No Gurus Came Knocking
Please enjoy this excerpt from Molly’s forthcoming book.
The year was 1999. The world wide web was still an exciting new phenomenon, a mere foreshadowing of what would become the commonplace resource for answers to any possible question in a matter of just seconds. Our collective addiction to information and quick connections was not yet a problem.
In those days, the late nineties, we had to turn on our computers, go make ourselves a cup of coffee or take a shower, and come back to see our AltaVista coming up like an early morning sunrise. This was way before Google, a time when we were just beginning to be able to reach out to all kinds of people, often tentatively, a time when we were just starting to humbly ask questions of folks we might other wise not have the courage – or contact information – to connect with at all. This was before the brashness and bravado of the internet as it would become a just a decade or so later, back before we could find any answer or fact with nothing more than a search phrase and a push of a button, a time when if we wanted a question answered, we may have to reveal our own ignorance on a topic.
This was the setting and culture I existed in with regard to the internet in 1999, as most of us did, and yet the little hints were there that a mere ten years later, we would all be compulsively checking our emails, our texts, our facebook, our twitter feeds. I remember this like it was yesterday. I was employed as a speech pathologist at a large HMO, and our state of the art computers had just arrived. We were all given email addresses, and suddenly we were learning to navigate and create the new rules for communication and information sharing. I remember that every time I received a new email, my computer would make a little sound. This sound became almost a pavlovian addiction – I would hear that sound and could barely contain my desire to check and see what new news was coming to me through the ether. Sometimes, even if I was with a client, I would sneak a peek at the email subject line, just to see if it could wait or if I “needed” to answer it right then. Thankfully, – or not, I suppose – this was also before I had to wear glasses to even see a computer screen, so it was easy for me to check the text, no matter how small, and no matter how dark and obscuring the black and green color palettes of the early email interface.
I remember one day especially, when I was waiting for a simple response – a response that would come to change my life. Of course I had no way of knowing that then, but it is certainly only because of the personal nature of both the question and its answer that the response did have such an impact. Had I been able to answer my own question through a simple Google search, I doubt it would have set me on the same path. But I could not, and the question was one I had typed very simply to the one person I knew would know the answer, my yoga teacher.
“Who, or what, is Guruji?”
I had been wondering about this for some time. I had fairly recently become interested in Ashtanga yoga, mainly as a work-out that I enjoyed and was pretty good at, and in my practice was just beginning to see that some students took this yoga thing really, really seriously. I had heard them talking about Guruji, and that Guruji was coming and about who had studied with Guruji and when and for how long. This Guruji entity seemed to keep coming up in conversation, but my ego kept me from just asking my fellow students the same question I finally asked my teacher. The computer dinged. The subject line was “Guruji.” It was from my yoga teacher. This I had to read. This, I knew, was important.
“Guruji,” she wrote, “is the name students call their teacher, Pattabhi Jois, as a term of endearment and respect.” Right then I knew it. I wanted a Guruji, but the only one I knew, sort of, was this Pattabh Jois character, and I knew I had to find him and become his student. He was the teacher of my teacher, and the teacher of the teachers I would later study with. He was the big Kahuna, and I wanted to know him too. But how? I started to see that I “had to” go to India if I was ever going to be as deep and committed as my yoga friends, but at the time, that seemed impossible. Plus, I kept hearing mixed reviews of practicing with “Guruji” in India. There were plenty of myths and stories about him making people get up in the middle of the night to practice, about hurting people, sitting on them and touching them inappropriately, yelling at people, pushing people further than they were ready to go. The culture at his “shala” (now the new words were coming fast and furious) seemed as often described intense as elitist and shallow, and it began to sound and feel more to me like my high school and college years of following the Grateful Dead, with subtle but very serious, contests of who was the biggest deadhead, the most hard core devotee.
I became less and less interested in going to India on my own to study with “Guruji,” – it just seemed too complicated, but now I had the bug. He was coming to the US, and I would go anywhere to study with him. Luckily for me, I didn’t have to go far – only to Southern California, where I could combine my morning yoga classes with afternoon surf lessons, and make the whole thing into a much needed mini-vacation from my work at the clinic.
