Monday, October 1, 2012

Sweating in Cherokee

When I was anticipating my move from South to North Carolina in the mid-1990s, I expected to find a wealth of Native American culture here. Because NC is the home of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, I thought that their influence would be felt everywhere.

I soon learned that there's an annual pow-wow in Greensboro and not much here in Winston-Salem. But just before I went in for the sonogram, the chance arose for me to go to a self-help convention in Cherokee.

The Cherokee community runs the convention, so it is Native American through and through. They have pow-wows and talking circles along with the usual speaker meetings, and a big feast with fry bread, pinto beans and all the fixings after the Saturday night pow-wow.

The convention was in early November, and by then, I knew something was wrong with me. All of the symptoms that I had been able to deny were presenting in CinemaScope: no energy, low-back pain, a hard distended belly, severe gas pains, digestion problems and early satiety. I had them all.

I was jumpy and grumpy and looking for answers everywhere I went.

That Veteran’s Day weekend was hard and cold, but the convention and the people were incredibly warm and welcoming. I immediately attached myself to an amazing woman from the Midwest, Kate. Kate was a clown and a nurse, who lived in a motorhome and traveled nationwide caring for people in their homes as that work came available.

She was big, blonde and raucous and quickly sussed out what I was looking for – a sweat lodge for women that was being provided by one of the Cherokee medicine women. The sweat was happening under the radar, not a public event, so we had to be discreet. There were hundreds of people at the convention, and a sweat has to be small and intimate.

Stones are heated outside the lodge and brought in
to create steamy heat.

Sweats are deep Native traditions. They require endurance and a level of mental health and understanding of the spirit that is not always present in “cultural tourists.” I was trying not to be one of those as were Kate and my good friend Tina S., but in many ways, we were out of our depth.

The afternoon of the sweat we went to the medicine woman to request permission to participate. We gave her the traditional gift of tobacco and helped build the lodge. We also helped find and carry the stones that would be heated to create the “sweat.”

The lodge was basically a depression in the ground covered over with a tent and branches. There was a smoldering fire in the middle full of hot stones that the leader splashed with water occasionally to make steam.

Tina S. recalls: “We (about 12 women) wore towels and crawled through the opening of the lodge and sat around in a circle. I remember at that point being fearful and not knowing what to expect. I was afraid it would get really hot in there and it would be unbearable. When we sat down, I guess we took off our towels and it was pitch dark. The leader began to explain what we were about to do and what she wanted us to discuss. She poured water over the hot stones that had been placed in the hole in the ground. Then we ate some type of rice mixed with fruit or something like that and shared different things with each other in the circle. I remember I was fairly new in sobriety (about 10 months) and was very emotional. I cried a lot when I shared and for some reason, kept thinking about my grandmother who had passed away about three or four years before. I think we also passed around a pipe of tobacco. … I think we also had one more round of discussion. … When it was over, we crawled back out through the same opening and I remember feeling free and was truly moved by the experience.”

We also prayed a lot, and, after sweating for hours, I had an intense pain in my low back, but I felt strangely calm and certain that a resolution to my mystery illness was at hand.

The ground was hard and cold and absorbed gallons of woman-sweat. When we finally crawled out of the lodge, the sky above was crowded with blazing stars in the cold, black night.

We joined the larger group for a Native American feast and felt as if we were being welcomed home after a Vision Quest. I was exhausted at first but then had a burst of energy and danced for hours to a cover band.

I woke later that night in my motel room completely dizzy and disoriented and walked right into a wall on my way to the bathroom, then dreamed wild but now unremembered dreams and finally fell into a deep, peaceful sleep.

That sweat in Cherokee remains the only one I have done. Sweats are essentially purification rituals, and I felt completely cleared and cleaned out and ready for my next trial. I will be forever grateful to that tolerant medicine woman who so patiently guided us - some novices and some experienced, Native sweaters - through that intense cleansing journey into the heart of Mother Earth.

Next week: The sonogram.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Swami-ji and More Symptoms

I don't know how I dragged myself to meditation at 6 a.m. the second day at Yogaville, but I did, and followed it with an Integral Hatha Yoga class. It took me a while to warm of to Integral Yoga, but now I adore its perfect blend of active and receptive poses, of movement and stillness, of asana, chanting and meditation.

