Western medicine couldn’t heal my body. The realization of that, along with my acceptance of it, slowly sunk into my bones. A couple of months after my last cortisone injection, I tried a “medical yoga” class, a synthesis of restorative yoga and physical therapy intended for people with injuries. It was taught by a nurse from the local hospital. I went once or twice a week for a month and had a small taste of the therapeutic benefits of restorative yoga. My intuition and my body both whispered yes, this. Give yourself more of this and some healing could be possible.
I was still hanging on to a few preconceived notions and false misperceptions about classes at yoga studios: too much dogma / I don’t want to be the only man in the room / don’t you need to be flexible? My ex-wife pushed me to try it, insisting I would benefit from it. She was right, and I’ll always be beyond grateful to her for that. There’s a twist here, though: the practice of yoga eventually led to transformational shifts in my psychological and emotional states, and was a profound part of my decision to end our marriage. In addition to the strain of chronic illness, our marriage had become sticky with other complications too. I began to see that I no longer had the capacity for it.
I was on the threshold of turning forty when I began practicing Kripalu yoga at a local studio in New York. My primary teacher, Steven, was an older man who had once been an auto mechanic, sustained serious injuries, and eventually rehabilitated and transformed his body through yoga – a perfect teacher for me. This was just what I needed, not a giraffe-like twenty-something who didn’t know how it felt to be in an overweight, injured, middle-aged man’s body. It was plain to me that I was now taking a big step down a healing path and was thrilled to have found what I would come to think of as “my medicine”. So what if I had to modify most of the poses? I found peace of mind, a rested heart, and profound physical therapy there on the hardwood floors of that second-story yoga studio, daylight streaming in over the plants, near the windows overlooking the street. I acknowledged myself in a way I never had before. I surrendered to the discomfort and the ease of the poses, and to myself. It was cathartic to stop fighting, to stop resisting against the painful parts of my life. I’d never related to life that way before. I’d always fought, always resisted.
In the course of my two years with Steven I lost thirty pounds, my carpal tunnel healed completely, my other injuries healed almost completely, and my knee healed by about seventy-five percent. (I think it’s important to note here that the purpose of yoga is not to “get in shape”, though that often inherently occurs as a side-effect.) Now, five years in, I feel stronger than ever.
Joel Kramer has described yoga as “a psychophysical approach to life and to self-understanding”. Kripalu Yoga, much like the Insight Yoga developed by Sarah Powers, is often described as “meditation in motion”, and focuses on restoring your connection with yourself through movement and stillness, offering clarity and calm. You linger in each pose, staying in the discomfort and the comfort, and observe what comes up for you, escalating the act of self-inquiry, allowing insights to compost and bubble up to the surface. Practicing repeatedly lays the groundwork for healing to be possible, bringing a sense of wholeness and a sense of gathering the scattered pieces of yourself.
At the same time, it lays a foundation for self-acceptance that brings with it the possibility for change. You become a scientist whose project is your own behavior, habits, motivations. One of the central points of practicing yoga is simply to ask the question: what do I spend all my time doing, and why? This willingness to self-inquire is your base-camp: to meet whatever you find with a tender acceptance and soft attention. From there, you just continue working with yourself, in much the same way a kindly grandmother might lovingly knead dough and patiently bake bread, day after day. You don’t embrace or reject, you simply make loaf after loaf with love and discipline, becoming a little more skilled each time.
For me personally, yoga (along with meditation) has calmed the extremity of my highs and lows, connecting me to a much more anchored center in which to be with myself, and from which to carry myself in the world. It helps me appreciate and make sense of the losses I’ve endured, and inspires me to call into question how we define gain and loss, success and failure, in American society. It helps me make contact with my heart and the ground of my being, which gives me welcome relief from the self-identity my mind is always subconsciously working so hard to maintain, in order to be seen in the ways it desires to be seen.
