*This essay appeared in Australian Yoga Life Magazine – March-May 2016 issue.*
I can’t om. That ethereal sound which often begins or ends (or both) a yoga class. I simply can not do it. My mouth refuses. My chest cavity solidifies into hardened clay. It is as though in place of my heart there exists a small seed wrapped in one of those annoying rolled up paper kazoo things you blow into on New Years Eve. Those horrible squeaky party favours that inflate and unravel like a long crackly frog’s tongue. When asked to om, to rise and shine, the little fern unspools from inside my ribcage up into my throat where it grabs on to my vocal chords and clenches tight. Slams shut. There will be NO oming. Just a quiet, unsteady exhale from the sad lady on the light blue mat.
Some of the many definitions of om include: the sacred sound, the song of the universe, the infinite, the all encompassing, the whole world, the truth, the ultimate reality, the finest essence, the cause of the Universe, the essence of life, the vehicle of deepest knowledge, and Self-knowledge. There are many many more. Perhaps the reason for this weird om paralysis lies somewhere within its vastness. It is just too impossibly big. Om is enormous. If I om I open myself up way too wide. That is an incredibly vulnerable place to be. The idea of being open enough to welcome the knowledge of everything is scary, overwhelming and way too powerful. I don’t want to know everything and I’ve had enough surprises, thank you. Oming is for the brave. Or the blissfully ignorant. Or maybe oming is too much like singing. Sure, there are plenty of artists who turn their personal sadness into block buster music like our girl Adele, but for me singing is about joy, the expression of an unburdened soul. Mine is still buried under a pile of rocks.
I always considered the act of oming to be a sort of spiritual two way investment bank. An invisible energy exchange. Some days you give the om away freely, chanting kindness, love and peace with cavalier generosity to those on your radar near and far. “I’ve got so much om I’m overflowing! Here take some of my extra om, I’ve got plenty!” Other times you may need to absorb a little om after a particularly rough or emotional day. The om as currency. I was always quite a passionate om-er. What I lacked in pitch control I made up for with enthusiasm. I could unabashedly om with the longest, the loudest and the most tone deaf. That somber pony tailed man in the back row wearing baggy sweatpants from the 70’s or the throaty, big bosomed woman who obviously has some latent opera training way back on her resume. Not now. I’m om-less. I’m a beggar on the street without an om, a deflated used up party balloon.
Oh, how I love listening to it though. Just being in the room when it’s happening. If the alchemy is right there can be a physical buzz. A choir of prepubescent boys singing in an ancient cathedral can give you the same shivering sensation. Occasionally, the om has a colour, the soft greeny blue of tropical water just inside the reef. The vibration blankets me like a snowfall. Sometimes I try to absorb it through my pores as it shimmers overhead like the snaking tendrils green beans send out before they commit to actually growing somewhere. As the om swirls around the studio I try to save it in my pockets. A stash for later. Once in a while, the om is terrible. Lifeless and pathetic. A disappointment. But in some rare magical moments the musical tone created by the collective om is so harmonious and angelic it causes me to well up with tears. Well, most things in yoga class make me cry these days. Actually, most things make me cry, period. Songs, pictures, movies, Ichiban noodles, conversations, trains, hoodies, pens, fingers, books, toothbrushes, hummus, trees and of course home made Christmas decorations. Particularly the little silver angel made of a clothes peg and pipe cleaners. There’s more but you get the idea. Basically, everything makes me cry. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The crying has become a friend. It is always with me. There is a certain familiarity with the crying now. It can be depended upon to rise up at regular intervals flooding me with a big swoosh before retreating. I wonder if I will one day miss the crying? Or will it quietly slip away unnoticed? For now, the big, hot tears splat splat splat down on the mat. Glistening there unabsorbed. A series of frozen ponds. A topographical map of abandoned countries, a continent of sorrow. Sometimes there is such a torrent they fill my ears with warm, salty pools while I twist and bend.