After Hatha class came a bountiful breakfast of oatmeal, fruit and yogurt but no coffee, no caffeine of any kind, and in my undiagnosed fatigue state (one of the symptoms of ovarian cancer), I was a slave to the stimulation of caffeine.

The headache started soon after breakfast, persisted through the morning, hounded me through lunch. I took the Ashram Tour to see all the sights, the most memorable of which was the awesome overlook of the James River where you can see the Lotus Temple with its Butterfly Lake and the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance.

I now have a great appreciation for the art of the siesta, but at that time, napping was not in my repertoire. After the tour, however, I lay down and didn't wake up till 5 p.m. I missed the brief opening of the coffee shop - no fix for me - as well as the afternoon Hatha class and felt cheated and grumpy, very grumpy. I was beginning to think that maybe I was Depressed.

Depressed would have been preferable to cancer.

We had another wonderful meal that night, which I enjoyed despite my splitting headache. We chatted with other pilgrims, then came back to our room and rallied for the evening program of satsang (teaching by the guru) where there was a short address by Sri Swami Satchidananda, and more chanting and ceremony.

Plus, there was a visit from another swami who looked just like Satchidananda. They were two guys with flowing white hair and beards, sort of dark, skinny Santa Clauses in orange dresses.

I drank in Swami-ji's presence, somehow knowing, despite my fuddlement, that I was in the presence of a great being, one who transcended all appearances and all doubt. I felt a brief cessation of my anxiety although the ache still pounded in my skull like an unwelcome wake-up call.

Betsy and I left Yogaville the next day, still too caught up in our own personal discomfort to fully appreciate the experience and the privilege of being in Swami-ji's presence. He left his body in 2002 and is entombed at Yogaville in a shrine called Chidambaram where his presence is honored, cultivated and felt.

We journeyed back to Winston-Salem a little disappointed and not particularly rested. We'd expected more of a spa or resort experience, I think. We hadn't understood what it means to be in an ashram that is more about spiritual activity and discipline than exercise.

But my long nap and unusual headache strengthened my resolve to find out what the heck was happening to me. Soon after that, I went to see Dr. Rawlings, and my journey to diagnosis began in earnest.

Next Week: Sonogram and Sweat Lodge

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Let Me Take You to ... Yogaville

I can't help thinking the name is funny. It sounds made-up, something that might show up in Doonesbury or in a T.C. Boyle novel - like Drop City or Funky Town.

But Yogaville is the real deal, a wonderful community of wise people and wisdom-seekers, nestled (sorry, Fran) in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, about 45 minutes from Charlottesville

I have been there now more times than I can recall, and I gratefully call Yogaville (Satchidananda Ashram) my spiritual home, but my first visit at a time when my illness was still undiagnosed gave little promise of the glorious relationship that the future held.

And it's interesting that I was ill and didn't know it the first time I went there, precisely because of what my relationship with Yogaville has become. But that is now, and this was then, and we're talking about "then."

Then, my best friend from Hilton Head Island, Betsy Spencer, and I were heading to Yogaville for a retreat from our demanding newspaper jobs; she was in advertising, and I was in news-gathering.

On this hot, dusty Labor Day weekend,  the drive from Winston-Salem seemed interminable. It's about 3 1/2 hours, but the first time you drive it, you really think you'll never get there, that you'll be lost in the Virginia woods, abducted by rednecks, or just slowly succumb to the weariness of endless, winding mountain roads - beautiful but endless.

The ashram is about 45 minutes away from U.S. 29. It is secluded among rolling hills, deciduous woods and both well-kept and untended farmland. On your drive, you'll see shacks and mansions, thoroughbreds and mules, all in testimony to Virginia's agrarian past and present.

I'm told that the locals at first had concerns about the white-bearded, saffron-robed swami who moved onto the land and began building homes, schools and a magnificent if slightly bizarre-at-first-glance pink lotus temple in the middle of their pretty-conservative community. But the ashramites  - a ragtag group of hippies, Yankees and construction workers (my brother Jacob was among them) - began volunteering at a charity in Buckingham a few miles away, and it wasn't too long before they all began co-existing harmoniously.

Betsy and I arrived at Sivananda Hall, the ashram's communal kitchen and dining room, and were met by a swami who seemed a little annoyed at having two slightly harried and discombobulated travelers washed up on her tranquil shore. But she led us over to guest services, got us checked in and sent us to our dorm room.