I arrived at the huge rental hall in Carlsbad that first morning, nervous and excited for my introduction to Guruji. I set my mat right in front and reviewed the primary series in my head. I watched the other students file in, with their good yoga clothes and accessories, and their ease of practice and of the culture surrounding it. I watched them set their mats down in just the right place and high five and hug their Ashtanga friends. I thought I saw some of them with just a hint of a swagger – these would be the students doing the second series. These were the advanced students. These were the ones who had been to India, and who, after practice, would already know to line up for a chance to sit at or kiss Guruji’s feet. These are the students I would watch and follow to try to keep up with and who I would imitate in their practice and demeanor, trying to be achieve the perfect balance of respectful excitement with cool detachment.
As I sat on my mat taking it all in, a very old lady entered the room. She was slight and strong, with a perfectly matched velour sweat suit and head wrap. She strutted in as if she were half her age, and walked right up beside me. She looked at me sitting on my mat, and then picked up the mat carefully set down next to me by one of the other early birds wanting a front row seat, and moved it just enough to put her own mat down. I was both amazed and amused at her chutzpah. It didn’t seem to me like these star-struck Ashtangis were people you messed with, but at the same time, they were yoga students, and they were here with their Guruji, and they were disciplined and contained, if not over flowing with generosity and contentment. These were yogis.
The woman situated her mat until it was just where and how she wanted it, and then turned to me, and with a very heavy accent introduced herself. Her name was Eva, she was 86 years old, and was born and raised in Israel until her 20’s when she moved to New York City and became a tour guide. She had been practicing yoga for as long as she could remember, and had studied with Guruji before. She knew what she was doing, she was “one of them,” and although I was a little shocked and embarrassed by her moving other people’s mats, was glad to have made a yoga friend in this new and somewhat intimidating environment.
Guruji entered the room. Everyone was hushed. “Samastithi” he barked. We all stood at attention. We were off – the primary series had begun. I followed along, determined to hold every pose, make every jump through. Eva held her own. She moved quickly and gracefully, until at one point Guruji came over to her and snapped some instruction or other. She looked him in the eye and said, “Don’t tell me what to do, I’m the same age as you are.” Guruji stared her down. Eva didn’t blink. We continued. All the way through the closing series and even savasana, I felt Eva’s presence as both a guardian and an inspiration. She would not be bullied. When I asked her at the end if she was going to wait in line to sit at Guruji’s feet, she laughed out loud. “Are you joking?” she asked. And then invited me to dinner later. We made arrangements of where to meet. Eva left and I waited in line. This was Guruji. I would sit at his feet.
That evening I met Eva at a random intersection somewhere near Carlsbad. She pulled up in her huge car, and at first I didn’t recognize her. She was wearing a big blonde wig and a much fancier velour sweat suit. Eva had wonderful stories to tell, interrupted only by her completely insane driving. I divided my attention between her stories and her several near misses – with pedestrians, parked cars and buildings. As she and I sat together at Souper Salad’s, she gave me more insight into her practice and her life. She talked about her children, her history and her worldview. As we left the strip mall parking lot, Eva backed loudly into another car. Instead of stopping, she sped away. I grabbed the dashboard for my life, sure we were going to kill someone, if not ourselves. “Eva! You have to stop!” I cried. But there was no stopping her. She pulled out of the parking lot and onto the freeway. The car we had hit was in pursuit, and the driver was flashing his lights and honking his horn. I pleaded with Eva to stop, and finally she acquiesced. We turned into a parking lot and Eva got out of her car. The man in the other car jumped out of his, and I quietly sat and prayed for our safe return to practice the next morning. The man started yelling at Eva, “What is wrong with you. You backed into me!” Eva responded even before he could finish, “You backed into ME!” she insisted, without, seemingly even a touch of trepidation about this out and out lie. The man stared at her incredulously. Then he whipped around her and opened the car door to where I was sitting, “”Is she serious? You saw what happened!” “Yes,” I said. “She definitely backed into you. I’m so sorry. I told her to stop, but she wouldn’t, until now.” I was stuck in the middle between my “friend” and this man who was righteously pissed off. Eva and the man shouted back and forth a bit more, and then finally, seeing his complaint was falling on very deaf ears. The man got in his car and drove away. Eva got back into her car as if nothing had happened “Molly” she said to me, “most people are midgets. You are a giant. Don’t forget it. Eva was not like any other old person I had met. I liked her spunk, but she was also pretty crazy, and I was put off and dismayed by her totally cavalier sense of anyone else’s place in the world. Nonetheless, I was flattered by her comment and looked forward to seeing her the next morning at practice. As I got out of her car that night she reminded me, I’m old. I know what I’m talking about.”
