This is a story about kindness and a man named Calvin.
Before becoming a yoga teacher, I worked as a massage therapist. Back in the early 2000’s, when I was living in Los Angeles, I had a client named Calvin (pictured above). Calvin was a renowned vocal coach. From major Broadway stars to Hollywood royalty, his students eagerly made the pilgrimage to his humble L.A. home with dreams of training their voices to reach new heights.
In addition to being a mecca for vocal students, Cal was morbidly obese. Weighing in at close to 400 lbs (181 kg), he navigated life via wheelchair because his body couldn’t support his own weight. With white hair and a white beard, he was a veritable wheeled Santa Claus incarnate.
After our second massage appointment, as Cal was trying to get up from my table, it buckled under the crushing weight of his body. Cal hit the floor – hard – and my massage table splintered into pieces.
I instantly experienced an “empathetic shame” response in that I could feel the intensity of his embarrassment. Even now, a decade later, as I type these words, the awkwardness of the moment is painful to recall. Red-faced and a little teary, Cal apologized. He must have apologized 20 times in a matter of 20 minutes. After I helped him off the floor, he wrote me a check for the cost of a new table and for revenue lost until I purchased a new one.
Obviously, Cal never called for another massage, but we would go to dinner together once every few months. He loved The Cheesecake Factory. Once when I was wheeling him to our table, he asked me if I was embarrassed pushing him through the restaurant in a wheelchair. I said NO but that I was really embarrassed to be caught eating at the Cheesecake Factory! And with that, we shared a good laugh.
But aside from a few mutual Facebook likes, I haven’t been in touch with Cal in almost 12 years . . .
Which is why I was surprised to receive a call from his lawyer last week. The lawyer informed me that Cal had died earlier this year and that he left me a very small provision in his will. “Not a life-changing amount,” assured the lawyer. “But Cal insisted on leaving you a little something because you showed kindness to him during his life.”
But what exactly did I do? Push his wheelchair through a restaurant a handful of times? Not shame him when he broke my massage table? Was that it? I was perplexed that I was being rewarded for something that seemed so unremarkable within a friendship that felt inconsistent at best.
As it turns out, Cal died on my birthday, January 29. And while I don’t know yet the exact amount of what he left me, contrary to Mr. Lawyer, it IS a life-changing amount.
When I was young, I couldn’t wait to be an adult.
I remember being crushed under the weight of peer pressure – peer pressure to play sports, date girls, smoke pot, do dangerous things to prove I was a cool kid. And this is exactly the reason why I couldn’t wait to grow up – to escape this oppressive rite of passage.
Fast forward to last night. I met three old friends for a birthday dinner at a swank restaurant in Manhattan. Our ages ranged from 50 to 80. (Note to the New Yorkers out there: Caravaggio on Madison Ave. is a gustatory delight.)
It was quite cold outside, so when I got to the table, I ordered a hot tea to warm up. Since everyone was already drinking Cosmopolitans, I braced myself for the gibes, and I wasn’t disappointed.
“Tea?! C’mon! Live a little!!”
“Ohhhh Mr. Yoga has arrived.”
And then, just like that, the simple act of ordering tea became a Thing. It shouldn’t be a Thing. And by Thing, I mean that moment when a small, innocuous choice becomes amplified and draws both unwanted attention and more than a trace amount of defensiveness.
To be fair, my friends are gorgeous humans. But I realized at that moment that peer pressure never really goes away. And while I know my pals mean no malice or ill will, it’s still utterly annoying to keep reliving this adolescent paradigm.
Truth be told, I recently went to my doctor for the first time in two years, and while my overall health is excellent, blood tests showed evidence that I haven’t been Mr. Yoga after all. I hurt my back badly two months ago, so there has been very little exercise and a whole lotta compulsive sugar and fat consumption. My cholesterol and triglycerides had skyrocketed. Markers for pre-diabetes were elevated. And I had gained close to 10 extra pounds (!).
So I became super disciplined about following my daily Ayurveda habits these past weeks. And since I will be re-launching my Ayurveda habits course, Habit Evolution, in early 2022, I had to pull it together. I can’t teach what I, myself, am not practicing. Imposter Syndrome is real.
When we make clear, healthy choices to evolve our identity through habit change, the societal momentum to suck us back into an outdated identity is powerful.
Our relationships also need to evolve as we evolve.
When Habit Evolution launches, please know you will be part of a community of accountability partners who have your back when that momentum threatens to suck you backward instead of propel you forward.
