Poetry is for me Eucharistic. You take someone else’s suffering into your body, their passion comes into your body, and in doing that you commune, you take communion, you make a community with others.
— Mary Karr from her 2010 interview with Judy Valente on PBS’ Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.
Breathe, and Everything Changes
by Kate Moos, managing producer
I am, perhaps, a yoga cliché. A mid-50s, bookish, somewhat perfectionist, slightly workaholic sort of person who had begin to wonder if that modest but persistent pain in her left hip was innocuous and temporary or whether my body was just deciding to ache, possibly forever.
Then, almost precisely a year and a half ago, I quit smoking after a life-long habit, and 4 months later I took my first Bikram yoga class. It’s been something of a conversion experience, honestly. Bikram involves a fixed 90-minute regimen of 26 asanas or postures, two sets of each posture, performed in a room heated to 105 degrees. The heat increases flexibility, and it also puts the cardiovascular system into overdrive, and creates a kind of peak experience for even a novice practitioner.
The goal of my first class, as a person who had never practiced yoga, let alone yoga in such heat, was simply to keep up as best I could and not leave the room. I succeeded at that, though I felt I might expire or possibly throw up; the sense of centered physical and spiritual well-being that came over me after that first class was so astonishing, I have gone back 3 or 4 times a week ever since, acclimating to the heat, and thriving on the yoga. My experience of Bikram yoga is almost liturgical — the 90-minute regimen offers the same Sanskrit postures in the same order, and even the same directions from the instructors — echoing the Latin liturgy of my Catholic girlhood in a powerful, almost sub-molecular way.
It goes without saying that yoga creates physical strength and wellness — I no longer experience chronic neck pain from sitting slouched for long hours over a computer keyboard, and I don’t see a chiropractor every 3-4 weeks to adjust my lower back any more. The pain in my hip went away. Yet yoga most importantly brings me actual revelations — revelations that start as a new physical experience and then seep into consciousness.
About three months in, I started being able to perform a full camel posture, which means I was greatly increasing the strength and flexibility of my back, and was also opening my chest and my hips. But on a more interior level, the effect of the camel is spiritually profound. A regular practice that includes the camel posture changes my perspective; it helps me open my mind to new ideas — the very ideas where my mind has been closed; it makes it possible to give up resentments; it occasionally causes me to express grief I thought was done and past: the death of a parent, the loss of a love. I don’t mean that I cry in my yoga class (though I have had a few quiet sobs surface after a camel pose once or twice), or that this is therapy. I don’t, and it’s not. I mean that if you engage vigorously with this “ancient technology,” as Krista calls it in the show, the yoga will in fact diagnose your imbalances — physical, emotional, and intellectual — and gently, incrementally, begin to correct them.
There have been times in my life when as a spiritual seeker and a somewhat but not entirely lapsed Catholic I have felt deeply separate from God, whatever my inchoate concept of God was at the time. The most painful and dangerous (to myself and to others) distance from God I have ever known has come through the experience of addiction. Then, at some point in my recovery I had the simple insight that I was unable to experience the love of God because I was not putting myself in the way of it. After all, if you want to feel the sun on your back, you have to stand in the sunlight, yes? At the most basic level, I feel yoga puts me in the way of God. Then, what happens, happens.
In the picture above, snapped with an iPhone after a class this past Tuesday evening, I am practicing the corpse pose. What the instructor calls “the most important posture in the series.” Being fully, deeply relaxed, focused, and cognizant of one’s body allows the teaching of yoga to settle in and take hold. This is what Seane Corne calls “mystical work.”
Move On Up, with Marva
I can’t think of my mother without thinking of Mahalia Jackson’s recording of "Move On Up a Little Higher", with its promise of seeing one’s loving mother in heaven, and its crazy-ecstatic refrain, It’ll be always howdy howdy and never goodbye, that makes me just fall apart. The heart-stopping idea is that loss is erased, that it’s just gone from us, in heaven.
My mother died in 1984, when she was 69 years old, of emphysema, in a race with heart disease. Her health was poor; in addition to lifelong asthma from hay fever and allergies, she had crippling osteoporosis and serious circulatory problems. She was also a life-long smoker, and — bless her — an alcoholic who stayed sober for over 25 years before her death. Like the other lucky ones of her generation, having squared themselves with their Higher Power and found sanity and sobriety in A.A., she smoked like a true addict, as Bill Wilson himself is said to have smoked, as if her life depended on it.
I’m my mother’s difficult youngest daughter, and one of her children who got the heritable propensity for addiction. Addiction: the blessing-curse that instructs me each day in who and what I am, as a guest on SOF once said. All by way of saying that having spent much of my childhood complaining loudly about my parents’ cigarette smoke and begging them to roll down the windows of our crowded Chevy station wagon to let some air in, I became a smoker in my late teens, and stayed a serious smoker long past the time most people had quit.
A year ago today, just as Krista Tippett and I were about to embark on the tour for publication of the hard cover Speaking of Faith, I too quit, using a smoking cessation medication called Chantix. Unbelievably, it worked.
It seems obvious to say I had no idea what I had been doing to myself with my cigarette habit, but it is sadly — even pathetically — true. And I don’t mean just the awareness that I was contributing to the threat of early death or ill health. I mean that once we lose our freedom, it’s almost impossible to know what it is to be free. Living life on a short leash didn’t seem odd, or unusual. It seemed like life. That’s one of the reasons so many of us, who in one form or another have had to come to terms with addiction, are actually grateful for it. As I am, today, marking 365 consecutive days of freedom, in memory of Marva Maxwell, my mom.