DEATH. EAST ROCK. MY BODY AS TEACHER.
I am composing this blog post from East Rock on Star Island during my fifteenth year leading a yoga conference. Fifteen years. It seems impossible that it has been that long. As I sit here staring at the endless sea and thinking about the passage of time, I am also thumbing through a book about death, which has been on my mind a lot lately.
I always say that when I die I want my loved ones, friends, students, old lovers, old enemies, and anyone who I’ve danced with in this journey to come together at sunrise and throw my ashes off of this cliff. This rock is my home and is infused with memories that range from sunrise meditations and soul-blubbering cries to some fantastic make-out sessions with a variety of lovers over the years. I can only imagine how many other hearts this rock holds in the crags of its sparkling surface.
I imagine each person taking a small bit of me and letting it drift off their fingers like sand as it floats into the waves. Tristan will read a Mary Oliver poem (of course), Andrea will say something about feminism, Maura, Kiki, and Katie the rest of the Shakti tribe will do our wild call to Kali the dark mother, Crissy will throw one of our old burlesque photos into the wind. Nate will most likely be too choked up to say much but maybe he’ll toss our wedding rings into the sea (I’d also really like him to do his interpretive blue-footed booby bird mating dance). He will bring my well worn mala beads from my guru Babaji to keep for his own future use. Others will share stories. Theresa will remember that I love pink champagne and make sure everyone has a glass for a toast as it is, after all, 5:00 pm somewhere. The ceremony will go on for enough time that everybody gets misty-eyed but not wailing. The procession will lead everyone into the dining hall for a very non-yogic meal of eggs and extra crispy bacon, more champagne, and then back on the boat to get on with their own precious lives.
It’s idyllic and it assumes, of course, I go first because that’s how it should be.
I want a good death.
Also, I got pretty sick this year.
It’s not anything I have talked about much, and those I have told I have glossed it over with a, “but I’m doing a lot better now.”
Truth is, it scared the shit out of me.
It wasn’t cancer or some other diagnosis that would make your heart bleed for me. It was a bit more insidious and indirect. In brief, my nervous system quit, as in pretty much curled itself up into a ball and said, “to hell with you.”
It started with a series of small inconsequential but stressful events over a year. The build-up of small traumas finally culminated at a routine pelvic procedure that went awry and found me covered in ice packs and almost admitted to the hospital. The procedure left me visibly shaking for three days.
After that, my nervous system tanked.
I started having unexpected anaphylaxis-like reactions of unknown origin, throat-closing, flushing, high blood sugars, followed by frightening low sugars that left me disoriented, shaking and exhausted. Allergy tests showed nothing. I was given EpiPens, inhalers, and a regimen of over the counter meds to try as the first line of defense during an episode. I became scared to fall asleep at night as the reactions would typically occur at night and wake me from sleep unable to breathe, flushed and anxious.
I slept with the light on.
An episode occurred while visiting my family in North Carolina which caused my fear of flying to catapult to an all-time high. I became terrified I would have a medical emergency on the plane home. I drove fifteen hours to get back to New England so that I could get to a hospital easily if I needed one. I realized I was becoming a hot mess and I started therapy.
I have a long history of bone and muscle pain that increases with stress. Some would classify it as fibromyalgia, I just call it my body’s story. My body ached so deeply that it was common to find me at 3 am rolling around on the ground on a foam roller in tears. My bones became so painful that I kept thinking that breaking them would be a welcome relief.
Exhaustion led to more exhaustion and I was too tired to do my yoga practice or do much more than what was required of me by my nursing and teaching jobs. I found it a blessing that my husband worked nights so he didn’t have to see me suffer. We were both scared.
I was good at faking it during the day, but at night, fear overtook me. I was scared I was going to die. I have been close to death at many times in my life, but it’s always been in the form of sudden catastrophe, with only enough time to react on instinct. Not knowing the path my illness would take allowed my imagination to run wild and caused my mortality came into sharp focus. Death became an unwelcome guest in my home.
I no longer trusted my body.
My students had no idea. I was embarrassed that as an integrative pain specialist, anatomist and yoga teacher, my own body was failing me.
I felt broken.
I dropped out of social media completely for several months because I felt like a fraud. I couldn’t post happy pictures when inside I was literally falling apart. A few people noticed. Of my 5000 facebook friends, most didn’t, which says a little something about social media.
Then one night weary and exhausted I sat down and meditated. In the quiet, I heard my own heart say, “Your body is your best teacher.”
In that moment everything shifted. I became my own patient.
I decided to stop being broken.
First, I got rid of any commitment in my life that was not critical.
Second, I vowed to apply all the knowledge I’ve collected over the years about chronic pain to myself. I found a recorded meditation that knocked me out at night within twenty minutes so I could finally sleep. When an episode woke me, I got out of bed and dealt head-on with the shortness of breath and waves of heat, dizziness, and anxiety by monitoring my heart rate. Proving to myself I could control my heart rate helped calm me. I counted breaths, I did meditation and postural exercises to keep myself from curling up into a guarded body position. I journaled what I was thinking and then tore it up, I listened to calming music, and occasionally took a midnight bath.
I promised myself if the symptoms didn’t pass in ten to thirty minutes depending on severity, I would go on to phase two, the meds or 911.
More useful than anything else, I battled each episode with my new mantra over and over, “your body is your best teacher. Your body is your home.”
By listening to this new “teacher,” I was able to get the symptoms to pass every time. My “teacher” taught me how to determine appropriate action based on high and low blood sugars. If I was high I got on my yoga mat and did a practice. If I was low, I ate something. I started an extreme elimination diet. Finally, after months of trial and error, I discovered it was my hormones that were throwing everything from my cortisol to my glucose levels completely out of whack.
Slowly I healed. I turned the light off again at night. I got on a plane.
There is always a gift to every difficult trauma. It has offered me a unique insight into what my chronic pain clients must feel like. It also has made me think hard about death and how precious our life is. When faced with our own mortality it’s interesting how we react. My initial response was to put fear on high-def and let it rule my life. It was only when I took a step back and let the soft creature of my body go all primal that healing happened.
I let it teach me. I returned home to the self.
In survival mode, all that matters is the things of necessity. It no longer becomes important if you master handstand. It does however become critically important that you go to the ocean and look at the waves because it soothes your soul. The people you love and their role in your life become more important. You find yourself saying I love you more often and offering whole-hearted hugs to anyone who will let you. You weep a lot. You nourish your body the best you can.
It’s been fifteen years I’ve come to sit on this rock. I told a few of my conferees, that it is beautiful to watch us all age. To be able to gather as a community and learn about each of our struggles, celebrations, our stories. To sit on this rock together, watch the sunrise together, cry together. Someday we will be that “old yoga conference,” all of us in our 80s and 90s in our walkers and wheelchairs, using every possible prop we can find to hoist us into something that resembles triangle pose.
Some of us will die by then. Eventually, we all will. We will grieve and laugh, and celebrate the beautiful life each one of us has lived. More engraved rocks with our names will go into the island memorial garden. The next generation, our children, and the young people in our lives who we have influenced will come behind us to carry on our legacy and traditions.
They will sit on this rock. Maybe they will even contemplate their body as teacher, how they are trying so hard to live and die well. They will discover that all that matters is that we love each other so hard it hurts and that our greatest yoga practice lies in continually finding our way back home to ourselves.