When I first met Melissa she was curled on her side on her bed. She wore a beanie on her head, was frail and her speech was impaired. She had been through a journey that none of us ever wants to take. When I looked at her I also saw a distance in her eyes that came from a surgery to her brain that had not gone well. But I also saw intelligence, humor, and an unusual determination. Our first session was spent on her bed. I asked questions about how she could move and she would try something simple like bending her fingers. I wanted to understand what she could do physically and how she would emotionally respond to what I had asked her to do. I wanted to build some evidence of success and trust between us so she would feel comfortable trying more of what I would ask of her.
As Rob walked me to the door, I asked to see a picture of Melissa before she had cancer. He showed me a strong and beautiful Chinese woman in her thirties, an engineer, an avid skier and voracious reader who looked like anything she wanted to accomplish was possible. I wanted to see the “ before cancer photo” because I wanted to understand who I was talking to. In all of our sessions, when I spoke with Melissa, I spoke to the Melissa that I saw in that picture because that is what I would want from someone working with me if I was in her situation.
We worked together two and often three times a week for eight months. We began in the bed and slowly we moved onto the carpet beneath the bed. Her first real yoga posture was a supported shoulder stand with her feet against the bed ledge, which would seem odd given the state of her body. She enjoyed having her legs up in the air and her body seemed perfectly shaped for shoulder stand. We began on the floor and took one posture at a time over several weeks until she could stand, and then finally, walk without help.
After about a month she could practice yoga downstairs in the living room with her sister and her mother who only spoke Chinese. Rob came home from work during his lunch hour and many days the four of us practiced on the living room carpet on our mats, just moving our bodies. Sometimes her friends would come to visit and they all did yoga with us, some for the very first time.
She would often suggest that we not do a posture and I would calmly tell her we were going to do it, despite her resistance. I knew the value of the practice and I understood myself. I understand that sometimes I don’ t want to do something that will be good for me because it will bring up fear or sadness or anger. I would often ask her how she felt and she would say ‘ awful.’ In the beginning she didn’t recognize this as a joke but as she regained some of her short-term memory in the months we worked together, we would laugh together about how “ awful” she felt.
The choices I made about how to support her in moving her body were based on the premise that we are all trying to achieve balance, mentally, spiritually, and physically. We did a lot of balance postures to help her concentration. We worked in the direction her spine was leaning and then its opposite direction to regain mobility. Because I knew that the cancer cells remained in her cerebral spinal fluid after the second surgery, I wanted our time together on the mat to be joyful. I wanted our time on the mat with her family to alleviate their stress and bring enjoyment that comes from simply being together. Ironically, we laughed a lot while down on the floor together even though we didn’ t speak the same language, just human beings doing the best we could in the most difficult of situations.
When I left their house, I often cried. Because as I was saying hello every day to a person I was getting to know better, I was always saying goodbye. But in essence, this is how life is. We are saying hello and goodbye and we often pretend that the goodbye doesn’ t exist. But deep down we all know better. To do yoga therapeutics well in these kinds of difficult situations has required that I feel what it’ s like to be someone else inside the challenge they are attempting to alleviate, whether its cancer, addiction, or a back surgery, whether its anxiety or depression. I can’ t be convinced that I truly understand what it’ s like to be the person I’ m working with, but I attempt to. Do I feel emotions that are hard to feel? Yes. But I can’ t imagine trying to alleviate another’ s suffering while putting some sort of emotional wall around myself. Practicing yoga and meditation is a practice of being present so that when we’ re faced with real challenges, we are able to show up and effectively respond to any situation to the best of our ability. It’ s as if my little concerns for myself just disappear. I have found no greater relief and joy than to be required to be present to someone else in such a way that I can be a support, no matter what they are going through in life.
We were seeing noticeable progress with each session. Within several months she was taking walks around the block, shopping for clothing for Rob, and going to a concert with him at Stern Grove. There was nearly a sense of normalcy where the urgency of the situation seemed far enough away that we could practically take life for granted. Then one day Melissa began feeling pain in her spine. The cancer had spread to her bones and in a very short time her body began to systematically shut down from the ground up. Rob took a month off of work, put a hospital bed in the kitchen and single-handedly cared for her in that final month. Our yoga practice went from holding her hand as she balanced in tree pose to holding her hand while she lay in bed and simply breathing together. Watching Rob being forced to let go was pure heart break. At that time I thought of the distinction that the great Sufi poet, Rumi has made, “ the heart breaking or the heart breaking open.” I wondered how his heart could possibly break open, after such a heart break.
Rob is an engineer. He also plays the piano, loves poetry and would call himself a “ foodie.” He has a great eye and speaks eloquently. He has known what it’ s like to love someone completely and every action he took during the time Melissa was struggling was an expression of such a great love, the kind we all dream of for ourselves. Even though he is a few years younger than me, there were ways in which he reminded me of my father, my greatest mentor. One day I came over to the house and we sat with Melissa’ s hospital bed between us when she was no longer talking. He and I talked for several hours about everything. I had a great respect for his ability to continue to show up in the face of tragedy and he respected me for coming around even after my work was really done. I told him I would give him three weeks to grieve and then we would need to get back to work with the yoga. There would be much work to do.
Three weeks after she died I called him and he came to my home studio. Yoga therapeutics includes postures, breathing, meditation and often talking. Rob would talk while we moved and sometimes he would cry. We wrung out his body from the inside out and when he left, he was lighter and more able to cope with what was in front of him. In June of 2008 Rob came to Italy on what was to become the first of three “ Eat, Pray, Love yoga retreats” to Italy, India and Bali. He met people on that retreat who are now life-long friends, his practice deepened and he regained his enthusiasm. We continued to work together and in March 2009 Rob came on the Bali retreat. At the end of that retreat Rob asked me if I would like to open a studio so we could give back what had been given to Melissa, her family and friends and Rob.
You know the phrase, “ be careful for what you wish for because you just might get it?” This studio is a living testament to the fact that dreams can come true. But it comes with a great responsibility. I have been absolutely blessed by so many enthusiastic, successful people who are so supportive of this studio, staff, teachers and people who have genuinely devoted their lives to making life a little better for others. It is our intention that your time at Breathe Together will enable you to be even more effective at positively contributing to the people’ s whose lives you benefit. Heartbreak in this life is inevitable for all of us. But out of the most difficult circumstances, amazing things can happen.
Please let me know any way in which I can be of support.