Sunday, November 21, 2010

Yoga Battle

A friend reminded me of a yoga experience that I had written about but never included in any blog. You see, this happened in 2003, back when writers like me used typewriters, chose between Pica and Elite fonts, and slammed the carriage return in the middle of beautiful, drunken sentences.

Frankly, I'm not sure which form of writing is better--the fast-paced, quick-hitting style of blogging, or the slow, languorous, whiskey-fueled writing of the days of yore. I guess I'll let you be the judge. Here's a journal entry that I wrote one score minus thirteen years ago.

* * *

After moving to Bloomington, my wife and I signed up for a yoga class. I excel at yoga. As I looked around the classroom, it didn't take long to narrow the competition. A stringy Brazilian woman wearing a thin black turtleneck sweater performed a clean Mountain pose and Half-Sun salute, but she lost her balance--twice--during the Tree pose.

In the battle for yoga supremacy, that left just me and one other man, a bald little fellow who looked like he walked out of a Tibetan village. Sashaying on a yoga mat made of soft bamboo reeds, he appeared to be centered. During the Cat Stretch and Downward Dog poses, his body arched supernaturally, as if he were a cartoon character. His skill level pushed me to great yoga heights. My Warrior asana has clean angles, but his Uttanasana was magical. I've never seen a smoother transition into a standing forward bend. It wasn't just the form and grace. It was the inner radiance. I admit it--I was defeated.

After the class, I approached the little Tibetan man.

"I'm Bob," I told him, holding out my hand.

He solemnly refused to shake my hand and said, "I am known as Avalokitesvara. You can call me Tenzin."

"I want you to teach me." I said.

"What is there to learn?" he said.

"That's what I want to know." I said.

"I will lead you," he said with a nod. "But you must come now."

"I can't. I came here with my wife. I can't just come and go as I please."

Tenzin answered: "If you think you really come and go, that is your delusion. Let me show you the path on which there is no coming and no going."

I told my wife that I was going to get a ride home with Tenzin. She reminded me that we had a birthday party--mine--to go to in a couple of hours. I told her that birthday parties are an illusion, and then I felt kind of stupid for saying that.

As Tenzin and I walked out of the YMCA building, I looked around the parking lot trying to guess which car was his. Maybe it was an old Volkswagen bug or a mangled Chevy Impala with a "Free Tibet" bumper sticker, or maybe it was one of those classic 1940s cars like Miyagi gives to Daniel-san in The Karate Kid. Tenzin led me through the parking lot, down a residential street, and then into a wooded area that I had never noticed. While walking along a path in the woods, I wanted to ask thirty different questions? Where are you from? How did you keep your legs so still during the Dandesana? Where on earth are we going? But I knew somehow if I broke the silence that I would be reproached with a Zen parable.

Finally, I could hold off no longer. "Where are we going?" I said in a confident voice that belied my actual feelings. He stopped and paused for a few seconds. As he inhaled deeply before speaking, I thought surely he was going to teach me about the sound of one hand.

"We're going to get some trim," he said.

"What? Trim?"

"Some trim, yes. Some pussy. Some putang." He pronounced it "poon-tang," moving his lips around in an exaggerated fashion, as if he were getting ready to blow a trumpet.

My mind raced. Here are the flashes of thought that lit up my mind: -This man scares me. -I can't betray my wife, not even for the sake of enlightenment. -I must trust this man. -I'm afraid of women. -This little brown man seems very wise. -My wife is three months pregnant. -I'm afraid.

That's right, my thoughts turned to fear. Throughout my life, whenever I meet a woman, I picture either of two scenarios. In scenario A, I run across a golden field to meet a lovely woman in a soft embrace. We make love tenderly and discuss our hopes and aspirations. In scenario B, I give a woman a witty line, we check into a motel, and have sex like we're in a porn movie. In my life, there is no scenario C.

We walked out of the woods into the back yard of someone's house. Tenzin ignored the barking dog that was pulling at its runner. As we continued to walk through other people's yards, he ignored every dog, even the ones that weren't fenced in or tethered. I swerved and faced off and peered at house windows, while Tenzin strolled along as if he owned the whole town, vaulting over chain-link fences and humming a low chant. We walked for hours in many directions, passing through wooded areas and neighborhoods. The sun had set. Stars filled the sky. Mercury was retrograde.

Tenzin led me to a bar near Indiana University called The Vortex. Could this Tibetan man have looked into my heart so quickly? If he had asked me to climb a mountain, or swim across a river, or sit for hours in silence, I could handle that. But this place of ugliness? This place that made shouting and lust and madness the definition of life? This place that made faithfulness and loyalty seem like fear? No. I wanted no part of it. What did he notice about me during our yoga class? If he could see my vulnerabilities so easily, I must be doing something wrong.

Just when I was about to leave, the tingling of enlightenment ran up and down my spine. True, I had asked this man for help. But only then did I realize WHY I needed help. Oh, the arrogance! I assumed he would lead me to a quiet place to fill in the corners of what I needed to know about life. Instead, he led me to a place on the outer edge of life's whirl, away from my comfort zone. My mind felt like it had been blasted to smithereens and was now coming together in a more coherent form.

