Through yoga practice, Anne Cushman moves from watching her breath to being it.
I fell in love with yoga sixteen years ago, when I was twenty-three. I was living with two massage students in an adobe cabin on the southern border of Santa Fe, out where the art galleries and million-dollar villas disintegrated into a tattered fringe of vacant lots and trailer-home parks. Our cabin smelled of mouse droppings, a comforting smell reminiscent of the gerbil cages in second-grade classrooms. There was a wood stove in the kitchen, and an abandoned chicken coop in the yard, and an enormous teepee out by the woodpile, where my roommates and I used to gather to bang on congas and rattle gourds while incanting visualizations of our futures: “If it is for my highest good,” we’d begin, “I create a reality in which . . .”
There was always a certain amount of anxiety in these prayers, as though God were a moody and unpredictable waitress, and if we forgot to mention that we wanted cream in our coffee or a lover who wasn’t secretly already married, there would be no chance to change our order.
It was my roommate Lori who took me to my first yoga class, taught in the early morning at her massage school by one of the students, a slender man with muscles so clearly defined that the massage teacher used to strip him to his underwear and use him as an animated anatomy text. My main reason for going, frankly, was that I couldn’t afford to get Rolfed. I’d been reading about Rolfing in one of my roommate’s massage manuals: how your skeleton could be popped apart like a two-year-old’s Barbie doll and put back together in better alignment. I longed to be remade like that—a fresh start, from the bones up, like having your engine rebuilt by God. But Rolfing was $60 a session, way more than I could afford on my $5-an-hour part-time job as a product tester for an interactive video company. So I decided to try yoga instead.
The carpeted room smelled of almond body oil, sweat, and steaming brown rice. The teacher stood at the front of the room in threadbare gray sweatpants, naked from the waist up. As he swung his arms overhead in a Sun Salutation, slabs of muscles slid around his chest and back; then he folded in two at the hips. I took a deep breath and dove in.
At twenty-three, I wasn’t a newcomer to Eastern spiritual practices. Two years earlier I had graduated from Princeton University with a degree in comparative religion, concentrating on Buddhism and Hinduism. I had spent months in my dingy basement carrel at Firestone Library in the flickering, greenish glow of fluorescent lights, drinking metallic decaf from a vending machine and taking notes on texts that told me Buddhism couldn’t be found in books. For my senior thesis, I’d gotten a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to produce a documentary about Zen in America and had spent a month at the Zen Center of Los Angeles with my filmmaker boyfriend, videotaping interviews with teachers and practitioners. I’d started an intermittent meditation practice, sat a couple of Zen sesshins, and had begun thinking of myself as a Buddhist.
But as I folded, arched, breathed, and sweated through that first yoga practice in Santa Fe, I could feel that something different was starting to happen. My body thrummed like a plucked guitar string. Energy buzzed and tingled in my spine. I could feel my breath pulse through my whole body—rippling my vertebrae, spreading my ribs, sending waves of sensation through bones and muscles and organs and skin.
Meditation, for me, had always been a cerebral experience, with “me” sitting firmly in my own head, observing my breath and body (that itchy nostril! that stabbing knee!) like a theater critic reviewing a particularly maddening play. But now, for the first time, I was feeling my own body from the inside, swimming in a swirling stream of sensations. After years of trying to watch my breath, finally I was being it. It reminded me of one of my recurring dreams: that a wall in my house had lifted up and revealed a whole other room—magical, mysterious—that I hadn’t even known was there.
From that moment forward, hatha yoga and Buddhist meditation have flowed together for me. On Vipassana retreats in California and New Mexico—my hips throbbing and my neck pinched from long hours of cross-legged sitting—I’d duck out of walking meditation to do Sun Salutations amid the pine trees and yuccas, and watch as pain and irritation dissolved into pleasure and peace. On retreats at Plum Village, the French community of Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, I’d get up at dawn to stand on my head on the dewy grass outside my tent, while the sun rose over fields of sunflowers. As I sat in meditation, I’d feel the tingle and pulse of the energy I’d awakened through yoga postures. And at the heart of a sweaty yoga practice, I could rest in the stillness I’d cultivated while I sat on my cushion.
These yoga breaks always felt a little illicit, like I was sneaking out of the meditation retreat to have a margarita and get laid. In those days, most hardcore Buddhist practitioners looked down on yoga as excessively sensual and body-obsessed—after all, how could you take seriously a spiritual practice that was performed in pink Lycra tights?
