I walk into Wendy Bramlett’s Saturday morning class in Boulder, Colorado, and choose a spot at the far corner, in the shadows. Here I can turn my face to the wall and let the tears come, if they do.
I am new in town, and I am grieving. Just days ago, during my cross-country move, I learned that my older brother is dying of colon cancer. He has smoked for years, lived hard, eaten junk. When I’m not tearful, I am furious. How could he be so heedless of his body?
Class begins. We stretch out on our backs on the floor.
“Offering your weight generously to the earth, the earth generously supporting your weight.”
Her voice is still and steady, a lilt of cheer rippling just below the calm.
“There is a fine intimacy between your body and the earth.”
Intimacy. Now there’s a word you rarely hear in a yoga class. Funny thing, too, when yoga is all about bringing body and mind into harmony. Yoga—yolk.
Oh, no, thinking. I catch myself and return to the room.
“Be very deliberate in how your body meets the earth. Be aware of each point of contact.” My attention slides to my back. “If the vertebrae contact the earth beneath them with consciousness and care, they will be more receptive to gravity.”
My breath responds, slowing and deepening.
“Between the earth and your body, an exchange of breath, a flow of recognition. The breath and gravity are old friends.”
Of course, how simple—body and earth. Flowing between them, the breath.
“Let the earth breathe you, soften you.”
A small release between my ribs, and the tears begin. I turn my face to the wall and reach for the tissue stowed next to my mat.
* * *
For most of a year it is like this—through my brother’s death, through the months after, showing up in Wendy’s class, tissue in hand. Always she leads me back to the body, back to earth. In almost every class, I turn my face to the wall for a few moments. Is it the flow of words, fresh as springwater? Or how the words soften me, releasing inner streams?
* * *
In class we are working on a twisty pose, parivrtta trikonasana, revolving triangle. Though I’ve been practicing for years, this pose is still precarious.
Feet apart, we bend forward and slowly turn, hand on hip. “Listen to the callings of the spine. The body doesn’t seek discomfort. The body seeks ease and balance. Move in harmony with your body, not in argument.”
I’ve been arguing with my body about this one for a long time.
“Watch how the breath moves your body, how generously it creates space within your body.” I breathe again, and my shoulder opens, lifting another fraction. Within my heart a new feeling of ease, more room.
“The breath is enormously generous, as generous as the body allows.”
Invitation, not effort. A laying down of arms against the body.
* * *
For five years I attend Wendy’s class until, in January 2012, Wendy stops teaching. She has a mass on her liver, late Stage IV. Her students are stunned. When we last saw her, in December, she was the picture of radiant health.
Undergoing chemo does not arrest the disease. By June Wendy is moving toward death.
One day in mid-June I spend time meditating, my attention focused on her great journey. It is like attending a birth—watching, breathing. In the waiting, time shifts—away from minutes and hours and toward simple presence. Threshold time. The air is charged with coming and going.
Wendy dies the following day.
* * *
At a grief ritual in the yoga studio some days later, each face is shell-shocked. How can we absorb such a loss? We talk and weep together.
At the end of the ritual I have one last question. “What kind of cancer did Wendy die from?” I am expecting “liver” or “pancreatic,” the kinds that take people quickly.
“Colon cancer,” I hear. “Metastasized before there were symptoms.”
For a moment the room disappears. I blink hard to get it back. The same cancer my brother had five years ago when I arrived in town. How can this be—colon cancer in Wendy, whose life was defined by listening to the whispers of her own body? In my brother it made sense, but in Wendy?
Instantly I see: I have been wielding a sword of judgment—as if blaming my brother for getting sick would help me stave off the thing that took his life.
My weapon is made of cardboard. My tidy conclusions will have to go. Even in death, Wendy teaches a more generous way: it is time to lay down arms against my brother.
* * *
We are on our backs in savasana, the pose of the corpse.
“Listening in the silence to how your body wants to release.” Wendy’s voice flows through the quiet. “Let the earth move into the body, the body expand into the earth, so that each can replenish the other. Savasana is a reunion with the earth.”
Beneath us, a sure embrace. Within us, not solidity but something more generous: spaciousness. More room, a little more trusting of the breath. More listening to our bodies, to earth.
At the end of savasana we come slowly to sitting. In a few moments we will again encounter the knots of living, but right now we breathe, palms together, open to what may be.
“Namaste,” Wendy whispers.
Wendy’s open and generous approach to the body was shaped by Pattabhi Jois, Iyengar, Angela Farmer, and the Continuum work of somatic pioneer Emilie Conrad. Wendy wrote about her view of yoga here. Thanks to Russell Bramlett for the photo and to Avril Bright for keeping a journal of Wendy’s sayings in class. And of course we are grateful to Wendy, and to the earth.