Pranayama, Asana, Tadasana, and Down-dog. Nope. I’m not reading from an Indian restaurant menu, nor am I at the animal shelter choosing a breed of dog!
This sunny Sunday afternoon, I am in yoga class. I try to get a class or two in every week, but I have to admit that I truly enjoy when the instructor says, “Savasana [shah-vah-sah-nah].” It means “corpse pose” and we do it at the end. I lie flat on my mat and take some quiet moments to allow all the energy just dispelled to penetrate all over my calm being. Yoga balances my mind and body to relieve daily stress!
One man who helps keeps me sane in this insane world is Thomas Harris, twenty-eight, a certified yoga instructor who trained in Rishikesh, India, the reputed birthplace of yoga. Several years ago, he was a successful realtor, but feeling unfulfilled, he left the business. Thomas, a Southern California native, is also a personal trainer and a health advocate.
A travel enthusiast, he visited thirteen countries last year. I’m so jealous! His favorite city is
Bangkok, Thailand. Other joys in Thomas’s life are his nearly two-year relationship with Jeremy, and his cat, Badru (which is Egyptian for “born on the full moon”). Sober for five years, Thomas eats a vegan plant-based diet, and his downtime consists of hiking, astrology, and getting serious tatts on his body.
For the past several years, Thomas has volunteered for AIDS events and he currently works with people living with HIV in recovery. Shortly after Thomas was born, his Uncle Terry died of AIDS-related causes. Though he never knew him, Thomas was significantly impacted by his death.
After class, Thomas and I walk around the corner that’s just off the hip-earthy tourist-trodden Melrose Avenue, and squat on the curb. We kippitz under a hefty shady elm tree.
Ruby Comer: Oh Thomas, I have to tell you. I’m reading this wonderful biography! It’s called Wisecracker, and it’s about the first openly gay star, William Haines. It naturally includes the days of silent films as well as early Hollywood. You would love it. What are you reading?
Thomas Parker Harris: Sacred Contracts by Caroline Myss.
Oh, one of my all time favorite self-help gurus! For me, she stands with Louise Hay [A&U, April 2010], Wayne Dyer, and Deepak Chopra [A&U, August 2001]. As you might know, Caroline and Louise were soldiers at the very beginning of the AIDS battle. [I stop as a thunderous revved motorcycle streaks by.] Thomas, tell me how your Uncle Terry’s death affected you.
Well…because of his death, I was aware of AIDS all my life. Every year my mom [Terry was her older brother] would hang an ornament on our Christmas tree, fastened with a red ribbon. Uncle Terry was in his early thirties when he died. I only met him as a baby, so my memories are only stories from other family members. My uncle identified as bisexual and lived in Los Angeles, but, when his illness progressed, he moved to New York City. He didn’t want to pass away at home.
How heartbreaking, Thomas.
He’s remembered as a vibrant person, the life of the party, adventurous—and hilarious. He was wild! My uncle was also a talented artist and we still have a lot of his artwork that hang in family members’ homes.
Such a loss. It sounds like you have some of his traits. [His bright whites gleam a knowing proud smile, making him look a lot like actor Patrick Wilson.]
Even though I was so young when he passed away, its like he’s always been a part of my life. My family is very close. I believe Uncle Terry and I carry each other’s spirit around for lifetimes…and beyond. When he passed away, my family was devastated. He left behind a brother, four sisters, his mom and dad, nieces, and nephews.
Then just in 2011, I had a friend die of this disease.
William was having a rough time in recovery from drugs and alcohol and chose to stop taking his HIV medication. He died slowly. By the time he was admitted into the hospital, he had some major opportunistic infections. He was too far gone for the doctors to save him. Friends and I went to the hospital to visit him and it was pretty intense. We had to wear plastic gowns over our clothes, and a mask on our face to prevent passing anything on to him.
My god, it sounds like the early days of the epidemic!
The sad part about William was, as you well know, there was medication available. [Thomas takes a sip from his can of coconut water.] It was William’s way of committing suicide.
My. Thomas, tell about your addiction.
I was addicted to drugs for ten years, from thirteen to twenty-three. I used all drugs, Ruby! Meth and heroin were my drugs of choice. Prescription pills, ecstasy, alcohol, hallucinogens, GHB, weed, and cocaine were always a part of the picture for me, but mainly I was a meth addict and got hooked on heroin at seventeen.
Drugs were amazing at the beginning. I had so much fun! But in the end, it tore my life…apart. I had nothing by the end of my addiction. I was intravenously using drugs and [Thomas takes a breath] was dying.
What made you turn wholly around?!
The turning point for me was experiencing jail multiple times, trips to the hospital from overdosing and psychosis, as well as homelessness at the very end. I have been clean and sober now for over five years. My life is so much better! I am passionate about being alive…when before, all I wanted was to escape.
Kudos, my friend. Wow. That is a major accomplishment. Tell me about some of the personal work you’ve done with people living with HIV.
I have helped many who are in recovery, acting as a mentor as well as their sponsor. This includes outreach calls, meetings, and working the Twelve Steps!
And I know you volunteered in Orange County, near your hometown of Laguna….
I volunteered at Shanti Orange County working with AIDS services and participated on panels for the Orange County Gay and Lesbian Clinic to help with funding for healthcare and services for people living with HIV. Oh, also, I remember one World AIDS Day I participated in activities by the Pacific Ocean.
What did your work at Shanti entail?
Planning meetings and overseeing things like financial services to HIV clients in need of housing, job search, pantry/food programs, and connection to mental health services. I also worked at The Gerry House in Santa Ana, which is a treatment center for those who intravenously use drugs, are living with HIV, and/or are in drug court.
Thanks for all your efforts, Thomas. We need more people like you who can turn their life around—and then give life to others. What do you advise for those living with HIV, or anyone else with a chronic disease?
Anyone who is positive will greatly benefit from yoga because it helps release stress and it keeps the body and mind healthy. This affects the immune system in a positive way. I have an amazing plant-based nutrition program that helps lessen inflammation, lower cholesterol, manage weight, and help with diabetes. It delivers rich nutrients in the body, and statistically lowers the risk of heart disease. [He pauses.] Changing the way we eat, combined with incorporating movement in the body through yoga, positively affects our physical and mental health in the best way!
I like your attitude, fella! I know you are a tattoo aficionado; pick one of your tatts and explain why you had it done.
I have fifteen in total and some are traditional Thai and Cambodian tattoos. Those are extremely special to me because they represent spiritual protection and universal blessings. I had two done in Thailand and another done in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I love collecting tattoos when I travel, as they stay with me forever. It’s the best souvenir, Ruby!
Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected].