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Richard Weinberg

While MM was teaching at Harvard and for the University of Maryland on U.S. military bases in Germany, France and Greece, Richard Weinberg was serving as a commando in Vietnam. In 1969, the year of the second Tet Offensive, as MM was being awarded a Ph.D. for his thesis on the poetry of Wallace Stevens, Weinberg was standing on a street corner in a suburb of Saigon, saying goodbye to friends, when a bullet struck his right temple.

The wound became infected. It was not known whether he would live or die. Six months later, back in the USA, doctors operated and inserted a plastic plate in his head. Richard spent eight months recovering in a hospital and was given the chilling news that he would never walk again. Forty years later, however, not only is he walking but helping others to do the same, teaching people to improve their bodies and achieve fitness and health through Yoga.

There is a long story behind his development as a student and teacher of Yoga, which saw him practice the art throughout Asia, in Australia, New Zealand, and even in Israel. During these years he became expert as well in herbal medicine, Feldenkrais, Chi Kung and Thai massage. He now regularly visits Jomtien, Thailand to oversee the staff of a Thai massage parlor. We turn at this point for a more extensive biographical sketch to an eye-witness account of his activity in Australia by one of his students in a Yoga class:

I am in the Yoga Room in Perth, Western Australia. Beside me, two other nervous newcomers sit on rubber mats, glancing around at the mass of hanging plants, a plastic yellow smiley face and an enormous stuffed panda bear, all suspended from the ceiling. Our Yoga class begins. Intently we watch our wiry teacher, Richard Weinberg, help a lithe woman in her forties demonstrate a stretch. A young gymnast is complaining of a pain in her knee, which she hurt in practice. Richard shows her how to release the pain and says to her, “You never know in life who can help you.”

After six months in Vietnam serving with Infantry Airborne Ranger units, Richard was taken by Medevac to Long Binh Field Hospital where surgeons removed a bullet from his skull. When he regained consciousness he found that half of his head was caved in and the left side of his body was paralyzed. Doctors thought at the time that Richard would be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. All Richard remembers of the time after the shooting is the constant pain. Only by talking with a couple of friendly medics, he says, could he forget the pain in his head. Ironically, Richard was sad to be leaving: “I had never known the closeness of friendships that I had experienced there.”

In the Yoga Room Di is struggling with a pose, and Richard teases her. Di, a nurse in her sixth year at the Yoga Room, just laughs. “Richard has literally made me a new person and the joking is a part of it. Richard Weinberg was born in 1946 in Lynn, Massachusetts, and has the blunt “get out of here” sense of humor, that betrays his working class Boston upbringing. His father, a decorated infantryman in Word War II, died of a heart attack when Richard was fourteen. At age sixteen Richard left school.

Following his injury there were a lot of people saying that Ritchie would never walk again. “His body had atrophied a lot, because he had not exercised his muscles for over three months,” recollects Cousin Lenny Bernstein, who visited Richard in Boston’s Chelsea Military Hospital after he was shipped home from Vietnam. Richard barely recalls his homecoming, “My family and friends visited, but my mind was so scattered and silly that it was a relief when they left. I was probably the only guy in America who changed his name to get into the army and the war! But I was afraid that if they found out about my minor criminal record, I would not get a pension or any medical help.”

As a skinny youth Richard had bulked up by pumping weights at his local YMCA. One day, fighting boredom in his hospital bed, he borrowed a sandbag from an intern and decided to do his own therapy. Months passed, and Richard continued his bedside weightlifting. “The interns were worried that I would unbolt their gym machine and take it back to my bed,” grins Richard. When cousin Jason Maiborn saw him take his first wobbly step tied up with a belt and stick to a set of parallel bars, he asked him what he was going to do if he fell down. “Pick myself up,” came Richard’s stuttered reply. “I knew when he said that,” Maiborn says, “he was going to be all right.”

“After I was released it was very difficult coping with the world,” Richard explains. “At that time, people really looked down on Vietnam vets, so I only felt at ease with people who’d been through the same thing.” After eight months of rehabilitation at the Veterans Hospital he followed a good feeling and decided to leave America. His first thought was to go to Asia and rediscover the lifestyle that he had enjoyed away from the fighting in Vietnam. Richard’s plane took him to New Zealand, where he would meet his first wife. They rented a house on idyllic Waiheke Island and had two children. In the garden shed Richard set up a simple gym. But he suffered a severe spinal injury and found himself back in a hospital bed. It was during his recovery that a medical student told him about a yoga class at Auckland University. “I didn’t know what yoga was, I thought it was ice cream or something,” Richard says laughing.

Initially Richard was skeptical about yoga, but when it eased his back pain he started taking yoga classes six days a week. Instructor Nicki Noffe remembers the first time Richard came to her. Noffe admired Richard’s resolve not to place limits on himself and to see what he might achieve. With his confidence on the rise, he volunteered for a job teaching weightlifting and basketball at Wesleydale Boys Remand School. His mixture of Boston bluntness and genuine encouragement became a hit with the kids. “Those were some of the best times of my life,” says Richard, smiling as he recollects his experience. His teaching success soon translated into a paying position, as well as more work at a girl’s remand home. In 1985, however, with his recovery more and more focused on yoga Richard’s marriage ended in a mutual split. He made the tough decision to leave his young children and go to Australia to take a teachers course with the late Martin Jackson, ex-SAS trooper, who operated a yoga school in Sydney. With his marriage break-up fresh in his mind and his children thousands of kilometers away Richard recalls that, emotionally raw, he threw himself into Jackson’s course.

