(This wide-ranging topic — because the Intensive was itself so wide-ranging — will later be greatly expanded upon as I have time to write more. When something changes your life THIS much, you can’t cover it in a day or two of writing.)
Or, Sometimes A Brochure Can Change Your Life
It took me two days: An hour car ride, two jetliners, a cab ride, a long bus ride, a ride on a ferry boat, and a 15 or so minute ride in an old VW bus driven by a seemingly crazy guy who seemed not to care who could be coming the other way around the many blind bends down this more-or-less one lane dirt road. (No, this was NOT Joel Kramer!) …
And there were a lot of trees everywhere, so going off the side of the road was not much of an option. Of course, Cortez Island, way north of Vancouver, British Columbia, had very few cars on it, so I guess it was not as high a risk as it felt. … But I did not yet know that.
But it did seem he was almost sliding around the bends in the road, not something that an old VW bus inspires confidence in. If I had not been used to my life being at risk about 8 or more hours a day most days from my job as a structural ironworker (very heavy construction up on narrow, steel beams), I would probably have been a lot more flustered. Yet here I was, just arrived on this distant, isolated island in the middle of almost nowhere, and I was already wondering if it was a Good Idea or not? Yet we arrived safely at our destination: the old and now defunct Cold Mountain Institute (CMI).
In retrospect, other than that brief, introductory ride, life on Cortez Island was not very eventful (at least not externally!), so this was probably the most excitement this guy, the driver, ever had. … Or that I was going to have for the whole month, come to think of it. …
At least not until Joel’s open-to-the-public lecture on Yoga, Tantra & Sex a few weeks later, that is. (True, there was not much of a public on Cortex Island, but we filled the room! [OOOPS!, sorry, that was CorteS Island, not CorteX, but I thought I’d keep the typo in as it was really pretty relevant. Yoga is a lot about feeling more deeply, but a lot of intellectual power was present as well.])
CMI was a holistic teaching center serving organic foods grown mostly in its own gardens, had a lot of people running around doing things like yoga, tai chi, meditation and psychological processing (a LOT of that), and there was nothing much else to do on the island except, well, yoga, tai chi and psychological processing, as well as eating organic food. … And kayaking or canoeing, if you had one.
(Cold Mountain Institute — I LOVED that name — has since been replaced by an operation called Hollyhock Farms. It looks quite nice on their website, but I’ve not been there since Joel’s Intensive in 1976. Anyway, little did I know this visit to CMI on a distant Canadian island was about to be a life changing, turning-point event for me. I thought I was just going to learn some interesting and useful stuff.)
My Life Before Joel & Diana @ CMI
Back to Joel in a few paragraphs, but first, some background . . .
Up till this particular month in June of 1976, I had been a full time, Structural Steel Ironworker since age 17, and a foreman since 18. (We were the guys who put up the steel buildings, walking around on three to twelve inch wide steel beams up in the air, dangling from cranes, sometimes pretty high.)
Ironworkers were known for being among the most macho (and alcoholic) of all the heavy-construction trades, but I was probably the least macho (and least frequent drinker, like one beer every two weeks or so) of all ironworkers; any that lasted anyway. One of my co-workers often called me Sunflower, because I ate a lot of sunflower seeds for snacks on the job. Sunflower is NOT, by the way, a proper nickname if you want to be known as a macho kind of guy. But I had turned about 90 per cent vegetarian since I started doing yoga, so it fit. He even called me Preacher sometimes, because I would talk about Buddhism, Christianity and religious or philosophical stuff now and then. Also not fitting for most Ironworkers.
But I had been doing yoga about 2.5 years now — about 20 minutes twice a day, sometimes more, most days. Yoga had gotten me more flexible in a few weeks than I had gotten when I was doing martial arts stretching way back when I was 14 years old, and later when I was 18. And starting to do Buddhist meditations when I was 14 led to a very different way of looking at things, as you can imagine. I had also been going to lectures by a guru type guy, Goswami Kriyananda, who really looked the Hindu part, though he was actually American. But he knew a LOT of interesting stuff.
So then, not having had full exposure to Joel and his anti-authoritarian ways yet, I thought I might need a guru. So I received five or so teaching sessions (meditation and breathing) with Sri Nerode, the Real Deal; a full blooded Hindu Brahmin who had moved from India and been teaching yoga in the South Chicago area for 45 years. … He was around 80 plus years old when I met him. He had a few years earlier recovered from a broken back, as well as other earlier injuries. The doctors told him it was all over but the funeral, but he claimed that pranayama (meditative breathing) healed him. He had sustained other life threatening injuries and illnesses too, but he outlived a lot of younger friends and family, and was still going strong in spite of his significant injuries. He firmly believed this was from his yoga skills and life-long practice.
