By Ed Staskus
“The Hells Angels are so much aware of their mad-dog reputation that they take a perverse kind of pleasure in being friendly.” Hunter S. Thompson
When Frank Glass pulled his Hyundai into the back lot of Barron Cannon’s pop-up yoga class, on the border of Lakewood and Cleveland, Ohio, getting out with his rolled-up mat under his arm, he was brought up short by a fleet of Harley Davidson motorcycles parked outside the door. Inside, he peeked into the practice space, where a mob of muscled-up bare-chested men was in awkward cross-legged poses on rental mats. The denim vests and jackets hanging on coat hooks bore the Hells Angels colors and moniker, red lettering displayed on a white background.
The bikers are sometimes called “The Red and White.” They are also known as “The Filthy Few.” Inside the club house among themselves they are “The Club.”
The Angels are the best known of what are known as outlaw motorcycle gangs. The name comes from the P-40 squadrons of Flying Tigers who flew in Burma and China during World War Two. The pilots were known as “Hells Angels” because the combat missions they flew were dangerous courageous literally death-defying.
Skulls scowled from the middle of the back of the biker vests and jackets.
Frank took a seat, instead of taking the class, seeing he was late for it, anyway, and the room was full. He might as well, he thought, read the book he was halfway through, and go to lunch with Barron, as they had planned, when the class was over. The book he was reading on his iPhone was David Halberstam’s “The Fifties.” Even though the Hells Angels were formed at the turn of the decade, and ran riot in the 1950s, there wasn’t anything about them in the book.
Yoga in the United States got going in the same decade, although it didn’t run riot. It kept a low profile until the next decade, the 1960s, when hippies made the scene, and adopted yoga as one of their motifs. Even so, from then until now as yoga has grown exponentially, it has never run riot.
The Hells Angels and yoga have diametrically opposing outlooks on duty focus liberty life in general. The bikers are noted for violence, brawling, and fighting with fists pipes guns. They are notorious for being ruthless. They will cut the legs out from under you at the slightest provocation. One of the legs yoga stands on is ahimsa, or non-violence. Yoga stands up for its own values but doesn’t go out of its way to chop anyone else down to size.
When the class ended the Hells Angels filed out of the studio. It had only been them in Barron Cannon’s morning class. They slugged back bottled water, toweled off, and got back into their denims and Red Wings.
“I’ll be damned if that was a beginner’s class,” one of them said.
The biker standing next to him, his bald mottled head glistening, said, “That was a hell of a workout.”
“Workout?” another one exclaimed. “That was some kind of a torture.”
The Hells Angels are the biggest biker gang in the world. There are 444 chapters on six continents. They are banned in some countries, like the Netherlands, where they have been labeled as a “menace to public order.” The Angels don’t give a fig about the Dutch, so it’s a wash.
There are only a few requirements for becoming a Hells Angel. First, you have to have a driver’s license and a seriously badass motorcycle, preferably a chopped Harley Davison. Second, you have to ride it a minimum of 12,000 miles a year. Third, if you were ever a policeman, or even ever thought of being a policeman, you cannot join the club. Fourth, you have to undergo a semi-secret initiation, resulting in being “patched.” Being patched is like getting tenured at a university. Lastly, you have to be a man, and a renegade, to boot, no women allowed.
It’s best to be a white man when applying for membership.
In 2000, Sonny Barger, one of the sparkplugs of the gang, said, “if you’re a motorcycle rider and you’re white, you want to join the Hells Angels. If you’re black, you want to join the Dragons. That’s how it is whether anyone likes it or not. We don’t have no blacks and they don’t have no whites.” When asked if that might ever change, he answered, “Anything can change. I can’t predict the future.” He was being sarcastic.
As many Hells Angels as there are, there are many more folks who practice yoga, about 300 million worldwide. It’s easy to do, too. You don’t need a $20 thousand-dollar two-wheeler, you don’t need to ride it all day and night, and there are no initiation rites, half-baked or otherwise. You can be whatever race creed color gender you want to be. You don’t have to be amoral bloodthirsty ungovernable, either, although yoga is good for resolving those problems.
“What did you say?” asked one of the Hells Angels.
“Who, me?” asked Frank
“Yes, you,” the biker said, looming over him.
“I didn’t say anything. I’m just sitting here reading, thinking.”
“Keep your thinking to yourself,” the Hells Angel said, stalking out of the pop-up. Some of the other bikers glared at him but left without incident. One of them gave him a friendly wave and a wink. Frank breathed a sigh of relief.
There was a roar of 1690 and 1870 cc engines starting up in the parking lot. In a minute the bikers were swaggering down Clifton Boulevard towards downtown Cleveland. Frank had overheard one of them mention the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. He wondered whether there was an exhibit commemorating the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, where the Hells Angels had been hired to provide security, and 4 people were killed during the show.
Barron Cannon stepped out of the studio space, wearing loose black shorts and a tight-fitting Pearl Izumi jersey. He looked cool as a cucumber. Frank jumped up.
“What in the goddamn Sam Hill was that all about?” he asked blurting it out.
