How Did I Get Here from There?

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“Immediately before the seemingly random events that led me to Greenville Yoga, I was entertaining the thought that I had let myself go so very far towards decrepitude, and was so tired and depressed, that I would never, in this incarnation, have the will to bring myself back to health. I was looking forward to a gradual decline into probable alcoholism and an early death or (worse, in my mind) disability due to stroke, heart attack, diabetes or any of the other myriad illnesses to which those in my sad state of repair are susceptible. I’d pretty much given up, and was facing the long slide down.”—Theodore Balk

Dispatches from The Esso Club

By Theodore Balk

“As animals, we walk the earth. As bearers of divine essence, we are among the stars. As human beings, we are caught in the middle, seeking to reconcile the paradox of how to make our way upon earth while striving for something more permanent and more profound.”—B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life

“Yoga does not just change the way we see things, it transforms the person who sees.” —B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life

Editor’s Note: Ted Balk, former Columnist and Assistant Editor of Weekly Hubris, died on Tuesday, April 12th of this year in Greenville, South Carolina. The essay that follows was written in August of 2012, at the very beginning of Ted’s “Yoga odyssey.” He went on as he began here, with passion and purpose, remaking himself into a Yoga adept, and, in thinking back on the years that I knew him—the decade during which he was my best friend—I now realize that much, much, much that is significant in our lives . . . turns on a dime. Had Ted not been assiduously eavesdropping, perched on his usual barstool at Clemson’s Esso Club, and had I not been so zealous (and loud) in proselytizing about the healing benefits of Iyengar Yoga (to an almost totally uninterested Esso bartender), Ted would certainly never have taken up Yoga, met his true mentor, Liz Delaney, or gone on to a fourth life’s act such as the one he outlines here. Serendipity? Happenstance? Chance? And/or Grace?

Ted-Balk

CENTRAL South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—1 May 2022—Having recently attended my 30th Yoga class—the 30th Yoga class of my entire life, I should add—at Greenville Yoga, I thought I would share some thoughts about the experience and what my new practice has meant to me. (I will allow ego to intrude a little here and say that I am proud that these 30 classes were attended on 30 consecutive weekdays, over the brief period of about six weeks: I took up Yoga with passion and perseverance.)

I am a 63-year-old American man, obese, with a history of high blood pressure that is fairly well controlled with medication. I have lived an almost entirely sedentary life for the last decade or so. My right shoulder was injured long ago, and I have pain and restricted movement on that side. I also suffer from mild arthritis in my knees and hands, and am prone to attacks of sciatica. Poor me!

Immediately before the seemingly random events that led me to Greenville Yoga, I was entertaining the thought that I had let myself go so very far towards decrepitude, and was so tired and depressed, that I would never, in this incarnation, have the will to bring myself back to health. I was looking forward to a gradual decline into probable alcoholism and an early death or (worse, in my mind) disability due to stroke, heart attack, diabetes or any of the other myriad illnesses to which those in my sad state of repair are susceptible.

I’d pretty much given up, and was facing the long slide down.

Dean Pratt, Elizabeth Boleman-Herring, and Ted Balk at the Esso Club, c. 2012.

Dean Pratt, Elizabeth Boleman-Herring, and Ted Balk at The Esso Club, 2012.

And then, on a day like any other, I was sitting at one of my favorite watering holes, drinking iced tea and talking to close friends and to the waitress/bartender, also a good friend, when a couple none of us knew approached and we all struck up a conversation. This wonderful discussion covered many topics, from food (she is an author and was writing an article on local restaurants) to politics to local history, and on and on.

While talking to our waitress/bartender, Elizabeth (for that is the name of the lady in the couple; he is called Dean) learned that our waitress had studied dance, and taught dance still, but did not perform due to specific physical limitations, which she outlined to Elizabeth. Elizabeth then strongly suggested Iyengar Yoga as a means of realigning and healing her dancer’s body and revealed that she had long been a student and, more recently, an instructor of Iyengar-Style Yoga in New Jersey, and had personal experience with the healing possible in a Yoga practice.

