It’s better’n an orgasm.
It’s been 43 years now, that yoga has been a fundamental ritual of my every day. Almost literally. It has probably been a significant factor in survival many times over, when I lingered on that finest of lines between life and death. And besides that, yoga has been a centering and calming half an hour of each day. What a blessing.
My initiation was far from conventional though. It was Murray.
Murray wasn’t exactly the archetypical inspiration for a young man to take up yoga. No equanimous athlete rippling inner strength and outer physical perfection. Not a solitary saint radiating peace and health. Nor any lithe Adonis or Aphrodite epitomizing well-being and grace. Far from it on all counts.
Murray was a stocky part-aboriginal bloke, sixty three years old, bearing all the signs of a life lived hard and simply. But shining, nevertheless. I was a strapping twenty years young, probably brash and a tad obnoxious, certainly often stoned and care-free. We met in the none-too salubrious mine store of the Windarra Nickel Mine, almost a thousand kilometres north east of Perth, in Western Australia, with Uluru being the next prominence up the road. Another eleven hundred or so kilometres further on. It was summertime, with the day temperature averaging a touch over 36 degrees, and often enough well into the forties. Hot. And dry, at the end of a seven year extra-dry period.
Murray enthusiastically encouraged me to take up yoga, and sooner rather than later as he had done. Talking about yoga, his whole being lit up, his lean old body growing light and animated as his words. He insisted on explaining his path to hatha yoga, delighted to have found someone interested in his life’s passion. It hadn’t always been so. Not by a long shot.
“I’ve had a hard life, mate, I can tell you,” he began, and I could tell that a good yarn was coming my way. He’s already perched his old frame in the shadow of the great heap of oil drums we’d been tasked to put in order. It was smoko, so we had the time. I squatted beside him. “Hardly any school, and when I was there I was always waggin’, knickin’ off to muck around in the bush with my friends. Couldn’t see the point in it, y’see.
Well of course I saw the point, but by that time it was too late, and I was already stuck in me ways.”
He was silent for a long minute, savouring the memories of time long past. I watched him, his ruminations almost audible. Not exactly a handsome fellow, and ample scars creased his face. The rest of his muscled body too, was pitted and lined with testimonies of past battles and misfortunes. But he wore his memories with such grace, such gentle goodness almost incongruous with those wounds. Like a battered saint.
“Not such good ways, mind you, but you know, it’s not easy to change some things once you’ve started. Got into some bad ways too, John. Nickin’ stuff, ‘n fightin’ and bad-mouthin’, and all that. Bound to get me into strife, it was. An’ it did.”
I could only start to imagine; my life had always been so different, so easy, so soft. So white. My life was just playing, knowing I could always get work, could get a hand from mum and dad if I ever needed it. Soft and easy, even when I was working hard. What could I even vaguely think to know about the life a young black bloke from inland western Australia, with little education or hope to resist the ways and judgements from my side of the fence?
“It was nothing really bad,” he continued, embarrassed by the admission, “But you know how it is, and I ended up doing a little bit of time in the slammer. Boy,” And his whole frame shuddered with the memory of a time he’d obviously prefer to forget, “I sure didn’t want to make a habit of staying in places like that. Walls and Wires.” He shuddered again.
I was just listening, with nothing to add or comment on. His story.
“Had to get work anyway, didn’t I. No schooling to speak of though, so my choices weren’t too great. Had to take what I could do. Not much. Fighting and lifting and running were about all I’d got any good at, if y’know what I mean. Tried my hand at jackarooing too, but honestly I wasn’t that good with horses, and you’ve gotta be for that game. Shearing too, but they treated us like shit. Or somethin’ worse. Anyways, I’d always get caught up in brawls or just kicked out and sent on my way. That’s the way it is for a black fella.”
Red dust, sweaty shearing sheds with hard men for company, stinking heat like a furnace under tin roofs in the searing heat. Brawling tangles of bodies as men struck out and wrestled after foul words or vile curses. My turn to shudder. Windarra seemed like a land of peace and luxury with its air-con single-men’s quarters and no-fight rule that ensured hardly anybody raised a fist in anger.
If they did, there were no questions asked. No matter who started it, or why or how, whoever was caught fighting was instantly dismissed. You could earn a fortune in the mines in those days, skilled or unskilled. Dismissal was easily discouraged with the no-fight rule.
“Anyway,” he continued, not to be losing the thread of his tale, ”I had to earn somethin’, or I’d be up shit creek, would’n I. I could lift and fight, so that’s what I did. Became a boxer. You know, sideshow alley n that sort of stuff. Did okay at it too,” he chuckled, almost embarrassed. “But there’s a lot of pretty tough young bucks out there, who’d figure they could knock y’ head off. Some of them could, and just about did.
“There’s only so much of that stuff y’ head can take before they knock y’ brains out, or any sense in ‘em. The money was crap anyway. And I sure wasn’t gettin’ any younger, neither. Got a job on the railways next, didn’ I. On the tracks anyway, fettlin’.
“Knockin’ down the pegs that hold the rails in place,” he explained, seeing the confusion in my face. “Good ‘onest hard work it was, out in the fresh air. Paid regular too, which was the best part about it.”
“Wasn’t the work that was the hard bit on me. Nah, I could pretty well handle that. But everything that went with it, stuffed me up bad. After work – and sometimes before – I had a swig. Night time it was more than a swig. Smoked like a chimney too. What else do you do out there. Mostly right out in the mulga, stayin’ in one-pub towns. Drinkin’, smokin’, cards n’ horses. Grog, fags ‘n gamblin’. No good for anyway, mate.
I thought I could imagine it, but it was light years away from any of my experience. Avoided trying to experience that sort of world. Not my scene at all. For Murray though, that was his world, his life.
