Long Distance Meditation – An Out Breath for Mike Byron MacKay,
by Paul Barton, Rotorua
My first meeting and class with Mike Byron MacKay was supposed to be a class taken by Nicky Knoff on an elevated floor of an Auckland high rise, perhaps at the University there. This was apparently Mike’s first ever yoga teaching in New Zealand. Nicky had met Mike in Australia. After announcing, in normal yoga class aggrandising language, Mike proceeded to walk on everyone’s shoulders in dog pose while he leant on the wall going from person to person down the lines of moaning forms with their hands to the wall. Rather different to what I was used to. That was back in the 1980’s and I spent quite a bit of time with Mike in those early days of Iyengar Yoga in New Zealand. It is fantastic to look back and orientate and prioritise all those experiences and delusions, heightened states and sheer manic chasing rainbows on the horizon. None of those blessings would have showered down without Mike’s passion to found of a yoga school and pass on his interpretation of the yoga practice. Please do not think I am criticising anyone or anything when I talk about all this, this chapter is an abstraction about the pure way and life of practice unfolding and practitioners. It is a blessing to have had teachers and direction even if they are not altogether what we define as perfection, they are the great perfection all the same, as we all are. You do not need an enlightened teacher to learn meditation or yoga postures. I once was instructed in Mindfulness walking practice in Scotland by a Buddhist bound to a wheel chair. And we all gravitate to teachers with certain attributes and delusions and attachments depending on our needs. There are very few fully enlightened masters about. The real test is do we want to progress and move out of our cosy little nest at the bottom of our deep rut and wake up to our full potential embracing a spiritual transformational path or do we want to remain consuming in our patterned and self-created sense of self as illusion as it is. Karma is action with causation (attachment or without meditation) which is different to action which liberates us.
As I am a forest dwelling yogi on the outskirts of Rotorua City visiting Auckland has always provided a surreal experience. Once visiting Mike and staying at his house he started a monolog about a flat mate who was a “long distance meditator”. Apparently this sadhaka sat for hours with back pain and sat more to cure it. I look back with fondness on Mike’s expressions, we know he was refereeing to the sitting long time hours, days, weeks, but long distance and meditation is a joke Mike likely did not get back then. There is no distance between the ultimate self and the present moment it is always a totally fused state whether we are aware of it or not or trained to abide in it without fluctuation or not, that is another matter. I see real meditation born from pranayama as not so common a yoga as pushing the body shapes and curves and extreme strength integration work above common sense body functionalism. For me the chest opening cannot be forced as in backbend adjustments it has to be slowly opened in conscious posture work and long distance pranayama into the shape of an open heart and compassion.
My friendship with Mike has lasted in my heart to this day since our first meeting. I experienced a few of his school moves and teaching trips to Rotorua and classes and outings in Auckland, Mike and Sharon came to my wedding, but my marriage only lasted 10 years. My functional relationship with Mike ended when my wife was due with her second baby. We had informed Mike at the start of one of his classes she was pregnant just short of three month. Mike, not to be deterred lifted her feet off the floor by pulling upon her shoulders in Urdhva Dhanurasana (bridge pose backbend). She screamed for him to stop but he continued several times repeating the lift. She miscarried that night.
We are what we are and that is the perfection of it all at one level and our lives and unfolding dramas shape and teach us if we are open. Many of those early Iyengar trained teacher had the tendency to start out insensitive and use blaming and bullying tactics and abuse. What really surprises me is how difficult it is to have some of them actually engage in conversation instead of conflict. When I phoned Mike up the day after the miscarriage he was in total denial and snapped back “has she opened her chest yet”? This is not really the kind of togetherness reply I would expect from a self-improvement art aiming at all the good stuff the Yamas and Niyamas identify in the Yoga Sutras nor did I feel it helpful to lose a child to some half backed practice of self-abuse. I am sure Mike changed over the years, I did hear rumours of similar cases of over doing adjustments but those involved can speak to that. I see that now as one of the hallmarks of over-zealous end gaining practice, it narrows options to an ego base that is defensive, right and unrelenting in asserting power over. Some teachers running around today have been like this for 30 years. If you challenge them you are side-lined and abused in some very very far out and manipulative ways. Be warned. What to do? Write an article when someone is near death, as for some, death freaks us out of who we think we are and sometimes an opening and an opportunity to learn transpires. Celebrating our paths of learning is not really an egocentric, but cosmos centric, practice.
