Sunday, February 28, 2010

The return of the gray-haired lady


When Arjuna was a young acolyte, he asked one of the swamis how he could tell if he was making spiritual progress. The answer: You have made spiritual progress if you have moved from the back of the class to the front, if the novels on your bookshelves have been replaced by spiritual books, and if your late nights have given way to early mornings. By those measures, I have made huge strides, though spiritual progress may not be the muse. Deafness has made me seize a front-row seat, greed has made me buy every promising yoga volume, and motherhood and work rouse me from my bed before dawn. I hope that this is the case where the destination, not the path, is what matters.

Arjuna also imparted this Indian expression: A woman is the banks of the river, keeping her man on a true course. I think in my case, I am the river, and Other is the riverbed.


At yesterday's morning satsang, Arjuna called on a young woman in the teacher-training program to come forward and lead the assembly in kirtan. She demurred. He urged her, saying her mother would be so proud of her. She demurred again. He insisted. She resisted. At today's morning satsang, Arjuna said another student had come up to him after yesterday's satsang and accused him of failing to practice ahimsa (nonharming). By singling out the student, putting her on the spot, pressing her to do something against her will and embarrassing her, he had caused her harm. But that wasn't really the point, Arjuna said. The teachers-in-training were heading back into the world, where they would be looked upon as spiritual leaders, and they needed to be prepared to respond to the unexpected challenges of leadership. Then he rashly said any of the male students would have risen to the challenge, and he requested that the half-dozen or so male students stand, and he asked each one whether he would be willing to step forward and lead the kirtan. One said he'd "have to think about it," another that he "guessed" he would be willing, and the rest refused outright. Ouch! Then Arjuna asked the female students who among them would be willing to step forward. Just one woman stood. Invited to the podium, she led a chant … in Hebrew. Arjuna had inadvertently set off a small rebellion among the students, who after 28 days of yoga boot camp had bonded and were acting in solidarity with the student they perceived as wounded. And they had won a small battle. The larger victory will come later, I'm sure, when they reflect back and realize Arjuna was right.

All around the compound there are pictures of a chubby, jolly-looking man with a beguiling smile: Swami Vishnu-devananda. But to the uninitiated, the stories Arjuna tells about him are anything but jolly. Many of Arjuna's stories have to do with lessons conferred upon him by Vishnu-devananda, who was his guru and the leader of Sivananda until he died. Among those lessons: For five years, Arjuna did the books for Vishnu-devananda, and for five years Vishnu-devananda refused to acknowledge Arjuna by name. And that rudeness infuriated Arjuna. He fumed and ranted to his friends. The lesson, which eventually came to him: Get over your ego. This seems an odd method of teaching—and one with a high risk of lessons gone unlearned and resented.


After a two-day class in meditation and mantra, I have a mantra. The god it invokes is Ganesh (above, painting by Uma, a Canadian iconographer of Hindu deities). And I chose it in part because I loved the story of the elephant god: Parvati, consort of Shiva, wanted to bathe, but Shiva wasn't at home, so she fashioned a little being out of scurf (dandruff and other body detritus) and had him stand guard at the gate while she took her bath. While she was bathing, Shiva returned home and was blocked by the scurf child. Enraged, Shiva lopped off its head. Parvati was distraught when she learned of the beheading of her scurf child, so Shiva ordered his hordes to find a child whose mother was facing away in neglect and to cut off that child's head and return with it. The first "child" they came across that fit that description was an elephant baby, so they removed its head, and it was transplanted onto the scurf child, whom we now know as Ganesh. Delightful, no? Also delightful is Ganesh's specialty: removing obstacles.

Two people at the ashram had their flights canceled by the big snowstorm in the Northeast and were forced to remain four days beyond their planned stay. One woman accepted this new arrangement with delight. But the other was distressed by the change in plan. She struggled to enlist the indifferent ashram staff to help her get out sooner, lamented the extra cost of accommodations, worried about lapsed medications. In short, she was miserable. But the following day, I ran into her at the ashram office, where she had failed once again to secure an earlier flight. But this time she was resigned and cheerful. "Yoga isn't about accepting your fate only when things are going your way," she said. "It's also about accepting your fate when things seem to be going against you." And with that acceptance, she embraced her morning on the beach, a wonderful workshop on Hindu gods and goddesses, another vegetarian meal. In an instant, she had transformed misfortune into good luck.

