What Is A Yogi

By Ellen Eison


“Make each step a prayer upon the earth.”

This line from Black Elk, a Lakota elder, was not said flippantly so it could be curled into gold flourishes on a pinterest wall, but as the result of a lifetime of devotion to the spiritual disciplines. If you’re honest, you have to ask how peaceful-eyed, serene yogis fling themselves from the comfort of the covers at 4 am to embrace a cold shower and a couple hours of stomach wringing and kundalini, right? Who chooses such self-flagellation outside a medieval monastery? Those devoted to the path, that’s who. They understand that serenity is not passivity. Peace is not a byproduct of sloth. A devoted life is found through the rigor, the warfare, of facing the downward tug of the lower nature and mastering it – surrendering it to a greater Being.

In the monthly features of our studio yogis, the metamorphosis is mentioned – the move from one way of powering themselves to another – yet the hours spent on the mat, the blood, sweat, and tears is not the sexy part of the story. Yet profound. When I talked to Cal about writing of him, he said he was already embarrassed by the glowing terms in which people described him, although grateful. I promised to write a different angle, the hard stuff.

The clown, the jester, the contrary – most cultures have some variation of this colorful figure who works magic “backwards” (or subtly underground), perhaps even through reverse psychology. Cal Clements is such a figure. Hopefully you didn’t make the mistake, when you first laid eyes on him, of thinking that the fireman’s coat or the vegan menu tattooed on his back actually defined the man. Oh no, he’s a great-souled caricature moving daily through the living, breathing novel of his own life, delicately weaving threads of this and that into a meaningful plot. But you’d be fooled again if you thought he was doing the weaving in a calculated manner. Why use spread-sheets and accounting tricks to build a yoga studio when you can use a clown car and comedy classes? Right! The latter approach attracts students who drink enough of the kool-aid to ride unicycles and parade along railroad tracks playing brass instruments poorly but boldly. “If you’re going to hit a wrong note, hit it with all your strength,” Cal counsels. Again, his regal posture and the winning smile charm students into doing things they later question, and hopefully ponder, but consciously or not, Cal’s antics lead wannabe yogis through doors of consciousness that morph into archways of understanding. And he does it as if it’s all just fun.

In the world of indigenous medicine men, a contrary was a highly-prized shaman who got the hardest cases, the ones where a head-on approach didn’t work or wasn’t feasible. The contrary danced on a pin-head or sliver of existence, nubile and intensely sensitive to the slightest energy. It wasn’t a chosen profession, but inborn ability that had to be trained. It was a hard life. When it was noticed in a child, this rare ability to turn time back, charm the venom back into the fangs, or connect with a “crazy “ person and restore coherency, this child was then set apart like a rare tea bag to steep in a solitary kettle of pure awareness training. Their ceremonies, when they reached the ability to conduct them, were often not straightforward, but done innocuously in the market or the village dance – in real life rather than in solemn agreement that this was ceremony. Infinitely more complicated, that kind of weaving is. There’s no script to follow, only hollowing out as an old bone and letting the great Spirit rush through you.

What sort of training prepares one for dancing on an energetic pinhead, jousting with darkness? The kind that melts your flesh in the fires of struggle until you learn to surrender your will to the greater will. That’s all.

An early instruction: “When you wake up, do not let yourself think. Get up quickly, drink a full glass of clean water while giving gratitude, walk outside and lay down tobacco in surrender to serving all day, do stretching exercises, drink a hot drink, and only then – an hour later -- allow yourself to think. This way, you clear out the debris that collected in the night without letting it deter you from your path.” Another instruction is to wake up and recite aloud your commitment to service, such as: “I am a good man, a servant of the light. I am a teacher, a father, a grandfather, and faithful in all my responsibilities.” This kind of rigor doesn’t attract followers in inspiring weekend classes that end in heart-bumping circles, but it prepares an individual for the solitary work of meeting the great being in the magnitude of silence and listening to the call to serve. The deep waters are still, even dangerous, and require commitment to plumb their depths. We are lights, all of us, but we shine brighter when we are clean.

