlfriend Jessica at the time, who was planning an extensive trek through the wilds all around…Kanchenjunga. I came up with the $2000, quit my job, vacated my apartment, and joined him.

We spent 34 days out on the Nepali trails in the most stunning country I have ever seen, bar none. Rivers, mountains, leeches,  all larger than life.  Kanchenjunga was mysterious. On the first few days, from a distance, she showed her hulking face through the clouds. We then dropped into the deep valleys and worked our way through them for two weeks, walking closer. She stayed hidden, though I could feel her radiant presence. Her proud consort, Kumbhakarna, a massiff like the Matterhorn but on a much larger scale, made a dramatic appearance, out of the clouds suddenly, straight above us and way up there, Virgil on a distant terrace shouting and waving his arms wildly, the wind blowing, a moment which stained my mind forever.

We finally made it to a sheepherding region called Pangpema, the main vantage point to see Kanchenjunga’s incredible north face. But she was hidden. Our Sherpa, Ram, was scratching his head as we walked along: where was the great mountain? A huge rock face eventually showed from behind a shoulder and he announced, “There is Kanchenjunga.” It was big for sure, but we remained quiet, trying not to be disappointed. He muttered, “It doesn’t seem right”. We continued, and a bigger massiff appeared. Still we walked. Another massiff, an impressive one indeed, much the biggest of the three, but this time Ram said nothing and kept going.

His genetics were part mountain goat, and he was far ahead of us at this point, I had spots in front of my eyes from the altititude. We turned a bend to see him sitting with a serious look, and there she was, immeasurably larger than the prevous three,  a radiant wall of  gold and blue, an experience akin to Krishna’s presentation to Arjuna of the true face of God, completely overwhelming. We’d been hiking for two weeks, courting her, and only in the last four minutes of that part of the trek did she finally reveal herself. Her naked beauty was beyond…

I was dunked into the Nepal/Tibet/India matrix and romance, and to this day I have not recovered. The next two months were spent wandering India, including encounters with sadhus, the poor of Calcutta, the beaches of Kerala. I came home from that trip looking like a sadhu, and fairly skinny from several micro-organisms. My family was a bit shocked.

We had a copy of Iyengar’s Light on Yoga on the shelf and, inspired, I went to work.  Four years later, March 1994, I found myself again in India, amazed. This time it was the city of Mysore and I was preparing to meet Pattabhi Jois. I had only been doing Ashtanga for two months, and had some major thresholds to cross in the pelvis and hamstrings, was a little concerned that he’d give me a bodyslam in these regions. I was part way through the first year of getting a master’s degree in counseling psychology, and was planning on pursuing the career, and here I was in India again, recognizing with trepidation a rapidly approaching huge dark cloud of a major internal crisis.

It went like this: Jessica had already been there for two months, and as I lay down next to her that first night I dimly sensed that there was another man in the picture. What the heck was this? As we talked, I recognized this presence was Guruji himself, and that her time here alone had awoken all kinds of life in her, I was a classic lumbering threatened boyfriend. I intellectualized it: this is an evolutionary engagement she has with a helper (albeit a fairly potent one), and I support this. So that left it in my court: what was my problem? Could it be all the monsterously bendy yogis everywhere, when I was stiff and initimidated? No, that wasn’t really it. I lay there awake all night from the timezone shift and considered this.

Next morning I went to the Nilayam to watch, planning on paying that afternoon. This was during the slow period of growth in the community that preceded what was to become an explosion. The old Shala used to have eight students at a time, eventually that grew to 12, which filled the little room. Guruji would periodically settle onto his creaky stool in the corner, and then get up and adjust students. His grandson, Sharath, would sit at his feet by the wall, also getting up to help.

We walked in, he burst through the door of a prana-packed room like a demon with a fiery sword in a mandala, confronted me, demanded to know where I was from. He then turned and went back at it. I noticed that he was totally stoked, in and among his intensely focused yogis. He was manly, radically receptive, very deliberate, commanding, I couldn’t believe he was completely lying on top of people. Not your typical 80 year old.  He would bark an order at someone and then turn to us with a sly smile, deconstructing himself with hilarious twinkly eyes. He would go on for hours. He was chanting something under his breath which I later discovered to be the Isa Upanishad. Somebody was cooking a delicious curry in the room next door.

