Saturday, August 23, 2008

Christopher Isherwood

I've been reading Christopher Isherwood's memoir, My Guru and His Disciple, off and on for several months. I've read so many yoga memoirs, and I'm writing one myself, but Isherwood's is my favorite. I relate to it ever so much more for the fact that he rarely, if ever, has a spiritual epiphany. I don't trust yogis who are forever having breakthroughs and catharses and feeling great about themselves. I respond to them much in the same way I respond to my fellow countrymen who come back from vacations abroad convinced that they're no longer American. As I see it with travel and meditation, wherever you go, there you are . . . an American. 

I love Isherwood's memoir because he's not looking for an epiphany, per se. His time spent meditating isn't a sexy international vacation or an opportunity to heal after a bad breakup. It's something he does because he feels compelled to do it-- because he has a nagging suspicion that there's a God. But mostly I love his memoir for his sly sense of humor about his own contradictions; Isherwood was a man who liked his sex, his booze, his smokes, but who also felt called to meditation and contemplation, and to occasional experiments with asceticism. 

He was celibate and practicing a devotional yoga (meditation, chanting, etc.) with his roommate and would-be lover, Denny, when he tried hatha yoga for the first time. Here's a passage on why it didn't quite work out for him: 

(Warning: if you're lily-livered when it comes to bodily functions . . . why are we friends?)

Through the Huxleys, we heard of a lady who taught hatha-yoga exercises. We wanted to learn these for purely athletic reasons, so we were glad to find that she didn't set herself up as a spiritual guru, like some other hatha-yoga practitioners. 

I felt that I ought to tell the Swami about our lessons-- guessing that he might not altogether approve of them. The violence of his disapproval surprised me. He didn't object to the postures and the stretching but he warned me sternly not to practice those breathing exercises which require you to hold your breath; they can cause hallucinations, he said, and end by damaging the brain. . . 

Then, however, our teacher began to urge us to learn the yoga technique of washing out the intestines by muscular action alone; you squat in a bowl full of water, suck the water in through the anus, swirl it around inside you, expel it again, thus cleansing yourself of poisons. Until this technique has been mastered, you should use an enema every day. And meanwhile, the sphincter muscle of the anus must be made more flexible, through dilation . . . A set of rectal dilators now appeared. I use that verb advisedly because I can neither remember nor imagine our serpent lady actually giving us such unlady-like objects. Did Denny perhaps procure them? The largest was a wicked-looking dildo, quite beyond my capacity but dangerously tempting to my curiosity. I told Denny that, at least as far as I was concerned, our lessons would have to stop-- lest sex should sneak in through the back door. We parted from our teacher but continued to do some of the exercises at home. (Years later I took to using the breathing exercises occasionally, because I found them helpful in clearing up obstinate hangovers.)

I am slightly hungover myself. A birthday barbeque for my brother Frank last night culminated in my cousin Johnny bringing out the Jack, yikes. So I'm considering sitting for a round of bastrika and another of alternate-nostril breathing, to test the theory above. But who am I kidding? I'm just going to get in the bath with Isherwood. 

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