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Assume the lotus position
By KATHRYN WEXLER, Times Staff Writer
No, really. This week, he's flying in to lead a three-day retreat at a private home nestled among green pastures in the farthest reaches of northern Hillsborough County.
Reaction of Carol Roberts, holistic doctor in Brandon: "Oh, wow!"
But who else in these parts will utter an "oh!" much less an "ommm" of recognition about Uttal?
The answer may be as ugly as a lotus flower fungus. The face of Florida's west coast is Bubba. Not Buddha.
Nikki Rood, for one, is determined to stay positive. She's the host.
Rood, 42, had been an Uttal enthusiast for a decade. But it wasn't until she saw him at a holistic retreat last year in St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where he was leading one of his famous call and response concerts, called kirtan, that she took a deep breath and spoke to him. Might he consider gracing her home with his presence?
Sure, he said. Just like that. Sure.
"I was just so honored," said Rood, a native New Yorker who two years ago peeled off her panty hose for the last time, tossed her health care market research company to her partner (her mother) and headed south to make a fresh start.
For the burger-chomping crowd, Jai Uttal is not to be confused with rapper Ja Rule.
But what Uttal is best known for isn't the harmonium, sarod and guitar. Handsome and humble, with an Indian guru, some see him as a spiritual teacher himself, who can lecture on ancient Hindu texts.
For this weekend's participants, Uttal will lead two kirtans, a melodious repetition of the names of Hindu gods with audience participation. For hours.
In Uttal's words, it's "the calling, the crying, the reaching across infinite space -- digging into the heart's deepest well to touch and be touched by the Divine Presence."
Try making that palatable to soccer moms.
Rood gives it a shot: "Truly, all it really is about is cracking the heart wide open," she said. "It's about love. And I think that is so incredibly nonesoteric. It's a basic, fundamental human need, so in that sense it's not mystical at all."
Uttal's profile has gotten a kick lately, which makes it all the more ethereal he's headed our way. With the national embrace of yoga, what was once alternative is mainstream. Corporations sponsor meditation classes. There's natural deodorant on drug store shelves. And those very people who once dissed people such as Uttal as "woo-woo" are now demanding soy milk in their Starbucks lattes.
Born Douglas Zion Uttal to a Jewish family in New York, he assumed the name of Jai (meaning praise) at 18 after a yoga teacher suggested it.
Some have called Uttal a New Age icon, but he rejects the New Age categorization. And he doesn't like the icon thing, either. Nor is he in the habit of revealing his age.
"He's ageless," said his New York manager, Steve Dalmer, waxing a bit New Agey himself.
Uttal says his music reaches back through the centuries.
"What I share with people is not a New Age spiritual practice; it's an ancient, ancient practice," he said.
"He's very popular and very sought after," said Ila Sarley, director of communications for the Omega Institute of Holistic Studies, a 25-year-old organization whose frequent yoga conferences draw thousands. She regularly books Uttal for the opening night.
"Women just want to get near him and talk to him."
Jai Uttal, ki jai! Long live Jai Uttal! It's the cry of his hippest fans.
Mid September he was at the Monterey festival, where some 800 onlookers swooned to Uttal's beat. A week earlier, almost 2,000 people grooved to his grooves at the Trinity Tribal Stomp event near San Francisco.
Next stop, Lutz. Jai, what gives?
It's all good, according to Rood. Except that now she's busting her butt.
She's typing up fliers and photocopying brochures, tacking them to bulletin boards from Brandon to Clearwater, answering e-mail queries and phone calls, borrowing the sound gear that Uttal requires, mowing 5 acres of green, vacuuming the 3,000-square-foot house twice a day to keep the tiled floors clear of hair from five cats and a pound mutt, planning the menu, plotting how she'll cook, scrub, make the beds and do the laundry for her guests during the weekend retreat, and, in her downtime, giving massages and teaching yoga classes at home to pay the bills.
That was before the percussionist she lined up for Uttal's weekend hit the road to open for Carlos Santana. "The star's coming, and there's no percussionist -- oookay!" she said. It wasn't until Tuesday that she found a replacement.
"I really wish I could have a maid."
So much for leaving the harried life behind in New York. "I used to live in business suits and panty hose," says Rood, who now never parts with flowing clothes and anklets. "Can you believe that?"
Last year she discovered a dilapidated 3,000-square-foot house on 5 acres. She snapped it up, promptly naming it Wisdom Pond, an oblique (okay, very oblique) reference to naturalist Henry Thoreau.
The gist of her inspiration: "Having grown up in New York City, with wonderful people and wonderful experiences, I've also grown up in a generation that was largely materialistic," she said.
"There is a lot, I believe, of misunderstandings about the human spirit at this time in our lives, and a really deep need to go back to that which is simple and natural. I have chosen to dedicate my life to maybe humbly creating some small space on the globe where people can come and shrug off the negativities that go with the stresses of modern society and even, just for the weekend, experience some pure relaxation and joy.
"Sure, I created Wisdom Pond because I'm a single woman and have worked my whole life and need to support myself. But somewhere along the line, I saw the bigger picture."
Will Tampa Bay area residents see it, too?
With monthly retreats featuring local personalities, Rood figures her support base will blossom. It's still in the bud phase, she concedes. Maybe Uttal will be just the fertilizer she needs.
The Tampa Bay area is no Los Angeles, where Uttal has been billed at the trendy House of Blues. It's not New York, where the poor guy risks being mobbed by women in cotton stretch pants if he makes an appearance at certain yoga studios. And it's not even Miami, where Uttal played to a yoga conference that drew 2,000 participants last year.
But some local residents, such as Carol Roberts, say there are seedlings here -- sprouts, even -- of a community that is open-minded enough to give someone like Uttal the welcome he deserves.
Whether Rood can mobilize them by word of mouth and a shoestring marketing budget has yet to be seen. To the uninitiated, he may seem a bit, um, out there.
As of last Tuesday, there were 15 confirmed participants for the weekend package. Fifteen. Beds are still available, vegetarian meals included, at $350 for the whole shebang. To pitch a tent in her rambling back yard, the price drops to $200.
Come for the weekend, a day, an evening. An hour.
Uttal, for his part, inhabits a realm in which quantity doesn't matter so much as quality. Coincidentally, his fee schedule isn't based on attendance.
"I'm hoping -- and I guess I have some expectation -- that the people who do come are coming with an open mind, an open heart, and ready to dive into the experience of chanting," he said.
Rood booked Uttal's second-class airfare -- "he's not a prima donna" -- and sent him a check for a couple thousand dollars a few weeks ago. A small balance, she says, is due after the weekend.
It's a stubbornly mundane concern, this money thing. Especially for someone who has devoted herself to the sublime.
Said Rood, "I wish we could all deal in wampum."
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