I was thoroughly alarmed. Here was a legitimate Hatha Yoga master in full flight. He didn’t correspond or act according to the protocol of  the Psychology Board. Some of his students seemed like masters themselves. I was also struck by Sharath’s calm simplicity, and his complete absence of any egoic caricature. I could tell that there were lots of rules lying around but that they were operating from pure intuition. There was a strict code and it was open to revision, something so much more than fundamentalism, yet so grounded in tradition.

We went back to our little flat and I spontaneously flung a bag of coins against the wall, which smashed into Jessica’s shrine, blowing it apart. Needless to say, she was perturbed. What was going on?! A little later I was subdued and decided to work a bit on the sequence which I hadn’t memorized yet. As soon as I began practicing, my head became dramatic theater for dialogue akin to a combat scene from one of the epics, and during a particularly heated exchange I dragged my toe on a jump through and broke it good and proper with a big POP. It soon swelled to the shape and color of a plum. Thus culminated my first trip to Mysore.

I staggered home and got back to my life and plans. It was during this time that I felt Guruji offering a valid response to the anxious rumination that always seemed to accompany my triumphs and travails in  the Western world. Something like “Do this and you will grow steady, strong and true, like a great Holy Tree.” Was it a psychic emanation? Was it just the mature flowering of the strong impressions left by my journey to Mysore? My answer now: it was both, I’d received a tumultuous darshan from someone who was up to the task,  and it was working in me now. Regardless, my confusion in India was an early radioactive expression of a deep calling  to undertake Yoga as a vocation, which was not in my picture at the time. Deeply laid plans leave blood on the psychic floor as they get ripped apart. But the exhilaration…I chose to go with that instead of the dread. (For more ideas on this, go here, scroll down to Global Heart.)

Back in California I did a teacher’s training, began teaching yoga at gyms, the little crumbs at the perimeters of the schedule doled out to new teachers at The Yoga Center, anywhere. I taught so many classes that first year, took anything and everything. One weekend I took a workshop with Chuck Miller, one of the founders of Yoga Works, an ashtangi who went on quite a wild ride during that Santa Monica institution’s incomparable heyday (the first half of the nineties). Shiva Rae was assisting. It was at the White Lotus, in the mountains of Santa Barbara. One night, we watched the video of Iyengar doing Ashtanga with Krishnamacharya on Chamundi Hill. I was struck by Krishnamacharya’s demeanor and the radical bandhas and kriyas he was engaging. That night he came to me in a dream, covered with a thin layer of fur, holding an ancient staff, beckoning. I woke up with chills. Before long, I left for Mysore and stayed nearly a year. I existed in and around Guruji’s psychic space, lived across the street from him. One day near the end, Michele came walking in, and the rest is, as they say…

I would take two more treks with Virgil: First was 24 days out in the Dolpo region of northern Nepal, a close recreation of Peter Matthiessen’s journey told in one of my all-time favorite books The Snow Leopard,  an incredible tour to the Crystal Mountain and the monastery there, Shey Gompa. A strong impression from that trek was a fist fight  between our cook and one of our guides.

Next was a tour of Holy Mount Kailash and the surrounding region, in Tibet. Michele went on that one and jumped naked into sacred Lake Manasorover, madwoman! …and now forever blessed by the icy water.  She also saved the life of a 60 year old psychologist who was on the trek with us, charging to his aid, screaming, just in time to prevent a truck from crushing his skull, he stumbled up from his nap, the truck roared off, he dramatically collapsed in her lap, she held him in that little field by a stream, weeping. He regarded her as the All-giving Great Mother for the remainder of the journey, which got a bit weird up there. The night before we began our circumambulation of Kailash, drunk Chinese soldiers broke into our little room, rifles pointed at us. Quite a way to wake up. We struggled to get the candle lit, yelled at them, inexplicably they left. Just a little demon trying to scare us off before we could take darshan from the Holy Mountain. Can’t let that stop you…

Thanks for your indulgence,  namaste,

Steve

This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 2nd, 2007 at 11:04 am and is filed under Ashtanga Yoga. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

12 Responses to “Thomas Merton, Kanchenjunga, Mysore”

  1. raalph Says:

    hi steve. I’m raalph.