I was hoping that my flight too would be canceled and I would be forced to extend my stay. Alas, Ganesh has apparently cleared the path for me to go home, and I am in the Nassau airport awaiting a flight purported to be on schedule. I'll be glad to get home to Other and the cats and wash my clothes and resume my ordinary life. But it is sad to say goodbye to a place that has been so deeply interesting to me and that I will remember in vivid detail yet to know that it will not remember me, that I have left no mark other than a pile of soiled sheets and a damp towel, which by now may have been laundered and returned to my little hut for another guest.

It embarrasses me that I am drawn to acquiring T-shirts, mugs and other touristic trash, as well as malas and om insignia. But I know why I do it. It is a method of calling to mind my experience. Like a whiff of fragrance, that silly cup, which will horrify Other ("What can we throw out to make room for it?"), takes me back to a certain time and place. And by wearing the marker of a mala or the curlicues of om, I silently identify myself to other members of my tribe who might otherwise remain anonymous to me and invite them to introduce themselves.

The ashram is barely comfortable. The mattresses are narrow and thin and covered in plastic that crackles when you roll over in your "bed," which is just pine planks laid across three cubby holes, which serve as your bureau. The pillows are anything but pillowy. The sheets and blankets are synthetic and slip off in the night. The single towel you are issued is threadbare. The tapwater is brackish. The toilets are delicate and sometimes must be plunged—and no, there's no one on call to do it for you. The people at the reception desk can be abrupt and unhelpful. The food is sometimes merely interesting, and nicotine, alcohol and coffee are prohibited. But the other guests are members of your tribe, and any of them is willing to sit next to the gray-haired lady, who for the first time in a week sits alone—chugging back a coffee in the airport.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Yoga, another male bastion


The great Swami Swaroopananda took questions from his acolytes in the temple at noon. There were four questions, which ranged from "What is love?" to "What should I do about the distress my family feels about the spiritual path I have taken?" In response, the swami issued long ruminations with many citations from yogic scriptures. In answer to a question about whether it was possible to follow more than one spiritual path simultaneously, he answered (in part): "If you're looking for water, don't dig many shallow holes. Dig deep into one."

One of the delights of being in this world is the culture of oral history. It seems that all who knew Swami Sivananda or Swami Vishnu-devenanda, Swaroopananda's predecessors, are giant name droppers who love to recount anecdotes of some charming thing or another that one or the other of the swamis did or said. Partly this is a pissing contest to establish the recounter's proximity to the great men and partly old party gossip. Swami Vishnu-devenanda, for example, according to Swami Swaroopananda, had a little problem with his mother. Even after he became a renowned swami, his mother continued to infantilize him by asking whether he'd had enough to eat or shouldn't he wear a jacket in the cold. She was quite a formidable woman, who later became a swami herself, and Swami Vishnu-devananda decided that the only way to deal with her was to practice detachment. He did so by severing his filial connection with her. She was terribly wounded by his treatment. Noticing this, Swami Sivananda, who was Vishnu-devananda's teacher, instructed him to treat her with the simple human kindness he would any stranger. Somewhat warily, Vishnu-devananda began to show his mother the love and compassion he showed everyone else in the world, and the alienation was resolved.

In the afternoon, the rains began again and nearly drowned out a special asana class on headstands. Unlike yesterday, today I did not fall asleep during the workshop. I learned, among other things, two benefits of the headstand: it allows the old blood that has collected at the bottom of the heart to be freed by gravity and get recirculated, and similarly it allows the ancient wastes that have collected in the bottom of your intestines to shake loose and get eliminated. Rather than making the headstand seem appealing, all that loosening of crud made it seem a little disgusting.

I asked Arjuna how asana practice fit into Indian culture, since I couldn't quite picture the Indian masses standing on their heads (with the ladies' saris flopped down over their faces), and he said that originally yoga was a secret northern Indian cult with an exclusively male membership. But when yoga was exported to the West in the 1940s and '50s, it spread fastest among women. Only recently has it been imported back into India from the West.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

May the longtime sun shine upon you


Finally sunshine. Arjuna, the guest coordinator, gave new arrivals a tour of the grounds. At one point we stopped beneath a sapodillo tree. There are four sapodillo trees here, according to Arjuna, and they yield a fruit called the dilly fruit, which is edible only on the day it falls. It can't be picked early, nor can it be preserved. You have to be here to try it, because it doesn't ship well. When you break it open, it smells like coconut and banana. When you bite into it, at first it tastes sweeter than sugar, then sour, a great psychedelic burst of flavor. Of course, says Arjuna, clear as that description is, it can't convey the experience, For that, you have to eat one yourself. Just like yoga.

We passed a wall painting of Shiva dancing on a miserable-looking creature (something like the image above). "What is it that Shiva is dancing on?" I asked. "That is a human ego," replied Arjuna.