Then, when I asked Sri Nerode about a brochure I had received from Joel & Diana, he said he had never heard of Joel. For some reason I thought this a little strange.
Joel had been Yogi-in-Residence at Esalen Institute in the late 1960’s. From what I thought I knew — which wasn’t much, to tell the truth — I thought there would have been a lot more inter-action between the various members of the yoga community, especially the really good ones. I really had no idea of the politics that went on behind the scenes in what was supposedly a peace-loving community.
And, because of my very limited knowledge, I naively thought Esalen was sort of the Center of the Spiritual Universe in America. (Which it actually was, to some extent, but it was not a densely packed universe at the time. It’s influence was geographically wide, but not very deep or thick except for a few individuals and small organizations here and there.) So because I thought Joel was so impressive, I thought he should be better known. …
I was not yet aware of how rare and disjointed the whole range of yoga, spiritual and personal growth practices actually was in America, nor India, even to this day.
Interestingly enough, Sri Nerode, immediately after I asked him about Joel, asked me to demonstrate a few yoga postures for him. He apparently approved, then on-the-spot proceeded to offer me a job teaching yoga at some of his locations, even though he had never taught me hatha yoga (physical postures). Except for Joel’s two hour introduction (which I’ll tell you about in a minute), a couple of pocket books about yoga, and some martial arts stretching, I was pretty much self-taught. I was tempted to take Sri Nerode up on his offer … but I thought it strange he would offer me a teaching job with so little experience or teaching from him.
And there was something about that Brochure from Joel & Diana. … Thank God I had signed up for that mailing list a couple of years earlier …
Mom Sends Me To A Yoga Demonstration
I first saw Joel Kramer speak and then demonstrate yoga asana at a free seminar at the Oasis Center (kind of an un-official outpost of Esalen Institute) in downtown Chicago in 1973, when I was 19. That’s what got me into yoga in the first place. I had come home from work one night, and my Mom, whom of course knew I was interested in such things, told me about a seminar on yoga the next night she had seen listed in the newspaper.
I figured I had nothing better to do, so why not? … Thanks Mom!
So next day after work, I drove Downtown in my construction truck — the one with a very big welding machine and a bunch of equipment hanging off the flat bed in back — and I walk into this room with a bunch of people looking very different from what I was used to, even for Downtown Chicago, where I had at the time only been a few times. The way they dressed, sat on the floor, what they were talking about, all that stuff. Kind of like Hippies, of whom I had seen, in person, approximately none, except on TV.
And there was this guy who looked like an Indian Guru — he had a Nehru style jacket, very long hair, and spoke with a funny kind of foreign-sounding accent. As I did not yet know his name and he carried himself with very relaxed & dignified confidence, I figured he was some sort of spiritual master or guru-type from India. (Me being from Dolton, a south suburb of Chicago populated with a lot of construction, manufacturing and office workers, I was not really prepared for this type of event. Just being downtown(!!!) was a major deal for ME, but you gotta start somewhere, right?)
It turned out this guy was named Joel Kramer, and was a Jewish guy from Cony Island in America, and that his “Indian accent” was a slight hold-over from when he had stuttered many years prior. Now, I had, previous to that night, only heard one Indian person speak (Sri Nerode), so how was I to know?
Anyway, the seminar started and he started to talk with his (not-an-) accent and I got very interested in what he was saying. And he said a LOT in a very short time, although he did so with relatively few words. In my experience, few people can say as much in so little time or words as Joel. Over the years I learned that he was, basically, a hyper-intellectual with great insight into human nature and being. He is also an extremely clear and strategic as well as tactical thinker.
For Example: he can be playing chess with you, and you’ll (most likely) be losing really bad, and then he’ll switch places with you, and then, you’ll STILL be losing really bad, and then … he’ll win. (He liked to say that the game of chess appeared on the surface to be about the challenges of intellectual dueling and mastery of strategy and tactics and all that. But that the name should actually be changed from Chess to SQUIRM, because, as Joel said, the REAL objective of chess was to be able to watch your opponent squirm when you got him or her into a really tough situation.
