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Sports Illustrated                                                                                             Aug. 13, 1973

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© 2005-2020 Interplay
Trying the Dance of Shiva
Yoga tennis is a strange business, this esteemed business writer finds
on consulting the gurus at Esalen. The perfect game is in him – in fact
in everyone – he is informed, if only he will allow his serve to serve itself.

By Adam Smith

- - - - - - - - - - -

I used to think that if I had a genie I would ask for a tennis serve, one that could knock over the empty tennis ball can set in the backhand corner of the receiver's court. It would be under such control that it could be guided to a six-inch-square target, and it would zing away with a high bounce. Then the ladies would fight to play with me in doubles and the men would cower 10 feet behind the other baseline.

But the serve that did exist for me was far short of being magical. So when I learned that the Esalen Institute in San Francisco was going to put on a sports weekend with yoga tennis as one of the features, I had some self-improvement in mind. One doesn't think normally of Esalen and sports unless the sports are encountering and catharting and breaking into tears when the Gestalt hits and things like that. You would expect Mike Murphy, the founder of Esalen, to be a dreamy mystic in goatee and sandals. Murphy is a dreamy mystic, but everybody says he looks like a Stanford fraternity president. I don't know what Stanford fraternity presidents look like these days, but you could certainly cast him in that role if you were remaking a college musical.

Murphy's passions include meditation, the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo and playing golf with John Brodie, the 49er quarterback, and he is the author of Golf in the Kingdom, which is either a book about golf seen through mysticism or a book about mysticism seen through golf, or maybe both. Brodie once talked about changes of consciousness in 49er games, time slowing down and moments of clarity, so Brodie is a prized recruit in the consciousness movement. "Athletes," he said, "get into a kind of beingness when they're playing, but they don't have a supporting philosophy or discipline." Brodie was at the Esalen weekend along with masters of such Oriental disciplines as t'ai chi and aikido.

I went to a session of all the instructors before the weekend. It was the first time many of them had met. "We have these experiences in sport," one said, "but there is no language in which to talk about them, so no one knows anyone else has them." Because there is no adequate language, these experiences have remained a bit ambiguous, but they are what the late psychologist Abraham Maslow called peak experiences, moments of exhilaration and clarity and awareness. In sports it is the click that tells you the shot is good before you know that the shot is good. It is another space than the one we usually inhabit, so that you could say the feeling is one of being stoned by the sports experience. We had a gentleman from a surfing and diving ashram who said, "I had a diver who was skeptical, and then one day, in just 30 feet of water, something happened, and he said that suddenly he felt absolutely at one with the ocean, and he could hear grains of sand on the bottom, and he spent almost an hour listening to the grains of sand, and his life has been changed ever since."

Our aikido master said we would be talking about energy flows. "There is an energy being in addition to the physical being, but we do not emphasize the Oriental terms ki or chi, otherwise people think, aw, that's Oriental stuff, and actually they've been doing it all the time in their tennis and football and what have you. It is enough to say, 'Cool and centered, you play a better game.' "

Torben Ulrich, the Danish touring pro, came by to see what was going on. He wasn't officially part of the weekend, but philosophically he belonged. "The egoless game goes much farther than the ego game," he said. "The Western world is so oriented to winning that the temptation of winning is there almost always. But, 'I would like to become a better tennis player' really has nothing to do with winning. The tennis court, seen as a mandala...."

A mandala is a schematic or geometric representation of the cosmos, sometimes used as a meditation object. I interrupted him. "What does that mean, the tennis court is a mandala?"

"It doesn't mean anything. It is a mandala if you choose to see it as a mandala, a confined space made an object of activity. If we are centered around the court as an object, then the court is a mandala."

I am lucky I caught this dialogue on a tape cassette. If you say it to yourself a couple of times, it makes better sense.

"Does that mean it makes your tennis better?"

"No, it doesn't mean anything because you can see the court as anything you like. I don't think it has much meaning. But if you take it very far, then sooner or later you have to see the court as a mandala. Sooner or later."

I began to think that while my consciousness might indeed expand, my tennis was not necessarily going to improve.