In the afternoon, I took a workshop on yoga nidra given by a Swedish flight attendant, who said she used the practice to get the refreshment of a full night's sleep when she had only half an hour between flights. She also told us that the state induced by nidra is qualitatively different and BETTER than real sleep because in nidra you are neither awake nor asleep and therefore (logic doesn't count here) have greater access to the subconscious, giving you the power to implant in your psyche positive affirmations that lay the framework for actualizing your deepest desires. This sounded pretty enticing (if a tad incredible), so I was eager to experience it firsthand. Sadly, as she began the systematic relaxation process ("I relax my toes; my toes are relaxed"), I felt right through nidra into a deep slumber of genuine sleep, from which I had to be manually awakened. "Was that nidra?" I asked. "No, you were really asleep," my flight attendant said. My 20-minute nap was refreshing, but I did not implant positive affirmations, and it was not the equivalent of a full night's sleep. Damn.

Dealing with it—part deux


And then it rained. And I dealt with that too. Skipped the mandatory chanting and meditation (hereinafter called satsang) at 6 a.m., but did attend the 8 o'clock asana class, the 10 o'clock brunch, the 11 o'clock orientation/history-of-Sivananda with Arjuna, the 12 o'clock finding-the-voice-within (think primal scream) workshop, the 2 o'clock pranayama workshop, the 4 o'clock asana class, the 6 o'clock dinner and the 8 o'clock satsang and sitar concert (though I bolted early—just too tired to sit up any longer).

Dealing with it


Any attachment issues I may have been hauling got challenged before I left the ground. I suffer from fear of flying, so I'm careful to chose aisle seats. Window seats make me too aware of what's going on "out there." Can't bear to see the wing flaps, um, flap or actually witness that this great hulking mass of steel and human flesh has no sturdier support than air. But a large extended Indian family with many infants desired my seat, so I traded my aisle seat for … a window seat. I kept the shades drawn. The promised movie did not materialize. There was no food to be purchased. We arrived in Nassau on time, but could not deboard for over an hour because five other aircraft had landed at the same time. Customs, baggage check were both congested. When I got to the ashram, the promised single room had evaporated, and I was consigned to a double. The promised receipt for yoga classes (which my employer would partially reimburse) was refused. The "new guy" who had made both promises when I was making my reservation had made a mistake. No apologies. Deal with it. So I'm … dealing with it.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Fear of flying

Many people would rather miss a movie than attend one alone. I've never been like that. I'm exhilarated by the intensity of experiencing a movie without social distractions, and I relish the freedom of mulling it over long after the credits have rolled and the screen has gone blank—without having to render a critical judgment until I've fully digested the full film feast, and maybe not even then. It's a guilty pleasure. (Even guiltier is my preference for late-morning matinees, when it's sometimes possible to have an entire theater to myself and then a whole day to let the experience sink in.)

So, when I decided to go to the Bahamas for a yoga vacation, I made some overtures to friends to have them join me, but when one could not get the time off and another waffled over the stringent regimen (four hours a day of sitting, four hours a day of asana practice, plus karma yoga—who can blame her?), I embraced the prospect of going alone: the liberation from responsibility for anyone else's happiness, the freedom to chant out of tune in total anonymity, the chance to fly without the safety net of friendship.

But there is fear too. Fear that no one will want to sit next to the gray-haired lady at meals, the fear that I'll get sick or injured and have to rely on the kindness of strangers, the fear that I'll be lonely, the fear that I'll find my own company boring. And I recall why it is that teenage girls always, always enlist a girlfriend to accompany them even on a trip to the ladies' room.

So here I am in the JetBlue terminal first thing on a Sunday morning, hungry for adventure and a little bit scared of it too.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

My life as a lurker

When you give birth, you want to know all the details from other women who have been through it. No bit of minutiae is too minuscule or too intimate. When did your labor start? How did you know? Did you have a bloody show? Did your water break beforehand? How far apart were your contractions when you went to the hospital or called the midwife? How long before you went into transition? Did you take drugs? Have an epiosotomy? What position were you in? How much did the baby weigh? How long before it started to nurse? When did your milk come in? When was your baby's first stool?

It's the same with breast cancer: How big was your tumor? What quadrant was it in? How did you find it? What grade? Was it in the lobules or the ducts? Were your lymph nodes clear? Was it hormone sensitive or her2 positive? Did you have a lumpectomy or a mastectomy? Uni or bilateral? Reconstruction? Implant or transplant? Did you get a port? Did you get lymphedema? What was your chemo regimen? Your radiation protocol? Where were you treated? Who's your surgeon, your medical oncologist, your radiation oncologist? What's your follow-up schedule? Do you get scanned or have tumor markers drawn? Do you get ultrasounds or MRIs or just mammograms?