The Buddha, they pointed out, had studied with the greatest yogis of India but rejected their body-based practices as too extreme and ultimately ineffective at bringing about lasting happiness. And in contemporary Western culture—at a time when yoga is associated, in the popular consciousness, with sleek, young actresses flexing in skin-tight unitards on Gucci yoga mats—it’s all too easy to get attached to the glittering goals of the sculpted buttocks and pectorals, or the head arched back to the soles of the feet in a perfect King Cobra. All of these forms are impermanent, my Buddhist teachers remind me; all of them will die and rot.
But for almost twenty years, I’ve kept on doing yoga because I’ve found that for me, there’s no faster way to transform my mind than to move my body. Yoga offers me direct access to a joy that arises straight from my nerves and bones, independent of external circumstances. In Western terms, this transformation can be described in terms of hormones and nerve synapses and endorphins; in Eastern terms, it’s a function of prana and chakras and energies flowing through a network of subtle channels. But in either case, the experience is the same—a transformation of all the subjective sensations that give rise to my sense of self. Moving my body into different shapes, I become a different person.
Creating more space in my joints, I make more space in my mind as well. Twisting and bending and arching my body, I break up the ice floes of self-judgment that have frozen in my muscles. I squeeze out the anxiety knotted between my shoulder blades. I melt the anger in the pit of my stomach into tears.
I may come to my mat miserable, tense, constricted, burdened by judgments of all the things that I’m not that I should be and all the things I shouldn’t be that I am. The walls of my mind close in on me like a trash compactor. You chose the wrong career, jeer the voices in my head. You married the wrong person. You haven’t accomplished enough, and what you have accomplished is not any good. But at the end of the practice, I’ll leave the mat with every cell of my body singing, and my heart wide open. My inner hecklers hurl their taunts and tomatoes from a distant corner of my mind, their voices irrelevant, all but inaudible.
Almost ten years ago, I made a pilgrimage to India to visit the places associated with the Buddha’s life. I explored the buried ruins of monasteries marking the site of the palace in Nepal where the young Siddhartha was raised as a prince in the Shakya clan. I hiked up a heat-baked hill to meditate in the tiny, smoke-blackened cave where Siddhartha had spent six years in ascetic practice, starving himself until his spine showed through the skin of his belly and his buttocks looked like horses’ hooves. I walked on the banks of the river where he renounced asceticism and ate the rice pudding offered to him by a village girl.
I meditated beneath the branches and heart-shaped leaves of the Bodhi tree—a fourth-generation descendent of the actual tree that sheltered the Buddha as he attained enlightenment—and listened to the sonorous chanting of hundreds of Tibetan monks, deep and unfathomable as the mind itself. As tinny music jangled from a chair lift across the valley, I watched a magenta sunset from Vulture Peak, where the Buddha first preached the Heart Sutra, proclaiming that “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” As lemur monkeys quarreled in the sal trees overhead, I circumambulated a stupa in Kushinagar that commemorates the place where he died of food poisoning in his eighties.
My trip to India brought home for me a very simple truth: The Buddha was a human being, in a human body. Like any other person, he was born, walked on the earth, and died. And his great awakening took place in this body—indeed, through this body—a body that, like anyone else’s, got sick, got hungry, shat, pissed, fell apart.
After all, most of the experiences that I think of as most spiritual—being born, giving birth, loving another person, losing loved ones to death, dying myself—are also intensely physical, inextricably entwined with the messy, sensual business of blood and nerves and skin.
Yoga grounds my awareness, again and again, in cartilage, muscle, organs, and bone; it hooks me back into the moment-to-moment unfolding of embodied experience, which at other times I am all too willing to ignore in favor of the alluring fantasies spun by my mind. My practice reminds me that the specifics of my physical experience in this moment—this belly full of French toast, this pelvis skewed slightly to the right from carrying a baby on my hip all morning, this tangible sorrow shrink-wrapped around my heart—are the doorway into the infinite, the place where I touch the whole of creation. As I explore the wilderness of my own body, I see that I am made of blood and bones, sunlight and water, pesticide residues and redwood humus, the fears and dreams of generations of ancestors, particles of exploded stars.