Getting to the heart of a matter — like Chess versus Squirm — is one of Joel’s strong suits. Joel had many insights into the real nitty-gritty of human nature of things like this.) … Enough about Chess … Back to the Seminar:
Hatha and Jnana Yoga, to be exact. Physical/Mental Yoga, in English, because they are not really two different things. … And when he demonstrated his asana routine — the physical postures, THAT was pretty wild.
I gotta admit, when he started to strip down, and my being from conservative Dolton, Illinois, I was a bit surprised. He did stop when he got down to his minimal Speedo style swimsuit, but for a guy from the South Chicago suburbs who had never been directly exposed to the counter-culture or Hippies, at all, it was a little startling to me. … But ironworkers don’t flinch, you know, at least not on the outside.
(This did prepare me a bit for when, a few years later and first arriving at CMI, I inadvertently walked into a big seminar room where a whole bunch of people were doing yoga with … No Clothes On! … NAKED! … WOW! … So just to be polite, I got out of there really fast! Would never see THAT back in Dolton.) …
Now, back to watching Joel’s asana demonstration: I was probably the strongest guy in the room, but here he was doing stuff with his body I could not even imagine doing. He was the most flexible human being I had ever seen, even compared to the martial arts masters from the Orient I had worked with. (I had not seen B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light On Yoga yet, but B.K.S. had nothing much on Joel that I could later tell.)
And when he was doing his hand-balance postures, it was obvious that, while I probably had more brute strength than he, Joel had a far deeper, more internal kind of strength than I. … And there was a certain, and obvious, focus of mind on what he was doing that was way beyond the ordinary. Come to think of it, it was a little like watching my Dad when he was working on a project or ironworking.
One undercurrent of Joel’s message was that there was little, if any, distinction between the physical and mental practices of yoga. … This got me even more intrigued.
It reminded me that years earlier, when I first started martial arts at 13 years of age, I had done so for strictly self-defense reasons. The very next year, when I discovered (stumbled upon, actually) the spiritual and psychological components, I got much more interested in all that. But finding martial arts teachers, or any kinds of teachers, who even appeared to know much about the mind-body connection in the South Suburbs of Chicago in the late sixties was, as far as I could tell, nearly impossible, especially for a 14 year old. So, not being much into the strictly physical, beat ’em up aspects of martial arts, I stopped my studies for a few years. Though I was not yet able to articulate it this way, I was looking for something more “internal” or “spiritual.”
Unfortunately, I had not known that Joel had a workshop the very next day, and I was supposed to work. So I did not at that time get the advantage of his perspectives on the actual doing of yoga and meditation, nor his many tips and tricks on how to do asana.
That was quite unfortunate. … But I went home that night and promptly got sicker than I had been in a long time, and could not even go to work the next day. … Even at the time, I wondered if getting sick was from the fish dinner I ate at the diner just before the demonstration, OR, if something inside of me knew everything was going to be changing, soon, in my life, and Big Time. … Fortunately, though, even though I missed the workshop, I DID get on his mailing list.
Getting Started With Yoga Postures & Yoga of the Mind
After recovering from whatever it was, I borrowed a couple of books on yoga from my best friend Jim’s Mom — 28 Days to Yoga by Richard Hittleman and Yoga, Youth & Reincarnation by Jess Stern — and started doing physical yoga on my own. I also found, purely by “accident,” Joel’s book, The Passionate Mind which is more about meditation and life in general.
A Note on The Passionate Mind: As discussed below, during the Intensive at CMI, Joel and some of the participants referred a few times to Jiddhu Krishnamurti (JK), and how JK influenced Joel’s thinking dramatically. Krishnamurti was known to many around the world as The Guru’s Guru. He had a knack for dismantling concepts many guru-types were teaching, mostly by exposing their internal inconsistencies, something that Joel is really good at exposing, too.
While Krishnamurti’s books — and there are a LOT of them — are certainly very interesting, The Passionate Mind brings things down to what are, for me, a more human, practical and more assimilable level than did any of Krishnamurti’s books. Joel brings Jnana Yoga, or the yoga of the mind or intellect, into a context that is more immediately useful to us living in America and the West than were Krishnamurti’s writings, as well as other more traditional texts on Jnana Yoga. At least for me, anyway.
If you read up on Jnana Yoga from more traditional, Eastern sources, they come at the mind very differently than Joel. I’ll not get into that here, and we’ll discuss that on other pages of the DSL Yoga website. But the point is, even here, Joel’s take on how the mind works is quite different than how it’s presented in the East and in so-called traditional yoga. The same goes for hatha yoga. You can read the first 54 pages of Light On Yoga by Iyengar and get almost nothing about what you’ll read in the articles Joel & Diana have written and are available on their website — for FREE.
