Introduction by Bob Weisenberg, Associate Publisher
This is one of the best stories I’ve ever read about Yoga, no, make that “one of the best stories I’ve ever read, period.” It’s a little long for an Elephant blog, but I encourage you to take the time to really enjoy it.
Kelly’s story originally appeared in Yoga in America: In the Words of Some its Most Ardent Teachers. Publisher Deborah Berstein has generously made the entire book available free online and encouraged me to post selected chapters here on Elephant. Thanks, Deborah! We are grateful.
The Downside to Down Dog
by Kelly Grey
“Neti Neti” is a practice in Jnana Yoga–a way of discerning the real from the unreal. In my yoga practice of 25 plus years, I have mostly discovered what is not yoga. And, I have tried just about everything, from living in the more austere ashrams (where you need special letters from your guru and years of service to their ashram to be allowed in, and they still may tell you to go away) to devoting my life to the “spiritual mother”.
I have stood on the banks of the Ganges, the Colorado and complete insanity. I have chanted the 1008 names of the mother and sat on rooftops in South India chanting the Maha Mrytunjaya mantra 108 times every morning and every evening for months on end.
I have reached my goal of completing 2nd series in Astanga yoga, only to wonder why, and I spent 8 years doing Bikram yoga every day, hating almost every minute of it (for at least the first 4 years), just trying to find my feet.
I have stood on my head, high on hashish and lain in the dirt channeling Neem Karoli Baba while I was stoned on mushrooms. For days after, I walked barefoot all over the dirt fields surrounding my house singing “ma, ma, ma, ma….” and laughing, and laughing and laughing.
I have been yelled at by swamis, cast out of spiritual groups, shunned by “yogis” and have lain on the stone floor of the Kali Temple in Trivandrum, India, sobbing and shaking for days, realizing that everything I was chasing was the unreal.
About eight years back, I had it all–everything I had been pursuing, desiring. I had a thriving yoga studio, I had students who respected me, and I had my rituals, my guru, my community, my faith. The man I had been waiting for all my life walked into it finally, asked me to marry him, asked me to have a life together, to teach with him and to travel to India.
We lived in my little one room solar house, hidden down a long dirt road, taught yoga classes together, made love, dreamed. I followed him to the UK to live, excited about the possibility of starting a whole new chapter in my life and I reconnected and reaffirmed my commitment to my spiritual teacher at that time, very intent on serving her and her work in the world.
And as all good stories go, it all fell apart, started to unravel… dissolve. I had the man I wanted and loved and I wasn’t happy. I had the faith and the roots of yoga deeply set in me from this life and many lifetimes of practice, and I lost my faith.
I stood in a sweaty little room in Mysore, India, day after day, practicing one of my favorite practices of Hatha yoga –Astanga vinyasa, and while in Chakrasana, Sheshadri, my teacher, crawled under me, picked me up by my feet and swung me up and down over and over, before landing me on my feet (dizzy and shocked) for the 50th time that month, and I just kept asking myself “why?”. What was the point? I had gotten really solid in both 1st and 2nd series (as many of you know, no easy feat) and I could care less.
I sat with my Scottish friend later that day in the courtyard, drinking masala chai and with his lovely accent and brilliant smile, he laughed a big rolling laugh and talked of the irony, how we as westerners come to one of the most screwed up countries in the world looking for enlightenment.
The next day, that too familiar, uncontrollable sobbing and shaking set in. For several years I had been experiencing long bouts of endless crying and shaking and heat and pain in my body so intense at times I would actually pass out from it. I wandered up to an Osho center, walked in, wild eyed, still racked with pain and told the man behind the desk that I needed something, anything, now!
Osho was known for his wilder side and more active meditations and this man suggested that we do the “No Mind” meditation. He took me into the back room, put on a tape and we spent the next 40 minutes pacing and gesturing and talking in complete gibberish. After this, a gong sounded and we were to sit silent for 15 minutes and then lie in savasana for another 15.