We all have a lot to learn about how and why we see ourselves the ways that we do, and why we relate to other people, and the rest of life, in the ways that we do. Yoga has the potential to assist us hugely in that endeavor. In the same way that your body learns to soften its rigidity and surrender to the discomfort of an asana pose, your ego-mind begins to loosen its grip on its own constructs and beliefs. One begins to lean in the direction of experiencing life from a place of curiosity rather than emotional reactivity.
As you continue, the process continues: old parts of you long to be identified and released to make space for new roots, new directions, new dimensions to be brought to the surface, acknowledged, realized. You’re left with a sense of steadiness, an evenness, that eventually stays with you whether or not you’re on a thin rectangular mat.
Steady breath, steady practice, and maybe even a little steadiness in life.
For a few years I took what extra time, energy, and “stolen moments” I had, and poured it into creating a fantasy world – literally – and writing a young adult story set in that world. If only I could get this published, I thought, all my anger and pain and resentment will somehow be legitimized, qualified. I’ve long nursed the dream of publishing a novel, to accompany my lifelong need for acceptance from others. I queried agent after agent, submitted to publisher after publisher, paid to get professional help with my mediocre synopsis, attended webinars. The book was met with some interest here and there, excitement overtaking me each time. But those doors, it turned out, didn’t have any treasure behind them – only empty rooms. Literary agents weren’t connecting strongly enough with the characters and, in the end, I was left with a bucket of rejections. Another failure, proclaims the incessant ego-mind…
Chefs and cooks work long hours, performing repetitious physical actions that can take a serious toll on the body over time. I did not take very good care of myself in my twenties, and my body’s response was to start falling apart in my thirties, one piece at a time. I was in and out of physical therapy, and on escalating doses of naproxen, for years. I continued to work full-time kitchen management hours through plantar fasciitis, ankle tendonitis, metatarsal tendonitis, trigger finger, a damaged meniscus, and a back injury.
As grueling as the other injuries were, it was the back injury that changed my relationship to my body in a lasting way. It made me see that I had a false perception of my own strength, and revealed how weak my core was. I’ve never felt as vulnerable or helpless as I did when I hurt my back. I closed my eyes, looked into my future, and it scared the wits out of me. I knew it was time to start taking care of myself on a much deeper level than I’d ever considered before.
Yoga Nidra was the first form of yoga I’d ever tried. It was winter in upstate New York during the time of my back injury. I would come home from work, take off my back brace, crawl into bed, lie on my back, close my eyes, and listen to a guided Yoga Nidra session comprised of a body scan, sensory prompts, a chakra sweep, and guided visualization. It was a tangible link between my present injured state and a swirling dream of grounded healing. I was hanging off the edge of a cliff, but Yoga Nidra, along with physical therapy, had a firm grip on me. During the next few months they became the lifeline I would use to pull myself up, day by day, away from that edge.
Some months later, I damaged the meniscus in my right knee. The knee was drained and injected with a steroid, and eventually drained and injected again. The drug brought a mask of temporary relief that lasted less than a month. Around this time, I was diagnosed with “trigger finger”, a variation of carpal tunnel. The thumb and forefinger of my right hand swelled up and lost their range of motion – the result of too much repetitive knife-gripping over the years.
My hand was injected with a steroid, but – as was the case with my knee – the relief wore off in a few weeks. I remember calling to make an appointment for another cortisone injection and being told no, because I’d already been given the maximum yearly amount that is safe for a human body. Now what? I was up against a wall again, and I knew my organs were working overtime trying to process all the drugs. Medication was not a sustainable solution. The approach so widely embraced by my country’s medical system was not going to work for me.
To use a sports metaphor in western medicine’s defense, though: I was not the injured athlete who sits out the rest of the season to recuperate. I was the injured athlete who was still running up and down the field all day long, making plays. The treatments may have been much more effective had that not been the case, but it still wouldn’t have changed the fact that they were not an ideal choice for long-term healing.
