Feb 15, 2015 11:36PM ● Published by Kerigan Butt
By Richard L. Gaw
On Jan. 16, 2008, I was lying in the blissful pose of the Shavasana, at the conclusion of another 90-minute session of yoga at the Newark studio of Empowered Yoga.
I was in the fifth year of my practice, and I had elevated my breath and movement from a place of newbie awkwardness to one of pure, flowing synergy. Through my practice, I had healed the crusty residue that had formed in my body from years of basketball and baseball, and I had trained my mind to become Jedi-focused. I was 46, an age when most men begin the slow tumble down of health, but here I was, in the best shape of my life, sculpted by three visits a week to Newark, where I would curl and flex and bend in sequence to music and the reassuring voices of my teachers.
Two days later, on Jan. 18, I was on an operating table at the Christiana Hospital, with a tube about to be inserted into my abdomen. At about ten o'clock that evening, I suddenly felt jabbing pains in my chest. I called my wife to come upstairs to our bedroom, and there she found me, doubled over in excruciating pain, as if two linebackers had speared me in the chest with their helmets. Within 15 minutes, paramedics had arrived at our home in Landenberg, where they strapped me on a gurney, positioned me in an ambulance, and sped me to the emergency room at Christiana, with my wife following behind in her Subaru.
There were three medics in the back of the ambulance with me, each of them with a task to do. As I was being wheeled into a cold and dark operating room, I opened my eyes for the first time in over an hour, and asked a young doctor what had happened. “You've had a heart attack, sir,” he said. “Fifteen percent of your arteries are clogged. We're going to fit with you with a stent. Once that stent is in, you'll feel much better.”
Throughout the 15-minute operation, he and I talked about football. After two days at Christiana, I returned home, took a week off to recover, and returned to work the following Monday.
I continued my life.
It has been said that when we recover from a near-death experience, that the overdrive of our emotions is so strong that we are left to weep in self-reflection, in thankfulness, and in humility. In contrast, as I sat in a hospital bed, I was neither self-reflective nor thankful or humble. I was just angry; first because my heart attack had ruined a romantic getaway trip I had planned with my wife; and secondly, that I had done nothing at all to encourage this event to happen.
On the day I left Christiana, I spoke with my heart doctor, as he popped up x-rays of my heart, one by one, onto a bright white screen.
“Doc, I don't smoke, I eat the right things, I swim laps at the pool, I practice yoga, I drink in moderation, and OK, maybe there's a little stress in my job but I'm used to it,” I said. “How could this happen to me?”
“It can happen to anyone, really,” he said. “You told me that your mother had suffered a heart attack, so it was likely that you or your siblings would also have one.”
“But I'm in the best shape of my --”
“Doesn't matter,” he said. “Heredity is a leading cause of heart attacks. But it helped that you are in good health ... I mean, if you hadn't followed an exercise program, if you did not eat right..." He looked at me. "Did you say that you practice yoga?”
I answered, "Yes."
“Yoga is a superb exercise for the cardiovascular system,” he said. “Do yourself a favor. Sometime or another, remember to thank your teachers.”
* * * *
I enjoy the fact that no one, for certain, knows the origins of yoga. Its beginnings seem to have eluded everyone who claims to know the truth about it. Emblematic idols carved into the walls discovered at Indus Valley Civilization sites depict figures in positions resembling a common yoga or meditation pose. Ascetic practices, concentration and bodily postures used by Vedic priests to conduct Vedic ritual of fire sacrifice may have been precursors to yoga.
Pre-philosophical speculations of yoga begin to emerge in the texts dating back to 200 B.C. By 500 B.C., Hinduism and Buddhism were taking their philosophies that had their roots in yoga. Yoga came to the attention of an educated western public in the mid 19th century, along with other topics of Indian philosophy.
Wherever and whatever its origins, yoga did not enter my life until 2003. I was an editor with a Delaware newspaper at the time, and one day, an advertising representative came into my office at the newspaper and told me about this young man he'd met named John Gillespie, who was just weeks into the start of his own yoga studio, the first of its kind in Wilmington. The ad rep thought that Gillespie might make a good story, so I visited Gillespie in his office.
When I arrived at Wilmington Yoga's first studio on Pennsylvania Avenue, I noticed that the yoga room was small, enough to fit 25 yoginis, tops, and that Gillespie's office was the size of a moderately-sized changing room, which in fact, it later became.
