A Life Lived Backwards


It was not simply the most sincere although failed efforts of my doctors that set me on the road to recovery. Years before, I had begun to question my life as I understood life to be.  Once again, the intense pain of this disease prompted me to question the principles by which I lived my life. There would come  a time, many years later, when I realized that my subconscious rejection of the man I was expected to be was the cause of my distress.   My most vivid recollection of this time was looking into a mirror, seeing myself crippled, knowing that I could not accept being that crippled and deformed man, knowing that I had to do something, anything that would alter the course of my life. I was in uncharted waters. There was little, if any, support. Whether it was so or not, I felt that family, friends and particularly my doctors saw me as a bit of a kook  and my efforts as time wasted.  Where I found the courage and chutzpah remains a mystery, but I was determined to alter the course of my life. I would sink or swim. It was entirely my responsibility, and it is one I still accept.

When my journey began, I held a deeply ingrained bias in favor of modern western medicine. In the parochial tradition in which I was raised, the family doctor was revered as the infallible medical authority. Even chiropractors, “bone doctors” as they were called, were regarded as “quacks”. Their patients were seen as odd or eccentric. Homeopathy and osteopathy had been largely discredited by the American Medical Association in their embrace of “modern” medicine, although there were some doctors who continued to practice them. Chinese Medicine, naturopathic medicine and Ayurveda were unknown. I had an extremely difficult time overcoming this prejudice and would never have done so if my doctors had prevailed in their treatments. Life was calling me to move forward in ways that I’d never expected. As doctors and research scientists were busy having their way with me, I cautiously and with some trepidation began to learn more about this thing called yoga.

As medical treatment got underway, I paid a visit to the book store of the well-known astrologer Dorothy Beach Hughes. “Books” was all that was written on the front door of the store. Friends had recommended it as the source for philosophical texts in the Seattle area. I harbored a strange feeling about bookstores of this sort and the folks who patronized them. I was timid as I approached Ms. Hughes. I nervously asked for books about yoga and was directed to the appropriate shelves. There, high on the shelves, was a book that drew all my attention. It was Fundamentals of Yoga by Rammurti. S. Mishra. It was a moment I have come to describe as one of ecstatic serendipity, much like those happy moments of chance epiphany described by Shirley MacLaine in her book, Out on a Limb. Like her, I searched; the answers presented themselves with  little effort. The ease of discovery mystified me.

After satisfying my need for a book about yoga, I summoned all my courage and requested what I considered a very esoteric text. Little did I know that it was an ancient treatise on the same topic. My request rested very uneasily because of my childhood experience of all things religious suffered at the hands of the good Sisters of St. Joseph at St. Francis School. To the best of my recollection, I asked for the “Gadabag Vida”, or some such thing. Fortunately, the woman understood both my discomfort and the actual title of my request: The Bhagavad Gita.

Fundamentals of Yoga soon became my bible. It was a scientific, step-by- step approach to the analysis of the human psyche that described a spiritual tradition in a way that did not discourage me. Using the guides for autosuggestion clearly stated by Dr. Mishra, with great ease I explored new realms of awareness.   The meditations and other exercises would often result in altered states of consciousness similar to my experience on the beach in Hawaii. From the moment I purchased the book, I felt a presence guiding me, encouraging me to lay aside all doubt and fear as I proceeded with my inquiry and practices. When I met Dr. Mishra ten years later, I realized that presence was his. Any time I was in his company, or reading his many publications, all my fears and doubts ceased to trouble me. Each time I entered an altered state of consciousness under his guidance, whether in his physical presence or not, my discomfort was diminished and there seemed to be a cumulative effect that was slowly, gradually altering the course of my disease and my life. As I continue to grow in my practice, and in my teaching, I still feel his presence now operating through me. Even though he left his physical body in 1993, he is with me every moment of every day. Such is the relationship of disciple and Guru.

As predicted, I set aside The Bhagavad Gita. It is a devotional text and I was disturbed by the the language. I simply was not prepared to accept a “religious” or devotional experience. I felt, wrongfully so, that I was being encouraged to accept a God that I did not know. My experience with others who spoke of God caused me to distrust anyone who did. The motivational guilt of Roman Catholicism still disturbs me. The strict demands and blind faith of fundamentalist sects found in the mountains of Pennsylvania frightened me. As a child I was aware of the activities of the Ku Klux Klan. I will never forget the fear that gripped me when I heard of, and once saw, their burning crosses. It would be many years before I came to a clear understanding of the social and spiritual value of religious texts, including the “Gita”.

By mid-October 1974, or thereabout, I determined to take what for me was a giant step. I summoned all of my courage and went to the yoga studio of Marie Svoboda on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle. It was a rainy day.  The damp-chill-wind penetrated my bones. My body ached. By the time I arrived at the top of the staircase outside the studio, I was exhausted. After changing into my gym shorts, I saw there was a quarter hour remaining before the start of the class. I went to the classroom. As luck would have it there was a chair in the room. I sat down. It was a huge mistake. The studio was cool. By the time class started, every joint in my body had stiffened. I could feel my joints becoming inflamed and swollen. Marie approached me and I could see tears welling in her eyes as she examined me.  Meanwhile, other class members had entered the room and had begun to warm up. I marveled at their lithe bodies, so fluid that one was unaware of any articulation. Limbs and spines moved with the grace of willows in a gentle breeze. Marie’s compassion and empathy penetrated the room as she turned all attention to me and instructed the entire class to get on the floor on hands and knees. By her instruction, I sank out of the chair and joined them. The entire class was dedicated to teaching me to crawl. Later, with the use of the chair I was taught to get up from the floor in a way that would not put undue stress on my knees, legs, arms or painfully swollen wrists and hands. I learned to crawl, to walk, to lift my arms and move them through a range of motion I had forgotten, perhaps, had never learned. Baby steps—- I was being taught how to crawl, how to walk upright, how to move. Another serendipitous moment on the road to recovery.