“In the early days of formal art,” Cal likes to say, “it was considered that whatever was painted on a canvas and put in a frame must represent the whole meaning of life. The yogi on his mat is the same – he must represent the meaning of life to the class. His demeanor, his movement, his breath, every particle of his existence is focused on being attuned to the meaning of life.”
As is the teacher, so are his students.

Ceremony, in an elemental sense, is time set apart to highlight the sacred aspects of life. There are formal ceremonies like weddings, yoga classes, and drum circles, and then there are the everyday sacred acts like picking fruit, cooking dinner, sewing, lovemaking – any act of positive, focused creativity. Medicine men, when not engrossed in acts of healing, spent their time picking and drying herbs, sewing medicine bags, fasting and praying, attending to the sick and dying, meditating…or restoring sailboats. The following paragraphs are taken from Cal’s own writing:

“I’m now immersed in the details of refurbishing my 37-year-old boat. I’m scraping out rotten places, burning off old paint, cleaning out mold, and ordering replacements for diaphragms, gaskets, and hoses. This process has a way of taking 3x longer than estimated. When you buy an old car, motorhome, or sailboat, there is always some ancient treasure that is left behind. In my sailboat Bandit, (sitting on a trailer in my backyard waiting to be refurbished) it’s a stack of newsletters from the Falmouth Cutter Fleet. Of those who wrote with some regularity, Mary White stands out for her sage advice such as: ‘Don’t upgrade; always downgrade – but have two of everything.’

And this: ‘What does a man need – really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in – and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That’s all, in the material sense. And we know it. But we are all brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath of pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention for the sheer idiocy of the charade.’ Those words from Sterling Hayden came from his book Wanderer, which inspired many young men to become sailors. He goes on to say that one must never wait to have enough money to go sailing.  The very definition of a voyager is one who travels with insufficient funds. A box of gold coins is not treasure but a coffin.

Back to Cal’s words: “And yet part of me loves coffins: old coffins built by long-dead craftsmen. Once pulled out of the ground, we discover not a dead body (the corpse has long since disintegrated) but a gold tooth, a wedding band, and an ornate frame that held a picture of a little boy. So picture me, far from the ocean, perfectly happy in my backyard, digging around in the rotten places. I’m going to bring this old boat back to life.”

So spoke Cal, beloved yogi of Rubber Soul, whose hands can make prayer of a sun salutation or a sailboat deck. And because he’s a clown, you never know when he’s praying, or for whom. Mystery on a unicycle.

Is there a dark side to devoting oneself to spiritual practice and service? In a way, yes. You don’t get to change your mind, once you’ve followed the path long enough. You become the path. There’s a story about a famous violinist who had just finished playing an ethereal encore. As he walked offstage a concert-goer said: “I’d give my life to play like you.”

“I’ve given mine,” the violinist said.

There’s nothing glowing or sexy about doing the spiritual disciplines day after day, year after year. After a while, the disciplines themselves are your closest friends. Meditation (on or off the mat) is the deepest conversation you have all day. Surrendering your will -- your freedom to think the thoughts you want to think or to pass by the hurting soul on the street because you want to get home in time to see your show -- to faithfully do the disciplines is an effort of the will, untouched by desire for recognition. You do the work because the work calls you, because it draws you into its holy shroud daily, which carves from the “party places” in your heart deep reservoirs in which compassion echoes and resonates.  You may have the heights if you have enough blood to pay. For every insight there is a cost. There is a cost to shining. Shining implies fire, which means something is burning. In a candle, wax is burning. In a yogi, the Great Light burns through the disciplined body/spirit and shines. Sure, there’s a price, but to sit in the sea of glass shot through with fire, to see the holy of holies, to feel the burn of devotion that commits and believes – for that there is no price cap. It’s always worth it!