I arrived early again. I was feeling a little more like I belonged. I had watched the whole second series the day before, and had resolved that I would move up in the ranks as soon as I returned home. Eva arrived just moments before Guruji. Again, she picked up someone’s mat and moved it to place her own down next to me. This time the Ashtangis were not so accommodating. I will never forget the young guy who behind her back made the gesture of picking her up and drop kicking her. I knew that what Eva had done was not right, but neither was this response. As much as I was setting my intention to increase my physical prowess and dedicate myself further to this practice and achievement, I was coming to understand that there was a vast difference between my ideal of Guruji and his followers and what I was actually seeing and experiencing.
Ekum, inhale. Dwe, exhale. Trini, inhale, Chatuari exhale. I moved through the sun salutations but couldn’t shake the image of the man drop kicking Eva. I couldn’t settle in to Guruji’s yelling and demanding of “no fear,” I couldn’t make sense of this dedication to the practice and to the man, and yet of the lack of basic respect and kindness, let alone questioning, I saw around me. I finished out the week in Carlsbad and returned home.
This Guruji would not be mine, but I would remain dedicated to the practice for some time. The idea of the teacher, the guru, would fade into the background and I would simply do my practice.
Indeed, as Guruji often said, all was coming.
A year or so after this Guruji sighting in southern California (and there would be a few more to follow), I left my job at the hospital. I had the idea that there was something I was learning through yoga that was changing my way of thinking, my way of wanting to offer therapy. I created a title and a brochure for my new adventure and began advertising and offering Integrated Movement Therapy, an approach I called “yoga based therapy,” combining my growing love of yoga with my clinical experience and background. I rented a space in a low income area of town, and began my private practice. I was on fire. I spent every day reaching out to folks through the Internet, now relatively more reliable and efficient, or pounding the pavement meeting people, developing my therapy method and my connections. I supplemented my income by teaching the Ashtanga yoga practice I had studied for so long and began reading everything I could about yoga. My yoga practice became my whole life.
When I was just embarking on this new professional and personal quest, I had very little knowledge of what I was doing or seeking, so I had also had very little sense of humility or more accurately, I had very little fear or self – consciousness. So, it didn’t seem presumptuous of me when I contacted the director of The International Association of Yoga Therapists to ask how I could get on to the bigger conferences – I wanted to share Integrated Movement Therapy (IMT) with as many people as possible. It was unique, it was nourishing, and it worked.
Fortunately, my directness was met with generosity, and I was put into contact with Joseph LePage, the founder and director of Integrative Yoga Therapy. Without even thinking that he might question me and my credibility, I sent him an email asking if I could join him on his training and teach a section on my yoga based therapy method. He responded quickly, saying I could join the training at a discount. I was thrilled. I was going on my first ever yoga retreat where people were going to be talking about and learning about and studying yoga together, and I was going to be one of the presenters! I was thrilled and nervous. This was all very new, but I knew it was what I wanted, and it would lead me into the extraordinary opportunities and experiences that would continue to shape my personal, professional and spiritual life.