She offered to send some introductory DVDs for our dancer-friend, and suggested she try to find an Iyengar instructor in the area. After a few hours of delightful conversation, and after exchanging contact information, Dean and Elizabeth left to return up north.

Ted and his dancer-friend at The Esso Club.

Ted and his dancer-friend at The Esso Club. (Photo: Elizabeth Boleman-Herring.)

While we waited for the DVDs to arrive, I did a Google search for Iyengar Yoga. Although there were numerous hits for Yoga in the area, from Hot Yoga to YMCA classes, the only mention of Iyengar, specifically, was at Greenville Yoga, so I checked out their site.

One of the instructors was trained in Mr. B.K.S. Iyengar’s methodology, his “genre” of Yoga, and she offered classes in “Restorative Yoga” (now called Therapeutic Yoga). I thought this sounded right for our dancer but decided to check it out before I recommended it to her.

I showed up at the class one Wednesday morning, met Janice, and explained my physical condition (though much of what I described was plain to see). She told me to grab a mat, strap, two blankets and two blocks, and to proceed to the studio. After the class, I felt a sense of calm and energy that I had not experienced in years. I checked the studio schedule and, the next morning, I went to Liz Delaney’s Mindful Flow class. This was more physically challenging, but its concentration on breathing and centering of the mind made it all the more calming and energizing. I also noticed that the sciatica I had been dealing with had evaporated.

Since then, I have alternated between Janice and Liz every weekday and, on weekends, I look forward to returning to class on Monday

The author in class. (Photo: Josh Norris.)

The author in class at Greenville Yoga. (Photo: Josh Norris.)

Being so new to Yoga, I can’t really say much about the technical aspects of my practice. Beyond Downward Facing Dog, Warrior II, Plank, the dreaded Tree, and Savasana, I can’t “name the parts” of any particular asana, and I can’t say I’m proficient at any one of the many poses.

What I want to talk about, instead, is my understanding of what underlies the asana. I describe this as “My Practice,” and the pole star of Practice for me is Mindfulness and Intention. I want to be very careful here to emphasize that all of this applies only to one man’s understanding of Yoga; one new student’s understanding. My Practice comprises only my application of what I perceive to be going on. Each of you will have your own, different, understanding, and Your Practice will, of necessity, be different from mine.

When looked at in the most general sense, My Practice fans out to cover every aspect of how I live my life; at the narrowest, My Practice focuses on regulating my breathing and performing the present pose as well as possible, or simply lying, mindful and at peace, in Savasana.

My Practice is now the execution of Intention, and Intention is the expression of Mindfulness in my life.

Mindfulness is the awareness of all around us and how we affect it, as well as how it affects us.

When you are driving and someone near you does something that affects you—cuts in front of you, changes lanes without signaling, etc.—you have choices about how you will react. Of course, first you make sure you are safe and not endangering others in your response, but then you choose to let your irritation dictate how your further actions will impact those around you. If you let your annoyance take control, you may make unsafe decisions and try to retaliate against someone who may not even be aware you are there. You will retain an elevated pulse rate and carry distracting irritation within you for hours.

Namaste. (Photo: Josh Norris.)

Namaste. (Photo: Josh Norris.)

But, if you decide to put your natural emotional response in perspective and consciously calm yourself, you can simply drive on and be at peace with yourself and those around you. In this case, you have engaged your Intention to acknowledge outside influences on Your Practice, and to put them aside as beyond your control. By taking a few deep breaths and concentrating on your Intention, you have improved your life, and perhaps that of a few people around you, for a brief period.

Equanimity is a step-by-step, day-by-day process.

Mindfulness is awareness, and the more aware we are of ourselves in all aspects of our lives—physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, etc., if these distinctions really hold any water—the better prepared we are to define our Intention, first as a guide for living a Mindful life and, moment to moment, to define our Intention for applying Our Practice to whatever is in front of us, be it driving, preparing for a class, or executing the next pose in our class.

