Keep Breathing

Melissa Kirsch

I hate yoga.

I hate yoga because it presents so many opportunities for getting in trouble. When you enter a yoga studio you have to take your shoes off, but everyone is so busy giving you secret, om-shanti, squint-eyed, blissed-out smiles that they don't tell you this, so you end up walking through the bamboo-floored, no-shoe area in your slush-caked boots until you see the hand-drawn "No Shoes!" sign, all the letters of which are drawings of little people bent into sun salutation poses. So cute! You're bad! And everyone has known it but waited patiently and enlightenedly for you to figure it out. You just tracked street crap into their sacred space. Now try and find the locker room. Oops -- an impossibly lean Gumby-like man in a pair of women's flare-leg pants has grabbed you firmly but wisely by the shoulder and is steering you around the corner: "That changing area is just for teachers," he whispers before depositing you at the plebeian locker room. "But I didn't know!!" you want to cry, "I'm trying so hard not to disturb the bliss!" But he has magically vaporized on little cat's feet. Yoga people make no sound when they walk, and they walk like ballerinas, in that long-striding loose-hamstring way that tells everyone they are living on a higher spiritual plane than you are.

If you already have one foot in the spanking room before you even enter the classroom, then there’s a good chance the yoga class itself is going to be a further experience in discipline. The light in yoga studios is always this terracotta orange, like after a sandstorm in the Kalahari, so it's a little foggy, and through the fog you have to find a sticky mat and a place to put it that is not too close and not too far from your neighbor, who has arrived early and is either sitting motionless in a lotus pose or is breathing deeply, sometimes grunting kind of sexually, as she moves through a series of complicated stretches that make you feel brittle and tight before class even starts. Everyone in class is wearing adorable outfits that are simultaneously comfortable and flattering, which I thought was impossible. No one but the men are wearing shorts and a tee shirt. The women all have berry colored organic tank tops that are screen printed with birds and branches or birds on branches and those expensive Lululemon pants that make your butt look good even though your butt already looks good; you do yoga every day after all.

Class will start rather innocently, with standing up straight, putting your hands over your head -- the kind of "head, shoulders, knees and toes knees and toes" calisthenics that I am very good at. But it will quickly move into downward dog and upward dog and warrior poses that feel okay but before long the teacher -- herself a long, sinewy snake of a person who has probably never worn shoes and smells like patchouli -- will come over and lay her fine-boned hands on your hips and start moving you around. She will put her hand in the center of your back and go, “Breathe,” and you will feel like, ‘who are you to boss me around like this. And in public?’ She will move on to other people but it is not your imagination that she keeps coming back to you the most, pushing your heels down to the floor and even placing a gentle hand on your stomach, "Breeeeeathe," pressing your abdomen, a place no one wants to be touched.

My friend Avi lives to be adjusted by a yoga teacher. He finds it comforting and a mild turn-on. I find it embarrassing, like being put in a dunce cap in the corner. Why can't I just be doing this move passably well and you leave me alone? Everyone in the class has been waiting for the moment when I get my tenth adjustment—they are still tittering yogically behind their sweatless brows at my shoe mishap -- they spied an interloper in their midst from the get-go and knew that I'd get mine once the "practice" started. It is very important to mysteriously refer to yoga classes as your "practice" and to get a far-off look in your eye when you talk about it, like your "practice" is a year spent in a cliff-side cottage on Mustique and not a twice-weekly slow aerobics class in a hot windowless room on lower Broadway.

It might be surprising to learn, then, that, like every single other person you know, I have started meditating. Everyone's trying to get centered these days, to be mindful. There was a piece in the New York Times about how the sudden surge in popularity of mindfulness is turning everyone you know into a self-centered bore. I'm trying my darndest to become one of those beatifically smiling guru types in an earth-toned hemp tunic that can only be bought in the home goods section of Whole Foods, but like yoga, it's not coming easily.