Their military backgrounds providing a natural bond, Jackson and Richard became close friends, spending many hours one on one, pushing each other to the limit. The strenuous sessions continued, with Jackson using props, sticks, bricks, chairs, anything in order to stretch out Richard’s paralyzed left side. “Martin would tie my arms onto a long stick so that I’d look like Jesus, and then he’d go to work breaking up the calcium deposits in my shoulders,” Over the years all the muscles and joints on his right side had tightened up, and Martin was opening him up. The price in pain was high. “If you learn how to work through the pain in yoga, you learn how to work through the pain in life,” he says. Yoga instructor Julian Calvo, Richard’s training partner at the time, remembers the intensely focused student. That to me was yoga.”

But Richard’s body also loosened repressed feelings, and memories from Vietnam began to emerge. “Martin used to prescribe back bends to relax my chest,” Richard explains. “Back bends in yoga have the psychological effect of releasing the emotions. Life didn’t seem worth living at the time, with all its physical and emotional pain. So Richard decided to drop out from Jackson’s classes. “It was the hardest time in my life,” he recalls, “and on top of it all I was missing my kids terribly.”

In 1986, after six more months of yoga and meditation, Richard went to India to study with renowned Indian Yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar for three months. One day Iyengar said to Richard “Only one in a million people go through the pain that I put you through. Richard replied jokingly, “Everything we do here hurts a lot.” For the next four years Richard wandered around Australia, studying, practicing and teaching Yoga. He returned to New Zealand to see his children.

In 1991 he found himself one day in the old city of Jerusalem, walking past a jewelry shop, he says. People were yelling. “Everybody seemed to yell at each other in Jerusalem. I started talking to this Palestinian boy, and we got into the subject of Yoga. He showed me a Yoga book. In Jerusalem I never talked about politics or religion. We just did yoga.”

During the following years Richard returned to Australia and maintained a Yoga studio in Perth, where he expanded the number of his Yoga students. His studio was housed in an old limestone building and attracted a lot of crazy people as well. Richard always taught one-on-one in very personal manner to help people with their physical problems. His students responded to his instruction. One patient, a schizophrenic, replied to all his suggestions: “This is a very good idea Richard,” he would say, “I will do that.”

After 2003, Richard tells us, “I left Australia and wandered around Thailand. For months after leaving Perth I did my Yoga and Chi Gong exercises on the beach, on an island off the coast of Thailand, where I was living in a small village. My girlfriend went to Bangkok to get a certificate for Thai massage.”

He met a Thai man with knowledge of Yoga. “Before I went to his house,” he says in Jomtien, “I had a dream, that we were brothers in a past life. Later I learned, as I got to know him more, that at one time he had had a restaurant in Chiang Mai and that he helped a Chinese girl on holiday, who got very sick in Chiang Mai. In Chinese medicine it is believed that humans have three brains, the actual brain, the nerves and the blood. I found this so interesting, because I had studied the body through Yoga, Chi Gong and weightlifting for over 35 years. Through his special method and Chinese herbs my Thai friend helped the blood flow through my disc area. Later a friend of Richard’s, a medical doctor and a Chi Gong master (he had studied the art for five years in China) confirmed that the Chinese still have secret healing techniques.

I asked Richard about dying, because his son Kiet had died recently, and they had been very close. Richard cared for his son while he was a child and took him to work with him. When Kiet was thirteen Richard had suggested that he stay with his dad in Australia for a couple of months, if he was happy to do so. His son decided to remain with Richard from age thirteen to nineteen. Richard says, he used to sign sick notes, so that his kid could go surfing. Jokingly he adds, “By the time that Kiet had learned to forge my signature, I felt that there was hope for the boy.” Richard believes school is important, but “you must teach children love first, this is the most important teaching.” I asked Richard how he deals with the sudden death of his son now. “The body dies but love never dies. I believe we can concentrate on love rather than grief and pain. The world needs love more than anything else. If we give back the love we receive, this will actually become a better world.”

I asked Richard, “How do you deal with the daily intense pain in your body and the mental pain of losing your son?” “Chi Gong every day. I lie on the beach and visualize being under a cleansing waterfall. Whatever you do, whatever path you walk, try to do it with love. I have to do three of four hours’ meditation, Yoga and Chi Gong every day,” he added. Sometimes I listen to The Beach Boys, sometimes to Bach. When negative things come up in my life, I just visualize a smile instead of letting them take me down. For me with the body and mind it is like maintaining a machine. In each situation we have to take good care and do what helps us deal with the situation.”

“I believe that we have to accept people as they are. Whatever you do, whatever path you walk, try to do it with love.”