When I was living in New York, back in the days before I had a baby, there were a couple of things in my life that mattered very much to me. More than drinking too much, going out with the wrong guys, running around with my glorious friends and hustling for freelance gigs, there were elements of my routine that kept me sane, balanced and whole.
There was writing, of course—both my work and my therapy—often at coffee shops, later at the Writer’s Room, a wonderful office space for writers that I started going to when Harlan became my boyfriend and offered to pay for it!
There was also yoga.
I started practicing yoga when I first moved to New York in 1993. The first class I did was at NYU, where I was getting my masters in English. It was a kundalini class with a teacher named Deborah and I connected with it immediately. I loved the poses and the way they challenged me, stretched my body and enhanced my natural flexibility. I also loved the effects the moves had on my mind. Deborah would tell us that when thoughts naturally raced through, we should gently nudge them aside. That was an image that worked for me, that I have held to ever since. I am a person whose mind is naturally cluttered with ideas, anxieties, the minutia of my life, all darting frantically around bumping into each other making mama crazy, and gently nudging that aside to make space for silence, for peace, for a rest from the my life, is a powerful tool. Being able to quiet my mind is a gift. And somehow on that mat in Deborah’s class, I went beyond quiet. Occasionally I could reach a space between waking and dreaming. I don’t know if I’d say I was transported, but I found a place of surrender and profound calm.
I had a blissful period when I’d ended a four year relationship and began dating a gentle, blue-eyed 24-year-old who treated me like a goddess. I was doing yoga five or six times a week at a center I loved just four blocks from my home in the East Village. My body had never been stronger. It was long and lean, and friends I hadn’t seen in a while would comment on my perfect posture. I began a new job as the managing editor of a magazine. I was truly happy.
Eventually things crumbled. I left the wonderful young man to get back together with my ex for another fraught year or so. The owners of my yoga school, Bhava, lost their lease and moved to Vermont to start another one. September 11 made us aware of our vulnerability. I bought an apartment and spent many months sleeping on friends’ couches. I left my job, I moved into my new home. I wrote a screenplay, I wrote a book. Harlan came back into my life. We fell in love, moved in together, got married, moved to LA. The yoga was in me. I practiced with a wonderful teacher at the gym I joined in New York, usually only three times a week, but it still got me through. In LA, I found new schools, new teachers. I found solace and physical relief through prenatal yoga.
These days, as I struggle to find time and mental space for writing, so I grab fruitlessly at the rare handful of yoga. It’s a good week if I do one class and I’m well aware that isn’t enough. It’s my fault. It’s a question of time, discipline, priorities. Frankly, with his very impressive up- and down-dogs and child’s pose his preferred sleeping position, boo does more yoga than I do.
Filmmaker Kate Churchill went on a cinematic quest to explore our Western obsession with yoga and to find out if it could really be a path to enlightenment. She chose an ordinary guy, Nick Rosen, to be her guinea pig. Nick had never done yoga and Churchill sent him out to start practicing regularly to see if the experience would transform him. The result is Enlighten Up! which opens this Friday, April 17 in Santa Monica, Pasadena and Irvine. Check out the trailer.
Nick is a journalist and a skeptic. He doesn’t know about this whole yoga thing. As he takes class after class, from Kundalini to Bikram to Yoga for Regular Guys (taught by a former championship wrestler, with an emphasis on classmates’ cleavage), Nick struggles with what he views as an irreconcilable contradiction: he is searching for enlightenment, but he does not believe in God. What does enlightenment mean for a man who has no spirituality? And can he find it through yoga?
Nick travels to India and meets with many great teachers. He becomes flexible and twists himself up like a pretzel. And whether he finds any answers is unclear. But he does come to a conclusion that I have also come to through my years of studying with different yoga teachers: Yoga is many different things to many different people. To some it is about the sweat, to others discipline. Then there are those for whom yoga is a life path that may eventually lead to some experience of God.
At one point Nick visits David Life and Sharon Gannon, the founders of Jivamukti, a popular school I frequented in New York. I loved Jivamukti when it was small and intimate, but felt a bit lost when they moved to a massive space on Lafayette and started charging $20 a class. That said, David and Sharon are some of the best teachers I know. David is gaunt and serious and he can make his body do impossible things. He’s the real deal. I’ll never forget him, because he’s the teacher who, with the touch of a hand, helped me (and my back) truly understand downward facing dog. (I’ll also never forget the teacher in a Tribeca studio who made my hips understand triangle pose.)
In the movie, David tells Nick that when you enter their studio, there’s a sign on the wall that says, “Are you ready?”
Are you ready?
That’s it. He didn’t explain it any further. When Nick travels to India, he meets Gurusharanananda, one of many gurus Nick interviews, trying to use his intellect to explore questions that have no rational answers. I don’t remember exactly what the guru said, but he basically tells Nick that he’s not seeking God; he is seeking himself. And while Nick spends most of the film feeling frustrated by his inability to get any closer to God or even to understanding yoga, he ultimately does a pretty good job finding himself. Maybe not through yoga, but through the quest for himself and what makes him happy. Sort of how I’d love to go back to that place that I once found sweating through sun salutations, but I’ve managed to find another sort of peace through breastfeeding, rocking Aidan to sleep, watching him grow.
Whether it’s because of the yoga or not, by the end of Enlighten Up!, Nick’s world has been transformed as surely as mine has by motherhood. It has expanded.
Apparently he was ready.
Churchill and Rosen will attend screenings in Santa Monica on April 17 and 19, in Pasadena on April 18 and in Irvine April 19. See the website for more info.