I remember waiting in the Santa Barbara airport for the shuttle that would take us to the retreat center. I sat with the other yoga people, with their rolled up mats and their Om tee-shirts, and talked a little about my experience and why I was at the training. I wanted people to be clear from the get-go that I was special, and I was here because I had something special to offer. They were duly impressed, and I quickly carved out my place as the “Ashtanga girl who did the yoga therapy.” That training was a huge awakening. The very first night at our opening practice, I recall looking at the other practitioners and thinking, “How can they do yoga therapy when they can’t even do yoga?” I was mainly occupied with just two things: judging other people’s practices and wondering how I could get attention for my work. One opportunity came for me to shine when the person who was “scribing” for Joseph wasn’t able to make it to a session. When he asked if someone else was willing, I immediately raised my hand. I was a good speller, and I would get to be up in the front. With the teacher.
As Joseph talked and meandered and dropped some serious yoga science, I was able to keep up, not only with his thoughts, but also spelling the Sanskrit I had never formally studied. I rarely asked questions or for clarification – I could not let anyone know that I had so little yoga background, I couldn’t reveal anything that would give the other students the impression that I was less than deserving of my elevated seat next to the teacher. The scribing went on. Joseph talked about the kleshas, the chakras, Vedanta, the eight limbs, yoga nidra, more and more new words and concepts for me to keep up with. I wrote furiously, often waiting for Joseph to finish a thought completely, and then synthesize it as quickly as I could. I was in awe of his knowledge, but too self-absorbed to show it.
Joseph had a unique way of offering his trainings – I would go on to assist him on two future trainings after this first one – he would bring in a variety of high quality teachers to expand on specific areas of expertise. On that training alone I met Anodea Judith, Scott Blossom, Richard Miller and Larry Payne. I was excited and ignited by all of them, and through the intense schedule, lack of sleep and close quarters, I was beginning to be humbled. I kept hearing all of these excellent and deep teachers talk about and acknowledging their teachers. There was that teacher thing again. I started to want one again, and this time in earnest. Of course, it never occurred to me that any of these could be my teacher.
I returned to my home and studio in Seattle energized and changed. I had lost most of my hubris, and the pendulum began to swing heavily to the other side – I began to feel like an imposter. I was teaching yoga, but I didn’t have a teacher. I knew a lot about yoga, but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly how I knew it. I wanted to find that person, my own Guruji, who would tell me what I wanted to know, who would guide me in my process as I heard stories of others being guided in theirs. I wanted someone who was kind, and patient, and generous, and humble and learned. The longing grew steadily deeper until I began to think about “my teacher” all the time, the way you can fall in love in a dream and spend the whole day pining for that love. It felt like both an ache and an emptiness, and as I continued to study on my own and develop my own teacher training, I developed ever deeper feelings of being a charlatan, sure that someone was going to find me out. I studied harder so that I might be able to answer any question asked of me, whether I had the benefit of the teacher or not. If I couldn’t find my teacher, at least I could continue to gain information and knowledge.
Through this pursuit of all things yoga and academic, I had kept in touch with some of the teachers I had met through Joseph, and on Scott Blossom’s recommendation, I was introduced to Robert Svoboda. This was exciting. Robert Svoboda. The first American to be given an Ayurvedic degree in India. The author of countless books. Scott’s teacher, his own Guruji, or so it seemed to me. I couldn’t wait to meet him. I was nervous and giddy. Scott had asked me to drive Dr. Svoboda from the place where he was staying while in Seattle to the yoga studio where he was teaching. I knew of Jyotish, the astrological component of yogic study, and knew that Dr. Svoboda was well established in this practice. I asked him for a reading, which he granted. I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived at his host friends’ house. He was dressed in flowing Indian garb, and offered me a piece of cardamom. Of course, cardamom. Who doesn’t have some on hand? I chewed on it slowly, taking in the intense flavors. This was a new level, I could feel it. Dr. Svoboda and I chatted on the way to my studio where he would do my reading, before his paying gig at another studio. I found myself being myself again – that is, trying to impress this man with my accomplishments and my knowledge. Dr. Svoboda is not, it turns out, easily impressed.