    I am 17 years old and my ashtanga journey began 5 years ago at the age of 12. I took an elective at school taught by a Hatha Yoga teacher and ashtanga practitioner. The class she taught was vinyasa, but in a more toned done version. But, as the class progressed daily, we began to do the standard sequence of primary with second thrown in. I one day asked her some information about the headstand and she showed David Swenson’s book to me. I ordered it off amazon a month later and began to instruct myself.
    And I have continued ever since. Having explored the tradition and the greater background of yoga and religion and philosophy, I have now come into my own in the sense of yoga. I have redefined yoga based on what Hatha Yoga means as a branch of the Tantra tradition and my own experience. I used to be a fanatic of Ashtanga. Practicing 7 days a week and sometimes twice a day. It enthralled me. But, now i have backed away. I have gone back to the beginning and re-examined it and i have began to add more iyengar influence into my practice. I also only practice about 4 days a week now. And I do other exercise.
    I do ashtanga because i like it. It tones and cleanses my body. The same way running did, only you don’t get more flexible with running. I am a dancer and it helps with stamina, flexibility and strength. I also use principles of various dance and movement forms that I have learned to inform my practice.
    My main teacher is Mark Whitwell, though he is not an ashtanga teacher, he has helped me figure out and encourage me to figure out and do the right yoga for me. Many an individualized program that doesn’t conform.
    And my yoga remains a daily part of my life on that basis.

  2. insideowl Says:

    What a beautiful read. Your descriptions of trekking remind me of the resonance between mountaineering and yoga in my own life. I wrote about it, but hesitate to barge in on your space with a lengthy story. It’ll be on my pages, beginning May 3.

    Briefly, I found astanga by accident—a literal one, involving a car and a concussion, in 2002. I stayed because its style and personality resonated with me deeply, and because it gave my body to me as a new terrain of exploration. From outer to inner trekking, I suppose.

  3. Rina Says:

    This is a great post! You should write a memoir! No, really! You gotta
    give us more about the drunk Chinese soldiers! c’mon!!!

    I remembered being attracted to Ashtanga because it was a strong
    practice and I liked the structure. I also liked the fact that it was so old
    and more traditional then the rock and roll hybrids popping up. I think
    you recall, I saw Robyn and left my first day… After that, I think
    pure drive to keep moving to the next pose kept me going for so long.
    Now, I am more about being okay with where I am at the present moment.
    It’s not getting me to the next pose, but I think it’s more important for
    me right now. I’m approaching it more slowly and Yin-like with less
    progress physically but I think more progress spiritually… also the last
    two times when I’ve been on a roll and you’ve said to me “there’s no
    turning back”…I run a way! What’s up with that????

    R

  4. joel Says:

    Thanks for the posts, Steve. I enjoy the personal story.I’m new to ashtanga. I got into yoga because I got lower back problems from being amphibious. I go from water polo to soccer and my muscles in my back would get out-of-whack. I got a book called “Yoga for Athletes” from the library and used the poses to heal the imbalances in my back. Never had problems anymore.
    Later in life I got a job where I was sitting all day. I worked was across from the Golden Tree Yoga. So I would go there a couple times a week at lunch for yogalates. At first I thought the women teaching it was a little crazy – but I enjoyed where she took me, and ended up not thinking she was so crazy.
    My pursuit of yoga was purely because it felt great and helped my posture. I wasn’t searching for answers. I liked walt whitman’s view of life,” The secret to making the best persons is to live in the open air and eat and sleep with the earth.” Nature was my medicine.
    One day I went searching for medicine after spending a new years at tahoe. I hiked a long hike after a big storm. I ended up at the top of a mountain dying from hypothermia, and being snatched from death by a helicopter. That experienced stripped my layers and will-power down to my wick, and solidified my belief in God and my faith in redemption.
    I felt ashamed that I needed help. So I read lots of survival books and practiced building shelters and fires so I would have the knowledge to handle the difficulties in the future. I became obsessed with a survival teacher named Tom Brown Jr. I loved his nature writings and philosophies of the wilderness based on Native American traditions. Anyways,
    A friend though I might be interested in ashtanga. I had never heard of it before, never knew such a thing existed. I enjoyed the simple approach of practicing, experiencing, and the changes that would result; and learning from people who have gone a long way down the path and know how to guide.
    Ashtanga is not the end all for me. Like Tom Brown, I see a meditation practise as a first step. I find ashtanga an amazing vehicle to quiet the logical mind and open the spiritual mind, to enter the sacred silence and deepen my awareness. From that point I feel like I can start to feel the subtle energies of plants or animals or people around me.
    From there, someday I hope to be able quiet my mind through practise, to sit next to a forest of oaks, ask my spiritual mind where the nearest chanterelles are, listen to my inner voice, and walk right to a honey hole. I have a long way to go till I get there, but I think its possible.