Accountability Partner ≠ Peer Pressure
Accountability Partner = Peer Pressure, All Grown Up
Now, to conclude our dinner story, as dessert menus were distributed last night, and everyone ordered a lavish dessert, I braced once again as I ordered a peppermint tea instead of crème brûlée. This time even the septuagenarian waiter couldn’t resist.
“I guess you are Mr. Tea tonight!”
(Giggles from friends ensue.)
And, there again, an unremarkable peppermint-tea-moment became a Thing.
“There was a point in the Yoga Nidra when I got very frightened and jumped and gasped – like I sometimes do just before I fall asleep. I was momentarily panicked.“
~ a panicked student after class
This experience (and the reporting of it) is quite common.
When you deep dive – even for a millisecond – into that Nidra zone, it can feel like you are visiting a place you’ve never been to before. Some have even compared the experience to the feeling of dying or like you’re in freefall.
But consider what is “dying” or disjointing at that moment. That what is the sense of “I“ (a.k.a. the ego). Your ego is the vehicle your psyche uses to distinguish your self from others. It creates your identity from an amalgam of inputs, like your social status, job, possessions, education, appearance, relationships, and so much more. The ego clings to the familiar. And the ego goes to great lengths to preserve itself by resisting any and all potential threats.
But ego-based, acquired power feels safe only as long as it can retain control of its external conditions and situations. The moment the ego loses control, it feels powerless. And frightened.
My teacher, Dr. Kamini Desai, explains the power of Yoga Nidra in this way:
If you’ve lived believing that the world is flat for your entire life, and then one day you go off “the edge of the world” (Yoga Nidra) … and you realize that it was not an edge after all … well, this is both scary and exhilarating!
Just as there is infinite space beyond the edge of the world, there is an infinite existence beyond the edge of the mind. And while it’s quite a paradox that the ego that has separated from Source would also be scared to return to Source, there is nothing to fear.
Have you ever pondered the perfect efficiency of nature’s patterns?
If you believe, like I do, that nothing in nature happens without a reason, you might see all of these patterns as meaningful and important.
Let’s take spirals, for example. In nature, we find spirals–curved patterns, with a central focus from which a series of circular shapes evolves outward–in pine cones, pineapples, a falling leaf, tornadoes, our double-helix DNA, our fingerprints, to name a few. The reason why plants sprout in a spiral form is because they are constantly trying to grow while staying secure. Nature is just so damned intelligent.
Scientists have long observed that if you blindfold someone and ask them to walk in a straight line, they will eventually start walking in circles. Research scientist Jan Souman substantiated this observation by conducting experiments to understand why people walk in circles when they’re lost.
My friend and rolfer Maria Cristina summarized the results of Souman’s experiment for me this way: without an external directional reference point to recalibrate what “straight ahead” means, people will walk in circles. However, as soon as they remove their blindfolds, people are able to recalibrate using visual landmarks (for example, the sun, the sea, a road). Like all animals, we can tune into these environmental signals to find our way straight. But with our eyes closed, we humans tend to walk in circles, spiraling back around to find ourselves.
This might explain why most hikers lost in the dark woods at night are eventually rescued just a short distance from where they originally got lost.
And OMG! Extrapolating (spiraling!) this into a more metaphorical context, I have spent much of my life “wandering blindfolded” in search of my meaning/truth/vocation. My meandering path towards self-discovery seemed aimless and irresponsible, for a good 40 years, while I was doing it. I had been hoping for a quick, linear path to my self-discovery, but it was not to be. Now, with the perspective of time, I see that shaming myself during those years was a colossal waste of energy because ultimately divine order brought me full-circle back to Self. And I see that the shame was a blindfold, obscuring my natural state of being which would have encouraged me to center while growing ever outward.
Now consider what we do each time we close our eyes in meditation or Yoga Nidra, inviting ourselves to journey from self to Self. It’s not always quick or linear, this journey. It may require pre-practices of asana, breathwork, mantra, visualizations, and a host of other inroads to get there. And, despite all that preparation, it may not happen in one, two, or even a dozen individual practices.
The irony is staggering. After so much running, seeking, experimenting, learning, when we reflect on the arc of our lives, we realize that, just like the lost-way hiker, we ultimately find ourselves so close to where we started . . .
Which really isn’t such a terrible thing. After all, Dorothy was transported by a spiraling tornado on her journey to the end of a spiraling yellow brick road (but only after two dizzying, technicolor hours schlepping through Oz while being chased by witches and flying monkeys). That yellow brick road wasn’t a straight path but a spiral, bringing her right back to her black-and-white bedroom in Kansas, surrounded by love and memories but ending up with a heap of new insights.
