Saturday, June 12, 2010

Yoga in San Francisco: When Your Yoga Teacher has Cancer

 When Your Yoga Teacher has Cancer.

This first posting about Yoga in San Francisco is a personal one.  I returned from Berlin last May to the startling news that my favorite Iyengar yoga teacher, Karl Erb, was admitted into the hospital with cancer.  The initial diagnosis was terrifying:  intestinal cancer which had possibly spread to his lungs, a soft-tissue death sentence.  What a cruel dealing of fate for a young, brilliant, and compassionate man who had dedicated his entire life to his spiritual practice and teachings!  But then came a relief during the first week in hospital when his diagnosis was downgraded to an encapsulated tumor and a treatable cancer that would probably be under control by summer's end.  So Karl's survival chances are very high, but as any cancer patient (and companion) knows, even a manageable case is a substantial disruption to a career and personal life. He will continue to receive chemotherapy in cycles of fives full days, followed by two weeks of pause.  For this, he must take a hiatus from his work and will have to give up his home.

There is much to be learned when a venerable teacher gets sick.  Most probably, the first thought that comes to mind is, "But he's a yoga teacher!  Isn't he perfect?  He is not allowed to get sick!"  Indeed, we must have compassion for these thoughts, but then we let them pass through.  Next, we have to toy with the reality that people in the position of teaching, healing, and spiritual authority are human just like all others, and in fact the most insightful among us are often a touch more human than the rest: Many have formidable flaws which propel their evolution as they overcome challenges through meditation, consciousness and discipline; many have unimaginable pasts from which they draw exactly that wisdom which they impart.

Reminding ourselves that perfection is an ideal, not a person, is a surprisingly abstract task when it comes to a figure of authority.  A yoga teacher who smokes a joint once in a while?  That certainly exists.  Is my psychiatrist secretly alcoholic?  Could be.  A spiritual guru whose neglected wife left him for her golf instructor?  Not unheard of.  And yet their services continue to be invaluable.  This is not to say that all teachers have double standards, which most do not, but the take-home message is this:  We have to avoid getting embroiled into a one-dimensional definition of perfection.

The relationship between teacher and student, patient and clinician, healer and healed, of course is dependent upon the education, talent, and experience of the person of authority.  But it is also a contract in which both sides agree to honor an ideal for their mutual benefit, and it is this ideal which is the ultimate teacher, be it the ideal of perfect health, wisdom, information, or a skill.  Both teacher and student are striving for the same ideal, where supposedly the teacher, through natural talent, inclination, and discipline is further along than the student.  And many teachers, like Karl, do a pretty darned good job of it, living and breathing these higher values, day and night, to an extent where it inspires others to do the same.

In this age of self-help and self-determination, the danger arises for some to over-simplistically blame patients for their own ills, and the word "cancer" on its own is a frequent lightening rod for this trend.  Well-meaning relatives and friends, in trying to draw connections, sometimes inflict unnecessary emotional harm with their lay interpretations, yet decades of research have failed to find any conclusive evidence that stress or personality "cause" cancer.  Often as I watch clients, patients, and loved ones grapple for some logic to hold on to, the silent scream in the background pleads:  It is what it is!  What better meditation is there?  The attempt to remain standing on this wave of the unknown is nothing more than a Rorschach test of fears; if we slow down enough to listen to the water, another lesson abounds with the opportunity to re-structure old beliefs.

Coming back to Karl, to put it in plain English, I love thus guy as many people do.  He has spent over twenty years learning, teaching, and building the community which is now stepping in to support him during this jarring time.  Especially in the Bay Area which is the stomping ground for many career spiritualists, Karl is the polished stone, a dedicated purist with a sense of humor, humility, and quality.  He is in a league of his own next to the jungle of yoga experimentalists who may be high in fashion, but low in compassion.

The loving fruits of Karl's practice can be sampled through his blog, which he is maintaining during his chemotherapy.  Fortunately for his followers, he knew exactly how to instruct us while he is away, as always well-thought out and planned.  In his communications to us via email and blog, his first imperative has been consistent and in line with the principle that we are all striving for the same ideal:  Keep practicing Yoga.  Stay dedicated.  The true teacher is not ill.

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Because it's hard to ask for one's self, I'll ask on Karl's behalf:
Donate by Paypal via Karl's blog (link in the right column) for his healing sabbatical at Swami Dayananda's Ashram after chemotherapy.  It is still uncertain which expenses will be covered by insurance.  Thank you.