I remember clearly the first time I experienced expanded awareness through yoga. It happened during my first meditation workshop in Canada when I was in my early twenties. As I sat with my eyes closed, repeating the mantra I had been taught by the visiting monk/teacher, I was suddenly blessed by am expanded sense of space as well as a heart-felt connection with the room I was in and the people seated around me.
At the time, I was unable to clearly contextualize, much less describe my experience, which I would later learn was brought on by “Nirodha” or cessation of the chatter in my mind. However, I knew beyond a doubt that the experience was meaningful and relevant to my life, which until that point, had been devoid of spiritual significance. A few months and a handful of blissful meditation retreats soon followed, and to the astonishment of my friends and family, I suddenly dropped everything in order to pursue spiritual “enlightenment”. I left everything I had ever known behind, and after traveling 3000+ km by bus, I finally arrived at my destination—a grass-roots spiritual community in North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains, where a few dozen modern-day monks had just purchased a 40-acre property on which to base their headquarters and conduct teacher trainings. It was there, that I would meet my first spiritual Teacher—MSI, a former protégé of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the “Beatles guru” of TM (Transcendental Meditation) fame.
MSI was a unique and magical soul—the most well learned and spiritually adept individual I had ever encountered. He taught an unorthodox, yet simple and effective style of meditation, which he claimed to have learned from an ancient order of Himalayan Masters. The teaching, which had been slowly gaining popularity around the world, was partly based on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. MSI’s students, myself included, took Sanskrit names, dressed solely in white, refrained from cutting our hair and followed Patanjali’s eight-limbed (Ashtanga) path which included adhering to the Yamas and Niyamas (ethical precepts), practicing daily Asana and Pranayama and more importantly, spending long hours in meditation.
Although I had arrived with the intention of undertaking a one-year work/study program, MSI offered me a scholarship to the upcoming teacher training that September. I accepted and spent the fall and winter meditating up to 12 hours each day and attending nightly meetings to help process all the “ego-stuff” that would inevitably bubble to the surface. The days were sublime and the evenings were 1000 times more entertaining than any reality TV show on the air today. To say that the experience was life affirming just barely scratches the surface. Those six months were the most enchanting days of my life—I was awestruck by the wisdom and vision of my Teacher and knew in my heart that I had found my life’s purpose. Six-months of teacher-training became a four-year journey, during which I traveled and taught throughout North America, Europe and Japan, all the while diving blissfully into deeper levels of stillness and Self-awareness. My meditations and even my everyday waking hours became permeated by the empty fullness of Nirodha, which I had briefly tasted during that very first meditation workshop.
Things changed, as they often do. Not long after my arrival in North Carolina, my Teacher, MSI, began to get very sick. A large lump began growing in his throat, which he attributed to having taken on the Karma of his 100+ students. However, MSI’s doctors had a different explanation and a different name for his affliction — cancer. After a long, drawn-out battle with lymphoma, MSI passed away before he was able to see his teaching fully flourish. Whether it would have blossomed the way he had intended had he not departed from this earthly plane is impossible to say. Sometime after his passing, things began to fall apart. MSI’s senior students tried, but failed to grapple with the changes taking place within the rapidly expanding organization. Much insanity ensued, and to make an incredibly long and complicated story short, most of the original teachers, myself included, eventually became frustrated and disillusioned and returned to their former lives.
Those years in the Smoky Mountains were wholly transformative, and would forever change the way that I view myself as well as the way I view organized spirituality. Unfortunately, as the organization dissolved, so did my commitment to my spiritual path. Before long, I found myself back in Vancouver, working at a bank, playing in a punk rock band and having completely abandoned my meditation practice. I soon became frustrated with my “new” life, and blamed my dissatisfaction on the stifling conditions of my desk job and the careless excess of my party-animal lifestyle. I knew something was missing, but was unwilling to close my eyes to seek the serene stillness of “Nirodha”. After a few years of trying but failing to regain happiness, I decided to make a change. After some gentle prodding from my best friend, Mike, I boarded a flight to Taiwan to begin my life anew.
Mike was already living in Taichung, having taught English for a year. He had nothing but great things to say about Taiwan, so I was ready to jump in headfirst. However, since my life in Vancouver (and the residual damage of my failed spiritual pursuits) had rattled my sanity to pieces, I planned a four-month stopover in Southeast Asia in order to relax, recover and enjoy some fun in the sun.
I spent the first few months backpacking, eating and partying my way through Thailand, Indonesia and Cambodia. During that time, yoga and meditation were far removed from my mind. However, about two months in, I met a Singaporean couple that had been studying Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga at an open-air Shala just a stone’s throw from my bungalow in Koh Pagnan. For some reason, I didn’t associate the word “Ashtanga” with the eight-limbed path that I had been following in North Carolina. In any case, I made the decision that some yoga would be good for my health and spirit.
I strolled into the Shala bright and early the next morning. I was immediately impressed by the skill and intensity of the Ashtanga practitioners, as well as by the peaceful, chilled-out nature of the teacher, Rolf Naujokat. Being somewhat athletic and bendy due to my sports and martial arts training as a teen, I immediately connected with the practice. Before long, Ujjayi, Bandha, Drishti and Vinyasa became my new spiritual guides. Within days, I found myself reconnecting (albeit in a radically different way) with the peace, stillness and clarity of Nirodha, which had been so sorely absent from my life. During, and especially after practice, my mind felt clearer and my heart, much more open. I studied with Rolf for a month (though I would later spend 8 months with him in Goa, India). Thankfully, he insisted that I learn the Primary Series by heart, which enabled me to self-practice in Taichung when no teachers were available to guide me.
Seven years and several yoga adventures later, both meditation and Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga are now a big part of my life. The benefits that I glean from these practices allow me to operate more smoothly in the hustle and bustle of the city, where, for me, the stillness of “Nirodha” is much more challenging to cultivate. As I have continued to practice, teach, learn, and grow, my sometimes dim and crooked path has revealed itself as straighter, brighter, and more clearly in focus. I feel tremendous gratitude for everything I have experienced this far along the path and am truly blessed to now be practicing, learning and teaching here at SPACE. Thank you for allowing me to share a little piece of my yogic journey. May the indescribable beauty of the divine presence continue to shine upon and within you all.