Written by Paul d’Orléans
Photography by Lynda Churilla
Like the universe, I was born into chaos. My older siblings were vectors of the energetic disassembly of the 1960s, drugging and dealing, fighting and motorcycling. Mom split in ’68 to live on a commune with an eighteen-year-old she was shagging and is the only person ever booted from the Unitarian Church. We were the neighborhood’s wild children, but my father was a rock in this swirling mix: good to cling to.
My father’s mother was a trip long before LSD. She’d circled the globe seven times solo before commercial air travel—she was a Buddhist and an actual bohemian. Detritus from her travels washed up on our family shores: ivory Krishnas, bronze Shivas, books like Autobiography of a Yogi and the I-Ching. She named our cats Siddhartha, Gautama, and Yami; grandma was OG spiritual. My two brothers were little Action Men, fighting and biking and ganging up, but I wore spectacles and burrowed into our eccentric home library, a mix of Eastern religion and Dad’s history books—Marx and Freud battled it out with Yogananda and Krishnamurti to stake their claim upon my impressionable brain.
I was whacked by an unbidden, honest-to-gosh Experience at fourteen, awakened one autumn morning with my heart blown open in full agape. I loved unconditionally the ghetto kids who punched at me in the halls, and everyone else, for four solid days, as the world turned to vibration and energy and light. After that, I was a changed monkey, farting around with visualizations and chanting mantras from books. The next year, a family friend, one of Maharishi’s early acolytes—he called them “Golden Boys”—taught me Transcendental Meditation. Doug had studied with the guru himself, but had grown disillusioned by TM’s westernization. His mid-sixties training was . . . not what TM teaches today. The Golden Boys got the real deal: full-bore Vedic voodoo, powers from Patanjali’s study of light and evil forces from a fucking hairy ancient tradition of enlightened cave-dwelling hermits—dudes in loincloths battling demons stuff. But streamlining TM for Americans meant all that excellent scary ur-cultural mayhem was ditched for appliance-white, smiley-face teaching. I learned Maharishi was spotted walking onto a UFO, and that your stress has an identity. Just sayin’.
My first exposure to Hatha yoga postures came on a four-day TM retreat; gentle stretches intended to make sitting easier were prep for hour-plus meditation sessions. We took it easy, as strenuous was not the idea, certainly not for muscle building and toning, nor for the shape of your ass. Ass shape soon topped my list, though. While at UCSC for college, I volunteered on an organic farm picking weeds in the summer with actually half-naked coeds. Hippie x feminist = tits out, but ogling was uncool, and thus done discretely. The apex farm goddess was Anna, with sun-kissed hair and skin, perfect grapefruit breasts, hazel eyes, and a smile you could walk into and die happy. Anna induced cosmic sexual visions in late-teen post-hippie boys; she was a dakini incarnate. I’d encountered such creatures on the spirit plane in 1980, having been initiated into the Black Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism by the 16th Karmapa, whose Dharma Crown was woven from the pubic hair of one thousand dakinis. It was invisible to the naked eye, but I saw it during the ceremony, as enormous brass horns were blown, and the room filled with golden light.
Meditation anchored me even as Marx and Bakunin crashed my new age library, heralded by the Sex Pistols and the Clash. I wrote for Maximum Rocknroll as a blue-haired stage diver, yet still sat twice daily. But something had changed: I’d spent ten years in hard pursuit of spiritual goals only to realize I’d have eternity without a body, so ought to dig the time I’ve got with one and embrace the full catastrophe, especially punk rock and motorcycles. I’d spent ten thousand hours in transcendence, the point at which the brochure promised enlightenment, but by then the word for me was decharged. Too many too-human gurus along the way had taken my money or my girl or my attention, though they always gave something in return: hard-earned wisdom. By the time of my Saturn Return (twenty-eight), I needed more exercise, so my pal Dave—he who drew the iconic symbol for the punk band Crass—recommended Iyengar yoga with his beautiful teacher, Anna. Yes, that Anna, now with child. I started an Asana practice to be near her. In the late eighties few men did yoga, so I saluted the sun amidst waves of sweet things in leotards. Don’t let any straight man tell you the chick factor isn’t a huge draw: it proved sufficient inspiration to gain fifteen pounds of muscle, and an eight-pack. The cultivation of warrior energy in these strenuous postures made me ravenous for flesh, so I started eating meat, and other students, and a few teachers. No sex-with-students taboo yet. Rumors of intimate “corrections” wafted like smoke through our changing room.
Meditation anchored me even
as Marx and Bakunin crashed my new age
library, heralded by the Sex pistols
and the Clash
Things didn’t work with Anna’s baby daddy, and I soon discovered she was utterly, deliciously glorious, and that we were totally incompatible. My ten-year fantasy evaporated, but I was already skipping down the path of sexual Tantra. I loved what yoga did for my body and energy, although I credit years of meditation for grokking the tricks one could play, like zapping a current from finger to clitoris. #ChicksDigIt. Patanjali laid out cryptic sutras for such yoga magic two thousand years ago, but packaged it with a warning—see paragraph four—our dark tendencies have an identity. Ponder that, and visualize its embodiment according to your cosmology. Demigurus exercise powers—tidily summed up as “Glamour” in old Wiccan—consciously or not to build a following/income, but it’s a perilous path. Especially for teachers with penises, too often the needle of men’s ethical compasses. Search “yoga sex scandal” for recent examples.
The lineage of westernized Asana has more than a whiff of colonial Victorian phys-ed culture, which hangs about Iyengar and Ashtanga, like puttees and a crop—a system of rigor and order inherited from English military school—although they’d proved you can wear a diaper and still command authority. Most of their postures were invented in the twentieth century, having little to do with ancient tradition, as was their focus on correct Asana posture. Physical rigor is the Path of the Warrior, cultivating clarity and focus, competitiveness and judgment. Videos of Pattabhi Jois correcting his students prove the point handily: why do folks tolerate creepy old fuckers? Ah yes, Glamour.
Westerners have chair-grown bodies, and pushing poses (to satisfy your ego that you’re “good” at yoga) exerts thousands of pounds of pressure per square inch on your joints, screwing up lumbars, knees, and necks. Anna was the most flexible person I knew, and had both hips replaced before her fortieth birthday. She’s hardly unique among long-term yoga teachers. It’s an old dictum, seldom acknowledged, that sports aren’t designed for health, and yogacize is a multibillion-dollar sports industry. With tens of millions of practitioners worldwide, we ought to have global harmony and flying cars by now, if the juju promised by yoga gurus had any credence. Evolving past our monkey heritage will take a little longer than planned; egos in the mirror are closer than they appear. Bottom line: take it easy and remember to stretch your skeptic muscle.