While Yoga in the broadest sense encompasses all of life, the purpose of our attendance at any Yoga class is to increase our awareness of ourselves—our Mindfulness—through our Practice of set Yoga asana, and help us more clearly to form the idea of our Intention, so that we may direct Our Practice to fulfillment of this Intention.

“I have lived a majestic life”: BKS Iyengar’s dying words. (Photo: Josh Norris.)

“I have lived a majestic life”: BKS Iyengar’s dying words. (Photo: Josh Norris.)

All of the instructors I have encountered at Greenville Yoga are accomplished, and ever-attentive to the individual needs of their students. Clearly, a large part of their Intention is to help each of us, by guiding us in our poses and helping us control our breathing; to develop our personal awareness and define our Intention in leading a more Mindful life. Our instructors, however, cannot hand us our own Intention, or define Our Practice. That is up to each of us, and is a lifelong (or lives-long) process. I have just begun this new phase of the recognition of Mindfulness and Intention through the Practice of Yoga. I hope to learn and expand my awareness for many years to come.

Namaste, “The Spirit in Me Acknowledges The Spirit In You,”

Ted Balk

31 August 2012

Liz Delaney and Ted Balk, companions in Yoga. (Photo: Josh Norris.)

Liz Delaney and Ted Balk, companions in Yoga. (Photo: Josh Norris.)

“Damn, I’m Good!”: A Yoga Teacher Remembers Her Student

By Liz Delaney

GREENVILLE South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—1 May 2022—Ted came to us and said something like, “I figured I’d either drink myself to death or try this Yoga thing.” And try this Yoga thing he did.

He came five days a week in the beginning. We all thought he had a crush on his teacher, Janice. But even after she left, Ted kept showing up. He loved Yoga so much he went to Asheville to attend a 200-hour yoga teacher training with Janice’s beloved Iyengar Yoga teacher. He would come tell me all the details about the participants and how many chairs and blankets and blocks it took to get him propped up. He loved the attention.

It was at about that time that he started telling me how to teach and what I was doing “wrong.”  Luckily, Ted was a pretty lovable guy, so it mostly made me smile.

He kept showing up and then decided to attend a second 200-hour yoga teacher training, this time with me, here at Greenville Yoga. This is when Ted became thoroughly enmeshed in our community.

It was my first-time leading training without my ex-husband. It was my first year leading the yoga studio as a solo endeavor. I was scared and Ted became my confidante.

Every Tuesday and Thursday, Ted would be the first to arrive after his 30-minute drive. He would greet me and we’d share how we were doing, “How’s the depression today?” “New meds. I’m good! How’s your anxiety holding up?”

Then he’d set up his purple and orange mats, blocks, and blankets in the room. Next, he would sit on our church pew and greet every student who walked in. Returning students (especially the young, cute ones) would get hugs that sometimes lifted you off the ground; others, a big welcoming hello.

And if you asked how he was, his reply was always, “Damn, I’m good!” And then he’d laugh his big old laugh.

We’d go through class and surely, after class was done and we’d sit with our tea, Ted would point out someone doing something “wrong.” And I’d have to remind him to close his eyes and focus on his own mat and to trust that I actually knew what I was doing in caring for more than just the body.

After that, we’d get to the heart of our conversation. We’d talk about family, animals, kids, Ted’s life in the Belgian commune, politics. Some days it was light and fun. Others, we’d debate about Yoga poses, the Bhagavad Gita, reincarnation. He’d fuss at me and get so mad and then we would laugh together and begin again. This was our relationship. Over the years, so much changed for me, but Ted was my constant companion. We were able to be vulnerable and share how we were doing, when we needed checking on and we were there. I don’t let a lot of people get too close, so how this self-proclaimed old fart won me over, I’ll never know.

