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Edited version

(Published by L.A. Yoga Magazine)

By Richard Hamar

Answering the bell at 4:01 a.m., I could think of a dozen reasons not to drag my tired, stiff bones out of bed to go surfing. The 40-degree weather and the hour-long drive to C Street in Ventura were justification enough. Then there was the memory of my last wave-riding session off the same beach, when a high tide cracking on vicious rocks had jammed the fin through my board, leaving my body with bruises that took weeks to heal. Besides, I was facing a motion deadline in a federal criminal case – one involving a mandatory life sentence and a highly questionable wiretap. And another problem involving a brother lawyer had been eating at me lately, with no solution in sight. Taking a four-hour vacation that January morning, even if I could still get to work by 9:00, seemed downright irresponsible.

I had planned the trip, however, to mark a unique circumstance: Over the previous four days, for the first time ever, I had attended four straight yoga classes. The large, well shaped waves at C Street seemed the perfect testing ground for my newly tuned-up body and consciousness. So I downed some strong Earl Grey, plopped into my trusty Surfmobile (a battered ’83 Mercedes diesel wagon) and headed up the 101 Freeway, Van Morrison’s warm voice partnering me through the cold darkness.

To prep myself for the salty ordeal, I reviewed the highlights of my yoga marathon. On Monday evening, I had sweated through Bryan Kest’s class in a loft on Santa Monica Street. One of Bryan’s unique tactics is reverse psychology: He’ll get you to do asanas you never thought possible by telling you not to do them, exclaiming that if you listen to a yoga instructor, you are an idiot. Listening to my own inner taskmaster, I chose the most difficult poses I could think of, even keeping my eyes closed to make balance more challenging. On Tuesday, I’d taken Matthew de los Reyes’s evening class at Maha Yoga in Brentwood. Matthew chooses a theme for every class, and that night’s message was reminding ourselves that we are the culmination of every ancestor that has passed before us. I learned that I should be grateful for all of the qualities that have been passed on to me and to try and live up to the responsibility of honoring them. Wednesday’s teacher was Mark Blanchard, the Westwood-based guru known as Mr. Power Yoga to the stars who pay him $300 for private lessons. His pace is furious: 300 chatturangas (pushups) in a row; contortions doled out at a relentless clip. I’d refused to break – or even to indulge in the proffered child's pose. Thursday I was back with Matthew. His theme this time was suspending judgment -- not evaluating an asana as good or bad, just going on to the next one in a steady flow. By the end of his class, I was ready to take on the mighty Pacific, which was just then sending huge rollers toward C Street from a storm in the distant Arctic. It was show time, baby!

At 5:00 Friday morning, I changed into my wetsuit in the beach parking lot, the sharp breeze pricking my exposed skin. I did five minutes of stretching and a Sun Salutation. Then I waded out to the shallows and paddled by instinct, barely able to see beyond the end of my board. To my surprise, there were obscure forms ahead. One was standing on a moonlit wave, and the other was waiting for his turn. What does a guy have to do to be the first in the water?

I pushed up to a seated position, straining to see some variation in the dimness that would herald the next wave. Yes -- there was something, bigger, darker moving at me. As I turned my board and paddled again, I could feel the ocean change its level. Sensing that a medium-sized wave was going to break about twenty yards ahead of me, I raced to meet the exact place where it would fold over in a downward arch; just then, I remembered my Ujjayi breath. Keep it nice and even. Focus on the breath. I felt but did not see the mass of water that was now upon me. I moved into warrior position -- thrusting my left foot as far as it could reach up the nose, bending my knees downward, extending my arms for balance and as a signal to my body to be alive. I was shooting up and down the wave, my turns as smooth as my transitions between asanas during yoga sessions. After kicking out, I let the wave go without judgment -- thank you, Matthew.

A couple of dozen rides later, the sun finally rose, revealing that a dolphin had joined the ten of us now playing in the sea. Up and back I went, each wave an opportunity to defer to my brother surfers, or to accept the offering if it was ethically mine. My Ujjayi breath remained strong and steady, as did my stance and my paddling strokes, and I knew that those four straight yoga classes had done the trick. When the last wave bore me all the way to the shore, I passed through the rocks and emerged without a scratch.

In the parking lot, my conversations with other surfers seemed more respectful and meaningful than usual. Even my cup of coffee at the shop down the street brimmed with unaccustomed joy. And as I headed back down the 101, the disagreement I had been having with another attorney appeared in my head as if beamed directly from heaven. Back in my office right on time, I presented the solution to the attorney and our client; it worked for all concerned. Then I turned to the motion in my federal criminal case, writing arguments against the wiretap with a fluency that matched my moves on the board. By 2:00 p.m. I had it nailed.

I had carried the energy of yoga to my surfing, and carried the energy of yogic surfing to my work. It struck me as I printed out the motion and read the e-mails from my attorney friend and our client, that my life would never be the same – and that answering the 4:01 bell was the best decision I had ever made.


