By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt
Michele Hébert, a popular instructor at La Jolla Yoga Center, has been teaching yoga for more than 30 years. Now she’s the author of “The Tenth Door,” a book about her adventures in “the jungles of enlightenment” that may well be the next “Eat, Pray, Love.” Ask her what she does and she’ll tell you: “I help people transform their lives.”
She points out that growing up in Cleveland in the 1950s and ’60s, she could never have imagined how she would transform her own. She had never even heard of yoga. She was interested in boys, cigarettes, and parties.
A Catholic-school dropout, she married her high-school sweetheart. The marriage didn’t last. She spent years going from job to job, boyfriend to boyfriend. At 26, she had just accepted a grant to graduate school when she suddenly realized her life was heading in the wrong direction.
Like so many others, she headed west, to California.
Not that she did it the usual way. She hitched a ride on a plane with the whole Cleveland Orchestra, scheduled to play a date at the Hollywood Bowl. Her father was a flutist with the orchestra, and the musicians were like family to her.
California opened up new worlds of experience. It was 1974, and she was a long way from Cleveland. She made her way to San Francisco, where she met the teacher who would change her life.
Walt Baptiste was a bodybuilder, a former Mr. America who with his wife, Mangaña, ran a yoga center that combined weight-training and middle-Eastern dance with yoga exercises, breathing, and meditation. In his mid-50s, he was a guru to many San Franciscans who discovered him through the center’s popular health food restaurant.
“The first class I took with him brought me to a place I’d never been before,” Hébert said. “I started working as a waitress in the restaurant, in exchange for classes, and shortly after, I had an experience that connected me for the first time to an inner life. It was literally enlightening — I saw the light!”
She describes her book as a teaching in how to stay centered. “But I do it through story,” she said.
It’s the story that’s captivating, as are the characters she meets along the way. First in her years in San Francisco, then near a beach in El Salvador where she managed Baptiste’s retreat-in-progress, tending the goats and chickens, and supervising a 20-man construction crew (all carrying machetes) while dealing with solitude, sickness, and deaths, and armed only with her teacher’s favorite mantra — “peace, harmony, wellbeing” — as political upheaval began in the not-so-distant distance.
Hébert calls herself a “practical mystic,” someone who successfully lives in the world and still keeps up her spiritual practices, someone “with both feet firmly planted on the ground, but a vision toward the stars.”
She’s definitely in the world in La Jolla, where she lives with her husband, Mehrad Nazari, who also teaches yoga at La Jolla Yoga Center, and maintains a real estate practice, too. “I call it Higher Estate,” Nazari jokes.
Besides their regular classes, the two lead international retreats at places like India, Costa Rica and, closer to home, Rancho La Puerta and Esalen.
Readers are already asking for a sequel to “The Tenth Door,” and Hebert says she is thinking about it. And she’s just started writing a “spiritual novel” that she’s pretty excited about.
But, before we leave her, what is the ‘tenth door’?
The answer is in the book’s epigraph: “There are nine physical openings in the body. But there is a secret spiritual opening at the crown of the head known as the tenth door.”