Johnny Salvatore arrived in Hawaii this week.
When first he landed at the Ilikai--when first his name was bandied about--I would be asked if I knew this mysterious visiting instructor from New York. To which I would respond, honestly, that I didn't know him personally but would often take his classes the one evening a week he taught at the studio I belong to.
I was unaware of how weak kneed people get when Johnny shows up at training...but as my understanding of his celebrity status here grew...so did my version of the nature of our relationship. No longer was he a casual aquaintance, a mere teacher....we were thisclose, best friends, thick as thieves, madly in love. We vacation together, talk on the phone every night, consult each other about outfits, switch out holidays at his folks place then mine.
I lodged myself firmly in the Salvatore afterglow and set up camp. If I saw him waving, from across the room, at someone he knew...I'd wave back for the benefit of those around me and pretend the affectionate gesture had been aimed in my direction. If he approached me and quietly asked what time the morning class started, I'd cackle loudly and theatrically as though he'd just told me a delicious inside joke. The kind other people must be excluded from. Because they aren't his best friend...like me.
I haven't had him for posture clinic yet, but from through the partitions I can hear the kids in his sectioned off room roar and scream with laughter. My group was being politely told to enunciate more or speak from our diaphragm by orderly, well behaved visiting teachers...and, cruelly, somewhere a wall away Johnny had fifty people in stitches. They would unwillingly leave the room at the end of the night...loitering around just in case he might utter one more word in their direction...and then they'd pass me in the hall and look admiringly, even enviously, at me...the way you look at that rare civilian who gets to be best friends with a rock star.
I milked it beyond reason...finally feeling special here. Sadly, while I did succeed at being "special", I suspect it was more the sort of "special" one might say in a whisper at a dinner party or assign to a shorter school bus.
Thursday night Salvatore finally made his way to the podium to teach our evening yoga class. They've been fiddling with the heat all week (see previous post for some insight into how well that endeavor is going) and did a litttle additional work on it that afternoon. I walked through the doors to lay my mat down and knew, immediately, that I'd be practicing in Dante's inferno. It was a heat so stagnate, so freakish, that I actually paused in the door frame and considered dropping out.
I fully expected to return to that room, hours later, and find chalk outlines of bodies on the carpet.
The teachers were distributing doses of pedialite around like waiters. There was no getting it yourself that night because no one could walk or, for that matter, stand...it was five star beverage service.
One girl collapsed in front of the room in a wave of full body cramps. She was semi conscious on her mat, arms and legs curling into her torso like lobster claws, when a staff member finally brought her a cup of electrolytes and placed it just in front of her before hurrying off to help someone else. Which was nice and all, but that her hands were so shriveled and contorted she couldn't lift the cup. She just sat there, gimp and half dead, staring mournfully at the untouched cup of liquid salvation...five inches away...renedered undrinkable by her newly crippled hands.
Five unrelated people later informed me that their facial muscles had spontaneously started to spasm during the floor series.
To offer a visual...my friend, Leslie, and I were on the fourth row back from the mirror...there were, at minimum, 15 people in front of us.
By camel we had an entirely unobstructed view of ourselves in the mirror. Every single one of them was down.
I saw Joan outside on her scooter after class. Horrified, I asked if she had been in there. She said, "God no!". She took one look at the stretcher just brought in, put the rascal in reverse, and drove away as fast as she could...which was approximately four miles an hour.
At the onset of this training (and before joining us in the room) Joan would gaze at us entranced through the doors.
She must have stared longingly at our good health, our flexibility, our youth. That was before she saw us with drool running down our chins, dragging our legs, gasping for air. The tables have turned now. Compared to us, Joan is the picture of health. She may not move so well, but she can speak...she can breathe. And, above all, she trumps us in the most important way possible...she has her freedom. Joan can come and go at will. Joan, that lucky bitch, has a get away car. Us...not so much.
Before all was said and done, two people were physically carried out, innumerable yogis were leveled and motionless on the ground, the crying was audible, and paramedics hovered outside the room waiting to help this poor kid who'd dropped down in some kind of seizure. Lone voices, here and there, actually interupted class to holler for someone to open the door. Craig, the director of training, stood up and yelled, "I will not tell you people again to BE QUIET". An unidentified yogi screamed back, "WHY DON'T YOU BE QUIET."
I stared up at Johnny on that podium--a tanned praying mantas in day glo swim trunks--and knew instantaneously we would have to fake-break-up as quickly as we'd fake-gotten-together. He had no control over the heat, but I was pretty sure he'd still be put on trial by the walking wounded I refer to as the student body. All association with the accused must be severed.
At the elevator a fellow classmate had collapsed on the marble lobby floor while waiting for the lift to arrive. She looked up at me and said, "He's your friend?"
"Hardly know the guy", I replied before agressively pushing the door-close button, leaving her there for dead.
As it turned out, I had grossly underestimated how unconditional a love John Salvatore inspires in people. They weren't angry with him in the slightest.
I had also, once again, underestimated my classmates ability to bounce back from death's doorstep.
Everyone was bubbly and in good spirits by the time we returned from dinner, their heart rates down, their eyeballs back in their sockets.
Johnny was invited up to lecture later that night and the crowd went insane with approval. (And by lecture I mean be super gay, tell jokes, and skitter around.) Salvatore is the teacher training version of the U.S.O.
They bring him in when we’re no longer sure why we’re here or what we’re fighting for.
During his one man cabaret act, he was repeatedly encouraged to delve deeper into his own story, his entrance into the practice of Bikram yoga.
As is always true of those who don’t, figuratively, enjoy gazing at their own reflections in the mirror for very long—he, first, avoided the topic entirely and then glossed over it quickly, shunning each round of impending applause.
I don’t know the story especially well but (from what I understand) who Johnny is now is largely born out of who he was well over a decade ago…which was an alcoholic. I hope he’ll forgive my directness in that sentence. Like Johnny, himself, I’d much rather use my fancy adjectives and metaphors to celebrate what he is than eulogize what he was.
I find it interesting when I hear him reference that period of his life (which he always packages in fabulous mini jokes, here and there) the suggestion that he “changed”. I say this because that which is so wonderful about this guy isn’t created... its part of the equation from the get go. He was always this person, I am certain. It was just buried under a thick layer of lifestyle dust.
His own training must have been an episode of 'antiques roadshow'…a seemingly common attic relic, suddenly recognized as priceless.
I imagine him in that transition of his life like a snake slithering out of dead skin. He didn’t change, he molted. Or, better still , I picture his life like a Broadway musical. He hit his third act. He moved from the shadows directly into the spotlight...which is where he belonged to begin with. Slouching towards center stage, feeling the warm glow of that illumination upon him, I have to believe he found himself there and had the singular thought:
Home, in this case, being a studio podium…the costume, yoga-man-panties…the script, broken English.
In my imagination of this big show stopping number (in the play of his life) I hear the orchestration swell, I envision spandex and sequins, I definitely see jazz hands.
Of all the New Yorkers here I am, likely, the one who knows him the least.
And I am, therefore, the most unqualified to explain him. Its possible I'm getting him all wrong.
But, from where I sit, the guy is indisputable evidence that humility doesn’t have to be modest, that profundity doesn’t need to be pretentious, that joy can be drawn from an inexhaustible source.
John Salvatore will tell you that his life is better because of Bikram yoga.
He won’t tell you that Bikram yoga is better because of him.
He won’t tell you that.
But I will.
And I'm not just saying that because he's my best friend. again.
There's far more to say about week five...but I'll leave it here for now...because, frankly, I'm still too shell shocked to organize it into sentences. Maybe tommorrow....