The beginning of this year found me in Arizona studying anatomy on fresh cadavers. Yeah. That got your attention.
While I was going to school, Caroline was going to stay home and paint. We had rented a little pool house in some ticky tacky neighborhood reminiscent of the Stepford wives. When we arrived Sunday night, Caroline almost burst into tears. It wasn’t the little safe haven she had imagined being inspired by while I was studying. It didn’t have a kitchen, which we had wrongfully assumed and hoped for and the one perk, the jacuzzi, lost all its charm when we realized the main house, which was occupied, looked out onto it. But like everything, it was meant for a reason and by the end, we realized it was perfect. I don’t think either of us could have handled anything more exotic.
Arizona could not have been more of a contrast to New York. All the blacks and grays turned reds and oranges; the concrete and hydrants transformed to dirt and gigantic cacti; the narrow, building lined blocks to expansive, breath taking horizons sprawled out wide to no end. Men dressed like cowboys, where saddle shops exist, and I even saw a horse parked in the lot of a store in Tucson. It really made me want to ditch everything and buy a ranch out there. The cowboi in me was happy and I thought it was amazing that you can still ride your horse to get groceries. My kind of town.
I had no idea what to expect. On any front, really. I was well out of my depth and nervous the morning before the training. I put on my scrubs and white coat. Even my hair was apprehensive-the hair fang was explosive and gigantic, no amount of pressing down would tame it. There had been no time to trim it before coming. I hoped my cadaver wouldn’t mind. I didn’t mean any disrespect. But I stuck a bandana in my pocket anyway. Just in case.
Phoenix traffic is infamous and real, so we ran late. Of course. My knee bounced up and down like a sewing machine needle while I helped Caroline navigate. How do you feel? She asked. I don’t know. I smiled weakly.
Once we finally reached the lab, a guy with weirdly soft hands and a lab coat emblazoned with “Master Dissector” herded us in. I barely had time to kiss Caroline goodbye. The room was white. Full of school desks. I grabbed a desk and as I sat, realized I knew three people in the group. What a small world, I thought. I’m so grateful they’re here.
Tom and Tod, our leader and master dissector, respectively, laid down the ground rules. The room was a bit colder than you would think. I sat there half listening, drinking my Chai, wondering how this whole thing would unfold and when it will really start. Then I noticed the tables. Long tables set along the sides of the room. And it hit me. They are already here. With us. I felt my heart pounding in my chest. I’m not sure what I’d expected. Would the cadavers just magically appear? I guess I hadn’t thought about it at all. I put down my chai with a gulp. It seemed like the thing to do. And then I closed my eyes. I closed my eyes to feel through the space, energetically, to see if there is something else, something unsettling, something I should know, some greater knowledge or clue I’ve not caught onto to prepare myself. I listened. Silence. Instead, a huge feeling of gratitude and reverence washed over me, a sense of stillness and a quiet. Peace lives in death. How comforting.
There are a lot of things in life that are magnificent beyond the reach of our imaginations, magical, truly. At the end of the day, we don’t know why they are so and we don’t understand how they work. Chances are we never will. They are simply too great, too wonderful and too overwhelming to grasp as a whole. Love, for example. Someone can ask you why you love someone so much. You can describe it all you want. But they will never know: the experience and words fall short. You can tease it apart and still not be able to better describe it.
Life is the same. This is why there is the need. The need to go in and make smaller, dissect, compartmentalize, so that we can wrap our brains around the majesty of it all. Autopsy means to see for yourself. So there I stood looking right at death. Seeing how the human body is so very beautiful even in death- sensitive and graceful. Our house, this body, the map of how we live, can be traced and followed even after we are gone. And yet the spark is no more. That thing that wakes us up, animates us, gives us free will and choice. What? How do I make sense of all this? In some ways so simple…and yet…wow!
