A few years earlier, after my parents divorced, my mom went back to school for job training and then back to work to support the two of us throughout my junior high and senior high school years. In addition to her work, we rented a room or two in our home to help supplement our income. A wide range of interesting characters made their way through our home over these years and one of them was a self-proclaimed ski bum who had spent most of his life on the slopes. In the off-season he practiced and taught Yoga, and he moved in with us for a year or so while I was in high school. He gave me a very interesting book on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar which was filled with fantastic photos of this elderly yogi in masterfully contorted positions. I was very intrigued and I studied this book, working at imitating the positions and memorizing one routine in particular known as “The Sun Salutation”, which combines breathing techniques coordinated with the progression of various poses. Over time I became quite adept at this routine, and it helped me to stay limber in both mind and body. I believe there was a philosophical component to Iyengar Yoga but I wasn’t interested in that, I was mainly inspired and challenged by the contorted positions he could work himself into and that was my focus; to learn and practice some bodily self-control.
The book also had a whole section on body cleansing techniques which were amusing, baffling and unlike anything I’d ever seen before. One was called the Vastra Dauti and for this Mr Iyengar showed himself in a series of photos feeding a long strip of moist cloth down his throat and into his stomach; he was sure to keep a firm grip on one end so that he could then pull it back up and out again. As a high school student growing up in northern California, I had never seen anyone attempt something like this. I couldn’t understand how it would cleanse any better than merely drinking a few glasses of water but nothing is better than experience, I decided, if you want to understand something better, so I cut up an old sheet and made myself a long strip, moistened it, and tried to swallow it. This was a bad idea. I didn’t hurt myself but I gagged an awful lot as I tried to swallow it down.
I gave this up and moved on to the next cleansing technique in his book called the Sutra Neti. This one looked equally gross and unbelievable to me, but I had to give it a try. In this series of old photos BKS Iyengar showed me the proper technique for feeding a cotton string up one nostril, through the sinuses, and down the throat where you proceed to grab the end and pull it out through your mouth; then you work both ends back and forth like dental floss, to clean the sinuses. I gave it a go, but it is a lot more difficult than it looked in his photos. Feeding it through the sinuses and down the throat isn’t so hard but reaching in and pulling it back out your mouth is really tricky. And why would you want to anyway? After a few failed attempts and further gagging, I asked myself this question; and I couldn’t come up with a good, or satisfying answer, so I gave this one up too.
But I stuck with the “Salutation to the Sun”. I really liked doing this stretching in the morning every day after I woke up so I made it a regular routine for many years, far into my adulthood. In fact, I still do it on occasion even now. It is great for the back and with the addition of the breathing techniques it is also supposed to help the lymphatic system and assist in the elimination of toxins from the body.
As I mentioned earlier I did not know God. I had my own ideas of God: a collection of ideas pieced together from what I had read from this religion and that one, a little that I had been taught in Sunday school, and fragments one hears here and there. From these I cobbled together my own God, made in my own image.
I also didn’t know real Love, which from a Christian perspective, in a deep and true sense, is God. I devised my own ideas on love as well, not grounded in the reality of scripture or tradition; but in effect, it was self-love with many variations and permutations. It was my own sense of right and wrong that amounted to self-righteousness or a defense of my rights, that when trampled, would amount to a wrong. My love amounted to feeding my need to be loved, gratifying myself in various ways and expressing anger at anything that seemed to me unfair about the world.
When reading the famous passage on love from First Corinthians I am struck by the difference between the definition of love it gives us from a Christian perspective, and my own definition and how I practiced it on my own. My love didn’t know how to suffer or how to remain unprovoked when someone wronged me. It didn’t refrain from evil thoughts, or endure all things. No, I was easily provoked and if I felt wronged I was quick to defend myself or those I loved. In many way there wasn’t anything overtly wrong with my behavior and by the ethical standards of my society I acted rather well, but I don’t think that standard is very good. Jesus commands us to ‘be perfect even as your father in heaven is perfect’; we can’t be satisfied comparing ourselves only with those we know to be ‘worse’ than us. We should compare ourselves with He whom we are to be like, and measure ourselves against His standard. Then we can begin to see things as they really are, including who we really are.
I had empathy towards whatever or whoever I perceived to be the underdog; homeless people, small animals, the hills behind my house or streets of my town, both strewn with litter. I spent some of my free time picking up trash from various empty lots in town, hoping to make a difference. At the very least it made me feel a little better about life, and I enjoyed seeing a small area clean of debris. I especially made it my business to clean the hillside up the street from my home because it was such a special place to me, where I had climbed to escape the world and find adventure and peace ever since I was a little boy of around five. This slope was an extension of my home and it hurt me personally to see people leave trash on it.
Hitchhikers and homeless people also really touched my heart. I wasn’t too concerned for my personal safety, feeling the invincibility of youth, so there was seldom a time I wouldn’t stop for whoever was on the side of the street looking for a ride. I met many interesting people this way. One man claimed to be a prisoner of war who had been lost in Vietnam for over a decade before escaping. I took him to dinner at a local Mexican restaurant and heard his tragic story while he sat cautiously in a corner, with his back safely against a wall to prevent attack from behind. He story seemed plausible and I was surprised to hear that men were still held over there even so many years after the war. Another hitchhiker was a self-taught tattoo artist who convinced two of my friends to let him give them tattoos. So we all spent an evening in a hotel room while he gave them tattoos, until he began to act erratically and we had to leave him before somebody got hurt. The real cautionary tale regarding picking up hitchhikers came for me late one night when I picked up a young guy near our local jail. It turns out he had just been released and needed a ride south towards San Francisco. I was heading that way and could take him as far as San Rafael. Things started out fine, he discussed his time in jail, we had some light conversation and then around the midpoint of our journey he pulled out a rather large knife and began cleaning it in a haphazard sort of way. I tried to ignore this and keep him engaged in whatever we were talking about while I began to form a plan to drop him off someplace safe. We were approaching San Rafael so I asked him where he’d like to be let off to catch his next ride. He said he preferred to have me take him to San Francisco. I reminded him that I was only going to San Rafael and then he replied that he thought it would be better if I took him all the way into the city.
“I really can’t take you. I have to stop here in San Rafael,” I said.
“No, I think you’d better take me to San Francisco,” he said while turning the knife over in his hands.
Thankfully I noticed that my gas tank was almost empty and I pointed this out to him and said we had to stop to get more. I pulled into a well-lit and busy station and drove right up to the front door of the mini-market and quickly got out of my truck.
“This is where you get out. Now. I’m not taking you to San Francisco.”
He looked very surprised, scanned the gas station, looked menacingly at me and reluctantly slouched off of his seat and out of my truck. After that incident I resolved to be a little more judicious about the hitchhikers I picked up.
(to be continued)