I never had the chance to meet Frank White in-person in this lifetime, but I am connected to him and his teachings through my connection to my own teacher. When I trained to become a yoga teacher at the Rishi Yoga Institute, my dear teacher, Devin Morgan often told each of us that we were benefitting from the vision, teachings and training methods of yoga instilled and passed on to her by her own teacher – an amazing man named Frank White. I had never heard of Frank before, but decided to search online to see what I could find out about him. The man I met through the articles written about him and the memories expressed by people who personally knew him made a deep impression on me. Frank didn’t begin practicing yoga until he was 65 years of age. He eventually earned his certification and became an inspiring teacher with great ability at age 68, teaching students young and old until he passed away at the age of 85 in 2005.
The fact that Frank White had never even tried yoga before he was an older man is inspiring to the many mature people who wonder if they can begin yoga later in life and become accomplished at it. My teacher, Devin, began her path of yoga at age 45 after a lifetime of dealing with issues of poor health. Today in her mid-sixties, she is a lithe, vibrant woman who serves as an inspiration of the life-changing powers of yoga to her many adoring students. My own re-discovery of yoga (I had originally studied and practiced yoga in my 20′s) came in my mid-fifties – and I just recently received my certification as a yoga teacher at age 61. The rejuvenating power of yoga is truly beneficial, accessible and achievable for all ages, not just the young, thin models you see in photographs doing extreme asana poses in yoga magazines.
What is most amazing about Frank’s story of personal transformation, accomplishment and mastery is where he came from in his journey to yoga. Frank’s younger life had been as a sometime actor in film and television, also working in interior design and selling furniture to make ends meet. When Frank finally found yoga, or rather yoga found him, he was 65, in very ill-health with severe cardiovascular and pulmonary problems, overweight, a four-pack-a-day smoker, a newly recovering alcoholic, and alienated from his family. After only recently becoming sober through A.A., Frank found himself in a yoga class at Los Angeles City College. A talented jazz and classical pianist, he had originally come to take a guitar class, but found it cancelled, and just thought that the yoga class looked interesting. During that first class, Frank had a yoga epiphany – something deep inside told him that this was what he was meant to do. Realizing that he was finally home, he was overcome with tears and emotion.
Frank undertook his practice of yoga, embracing the discipline’s spiritual, mental and physical aspects with the fervor of the newly converted. His health dramatically improved and he began to look a decade younger than he had. Now off most of his former prescription medications, he even became a vegetarian. After earning his teacher’s certification at 68, he began teaching classes at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. The club’s yoga studio was eventually named in his honor.
In the early 90′s, Frank began teaching at The Center for Yoga – one of the first eclectic yoga studios in Los Angeles. His teaching style quickly gained him a positive reputation and his classes became the most popular offered – and many of the students in the classes were young enough to be his grandchildren. Amusingly, he regularly referred to everyone under 60 as “my kids.” But beyond his growing popularity and following, most profound was Frank’s constant sense of service to others – he also taught free classes for seniors, AIDS patients, former gang members, and many others in need of yoga’s healing, transformative powers. His commitment to serving others is summed up well in his statement, ”That’s what my life is about. I don’t know what yours is about. Teaching helps people. And by helping somebody else, you feel good too. Just like in A.A., your 12th step is to help someone else. It’s ingrained.”
Frank’s teaching style was anything but orthodox. He had a low tolerance for Indian music and his classes were pretty much a music-free zone, except for the occasional soothing Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett or Harry Belafonte tune he would play during the final rest in Shavasana at the end of class. He freely mixed in Tai Chi, Qi Gong and other forms with the yoga asanas – his approach was “whatever works.” It took seven years for him to become fully comfortable with his personal approach to teaching. His attitude was ”it’s not about asanas, it’s about who are you? What are you here for? How do you feel?” His pragmatic approach urged his students to go beyond their personal boundaries. He would say things like, ”I already know how to do it. This is for you. You do it. Don’t be afraid.” My teacher, Devin’s first class with Frank found her struggling to hold Warrior One with Frank right up in her face challenging her to either hold it and do it if she wanted to do yoga or give up and not do yoga. I am happy that she decided to hold that pose and continue doing yoga. She fell in love with Frank and his teaching style in that very first class. One of Frank’s students, James Morrison, who is now a teacher in his own right, has said, “If you wanted to see God – or your deity of choice – while having your ass handed to you, go to Frank’s class.”
Frank White actively followed the inner path of peace in a powerful and very yogic way. A World War II veteran, Frank often spoke out against war and violence. He truly believed that yoga is a path for bringing peace to this world. ”I’ve never heard of a yogi killing a yogi. I say, ‘Just do your practice and maybe we won’t have to kill each other.”
Sadly for those who had come to look to him as a very wise soul and source of truly inspired teaching in the way of yoga, Frank White eventually fought a battle with throat cancer, most likely brought on by his many years of smoking, but his body lost the battle at age 85. He had remained positive and optimistic as he tried to fight the cancer, always ready to work his way back to health, to his students, and his teaching, which he so dearly loved. His was a life transformed by the power of the inner path of light combined with the rigors of dedicated physical practice – the true spirit of yoga. But his greatest lesson was always teaching through his own example the importance of giving back to others – in helpful assistance, loving acceptance, understanding and gratitude for the many blessings in one’s own life – and he did it all with a smile, an encouraging word, a helpful prod, and a commitment to passing on the gift that had so powerfully changed his own life. Frank often said, “A.A. saved my life, yoga taught me how to live it.” I am honored to be a beneficiary of his teaching through the guidance and training given to me by my teacher, Devin Morgan, who had it passed to her by her teacher – master yogi, Frank White.
CREDITS: This article was written utilizing various photographic images and referencing copy sources found online. Those various sources are credited below:
Los Angeles Times – March 10, 2004 – Article/Bodyworks: At 83, this yogi is bending the rules – written by Jeannine Stein, Times staff writer: http://articles.latimes.com/2004/may/10/health/he-bodywork10
Los Angeles Times – August 21, 2005 – Article/Obituaries: Frank White, 85; Transformed Life With Yoga, Inspired Others – written by John Thurber, Times staff writer: http://articles.latimes.com/2005/aug/21/local/me-white21
Kazan Today by Dick Kazan: http://www.kazantoday.com/WeeklyArticles/wk37_Frank_White.html
James Morrison’s Official Web Site: http://www.jpmorrison.com/yogastory.html
Life In Legacy – Week of August 13, 2005: http://lifeinlegacy.com/display.php?weekof=2005-08-13
Samudra Pictures – Video: The Fire of Yoga: http://www.samudrapictures.com/treatment.htm