In all my years of yoga and meditation practice, I had never experienced my mind so completely empty, where I could actually watch the words trying to form, unable to, and the energy behind the words slowly trying to rise and build.
After we finished, the man told me how foolish he thought westerners were, traveling half way around the world, in often hard circumstances, wasting so much money searching for meaning in life. Before I left the center, he told me to go home, plant a garden, have a family, do simple work, be content.
Instead I wandered through India some more, through temples and holy towns and the dirt and the heat until I found myself way down at the southern tip of Kerala, lying on the stone floor of the Kali Temple sobbing, while a very intense priest chanted the names of the mother and bathed and adorned her in her many forms.
The heat in my body was unbearable at that time and lying on that floor day after day, crying was the only relief I could find. I loved the temple and the priest who sang and yet some words of Osho kept creeping back into my mind and heart. He said to be wary of the priests, the politicians and the gurus.
Ultimately, he believed that the gurus and priests were the ones that would keep you from entering the temple (your own true self) because they would tell you that you needed them to arrive. You needed their rituals, their darshana, their blessings. He believed that these gurus would delude you into thinking you were soooo close, only steps from entering the temple and yet as long as you kept your eyes focused on them, you would always miss it.
I was struggling with this idea because I had a guru back home that I knew to be genuine, the real deal, and I was very devoted to her and her life work. When I arrived back in the states, I threw myself into her “work” even more. Finding myself a bit discouraged with intense austerities and Hatha yoga, I moved toward gentler forms and devoted my time to Ayurveda and karma yoga–service.
I soon found myself ‘hand-picked’ by the guru among a few others to serve her on a deeper level. I was to help spread “the work” around the country and most likely beyond. We were told the time, the people, were ripe to receive this profound work and that we were so karmicly blessed to be in her presence in such an intimate environment.
Two years later and thousands and thousands of dollars later, after leaving a relationship and choosing not to have children (because it might interfere with my service to her and the world) and completely revamping all of my teachings to be solely in alignment with her program (in other words not being able to read a Hafiz poem during a class I was teaching for her because it might be conflictual) I was told by one of her devotees (because guru was too busy) that the whole program was to be dropped, that it was all our fault and that we were to cancel all future scheduled programs immediately.
At that time I had eight programs scheduled throughout the country, one that was to start in less than two weeks. One week before I got that phone call, I had received a phone call from the same devotee telling me that I was doing exceptional work, that I was to go forward with all of my programs and was given “blessings” from the guru.
Having the “rug pulled out from under” is an understatement. How about completely shattered, disillusioned and grief stricken? How about having my faith so completely demolished that I couldn’t watch a clip of the Dalai Llama without being suspicious of his “real” motives? How about the kind of heartbreak that you don’t really ever recover from, but you just simply move forward with a few pieces missing?
The most disturbing part that I could not resolve was that this was the woman who gave lecture after lecture about accountability only to completely dismiss us and her own actions with the wave of her robes and titles.
I was once told by a friend and fellow yogini, when I was first opening my yoga studio, that it would be the ugliest business I would ever get involved with. While other businesses are more upfront with their motives (money and power), the yoga community ended up hiding behind the words “namaste” and “we are all one”, while still having the very human emotions of greed and fear rolling around inside, dictating actions.
Since opening that studio I have been threatened, yelled at and lied to more times than I care to remember. I had a famous teacher’s nephew contact me under the pretense of “networking” while he was really trying to get information from me so they could threaten to sue me (for teaching a practice I was certified to teach in).
I had another teacher, whose idea of meditation (as she put it) was sitting in an easy chair with a bong in one hand and a martini in the other, come into my studio and start getting both teachers and students high. During that time I was contracted to teach yoga to kids in a recovery center just outside of town and somehow this same woman manipulated the situation and took over, getting me fired because I wasn’t “yogic” in my thinking, because I refused to work with her, because she was smoking hash on her way to teach kids in recovery.
