Baba Hari Dass

Between the crushing heartbreak of these last few months that is Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh, the ongoing unraveling of sexual abuse allegations by Anne Tapsell West (and others) against senior Iyengar teacher Manouso Manos, and the continued tenacity of Karen Rain in refusing to let the sexual assaults of Pattabhi Jois be swept under the carpet, something else has brought about a strange confluence of memories, gratitude, and sadness.  On September 25, at the age of 95, the venerated silent monk and Yoga sage, Baba Hari Dass passed away.  I have always thought of him as the genuine article.

Baba Hari Dass was born in 1923 near Uttar Pradesh, now Uttarakhand, India.  He left home at the age of eight and joined an ashram for young yoga renunciates in the jungles of Kumaon.  By the time he was 14 years old his knowledge of Yoga and traditional scriptures was both erudite and grounded in practice.  In 1952, at the age of 29 he took a continual vow of silence, a vow he maintained during his tenure as the spiritual leader of the Mount Madonna Center in California. Baba had a gentle way of carrying his authority, which evoked respect but never fear.  He was known for working side by side with other community members in the construction of buildings at Mount Madonna, delighted in playing with children, and had a boisterous sense of fun which expressed itself in an unlikely sport for a sadhu–volleyball.  Asked how should one live a good life, he would reportedly respond, ‘Work honestly, meditate every day, meet people without fear, and play.’

Although I cannot say that I studied with Baba Hari Dass in any real sense of the word, I had the great fortune to have a private meeting with him when I was in my early twenties.  And following this meeting, over the course of several years, he answered my letters.  His answers to the questions in those letters were pivotal in changing the course of my life.  How this came about can only be understood in the context of what came before. 

* * * *

When I was only 19 years old I decided to leave New Zealand, a place where I had experienced an unrelenting sense of exile.  A decade before, my father had made the momentous decision to move our family of seven from Southern California to a country where we had neither friends nor relatives.  As an electronic engineer who had worked within the space and defense industries, my father could calculate with astounding accuracy the breaking point of a steel mechanism but was completely oblivious to the point at which the human psyche could snap.  The move was an emotionally catastrophe for my mother, my siblings and for myself.  I wanted to return to the United States, ostensibly to pursue ongoing studies in contemporary dance and apply for a scholarship at California Institute of the Arts, but also out of a compulsion to follow my then Kiwi boyfriend to San Francisco.  I had no friends or family in San Francisco, and he, a computer programmer had already found a job and a small apartment on Sutter Street.  This gave me some confidence that I could make the leap to return to America.

On returning, I received a scholarship to study dance, and over a period of about 18 months our relationship became increasingly strained with my long absences at CalArts.  Then the threats of violence began: pounding a hole in the wall next to me for declining to join him at an evening business gathering.  Coming home from work in an inexplicable rage and kicking the toilet into a thousand porcelain shards while pulling the shower rod out of its concrete moorings.  He had a black belt in Tae Kwon-Do, and was a heavy set 6-foot man.  I was just over 90 pounds and 5 foot two. 

That night, I froze in the bedroom trying to comprehend the sounds coming from behind the bathroom door: tiles breaking, animal-like grunts and screams, and finally a silence that terrified me even more.  I had no intention of waiting to see what emerged from behind that bathroom door.  I fled the apartment and for some minutes simply stood outside the building wondering where I could go.  And then I remembered that Rafael House, one of the first homeless shelters for women and children in America was literally a few doors down the street.  Run by the brothers and sisters of The Holy Order of Mans I was welcomed in the reception area by Brother Thomas, a warm and caring middle-aged man who suggested that if it was possible, I should stay with a friend for a few days.  I think the shelter was full, but perhaps Brother Thomas did not at first take me quite so seriously because I was well dressed, educated and totally unlike the mostly poor black women and children who arrived at Rafael House.  But I returned to Rafael House and Brother Thomas began to council me.  He was short on advice and long on asking questions, listening and observing.  This was a quality of attention that I was unaccustomed to.  After several meetings he announced, ‘I believe you have a calling.  I don't know what it is, but I know that it is vital that you lead your life in a way that you can realize it yourself.’  