I started taking meditation classes in a yoga studio. This was the first indication that my journey to enlightenment was going to be an uphill battle. The class was full of yoga people stretching like kitties in the sun before class started, limbering up as if for the floor exercise portion of the evening. I brought a notebook with me to the early meditation classes, because our teacher was this world-renowned Buddhist whose every utterance was totally quotable; the kind of person who can talk to a room full of people and it feels like everything she says is spoken directly to the most broken, needy part of you -- her gentle intonation like Neosporin and Band-Aid to your wounded soul. Before class I'd sit and write in my notebook and try to be insightful and meditative, try to "get quiet," but most of my notes say things like "I can't believe that girl is texting in the meditation room," and "there are a lot of middle-aged women here with shiny straight hair and gray roots perched high atop a pile of cushions and Navajo blankets, I bet every single thing that woman is wearing came from the CP Shades outlet." Meditation teaches suspending judgment. Admitting that I am a small, mean person who scrawled down small, mean, Harriet-the-Spy observations in meditation class makes me feel small and mean. I want to be large and expansive and generous. This is why I meditate.

One of the major lessons of the kind of meditation I'm learning is the practice of sympathetic joy. This is the process of taking happiness in the happiness of others. Evidently, the Dalai Lama, that irrepressible joker, quipped that when we do this, we increase our odds for happiness by six billion to one, which are pretty good odds. Haha, but kind of tempting too. Unfortunately, the idea of sympathetic joy is contrary to the automatic inclinations that issue from my very truest self. My very truest self has always secretly suspected that life is a zero-sum game: you win, I lose. If something good happens for you, I might as well just lie down on the sidewalk and wait for the anvil to drop on me. Or, in my more charitable moments, it's really great that you are happy, and I say "I'm happy for you," but later on I will probably use your joy as a truncheon with which to batter myself black and blue, wondering why nothing good ever happens for me.

In reality, a lot of very good things happen to me, but I don't really reside in reality. I am living in my head, which is like a Rube Goldberg contraption that takes the raw material of reality, processes it through a series of Habitrail tubes and compressors, and spits it out as bad news.

I asked the Wise Meditation Teacher Whose Words Soothe All Ills whether you had to feel you were coming from a place of abundance before you could feel sympathetic joy for other people, because I find that I'm not the only one among my gallows-humored friends who believes that good things happen to other people but not to them. It seems to be a pervasive struggle for many of us to hear that someone else has been given a raise, and for us not to picture ourselves moving back in with our parents, even as we lift a glass, all delirious belly laughs and bear hugs, to his or her good fortune. The Wise Teacher replied that we all seem to have this idea that there is a certain amount of good luck floating around in the air, and that it always seems to land on someone else, and if it didn't land on them, it would surely have landed on us. This is wrongheaded because 1. There is no limit to the amount of good in the world, 2. There is no proof that the good was planning on landing on us anyway and  3. Things change—things always change.

Things change. I know this. I've always known this even though every time I get an unexpected check in the mail or someone gives me a halo-bestowing compliment, I think that the tide has turned forever, I expect there to be only lovely moments ahead. I get grabby, I decide things can never change, I want to hold on to the good things forever and ever, I want to be permanently lucky. In addition, I want to be leading an enviable life, so that other, less enlightened beings might look at me and wonder why all the glittery fairy dust always seems to fall on me. See? Super-grabby. Grabbiness is considered a "hindrance" in Buddhist philosophy, which is a nice way of saying that it's bad behavior. Get grabby, things change. Manic, sunny, walking-on-air days -- when earthly concerns are a million miles below -- reverse, the storm clouds move in, the days are jagged-edged and sliding towards despair.

There is this yoga pose where you are on your hands and knees, and then you extend your left arm straight in front of you and your right leg straight behind you, and you look straight ahead and just hold it -- hold the pose without shaking or moving or falling over. You control your breath and keep your core strong and abide right there. You’re unstable and vulnerable and you just hold it. You breathe into the pose and hold it right there. The teacher might come over and press down on your butt or tell you to elongate your neck and you just keep breathing in this precarious moment, you try to just keep it together for one more second and then one more. There’s not much going on, but it takes a lot of effort to just stay right here.