He sat down across from me at a little table in my studio’s foyer and took out his laptop. Computer technology had apparently advanced enough to do ancient astrological readings, and I was about to have one from the master. Dr. Svoboda told me many things, some of which were too esoteric for me to really grasp, and others that were so detailed and practical that I could easily test them against reality. For example, he told me that I was going to be moving out of my house within the next couple of months, which I knew was patently false, I had no intention of moving. Although these random predictions were shaking my faith, I still waited dutifully through his various predictions until it was time to ask the one question burning in my mind:
Where is my teacher?
Dr. Svoboda smiled. “Hmmm,” he said, “You don’t have a teacher?” I was being outed again and was feeling impatient. “No, but I really, really want one.” I said, hoping he might at least acknowledge how much I knew about yoga without having a teacher but he didn’t. I waited then, for him to scold me reminding me that I had no right to have a yoga studio, let alone a yoga teacher training, if I did not have a teacher. But he didn’t do that either. He simply stared at his computer screen, cocking his head this way and that.
Finally he said, “Well, your teacher is coming. But you have to keep your eyes and mind open. Your teacher may show up in a very unexpected form. He or she may show up as a gem stone, or a bagel, and you will have to be able to see that this is your teacher.” Great, I thought. Thanks Dr. Svoboda, I’ll keep my eyes wide open and make sure I don’t mistake my bagel for breakfast. With that, he stood up and shut his laptop. “I have to get going,” he said, and we walked to the car and I drove him to his talk. I sat right up in front, right in front of the teacher. But Dr. Svoboda hardly acknowledged me, and no one could tell the experience I had just had with him.
I moved two months later from the house I had lived in for nine years.
Life went on. I continued teaching, reading and writing about yoga. I continued to keep my eyes open, and continued to feel this great sense of loss for something I had never had. I tried to push it away, or to minimize it by doing what I could, going to therapy and reading a lot of yoga books. I felt isolated and inadequate. How could I gain more credibility? How could I legitimize what I was doing? How could I find this teacher? I did what seemed like the next best thing and joined the board of directors of International Association of Yoga Therapists.
Now I was really in the big league. These were all people with teachers and my own sense of inadequacy deepened daily. As I spent time with “sages on stages” as they are called in the biz – the bigwigs of the yoga scene – I constantly heard the terms lineage, tradition, guru, teacher. And, from some of the biggest names in yoga, I also heard and felt this: you are making up what you are doing. You have no right to teach yoga or to sit at this table with us. You are not a real yogi, and you are doing great damage to the dignity of our practice.
But I really wanted to make this right. I would ask these “real” teachers about divine transmission, about paths of direct knowledge, about integrity and humility, trying to find a way that I fit in, and never simply settling in to my own unique experience.
One winter I had the opportunity to meet a particularly popular teacher in a random situation, without knowing who he was. He seemed to me to be down to earth, quiet, humble and real. I felt like I made an instant connection with him and began to seek opportunities to study with him. I remember being on teacher training and talking about my search for a teacher. Even my students were excited for me – would this be the one? I felt like the baby bird in the children’s book, “Are you my Mother?” There was a quality to my seeking that was very much like searching for a lost parent, and my students could feel my yearning.
I signed up for the next time I could study with him and have some profoundly grounding and encouraging interactions with him. He was smart, funny and kind. I wanted him to be my teacher, but I was losing my sense of what I actually wanted. He had the knowledge, for sure, but I came to see that what I really wanted was a personal relationship, one in which I was the “special” student, and my teacher knew and honored and directed me in a very personal way. That was the ideal I had created for myself, and the story I told myself about all of the great teachers and their gurus. It seemed disingenuous of me to accept a relationship where I was just one of many, mostly women, students who seemed to hang on the teacher’s every word, also vying for attention and recognition. It was like reliving my own childhood, and the struggle between seven of us kids to garner the attention of my very willing, and also sometimes overwhelmed, parents. I returned home happy to know this teacher existed for me, but beginning to lose my faith in “my teacher” who was coming just for me. I was ready, I’d been ready. I looked in gemstones and bagels and in teachers and books, and opened my mind to who and how my teacher could appear.
