Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Cult of Norman Allen

"He will either like you or hate you".

"When I attended his classes, I started feeling something, and it was not good."

"He is a throw back to the past. He is stuck in the past."

"He is just out there, on the fringe."

"It's his way or no way."

These and other warnings cautioned me not to dial Norman Allen's phone number. But I did that day, just about a year ago. He did not answer the phone, the answer machine just turned on, and I left my message. He never called back. I let a few days pass, then followed up with another call. Just looking for the truth. Is Norman Allen another false yogi or the real thing....or something in between?

"Oh, but these are not classes," he explains. "It is more like a group that gets together to practice mysore style. Its kinda social."

The conversation went on with more questions about my background and experience.

"How long had I practiced?"

"Where and from whom?"

"How old was I?"

"Who else in the group did I know?"

"How well did I know them?"

I must have given him the correct answers, the ones he wanted to hear. The time and location were then confirmed; I had his permission.

So the next morning, I arrived at the sports facililty maintained by the County. Its a small, dark room, old and dirty. Everyone knows it is used by the local boxing club in the evenings.

It is 6:15 am, and there is one girl already here. She is pleading her story about being gone off island, and wanting to attend classes again temporarily. Norman is not happy to hear about her inconsistencies, but she is allowed to stay, at least for today. As he directs her to begin her practice, he then turns his attention to me.

At last, I have the honor of meeting a real guru. He appears to look like the real thing. But his words and actions are unrefined as he gruffes:

“Just go in the corner and watch.”

I take the front, left corner, as it has mirrors on one side to offer a favorable vantage. Brightness begins to fill the room as sunlight enters the windows facing the east.

Boxing and work out equipment is everywhere, in the corners and sides of the room. In the evenings, the boxers are right here, fighting, with sneakers on, excreting sweat and blood on to the carpet.

And Norman does not allow mats, all exercises are done on the bare carpet.

After a few minutes, I stretch my legs, as the room was still relatively empty.

Norman storms over and demands, “No stretching. Go over there.”

"There" was the darker corner at the rear of the room. I move, as ordered, to watch and observe. And what is observed is not anything I could have anticipated.

Strong incense. Ashtanga practioners of the series as dictated by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. A small table, stacked with a variety of old Indian books and scriptures. A piece of fruit.

After practice, anyone is welcomed to read the books or meditate or chat quietly around this table.

Another item I notice on the table is some (paper) money. Like the fruit, perhaps an offering?

His rules are simple:

No mats allowed. (Although I notice 2 practioners are using them today. ) You must attend every class (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Fridays) without fail. If you miss one of these classes, you will be penalized by paying $25 for each class missed.

Otherwise, the classes are free, dollar-wise, that is. As long as you attend the classes as the guru dictates, they are free.

2nd session:

I explain to Norman I cannot attend one of the required days (I teach a yoga class elsewhere). He becames offensive, "Why come here then, yoga teacher. You know everything."

"Not really, I am just a beginner, just starting." I know better than to answer the “why come here” question.

He is angry at all of this,

"I don’t talk much in the mornings, go over there and just do your practice."

My series is acceptable, I presume as only one correction is mentioned.

With virbhdrasana I, my thigh is not parallel to the floor.

He says, “Not uphill”, pointing to my thigh.

It is a very exhilarating practice. His toddler grandbaby is here, running around and between approximately 20 other people.

Today, my space to practice is in front of a young, breastfeeding mom.

3rd session:

At Ardha Baddha admottanasana, I am suddenly scolded:

"I want to tell you something. We don’t use straps, mats."

"What about that girl over there using a mat?", I questioned.

Norman goes on, "And you weren’t here the other day, you need to pay $25."

"Do you remember I said I had a teaching commitment?"

I never get to finish, as he is now walking away.

Well, interesting, he noticed I was missing that day.

The redhead in front of me turns around with a muted smirk on her face. Turn around and mind your practice, I tell her under my breath.

Penalize for leaving the group, berate and isolate. Staring to smell like a cult.

Then I move to Utkatasana, Bakasana, jumpbacks higher. In the seated postures, half vinyasas after each side. Skip Kurmasana to Supta Kurmasana. Continue on with Garba Pindasana, and on to complete the series.

After I am done, I see Norman outside with another young man. When I offer $100 to him, to pay in advance for the classes I know I will miss (4 classes this month) he yells:

"I don’t even want the money, it’s not about that. Do you understand? It's not about that, at all."

He said I have a beautiful practice. So maybe he isn’t going to adjust me as much, I’m inferring.

No, he is over that (the adjusting of students), it is not about that.

He is against the mats and any props, because of the commercializm that had transpired with this current yoga boom. He says it is not about eating meat, or any of that.

"You mean, like the scriptures?" I ask.

First he replies no, then yes. "It is not about the body," he explains.

Yes, I could understand. He gave me a stare I would never forget. Maybe we had an understanding?

As I left, I thought, this is about the diamond body, isn’t it? Have to get into the body, to get out of the body. Why didn't I say those those things when I was talking to Norman? Poor Norman. I'm confident this is not the first attempt of man's commercialization of yoga. This current adulteration of yoga has transpired in past history, I'm sure, many times already. Man is only human.

4th session:

When I arrive, I find my spot and go into child’s pose. After a moment, Norman gives me two books, with pages open:

Raja Yoga, page 67, he says, "Read one or two pages. About the idia and pingala and the sushumna."

Now, the Yoga Sutra, the second verse, with its detailed explanations.

Another part of a thick book on ethics. Of India, it was all broken up, and an old book, the page he gives me are in mid 500s.

"Now, do some sun salutations."

I do 5 each, of A and B. And on with the rest of first series.

On my way out, I ask him about the questions regarding “ultimately it is not about the body”. He reluctantly agrees.

I mention about people at different levels, and sometimes you have to get into the body in order to get out of the body.

He is dead against what is termed "yoga" at the gyms, because it is not yoga.

I agree, "so, we call it stretching. OK?"

"No, no, no! because there was no opposing force and the philosophy is lacking."

Again, he says its not what it is all about. I say I agree with him and try to reconcile this in my mind.

"Perhaps teaching yoga outside of Norman's classes is like sowing seeds?" I reason. "They want to learn yoga, Norman. Will you deny them?"

He is angry now,

"It's like seeds for weeds. This is so vast," he explains, "I could go on for days."

He is against my teaching, so there is no resolve. What makes it ironic is there are other students in his class that are teaching or giving yoga classes, and he either does not know or chooses to ignore those facts. But with me, he has issued an ultimatum.

5th session:

I arrive a bit late, because I just finished teaching and decide not to miss any days as Norman requires. Since these classes are mysore style, everyone starts at slightly different times, and there is no set time to begin.

Weird. I can't seem to open the door - it is locked from the inside.

Why would anyone want to lock the door in the middle of class, so no one could enter - or exit?

The answer is now very clear, and I suddenly have the urge to leave, very quickly.

All material herein Copyright 2007