One of my most influential teachers left his body yesterday. I had been thinking about him and wondering how he was feeling. We are so connected to those we love, especially at times of transition. Now as I write I have finally started to cry, knowing we won’t see each other in this form again, but up to this point today I felt a lot of joy. If there is one person who really lived and prepared for death it was Cliff…
Cliff Barber lived in a gorge on a Greek island for a few decades, practicing yoga and studying intensely. I never mentioned him on social media or put him in my bio where anybody would really look, because it didn’t feel right to send more people to his humble and open home, where he would sit and listen and engage with visitors until they left, never getting up for food, rest or relief even if they stayed the entire day and into the night.
In fact he was quite a legend in the Ashtanga world. Hundreds of people did come by to meet him each summer. He wrote down their names and remembered each of them. The first times I visited him (introduced by my mentor Petros Haffenrichter, who grew up on that island) were brief, and yet the next year he’d happily yell out my name and we’d pick up right where we left off.
In 2009 I lived a few dozen steps from him on the river for 2 months. I think he had just turned 80. It was the first year he no longer practiced across the river. A year or two before he was photographed in some wicked Advanced Series poses, but that summer he began to slow down and do more pranayama. I would practice, dive into the river and swim over to have tea with him, which he prepared on a fire.
Most mornings it was just the two of us. He gave me a lot of guidance on kriya and pranayama, and I loved practicing that summer. I developed some strange but comforting fevers that felt productive following some practices, and unlike the usual situation in the modern yoga world where we live far from our teachers and they are overburdened with responsibilities and distractions of the western hubbub, I knew he was there for consultation or to help tailor the practice so that I could benefit from it.
It was an amazing balance between being alone to try things out and having regular very special contact with a very experienced teacher with zero investment in selling anything and complete freedom to advise me as he truly saw fit. His students paid for his food and that’s all he wanted or needed while I was there. Hard to believe something could be so simple and work so well in our modern world, granted far removed from the usual urban scene.
We talked a lot about India, the horrors of capitalism, what the practice really accomplishes, doubts, weird pranic phenomena… It was one of the only times I have had an honest talk about death. He did not pretend to be above fear or uncertainty, nor use quotes from the Upanishads to appear masterful, but there was an acceptance and curiosity that imparted an inspiration and ease to me, encouraging me to engage with life, understanding that it is leading towards death.
One thing he said that I remember most every day came as we discussed the obsession western students have with the performance of contortions. He said that yoga is supposed to make us more human, not into some kind of super-human. I hope that perspective becomes more widespread!
In the afternoons some others would join, like Danny Paradise with his guitar and David Williams with his chess board. Or the few of us who lived there would pile into a clown car of barefoot yogis, 7 of us in a tiny Fiat, and head to the village for weekly groceries. Cliff said the 2 worst inventions ever were shoes and bathing suits. That summer made me a believer. The callouses on my feet remained for at least 8 months afterwards.
He proudly showed me a large form he had just completed, made from hundreds or possibly thousands of tiny paper triangles that he cut unbelievably precisely with a protractor and x-acto knife and glued together. He wanted to have it made into crystal. Later he began painting and wrote a book about sacred geometry (cliffbarber.com).
He had tons of books and we discussed his findings on many of the pearls of the yoga tradition. He was not a blind follower, and drew from other traditions as well. In fact he was a huge fan of Jesus. He tried out the prescribed practices steadily over many decades and came to his own conclusions, delivering his insights with a lot of kindness and humor, never pedantic or holier-than-thou. It was so easy to be with him, no expectations, no awkwardness, no ego games or transactional bullshit, just mutual respect.
That summer was one of the most profound times I have ever had. I was never one for camping, but sleeping less than 2 meters from a gorgeous river you could drink out of with no tent and no mosquitos was sublime, actually going to bed when it was dark and getting up at dawn… Had I not lived that way for a while, I would not even be able to fathom how far our lives have strayed from nature right now, ever more so every single day with the manipulations of mankind interfering with the wisdom and joy of life on every conceivable level.
The only predator I met that summer was a wild pig who was ravaging some campsites on the other side of the river. I came face to face with him while we were each running toward each other on a path. Luckily he had just stolen and eaten a resident’s weed stash and was rather starry-eyed, swaggering like a drunken sailor. We acknowledged each other and went on our merry way.
Cliff told me I could walk/swim down the river to the palm beach on the coast, so I did, having no idea how long it would take. It was the first and possibly only time I have ever felt completely safe. If I hadn’t made it back before dark I could’ve just slept by the river. I felt protected by the nature there. It didn’t matter who I was or how long anything would take. It was the only time in my life when I felt I could really just be for long enough to really get what that is…
The top photo is his home. He slept on an old blanket behind those shrubs and we had tea just a few feet downstream. I have this picture hanging in my living room along with 3 other photos with sentimental value from my travels.
Many thanks to my dear friend Carla, whom I met that summer, and who told me about Cliff’s passing.