At the same time, I continued to work with the international yoga organization of which I was a part, and repeatedly heard the lament about how few people really understood the “real” yoga, and how few teachers there are in the US with the depth of knowledge potentially needed in creating advanced yoga programs. I kept thinking about the teacher I had recently met, and all of the many teachers I had known along the way, and my appreciation for the time I spent learning with each of them deepened. They seemed to understand yoga to me, and they seemed willing to share their knowledge with passion and generosity. My teachers seemed to be the opposite of what these (in my opinion) haughty and fear based teachers were talking about. As is my way, I reached out to one of these teachers I had come to respect so deeply, to thank and acknowledge him for his teachings. I received this in response:
Thanks for this email. I appreciate the kind words and, of course agree about the dearth of authoritative wisdom sources in this country, but it should he said that they are not a dime-a-dozen in India either. In truth, it takes a rare kind of student willing to undertake the process of learning this vast science. Such a student is rare mainly because the teachings themselves cannot truly be studied in the abstract; the student must be willing to grow and evolve along with their knowledge––all of which requires a kind of one superlative, patient, and teachable individual. That is why teachers quietly celebrate when such a student appears before them, ready to learn. You are such a student. So, I look forward to every chance we will have to work together and in which I can add to all that you know already.
I was finally acknowledged, finally seen. I think this became the exact impetus I needed to stand in my own power.
In truth, I have felt the presence of the divine within me for as long as I can remember. I was raised Catholic, in a very liberal church, with very liberal parents, who invited their children to simply take the time we spent in church as a chance in our week to be still and simply be. I loved the community of our church, and I loved the singing and the music. My whole family loved to sing, and it is not unusual, even now, for us to get together for some holiday or another and to spend an evening singing. One of my favorite songs was “They’ll know we are Christians by our love,” and I really felt that to be true. There was an essential quality in our religious practice that shone through as pure love. I was taught, through the modeling and teaching of my parents and their community, to be open minded, accepting of all people, compassionate toward the suffering, and dedicated to personal and spiritual growth.
When I stopped going to church, I continued to seek faith and community, and a home for this deep, unwavering feeling I had of connection with and compassion for others. I went through a period where I went to several different churches, and dabbled in several different organized religions and spiritual practices. When I started practicing yoga, I must admit that, like so many others, it was not for any kind of spiritual awakening, but for fitness and an opportunity to excel at something I seemed to be good at. Little by little, however, I began to feel a sense of community and a sense of the divine being reawakened in me simply through the practice. It was as if my soul had been searching for a home for its awakening, and I was quickly building a house of yoga. What else then, but for my soul to live there? My practice of yoga might be described as an accidental meeting of a physical discipline that was the “perfect workout,” and my soul’s deep, and inborn desire to feel, seek and cultivate true kinship with others.
It took me years to refer to myself as a yogi and I still do so reluctantly and infrequently, but this is the faith I understand, even if it is at only a beginner aspirant’s level. This is the practice and philosophy that gives me solace when things are hard, a lens when things are complicated, and a sense of great joy and ease in a life full of ups and downs and uncertainties.
When I started actually “studying” yoga, I studied it to legitimize the practice to which I had dedicated so much of my time and my life. Over time, however, the study and the need for legitimacy simply evolved into my own practice, my own lens. It is indeed through this lens that I discovered my heart’s desire – to grow and change and live a life that is sweeter and more at ease than whatever I had experienced before, and to take full responsibility for my ability to influence my own thoughts, feelings and indeed, my own suffering. It is a great honor to be able to offer this same perspective, to perhaps influence others in their own desire to alleviate suffering. This collection of essays reflects my life in yoga. I offer humbly here, the outpouring of my own heart, may it guide and inspire you, and remind you that the teacher truly is within.