Ted went on to teach yoga in Clemson area. He had a devoted following of students who loved him dearly. They called their Yoga “Ted Yoga” or “Toga” for short. In our conversations, I learned about all of his dear students and how they doted on him. He loved teaching as it lit a fire in his heart and soul.  And he loved telling people what to do!

In 2020, the world shut down and Greenville Yoga went to all online classes. Ted had to cancel the classes he taught. Every day, Monday through Friday, we would see Ted and his cat Willow in their little box on Zoom. We would still hear, “Damn, I’m good,” even though many of our worlds had fallen apart.

He did his best to be the light. We’d stay online and talk until the next class booted us off. We were all home alone and this was how our Yoga community became family.

Here we sit in 2022. Ted came back in person to teach and to be a student for the last year. His presence immediately became known to all as we returned in person. He was there to greet everyone, to offer kind suggestions regarding Yoga poses, and to offer us snacks after class. His welcoming smile and generous nature dragged even the most introverted souls to share with us. Ted and I planned Yoga classes, refined our teaching, and, every day, we’d leave with a hug and an, “I love you.”

Our latest kick was listening to Glennon Doyle’s podcast “We Can Do Hard Things.” I am pretty sure he had a crush on Glennon’s wife Abbey Wambach. We’d spend hours getting excited about the podcast and sharing what we learned.

This is important to note because if you listen to the podcast, you may be surprised that a 72-year-old straight, white man would be so excited about it. But this was the beauty of Ted. He contained multitudes that each one of us can never know.

Now there is a hole where Ted and I would sit. Every Tuesday and Thursday, I expect to see that white truck pulling in at 8:45 a.m. (30 minutes before everyone else) for our personal check-in. At 8:46 a.m., I realize that a small piece of my heart is missing and won’t be coming back.

Luckily, when I teach and give precise alignment cues, I feel Ted’s presence and it brings me peace to know that this piece of him will always be here. His voice and his laugh won’t ever leave.

One of the fights Ted and I would have often was about what happens to us when we die. I believe in reincarnation, and he’d tell me it was all bullshit. I can’t help but smile and wonder where Ted is now.  I have a feeling that even if I were right, he still wouldn’t tell me.

About Theodore Balk

Theodore (Ted) Balk hailed from the heart of South Carolina’s Sand Hill country. Brought up on a Clemson University agricultural experiment station, he and his four siblings had the run of 3,000 acres of Carolina farm and woodland (visited every two weeks by The Barnwell County Library’s Bookmobile), but also spent time in Augusta, Georgia, the midland-South’s closest approximation to a city. After high school, Balk received an appointment to the US Naval Academy, but the affair was short-lived. Next, leaving an unedifying job working third shift in a local textile mill, Balk volunteered for duty in Viet Nam, “to save some other poor son of a bitch from getting his Greetings letter” and because “there was a war on, and Southern boys weren’t going to miss out on the fun.” Some fun! Following a revelatory year in ‘Nam, Balk served another year in Germany and then got out of the Army post haste, all the illusions of his youth shattered. He hastily decamped to Flemish Belgium, began growing serious head and beard hair, and landed at The World Commune, where as wildly multi-cultural a group of hippies as could then be found farmed organically, ran a vegetarian restaurant, and studied Eastern spirituality while consuming great quantities of Greek wine and Belgian beer. “Called home” again by his Southern family, Balk finally settled down Stateside and got a degree in Civil Engineering at Clemson University. Following 33 years of working on various engineering projects (Read: cleaning up after others so we could all go on voraciously consuming resources and making rich people richer), Balk retired near his beloved Clemson. Late-in-life studies led him deep into the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, as interpreted by B.K.S. Iyengar but, when not on a Yoga mat, he might be found most days (till April of 2022) at or near Clemson’s Esso Club: Beer, Yoga, and story-telling were the Balk trifecta till the very end of his glorious life. Author Photo: Josh Norris of www.JoshNorrisStudios.com; Watercolor of The Esso Club available from www.AllensCreations.com
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