I called and chatted with Mike and Sharon in recent times when they were being attacked by a committee member of the BKS Iyengar Yoga Association of NZ who runs a yoga school not too far from the NZ School of Yoga over certification levels and advertising on Mike’s School website. I was on the committee at the time and by then totally committed to peaceful win win conflict resolution which I see very little of in the Iyengar Yoga Association dealings and really is a stupid idea in that arena. Anyway it was nice to chat with Mike and it was as if we had never stopped being friends. So I achieved a small win which was that the Iyengar Yoga Association stopped attacking Mike and Sharon and left them be. I unfortunately have made no progress in changing the culture the Iyengar Yoga Association, overseas experiences shows us it will change through a set of cycles but if the top folks really hang on to that power and self-aggrandising it will change slowly. I mean up there celebrated yoga teacher can earn more than a registrar at a hospital and really all they are doing is selling water by the river, it is all inside us anyway, all consciousness, it just depends on how we use it and what we choose to make real. Funny how venomous yoga teachers can be over their stomping ground, student base and fame. At least rutting stags become friends for the rest of the year after the rut, some yoga teachers it appears have a hard time being friendly – something I have pondered about is intense posture practice and the lack of what Mike called long distance meditation. Nicky Knoff and her effective public relations programme has now taken her partner to being a “World renowned Master Yoga teacher”, how do you earn that title other than self-ordain it when you are your own lineage. How much false self is there in that compared to this moment fully experienced in humility to the perfection in all things and their manifestation? A two year old is a master yoga teacher for that matter.
One helpful theory is that we stray far from the path when we make the separate self the centre of our universe rather than make the universe (we experience) the centre of the separate self. Buddhists call it having an upside down mind or a right way up mind. A bushman just flows through the forests, mountains and rivers ever wakeful in full presence of the ultimate -self watching the illusionary self play its dance. Big mind watching small mind. Nature helps some of us with this.
I have met some yogi teachers in my time. My first one was a dancer in Athens Georgia USA who really opened my heart to possibilities in consciousness as is laid out in a book by one of Iyengar’s student. Christian Pisano’s insightful book is “ The Hero’s Contemplation”. One of Mike’s early teachers, Martin Jackson was an interesting force in my life and his daughter still attends my class today. Martin died of a brain tumour after a colourful teaching and social career in New Zealand and Australia. Upon his death no one mentioned his rascality etc, that perplexed me, the dead Martin was celebrated as not being the Martin he was. Times have changed and I think Mike is going to have some truth about his yoga and life laid out but in addition I think some real heart and appreciation will be expressed, some real chance at seeing where we are all going with this and the yoga practice and teaching. I have no hard feeling towards Mike and his actions. Spiritual organisation and teachings are the most political, neurotic and stuffed up places on the planet but they are also the best places to do spiritual work. We all were back then just being copy cats of the energy coming from Pune in India and this was before the health and safety act and suing and recognition of the many ways to open a body and motivate a student into being fully at one with a pose and its transformative process. We have been growing, some more than others, but all doing our best. I cannot comment on how Mike and Sharon were teaching in later years but by the photos and student number something was being transmitted, perhaps to the distain, rather than delight, of some of the more hard core Iyengar Yoga Association committee members in the Auckland area. An ethnocentric centre of gravity is far less rewarding than a world centric or Cosmo centric view but hay if being the director of a yoga school is all you have ever done, if it is your world you may become protective and defensive and competitive without long distance meditation to put it all into perspective. If we want to dive deeper into these issue we should learn to look at all aspects from the gross, subtle and causal levels of being– or as Integral Theory outlines them as Outer, Inner and Secret levels, subjective, objective and non-dual or subjective objective unified, as it is extremely helpful yoga practice.
Many of us exploring consciousness and altered states and stages of development have come across the works of Ken Wilber, the Esalen Institute’s 12 transformative practices and the science behind them, Ram Dass , the Diamond Sutra of Hui Neng, the works of D T Suzuki, and the Zen Doctrine of no Mind and T S Suzuki and on and on. How did Mr Iyengar’s work compare and what habits did we pick up from his way of transmitting what he understood. India is a very different culture to ours in New Zealand and that was not really considered as the culture of abuse and bulling comes right on down the line to New Zealand perhaps without as much wisdom as Mr Iyengar had. But has the homeland Institute of Iyengar Yoga evolved along with Western enlightenment and phycology as many of us westerners are trying to evolve along with Eastern wisdom. Back in the 80s and 90’s I wrote to Mr Iyengar 5 or 6 times and got a letter back each time within a month always answering my questions and I was not even a highly certified Iyengar practitioner back then, a no body. Mr Iyengar has died and now well certified I have written and emailed the Institute several times and have waited years and no replies are forthcoming. So the spirit versus the occult of the teaching and man are different things. There is a difference between the state of yoga and having a certificate in yoga teaching from the Iyengar Association of which Mike and Sharon have a very high level one much to the dismay of many others who were not granted one early on to get the Iyengar Yoga Association going. Certification and aggrandizement is an issue to reckon with, if you can be bothered.