Since my son passed away this summer I have attended 73 yoga classes. I didn’t notice it at the time but each one must be slowly, quietly working to even out some of the raw jaggedness. Imperceptibly plastering the cracks and filling the great crevices with minuscule layers of I don’t know what? Over and over and over. Do river rocks notice they are becoming more smooth over the centuries the cool water glides past them? Glacial pace, but it’s happening. It must be. Certainly without yoga I would still be locked in our bedroom catatonic and atrophied. Other than the love of my family and dearest friends, yoga has been the best therapy.
At first, I couldn’t look at the instructor or other students at all. I barely moved. I just somehow knew it was right for me to be there. When I couldn’t speak or even make eye contact in the big bad world, I generated the momentum to go to class. It’s all a bit of a blur actually. The whole summer. I think friends must have encouraged me to go. Bless them. I was unable to lift my chin or open my eyes but I was there. In that space, praying for mercy, howling inside. Yoga had helped me through divorce, a recent job loss and many of life’s upheavals so I must have unconsciously gone back to the well for this one, the greatest test of all. It was not a clearly thought out therapeutic decision, call it an intuitive shot in the dark.
I spent a LOT of time in child’s pose. Then child’s’ pose made me uneasy too. After all, my child, my first born, had gone before me. Children are not supposed to do that. How could I hold that shape when it was all wrong? Many times I fled the room unable to continue. Shavasana was totally unbearable as all it made me do was think of my son in his eternal resting pose. Just the word corpse made my skin crawl and my spirit shrivel. It’s very sound was offensive. Instead I preferred a kind of fetal shaped shuddering ball. A gooey mass on the mat. Forget about hip openers, those are just asking for trouble.
A quiet yoga class is actually a very good place for private grieving because while there are many people in the room nobody is concerned with your business. Nobody even looks at you. At least not in the gentle Hatha classes I’ve been attending. Those athletic ‘power’ and ‘flow’ classes I used to love can have a certain competitive element with muscular yogis hand standing and arm balancing all over the place. Frankly, I haven’t got the strength for them any more. But in the calm, thoughtful Hatha environment with the grandmas and retirees I can just be and not do a single thing and nobody gives one shit. I know this because I have done it. Your practice is your practice. Your private domaine. I don’t always leave the class feeling better. Often I feel worse. An unhinged snotty mess dragging my feet to the car like a zombie. I just want to be home. Home, where it’s quiet and I can curl up small again and let the jagged shards of glass slowly drain from my veins. Opening can be traumatic.
I think a big part of it is the breathing. Not just the normal breathing we each do all day every day but actually considering and directing each breath. Being with it. Looking at the inhale and examining the exhale keeps us in the present moment which as you know is the emotionally healthiest place to be. Just ask Deepak or Eckhart. Overly worrying about the past indicates depression, freaking about the future is manifest in anxiety, being right here right now is very difficult but it also creates a little holiday from the ever present weight of despondency. In Ancient Chinese Medicine the lungs are considered the organ of grief and sadness. They are responsible for taking in the new and carrying out the old. In short, the lungs process grief. They refresh us. If you have a tanker ship full of anguish, the lungs are the spigot it needs to filter through. Painstakingly, drop by drop. Every breath helps chip away at the ice inside and nowhere do you focus more on the breath than in yoga.
There is also the clarity of thought that comes from creating a blank space in your mind. This doesn’t happen easily or quickly. In fact, it can be an awkward and difficult wrestling match. Yoga is a powerful form of moving meditation and along with walking in the forest has been the best mental oasis from the haunting barrage in my brain. At first there is the bombardment and then mercifully… the ceasefire. Ideas and concepts I had never considered often arrive front and centre during or after a yoga class or a solo walk in nature. I believe both practices help create a forum for what we need to discover or are trying to understand to present itself. Or not. It’s not like a money back guarantee or anything. This is one giant crap-shoot we live in.
