I first saw Dharma’s famous poster at an ashram in Connecticut where I went to receive shaktipat initiation from a teacher from North India named Anandi Ma. I was just getting into yoga and also Hatha Yoga at that time and the poster just awed me. Like many people, I didn’t think the guy doing the poses was a living person, and probably wondered if he was even real or just an artistic rendering.
Fast forward maybe 2 years, 1998. I was commuting from my little apartment in Narberth, Pa to NYC to attend grad school at NYU. I had started a PhD in Religious Studies at U of Penn the year before and had decided to transfer to NYU to work specifically in the field of Kabbalah with a man named Dr. Elliot Wolfson. This took me into NYC 2 days a week. How I found out that the guy on the poster was Dharma and that he was teaching in NYC is an interesting story…
The year before I had actually been to Dharma’s studio on 23rd with two very amazing teachers of the Bhakti path, Shree Maa, and Swami Satyananda Saraswati. They were touring around the US in an RV offering evenings of satsang and kirtan. I had been invited to join them to play guitar in their band, and to also assist the building up and breaking down process. While at the studio for the event, I kept hoping that Dharma would show up, but he didn’t. At this point, I thought of Dharma as this godlike yogi and was so excited to finally meet him.
That didn’t happen until the next fall when I was taking the train to NYU. I can’t tell you how excited I was to meet Dharma and how nervously excited I was when I finally did. And I was just so in love with his teaching style.
Generally class consisted of Dharma coming in and loudly blowing his nose, then sitting at the harmonium and playing a couple of opening chants, usually either Jai Ganesha or Om Namah Shivaya. Next came breathwork, and then a challenging asana session. All topped off by the most delightful shavasana ever, with a little meditation after. Finally, at the end, we all sat in a circle and chanted together. All along the way, Dharma would assist us with his words of support and often humor. It was always just enough talking for me, never too much, I loved the silences, something that I felt was missing from many yoga classes I had attended.
Other things I loved about Dharma’s teaching… Dharma would often say things like (and I paraphrase):
“Surrender to God. With each pose say “take me, take me.”
“Get angry.” (I don’t recall him ever using the now famous expression “angry determination.”)
About Shoulder Stand: “Some yogis hold only this pose for 24 minutes a day.”
And any number of other endearing “Dharma-isms” and jokes that made his classes that much more special.
I also loved how Dharma assisted people, and how he would often have everyone holding poses interminably while he gave someone the assist of a lifetime. We could of course have come out of the pose at any time, but many were like me and took it as a challenge. Not to say that I didn’t sigh a sigh of relief when Dharma would finally say, “Break the pose,” but I also did love the challenge. And it was partly those long holds that I feel helped to make for such a delightful shavasana at the end of class.
I was always amazed at how Dharma taught what seemed to me to be pretty advanced stuff to even people who were just coming for the first time to take his classes. I thought to myself that only a master can do this and get away with it. Not that Dharma probably hasn’t taken flak for it, I’m sure he has. And I will say that once Dharma did over-assist me in a deep backbend and I got injured. The truth is, though, I asked for it and it taught me a lesson in patience, wanting too much too soon and not really listening to my body.
So I attended Dharma’s classes for about 3 years, though in reality I only attended maybe 20 classes in that whole time period. I could be off a bit on that, I didn’t keep records of it all. One thing that I did do toward the end of this period was to invite Dharma to Narberth (a suburb of Philly) to offer a weekend training there. And I was amazed that he actually did! I forget now if he stayed at my place or with someone else, but I do remember we were at this little studio in Narberth and we had a full house. Everyone really appreciated Dharma, but that goes without saying. One other memory I have of that weekend is eating dinner with Dharma. What struck me was that not only did he not eat a lot, but he also ate his food very delicately and deliberately. It likewise inspired me to do the same.
Not sure when this was exactly, but one time towards the end of this whole period I came to the studio after an extended period away and after performing one particularly advanced pose in class (don’t remember what it was), Dharma said to me (again, I paraphrase), “You’re ready to open your own studio.” However serious Dharma really was, I took that as a confirmation, though it would be years before I would actually start my own school…
The year was now 2001. I was planning on staying in Philly and commuting to NYC for classes, but then 9/11 happened. I stopped going to NYC and then my mother convinced me to move down to Naples, FL, where she had an apartment and was living permanently. I ended up going to Naples at the end of 2002, right after I attended a 200-Hr Yoga Teacher Training with Yogi Hari in Miromar, FL. Dharma wasn’t offering trainings at that time, otherwise I might have taken his. Over the next 15 years, I was to see Dharma just maybe 2-3 times, all at various yoga conferences and festivals. All the same, I always told everyone that Dharma was my favorite yoga teacher, and even when I began offering my own Yoga Teacher Trainings in 2006, I would still speak highly of Dharma and tell everyone about him. On some occasions, I would even show the students his videos and have his poster on display.
