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Home > Places

Should I put the giant snake on my head?

Snake Head Jason Thompson in San Francisco

5 December 2003

My yoga teacher, Rusty Wells, invites me to his birthday party. Over a hundred super-toned yoga students crowd into a studio in San Francisco’s Castro district. We chant Om, then sing Happy Birthday.

Tables are laid with fruit juice and vegan carrot cake. A short, muscular man in a leather thong enters the room, carrying a straw bowl, and performs an Aztec dance. Reaching into the bowl, he pulls out a three foot python, which he wraps around his neck, then round a student’s neck. Returning to the bowl, he pulls out a four foot python. Then a five foot python. He fetches a bigger bowl. Soon, six students are wearing pythons.

A third bowl arrives. The man hauls out a twelve foot python. It is white, slimy-looking, and as thick as a telegraph pole. Draping the colossal reptile around his neck, the man walks towards me. The python’s head, tongue slithering, winds to within inches of my face. It was the night I joined the cult of Rusty.

Ever since poet Alan Ginsberg saw “the best minds of [his] generation destroyed by madness” in the 1950s, the City by the Bay has flowered in the American national psyche as the centre of its liberal counter-culture, a mecca for mavericks and utopian dreamers.

The federal government’s lurch towards neo-conservatism since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 has intensified the city’s self-perception as a peaceful island republic in the land of corporate fraud and secret military tribunals. One of that island’s most popular customs is yoga. In the last year, the number of yoga studios grew 25 percent, as San Franciscans sought solace from post-Internet crash unemployment and fears of anthrax attack.

Those anxieties became my own since I emigrated here from London in 1999. Like the other party guests, I wanted to belong. But I was also wary of losing myself. In the Sutras, the ancient Sanskrit texts that form yoga’s philosophical basis, the snake symbolizes the kundalini, a spiritual energy at the base of the spine which, if unlocked, curls steadily upwards, culminating in divine enlightenment.

I was searching for a new identity, but still I wasn’t ready to abandon my past. The conflict was confusing. Was my kundalini unwinding? Had I reached a spiritual crossroads, with one path leading back towards England, the other towards enlightenment? Should I put the giant snake on my head?

I first took Rusty’s yoga class in January. The room was so full I could hear my fellow yogis and yoginis breathing either side of me. Rusty sat in the lotus position on a dais, his assistants either side of him. He began by leading us in a chant to Brahma, the ruler of the universe in the Hindu pantheon. We sat cross-legged and closed our eyes. “In the beginning there was nothing, and that nothingness needed nothing”, Rusty said, in his gentle Alabama twang. “Then there was a ripple, and that ripple was the sound of Om”. As we chanted Om, I felt the peace of self-surrender.

We began our poses. We became Downward Facing Dogs and Trees and Happy Babies. Sweat drenched my yoga mat. Stress poured out of me. The class was an opportunity to “let go of what no longer serves us”, said Rusty, as he walked through the room, adjusting our poses. As the weeks went by, the adjustments became more intimate. He massaged my lower back. One night, as he began to fiddle with my hips, the sight was so distracting my wife fell over. As I left class I thanked him. “Beautiful practice”, he said, his eyes twinkling.

And so, on Mondays, I went to Rusty. But even though I saw Rusty hugging other students, addressing them by name, I kept my distance. Rusty’s adjustments felt increasingly therapeutic as America prepared for war. “Let’s devote our loving energy to Dubya”, he said, the night President Bush announced the countdown to the invasion of Iraq. The next day I joined the protest demonstration in downtown San Francisco. In the 70s, activists in San Francisco helped stop the fighting in Vietnam with the slogan, “Make Love Not War”, but in 2003, no amount of street protests or yogic love could stop the war. It was easy to despair. These are the times when vulnerable people fall prey to cults. Was there a cult of Rusty?

I didn’t put the snake on my head. I was a writer, I decided, and I would do writerly things: I would interview people about Rusty Wells. I approached one of his assistants, Noah. I asked his opinion of Rusty. “I…really like him”, said Noah, becoming stiff and formal. I spoke to Kerry, a woman who works for the yoga studio. “He’s pure love”, she said. “He fills a void in people’s lives”. I knew that: I wanted more.

I approached Rusty. I remembered it was his birthday. He looked at me and smiled. I introduced myself. “I know who you are, Jason”, he said, hugging me. “Thanks for helping me through a difficult year”, I said, and told him about my article. We danced. I felt my kundalini unwinding, just an inch. I didn’t need to put a python on my head to sense my identity evolving. I could be a writer and a yogi without conflict. America is a scary country, but I had nothing to fear from my yoga teacher. If there is a cult of Rusty, it commands nothing more than honest self-expression.

A week later I go back to see him at the studio. We have a few minutes to talk before class. He leads me to a private room. He offers to massage me while I interview him. I put down my reporter’s notebook and lie face down on the table. There are more questions I still have to ask. But as Rusty starts rubbing my shoulders, I forget what they are.

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