7 November 1991 -- I remember the date because earlier that day, here in Los Angeles, basketball legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson announced that he had tested positive for HIV – and was now retiring from the Lakers. I had already practiced earlier that day but that news had me circling back to the mat within a community class. In yoga, a community is called a Sangha. Having a strong sangha is like being on a team with good chemistry.
I had only been studying yoga for a couple of years, and was still struggling with the classical Ashtanga format - where students are positioned in two parallel rows, facing one another. Having someone directly across from you – face-to-face – is a true test of focus.
When that person falls off balance, do you? When that person struggles, does it weaken your strength? When that person slips their leg behind their head – while standing, no less – and then seamlessly bows to touch their forehead to their standing shin, do you suddenly feel completely inadequate? Or do you instead, view that person as a yogic freak?
On that day, we were asked to begin not standing, but rather seated, in meditation, eyes closed. When I closed my eyes, I was relieved to see that there was absolutely no one directly across from me. Staying focused would be that much easier…just me, myself, and I - plenty...
After a few sighs and clearing of throats, the room grew more and more quiet. We were asked to silently count down each of our breaths beginning at the number 50 down to 0.
When the teacher chimed the bells – a signal to open your eyes – I saw that there, now seated directly across from me, was basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Somehow this 7’2”, 225 lb., man had made his way into the room, rolled out his 9-foot mat, and sat down, all without a single disruptive sound.
In the next two hours, I would learn more from Kareem than from many teachers who have I have studied with since.
When he couldn’t stretch his arms straight above his head because the ceiling was only 10 feet high; when he couldn’t extend his leg out entirely to the side – because he would have cleared out five yogis along the way; when he just couldn’t cram and wrap and bind himself into a small tight arm balance – all he did was pause, exhale, come back to the pose, and try again. And when trying became too much, he would simply pause, stand, feet together, in Tadasana - mountain pose.
Unmoving. Unchanging. Grounded.
Sure, if I were more practiced, I would not even have been regarding him at all. I would have been more focused on my own practice rather than his. But what I learned from him has been invaluable.
Humility. Patience. Poise.
On this day, when his former teammate and friend shook us all with the news, I imagine Kareem must have come to this sangha to steady himself. And yet, in doing so, he steadied me.
Kareem's practice extended beyond his own practice, off his mat, and into the world around him. A true teacher.