Whether you call it genes or karma, my body carries with it the encoded stories of lifetime after lifetime. I’ve got the fair, freckled skin and racehorse nerves of my Irish ancestors, the tight jaw and stern willpower of my Puritan ones. Opening into a backbend, I touch my grandmother’s raging grief—lodged deep in my own heart—for a child dead at age four. Surrendering into a forward bend, I meet the resistance of what my chiropractor calls my military neck—passed down from my father the army general and his father the army general, who stood tall and swallowed their fear.
Through yoga practice, my body becomes the meditation hall where I can cultivate the classic contemplative arts of presence, concentration, and insight. Yoga encourages me to focus my awareness with exquisite precision—to feel into the space between two thoracic vertebrae; to sense the skin on the inner armpit; to notice the flickers of joy and sorrow alternating with every heartbeat. And then—on a good day—I can begin to see the rest of my life with that poet’s sensitivity. My practice can remind me to bow down to all the intimate, ordinary details of my life—whether I’m picking smashed raisins from the floor by my son’s high chair or clicking on Netscape to open my e-mail—with that same sort of tender appreciation, like an artist painting an apple over and over again, worshiping it with her brush.
When I started doing yoga, I actually thought there was somewhere to get to. Shuffling through old files recently, I found a yoga exam from my days in a teacher-training program at the Iyengar Yoga Institute in San Francisco, in which the teacher had asked us to pick four poses that we found difficult and describe what we were going to do to master them. Earnestly, I laid out my challenges—the tight hips in Revolved Triangle Pose, the tucked-under sitting bones in Seated Forward Bend—and outlined the steps I was taking to eradicate them. Implicit in my answer was the belief that my challenges were both finite and soluble, that with diligent practice, I would root them out and arrive at perfection. In those days, I still thought that “doing things right” was the point of yoga. In my mind, my life stretched ahead of me as an endless upward spiral. Through my practice, I imagined, I’d root out all my messy imperfections: my tight hamstrings, my rambling mind, my possessiveness and jealousy, the way my left shoulder lifted higher than my right. Like my Downward Dog pose, my whole life would come into perfect alignment. I’d learn to sing on key. I’d write a best-selling novel. I’d revel in public speaking. I’d fall in love only with people who fell in love with me.
Nowadays, my practice is different. My body has not gotten better and better, like an upgraded software program. Instead, despite my best efforts, it’s wearing out, breaking down, growing softer and looser and weaker. In the last ten years, I’ve lugged a backpack all over India. I’ve twisted a knee jogging and pulled a muscle doing splits and thrown my back out moving boxes. I’ve cut back on yoga practice to write a book. I’ve carried two babies to term. These days, I can’t do the backbends I used to do effortlessly. Kicking up into an Elbow Balance the other day, I toppled over with a graceless thud. One day in yoga class, after being up and down all night with my teething one-year-old, I actually fell asleep in a shoulder stand.
These days, my practice is teaching me to embrace imperfection: to have compassion for all the ways things haven’t turned out as I’d planned, in my body and in my life; for the way things keep falling apart, and failing, and breaking down. It’s less about fixing things and more about learning to be present for exactly what is.
My yoga practice has helped me be present through the terrible loss of delivering my stillborn daughter, Sierra, and the almost unbearable joy of receiving my newborn son, Skye, in my arms, wet and wide-eyed and lifting his wobbly head to turn toward his daddy’s voice. It’s taught me to begin to embrace my body and my life with all their ragged edges and cellulite; to open to a neck that goes out and a partner who lets me down and muscles that won’t release and a child who won’t sleep through the night. It reminds me how futile are all my attempts to control my body and my life, and that when it comes right down to it, I can’t control or hang onto anything that’s really important. But it also reminds me that despite all this—or perhaps because of this—my life is precious and glorious. It’s teaching me to find some sort of balance and ease in the uncertainty, like I’m doing a handstand poised at the edge of a cliff.
When I do yoga these days, I feel like one of those yogis I used to see in India doing a headstand in the center of a circle of fire, or sitting in lotus by a funeral pyre on the banks of the Ganges, watching a corpse burn. I know the world is in flames all around me; I know my body is on its way back to the earth. But in the middle of it all, I can breathe and stretch and flow and dance; I can reach my arms to the sky, and bow my head to the earth, and feel my body ringing like a temple bell. ▼
Anne Cushman is the author of From Here to Nirvana, a guide to spiritual India. A contributing editor for Yoga Journal, she has published essays in the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and on Salon.com.
Photo: "Lydia's Hands," © 1985 The Estate of Robert Mapplethorpe, courtesy Art + Commerce Anthology