In these meager, everyone's-getting-shitcanned, foregone-and-foreclosed days, it's even more difficult to feel generous -- to feel that the luck-dropping crop-sprayer is going to pass over again. Even if you are doing okay, there's this hoarder mentality --  ‘I can't possibly give you any of my wine because there is no guarantee my cup will be refilled’. This is part of why I'm meditating my ass off, because I do not want to turn into a miserly shrew with deep, age-inappropriate crow's feet. I go to sleep with meditation mp3s and wake up with my headphones waxed into my ears, drag myself over to my meditation cushion (which is actually a pillow on the floor) and focus on my breath and practice loving kindness: wishing happiness for myself, for people I love, for people I kind of hate, for every living being. I admit it is much easier and feels much better to wish myself well than it does to focus intently on wishing happiness for people I don't like. This makes me deeply suspicious of my own motives for meditating. Am I truly seeking to send compassion, to relieve the trials of the suffering, or do I just want to feel good? The Buddha said you could search a million years and never find a person more deserving of happiness than yourself. This seems kind of like permission to be an asshole, but I'll take it.

While I say I hate it when a yoga teacher comes over and commands me to breathe, she may have a point. I actually appreciate that meditation makes this big deal about focusing on the breath, because there are several times in any day when it will occur to me I am not breathing, like when I am waiting for someone who is late or I am trying to compose a professional-sounding email or sweeping up a box of spilled quinoa, I will realize I am holding my breath and likely have been for some time. When I exhale it's like someone who's been trying to see how long they can stay under water has just come to the surface, gasping and sputtering for dear life. Something's wrong there.

I nearly drowned in the Mediterranean once, which is far less glamorous than it sounds. My friend Peter and I had been fasting for three days, which is in itself a dubious enterprise—nota bene: there are no shortcuts to enlightenment. We'd been subsisting on this disgusting lavender broth of cabbage and other vegetables people pretend to like; and endless cups of senna tea, which is make-you-poop tea, because when you're not eating, the whole works get stopped up. We were walking slowly on the deserted beach, feeling what it feels like to be hungry and dizzy and just alive, checking out the massive mistral waves when the tea kicked in full-force. Because this was France, it cost money to use the public toilets, and neither of us had any change on us so we decided, in our undernourished non-wisdom, to wade out into the sea just far enough to do our business. My quick dip turned into prelude to a drowning as I got sucked into the spin cycle of a ferocious, unyielding tide, gasping for just one breath. The rough current kept flinging me onto the beach, where Peter would try to grab onto one of my flailing limbs to no avail -- the deathtide would drag me back out over a rough bed of rocks and shells, curling back on itself like a cartoon of a wave, fiddlehead-fern style, with me at the center, batting at seaweed, surfacing for a moment to catch my breath, and then being pulled under again. In these, what could very well be the last sentient moments of my life before I died at sea, instead of seeing my life flash before me, I saw only an image of a much-copied Provencal textile pattern -- the one with purple olives and green leaves on a butter-yellow background. I saw napkins and tablecloths and drapes. I was scared and a little angry, like, “Oh really, this is the final image? This is not the way I planned to go out.”

Learning how to breathe, learning how to balance, doesn’t mean you’re not going to sometimes feel like you’re drowning in your day-to-day life.  Someone is always going to stand right in front of the door when you are trying to exit the subway. Your boyfriend is always going to say something really hurtful in the middle of a fight and then regret it later. Pedestrians passing you on the sidewalk are going to smack you with their oversized tote bags. Your well-meaning mother is going to make a passing comment about your weight that flattens you in a single second. One solitary moment in which you continue to breathe, and if you're at all able to tamp down the spitting rage and involuntary tears that spring to your eyes, you will see that every single person, in their own cocoonish way, is fighting for his or her life, gasping for air every single second, trying to make it to the surface, just hoping to make it back to the beach before the tide carries them out for good. Keep breathing. You don't have to meditate or be mindful or smile sagely to everyone who approaches you. You don’t have to be brimming with compassion. I take just this much from meditation: there is always this moment, there is always this breath, there is always blame and bullshit and some jackass who cuts you off in traffic without signaling. The Buddha said that, I'm pretty sure. I remind myself, and I remind you too, even though it sounds as inspired as a "Hang in there, kitty" poster, to keep breathing, be in this moment, no matter how suffocating it feels, no matter how overwhelmed and close to snapping you feel. There’s a certain comfort in knowing that we’re all just trying to get along, we’re all trying to remember to keep breathing, and, though it’s sometimes difficult to believe, there is plenty of air to go around.


Issue 12

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