Uncovering Reality in 30s Hollywood
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.