Seven weeks from my scheduled departure for New York, my brother and I placed my father in the VA hospice care center. His last chemotherapy round had sent his cancer reeling in equal proportion to the rest of his immune system. If the doctors gave him another blast it would kill him faster than the disease itself. His breath was increasingly shallow.
At hospice, unadulterated oxygen from a tank by the bed flowed into his lungs. But it was not enough. Only three days after leaving his home, his health declined precipitously. When I entered his room I had to hold back a gasp at how pale and drawn he looked. When I sat down I started to cry.
“May as well accept it,” he shrugged and lifted his palms skyward. “We're all terminal.” He placed his hands back on the bedspread which covered his frame, as skinny now as it appeared in his war photos, and turned his head toward the window where an American flag was flying.
I was practicing yoga at home when the phone call came the next morning to tell me my father had died at five minute past seven. He had coughed a little, the night nurse reported, and expired. In the end it had been his lungs that had failed.
Oddly, it didn't upset me to see my father's dead body. He looked more at peace then he did alive. He was lying under his bedspread in the same manner as I'd last seen him, a literal example of savasana, or “corpse pose,” the concluding, deeply relaxing posture that finishes the Ashtanga series. His mouth was slightly open, his eyes were closed, and his palms were upturned. In that moment, I understood everything I'd been attempting to learn in yoga class about attachment, impermanence and fear. My father had died, and I'd survived it. And while he was free of the body that had pained him, I still had one, as well as a practice to help me be in it.
However, the following days were harder than that moment as the extent of my loss sunk in.
“The breath is the hardest pattern to change,” I remembered my teacher telling me. “But if you're not breathing you're as good as dead.”
The only real mirror I had now was myself. For a couple of weeks, I did yoga practice alone, breathing through my grief without anyone's prompting, willing myself to find out who I really was.
While I'd felt bereft when I boarded the plane to New York, two days of practice with Pattabhi Jois and hundreds of other Ashtangis revived my spirits. In the Ashtanga yoga world, this workshop was a major event. Due to the large size of class, the workshop was held on the basketball court of the huge modern sports complex at Chelsea Piers, a one-time port for transatlantic ships on the Hudson River. The makeshift studio vibrated with excitement despite the early hour, the jet lag and sore muscles that were the common denominators among the spectrum of yogis in the room. Among them, were some of the world's best yoga teachers as well as a handful of famous actors and models.
We all snapped to attention when Jois, a small, barrel chested man, called out “Samastahiti,” the Sanskrit word for “equal standing,” and began to lead practice by calling out the names of postures and counting down breaths.
During the next hour and a half, Jois, who many devoted yogis call “Guruji” for his wisdom, circled the large room, pausing occasionally to give a verbal instruction or adjust a student's limbs. Occasionally a few people who had come to the sports center to work out stopped and watched us through the black mesh fence as our collective breath filled the huge hall.
One of the finishing postures of the Ashtanga sequence is “padmasana” or seated lotus pose. That Tuesday, when I sat with my legs crossed, my ankles at my thighs, and my hands on my knees in the classic meditation posture, Jois came by and placed his hands on my shoulders, pulling them back as far as they could go to send my heart forward. When I lay down for savasana , the same corpse pose my father had been in on his death bed, I spontaneously burst into tears as a wave of grief overcame me. I missed being able to tell my father what I was seeing and doing, but I rose from my mat feeling calm, peaceful and grounded in my self. A sense of gratitude for my life trumped the urge to cry. For the first time during my visit, I joined the line to bow at Jois's feet and convey my appreciation for his teachings.
After class, I met up with some friends from California and walked to a nearby cafe. As we ate and planned the day's entertainment, I noticed a man with long blond hair and a yoga mat by his feet at the next table. It turned out Tony had also just come from the Ashtanga workshop. In our post practice ebullient state, we were oblivious to what was going on out on the street and the subsequent rise in radio volume. We waved to my friends from my home studio and carried on with our conversation. When one of the cafe employees came over to our table and asked Tony and I to quiet down, we were taken aback.
“A plane has just hit the World Trade Center,” the cafe worker informed us. We looked at each other stunned. Then we gathered our things and joined the hundreds of other people walking down the sidewalks attempting to piece together exactly what was happening while. The exact nature of the situation had yet to sink in and we headed for a nearby vantage place point from which to see the buildings for ourselves.
“The first tower has collapsed!” a passerby exclaimed. No one knew exactly what had happened. The sidewalks were filled with crying people. Those who weren't in tears were desperately punching numbers into their useless cell phones.
With chaos surrounding us, Tony and I attempted to define our respective lives. I was grateful that circumstance had found me with a fellow yogi amidst such an extreme event. A couple of times we just looked at each other and consciously took a few deep breaths. By the time we reached Greenwich Village, we had exchanged family, and relationship histories as well as the logistics of our trip. I was lodging in another yogini's apartment on the Lower East Side; he was enjoying a similar arrangement on the Upper West Side near a place called The Cloisters.
“There's a beautiful park and an old building with tapestries of the maid and unicorn,” he told me. “And a lot of religious iconography.”
“Maybe after all of this we can go there,” I said. The streets were full of fast moving ambulances, fire trucks and police cars. The thought of a natural setting sounded both improbable and like heaven.
A woman with curly red hair and a small terrier on a leash stopped and reached out for my arm.
“Did you hear?” she said. “It was intentional. There are more planes in the sky.” The horror of what had truly happened finally sunk in. Two miles away, thousands of people had perished.
As we neared the place where we would have a clear vantage of what remained of the Twin Towers, I looked down on the sidewalk to see a large chalk drawing in red and gold and blue of a blonde woman with a unicorn.
Then a gasp went up and we raised our eyes to see the second tower go down in flames. For a second everything stopped as nearly everyone on the street seemed to suspend their breath. Then we all turned away from the view of smoke, overcome with shock rather than panic.
We continued walking to find out more about what had happened, repeatedly stopping to listen to a stranger on the sidewalk share their story or worry. Cars whirred past covered in ash. People lined up at phone booths attempting to find their loved ones.
We ran into a small grocery store for water. Above the cash register was a TV set turned to the news. Already there was talk of retaliation and the possibility of World War III. I thought of my father's role in the war and the long-term affects of war I'd witnessed in the VA. What would be my role in what was perhaps my own generation's biggest crisis? I didn't want to perpetuate or add to the destruction of the past and of the moment. Yoga practice, the practice of union and opening to life with equal regard, now seemed more necessary than ever.
After another hour of walking, we decided to head to the Jivamukti Yoga Center, a popular studio in SOHO. There we joined an impromptu meditation circle led by the Center's founders, owners and yoga teachers, David Life and Sharon Gannon.
“The challenge at a time like this is to keep our hearts open,” Gannon said to the small group of stunned people. The
room was quiet and dark save for few candles. Above her head was a small altar containing a statue of the Virgin Mother. I folded my legs back into padmasana and recalling Jois's adjustment, pulled my shoulders back.
The remainder of the day would be one of bearing witness and listening as impromptu and highly diverse gatherings sprung up on the street. We spent some time talking with a group that included a man in a business suit, an elderly citizen in athletic wear, a cab driver from Pakistan and a woman who worked at a Realtor's office.
Eventually, we wound our way back to my friend's eighth story apartment on the Lower East Side. When we hung our heads out the bedroom window we could see a great plume of gray smoke streaming out of Lower Manhattan. A few more friends came over and we cooked dinner and watched the news trying to reconcile the footage of the plane slamming through the building with our general well being. At one point in the evening, all of our cell phones started ringing at the same time and the room filled with our voices telling our loved ones “Yes, yes, I'm OK.”