A few weeks later, he asked to meet me at the apartment.  He sat me down, and said “All this man wants from you is to fuck you (this coming from a religious man had me sitting at full attention), to have someone here when he comes home to cook his meals, and someone to share the expenses.  He doesn't care about you and you need to pack your things right now and prepare to leave”.  He gave me some cardboard boxes, and in a few short hours I had packed all my belongings, scant as they were.  I’d planned on not being home when J. returned from work, but he arrived unexpectedly and began throwing chairs and violently breaking open my packing boxes with drop kicks.  I fled again into the night and arranged to have a friend come with me the following day to collect my things and ferry me to safety. 

****

I lived for some time in a shared flat in the Haight Ashbury with two other people, but somehow several years on J. re-entered my life and we began an intensely sexual relationship, which was perversely devoid of any human connection.  At about the same time, I was completing my first year of training at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco, and part of the curricular requirements at the time was a meditation course.  Mandira Hayes, a long-time student of Baba Hari Dass, taught this class.  I trusted her enough to tell her about this destructive relationship – something I hadn’t shared with anyone.  At the time she said she couldn’t imagine “someone like me” being with “someone like that”, which is really the point.  These are the things a young, confused woman hides in shame. 

A few weeks later, Mandira announced to our little group that there would be an opportunity to visit Mount Madonna Center north of Watsonville and a few of us might have an opportunity to have a private meeting with Baba Hari Dass.  I think she knew I needed help.  I’d heard about this silent sadhu who taught using a small chalkboard and had read Silence Speaks from the Chalkboard.  If there was anyone I could trust to keep my secret it would be someone who had taken a lifelong vow of silence. 

When we arrived at Mount Madonna, I felt awkward and out of my element.  I had become obsessed with perfecting my asana practice and had little interest in overtly spiritual practices or devotional spiritual communities.  But when I was ushered into a tiny room to speak with Baba Hari Dass, I was caught completely off guard.  His eyes twinkled as he greeted me with a huge smile and beckoned me to sit on the floor next to him.  He treated me like a gentle and caring older brother might.  The room was modest without any adornment.  I felt immediately at ease in his presence and began to tell him about this terrible relationship.  At first he chastened me that no relationship is perfect and that every couple needs to work through their disagreements.  Reluctantly, I shared that this was a person who would not bring me food when I was sick and that he had threatened to harm me without revealing the details.  Immediately Baba’s expression changed and he wrote, “You know what you must do but your attachment prevents you from acting.” 

“Are you saying that I should become celibate?” I whispered, unable to meet his gaze. 

His face lit up and then he began to laugh and laugh (something that is evidently permitted even when you take a vow of silence), reaching for his chalkboard to write a strident “You???”  As if to say: ‘Can you not see yourself as clearly as I see you?’  I began to laugh too, embarrassed.

“So what then should I do?” 

“Find a replacement.” He shrugged, tipping his head to the side. 

But as I was getting up to leave, he tapped me gently on the shoulder and pointed to his tiny board: “But first, learn how to become friends with men.”

* * * *

I understood Baba’s suggestion to mean that I needed to learn how to have relationships with men that were not primarily based on sexual connection.  I’d noticed as a heterosexual woman how at ease I felt with gay men who expressed genuine interest in me as a person.  True intimate conversation and connection came more readily when one wasn’t simultaneously on guard for unwanted sexual overture.  Or more tellingly that a man’s interest was a thinly feigned guise for getting the leg over and getting on with the real objective, which was to conquer.  ‘Becoming friends with men’ was really Baba’s code phrase for asking me to befriend myself and to value myself enough to develop relationships where the character of any potential partner could be tested in the relative safety of friendly encounters.  Within weeks I had a plan.  I knew that I was too attached to break contact with J., so I did the next best thing.  I left the country and took a job teaching Yoga for three months in Jamaica. 

