I don’t teach Yin or Gentle Flow very often. Don’t get me wrong, I love it. It took me awhile to get to a place where sitting still felt like anything other than wasting time, but I’ve come to see the beauty and necessity in learning to sit still- it reconnects me to breath, reconnects me to the true intention of my yoga practice, and reconnects me with the journey of healing that I will always be on. These slower, more intentional practices will never give me the rush of a dance-like Vinyasa Class with bumping music and flowy transitions, but they will always have a solid space in my life.
I taught Yin today for the first time at the Sanctuary at Just Be. The Sanctuary is a pleasantly cave-like space, set half-underground so that when you look out the windows you see half-asphalt half-sky. The room is filled with candles and the air is always perfumed with incense and sage. It’s been described as “cocoon like”, both for its cozy darkness and harboring of transformation.
It was a perfect day for Yin; drizzly and rainy, the kind of weather that drives you inside and makes you stay there. I showed up to the space early, cleared the room, got my music set up. I waited around for students to show up, expecting the normal group of five or six mid-day yogis. With about five minutes until noon, I started to wonder if anyone was going to make it, when one woman walked in. She was a familiar face, someone I’d seen around Just Be undoubtedly many times before, but had never formally met.
We got to chatting, and I learned that she was coming back to her practice after a long hiatus. She was suffering from cancer, and had an unexpected surgery as a result. I wasn’t quite sure what to say, since it can often be hard to summon a response to such a vulnerable statement.
“The yoga must help.” I said.
“It does,” she replied, perched on her mat like a little bird just come in from the storm outside, “The breath, mostly.”
The more we chatted the more I was impressed with her positivity. She seemed not at all sorry for her situation, not at all angry at the world for something that, to me, seemed so unfair and unnecessarily heavy. I told her I thought it was great that she kept with her practice, that she made the time to do something for herself.
“You know, the funny thing is, it almost becomes a pressure. You know, to do everything you want to do. There’s a lot of time where I can’t do anything, so when I can, I feel like I have to do everything.”
The faint smile never left her lips as she continued, “I’m dying, essentially. Ovarian cancer is a death sentence, especially when it’s reoccurring. But…it’s a sentence for my body. Not my spirit.”
I told her I admired her positivity, that I was really touched by her outlook on life and her disease.
“You don’t really have a choice,” she shrugged her shoulders a bit, “I mean, you do, I guess, but I don’t. I refuse to be miserable.”
The time for class to start came, and it was still just the two of us. Me perched up on a block, her curled up on her mat, alone in the little cave with the faint sound of rain wrapping around us like a blanket. She tried to apologize, saying that she must be wasting my time by staying for just one student, but it couldn’t have been further from the truth. Five minutes into knowing this woman and she had already given me so much- a new perspective, a new intimate experience with a human so real and authentic in her struggle. My heart was literally fluttering as I got up to close the curtains and begin class, so engrossed in the mysterious mechanics of the world and the people that are brought in and out of our focus.
The practice was soft and sweet. I wanted everything to be about feeling good. When time seems to be short, there’s no point in wasting time on things that don’t. It’s funny how obvious this concept becomes when our deadline seems to be creeping closer and closer. All of our lives are finite, all of our lives have little time to waste on the negative and forced, and yet it’s so hard pull into focus the real futility of our existence until we’re forced to face our mortality.
I wonder about this woman now, as I sit writing this. I wonder about her reaction to her diagnosis. Was she angry? Was she mad? I think I would be. It seems so cruel to be handed this slice of life, so unfair. I wonder if she slowly came to the perspective she has now, or if it was a sudden realization. I wonder if she embraces the end, or dreads its arrival. I wonder if she knows just how much light she emits for someone who should be flickering out.
As a teacher, I’m constantly amazed at how often I learn lessons from my students. As a human, I’m constantly amazed at how powerful each person I come across is in such unique ways.
The class ended. I massaged her feet, and heard a soft sigh of relief. It made me happy to think that maybe I made her feel a little bit better than when she arrived. As she rolled up her mat she told me she was going to visit family that night, that she hoped they were making pasta sauce with the slow-cooked short ribs they’d made earlier in the week. I joked that I wanted the left overs, we laughed. We put on our shoes in the entry way, grabbed our belongings. I blew out the candles and locked the door.
It was an encounter, however brief, that I’ll carry with me forever.