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Meditations on John Orr

Duke yoga instructor John Orr may have the most interesting backstory you've never heard of.
Duke yoga instructor John Orr may have the most interesting backstory you've never heard of.

As Duke yoga instructor John Orr walks among the prone figures of his class in savasana, his steady, almost melodic voice lulls them deeper into introspection.

“Let your attention rest in the space and see what we discover, as yoga is an exploration of the mind, the body and the space in which the mind and body exists,” Orr intones. “Perhaps, becoming deeply aware of the spaciousness internally and around us will help us to further investigate, ‘Who am I?’”

Orr’s yoga class focuses on meditating and becoming aware of the body, which are techniques he learned during his own journey of self-discovery that transformed him from a lacrosse player at the University of Massachusetts to a Thai Buddhist monk.

Because Orr was of age at the outbreak of the Vietnam War, he was assigned a lottery number. To his dismay, Orr received a low lottery number, meaning that he would be sent to Vietnam once he graduated college. This twist of fate forced Orr to re-evaluate his future.

“I realized that what I was looking for, I would not find in college,” Orr said. “I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but I knew I wasn’t going to find it there.”

Orr left UMass his junior year, and went to New York to deal with the draft board. In order to keep in shape after leaving the lacrosse team, Orr began learning yoga out of a book. His interest in yoga increased after a chance encounter while he was hitchhiking north of New York City.

“I got a ride from a couple of people with shaved heads,” Orr said. “They had just come back from a zen monastery in Japan and both of them were disciples of Swami Satchidananda, who was one of the early yoga teachers to come to the United States.”

The men introduced Orr to the Integral Yoga Institute in uptown Manhattan, where he began to frequent as a student. Orr found himself increasingly drawn to the Eastern philosophy and meditation process that came from practicing yoga. After receiving a deferment from the military, Orr left the country for Mallorca, Spain in October 1971 with the ultimate goal of reaching India, where he could study at yoga ashrams.

He would not reach India for another 11 months and would not return to the United States for eight years.

From Spain, Orr made his way around the Mediterranean Sea through Northern Africa, Southern Europe and the Middle East. He also explored the interior of Africa.

“I got transported any way I could—boat, bus, plane, train, walking,” Orr said.

Orr’s journey was not without some bumps in the road. When he entered Uganda from the Tanzania border in August 1972, the Director of the Criminal Investigation Department of Uganda imprisoned Orr and accused him of being a spy or mercenary soldier.

“I was walking down the street with a fellow traveler and a man in a uniform told me to come over to see him, and he asked me for my passport,” Orr recalled. “He looked at my passport and said, ‘I’ve been to your country; I know how you treat black people in your country. You’re going to jail.’”

Uganda, then under the control of the ruthless military dictator Idi Amin, was waging war against a rebel tribe that had been forced into Tanzania. Orr was sent to three prisons over the course of nine days as the government interviewed him about his history and ancestry to discover his purpose in the country. Although he was spared from torture during his imprisonment, Orr recalled hearing the screams of other prisoners with less fortunate fates.

“It was a very scary situation because they have complete control over you and can do whatever they want to you,” Orr said.

Orr’s experience in prison was a wake-up call—he realized that he had deviated from his initial purpose of traveling to India to visit yoga ashrams. When Orr was finally released from prison in Uganda and deported to Kenya, he was finally able to make the two-week voyage across the Indian Ocean to reach South India.

Orr traveled throughout the Indian sub-continent for about a year, starting in Katmandu and eventually making his way up to the base of Mount Everest. Along the way he stayed in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, which gave him his first taste of Buddhism. Once he reached Northern India, Orr visited representative Buddhist temples of different countries in an effort to learn more about the religion.

“When I went into the Thai temple, I felt a connection with that particular lineage of Buddhism,” Orr said. “I was more interested in the Buddhist meditation than I was in Hinduism and yoga practice. I felt more pulled in the direction of deeper study of Buddhism and Buddhist meditation.”

To follow his interest in Thai Buddhism, Orr left India for Thailand and decided to study as a Buddhist monk. Because he was not born into a Thai Buddhist family, Orr’s process in becoming a monk was lengthened slightly as he had to learn to speak Thai and understand the Thai Buddhist culture. Orr was ordained as a Buddhist monk on his 24th birthday.

As a monk, Orr’s day was filled with mindfulness, meditation and reflection. The monks would wake up before sunrise and eat one meal a day before noon that was provided to them by the townspeople. Although there were not many, Orr was not the only Westerner practicing as a Buddhist monk in the monastery. Orr said that some former U.S. marines returned to Southeast Asia to further pursue Buddhism after being exposed to it during their deployment.

The monastery Orr lived in had no electricity or running water. Once he became more experienced as a Buddhist monk, Orr left the monastery to live alone and even lived in a cave for five months.

“Being a monk, I was in the center of their [Thai] culture,” Orr said.

Ironically, Orr’s journey brought him even closer to the Vietnam War even though his journey had been prompted by attempting to avoid the conflict. Orr recalls meditating in a makeshift shelter made out of bomb crates.

“We would be meditating in the meditation hall and you would open your eyes and read the description of a bomb that was made in the United States and dropped on someone in Southeast Asia,” Orr said. “The taxes from the people living in the United States had essentially created the monastery I was living in.”

Orr practiced as a Buddhist monk for eight years—six in Southeast Asia and two in the United States. Orr found his way to Duke by teaching a couple yoga classes for another professor at the University. When the professor decided to leave Duke, Orr took on a job as a full-time yoga instructor. He has taught at Duke for 27 years.

Even though he disrobed, Orr’s experiences as a Buddhist monk continue to guide his life, especially in teaching his class at Duke.

“Many Duke students spend a lot of time upstairs in their head,” Orr said. “One of the values of the yoga class is that there is an emphasis of being in one’s body for deepening mindfulness.”

Orr’s yoga class is taught for a half credit and currently enrolls a maximum of 18 students. He plans to take next semester off to travel on a spiritual retreat.

“He’s not just teaching the class,” sophomore Kyle Peterson said. “He can make it work in individual experiences and help you out.”

Duke yoga teacher Joanna Spector met Orr through their work for the Human Kindness Foundation, an organization that teaches meditation to prison inmates.

"John is a low-key guy who is consistent in personal practice,” Spector said. “He was instrumental in hiring me [at Duke], and I am forever indebted to him.”

Orr was drawn to working with the Human Kindness Foundation, in part, due to his own experiences in prison in Uganda. The goal of the project is to provide spiritual support for the prisoners and connect them to the outside world.

Although his lengthy journey forever changed his life and continues to guide his lifestyle, Orr never expected to be attracted to Thai Buddhism. Orr credits the people he met along his journey with aiding his transformation and forcing him to reevaluate his identity, both as an American and as a person.

“It was my graduate studies,” Orr said of his travels and experiences as a monk. “Whereas some people might go for a master’s or Ph.D. in the United States, what was most important in terms of my own learning was learning about the Buddhist teachings and living as a Buddhist monk.”