"Isn't this exciting?" Murphy said. I asked him why Esalen was getting involved in athletics. "Sport anticipates what the Divine Essence is," he said. "Sport is a Western yoga. The Dance of Shiva. Pure play. Non-utilitarian, the delight in the moment, the Now. We need a more balanced and evolutionary culture. We already have physical mobility. Why shouldn't we have psychic mobility, too, the ability to move psychically into different states? The whole movement of life is to a higher consciousness."

We had two yoga tennis instructors, both recently teachers at John Gardiner's Tennis Ranches. Tim Gallwey was dark and slender and had been on the Harvard tennis team; he had been involved in Moral Re-Armament and had a flash of enlightenment with the 15-year-old Guru Maharaj Ji. Rick Champion had been on the Michigan State freshman tennis team and then was a salesman of business forms and a teaching pro; unlike Gallwey, who was conventionally dressed, Champion wore a beard and a turban. He had been influenced by some of the precepts of Yogi Bhajan Singh and is now called Baba Rick.

"We learn tennis element by element," Gallwey said. "If we learned it as totality, we could learn it in one hundredth the time. Our biggest problem is Ego, is trying too hard. We know how to play tennis. Perfect tennis is in us all. We are not learning something outside and bringing it in, we are discovering the tennis we already know. Everyone knows how to ride a bicycle, and just before we really ride for the first time, we know we know. The problem with Ego is that it has to achieve; we are not sure who we are until by achieving we become. So we hit the ball out and the Ego says, 'Ugh, out.' Then it starts to give commands, 'Do it right.' We shouldn't have a judgment. The ball goes there, not out. Ninety percent of the bad things students do continued are intentional corrections of something else they are doing. We have to let the body experiment and bypass the mind. The mind acts like a sergeant with the body a private. How can anybody play as a duality?"

Since I have a mind that is constantly going, "Watch the ball" and, "Move your feet, dummy," I recognized the sergeant's voice right away. What do you do about the sergeant?

"You have to check the mind, to preoccupy it, stop it from fretting. Look at the ball. Look at the seams on the ball, watch the pattern, get preoccupied so the mind can't judge. In between points put your mind on your breathing. In, out. In, out. A quiet mind is the secret of yoga tennis. Most people think concentration is fierce effort. Watch your facial muscles after you hit the ball. Are they tensed or relaxed? Concentration is effortless effort, is not trying. The body is sophisticated; its computer commands hundreds of muscles instantly; it is wise about itself, the Ego isn't.

"Higher consciousness is not a mystical term. You see more when all of your energy runs in the same direction. Concentration produces joy, so we look for things that will quiet the mind."

I could see that parking the mind would be essential. I sat next to Jascha Heifetz once at a dinner party and asked him what he thought about when he was giving a concert. He said if the concert was on a Saturday night he thought about the smoked salmon and the marvelous bagel he was going to have the next morning. If he was thinking about the bagel, then who was thinking about the concerto? His hands.

"But," I asked Gallwey, "don't you have to know the right form before you can park the mind?"

The body seeks out the right form if the mind doesn't get in the way, Gallwey said. No teen-ager could do the monkey, or whatever teen-age dance is going on now, if he had to do it from a set of instructions, but by observing he can learn a dance in one night.

You could find some support for this visual learning theory on any inner-city playground-or any playground, for that matter. You can see nine-year-olds who have never had any basketball instruction, who have the head fakes and body motions, in appropriate size, of Walt Frazier and Willis Reed, all learned from that great teacher, instant replay.

"You have to talk to the body in its native language," Gallwey said. "Its native language is not English, it is sight and feel, mostly sight. The stream of instructions most students get are verbal and have to be translated by the body before they are understood. If you are taking a tennis lesson, let the pro show you, don't let him tell you. If you want the ball to go to a cross-court corner, get an image of where you want the ball to go and let the body take it over. Say: 'Body, cross-court corner, please.' "

Baba Rick took over from Tim Gallwey and gave us his four rules for successful tennis. Somehow, they seemed to echo Satchel Paige's rules for right living. They were:

1 ) Relax.
2) Keep your weight on the underside - on the soles of the feet, the bottom of the chin and shoulders.
3) Stay one-pointed.
4) Extend ki.

"Ki?" asked one of our audience. Coaches and physical education people made up most of the group. I had the feeling they were open-minded coaches who might send football players to modern dance if that would improve their rhythm and timing.