Essentially, this is meaningless information, since no other woman's disease is precisely the same as yours. But somehow it's comforting to compare notes. Part of it is finding your place in life's pecking order by seeing where you fall in the risk-of-recurrence ranks. Part of it is getting to know your tribe, finding out who you are now by finding out who the other people in your cohort are. Part of it is the comfort of knowing you're not alone.

It may seem as if every woman in the world has breast cancer these days, but in fact it's actually hard to find someone with it when you're looking. Ironically, oncologists' waiting rooms, where the cancer-ridden congregate, are not very good venues for starting up conversations. So, much of this checking-out happens online, particularly via blogs.

What did women do before the Web? My first stop on the cancer-info highway was, which is not really a blog but an online forum. But whoever put it together completely understood what she was doing. When you create your profile to participate in the discussions, you spell out all the key data (date of diagnosis; tumor type, size and grade; nodal status; hormone/her2 status), and it appears with your signature. My screen name is nagem, and my stats are "Diagnosis: 9/23/2005, ILC, 1cm, Stage IIa, Grade 3, 1/13 nodes, ER-/PR-, HER2+." To an outsider, these details would be boring, perhaps incomprehensible, but to the inmates of this weird world, they tell a story. And they help provide a context for yours. Post any question, and someone will answer from her own experience.

Now I have many, many stops on that long, long highway, too many to enumerate, and I visit many of them daily: The Assertive Cancer Patient, Killer Boob, I Blame the Patriarchy, Rock the Bald, my Breast Cancer blog, to name a few. I lurk. I comment. These are my invisible friends (some don't even know I'm their friend!). As my diagnosis recedes into the past (fingers crossed, knock on wood), I try to extricate myself from my cancer-patient identity, but I'm reluctant to leave these fellow travelers behind. Wittingly and not, they've been kind to me, and I want to know how their stories turn out. So for a few minutes every day, I check in with each and find out how they all are.

Bosom buddies

The downsides of breast cancer need no telling. Even if you haven't had it, you can use your imagination: the disease eradicates your childlike sense of immortality; eviscerates your confidence in your physical well-being; transgenders you from the waist up by lopping off your hair and breasts; makes the simple act of getting dressed in the morning an eternal conundrum; and places your future employment (and insurability) forever more in jeopardy.

There are no upsides. But the experience has galvanized some women to take action. And their accomplishments on behalf of their sisters are heartwarming and ingenious. There is B, who created, devoted to sharing information about mastectomies and clothing solutions. It's got stories, photographs, helpful tips—and not only is it breast free, it's cost free. Then there's Rebel1in8, who after her unilateral mastectomy designed herself a one-of-a-kind bra and then took to repurposing T-shirts and other garments to create a line of clothing that balanced out her new silhouette—and now she shares her trove in for barely more than the cost of materials. There's Beryl Tsang, who knitted herself a prosthesis, dubbed it a Tit Bit, and published the pattern for others to follow (and knitty titties, as they've come to be known, are less expensive, more comfortable and certainly a lot more adorable than most of the competition). And now Mary Beth Kirtz has Webicized her informal boob-sharing service: Women who have unneeded new or used prostheses and bras send them to Mary Beth, and she sends them back out to women who lack insurance to pay for them. (I'm not even going to get into the swimsuit prostheses she fashions out of bath pouffies, which untold numbers of women are still struggling to replicate in a kind of mass frenzy.)

These women are members of a legion I've met in person and online who compose a creative community. Their projects are not Big Business. They are little businesses. But they're clever and homespun and make the whole awful breast-cancer thing seem somehow manageable, like something a good whip stitch could solve.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A life of ease

The goal of Feldenkrais, or at least of the Feldenkrais-infused physical therapy I'm undertaking now, is not strength or flexibility. It is ease. Hence the emphasis on well-stacked bones. The idea is that if your bones are properly positioned, they will be held in place by gravity or by the weight of other, counterbalancing bones. Little or no muscular effort should be required to maintain a pose. The intention is to reduce the use of muscles as much as possible, since muscles tire and tear and spasm—and hurt—whereas bones are innately sturdier.

My Feldenkrais-based exercises are not as lovely as yoga or as deeply rooted in an ancient and fascinating philosophical tradition, but they lend themselves to the same process of self-discovery. Both invite you to draw parallels between physical actions and tendencies and psychological ones. And both rely on the magnificent luxury of having a thoughtful and wise teacher to guide you in your journey.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The hardest lessons are the simplest

In yoga, a lot of attention is paid to inner rotation and outer rotation of various limbs and firming and stretching of this muscle or that. And I love the choreography of it all. But in Feldenkrais, I'm enjoying the focus on bones and the simple structural mechanics of stacking one spinal bone on top of another. I feel like a giant game of Jenga.

