I’m like that kid in The Sixth Sense. Except instead of seeing dead people, I smell cigarette smoke. Now and again, even when the nearest smoldering cancer stick is miles away, I’ll feel the tease of a phantom, acrid odor. When I mentioned this to my doctor during a routine wellness exam last November he paused, looked up from his computer screen and said, “Really?”
And that’s how, a few weeks later, I ended up in the neurologist’s office on a Wednesday morning. The following week I had a brain scan. The week after that an EEG. Seven days later I returned to the neurologist’s office to find out if I had a brain tumor, epilepsy, chronic sinusitis or a rampant imagination.
The odds were on my overactive imagination. My guess – as a graduate of Princeton Plainsboro under the tutelage of Dr. Gregory House with eight years of further study at Seattle Grace – was that my odd symptoms were nothing more than my body’s way of responding to stress and the hormonal fluctuations of menopause. But what if I was wrong? There’s nothing like a slight brush with mortality to jar you from a rut and encourage a yogi to take a good, close look at her practice. When was the last time you stepped back for a moment to examine your yoga journey?
I sat in sukhasana for the first time in 1975. I was a 16-year-old junior at Northwestern Lehigh High School in rural Pennsylvania and my gym teacher Mrs. Carey was introducing the class to some weird alternative stuff from California she called yoga. My only goal in life at that time was to find my way to the edge of the Pacific Ocean. And so, while most of the other girls in class sat slumped and bored, giggly and gossiping, I sat still and closed my eyes. I knew, at that moment, that I had found my first real thing. A thing I loved. Yet it would be ten years before I sat in sukhasana again.
I finally made my way to the edge of the Pacific in 1980 to my first real yoga class in a real yoga studio in 1984. But it feels disingenuous to call the path I’ve walked the past three decades a ‘yoga journey’. If I’m going to be honest with myself it has been an ‘asana journey’. Asana. Asana. Asana. For years layers of tradition were ignored so that I could collect asanas the way some folks collect stamps. Why not? It was fun and my body was hungry for it. I knew it was there, waiting for me, but still I turned a blind eye to the beauty and gossamer depth of a rich yoga practice. I knew I was taking the scenic route but when at last I began to crave more I was so entrenched in the asana practice my lineage offered that I simply didn’t know where to begin.
That doesn’t mean I wasn’t trying. I had all the right books. The Gita and the Upanishads, the Sutras and the Pradipika. They sat right next to Light on Yoga, a book that for years I carried with me as though it were the Holy Grail. I was earnest and eager but on reflection it’s clear. I wasn’t ready for the truth yoga teaches. I wasn’t ready for the wisdom.
Over the past five years, however, my intentions and thus my practice have changed. I work harder to open my heart and my spirit than I do to open my hips. My asana practice is still strong but my living practice – how I walk in the world – is stronger. I am no longer a student of asana. I am a student of yoga. So. Did my yoga practice prepare me for potential change? Was I worried? I am grateful that over the past five years I have moved toward a deep and authentic practice. I’m grateful that it has built a wonderful foundation for me when circumstances change and challenges arise. Yet despite my practice there was a certain and constant low-grade anxiety with one deeply felt crying jag. But I practice yoga. I know hot to breathe. I know how to remain present. I know how to still my mind and how to move away from the storied chatter. But that’s what I was doing. I was writing a story. I had no idea what news my doctor was going to present me and yet I chose to write a story about a fate I could not predict.
At the end of the day, I’ll live to smell another day. All my tests were negative. My doctor isn’t quite ready to blame my rampant imagination. There’s a possibility of simple focal seizures, which sound more serious than they should. But all’s well. I have a fully functioning brain. And I have an awesome yoga practice.
Different versions of this essay have appeared in Indian Currents and Yoga Living Magazine.
I am very grateful to both publications for supporting my work.