Tenzin sat down at a stool in the middle of the bar. I sat next to him. A song by Lynyrd Skynyrd blasted my mind numb. I tried not to act uncomfortable, but whenever I'm sitting with my back to openness, my heart pounds and my hands fidget. I became even more uncomfortable when Tenzin grabbed a handful of a server's ass as she walked by. She swatted his hand away, and then smiled at him reproachfully. He leered at her.

The bartender brought a pitcher of beer and two glasses, and then rapped his knuckles on the counter--on the house. He looked eagerly for Tenzin to acknowledge him, but Tenzin simply filled his own glass of beer, and then he poured my glass full. He kept on pouring. I watched him pouring until I could no longer could restrain myself.

"It is overfull," I said. "No more will go in!"

"Like this cup," Tenzin said, "you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you balance unless you first empty your cup?"

"Yeah, but you're making a mess," I said.

Tenzin motioned for another pitcher of beer. Then he poured half of that pitcher into my overfull glass. I knew somehow that I'd end up paying for this. I didn't have my wallet. In fact, I was still wearing my purple yoga outfit.

"OK OK. I get the point!"

I lied. I didn't get the point. This horny little man seemed less like a sage and more like a goofball. After he stopped pouring, the bartender brought over a few bar towels and wiped up the mess. He kept smiling at Tenzin as if he wanted to say something. When the beer was finally cleaned up, he leaned over the bar, looked Tenzin in the eyes, and said something like this: "The mind does not exist. The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no realization, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving and nothing to be received."

Tenzin, who had begun smoking quietly, said nothing. Suddenly he whacked the bartender on the forehead with his bamboo pipe. This made the bartender quite angry. He backed away and threw his wet bar towel on the floor.

"If nothing exists," inquired Tenzin, "where did this anger come from?"

The bartender backpedaled slowly, nodding in comprehension. He wagged his finger at Tenzin, as if to say, "I'll be back for another epiphany." I wanted to leave the bar, the bartender, and the lunatic Tenzin behind me. The feeling was so strong that I began to daydream about being in a different place. I fantasized about lying in Child's Pose in the bathtub, with hot water from the shower head pouring onto my back. No Lynyrd Skynyrd, no Nirvana, no crazed Tibetans.

Tenzin grabbed me by the arm and began to lead me towards the door. Finally, I thought, we're getting out of this shitty Hoosier dive. No such luck. He steered me toward two women in a booth. The women, both young and attractive, were less than pleased at our joining them. Tenzin had me sit next to a woman with her hair dyed blond, and he sat down across from me, next to a red-haired woman with a freckled nose who slid over and glared. I nodded uncomfortably at the fake blonde, but she was looking down at her drink.

"Uh, hello?" said the freckled woman next to Tenzin. "We're, like, expecting friends."

"In my village," said Tenzin, speaking to no one in general. "There is a story of a monk who is being chased by a tiger. He runs off a cliff. As he's falling, he grabs a branch. He looks up and sees the tiger leaning over the cliff, clawing at his head, missing only by inches. He looks down to the ground below, only about fifteen feet, and sees a lion leaping up, missing his feet only by inches. As he looks at the branch he is clutching, he sees two groundhogs gnawing away at it. He watches as his lifeline disappears, bite by bite."

"Lions and tigers and groundhogs," I said. "Oh my."

I thought it was a funny joke, but both women looked at me as if I had just belched eggs. Tenzin look at the freckled woman next to him while he finished the story.

"As he takes a deep, long breath, he notices, next to his branch, a cluster of cucumber plants. In the midst of the clump is a great, green, juicy cucumber. With his one free hand, he reaches over, picks the cucumber, puts it in his mouth, chews it slowly and says, "Ah--delicious!"

I had never heard of cucumbers growing on a cliff. In fact, I had heard this Zen koan before, and he had it wrong. It was mice, not groundhogs, chewing the vine, and it was strawberries, not cucumbers, growing on the side of the cliff. Cucumbers don’t grow on cliffs. I was starting to get pissed off.

Tenzin whispered in the freckled woman's ear. She giggled, and then he whispered in her ear again. Tenzin and the woman left. Neither said a word to us. I don't need to mention how uncomfortable I felt sitting there in the bar next to this blonde woman. I felt torn apart by so many desires and fears, unsure of what motivated me. Was lechery worse than sexual repression? Was being faithful better than overcoming fear?

Without looking at the blonde woman, I said, "There is a story about a farmer who owned a beautiful horse. One day it disappeared. When all the villagers remarked on his bad luck, he calmly replied, 'Maybe so, maybe not.' A few days later the horse returned, leading a herd of fine wild horses. A week later, his only son was thrown and crippled while training the horses. When the villagers again--"

"I have a boyfriend and two sons?" interrupted the fake blonde, as if she were either unsure of herself or from Canada.

"My wife is pregnant with twins," I said. "When the villagers again told him that he had bad luck--"

"You should be with her?" she interrupted again.

"I come and go as I please," I told her.

"There's no such thing?" she said.

"That means nothing to me. You mean nothing to me. This whole place means nothing to me. Got that?"

I left the bar. She followed me. I didn't know whether to come or go.