Gillespie, I immediately found out, was the amalgamation of a contented athlete and a restless old soul who had begun to ask questions of the world and his place in it. He told me that he was a former hockey player and bodybuilder who one day woke up and, tired of the pain that these activities had inflicted on his body, began to seek relief. Eventually, his journey to health landed him in a yoga studio and, at a time when the practice of yoga was still on the cusp of acceptance, he went full throttle, obtained certification to teach yoga and eventually opened his first studio above a hair salon.
As Gillespie spoke, his story, was closely mirroring my own -- that of a broken-down old ballplayer beginning to hold the traditional values that form his life accountable for their actions. We were, essentially, feeding from the very same trough. During the interview, he slipped in that there was a Brand New Beginners class that he was offering for people who were considering the practice of yoga. One week later, I found myself on a borrowed yoga mat with Gillespie at the head of the class. I was one of 20, all of us ignorant and apprehensive of everything we were about to learn.
In the beginning, I was horrible. I could not hold even the simplest of poses, and those that I managed to sustain left me buckled over in pain, or wrapped in the coccoon of what is known as the Child's Pose, the act of laying on the floor in a the shape of a human ball. Gillespie told me that this was natural, that although the movements of yoga are what the body is intended to do, that the influence of Western civilization and its way of life have co-opted our bodies and turned them into stiff, rigid and immobile objects. Any athletic movement I was used to -- pitching a baseball, shooting a basketball -- were a galaxy away from what I was doing in yoga.
By the end of the first Brand New Beginner class, I was still horrible. So I took another BNB, then another, and then another ... and when my newbie comrades had long gone on to the next rung of their practice, I decided that I was still not ready to move on, so I signed up for my fourth BNB class -- which I believe is still a record at the studio. My mind was thrilled, but my body trailed far behind. Though of the same locale, they were living as separate entities. If I drew anything from that first year, it was that, for the first time, I had properly learned how to breathe.
By the second year, my body had caught up with my aspirations. I graduated to the next level of yoga -- the Stationary Sequence, the linking of body movement with breath through a specific sequence of breath-synchronized movements used to transition between sustained postures. Although I continued to take classes at the Wilmington studio from time to time, Gillespie had just opened a new studio in the Newark Shopping Center, and that is where my practice blossomed. Joined by a friend who would become my yoga partner, I became a regular in Newark -- a proverbial and humming yoga rat, knocking off two and three classes a week.
In that time, my practice had taken me from the back row to the front and, in contrast to my first classes that would leave me sucking for air in complete humiliation, I was now leaving class with a renewed and sweaty sense of being completely and thoroughly alive. Most importantly, yoga had created a sense that the body and the mind could act as one and overcome challenges, not only on the mat but in life. Once strangers, they were now partners. Get through this, they said. You can get through this.
* * * *
It took me three months to return to yoga after my heart attack, and although I was given the full clearance by my heart doctor to return full time to my practice, whenever I went to the mat, it was with a sense of dread. The intense heat of hot yoga, when temperatures in the studio can reach well over 100 degrees, suddenly felt like the blazing pits of Hell. Whenever I practiced, my albatross of fear sat right beside me and watched my every movement. While holding poses, it imagined my heart bursting, and worse, that my last view of the world would be of looking face-down in a pool of sweat, or up at a yoga teacher attempting to revive me.
So, six years ago, I quit yoga. In that time, Empowered Yoga has gone from a small room in Wilmington to one of the premiere yoga centers on the East Coast, with centers in Wilmington, Newark and nearby Glen Mills. These locations offer a full menu of group and private yoga sessions, workshops, specialty retreats to foreign countries, yoga sessions at local schools, and the tutelage of more than 40 instructors.
And, in that time, as my former studio flourishes and grows, I have gone from fearless to afraid, and my exercise regimen, once measured by the inner voice that inspired me, is now defined by short, plodding blandness. I have returned to the safe place of well-worn movement, of stationary bikes and free weights, and I am completely safe ... and completely unchallenged.
At the end of one of my very first yoga sessions, Gillespie read the following quote to the class, one most attributed to Nelson Mandela:
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
There are two Brand New Beginner classes scheduled during the week at the Empowered Yoga studio in Newark. Soon, I will take my fifth such class, and lay next to others who are interested in the journey that I know very well. The five years I spent practicing yoga will be wiped away. I will be a clean slate all over again, a tabula rasa of muscle and memory, lost in the act of surrendering agains to breath and movement.
I keep recalling what my heart doctor told me in the hospital, two days after my heart attack. Someday, you will remember to thank your teachers. Here, I will have the opportunity to honor them, while at the same time bringing back the inner voice inside of me that once said, Get through this....you can get through this...
I am done with playing small.To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.