NEW BERLIN —
As state police await autopsy results before determining whether a Union County yoga master's death was an accident or a homicide, friends spent Tuesday reflecting on his remarkable life that included a collegiate football career and a stint in a military special operations unit before the transformation that turned Joe Fenton into Sudharman.
"I suppose you could say the first thing he reminded me of was a Buddha- or Jesus-like figure in the respect that he's a person you automatically wanted to emulate," yoga student Christian Cochran said Tuesday.
Cochran, like many of Sudharman's friends and students, was shocked to hear of the 70-year-old man's death on Monday.
Sudharman was found dead on the floor of his living quarters at the Integral Yoga Center on Market Street, in New Berlin, by a fellow teacher, wrapped in blankets below the 8-foot-high loft in which Sudharman slept.
Cochran was among Sudharman's students, family and friends who were at the yoga center Tuesday afternoon, offering a chant meant to usher Sudharman into the afterlife.
Police have not yet ruled out foul play nor will they call the death a homicide, state police Trooper Matthew Burrows said. He hopes an autopsy scheduled for 10 this morning at the Lehigh Valley Medical Center in Allentown will help to determine a cause of death.
An athlete, scholar
Sudharman was born Joe Fenton, the son of a prison worker and nurse, and moved to Lewisburg when he was 12. A Dragons football star, he went to Cornell University on an athletic and academic scholarship, graduated in 1961 with a degree in zoology and planned to attend medical school.
Instead, he went into business, eventually working as general manager of a minor league football team. In the mid-1960s, Sudharman entered the Navy.
Fred Bloom, of Lancaster, was Sudharman's roommate for a year at Cornell and over the years had been frequently regaled with Sudharman's stories about managing the minor league football team and then becoming a member of an elite special operations unit.
Friends give varying accounts of his military service, suggesting Sudharman was either in the unit before it was described as the Navy SEALS or that he was a member of the first class of SEALS.
Ron Demer, of Ithaca, the president of the alumni association of Cornell's prestigious Quill and Daggers honor society, said that in college Sudharman was a popular football player and Sigma Phi fraternity member.
As a result, it was not surprising that Sudharman was admitted as a member to the Quill and Daggers, which reportedly ranks with Skull and Bones at Yale as one of the most prestigious college honor societies.
Used experiences to teach
As a Sigma Phi alumnus, Sudharman annually hosted a yoga retreat for the frat's new members.
"He would draw on a lot of these different experiences in his dynamic life and it was a way for everyone to better understand his view of the world and how we should all draw strength from that," said Bob Berstein, 34, of Boston, a Sigma Phi brother and friend of Sudharman's for the past 10 years.
Berstein served on the Sigma Phi alumni board with Sudharman, and as their friendship grew, he often visited him in New Berlin. His last visit was in April.
"He was one of the most generous, kind people that I've ever known and one who really wanted to take the time to really care and understand and also share his experiences and really was a mentor for me and many others," Berstein said.
Sudharman's transformation from Joe Fenton to yoga master came after he casually took a yoga class while visiting a friend in Mexico.
He would never look back. From Mexico, Sudharman traveled to Canada, where he learned from the students of Swami Satchidananda, and later from Satchidananda himself.
Years later, when Sudharman's college buddy, Demer, met him again, "I would never have recognized him," Demer said. "He had been this clean-cut jock guy, he would have been the last guy in the world I would have expected" would have adopted the lifestyle of a yogi.
Sudharman was always peaceful
But Jim Wetzel, who counted Sudharman among his friends for nearly 60 years, said the peaceful nature of yoga was something that was always within him.
Wetzel played football and baseball with Sudharman and graduated from Lewisburg Area High School a year behind him. Wetzel remember the young Sudharman, then Joe Fenton, as a soft-spoken, highly intelligent young man, a man whose intelligence often set him apart from his peers.
"He always had that different side of him and as kids you don't think about what that is," Wetzel said. "I remember him saying one time that he was known to exist on many levels. That was just way over my head."
Indeed it was difficult to reconcile Sudharman's physical characteristics — his whispered voice and slender build — with his rough-and-tumble past. But, Cochran said, if one looked closely, Sudharman carried those experiences with him into the yoga studio.
"If you looked hard enough you could see the remains of the Navy SEAL," Cochran said. "He was a wonderful teacher, but he was a tough teacher, tough in the sense, 'I know you can do this. You need to do this. You're not living up to your full potential.' He was the epitome of tough love."
Joe Diblin, who years ago lived alongside the Fenton family just outside of Lewisburg, remembered Sudharman's recollection of a harrowing experience in the Navy.
It was late at night when Diblin said Sudharman returned home from his service in the Navy. Unable to get into his parent's home, he woke Diblin's wife and told her a horrifying story.
"He and another partner were doing something under the water and a huge shark grabbed his partner and just mutilated him in front of him and he was he was an absolute wreck for having seen it," Diblin said. "I remember vividly my wife was shocked, not only at the story, but at his emotional condition."
Diblin believes it may have been this harrowing experience that led Sudharman to choose his eventual path.
Disbelief at thought of foul play
Police were back at the scene in New Berlin on Tuesday, Trooper Burrows said, to examine the area again, this time in full daylight.
Those who knew him found it difficult to believe that the peaceful, gentle-natured man could have died at the hands of another.
"He was the most peaceful, kind and gentle soul I have ever had the pleasure of coming into contact with," Cochran, 24, said. "It was everything about him, his entire aura, his demeanor, the way he spoke, the way he moved, the food he ate. He didn't teach yoga. He lived yoga."
In fact, when reached by phone by Sudharman's son Monday night, Berstein said he made no mention of foul play.
"That wasn't even mentioned in our conversation," Berstein said. "It just seems incredible. It just seems impossible from my perspective."
But so too, friends say, are reports that the man, though elderly, was prone to falls. Not so, they say.
"We would take long walks together," Berstein said. "I'm 34 and he was easily in a lot better shape than I was. Yoga required an incredible balance, but with his age he was extremely capable."
Cochran agreed: "He was the most graceful person, the most healthy person. He could do poses that I, at 24 years old in the prime of my health and physical wellbeing, that I couldn't even dream about."
But, Cochran said, Sudharman was known to have fallen from his 8-foot loft on at least one other occasion.
And, in an unpublished portion of Sudharman's December interview with The Daily Item, he spoke of curing himself of prostate cancer.
At the time, he said he cured himself by maintaining an alkaline pH balance in his body through diet and drinking ionized water.
Sudharmon believed that an acidic pH led to poor health and, in his case, prostate cancer. Shunning modern medicine, which he believed did more harm than good, Sudharman said he opted instead to cure himself by eating alkalizing foods such as vegetables and low-sugar fruits, and drinking water that had its pH adjusted through the use of an ionizer.
Trooper Burrows was hopeful today's autopsy would put an end to all of the speculation.
Despite the fact that Sudharman's life story was apparently well-known by many, Wetzel said there was always an element of mystery surrounding the man formerly known as Joe Fenton.
"In my thinking, he was so private," Wetzel said, "that you would never know if there was something else going on in his life."
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