The following post is written by Amanda Erin Miller, author of One Breath, Then Another: A Memoir. I met Amanda at an open mic in Brooklyn. We quickly bonded over both being writers, travelers, yoga teachers and massage therapists. She gave me a copy of the memoir she wrote about traveling to India to study yoga on an ashram. Her guest post includes an excerpt from the book, which is available in print and for Kindle.
Will Yoga Help Me Overcome My Fear?
We are our own worst enemies. We can inflict more suffering on ourselves than any external force. I observed this in my father, who abused his body until he eventually died of lung cancer when I was seventeen. From a young age, I noticed I was drawn to self-abuse like him, suffering similarly from eating disorders, depression and self-imposed isolation. It scared me. I didn’t want to end up the way he did.
Around the time that he died, I discovered yoga, but it would be several years before I began to seriously practice. Only after suffering a mental breakdown at age twenty-one did I turn to holistic practices. I first became a massage therapist and discovered that helping others was a powerful way to help myself. Soon after, I took up a dedicated yoga practice, and found its therapeutic power to be profound. I felt stronger for a while, but at twenty-five I felt myself slipping again and decided I needed to get a grip on my mind once and for all. I was afraid of becoming a lifetime prisoner of anxiety, sadness and fear.
I decided that traveling alone to India to live on an ashram for a month and complete a yoga teacher training was the way for me to do this. At the time, I wasn’t certain I wanted to teach yoga, but I knew I wanted to study the practice deeply in its country of origin. I had an intuitive sense that it was what I needed to truly heal.
After dinner, Kate, the ashram leader, announced there would be an activity in the main hall. We filed in to find Gandhar, the son of the ashram’s founder, sitting onstage in full lotus position with a small brown box in his lap. He was a tall, thin Indian man with dark brown eyes that popped and was insanely limber, likely the result of practicing yoga from an early age. A soft white light shone on his face; the rest of the room was dim.
“Tonight we will be having a question and answer session,” he announced slowly and deliberately, extending his bony arms out to the sides, his long fingers curling toward the ceiling. “Everyone who would like may take a second to anonymously write a question relating to yoga on a piece of paper, put it in this box, and I will answer it to the best of my ability.”
He stood up and walked the box down to a girl sitting at the foot of the stage, then returned to his center stage lotus position. Some people took out notebooks and pens and wrote questions; I just passed the box along. In the moment, I couldn’t organize my thoughts to formulate an intelligent question. Aside from the sound of writing and the box being passed from hand to hand, the room was silent and still. Eventually, the box found its way back to Gandhar.
“Before we address these questions, I would like us all to do a meditation exercise together.” He smiled, “Now, trying to get the mind to focus and meditate is like asking a drunken monkey bit by scorpions to be still.”
We all laughed.
“That’s why simple exercises like the one we’re about to do can help ease you into it,” he said. “Please sit with your eyes closed, head up, chin tucked, shoulders, chest and face relaxed. Begin to tune into your breath, not doing anything to strain it or change it, just notice it entering and exiting the body without effort, as it always does, twenty-four hours a day. This is your life force. Take a deep inhale and extend your arms out to the sides. Then bring your hands forward, palms cupped toward your belly button, hovering above your lap. Keep your elbows bent out to the sides. As you inhale, allow your hands to ascend slowly, passing your belly button, ribs, sternum, chest, throat, face, and lift up over your head, palms still facing you. Then on your exhale, just as slowly, allow your hands to float back down, passing your face, throat, chest, sternum, ribs, belly, and once again, let them hover lightly above your lap. Then repeat the process twice more… Now, bring your palms toward each other so they are very close but not quite touching. What do you feel?”
“Energy,” emitted a woman’s voice that rose up from her core, solid and strong.
“Magnetism,” someone else said.
I agreed with all three; there was definitely an energetic magnetic charge between my palms. I also had the relieving sensation of empty darkness behind my eyes. My breathing felt easy, chest and shoulders melting.
“Good,” said Gandhar, “Release your hands to your sides and gently let your eyes float open, allowing the light to slowly creep in, keeping the gaze soft. I will now answer your questions.”
He reached into the box and pulled out a slip of paper. First, he read it silently to himself.
“Will yoga help me overcome fear?” he read aloud then looked up. “Well yes,” he said, “Practicing yoga puts you in touch with the realities of life. When you realize that you have ninety to one hundred years in your life, if you’re lucky, and then you will be gone, when you really absorb that truth with the whole of your being, all sense of fear related to life experiences just falls away.”
—Excerpted from One Breath, Then Another
This idea of confronting mortality as a way to conquer fear was pretty ground shaking for me. At first it seemed counterintuitive: isn’t death just the scariest thing there is? Why would thinking about death make me less afraid of living? Because time is a gift and our time is limited, and yet existence is a great mystery: what does it all mean? I don’t know, but all I have is my body and my mind, and I have a choice about how to direct my thoughts to make my time here miserable or enjoyable.
By the end of the training, I knew I wanted to teach yoga. During our graduation ceremony, I stood up in front of my fellow trainees and my teachers and said, “I really want to live an extraordinary life.”
Amanda Miller is a writer, actor, yoga instructor, and massage therapist based in Brooklyn. She has adapted One Breath, Then Another into an interactive solo show featuring yoga poses, meditation, breathing exercises and chanting, which recently premiered at Dixon Place in Manhattan. Her writing has appeared in The Rumpus, UC Riverside’s Cratelit, So Long: Short Memoirs of Loss and Remembrance, Underwired Magazine, Runaway Parade and more. She holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from The New School and a BFA in Acting from NYU. Find her online at http://www.onebreaththenanother.com/.
All photos courtesy of Amanda Miller.