Given all of this, perhaps a re-connection with Dharma was inevitable. I had met my guru (or at least one of them—I seemed to have several that I met all around the same time) and I wanted to honor that. I just never seemed to make enough money to afford any other trainings, and that was partly because I really wasn’t making a solid living teaching yoga in Florida and I really didn’t feel called to do much else.
Finally, this year a friend loaned me the money to take Dharma’s training (this was after another friend and student set up a Plum Fund to help raise money for me to do the training—it didn’t even come close to the goal). My sense of it all was that I was finally ready to re-connect, that somehow I had gotten my act together enough to merit to be there.
My general sense and overall feeling about the training was immense gratitude and respect for the Dharma Yoga staff, and of course Eva and Dharma, for putting together such a wonderful offering for us. I was very very impressed by all of the mentors, and really felt just a kindred, familial bond with everyone, my fellow students included. I really feel you can get a sense of the caliber of the teacher by how his students are, and the Dharma community demonstrated to me (as if I needed it!) just how effective Dharma’s method and presence is. Everything was very well-run and organized, and I love how Adam especially did his best to help us not feel stress about anything.
What I love most about Dharma now, and what to me is a sign of true mastery, is his sense of humor. He is able to make fun of everything, including himself, sometimes to the point of making himself look foolish. But clearly he’s not and so this is a teaching for all of us—don’t take it all so seriously. You could say that Dharma has transcended being a yogi to being a guru (and even beyond that) now, which means that he can afford to take everything lightly. For so many years he was on a very strict yogic regimen, and I’m sure he still is, but now he does it just to set an example, he’s clearly beyond it all, even though sometimes he plays like he’s not.
It’s interesting to me how my own path has played itself out. I clearly started out in this lifetime as a very driven, disciplined person. At some point, though, I recognized that the discipline was keeping me too rigid, too serious and self-righteous. I needed to get over myself, or at least the “yogi” identity to which I had attached myself. And so I went “south,” both literally—down to Florida from Philly—and figuratively. Yes, little by little I found my way to the “other” side, the Left-Handed path, which I had formerly vowed never to explore, but to which I ultimately succumbed. And I don’t mean in a bad way—it was all good. And in fact, with 20/20 vision I can see how it was inevitable…
“A Poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses. All forms of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he exhausts within himself all poisons and preserves their quintessence’s. Unspeakable torment, where he will need the greatest faith, a superhuman strength, where he becomes among all men the great invalid, the great criminal, the great accursed—and the Supreme Scientist!”
~ Arthur Rimbaud, French poet
Besides my parents, I see now that my first real guru in this lifetime was Jim Morrison. From the time I was 11, I was just totally fascinated with this guy, along with a host of other rock stars, but Morrison in particular. Like many of us, Jim has been a kind of torch-bearer of the Left-Handed tantric ethos, which is to fully give oneself over to exploration of the dark side in order to know the light. “If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise,” said William Blake, who also famously said: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear as it truly is—infinite.” (The Doors took their name from this quote.) Morrison clearly took these ideas quite seriously as he was seeking understanding and a way beyond fear. This led him to do and say (and sing) many outrageous things, things which ultimately made him appear to be a Cosmic Clown, a buffoon at which many still laugh at—he’s the man you love to hate. But to know him is to love him (as with all of us), and those who really tuned in to the guy are laughing with him, not at him.
Another figure like this for me is Adam Sandler. His humor is just completely over-the-top outrageous, and I’ve noted that he’s another love-him-or-hate-him figure. But his ability to laugh at himself and everything is a sign to me that he’s close to the Cosmic Joke.
So as I was saying, I guess I ultimately needed to go on a tangent and explore the shadow side of things, because the truth is I was scared of it. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the thing that seemed to help me the most in this regard was plant medicine. It’s seemingly completely off the beaten path, taboo as most traditional forms of yoga are concerned, and yet, for the one intent on liberation, it might just be the thing. It seems to have been for me.
At the end of the day, the yogic/Vedic dictum of “paths are many, truth is one” is the guiding light. Because ultimately it doesn’t matter how you get there, it’s getting there that matters. “Whatever gets you through the night is alright,” John Lennon sang. So even though Dharma no doubt would never outwardly approve of my path, I know he knows and it doesn’t matter to him one bit.