"Ki, energy," said Baba Rick. "Ki is the link to the Universal."

"When somebody serves with real power at you, is that ki? What do you do?"

"That could be just muscle power," Baba Rick said. "Block it and send it back."

"Your opponent is not your enemy but your friend, who brings resources out of you by challenge," Gallwey said. "Your enemy is the distracted mind, which is into fear and expectation and doesn't live in the present."

We went outside to the tennis courts. Most pros, Gallwey said, give a constant stream of commands in teaching-sideways to the net, keep the racket flat and so on. This just helps the Ego self and, as Satchel Paige would say, angries up the mind.

On the tennis courts we divided into pairs, pitched balls to each other, watched the seams of the balls and hit. "Be aware of the sound your racket makes on a good shot because your body will unconsciously remember the sweet sound and try to repeat it," Gallwey said.

We had several people in our group who hadn't played tennis before or hadn't played very much. Gallwey pulled one of the novices out. Gallwey hit a smooth forehand. The novice hit a forehand over the fence. And another one. The third shot stayed in the court. Silently Gallwey hit another forehand. "Be aware of where your racket head is when you finish your swing." The novice extended his follow-through a bit more and got a ball into the court. His next ball went over the fence again.

Each of us tried two serves. "Let the serve serve itself," Gallwey said. "When I first used this technique my serve got hot. Then I thought, 'Wow, I've mastered the serve,' and immediately it got cold because it was me, not the serve, serving itself." The serves we hit were against the fence, and I didn't feel any click of supersensory awareness. I heard an Ego voice saying, "That was the same old serve you always serve."

I had a question about imagining the ball into the corner. Was that the power of positive thinking, Norman Vincent Peale?

"Oh, no," Gallwey said. "Positive thinking is negative thinking in disguise. if you double fault six times in a row your positive thinking will flip to negative. So I try not to pay compliments to students because the compliment can always be withheld on the next shot. What we are talking about is no thinking."

It seems, at first, a marvelously Rousseauean philosophy. Man is born with a perfect tennis game, but he is everywhere in chains. You don't need a tennis pro, with his negative instructions, you need a movie of each shot and a ball machine to drill with.

But it was hard for me to see the difference between Gallwey saying, "Be aware of your racket head" and a pro saying, "Follow through, where is your racket head?"

"The distinction is that the pro says good shot, bad shot," Gallwey said. "I just want to focus awareness, not make a judgment."

Is perfect tennis really in everybody, without help? Most beginners do not slip instinctively into the right strokes, even with negativism removed. They tend to swing at volleys instead of blocking or punching. If the ball is consistently going out, they tend to raise the racket head on the backswing to hit down instead of dropping the racket head on the backswing to get more top spin.

So I suppose what is needed is not just a movie and a ball machine but a wise pro. A tennis guru.

Two weeks after the Esalen weekend I had a chance to try yoga tennis back to back with the best of the traditional drills, ones given at John Gardiner's Tennis Ranch in Scottsdale, Ariz. I had been through the Gardiner clinic before. The drills were fun, the strategy was percentage strategy, the ranch was elegant and my serve emerged unscathed.

In the mornings I drilled away at the Gardiner clinic, forehands, backhands, volleys and overheads. And in the early evening I went to yoga tennis because Rick Champion or, rather, Baba Rick, was teaching in Scottsdale at the high school courts. I had also read Zen in the Art of Archery because it occurred to me that yoga tennis is actually a misnomer. Yoga means union, but to some people it is a guy in diapers standing on his head or the RCAF exercises without push-ups. But it isn't a sport, and Zen archery seems more applicable to tennis. The student in Zen archery went through many of the same agonies as a beginning tennis student. He tried to tell his right hand to release properly with his sergeant mind. The Zen Master never coached him. The Master said, "The right shot at the right moment does not come because you do not let go of yourself ... the right art is purposeless, aimless! What stands in your way is that you have a much too willful will. You think that what you do not do yourself does not happen." Breathing exercises were to detach the student from the world, to increase a concentration that would be comparable to "the jolt that a man who has stayed up all night gives himself when he knows that his life depends on all his senses being alert." Nothing more is required of the student than he copy the teacher: "The teacher does not harass and the pupil does not overtax himself."

