Uncovering Reality in 30s Hollywood

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This article is excerpted from The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in
America
  available in paperback from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

 

In 1939, Aldous Huxley and
Gerald Heard were joined in Los Angeles by another Briton: Christopher Isherwood. W. H. Auden had
introduced Isherwood to
Heard in the early 1930s in London 

Of the three, Isherwood
would become the most devoted to Vedanta and
its most single-minded advocate. But when he set down in Los Angeles, he was no
more of a yogi than the queen of England. 

Youthful-looking, even for
his thirty-five years of age, and fair, with blue eyes and a trim physique, Isherwood was known
for his semiautobiographical tales of rebels, misfits, and what was then
considered sexual deviance,
and several plays, cowritten with Auden.  

Once in Los Angeles,
Isherwood wanted to find "some regular humble employment," something akin to being an English
teacher in Berlin, to subsidize
his writing and afford him some measure of anonymity as he adapted to his new surroundings. However, the effects
of the Depression were
still being felt in the Southland, and "humble" jobs were hard to come by. So Isherwood had two options: penury or
screenwriting, with its big
but erratic paydays.

That he could and did
eventually choose the latter didn't stave off bouts of despair. Not long after he arrived in Los
Angeles, he confided to a
friend, "I am so utterly sick of being a person — Christopher Isherwood,  or Isherwood, or even Chris. . . .  Don't you feel, more and more, that all
your achievements, all
your sexual triumphs, are just like cheques which represent money, but have no real value?"

The mood, coupled with
Heard's convincing disquisitions on pacifism — "To become a true pacifist,"
Heard advised, "you had to find peace within
yourself; only then," he said, "could you function pacifistically in the  outside world" — the nature of God, faith, and reality,
slowly pushed him  toward a
philosophy he resisted. (Rebellious by nature and a leftist in his  youth, Isherwood had disdained all religion, and this
included yoga too.)

By 1940, Isherwood was
pulled into Prabhavananda's orbit.  His
first impression of "Heard's Swami," which is how he thought of Swami Prabhavananda at the time, was of a charming,
boyish man who looked
vaguely Mongolian and chain-smoked. The swami was then in his mid-forties. 

"He talks gently and
persuasively. His smile is extraordinary. It is  somehow so touching, so open, so brilliant with joy
that it makes me want  to
cry," Isherwood recorded in his diary on August 4, 1939.

It was a pivotal encounter.
During their first private meeting, Prabhavananda reassured the author that
just the act of trying to meditate was a "positive
advance" on the path to God. In other words, failure or incompetence at
meditation was no reason to give it up, as some part of Isherwood  had surely hoped.  Most crucially, Prabhavananda didn't see Isherwood's
homosexuality as
a particular obstacle to the spiritual life. (This at a time when sodomy laws were still on the books throughout the United
States and in some places
enforced.) He simply advised Isherwood to try to see his lover "as  the young Lord Krishna" and sent him home with a
mantra and some basic
instructions for meditation.

The effects of the swami's
advice slowly took hold. Isherwood recorded one of his meditations not long after seeing
Prabhavananda: "This evening, on bedroom floor, in the dark. Unsatisfactory.
Stuck at number one,"  the
first step in the swami's instructions, which was to try to feel the presence
of an all-pervading Existence. "I couldn't get over the feeling that everyone
was asleep and therefore no longer part of 'Consciousness.' Posture is
difficult. My back hurts. But I feel somehow refreshed."

Isherwood got past "number
one" as he went on. In November 1940 he had
two visions while meditating. The first one was of a dirty-white bird that walked stiffly and darted under the bed, like a
mouse going into its hole.
He had found it unusually easy to concentrate that evening and during his
meditation was also aware of an intense silence. 

The second vision was of his
own face, but handsomer, "rather like a Red Indian, with light blue eyes." According to Swami
Prabhavananda, Isherwood had got a glimpse of his own subtle body. (Here
Prabhavananda may have
been referring to the subtle body of Vedanta, which is composed of five sheaths, or koshas, the least refined
being essentially your physical body and the
most being the ânananda-maya-kosha, or "sheath composed of bliss." During this time Isherwood became curious about Hatha
Yoga and sought out some
instruction. 

In this, Isherwood was
openly defying his guru's wishes. On more than one occasion, Prabhavananda castigated
Hatha Yogis as the
Olympic athletes of spiritual attainment. They might be healthy, they might live to a hundred, but they are complete idiots
as a result, he liked  to
say. Plus, Prabhavananda insisted that pranayama can cause hallucinations. Though Vedanta swamis Abhedananda and
Bodhananda had taken  a
more liberal view of the discipline, Prabhavananda, like most of his fellow
Vedanta swamis, was unyielding.

Fortunately, the Huxleys
introduced Isherwood to Claire Stuart. (Isherwood once lovingly described Maria
Huxley as "that connoisseur of doctors, clairvoyants, and cranks.")

Stuart had recently fled New
York and the bad publicity surrounding the
Donovan suit. De Vries had paid off her portion of the settlement, and she had left no forwarding address for the lawyers
handling the case.  Despite
her somewhat sudden arrival, Stuart already boasted a thriving clientele in
Hollywood, thanks in part to her brother, Dr. Franklyn Thorpe, a renowned physician who was often on
location to care for the high-priced
(and heavily insured) stars.  At
forty-one, Stuart was a seasoned instructor who had been teaching and practicing Hatha Yoga for nearly twenty-five
years. She was adept at  explaining
the discipline and equally able to assume complex asanas by way of
demonstration.

Isherwood found his teacher
exceptionally young-looking for her age and
extraordinarily limber. (Although he knew all about her legal troubles, he
blamed them entirely
on the "somewhat dubious" Theos Bernard.)

Nearly every day for three
weeks, Stuart put Isherwood and his roommate, Denny Fouts, through a demanding
ninety-minute sequence of asanas
and breathing exercises, all the while maintaining her composure in the face of young, half-clad men, who sometimes
farted loudly, having not
yet perfected Mula Bandha (root lock).

Even over such a short time,
her instruction got results. Isherwood felt "wonderful" and described his insides as a
"well-packed suitcase."  When
he confessed his experiment to Prabhavananda, the swami replied, "What is the matter with you, Mr. Isherwood?
Surely you do not want
Etarnal [sic] Youth?" Isherwood was stung and stopped the lessons shortly thereafter anyway. But this is exactly what
he had wanted.

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