My Teachers: Rudi

This is what my wife likes to call a spiritual adventure story.

I was walking down Grant Avenue in San Francisco's North Beach one fall evening in 1970 when a poster on a telephone pole caught my attention.  It had an image of a mostly naked Indian man sitting on a tree stump and laughing.  There was something almost insanely compelling about the laughter. The poster was advertising a lecture by this person, who was called Swami Muktananda. I gathered some friends and joined the handful of people at the lecture the next night.  There was nothing particularly compelling about the event, and when it was over we headed back to my apartment in the Mission District for a smoke. As we relaxed and chatted about the Swami I was immediately hit by what I can only describe as a wave of light-energy which was emanating from him.  I'd learned that the Swami's next venue that night was at the Integral Yoga Institute, which was just a few blocks from my flat, and immediately hustled over there.  

Swami Muktananda

I arrived at the Institute just in time to join a small crowd gathered around Swami Muktananda, who was getting into a limo. I mumbled my disappointment and the tall blond bearded guy standing next to me mentioned that the Swami was teaching every morning at a mansion in the Oakland Hills, across the Bay. He offered vague directions.

I did not have a car, so early the next morning I walked a couple of miles to the nearest freeway on-ramp and stuck out my thumb.  The first car that drove up stopped and opened its door. I got in and found myself sitting next to the blond beard from the previous evening. Obviously I was in the flow.

At the time I was a hippy pretending to be a graduate student of Asian religions, and had considerable control over my time. So over the next few mornings I returned to the mansion to meditate -- and to have a succession of profound experiences.  It was apparent that Swami Muktananda was the sort of enlightened yogi I had been reading about. Finger or moon? -- Thich Thien-An might have asked. I was intoxicated. Moon, of course, but the Swami was on his way back to India from California. How does an impoverished hippy graduate student get to India?  I mulled this question over with a fellow intoxicated meditator, who pointed me toward the Swami's senior student and the patron for the tour, a wealthy antiques dealer from New York by the name of Rudi, who owned a converted hotel-ashram in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. After a few days with Swami Muktananda, all I wanted to do was chant the names of God and meditate, and I figured that although I could not hitch-hike to India, I could hitch-hike to New York. 

Forget the pointing finger, go for the moon. All I had to do was let my thumb carry me 3,000 miles across the USA in the middle of the winter.

One morning at the Oakland mansion I approached Rudi and asked him if I could join up. He poked my forehead, where my third eye would have been, if I had had one, laughed and said, "It goes right through you. Sure, you can come to live in my ashram. When can you get there?"  At the time I had no idea of what it was that was "going through me", but thinking it best to at least finish up the term, I said, January and he said fine.  

A month later I began the cross country trek and after a couple of weeks washed up in lower Manhattan before dawn on a snowy and VERY frigid morning. I had $7 in my pocket and didn't know a soul in the city besides Rudi, with whom I had spent a total of 10 minutes. I called the phone number he had given me. A person called Stuart answered, yelled at me for calling so early in the morning, told me to come by Rudi's shop at 10 AM and hung up. New York hospitality. With no where else to go, I found the proverbial church with the unlocked door and froze in a pew until 10 AM.

I was the third Californian to show up as a result of the tour. The fourth, Sandy, a huge Hollywood stunt man, ex-green beret and ex-jet pilot came several weeks after me. I quickly figured out that the action was in Manhattan with Rudi rather than in his upstate ashram, and stayed in the city with the other Californians, all of us spending our nights sleeping on the living room floor of his townhouse, working by day in his Asian antiques shop (which was around the corner), and mornings and evenings meditating and chanting the names of God. Sandy was a particularly welcome addition, as the neighborhood was infested with muggers. Soon after his arrival the muggers disappeared --- he had beaten the crap out of them, making the blocks around us probably the safest in New York. 
Rudi with the first three bearded Californians and assorted local students in
January 1971
Me in the center, under the hair, beard and glasses 

Rudi was, more formally, Swami Rudrananda, an absolute master of Kundalini Yoga -- which he set about teaching us. The main technique for mastering this Yoga was a specific breathing technique, which he called double breathing, and which I later learned the Tibetans called vase breathing. Soon enough I began to feel the spiritual energy called shakti flowing through me. As we would meditate together, Rudi would generate it and we would tap into it, using breath control to circulate it through our bodies.  It was like getting stoned without drugs. Better, in fact. Over time I learned to control the energy by surrendering to its flow. 

Control by surrender was only one of the many paradoxes I lived. I had no money what-so-ever and along with a half dozen other guys slept on a mat on the floor of a fabulous townhouse, which was stuffed from floor to ceiling with nothing but museum quality sculptures from India, Tibet, China and Japan.  My yoga teacher was not some paper thin delicate Hindu, but a 40-something overweight, bald, gay Jewish man from Brooklyn. But his heart was larger than his girth, he was a powerhouse of spiritual energy, and he held nothing back. All in all it was a lesson in what I later learned was the distinction between reality and appearance.
Swami Rudrananda.

I was his student for a year and a half, during which time he trained me to circulate the shakti-energy and to teach others the same technique by transmitting the shakti to them as he had to me.  But spirituality aside, I needed to make a living.  Rudi had combined profound spiritual development with a life as I business man. I pondered his example, considered my options, and decided to return to graduate school in Indiana. I was determined to become a professor of Asian religions.

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