Many of the exercises have the convolutional magic of yoga. There's one in particular that seems to reach every major body part: Lie on your back with your knees bent. Draw your knees toward your chest, keeping your arms straight. Don't let go. Allow your right thigh to flop out and over to the floor, and allow the weight of that thigh to drag your left leg over so that you're lying on your right side, and let the weight of your left leg drag your head over so that your face is down and twisted slightly toward your left side. Then open up your left thigh to the left, and let it drag the whole business in the opposite direction, and so forth. Try not to lift your head from the floor as you spiral back and forth, and keep arms straight so that they serve as pistons. Try it. You'll like it.

I can't tell whether all of this delightful movement is curing my back problem. I've read that it takes at least two months to correct long-standing postural flaws that cause injury, and I've been doing this for only about one month. But like yoga, Feldenkrais seems to have lessons, and the lessons are remarkably similar to yoga's: Detach from your ambitions, and pay attention to your immediate experience; stay within your comfort zone; follow your breath.

It's all so simple. Why is it so hard to do?

Friday, February 12, 2010

Reading between the lines

I've been seeing a new physical therapist for my unremitting lower-back pain. This one is a specialist in Feldekrais, a technique developed by an Israeli physicist and judo practitioner of the same name. My PT spends up to two hours at a time inspecting my (lousy) posture, pursing his lips, performing mysterious layings-on of hands, positioning my parts in unflattering positions and uttering a few very carefully chosen words.

His utterances are so carefully constructed (judging from his name, which has a lot of consonants, especially J's, I think he's Polish, so that may explain part of his carefulness) and pithy, I try to memorize each pronouncement. Then I mull it over at home to elicit the maximum amount of meaning. It's like having my own guru.

One of the first things he said to me was that the body tells your entire emotional and physical story. And he told me a few things about myself: that I was embarrassed about being tall, that I subscribed to a no-pain-no-gain philosophy and pushed myself beyond my comfort zone, and so forth. Nothing earthshaking.

But it got me to thinking about how a single artifact or snapshot in time can reveal much about the past and predict much about the future. The other day, my friend A offered to lend me a hardbound memoir by Patti Smith about her long relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, and after she left, I opened the book, and a receipt fell out. On the receipt, it was noted that she was given a 25% members discount. And on the lower righthand corner was scribbled in her handwriting "Ganesh." Now, even if I didn't know A, I would suddenly have a wealth of information. I would know that she's "old school" in that she shops in brick-and-mortar bookstores rather than online, that she values "good things" enough to buy a hardback rather than a paperback, that she's a reader (or at least enough of one that it was worth it to her to pay dues to join the bookstore members club), that she's retroflective, that she has an interest in esoterica and perhaps a desire to move the obstacles in her life.

Am I right, A?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

All the good news that's fit to print

So my brother sent me yet another example of niche journalism: Positive News, which has good news only. It's like the Onion—on Prozac. Witness these headlines: "Peaceful Nation [New Zealand] Leads the Way," "What Does Love Mean?" "Victory of the Common Spaces," "The Theory of Fun Works!" "Hospital Workers Support Each Other," "Change Is Possible Among Inmates," and so forth. Consider the logo: "Another World is Possible" (note lowercase "is," which subtly undermines the optimism). Somehow, I found it depressing rather than uplifting.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Want to play doctor?

Many people assume I'm a little wishy-washy. In person, I seem to strike people as tentative. But on paper, as an editor, I'm quite aggressive. One writer once told me that having me copyedit his story was like a visit to the proctologist.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Dewlap doo-wop

Here are the kinds of things you learn on a good day of copyediting: a female rabbit is a doe, a male rabbit is a buck, a mother rabbit is a dam, a father rabbit is a sire. You knew those, right? But did you know that a baby rabbit is a dave or a kit? And that when a rabbit gives birth, it's called kindling? By the way, you can tell a female rabbit from a male by the fold of skin under the female's chin, and that fold is called a dewlap.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Don't worry, be happy

I love memorial services. Usually they take place long enough after the death of a loved (or liked) one so that the initial grief, guilt, shock, whatever, has worn off. Essentially, memorials are story hour, all with the same main character—though often the narrator reveals as much about him- or herself as about the protagonist. And always, always, there's a takeaway lesson. Yesterday's memorial service for AW, with whom I worked at the cancer hotline, was all about conquering insecurities and living zestfully. Work hard, play hard. Have fun!