* * * *

During my time in Jamaica, I became strong and clear, swimming at dawn in the ocean and practicing Yoga for hours each day.  But I was not yet ready to follow Baba’s advice about learning to become friends with men.  I began an unusual liaison with a photographer almost twice my age, considered a master in his field by those in the Jamaican art scene.  Our relationship started impulsively, as most of my relationships with men had begun, but it was different in that sex was the least of our connection, which was born out in the correspondence that continued between us for many years hence.  When you grow up feeling invisible, it’s hard to develop any clear delineation of boundaries.  He had an extraordinary eye for seeing the world from a unique vantage point, and when I spoke, he listened.  When I moved, he observed.  When one is seen so clearly, an outline forms that circumscribes what was once formless.  It was a fragile beginning toward personhood.  It was a ladder out.

Although many of my acquaintances during my late teenage years and early adulthood were avid potheads, and I had been surrounded with a multitude of opportunities to partake, up until my stay in Jamaica it had never occurred to me to dabble in drugs.  I was a drug illiterate, but the smell of ganja everywhere had me curious.  In one of only two lifetime experiences with drugs, after innocently eating a slice of ganja brownie, I collapsed delusional for eight hours in which time I had revealed to my photographer companion the depths of my worthlessness.  While lying in a hammock for hours I’d repeated like a japa mantra “I am so ugly I am so ugly I am so ugly”.  This, the photographer took as a challenge, telling me, “I will prove to you with my camera that this is not true.”  And so, for many magical weeks, he would capture me, unawares, practicing yoga on the beach, emerging from a water ditch by the side of the road, or falling on my ass laughing after trying to go one inch too low under a limbo bar.  

When I returned home plump and tanned from the combination of coconut oil fried food and sun, J. caught wind of my return and was waiting for me at the flat, looking distinctly out of place and standing stiffly in a suit and tie holding a bouquet of roses.  He saw a different woman and knew instantly that his power over me had ended, and I knew instantly, that I would never see him again.  But what I didn’t know is that Baba’s advice to learn how to become friends with men would lead to three years of celibacy that were, for the most part, completely without any sense of conflict or bodily denial.

Later, when my application to become a faculty member of the Iyengar Institute was declined, one of the male faculty teachers sited that “I was too sensual”, which would become the ultimate irony, given that other faculty members such as Manouso Manos would soon be removed from the institute for egregious sexual misconduct, and another prominent institute teacher would leave his partner to pursue a relationship with his student.  For me, becoming fully embodied amounted to living in my body as a polymorphous sensuous entity in which all parts of the body, all parts of the self are vividly felt and lived.  For a woman to inhabit her body in this way is both liberating and empowering.  In that moment she declares that she is in full possession of herself and therefore does not require being possessed by another.

By then, my need to gain clarity around my relationships with men had grown stronger and I would gradually discover who among my male acquaintances wanted to know this newly defined person and could do so without pushing a sexual agenda.

* * * *

Within a year of completing my Iyengar training the knowledge of the stories about Manos’s abuses had begun to fester inside me.  The once lively and inclusive atmosphere at the institute had changed and felt increasingly oppressive.  The doors shut to any knowledge base outside the method in an effort to maintain “purity” and so that we would “not become confused”.   Increasingly, a chasm formed between how I actually practiced and what I was teaching.   My practice had always been deeply focused and interoceptively guided.  The practice of self-directed inquiry had gradually and perniciously been usurped so that now my body was being commanded from a control tower located in India, represented by proxy through the scripts of certified Western Iyengar teachers, and constrained into obedience by the constant threat of being excommunicated if one didn’t do as one was told.  My body was no longer my own.

New rigid dictates were laid down by Mr. Iyengar, now, increasingly being referred to as “guruji”.  I wrote to Baba Hari Dass on December 2nd, 1988 telling him that I had been physically assaulted by B.K.S. Iyengar at the Iyengar Convention held in 1987 in Boston.  I wrote to him that there were many allegations of students being sexually abused at the institute by Manouso Manos, and that despite my efforts to bring about an investigation and for this information to be made public, I had failed.  How could I resolve my feelings of anger and frustration?  How could I extricate myself from the deep depression that had gripped me for the better part of a year?  