The ego-mind lives in fear of so much that cannot be avoided or controlled: change, failure, loss, weakness, judgment, shame, pain, and death. My ego-mind, for instance, does not want you to know that I have a son who I was never there for. Fulfilling the archetype of the absent father (as my dad and grandfather both did to some extent), I missed out on his entire childhood, and now he’s grown into a man. My ego doesn’t want you to know that there have been entire years of my life ruled by addiction and inertia. It doesn’t want you to know that I never followed through on the career path I used to think defined who I was, the novel I worked so hard on and then failed to publish, the marriage that fell apart. I have an impressive track record of failures, a killer resume. We so often think of compassion in terms of others, but genuinely feeling a soft-hearted tenderness for ourselves can be one of the trickiest flowers in our garden to grow.
Throughout my life, death and loss have always seemed to be uncomfortably close, refusing to keep their distance. At sixteen, breast cancer took my mother after a multi-year battle. That same year, both of my great-grandparents – well into their nineties – succumbed to stroke, memory loss, old age. Years later, cancer crept into my grandmother’s kidneys (my mom’s mom) and she chose assisted suicide in her home-state of Oregon. I was living three-thousand miles away in upstate New York when she called to tell me about her decision, on my birthday with a party going on in my house. “Here’s lookin’ at you kid” she would tell my sister two weeks later, drink down the martini with the drug swirling in it, and fade to black. Some years after, my uncle died of cirrhosis of the liver. Both of my dad’s parents recently passed away. My fourteen-year marriage ended in separation and divorce. I lost my relationship with each of my ex-wife’s family members. After fourteen years they had become my family too – I was close with each of them. But we all lost each other. Loss persists, and grief is a landscape through which we wander and roam without any clear endpoint. There are times when moving through grief, and all our many forms of resistance to it, can feel like going into battle.
A few years into our marriage, my ex-wife was debilitated by a chronic illness and our world changed almost overnight. Any thoughts we had about the future (having children, buying a home) eroded in the face of this radical force that seemed to have come out of nowhere. Our general happiness collapsed under rising levels of emotional pressure and financial worry, and it took many dark years to go from a mis-diagnosis of asthma to a correct diagnosis of GERD (gastro-esophageal reflux disease). She was no longer next to me in bed each night, relegated to the couch by incessant wheezing, throat-clearing, breathlessness, and the sleep deprivation that came with it. She couldn’t work. Our social life shrunk. The medical bills started coming in. Fast-forward a few years, and she was depressed, confused, scared, run ragged. She felt like she’d lost everything. So did I. I stuffed it down, used alcohol, wandered the woods alone for hours. I did my best to be a strong, steady rock. In the end it didn’t work. You can’t abandon yourself forever. It all comes back around in the long run.
Beneath my cheerful exterior I was growing numb, burning out on my job – and my life. Ultimately it would be yoga and meditation that would bring this fact into the field of my awareness and expose a deeper layer of my own interior to me – but not yet.
Year after year I watched the woman I loved suffer, and there was nothing I could do to change it. I already harbored a resentment of doctors and western medicine because I’d watched my mother lose a battle with breast cancer as a teenager. That resentment had begun to simmer, and it was bound up with the pain I held over all my lost loved ones in a sticky web of self-pity and sorrow. I was also deeply attached to a story I had made up about myself: my lot in life, I had decided, was that the people I loved most would always get sick and die. This is eventually everyone’s story, of course. But it’s difficult to see that when you’re caught up in your own story, struggling against acceptance of the basic nature of life. I was holding on tight to the notion that pain is a punishment; pleasure, a reward.
The problem with beliefs is how we brainwash ourselves with them. We will put ourselves through whatever it takes in order to hold up the construct of a belief about ourselves, another person, anything. Beliefs are like prison guards who have us convinced we’re living in the free world; meanwhile, we’re living in confinement.
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”If you grew up in western culture, you were taught to trust a reasoning mind, facts, and scientific evidence – not to listen to your body. You probably had no lessons in school to teach you to slow down and trust your bodily sensations. Instead, you were most likely taught to shut down, hold in your emotions, and not express what you feel.
Because you live in a culture that often does not value the sensitivity and wisdom of the body and emotions, becoming mindful is a radical act – one that requires you to stand up for your inner life. The more you slow down and listen to your body, the more it’s messages will become direct and clear.
