Monday, December 20, 2010

Kirtan Wallah in a South Carolina Gym: A Tale of Hope, Love, Prayer and Iron

One of the keys to my sanity in a lifestyle that involves touring for nine months a year is keeping myself moving and active. Yoga has been a great help, as have my daily outings with Barkley to explore our new environs on any given day.

But there is a small primal corner of my psyche that still needs the catharsis of slinging heavy stuff around. Maybe it’s the same element of my makeup that caused Krishna Das to mistake me for an NFL linebacker when he first came to pick me up at the airport for the “Breath of the Heart” recording sessions ten years ago. Maybe it’s just part of the deal for a number of us with a Y chromosome, another component of the archetypal male psyche that plays a role in other cryptic rituals, like “male bonding.”

Whatever it is, it had a particularly strong hold on me one morning while we were touring the Southeast a couple of years ago. We were in Greenville, South Carolina, and, fortunately for me, Jacqueline Westhead (our beloved friend, booking agent, and percussionist/vocalist) was engaged in a training regimen that involved getting to a gym every couple of days. Our hotel had a deal that provided free access to the local Powerhouse Gym, so off we went.

When we arrived, I was reminded just how long it had been since I had availed myself of Nautilus equipment. As Jacq made her way to the aerobic gear, I decided to start my re-entry into the Nautilus world with the “Pec Fly” machine, one that I remembered as being a favorite from the old days.

I set it for what I thought was a reasonable weight and took my seat. As I began, it became quickly apparent that I was calling on muscles that had been on vacation for some time. So I threw myself into it with even more fervor, until I heard a kindly voice from behind me: “Whoa there, friend, you’re gonna hurt yourself like that.”

I turned to look into the smiling face of an extremely buff African-American man who clearly had spent a lot of time at the gym.

Laughing, he went on, “You’re working with way too much weight there, and the way you’re going, you might just find one of your arms on the other side of the gym.”

“Oh, thanks! Yeah, it’s been a while since I’ve worked out…”

“Here, let me help you out.”

I got up and he sat in the machine. “What you want to do here is keep good alignment and use a smooth continuous motion, like this.” He brought his shoulders up and back, lengthening his side body symmetrically.

Hmmm … head of the arm bones back, side body long… sounds very familiar to anyone who has spent time with Anusara Yoga…

“Remember,” he said, “to keep an even flow with each rep, and keeping it slower will allow you to get more benefit with less weight, less strain on your shoulders. Here, now you try it.” He cut the weight on the machine to just over half of what I had been flailing around with.


I sat in the machine again, and, following his advice, began again. The ease of the movement and the immediate benefit I felt from the improved alignment more than compensated for the bruising my ego experienced. He talked me through each repetition with focus and care.

“Thanks again, man,” I told him. “You really helped me out! What’s your name?”

“Emmanuel. I come here all the time with my friend Curt over there.”

Curt, a middle-aged and somewhat stout man with brilliant blue eyes and a cautious but warm smile, walked over from an adjacent machine and we shook hands. “My name’s Benjy. My friend Jacqueline and I came down here today to work out – we’re passing through. Great to meet you guys!”

Meanwhile, Jacq had seen what was going on from across the room and came to join us. She introduced herself to both men.

“So what brings you both to Greenville?” asked Emmanuel.

I noticed a beautiful pendant of a cross hanging around Emmanuel’s neck at about the same time that I saw that Curt was wearing a Christian revival T-shirt. I had a sudden sinking feeling that telling them we were touring around the country leading kirtan might not be all that well-advised.

“Uh, well, we’re musicians on tour.”

“Wow. That’s great!” Emmanuel went on, “What kind of music do you guys play?”

Jacq shot me a look that let me know that she was having thoughts similar to my own.

“Well, it’s a … bit hard to explain,” I said. “My wife Heather, Jacqueline and I … we, um, travel all over the country singing to God with groups of people.” I held my breath for a heartbeat or two, wondering what I might say next.

Both Emmanuel and Curt lit up visibly, having the effect of pouring sunlight into the harsh fluorescent light of Powerhouse Gym.

“Man, that’s absolutely incredible!! Hey, are you guys OK if we pray for y’all, right here and now?” Emmanuel’s bearing and glistening eyes radiated an aura of unswerving agape love.

And Curt’s smile broadened as the tentativeness evaporated from his body language.

“Yes, yes, we’d love that,” I said, breathing again, offering my own unspoken prayer of thanks for the gift of sharing just enough information.

So the four of us stood in a circle in between the rows of metal machines, clasped hands and bowed our heads.

“Dear Lord, please watch over Heather, Jacqueline and Benjy as they make their way around the world to sing your praises,” Emmanuel began. “Keep them safe as they spread Your love across this land … please bless them in all that they do.”

“We’re so glad that you brought them here today, Lord, and may they ever raise you up in praise wherever they go. In Jesus’ name … amen.”

We stood there, silently, eyes closed, holding hands a few moments more.

Emmanuel smiled over at us once again. “Believe me, it’s been a real pleasure meeting you both.”

“It has for us too – we are so grateful. Hope to see you guys again soon,” I said. “May you both be richly blessed.”

“You take care of yourselves,” said Curt softly. “Praise be to God.”

“Praise be to God,” I echoed.

We each looked one another in the eye, slowly releasing our hands. With a last farewell smile, Emmanuel and Curt walked up to the front desk of the gym, talked for a moment with the guy behind the counter, and stepped out the front door, leaving us to bask in the light of transcendent Love.

What a blessing to have met Curt and Emmanuel, whose Hebrew name literally means “God with us.” What a great lesson we were given in the power of love to overcome a broad range of differences in cosmology, philosophy, and dogma.

As Ram Dass states so eloquently in his new book, “Be Love Now”:

“Although you may devote yourself to an aspect of the Beloved, like the guru or the deity as mother, child, or lover, you are in it for the love, not for the attainment, not for the object. It’s one of those wonderful paradoxes you encounter on the path. You can’t attain it; you have to become it. In the process subject and object, lover and Beloved become One. “

Once I had allowed myself to step away from my assumptions and focus on love (as our newfound friends were doing in their love for God), our seeming differences could fall away and we could ourselves become Love. To use a beautiful way in which Ram Dass might frame this spiritual landscape, we had each stepped away from our egos in such a way that we could see each other as souls.

“Open your eyes of love, and see Him who pervades this world. Consider it well, and know that this is your country.” -The Songs of Kabir LXXVI

“tu surat nain nihar”

Translation by Rabindranath Tagore