  5. Steve Says:

    Joel:

    Excellent, thank you!

    Go for the honey, someone needs to save the bees!

    S

  6. ANNIE LINN Says:

    Hi Steve and Michelle:
    Well, you two were my Ashtanga teachers about ten years ago and I had only been doing yoga a bit before I entered your world. After years of dance, running, jazzercise and beating up my body on stressed out jobs, my first encounter with you two was mystical and miraculous. It hurt like hell and my body was so stiff and unresponsive but it was still bliss! Trying to jump through, my feet would drag and bleed all over the mat (embarrasing), the drishti and “breath” ideas were way out of my league. I persisted and got hooked on bodily health and mental peace. I tried to read books about all the benefits of yoga, and didn’t understand them. It took years to “master” primary series, and at 57, I’m finally comfortable with most of the asanas. Sometimes my mind cooperates, sometimes not.
    I recently read Iyengar’s “Light on Life” and really got what he is saying about the yogic life and the 8-limbs. Now I think about the five “afflictions” and reflect on them when observing my behavior and society. Yesterday I gently ushered an ant out of my kitchen.
    Thank you teachers for your gifts.
    Annie

  7. Arturo Veve Says:

    Hi Steve
    How interesting that you write about Thomas Merton in the same post in which you describe your path to Ashtanga. I studied philosophy before studying architecture, and my favorite philosophy teacher ran a Thomas Merton studies department, so I took several classes from him. I have read from time to time more of Merton’s books, most recently the one in which he talks about the similarities between Buddhism and Christianity.

    I might write, as you did, on why I practice Ashtanga. It will probably be in my own folksy style that reflects that I’m an architect first, then a yogi. I admire your dedication to be able to teach. It’s not for all of us, since many of us began the practice late in life, so we didn’t have the advantage of a lithe body that could advance through the poses faster.

    I’m not sure when I will write on the topic of why I practice Ashtanga. I’m at present working overtime on a project. What is the short version of how I found ashtanga? I first found yoga through a childhood friend, who practiced it. I started doing hatha in my 40s and feeling great from the stretching of the muscles. I asked teachers if they could point out where I could practice more often than 2 times a week, and they pointed to an ashtanga studio. Mysore practice ocurred because one of my teachers went to India and started teaching in that style. If it would not have been for his influence, I would not have started practicing mysore style.
    Cheers,
    Arturo

  8. punk rock yogini girl Says:

    I love this post. I group you in with the other martian-like beings such as Richard Freeman. It’s great to read that you are human and were seduced to the east with your human longings.
    I myself was drawn to yoga like so many kids of the the 1970’s after watching Mister Rogers, the lovely Ms. Lilias Follan kindly urging my child body into yoga postures. I found it soothing and natural. Fast forward to age 13. A “cool” punk rock friend of me introduced me to a tab of fry, for five bucks I could get a little stoned. The results were a full blown LSD trip that rocked my world, and dissolved my form. I was so frightened, that I told my mother who insistently brought me to a psychologist (the day after) so I could learn about mind altering drugs, and probably to make sure I was still psychologically
    intact.
    Again fast forward: Age 23, my 20 year old brother dies abrubtly. Which brought me back to questioning the nature of form again. A friend takes me to a benefit, the speaker being Ram Das, (before his stroke). Here in Santa Barbara at the Victoria theater, Ram Das is there a week after his beloved colleague Timothy Leary had passed away. His subject of discussion was death, and Tim, and LSD and freedom from the mind’s grip, all of that stuff,

    and of YOGA.

    I was blown away and immedietly ran across to the Earthling Book store and obtained a copy of BE HERE NOW. The book talked of cleansing the body, starting with diet and asanas. I ate it up! I have never looked back. Great gift, yoga. Blessed teachers.
    Human form, incredible experience.

  9. Steve Says:

    Punk rock yogini girl I think you are a Martian too.