In our small yoga tennis class it was an hour or more before we got onto the court. First we sat in a circle and breathed "ahhhhh." Then we breathed with alternate nostrils. We chanted Ong Namo Guru Dev Namo. A nice, pleasant singsong, Ong Namo Gu-ru Dev Na-Mo. (The chant is not a sentence and does not really have a meaning; the words have to do with the Divinity, the Teacher, the Divine Mature and the Divinity possible in creation.) Then we concentrated on the center of energy, below the navel, and moving that energy out through the arm.

We took to the court, paired off and practiced patting balls to each other, watching the pattern on the ball. It seemed ludicrously simple, standing, on the service line patting balls, but my mind began to rumble around like Molly Bloom's. It would do anything rather than empty and stay on the patterns of the ball: What's for dinner? What time is it? How long are we going to do this? How am I going to start the speech to the Harvard Business School Club of Arizona on Saturday? What time is it?

My nine-year-old, who attended both yoga tennis and Gardiner's, said, "That breathing is very relaxing, but I like to run around the court more."

The next day at Gardiner's I tried my yoga tennis during the clinic. It wasn't a notable success. My sergeant mind, ever adaptable, had simply picked up the vocabulary of yoga tennis. Instead of the usual command, "Follow through, dummy," it was now saying, "Extend ki, dummy, you didn't do it that time." I tried a racket mantra with the ball machine: inhale, racket back, pause, exhale and hit. But by the time I said, "Inhale, racket back," the ball was already past me and I was off balance and slicing. I did notice at Gardiner's the barrage of negativity. My fellow students all brought their sergeant minds, and they apologized constantly: "I always get my racket back too late. It's my follow-through, I don't follow through enough," and so on. They had heard these things before, and the pros reinforced them: "Get your racket back, you're not following through." So everybody was agreed: the sergeant Egos and the teaching staff. We were dummkopfs. The atmosphere was cheerful because the pros had such good humor, but by the end of the session we were depressed because we had learned 200 different things we did wrong, and perfect strokes seemed impossible.

The staff took video tapes of our strokes. One pro said I had a great serving motion. That was because there was no ball in it. "I serve fantastically as long as there's no ball," I said. "I should have been in Blow-Up."

"Your toss isn't going to the same place each time," the pro said.

"I know that," I said. "I tell it to, but it won't."

"You have to drill," the pro said. "Get a basket of balls and hit a hundred serves."

"I've done that," I said. "The first 10 are the best, then they run downhill. If t get in a match I don't want to double fault, so I don't let my serve uncork all the way."

I know what the Zen Master would say to this. He would say, "You do not serve, It serves. You are still trying to serve; when it goes in, you think you have done it yourself."

One day the Zen student of archery loosed a shot and the Master bowed and said, "Just then It shot," and the student gave a whoop of delight which made the Master angry, for this wasn't the student's achievement, and there he was taking the credit.

There are some playing pros, according to my Zen tennis teachers, who are well into these forms of concentration without articulating them. Rosewall gets mentioned a lot. Billie Jean King, it is said, meditates upon a tennis ball. And Stan Smith. I bet if you asked Stan Smith what he was thinking about during those perfect serves he would say the bagel he was going to have for breakfast the next morning. A grooved game means you can play without your head.

As for me, I haven't had a chance to play since my last yoga tennis lesson, and the path to the true game looks more difficult than crossing the razor's edge. So I can't, like the Zen archery student, finish this report with success, mindful that I have only just begun and the Zen archery student did get restless in his fourth year of instruction. Depressed, he said to the Master that he hadn't managed yet to get one single arrow off right -- or It hadn't appeared to loose the arrow -- and his stay in Japan was limited and after all, he had been at it for four years.

"The way to the goal is not to be measured!" said the Master. "Of what importance are weeks, months, years?" To the teachers of Zen tennis, or Yoga tennis, or whatever it is we call it, the techniques are not to provide winning tennis necessarily but to put the player into the right frame of consciousness after which, as the Zen Master said, "You will see with other eyes and measure with other measures." Meanwhile, the Path is there, and I plan to get around to it sometime. A tennis court is a tennis court, but when you really get into it, it's a mandala, sooner or later.