On December 9th, a letter arrived. After a long descriptive passage where he described the extraordinary variety within human bodies and how Yoga must be adapted for the individual, he delivered his message:

“This sounds more like a military academy, not a place to learn about Yoga.  If you want to learn about peace you need to be around peaceful people.  You will not change these people by remaining– they will change you.  Leave and find another path.”

Three years of celibacy had fortified my sense of self.  The seed had been planted the day I stepped out of Baba Hari Dass' little room.  Celibacy had never been the conscious goal.  Rediscovering the fullness of what it means to be whole in one self would become the ultimate prerequisite for having a whole-some relationship.  I began the long process of disentangling myself from the identity enmeshment that is the Iyengar system and strode out into the unknown.

* * *

The word baba means father in many languages.  I had read once that if you have not had a good father you must create one.  The general consensus from numerous psychologists is while my own father had a genius IQ, he also had undiagnosed and untreated Asperger’s.  At the age of seven, delighted to discover my father home after school, I hopped into his lap only to be met with him shouting, “Get off me, get off me."  He was so emotionally crippled that at the age of nine when I earnestly held out my straight-A report card, he could only summon a non-committal hm.

On my first and only trip to Pune to study with B.K.S. Iyengar, his opening address consisted of a long tirade of the fathomless ways that we “knew nothing and were nothing”.  This landed in me as a familiar experience of father: here was a person for whom you could toil until the ends of time and never, ever, receive approval.  As he himself advised: “Today’s maximum is tomorrows minimum!”– an edict that would transform my once soothing Yoga practice into a time of striving, self-coercion, and inevitable disappointment. 

Years later I would ask Fred Wahpepah, a Native American elder with whom I studied the ceremony of the sweat lodge, “How does a woman make herself whole when she has a hole in the matrix of her psyche because she had no fathering”?  He stared into space for so long I thought perhaps he had not heard the question, then said: “You need to open yourself to older men, to elders, who can give you some of the fathering you missed.”

Once sitting around the fire waiting for the stones to heat before beginning the sweat lodge, Fred had chuckled that I was a ‘rolling stone that gathered no moss’, with a prescience for who I would become.  To be near him was to be in the warm embrace of the gentlest of grandfathers.

And of course, there were also women along the way who gave me confidence, most notably a series of female psychotherapists who little-by-little teased out the tangle of my psyche, slowly enough that I would be able to face and integrate the memories that were brought to the surface.  An older female Unitarian minister was the first to use the word ‘abuse’ when I shared with her the trauma of being physically assaulted by one of this centuries most notable male Yoga teachers, and the devastating depression that followed.  Angela Farmer, who bravely left the Iyengar method to follow her own path, gave me heart that this might be possible for me too.

And while all of these woman-to-woman experiences are no less important, when you have been wounded by an absent father, is it not natural to search for and find healing in a present one?  People like Baba Hari Dass, Brother Thomas, Fred Wahpepah, close older male friends, and later my teacher Ray Worring would all help to mend this father wound.  They form a protective shield that fortifies my sense of agency and emboldens fearlessness in me when I am called to fight.  Caring brothers, respectful partners, guiding and protective fathers even if they are not my own, male friends that listen, colleagues who have my back: these are some of the ways that men have helped me to restore trust in my own capacity.  They live inside me as psychological emblems on the days when the darkness of male figures such as Manos, Jois, Kavanaugh, and B.K.S. Iyengar (whose violent assault on my body I refuse to reframe as a ‘loving act’), threaten to overwhelm my sense of hope in the world, and trust in men.  

Today I feel infinite gratitude to Baba Hari Dass for his ability to see and meet with that scared and confused young woman and his humble generosity in answering my letters with such wisdom and clarity.  I see him rising from the floor to greet me with such quiet awe and curiosity as I break my silence and begin to speak.

* * *

Donna Farhi is the author of five books, including Teaching Yoga: Exploring the Teacher-Student Relationship, a book that has become a curricular text on ethics for yoga teacher training programs worldwide.   She is currently working as an advisor on the Code of Conduct as part of the standards review initiative of the Yoga Alliance.  


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