Oh my god! There was no lock on the door, but as it turned out, we had a giant room all to ourselves, and there wasn't a lot of activity on the hall.

Not that I needed to be worried about noise and being able to sleep in the dorm, since what I really couldn't seem to do was wake up. I was trudging around in a funk and still baffled as to why.

We went to a hatha Yoga class that I thought was too easy - too much chanting and meditating and not enough asana - but was probably just about right for my skills and energy level. Then to my first of many fabulous meals in Sivananda Hall where we chatted with other women from places like Baltimore and Taos.

I went to sleep at about 8 p.m. - unbelievable - and didn't wake up till 5:30 a.m. when a white-haired female swami came down our hall playing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" on a violin.

If we hadn't had enough clues, that did it. Clearly, Betsy, we're not in Winston-Salem anymore.

Stay tuned. Next week: In the sweet presence of Sri Swami Satchidananda and the pain of caffeine  addiction.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Squeeze the Day

Everyone who has been through or is living with cancer or other chronic illness or injury has a story to tell. My story is not special. It's just mine and, therefore, mine to tell.

Illness taught me many valuable lessons, most of which I hope are continually revealed in my teaching, writing and how I live, but some of which can be shared here in simple terms.

* Suffering changes us. We can't get around that. It either makes us bitter, or it makes us better. We get to choose.

* No one knows how long he or she has to live. Make every moment count. Squeeze the day. As the bumper stickers day, "Don't postpone joy!" (but don't let it lead you into credit-card debt either); as Warren Zevon said, "Enjoy every sandwich." Even if the moment is painful, embrace it.

* Life is a precious gift. There were certainly moments during my illness that didn't seem like moments to celebrate - the night I shat myself, the crushing loneliness of the New Year's Eve just after my diagnosis, the fatigue, the instant loss of fertility, the irrevocable and sudden loss of youth.  But even those moments were gifts: They created the woman I am today, softened me and opened me to love.

* None of us is singled out for special suffering. All who live suffer.

* None of us is singled out for joy. All people rejoice.

* We are part of ... everything. Separateness is the biggest and most destructive illusion.

The only distinction that I give my cancer experience is that Yoga relieved much of my suffering, and I know that even in that respect I am not unique. Others have used Yoga to mitigate their suffering. I am grateful for that as well.

Regardless of my lack of uniqueness, I am compelled to tell my story of cancer and Yoga. The beauty of a blog is that it allows an immediate response. Cyber-space is as varied and infinite as our stories. I hope that you will comment on mine and respond with yours.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Trudging Through Austin

“In my dream, I ride the tiger.
I grasp the prickly fur between her shoulders.
She is small and safe and docile
In my dream.
In reality….”
Well, reality is always different from the dream, isn’t it?
This is the beginning of a slam poem that I think I debuted at the regionals in Americus, Ga., in 1998, and at the nationals in Austin. My memories of that time are a little bit murky. It was my first National Poetry Slam, ditto regionals, and I was on the team by default. I think I had come in fifth in the local contest, so when somebody better than me defaulted, I got promoted to the team, and I was eager to participate, despite my limited arsenal of poems.
Another teammate, the awesome Chris McCorkindale, and I were considered the weak sisters of the group. Xine, a proven star – an absolutely awesome writer and performer, and Jon Somebody were the stars. But we were a team, and the whole process was creative, mad and exciting.
Our slam master and coach, Linda McCorkindale, was unable to make the trip to Austin, so our little raggle-taggle band were expected to “all get along” and to take coaching by long-distance (cell phones were not yet ubiquitous).
We flew to Austin, opted against the expense of a rental car and depended on public transport to get us from Point A to Point B. Most of the poetry venues were in Austin’s legendary music district, and a bus trundled us from our very cool little motel with lots of Southwest touches – the stucco (or is it adobe?), the cactus, the aquamarine swimming pool – and a fabulous Tex-Mex restaurant attached where we could get cheap breakfast burritos and pots of coffee to fuel us through the manic days of practice, arguments and competitions.
I remember looking in the mirror and feeling really old. My hair was lank. I had uncharacteristic dark circles under my eyes. The thing I didn’t understand most was my swollen belly. I weighed the same as I always had, but I had taken to wearing anything that didn’t put pressure on my middle – both for the look and feel of it.
The usual rush of performance-excitement adrenaline was not keeping me fueled. Still, we tramped the streets of Austin for hours, and spent nights in smoke-filled rooms (ancient times before the days of no-smoking everywhere). I collapsed into bed before everybody. Romance and adventure raged around me. I trudged and slept.
Sometime during this whirlwind, I got to talk with teammate Chris who was teaching Ashtanga-style Yoga at the time. We practiced a little by the pool, and she explained to me that there were two kinds of Yoga: Ashtanga, which was very fast-flowing and characterized by Sun Salutes and athleticism, and Iyengar, which was a slower, pose-by-pose style that used lots of props. (This is how I remember it, Chris. Feel free to describe your experience of that time.)
I couldn’t figure out where the Yoga that I had practiced fit into this scheme: Yoga that I’d practiced 30 years before in Bamberg, SC, from a book called “Yoga for Perfect Health” by Alain (turns out, it was loosely based on Iyengar style); the Yoga of teachers with whom I had connected in the ‘70s and ‘80s (Kundalini and Kripalu); and the Yoga of Sri Swami Satchidananda, all of which I think of as classical or traditional Yoga.
I enjoyed practicing with Chris by that funky motel pool. We were determined to take at least a modicum of care for our bodies in between driving them through rounds of competitive-poetry performance and late nights.
The Winston-Salem Slam Team did not exactly distinguish itself at the nationals that year. I returned to the newsroom exhausted, a little bit wiser (but not much) and worried about my health.
Next stop: Yogaville – the Sri Swami Satchidananda Integral Yoga Ashram – in Buckingham, VA.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Who Am I?

