My life has had two bodies: one formed by Yoga, the other by professional football. The first memories of the Yoga body were in a church basement in Atlanta, Georgia, some twenty years ago. There was a little cardboard sign on the door that read, “Blessed are the flexible for they shall not get bent out of shape”. I liked that: not getting “bent out of shape” would be a small miracle for this ex-NFL linebacker. Inside, incense aromas filled the small space where a half dozen relaxed middle aged folks of all sizes and shapes gathered in a circle. The teacher's name was Joy and she gently led us through poses that took on forms of dogs, cats, cobras and swans. I was in a down-facing dog when all of the sudden my mind slowed down, my breath deepened and everything felt more spacious, giving me a feeling of spaciousness and peace. How could such simple slow stretches be so relaxing and at the same time make me feel so present? I walked out of that church hall into the crisp evening air, took a deep breath and felt deeply connected. This was the first day of a new life. Yoga had found me.
In my earlier life, my other body had been shaped since the age of twelve by our next door neighbor, Joe Deppipo. He was a tough guy from Brooklyn who moved out to the suburbs to get a better quality of life for his family. He volunteered to be the head coach of the St. Rose of Lima Panthers Pee Wee football team. Joe became a substitute Dad who bonded whole heartedly with his players; he would take me home after practice in his blue impala Chevy. My real Dad was a New York cop who was somewhat overwhelmed with five kids at home. He spent a lot of time watching TV and smoking cigars when he was not on the job. Joe was there for us.
Autumn Sundays were long days for us young football players. We would go early to mass wearing our red game jerseys, parading down the aisle to sit in the first two pews reserved for the team. After church, it was off to the International House of Pancakes for breakfast, the best part of the pre game ritual. Then off we'd go in Joe's blue Chevy, kickoff was a whistle away.
My last game playing for Joe ended my Pee Wee career on a high note. Holy Cross, our Catholic arch-rivals, were beating us by three. With a few seconds left on the clock, our quarterback desperately heaved the ball, a real “Hail Mary” pass that landed in my hands. Touchdown, game over: Panthers win by three! Cheerleaders sang out my name, kisses flew from the Sisters, extra sweets for Sticky Fingers (my nickname). I was the hero for a day, addicted to the football high.
For the next fifteen years I chased this Holy Grail, searching with unquenchable quest to repeat that magical experience, the oneness brought by touchdowns.
I played my high school football at St John the Baptist, where the University of Illinois recruited me and offered a scholarship with all the trimmings. The fighting Illini seasons were average at best, but I did get the opportunity to break Dick Butkus tackling record which caught the attention of the Chicago Bears, who selected me as their sixth round draft choice. An early preseason injury ended my career with the Bears but the New York Jets were watching the waiver wires and offered me a spot on their roster.
The Mighty Sully was returning home, playing for the team I grew up watching. The memories of crisp autumn days, noisy subway rides to Shea Stadium, the home of the Jets. Back then, it didn't matter to me if we lost; it was a special day out with Dad, the excitement of being in a crowd filled with testosterone, eating hot dogs and staying up late on a Sunday.
It was the beginning of my third season with the Jets. Training camp opened. My teammates and coaches felt optimistic about the upcoming season. I had this intuitive feeling that some decision had been reached early in training camp but never expected the worst case scenario. On a bright summer morning, a knock came on my dorm room door with a voice from the hallway saying, “Coach wants to see you in the office, bring your playbook” It's code for "The End." After fifteen years in pads, the game was about to change, and now it was called Life without Football.
The football honeymoon was over and there was nothing I could do about it. The emotional pain was a surprise opponent that I wasn't prepared for. My male role models inspired me to be a man by not showing emotions. I now realize my abrupt departure from the NFL was the life force sending me a message. I hadn't acknowledged the abuse and injuries that for years had damaged my body. Although my ego had been destroyed, my body had been saved for the next incarnation.
Transitional waters began to flow into the streets of New York. Taking jobs in some of the trendiest waterholes in town(bartender and bouncer), a major change in lifestyles that turned my view of the world upside down and “bent it out of shape”.
But the luck of the Irish was on my side, I was offered a job with the Guinness brewery in Atlanta, Georgia. Finally, the dismantling of the football player mask that I had worn for years in New York could begin. Linebacker John was dissolving into the flames and the Yogic serpent was starting to awaken the new body, John Patrick.
For twenty years I have been blessed to study with some of the pioneers in the art of movement and meditation. We have explored the body, moment by moment, with the stillness of mind and the equanimity of unconditional love. I am grateful that I can continue to teach these ancient practices with a world that seems to be getting more “bent of a shape” by the day, to share the wisdom, understanding, and compassion that has been freely given to me.
My extended periods of study in India brought up many inquiries into what was real and how my experience was being influenced by my western view. On the surface India looked so poor and backwards, but once I slowed down and looked beyond the conditional frame of my reference, that space changed. The chaos and confusion didn't go away, but in that space of emptiness there was room to feel the love and kindness of the many different faces of Sacred India.
India has many bright lights, and two of the brightest shining are Yogis. I feel deeply grateful for Swami Vivekanda, who first introduced Yoga to America at the world parliament of religion in Chicago, and for Krishnamacharya, who single handedly brought the lost art of Yoga out of the caves of Tibet and taught most of the masters who are responsible for Yoga in America today. Last but not least, I feel a deep gratitude and joy for that first class in the basement hall that started me on the journey of all journeys, the one that separates the temporal (ego) from the eternal (soul).
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