I am grateful for Mike and Sharon’s friendship and example, and teachings in those early days. My path is not the city and not a large student population; I am a long distance meditator. Much of it is in pranayama and done in nature, often I carry a rifle or carrying out meat from animals I have shot so I am to some not a true yogi. To some the assertion “do not kill” means not killing humans, babies also and it is not a fixed point as we have in society abortion and miscarriage induced by ignorance. However the practice and nature based actions of sleeping out under the stars, cooking on an open fire are more essential to me than the coffee shops and traffic jams of a city life. T. Khrishnamacharya, Mr Iyengar’s teacher, asserted that you cannot be a yogi and live in the city which counts Mr Iyengar out and all you guys in Auckland. What was his point, the point of this as I see it is this moment lived in harmony with all things is difficult and solitude and silence help a great deal. Cars and of course our own body mind continuum and dysfunctional personality and aggressive aversion to truth are all part of our environment and universe (uni – the one, to the verse – the many) the one to the many. With lots of city noise and fast pace we may get lost trying to find spirit, but I am sure it is possible in a city, folks in the country can stagnate and bliss out on illusion also. We can think we are rather well to do us yoga folks.
Kabir the Indian mystic poet hinted yoga is not found winding your leg around your own neck but rather it is the heart of the person next to you and the way you relate to them. This yoga of relationship is well nourished by the work of Harville Hendirx and Helen Lakelly Hunt (Getting the love you want), Stephen and Ondrea Levine (Embracing the Beloved), and more close to this chapter here, Stephen’s book “Who Dies”. These are extremely good overview of how we can extend our yoga from pose to our relationships.
A tendency is self-aggrandising through trying to achieve the set of perfect poses. However we are the awareness of the pose and its flavours we are not the poses, and we do not practice long distance mediation with our bodies or poses, we meditate with our awareness and not our legs. How we place this awareness and what we do with what we experience it the path. So Mike helped me along the way by showing me a possible practice mode that was dynamic and structured, and not to shy away from adversity or pain. Other teachers have shown me different things but less and less from the Iyengar tradition as in the Iyengar way there really is just a turning out of the same old stuff and anything you personally see a valid is of no value in that system. Mike’s early distancing from the Iyengar Association and going it alone has some wisdom as you are free to be creative and interactive and westernise your teaching and make it appropriate to your students. Mike’s early teacher Zandor is really doing some different progressive stuff after being very perfected in the Iyengar way but again he is now trying to create teaching base from a tradition into a market and produce a culture practice in a student base.
What makes a yoga teacher great, sometimes it is the desire of the teacher to be great, marketing can fool even the marketer. Many high profile teachers have fallen in all traditions for example John Friend in the Iyengar tradition, Andrew Cohen, and on and on. The will to power and fame is not the spirit of service and love first. So humble schools without great lineage are useful as to are lineage teachings which can hold true without corruption from power needs within the management.
We can do well to transcend dogma and coercion, sure we need to respect our teachers and have some basic ethic around payment and practice and respect on boundaries. That was something Mike held to. I recall when Mike had opened his school in the brick bakery in Herne Bay and he and Mandy White had fallen out. When Mike’s class was over we came out to find Mandy or her co helpers had placed advertising material for Mandy’s new school on the cars in Mike’s school car park. There was a reaction and emotion, we live in a subjective world, and Mandy went on to create her school and her “Forever Plan” and write a book about it, with some good science about nutrition in it. I am not sure about the tucks, snips, tightens and silico inserts are that important to the ultimate self and liberation but certainly the illusionary self gets good mileage out of it for the for ever plan, for ever and ever it will be around. Students of Mandy’s who came down my way were very well articulated in makeup and proper voice and lasted with me longer that those from Melodie Bachelor school, but they were never long lasting relationship. I am way too hip and consciousness orientated, way too untidy and grounded in science to be a mentor for them, they need social status and praise.
Mike was an early teacher on my way and he and I have our own stuff to work with, this is the only stuff we have that has any meaning and truth. Do not do another’s dharma, I remember Mike’s shaking hands when he gave out change in the 1990’s and my heart was saddened as it was like my friend’s father hand who ran a toyshop near my primary school in Auckland. The same shake and the same condition and here we are living in our genetic Karma with our need to be in truth and love with it as it stinks at the same time. Oh how long distance meditation can help. Gossip when really good and likely authentic is worth a shot. I understand science has found health benefits from gossiping, so here we go. I understand from hear say that when Mike went back to Mr Iyengar in India a month or so before Mr Iyengar died, Mr Iyengar berated him for being in bad shape, funny thing is Mr Iyengar died very soon after that meeting and Mike lived on. Mr Iyengar always the hero and us students always the stupid unpractised commodity, in his eyes. As much as Mr Iyengar has a great deal to offer one thing that personally for me was totally missing was his empathy that all beings are of equal value in the heart and spirit and being right and great is not being free, and does not foster unconditional love, which is a good presences state. Mr Iyengar berated me a lot too but never gave me a hug, or was deeply concerned about my life his was too busy with his own. When we are liberated from any personal self we likely have more time to connect to the karmic condition of a person and be in harmony with that. I understand Mr Iyengar gave Mike some liberating instruction for practice over that last month together. I wish you peace in that liberation Mike and in your own version of long distance mediation with or without the “For Ever Plan”, and above all the continuation of the breath inside the breath.