Fast-forward to the present – Sept. 17, 2011.

My current bio reads like this:

“Lynn Felder is author of the DVD, ‘Gentle Yoga for Cancer Patients: Reconnecting Body, Mind & Spirit,’ and she empowers people living with cancer and chronic illnesses to take charge of their recovery using Yoga.

“Practicing Yoga was instrumental to Lynn's own recovery from cancer in 1999, and she has been teaching this population at Wake Forest Baptist Health – in four research studies and in ongoing classes - since 2004.

 “She teaches back-care/restorative and Flow Yoga classes (since 2001) at the Yoga Gallery, where she is co-director.

“An avid ballroom dancer, Lynn has won awards in both regulated and charity dance competitions.

 “After a career in corporate journalism, she now writes about dance, theater and Yoga for newspapers and magazines and has a book project and a new DVD currently in development.”

But is this really who I am? Not exactly.

This body was born in South Carolina in the 1950s. It always loved to dance and play. It took ballet from 6 to 12 years old; discovered Yoga in a book, played basketball and led cheers in high school; trailed after Daddy on hunting and fishing trips; swam with Mama in the gray-green Atlantic Ocean and the cool black water of the Edisto River.

In college, it took modern dance and gymnastics; then more ballet, contemporary dance; Tae Kwon Do; Jazzercise; running; bicycling; kayaking; hiking. You name it; this body has done it.

When this body got cancer in 1998, I thought I was going to lose it – my body, that is.

And I realized that if I could think that I was going to lose my body – which is what death is: the loss of the body – then I could not BE the body. I saw that I have a body, but I am not my body.

Conveniently, this mind was born into this body.

When you consider that the spinal column extends from the base of the skull nearly into the tailbone and that the mind and body are connected through an impossibly complicated network of nerves and blood vessels that are all operated by hormones and electrical currents, then you can see how the mind and body are not separate, as we sometimes perceive, but truly united.

My mind always loved reading and writing. It made the decision early on to be a writer and had its first story published in my hometown newspaper when it was 7.

It went to college and studied everything that it could get its hands on. It started out majoring in theater because journalism was too competitive – logic is not ALWAYS its strong suit – then it switched to history, because it had exempted freshman history, then it got bored, switched to philosophy and religion.

Somewhat predictably – this was the 1960s, after all - it turned on, tuned in and dropped out for a year or so, finally graduating with a degree in English Literature and a whole bunch of fairly useless knowledge about art history and film.

An English degree prepares one for nothing but allows one to do anything.
My only discernable skill was a gift of gab, but I lacked the discretion that might have tempered my volubility into a virtue.

In spite of itself, my mind found its way into arts administration for a few years and finally into newsroom journalism where it settled down and stayed for 25 years.