People keep asking what I learned. My answers seem disappointing. My words lacking. I will never be the same, however, as I have seen what I have seen and there is no going back to the way things were. Life and death are forever altered. When I look at my hand, I see her hand. When I touch you, I can feel and see what is under your skin and my fingers have grown yet a bit more sensitive. I don’t need to know all the muscles and all the bones. I know the feeling and with that I can feel my way through and make more sense of it. I know now how delicate we are and yet how resilient. I have seen it. With my own eyes.
When I look down a Manhattan street, the buildings act like blinders. They narrow the sides of what I can see. In Arizona, there were no blinders. The floodgates burst open. Both literally and metaphorically. If I let myself, I could see 180 degrees, maybe more. At first it nearly gave me a panic attack to open the sides of my vision that way. As I got used to it, I was able to take more in horizontally, but as I took in more, I had to soften my vision, I couldn’t be as laser pointed. This was the biggest lesson for me. Sometimes as New York yogis, we get so obsessed with anatomy or a specific asana, anything really… We are so intense. So laser pointed. New York is a laser pointed place. Am I working my transversus abdominis in this pose or is it my obliques? Tell me! TELL ME!!! But is it gracilis that is tight or is is the adductor? We get so fixated on the part we forget the whole. At the end of the day, who gives a shit? Ultimately they all need to work together. You know? Wellness is distributed throughout the body, not designated for one place.
I’m not saying that it is not important to have good form in order to keep your body healthy. Those of you who know me know that I am quite specific and intentional in how I set up a class and a sequence. I am also not saying that knowing how your scapula moves, or any other part of you, for that matter, is not important- it can be very helpful. What I am saying is that by slicing things into such little chunks it takes us out of the experience- the big picture- our movement synching up to our breath to call grace in. The YOGA. A moving meditation. The connective tissue. Me, you, your feet, the floor, the props, the room, everything beyond it. God. God? God! (I know, I have said a lot of words you don’t want to hear ever in this post- cadaver, death and now… God?) But YES, God! The spark: that which makes us tick, life itself, that is God. If it isn’t God, well, dammit, it is something larger than me. So let’s just say it is God for now. You know it now because it is inside of you, and you will never know it by looking for it because it is you. It is nowhere to be found and everywhere. Much like the hara or the dantien cannot be dissected when you open the body. Does that mean they are not there? What of love? If I cannot find love in the heart does that mean it does not exist?
We get stuck in the first few limbs of this practice: yama (restraint), niyama (observance), asana (postures or seat as we discussed in the last post), pranayama (breath control), because they are the most obvious. But there are four more that complete the cycle: pratyahara (removal of the senses)- that space where we release our attachment to the body and the ahankara, the ego, the I); dharana (concentration)- the ability to shape our attention, internal subtle asana, as it were; dyana (meditation)- expansive awareness, opening out to be more inclusive and from that opening we become one with everything… samadhi. You may not be able to see them, it does not mean they are any less real or that you can’t feel them. They are subtle. Cultivate a full practice yogis, that’s all I’m saying. Keep opening, keep allowing in. We all worship something: money, work, success, beauty, our bodies, our beloved, time off, our mothers…the list goes on. Like everything else, we can worship on autopilot, or we can worship with intention. Let’s do it mindfully. I, for one, am left with less interest in anatomy, as I’ve known it, than I’ve ever had; I’ve reconnected to the feeling that it is about something greater and I just can’t shake it.
Speaking of worship and doing something that will change you forever…I am officially announcing the pilgrimage to India in October of 2015. It will change your life. Look below for details.
Also, I have posted a full length open level class that you can take for free on youtube any time you want, when you travel or if you can’t come in person. Subscribe to my channel, other goodies will be coming soon. And we sing, of course. If you are anti-chanting, this is your chance, the only time you will be able to fast forward me.
The next maha jam at Pure East is Feb 15 at 12:30, let me know if you want to come and are not a member. And let me know how I can be of better service.