Sometimes at the beginning of a class the instructor would walk around introducing themselves and asking if there was any injury we would like to tell her/him about? “I have an irreparably shattered soul” I was tempted to whisper into their ear or “I’m recovering from heart surgery, it’s been removed….without anesthetic,” but mostly I just closed my eyes and shook my head imperceptibly and those lovely teachers somehow inherently knew. If I lost it too badly, they would kindly roll up my mat and put away the props without asking too many questions. Everyone has their shit, and there seemed to be an understanding that mine was respectfully none of their business. Many people in yoga classes are not just there for the fitness, they are recovering from loss or managing disease or myriad other problems we face. Some more obviously than others but we are all transforming. The most insightful yoga teachers seemed to understand that this grieving woman needed space and time and gentle support and coddled movement. Micro steps in the direction of my self. “There is a way back, I will help you find it,” I heard one say . Or maybe I just imagined it. Still, I knew deep down they would help me discover the trail.
Then again, some teachers are assholes. They talk too much and too loudly. Usually about themselves or their weekend plans or their blah, blah, blah. Their music is so crunchy it hurts my face. In the past this wouldn’t have bothered at all but now I want to scream at them to ‘shut up and pay attention to what is really going on here!’ They should be at a flashy fitness club wearing leg warmers helping the fake tanners get bigger biceps. They are disconnected and inconsiderate. One teacher actually mentioned how great it feels to pull your own hair in downward dog when the student RIGHT BESIDE HER was obviously going through chemo and had no hair whatsoever. Completely oblivious. In another class I was so emotional I had to leave to collect myself, when I returned at the end of the class she grinned and told me to ‘enjoy the sunshine and have a grrrreat weekend!’ Duh! Thankfully, there are not very many of those and we can choose not to attend their classes.
And some teachers are simply perfection. They have answered a calling and are doing exactly what they are meant to be doing in this life. They probably don’t even know how much their thoughtfulness and loyalty has meant to me and must to many others. Their words, cues and messages are heartfelt, their music is carefully chosen, the ambiance they create is one of calm tranquility. They get it. I feel blessed to have met them and grateful to continue to practice and share with them through this confusing journey. Which is kind of weird considering they are basically strangers.
After weeks of quietly crying (ok, sometimes not quietly sobbing) in her class I let Cathy know what the deal was with me. I felt connected to her somehow. I don’t know why. She understood completely and didn’t give two hoots if I cried through the whole class as long as I showed up. As it turns out we have quite a bit in common. Children the same age, a healthy distain for tight yoga tops, a love of graffiti and an appreciation for all things French being just a few of the connections. Just looking at her kind face makes me feel a little warmer, less fractured. She’s one of those rare people who seems to know just what to say…and not say. Often I’m so choked up I can’t say much but she encourages me to keep coming. Just keep coming. And through this consistency I have begun to build a little bit of stamina. It’s strange how a point blank shot to the heart can just completely level your whole body physically. I am starting to feel a bit of strength again. I can now walk up an entire flight of stairs.
“I will hold space for you” another teacher, sweet Eryn said one day after I had explained to her about my son’s death. I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about. Hold space for me? What the hell does that even mean? But she did and she has and she continues to. Hold space for me. Somehow with her very presence and thoughtfulness she has created a little haven for me, an impervious bubble to peacefully inhabit while I attempt to recover and mend. You can tell she cares a great deal and has made it her mission to learn all that she can and humbly pass it on to us, her fortunate students. Through her thoughtfully orchestrated, soft movements I have gradually become able to open my eyes, raise my chin a little and holy cow, most amazingly…lift my heart.
My poor pummelled heart is in there after all. Perhaps there was just a shred of a seed tucked away in one of those deep crevices. It always amazes me to see a little wild mountain flower growing in a crack in the granite on the side of a cliff that appears most inhospitable. How did it get there? Did it ride in on the wind? How has it survived with no soil or shelter? Maybe that tiny little grain of hope just clung to the rock waiting for it’s time. Maybe it has been carried there by a soft thoughtful breath and watered by all of those tears. Maybe it is beginning to grow.
Maybe one day I will om again.
Very deep thanks to my favourite teachers ~ Chloe, Nico, Dolly, Devon, Tanya, Lindsay, Christa, Cindy, Mike and Mara and all the other yoga teachers who do so much for us without even knowing it.