I was told that we as yogis should always be peaceful and get along. When I eventually sold my studio, I did it as honestly as I could, asking for the price I truly wanted and knew to be fair. I was met by a couple who served me tea, talked Vedanta and peace and then offered me a ridiculously low offer (the used car salesman technique) and then eventually came up a little because they really believed I deserved so much more.
It was still way under my asking price but I was moving on, committed to my guru and I needed the money to invest into her trainings, so I took it. Two years later, I found out they were selling the studio for at least eight times the original offer I got.
I was asked to teach at a Vedanta center and then was told I couldn’t because I had also studied under another teacher (along with them) and they felt it was conflictual. Both my teachers were Vedanta teachers (you know–NONDUALISM) but both deeply believed the other to be controversial.
My friend was right–an ugly business. And the words Neti neti repeat again and again as I wander through this experience called “yoga”. Not this, Not this.
And then the question is “what IS yoga?”. Mostly I write what is not.
I don’t believe it to be the woman in robes preaching ahimsa and accountability and then not being accountable–someone who is more invested in her status than in truth.
I don’t believe it to be in the devotees who are so invested in their status (being close to the guru) that they ignore or close eyes to the hypocrisies and conflictual events that almost always arise, excusing it because we simply cannot understand the real motives of a guru or enlightened one. In my journey, my walk, on this earth we are all human and we are all accountable.
I don’t believe it to be in the yoga teacher who postures himself as the authority of your body (not much different than today’s western doctors) and tells 55 year old women what menopause is like.
I don’t believe it to be in the yoga superstars, the tantric sex gurus or even the austere ashrams (where I was very inappropriately hit on by two swamis and a bramachari and a Reiki master).
I don’t believe it’s in the ads, the new yoga tights, the namaste bumper stickers or the new approved herbal remedies that are 90 percent grape juice and less than 2 percent herbs.
I do believe it to be in the honest moments, the hard and the gritty and the beautiful. The moments where a man who loves you cares for you while you are sick and heartbroken because you followed a spiritual teacher that simply had a bad moment and can’t own it.
I believe it to be in the Mexican mother-in-law who knows absolutely nothing about yoga and is a bit overweight and struggles with her health, but has handmade tamales waiting for you every morning for breakfast simply because she found out you love tamales.
I believe it to be in this little back alley road, in an old gutted house with no electricity and wood floors that slope off and splinter, where people come every Wednesday night to offer a bit of a donation and chant and move and laugh together.
I believe it is the beauty and love and patience I see in my dog’s eyes every time I get so busy and wrapped up in teaching and work that we don’t have time for a walk.
I would much rather perfect my heart, to unravel and travel its depths, its unknowns and terrifying void and speak from that place, laugh from that place, love from that place, than spend the next 20 years perfecting my triangle or arguing about whether it should be five complete breaths in down dog before jumping back to forward bend or is it the exhale on the fifth breath where we jump.
Carlos Castaneda’s teacher Don Juan told him once that there is no path really, only heart. So basically, we can follow any old path we want and it will lead us nowhere. And if you follow a heartless path, that is all it will be. But if we follow the path with heart, then, when the day comes and we realize there is no path, we will have at least followed the heart.
Many years back, a beautiful Italian friend of mine died from AIDS. This woman knew five languages and had traveled the world studying with gurus, living in ashrams, practicing yoga and meditation. She was a body worker and healer and had gone through many forms of training in counseling.
In her last days, too sick to walk or run or stand on her head, she found so much joy in sitting on her porch and feeding the squirrels. She had also been an amazing cook, but could no longer cook for herself and so loved to at least feed someone still.
The day she died she wanted two things. She wanted to see her old boyfriend, a love of her life, one last time, and she wanted him to make her Tiramisu. She wasn’t looking for the key on how to do a perfect triangle.
The question is “What is yoga?” I believe the more appropriate question is what is your heart? Your voice? Your essence? What is your love, your deepest most personal truth?
We are all here together, to help one another, to grow, or as Ram Dass says, to provide grist for the mill. But when it comes down to it, in the end, I believe yoga (which means union) to be so deeply personal, that anyone or anything or any idea that stands between you and the temple should simply be removed.