In this journey to Self, there is much discovery to be found in clicking our heels together and acknowledging, gratefully, that there’s no place like Home.
Here’s a wish that I’d really like to see come true for me and for all of you:
Acquire the kind of Happiness that can’t be shaken!
The operative phrase here is “that can’t be shaken” . . . the kind of happiness that lasts longer than a minute or an hour or even a full day. I’m talkin’ an unbroken stream of bone-deep contentment that is an ongoing, permanent condition rather than a fleeting moment. Is that too much to ask?
In my own experience, enjoying happy moments is certainly possible, but the concept of sustained happiness feels as elusive as holding on to sand. It’s as if I have an inner thermostat setting that determines how much love, success, and creativity I allow myself to enjoy. According to acclaimed lifecoach Gay Hendricks, this is called “The Upper-Limit Problem,” and Upper-Limiting is a form of self-sabotage.
Example: When I am feeling a stream of positive energy for an extended period of time, I may then manufacture (unconsciously) an unpleasant thought because some part of me is afraid or unfamiliar with enjoying positive energy for any extended period of time. And when I reach the Upper Limit of how much positive energy I can handle, I create a series of unpleasant thoughts to deflate myself – thoughts guaranteed to bring me back into a state I am more familiar with.
It’s an interesting contemplation: that each one of us carries engrained, unconscious ideas of just how happy we can be.
In sanskrit, there are several words for happiness, but, for the sake of simplicity, let’s consider just two.
The word for ordinary happiness – the kind of happiness that comes from pleasant experiences – is sukha. Sukha means ease, enjoyment, comfort – literally, “good experience.” Sukha is often translated into English as “pleasure.” This joy-as-pleasure feels great but is basically unreliable. Any emotional state that depends on things going our way can disappear in an eye-blink the moment conditions change.
So let’s turn to another sanskrit word: santosha. Santosha carries a connotation of fullness and satisfaction. Implicit in santosha is the idea of being OK with what you have and accepting who you are without feeling that you need anything extra to make you happy. This magic ingredient of acceptance is what differentiates santoshafrom sukha. Sukha feels great but has an expiration date. Add a dash of santosha to the mix, and you have sustained-release contentment.
In many of my Nidra sessions, I frequently employ this intention because it crystalizes one of the main purposes of a Nidra practice:
I’m at peace with myself as I am and the world as it is.
Ok I’ve reached the Upper Limit to how many words I want this newsletter to be! So I’ll just leave you with this:
Notice if you have a limited tolerance for feeling good. Consciousness is limitless. And, by extension, so are you.
Forgive me, Lord, for I have sinned.
I was judgmental, in direct violation of the very lesson that I opined about just two weeks ago in my last blog post, The Judgy Yogi.
Ok, so I’m human. It happens.
I was taking an online yoga class this past Monday, and the teacher was talking. And talking. Every pose, every pause, every nook and cranny of space was filled with a story, a metaphor, a Scriptural quote. There was no room for me to have my own experience. So. Much. Talking.
I finally found myself shouting (on mute, of course), “Get to the POINT!”
Get to the point, indeed. I’m having a flashback to college. If you opened my textbooks, you would find that I had highlighted every single line on every single page – which is fairly hilarious since that is exactly the opposite of what “highlighting” is meant to achieve.
In fact, getting to the point is a skill that is sharpened over time and with practice. Sitting in my yoga philosophy classes, I remember being bombarded with so much information that it felt like I was trying to drink water from a gushing fire hydrant. Everything sounded so profound and relevant. Trying to cull one juicy nugget that encapsulated the essence of the teaching was nearly unthinkable.
One of the greatest benefits of being a yoga teacher is that once I absorb what life throws at me, I then have the privilege to whittle an experience down to its refined essence, perhaps cross-reference that experience to a Yoga text, and finally present to you the most salient byte of wisdom in the most concise and meaningful way. I mean, we only have 45 minutes (or 75, depending on the class you take). I can see your eyes glaze over if I’m not getting to the point! Actually, I myself can feel when I’m droning on and missing the point. A good teacher can sense this and can self-correct.
Linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky once had this to say:
… The person who wins the Nobel Prize in biology is not the person who read the most journal articles and took the most notes on them. It’s the person who knew what to look for …
So let’s raise a glass to getting to the point – to honing our ability to synthesize heaps of information and distilling it down to the most valuable, Nobel Prize-winning lessons.
Ironically, in Yoga Nidra, in spite of the copious verbal cues that are built into the method, SILENCE is ultimately the point.