Richard Hamar has a nationwide litigation practice with offices in Beverly Hills, Honolulu and Miami, writing stories on the flights and surfing and practicing yoga between court sessions.

(Published by L.A. Yoga Magazine)

At home in Los Angeles: I practice forward bends, not davening; I resonate oms not cantorials; and my leaders speak Sanskrit, not Hebrew—in other words I am a wandering Jew who took a detour.

So when a satisfied client sent me a ticket to Shanghai to express appreciation for a good result in a legal case, I slung my yoga mat over my shoulder and headed to LAX.

My host is a Syrian, residing in Mexico City who is devoutly Jewish. Of late he has become El Rey de Shmata, shipping hundreds of containers of stylish clothing from factories near Shanghai to Mexico. When I arrived at his villa, he was waiting outside the front door, pencil thin, eyes-a-twinkling and poised to give me a latin abrazo and a Syrian kiss.

I soon found out that he was traveling with his cook because he only ate kosher food. Additionally, we would be shopping every day so he could choose styles to be manufactured. Even more passionately, he told me that we would be walking to the nearby schul Friday night to celebrate Shabbat.

My client’s son was curious about my yoga mat. The next morning I moved the ubiquitous ping pong table to clear space on a beautiful wooden floor in a nearby health club. Moishe, my client’s fourteen year old son, would be my pupil for the next week. I lead an abbreviated version of Bryan Kest’s routine, sans rap. One enlightenment is that it is easier to take (yoga class) than give.

Following our first yoga class, we motored one and one-half hours to Penghu. This town boasts 2000 factories. I witnessed a six hour negotiating session that continued through a banquet style lunch. While I spun the lazy susan to enjoy more than my share of the Shanghaiese delectables, I silently grimaced as six lonely hard boiled eggs rotated for the two kosher eaters at the table. In the late afternoon, an agreement was signed between my guy and the Chinese factory owner. At stake all day was five cents per jacket. I was stunned when my guy capitulated.

Following yoga class Day II, we shopped in an area I phonetically know as Cheapalo. My guy was a master of retail shopping. He raced from kiosk to kiosk, eagle eyeing fashion needles in haystacks. With no common language between buyer and seller, he drew crowds with his screaming, pleading, money throwing and little dances in and out of the playing field. The common language was a dueling calculator. We left Cheapalo with about one hundred items in four extra large plastic bags.

I forgot to mention that I HATE SHOPPING. Accordingly, I managed to sneak away to see the magnificent Shanghai Museum and a fabulous garden. With no offense to kosher food, I slipped into a restaurant recommended by a local with barely enough English to say, “Clinton eat.” In fact there were numerous pictures of Hilary and Bill adorning one great wall of this delicious restaurant.

As Shabbat approached, I dressed in my blue suit and maroon tie. I dreaded the fifteen minute walk dodging bicycles, scooters; but no way to dodge the 95 degree steamy late afternoon. The Shanghai Jewish Center was purchased for the Rabbi by wealthy Jewish merchants. It is a rather non-descript two story building with Chinese lettering on front.

I shook hands with Anglo folks from all over the world. The South African suitcase merchant told me that he likes the schul in Hong Kong more but could not get a flight in time. I met a man from my home town, Cleveland, who gave me the latest Indian and Brown scores. I had a harder time introducing myself to women because they were scarce and were separated by lattice decorated with plastic grapes.

The service began in free form. The men, prayer books in hand, were moving around the long narrow space mumbling various Hebrew prayers while davening in all directions with various degrees of bend. Some congregants merely sat and loudly discussed their merchandizing. One lovely man on my right kept turning the pages for me, knowing that I could not read Hebrew.

About half-way into the service, I recognized the “Kiddush.” This is the mourner’s prayer. It touched my heart since my Dad had passed away two months ago. The Hebrew words and his memory flooded my consciousness. I felt a connection to my roots and a deep connection to my Dad. I became more reflective as time passed. My passion hit a crescendo with the prayer “Shemah Yisrael, adonoi, ello henu…” It is the cornerstone of Judaism and locked deeply in Jewish souls. Near the conclusion, my host’s voice rose above the others, as he prayed and davened in exquisite style. I was so proud of him as he lead us to an even higher place. This service wove together a world of wanderers, obeying the Sabbath and keeping it holy.

On reflection, my yoga practice is the same as Shabbat in Shanghai. It is another way of being in the moment, meditating, opening the heart through chanting, inspiring passion for the community and providing a link to antiquity.

P.S. Yoga is alive and well in Shanghai. Google the following: Breeze Yoga, Y +, Ashtanga Shanghai, Karma Yoga Center, Shanghai Fan Ling Yoga and others.

Written by:

Richard A. Hamar

Los Angeles, CA



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