    Love Steve

  10. Teri Says:

    Hi Steve and Michelle,
    I was one of the aerobic junkies: Powerhouse, Studio E, Athletic Club, etc. I took a yoga class, but didn’t understand any of the names of the poses in the “beginning” class. I liked it though, thought it was slow, but intuitively wanted and needed slow. I was ready for a spirtual path of some sort. I heard of Ashtanga yoga, had no idea what it was, however I knew it was rigorous. I needed an intro yoga class and Michelle’s class came up on the Internet. I called, she encouraged, I tried it. Wow! What a journey. It has been 4 years since my first class. I tried a bunch of different yoga classes, but kept coming back to Ashtanga. I liked the sequence, the organization, the daily practice and the philosophy. I could see change daily. I am not sure I would have stayed in Ashtanga with different teachers.You both have a way about you that supports, yet gives space. You brought me in when you needed to, and let me go when you needed to. I have learned so much about my physical and mental state. My body has changed time and time again. The pain and effort and challenge is similar to sailing (cruising). The enlightenment is so amazing that the 75% of hardship to get there is worth it. The focus, drive and dedication that I experience helps me with life in general.

    I often wonder if I’ll ever get some of the asanas. I sometimes forget where I started and how far I have come. It is definitely a process, which is how I teach everyday. May my daily lessons in yoga remind me of how I’d like the children to approach their learning. I thank you both for the gifts you have given me. And thanks for the great story. That too is inpirational.

  11. bob banner Says:

    Hello, we are screening a new film on Thomas Merton in BOTH Santa Barbara and SLO called

    SOUL SEARCHING: THE JOURNEY OF THOMAS MERTON with John McAndrew to speak and answer questions afterwards

    Tuesday July 10 in San Luis Obispo
    HopeDance FiLMs presents Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton, a captivating documentary illustrating Merton’s transformation from hedonistic womanizer to Trappist monk. Award-winning producer Morgan Atkinson brings out the paradoxical character of Merton, the monk, poet, peace activist, and spiritual writer who influenced the lives of so many during his short life. The film encompasses the full arc of Merton’s spiritual journey told through interviews with friends, authors, and scholars who have studied him as well as his own writings and beautiful images of his monastic life.

    The film reveals the struggles of Merton‘s spiritual search and how he emerged from this crucible with an international reputation – part Augustine, part Emerson, part Gandhi. Witness this fascinating journey of one of the spiritual giants of modern times Tuesday July 10 at 7pm at the SLO public library on the corner of Osos and Palm Sts. in SLO. Suggested donation of $5.

    John McAndrew received his Masters in Divinity (MDiv) and MA in Theology in 1986, focusing on Biblical justice and applied spirituality. He facilitates retreats, workshops and seminars on spirituality both here and abroad. He currently lives in Grover Beach, CA with his wife, Toni Flynn, a writer and spiritual director, and serves as a Spiritual Counselor and Hospice Musician for Hospice Partners of the Central Coast in San Luis Obispo, CA.

    ALSO IN Santa Barbara:
    on July 19, 7pm at the Faulkner Gallery inside the SBarbara Library (40 E. Anapamu St.). Suggested donation of $5. No one will be turned away from lack of funds.

    For more information call Bob Banner 805 544-9663

    Trailer and official website:

    http://www.morganatkinson.com/images/merton.html

  12. Marie McGee Says:

    I am reading everyone’s comments here and wondering if Thomas Merton brought many closer to the Christ, the Son of the Living God in his later ruminations.

    Merton’s own meanderings and pride led himself away from the Truth. I never see discussion on that. Pride really is the sin that leads to all the other sins.

    I was reading all of Merton, looking at his photos and calligraphy that I could get my hands on in the late 70s. Sorry to say, it didn’t carry me closer to God.

    And yet, Merton’s earnest conversion story is always powerful. Like any journey home we are inspired to learn how fellow souls got there–how exactly God’s grace worked in that soul.

    Spiritual anything is not the same as God’s Truth. I sense confusion and reaching but no peace. Looking at Merton’s writings in Monks Pond issues (btw there is an ORIGINAL for sale on the internet these days) I see brotherhood in the search but the fullness of peace is not there as in writings of Padre Pio.

    May God bless all in this season of hope.

    MM

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