Let that sink in. Silence. Stillness. Beingness. THAT, my dear students, is the point.
There are a LOT of delicate questions that we can pose to one other within the Yoga World (YW). Actually, the questions themselves are not delicate. But they become delicate within the context of the YW because, well, the YW, and the people who inhabit it are assumed to understand the rightness of things.
Do you eat meat? Have you ever had botox? Are you getting the vaccine?
These are all harmless questions, certainly . . . until they are asked of a yogi. The stakes are even higher if the question is posed (gasp!) publicly.
As you can guess, I have had my own experiences with delicate questions in the context of the YW. I may still be traumatized by an incident that occurred after teaching a class over a decade ago in Los Angeles (the YW is quite big and opinionated there). After agonizing over my decision about whether or not to have open heart surgery, I shared my answer ( Yes ) with my class. Afterwards, I was cornered by a student who asked if I had ever read any of Louise Hays’ books, and didn’t I feel that I could heal myself? The tone wasn’t delicate. It felt accusatory. And that unwelcome feeling lingered heavily.
One of my motivations for choosing Dr. Jayagopal as my Ayurveda doctor (and eventually my teacher) hearkens back to the manner in which he handled my initial visit with him in 2006. When I told him that I had decided to have open heart surgery, I braced myself for a sermon. None came. My decision to undergo surgery was not his concern, he told me.
His only concern (read: dharma) was to make sure that I was in the best possible condition pre- and post-op. No judgment. No proselytizing. No East vs. West discussion. The way he treated me from that moment, so respectfully and without personal agenda, has informed me consistently as I strive to serve my students well.
And now I ask you, dear students, to hold me accountable if my teaching ever crosses over from educating to advocating. I am consciously phasing out words like ALWAYS and NEVER from my vocabulary because I’m not offering you THE TRUTH when I teach. I’m simply offering my experience and a humble invitation to follow my guidance. If conflicted, trust your Self.
So come one and all–herbivores, carnivores, anti-vaxxers, pro-vaxxers, Restylane users, or au naturel. I am not concerned with any of that. In the way that Dr. Jayagopal has so generously modeled for me, my only concern is that you leave class a little better off than when you entered.
And yes … I am getting the Covid vaccine.
Today is January 29, and it’s my birthday. Well it’s not only MY birthday. It’s also Oprah Winfrey’s birthday! Like many of you this year, for me (and maybe Oprah?), this particular birthday is being celebrated quietly, pandemic style. And while I’m quite comfortable with aloneness, today I have a distinct feeling of loneliness, which is a tender and vulnerable feeling to write about.
As an only child, an Aquarian, and a rugged individualist, aloneness has been my friend and saviour for decades. And, as a gay kid growing up in a tough blue-collar city, I certainly know what it feels like to not fit in.
But lately, I’ve been experiencing a kind of “not -fitting-in” that frequently comes as a consequence of being on the spiritual path. I first recognized this flavor of loneliness when I was practicing meditation intensely with Paul Muller Ortega. Several times a year, I would go on retreat to a remote location, sit for multiple rounds of daily meditation, chant mantra, journal, attend satsang, eat, sleep, rinse and repeat … for ten consecutive days. Re-entry into the “real world” after all this inner work was often painful and disorienting. The coarseness of everyday life felt like an assault on my senses, a culture shock, and I felt like an alien on my home planet.
When I refer to loneliness in relation to spiritual awakening, I’m referring to the experience of seeing the meaning I had once given to certain things suddenly vanish. There is a stripping away of sorts. And during such times, I experience a vast chasm between myself and so much of the world. This is a troubling paradox since, by definition, YOGA actually means to unite, to join, to connect. These episodes of alienation are temporary and usually appear when I am making a breakthrough in my sadhana, so that’s a good thing. But before I feel fully integrated, I often experience a profound frustration that the majority of the population is not doing the same inner work.
Gosh, I do hope this is not coming off as arrogant or spiritually pretentious! I am certainly just as flawed a human as the next human. It’s just that I find my process of awakening to be unfolding while so much of humanity appears to be unconscious. Luckily, this signals to me where my work lies. It’s no longer about my skillfulness in navigating my inner world; it’s about becoming more adept in engaging with my outer world. Less judgment and frustration. More compassion and understanding. Less escapism, more engage-ism.
I am reminded of the final day of my Advanced Nidra training with my teacher Kamini Desai when she closed with this sentiment: “Speaking from experience, progress on the spiritual path can feel like a very lonely affair.” This surprised me, coming from a very powerful, successful woman who is happily partnered. But now I see what she was alluding to.