About 15 years in, though, my mind hit a wall. While it succeeded wonderfully in my career, it failed me again and again in matters of the heart.

I finally had to acknowledge that I had feelings – emotions, ugh! – I was more than a brain in a body.

Descartes was wrong: I have a mind, but I am not my mind, and those matters of the heart will have to wait for another story and another day.

Just take my word for it. I have feelings, but I am not my feelings.

When I began a serious Yoga practice 10 years ago, I soon learned a technique called The Witness Practice that teaches us how to dis-identify with the things of this world and to identify more closely with the one thing that never changes.

When your body ails and ages, it’s helpful to remember that YOU are not your body.

When the mind is fretful, it’s soothing to remember that YOU are not your mind.

When your feelings overwhelm you, it’s calming to realize that YOU are not your feelings.

Do you have a friend whom you’ve known for most of your life – a friend who you knew as a little child?

Maybe you were in first grade together, played together after school. Maybe after college, you and this friend were separated for many years. Then one day, you reunite. The friend has gained weight, has new interests, new hobbies, a different personality, different (or no) hair and even new politics, but you can still recognize the old friend somewhere inside all those changes. That is the True Self, the unchanging One.

I have brought three passions with me from youth to middle age: Yoga, dance and writing, but I am not these things.

I have a body, but I am not this body.

I have a mind, but I am not this mind.

I have emotions, but I am not these emotions.

The body, the mind, the feelings are constantly in flux, but our True Nature never changes.

Yoga teaches that my True Nature is Truth Absolute, Knowledge Absolute and Bliss Absolute.

And so is yours.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

6 cities in 6 months

The six-month run-up to my diagnosis was a blur of activity, and, in hindsight, I see it as a frantic search for meaning. I had just left a pretty serious relationship, because, like most of my previous relationships, my man-friend and I just seemed to hit an emotional wall and not know where to go from there.

Despite the best efforts of therapists and self-help books and programs, I had reverted to my habitual emotional stagnation, finding myself in romances with men who were just like me. After a certain level of intimacy, neither of us had the know-how or inclination to take the next step into the messy places of the heart.

So, once again, I set romance aside and started “doing stuff.” That was my default mode. Lonely? Go dancing. Sad? Take a bike ride. It’s a much better choice than sitting on the couch and stuffing your face or drinking yourself into oblivion. But activity, as I was to learn the hard way, is not always an option.

At that time, however, activity was both an effective way for me to soothe my feelings and a functional tool of meaning-making and self-expression.

I visited six cities in six months, and each of them seemed to contain a theme. The trip to New York City was all about art.

In July I visited my friend, Suzanne, who was staying at her sister’s 12th-floor apartment on Park Avenue South. It’s the fanciest address I’ve ever had in New York, with its spectacular view up Central Park and the grand buildings alongside it. Suzanne was studying acting for the summer and working at a caviar boutique up the street. Suzanne is very cool.

We went to see a revival of “Chicago,” which she didn’t like because she hates musicals, and which I loved, because Bebe Neuwirth (Lilith on “Frasier”) played Vilma and because I just love “Chicago.” The music totally rocks: “Razzle Dazzle,” “Cell Block Tango.” “When You’re Good to Mama” has to be the only song in history that finds a way to rhyme “reciprocity” with “love me.” What’s not to love?

We also went to see “Villa Villa” by an Argentinean dance-theater company called De La Guardia. Beautiful boys and girls (Dancers are always called boys and girls regardless of how old they are.) performed on wires and pulleys overhead, while the audience stood the whole time, craning to look up and around at dancers on balconies and in midair. I went to see the lush and colorful Bonnard show at the Museum of Modern Art. Suzanne, her friend Neal and I went to the Cloisters climbed to a bell tower at The Riverside Church in Harlem to see their amazing carillon.

Suzanne and I went to “Slamnation,” a film about poetry slams, and to the Nuyorican Poets Café, a famous venue for slam poetry, spoken word and hip hop on the lower East Side. She and I were both slammers at the time. We were going to try to get on the bill, but I couldn’t stay up that late. I was crashing, just beginning to feel the degradation of my previously prodigious energy. I was having a hard time keeping up with Suzanne, and this was new for me.

Next week, we go to Austin to compete in the National Poetry Slam, and try to keep up with lovely people half our age, then on to Yogaville in Virginia, to Kansas City and Cherokee.