Mindfulness cultivates the sensitive art of deep listening. You can remove the filters of fear, vigilance, and anticipation, and come into a direct relationship with “what is” right now. But it takes some discernment to see clearly and not judge your experiences.”
It’s those unexpected details in life that can astonish you sometimes, like little thieves waiting for an unwary tourist around a corner.
Ants coming out two days before it rains. Burro dung holding up adobe walls for two hundred years. A hummingbird’s heart beating over a thousand beats per minute. A blue whale’s tongue weighing as much as an elephant. Humans owing their existence to pollinators, and the sun’s proximity to Earth. Trees working tirelessly while appearing impossibly still. Your body’s ability to digest food with its own consciousness. Plants turning to face the sun. These are no small wonders.
The slant of the light at a particular moment. Steam rising from a bowl of soup. A certain smell accessing a fountain of memories in your brain: maybe cigar smoke, the interior of a car, the pages of a book, a bakery. A song opening a door inside you. Behind that door, a chapter of your life, a whole sweeping vista of memories, visions, emotions.
Naturally, all this astonishment exhausts you. But it’s a healthy exhaustion, like the one you experience after a long day of good hard physical work, or an hour of lovemaking, or an afternoon spent swimming in ocean waves. The language of being alive inhabits you completely.
You come home to a bag of ripe plums a friend left at your door. Eating one, you celebrate its wine-red flesh. One day you’ll be food for worms – maybe tomorrow, even – but for now you are here, in an astonishing world. Your whole being glows with wonder, almost child-like. You read a while, noticing the moon. You extinguish the light and close your eyes, drifting into sleep.
It’s strange, you think, how there’s no money in poetry, or bending spoons.
Kennedy, King and Lennon. Public squalor, private wealth. What is this strange country, the United States of America? It is the dog that – when left unattended – discovers everything on the table is within reach, the pleasure and the poison, and devours both.
There are times I feel socially homeless among some of my fellow citizens. No wonder my heart struggles to not become an old battle-axe, rust-worn shield, divided realm.
Watch out for the prison guards you yourself have employed, steer clear of the wartime radio news editors who work overtime inside your mind and never take a vacation. Beliefs are roads to the ultimate nowhere, and are always under construction.
I wish I could get up on my soapbox all mighty and righteous, and urge us all to renounce gain and loss, pleasure and pain, but they are the characters who inhabit our landscape. And none could exist without the other – they’re like political parties. There is no “side” with One. You need two, or more. Without villains, what’s the point of the existence of heroes, and vice versa?
It’s comforting to remember that beyond the horizon of all our drama there’s an ocean. Beyond the anatomy of all our choices there’s an open sky.
Our addiction to fear has sent us careening into wonderland, and we’ve elected the queen of hearts as our president. We’ve closed ourselves in with defibrillators, fire extinguishers, medications, and an obsession with life expectancy, youth preservation. We are addicted to comfort, its creation, replication, perpetuation. How do we find a way out of our house of smoke and mirrors?
It’s comforting to know we will breathe in and out until we no longer breathe in and out. We, a passing rain, a prairie wind.
How much peace might we experience if the glowing lanterns of our hearts could learn to not be afraid to change, to flicker, to fade. The shifting of stones can alter the course of a river’s current.
All day long, I see things a painter would paint. What is there to complain about? Even my own pain has been endured by thousands before me, and depicted by master sculptors.
Pilgrimage, penance, failure, learning to hold one’s self tenderly, in friendship – all these have relevance to my experience of life. Honoring the earth, or a Saint, or a God, a parent, a personal hero, the wind, rain dripping from trees.
Turning to look into one’s own heart, seeing what’s there. It is a brave thing to search your own soul. You will endure accusations of selfishness from others, and from your own mind.
We all just want a door to open and let the light in, but what if we are the door? What if we are the light?
To the world, I say I’m sorry for so many things. To the world, I also say thank you, thank you, thank you.