Frankly, it’s like Iyengar and Joel are writing about two completely different topics:
Your Future Is In The MAIL …
Then, in early 1976, a little over two years since the first Intro to Yoga with Joel, that Brochure showed up. I wish I still had it.
So now I had to choose between starting teaching yoga with Sri Nerode versus going to Joel’s one-month workshop which would lead me … where? … I had no idea, at all. …
But it would be interesting to know what would have happened if I had pursed the path with Sri Nerode? Yes, it would have been yoga. But a radically different approach, no doubt.
[Skipping Ahead One Month: I’ll be coming here back to fill in the Missing Month at CMI here as soon as possible. I’ll have a blog post about it when I do.]
I chose Joel & Diana’s Intensive on Physical, Mental & Relational Yoga at Cold Mountain Institute. … And I had to do a LOT of maneuvering to make that trip and stay away from work that long. I had originally planned to go for only two weeks, but a few days into the thing I KNEW I had to stay for the whole month-long program. So I called up my Dad and asked him to arrange things so I could stay, which he did. … Thanks Dad!
Then a month later, I left CMI and Cortez Island, returning home. The next morning, I was on my way to the union hall to see about getting back to work ironworking. I had a very good reputation, so I thought that should not be too hard. But half way to the union hall — it was about an hour drive — I got to thinking and decided to pull off the highway and went into a restaurant.
I had justa bowl of oatmeal, which was in itself a BIG change for me, after years of very large, American style breakfasts. … Sitting there, I got to thinking, and I decided, for several reasons, I could not continue back to being an ironworker.
So I got back in my car (a V.W. Super-Beetle), went back home, and started looking for yoga students.
And now, what can I say? … Without Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, where would I be today? …
I’d probably be a rich construction contractor, that’s where.
Maybe even working for Halliburton around the world. But with one heck of a lot of back pain, too! If it had not been for my much deeper understandings of yoga over the next few years (due in great part to Joel’s teachings), I would very likely have been nearly crippled for much or all of my life with pain. Either that or a lot of drugs and/or surgery. … That’s another story in itself.
I am sure I would have done something interesting with my life, but probably little, if any, of what you see on these web pages. In fact, without the input from Joel — and also Daniel Blake, the former Rolfer® whom you’ll meet on other pages — yoga eventually turned out to be too painful for me to do AT ALL. Until I figured out how to put Joel’s unique approach to yoga plus Daniel’s unique structural & postural evaluation system plus the Basic Muscle Release Technique I learned from Eugene Donaldson together, creating an integrated system of Yoga/Bodywork Therapeutics … well, all that is a topic covered on another page: the history of how I developed DSL EdgeWork, including a bit more about Joel, too, and how he almost stopped me from becoming a yoga teacher!!!
Now, on the down side (at least from my point-of-view), there was an austerity and a distance about Joel that was, in my experience, unusual. It was a bit confusing (a lot, actually) because between the Intro Talk in Chicago and the Intensive at CMI, I had been around a handful of yoga and “alternative” type people. Many of these people were VERY “touchy-feely,” something I had not been exposed to before Joel’s Talk at the Oasis Center in Chicago. Yet it felt often superficial and even flaky, and sometimes manipulative. But Joel, even though he was around Esalen a lot — what some people would call touch-feely capital of America — was not like that at all. To me, he was less approachable than any construction workers I knew.
This definitely intrigued me, yet kind of scared me, too. For a long time, I thought maybe it was the jnana yoga he practiced and taught. I became concerned that if I pursued Jnana (the mental) Yoga too much, I might get too much like that — like Joel — in my own general demeanor.
Joel even mentioned to me once that he often felt quite alone in his experience of life. Thankfully, he was fortunate to have Diana show up! And they’ve been together for almost 40 years now, too!
Anyway, I was afraid I myself would get too austere and matter-of-fact and removed from people and certain parts of life. … And you know, come to think of it, although my style is quite different, and I certainly did not intend it to happen, that’s exactly what happened.
There indeed might be a danger in this way of thinking and experiencing life for some people, and I believe the Jnana Yoga path did lead me into somewhat of a life of intellectual isolation, even when there were a lot of people around. This is not the fault of jnana, it just sets you apart if you’re not careful. But you’ll find many yoga practitioners of other systems have that experience, too.
But with Joel, all that said, there is far more to admire, respect and learn from to let that not-so-minor detail get in the way.