“Missionary work,” said Barron, as unflappable and insufferable as a post-graduate in philosophy can be. Barron had a PhD, although he eschewed academics in favor of his own leanings, which were economic Marxism, idealistic anarchy, vegetarianism, and yoga. He had grown up on the other side of Lakewood, camped in a yurt in his parent’s backyard while he was in school, been briefly married, and lived in a small 80-year-old vaguely modernized apartment close by Edgewater Park, a short bike ride away.
Barron owned a Chevy Volt, but often rode his bicycle, shopping for groceries, visiting nearby friends, and training aerobically on the multi-purpose path in the Rocky River Metropark.
“Missionary work? What do you mean?”
“Let’s go across the street to Starbucks, get some coffee, some wraps or egg and cheese protein boxes,” said Barron.
Sitting down inside the Starbucks, which had transformed a vacant Burger King the year before, their food and coffee in front of them, Frank again asked Barron, “What are you up to?”
“Off the mat into the world.”
“The last time that came up you derided the idea, saying yoga had to stay close to the individual, close to its roots, and not try to reform the world.”
“Times change, bud,” said Barron.
“Trying to teach yoga to Hells Angels isn’t a hop skip and jump.”
“No,” said Barron. “It’s a great leap forward, man.”
Barron Cannon took secret pleasure in conflating things like the moon landing and Chairman Mao, as though the past was play dough.
“How did it go?”
“Not bad, they got engaged in what we were doing. I think they might follow up on the class.”
“When hell freezes over,” thought Frank.
Barron Cannon laughed.
“That’s mostly true, but not entirely true,” he said. “No one is absolutely unsuited for yoga practice.”
“Are you reading my mind?”
“Are you sure they weren’t just grandstanding?”
“If there’s anything uncertain about yoga, it’s certainty,” said Barron.
Many law enforcement agencies worldwide consider the Hells Angels the numero uno of the “Big Four” motorcycle gangs, the others being the Pagans, Outlaws, and Bandidos. They investigate and arrest the bikers for engaging in organized crime, including extortion, drug dealing, trafficking in stolen goods, and violent battery of all kinds. They raid their clubhouses and haul the Filthy Few off to jail.
The police never bust up yoga studios, which are generally spic and span.
Members of the Hells Angels say they are a group of enthusiasts who have bonded to ride motorcycles together, organizing events such as road trips, rallies, and fundraisers. They say any crimes are the responsibility of the men who committed them and not the club as a whole, despite many convictions for racketeering, riots, mayhem, and shootings.
One of their slogans is, “When in doubt, knock ‘em out.”
“How did you get them into the studio in the first place?”
“I was at the Shell station up on the corner, filling up, when a Hells Angel pulled in behind me. He moved like a wooden Indian. He had to lean on the gas tank getting off his motorcycle.”
“And you suggested yoga?”
“You should try yoga,” Barron said to the biker. “It’s good for your back.”
“What the fuck?” said the biker, his arms tattooed from wrist to shoulder. “Who the hell are you?”
“I teach yoga just down the street. You should come in for a beginner’s class. You might be surprised what a big help it can be.”
“Fuck off,” said the biker.
“So, what happened?” asked Frank.
“The next thing I knew, there they were this morning. They took over the class, one of them standing outside turning everyone else away, saying the class was full, until I got started.”
“How did it go?”
“They wouldn’t chant, and they didn’t want to hear much beforehand. They told me to get down to business, so what happened was that it turned into a plain and simple asana class.”
“How did they do?”
“They’re strong men, but most of them can’t touch their toes to save their lives. They tried hard, so I will give them that. They were terrific doing the warrior poses, but things like triangle, anything cross-legged, and some of the twists were beyond them. Most of them were stiff as boards.”
Yoga plays an important role in reducing aggression and violence. It helps you by becoming more thoughtful about your actions. It makes you more flexible in tight spots. The brain-addled in prisons have been specifically helped by the practice.
“Attention and impulsivity are very important for this population, which has problems dealing with aggressive impulses,” says Oxford University psychologist Miguel Farias about inmates
Simple things like pranayama breathing techniques release tension and anger. Doing headstand is a good way to get it into your head that you can’t stay mad when you’re on your head. Mindfulness and awareness flip the misconceptions of anger.
“We can see anger in terms of a lack of awareness, as well as an active misconstruing of reality,” says the Dalai Lama.
Even the yoga concept of non-attachment can be a big help. No matter what patches you wear, you aren’t that patch. You are an individual who is free to make individual choices. The Hells Angel skull’s head is a reminder of the transitory nature of life. Make the most of it. Don’t be always punching your way out of a paper bag.
Frank and Barron finished their coffees and stepped outside. At the crosswalk they paused at the curb. The traffic was light on Clifton Boulevard, but a biker was approaching. He was a trim young man on a yellow Vespa. He pulled up and stopped at the painted line of the crosswalk. He was wearing a turquoise football-style helmet. Both his arms up to the sleeveless of his black t-shirt were heavily tattooed. He waved at them to go. They went over the edge of the curb into the street.
Stepping up to the curb on the other side, Barron said, “There you are, Frank, not all angels are bats out of hell.”
Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”