I was achy and stiff from a business trip, so today I decided to take a make-up yoga class and ease the kinks out of my shoulders.
But before we got started, a woman sitting near me stood up and, with apologies for bearing sad news, she made an announcement: She’d just learned that a fellow student, a man who was a regular in that class, had been hit by a bus and killed.
There were gasps, and then stunned silence. Lots of silence, the thick, unbearable silence of troubled breath. This wasn’t my regular class, and I hadn’t known the man nearly as well as many of the others had. But I knew this: He was tall and powerfully built, and also gentle and warm. He moved lightly. He had a nice smile. I thought immediately of the time when we nearly collided putting our blankets away after a class, and he beamed that smile at me in a super friendly, forgiving way, as if to say, Hey, no worries dude! After you!
I thought of yoga teacher Maria Hamburger, sitting silently at the front of the room, as shocked at the news as the rest of us. What must she be thinking? What do you say, as the leader of a group, when you’re processing a blow along with everyone else?
Maria is a truly amazing teacher. She’s taught me more about my neck than I ever thought there was to know (to choose just one of my parts out of many that she’s encouraged over the years). When I wanted to learn more about posture for my book “The Art of Grace,” I went to her first. When she told me she was teaching a yoga class for people with multiple sclerosis, I knew I had to see it. I showed up, joined in and discovered a well of inspiration. I describe that class, and Maria’s big-hearted and no-nonsense guidance on moving with ease and enjoyment no matter what, in one of my favorite chapters– “’To Become Unstuck’: Finding Grace Despite Physical Difficulties.”
Today, in the midst of all the confusion and soul-shaking, Maria was the guiding light. After a period of quiet, from that big heart of hers, she spoke.
“There is nowhere else I’d rather be right now, in the whole world, than with all of you.”
When you read about how to comfort someone at a difficult moment, what to say to a friend in the hospital or a suffering loved one, invariably the counsel is: The words will come. You’ll know what to say if you’re open to the moment. Maria was open to grace. Her statement was so soothing, so full of gratitude, attentiveness and affection. It was exactly what we needed to hear, to give our gathering some meaning in the face of tragedy. On hearing the terrible news we had all retreated to separate islands of distress, but Maria beckoned us to come back to the group, to be connected.
“Let’s just feel this,” she continued. “Feel the experience of being alive, very gently.”
We sat for a while longer. Someone got up to get the tissue box, and kindly placed it in the center of the room. After the silence grew easier, Maria urged us to stretch slowly into whatever poses felt right.
At the end of class, she spoke again.
She assured us that grief is a process of love. It is the act of imprinting someone on our hearts forever. And further, she said, our dismay and shock were all the result of bumping up against grace.
“Grace is the ability to feel,” Maria said. “Grace doesn’t mean that everything is always beautiful and great. Grace is the awe. Tragedy hits us and opens our hearts and floods us with love. That is grace.”
This is such a wise notion of grace, don’t you think? Love is why loss hurts so freaking much. But it’s also, you know, love. Stuck in the back, overshadowed by agony, flickering nonetheless. It’s the light in the darkness. That wisp of love is what can lead us, slowly, back to life.
Maria sent us into the rest of the day with these words: “What a great, great honor it is to feel this life. …Our practice is to stay connected to life, to ourselves–and to each other.”
photo credit: By Rosmarie Voegtli on Flickr through Creative Commons licensing https://www.flickr.com/photos/rvoegtli/4871394699/in/photostream/