“Just into my forties and I was already on the Big Slide. Body was stuffed, from all the work, ‘n shit food, ‘n smoke ‘n all the rest. Cripplin’ me it was. Even movin’ me ‘ands was painful, ‘cause all me joints were clappin’ out. Arthritis. What was I gonna do, John. Stuffed, mate. It was all killin’ me, just when I should’ve been only half way through. No good mate, an’ I had no idea what to do.“
Murray’s body had slumped, looked as weary as if his reflections had sapped all the energy out of him. Just memories though, and he suddenly straightened up, face alive and alert, finger raised in declaration. The punchline was coming.
“Well I’ll tell you what I did, mate,” he confided, with a long pause for effect, “I met a Sheila, didn’ I.” He saw me raise my eyebrows in surprise. Not that he was an ugly man, by any means, but it was the very first mention of a woman in his life. And honestly, it wasn’t easy for me to imagine Murray romancing. My limits I guess.
“Nah, it wasn’ like that,” he laughed, at my expression as much as the idea. ”I met her in the pub down in Kal. She was Sarah, just up from Perth for the weekend to have a look around. Anyway, she wasn’t short of a word, and we got talking while she waited for a drink. I’d had a few – not that I was pissed or anything but I guess my tongue was pretty well oiled, and somehow it came out when she saw the state of my hands.“
“She reckoned they looked pretty crook, and asked me if they were painful. I said sure, and had a go at explaining why. Thing was, she didn’ look down on me for the state I was in, but just asked what I was doin’ about it. Well actually, I hadn’ done much at all at that point, and she looked a bit shocked. Reckoned I’d end up a cripple sooner than later if I didn’. As if I didn’ know it meself, to be honest. Maybe I was a bit freaked ‘bout what might happen. Y’know, seized up just for not knowing what to do.”
“Anyway, turns out that it was her job, profession like. She was a physiotherapist or something like it. What she said was the best advice she could give me, if I wanted to hear it, was yoga. Y’know about it I s’pose, John, hatha yoga was what she called it. Said she’d bet it’d make a big difference to me joints and bones n things. Gotta do it proper though, she said, or it won’t work good. Do it real regular, she said.”
Lucky thing was, mate, that I’d just been called to go down to the City when we finished our stretch on the Goldfields. To be honest, I wasn’t too keen to go there, an’ had half a mind to quit, but fact is, findin’ another job was gettin’ harder n’ harder for a bloke like me. Y’know, gettin’ on in years, an abo, all that stuff. I told her I’d be comin’ to Perth, n’ she straight away said she’d teach me. She did that sort of stuff. Well that was it mate.”
“Moreorless anyway. Took a while of course, but I went and joined one of Sarah’s classes right off I did, soon as I got there. Changed me life, it did. Never done anything like that mate, I can tell. All the relaxin’ stuff mixed in with the stretchin’ and bendin’. Bit weird at first it was, but I tell you, I really started to feel a difference in just a couple of weeks or so. ‘Mazin’, I tell you. I’d just about given up on meself, when I thought about it.”
“Mate, that yoga just turned me life around, it did. Everythin’, I tell you., Smokin’; no way. All the breathin’ bit in yoga made me realise how crook I was, n’ for a few weeks I was hackin’ n’ spitten so much shit up from me lungs, y’ wouldn’ read about. Boozin’, well, y’know, I didn’ throw it in completely, but I tell y’, haven’ been pissed for years. Why’d I do it to meself, all those headaches n’ brawlin n’ that?”
“How old d’y’ reckon I am John. ‘Ave a guess.”
Well, I was usually pretty good with ages, but Murray had me stumped. Couldn’t be too young, with all he’d done down the years, though. I admit I found estimating aboriginal ages pretty hard. Not surprising with all the crap they cop. So probably not less than fifty, I figured.
“I reckon you’d be fifty, to fifty five at a pinch,” I offered. My guess pleased him, from the broad grin that lit his face. He leaned closer to me, that no one would hear. As if oil drums have ears.
“Had me sixty third birthday a few months ago I did. Mind you”, And he was almost whispering, “I stuck my age down as forty eight to get this job. They wouldn’ take a bloke over sixty for this hard yacka, would they mate?” He winked conspiratorially. I couldn’t help myself winking back. Truth was, it was a very impressive story, for a man who’d been near crippled , and alcoholic to boot from the sound of it, to this glowing gentleman, the picture of good health and wholesome moderation.
“Well I tell you John, just don’t wait so long as me to get started with it. You’d be a fool I tell you. And one thing more”, that wink again, “It’s better than an orgasm!”
Who would resist such a carrot of encouragement? I did for twelve months or so, when I finally arrived in London, 15 kilos than when I left Oz, and basically skin and bones. Travelling cheap and constantly exacts a toll. Realising that if I stayed in Europe, I would surely need to find work, and if it was anything physical, I definitely needed to build up some strength and condition.
I’d always been a physical fellow, playing lots of sport and other muscle-building pursuits and, quite frankly, the thought of gymnasiums or jogging city streets for fun and fitness left me cold and disinterested. I remembered Murray exhorting me not to wait as long as he did. And his final encouraging words too.
I brought myself a beginner’s teach yourself yoga book, and introduced myself to it that way. Been doing it ever since, virtually every day for the past 43 years. Along the way it’s been a constant in my very variable life spread across the world, no doubt been a factor in too many recoveries, deemed extraordinary by doctors and familiars alike, and has always offered a start to each day that simply wouldn’t be so calming and energizing in equal parts, if I left it out.
I’m not sure about Murray’s claim that it’s ‘better ‘n an orgasm’, but it’s surely lasted longer!