So this one goes out to all you seekers who occasionally find yourselves wandering in a world that doesn’t seem to “get you.” That’s a gift to be cherished, and it means you’re on the right track.
By the way, Oprah just texted me, and she agrees.
This week marks the 30th anniversary of Eddie’s death. Eddie, my dad, was barely 52 when he passed. I was 28. My only real regret is that I missed the opportunity to enjoy an adult relationship with him. I am just now, decades later, curious about aspects of him that were of no interest to a younger me.
I know I work this quasi-Malibu surfer look, but, truth be told, I’m an Italian-Jew from just outside NYC. I grew up in a rough, blue-collar city in New Jersey. And as the son of a Navy veteran with anchor tattoos on his arms, I am still confounded by the mystery that he was a closet yogi.
I say mystery because, notwithstanding his outward appearance, he could frequently be found in our living room, in the dark, either standing on his head or sitting in meditation. His guide was nothing more than a stained, second-hand, copy of a yoga book. And a yearning for … actually, I don’t know. Stress relief? A spiritual calling? Alone time? It’s too late now for me to ask him, but I’d sure love to know what brought him to this practice.
As a kid, I found this all fairly ridiculous. My mom and I would roll our eyes and tease him mercilessly, and I was more than a little embarrassed to bring kids over to play for fear he would be, well, standing on his head in the dark.
Reflecting on this now, I deeply admire what I appreciate as his courage and curiosity. He had neither YogaGlo nor DVDs at his disposal. No mat. No props. There wasn’t a yoga studio for many miles, and no one in his life would even have known what yoga was, much less be practicing it (except maybe The Beatles? It was the late ‘60’s, after all). Despite the absence of any spiritual guide to learn from or yoga community to lean on, my dad stood on his head in the dark. It was the only pose he ever did, and he did it devotedly.
Today, as I think back to his practice and consider my own students, I wonder whether there are activities that you engage in that are unconventional given the context of how, where, or when you were raised. Are you manifesting something that feels mysteriously incongruous in the greater context of your life? Do you have a practice that is unpredictable or against the odds but that your heart drives you to do anyway?
If not, that’s okay. But if so, please do recognize your heart and give yourself a round of applause.
[Oh, and the irony isn’t lost on me that, despite my childhood embarrassment and dad-shaming, I am the one who actually became a yoga teacher. Permission granted, Dad, to roll your eyes and laugh.]
Who’s the guy with the scratched-out face, a.k.a. He Who Must Not Be Named (HWMNBN)?
He’s now My Favorite Mistake (MFM)!
Let me explain.
In New York, circa 1998, I ended a relationship with HWMNBN. It was as toxic as toxic can be, replete with all the ingredients of a telenovela–cheating, lying, betrayal, gaslighting. It was so bad, in fact, that in addition to breaking up with HWMNBN, I felt I needed to break up with NYC and start life anew in a brand new geography, a new and strange city. I chose Los Angeles because it was unfamiliar territory, and it was as far away from NYC as I could go within the USA. Had the Pacific Ocean not existed, I might have gone farther still.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Hollywood sign. I took my very first yoga class ever. A brand new friend named Denise (a.k.a. She Who MUST Be Named) invited me to go with her to a Power Yoga class in Santa Monica, and it was a seminal moment in my life. That singular class changed everything for me–my destiny, my spiritual orientation, my life’s mission.
The point of dragging you through this ready-for-internet drama is to emphasize this: a toxic relationship jettisoned me to L.A. to jump start my acting career and to heal a broken heart. Twelve years later, after having discovered yoga there, I emerged from L.A. as the man I was meant to be in this world. And it is critical that I honor both this outcome and its impetus.
So at this time of the holiday dedicated to thanksgiving, I bow gratefully even to those wretched experiences, now integral threads in my life-tapestry. Were it not for HWMNBN, I would not have experienced the marvels of these past 22 years. And thus, he who had been known as HWMNBN has now officially been renamed My Favorite Mistake (MFM).
Do you have a Favorite Mistake? Something that, in the moment, felt unbearable and even shameful? Because I guarantee that if you did a little connect-the-dots backtracking right now, you would find that this “mistake” eventually led you to something rather terrific: the unfoldment of an auspicious sequence of events that has led you to Now.
It’s a challenge indeed. But in your gratitude contemplation, I dare you to summon forth a treacherous experience and transform it from an HWMNBN to an MFM. And, in the process of this transformation, say a little prayer of gratitude for the contribution this experience has made to your fabulous life.
Gratitude for ALL of you. And yes, for you too, MFM.