By the mid-seventies, New York had lost a good deal of the luster it had held for writers, like me, who had ventured there in the late sixties. The New York Review of Books was getting off the ground and I was reminded as I licked envelops for the Review’s first subscription drive that as a writer, I didn’t exist.
My work as a short story writer was pushed further and further to the margin by the demands of my three children, and by the fact that publishing was already beginning the long decline so familiar to us now as it reaches its nadir. The beginning of this decline, for me, appeared when the women’s magazines stopped publishing serious literary fiction; those magazines had been outlets for many of my early short stories. It is hard to believe, now, that Mademoiselle, Redbook and even the Ladies Home Journal published some of the best new writing of the time, including Dylan Thomas, Truman Capote, and Eudora Welty, and me.
Frustration with my life, however, would not have brought me to the practice of yoga. I was still enmeshed in the Western belief in the talking cure and had not yet learned that most emotional change occurs in the body rather than in the mind.
Instead, it was the break-up of a clandestine love affair that brought me to the dining room in a Park Avenue apartment where, for the first time, I learned the basic Yoga asanas.
This doomed affair with a married man occurred when I was not yet able to contemplate leaving the father of my two youngest sons. Nor was my lover ever willing to consider leaving his wife and children. We had reached a fearful impasse, where our desire for each other could no longer be allowed to affect our daily lives. And, I was pregnant.
Why I was pregnant, at that unfortunate juncture, is beyond my ability to recall. In those days, momentous events happened to me, emotionally and physically, as though imposed by an outside power. I accepted them with a certain amount of fatalism which only the women’s movement, coming into my life forcefully a few years later, would call into question. Simply, I was in love with a man who was leaving me, and I was a few weeks pregnant.
When I told my lover, he said with the fiendish grin that had once fascinated me, “Go ahead and have it. If it’s a girl, I’ll take care of her sexual education.” (His words were more explicit.)
After that, I knew I had no choice.
Women had finally won the right to legal abortion, after decades of oppression, two years earlier; but abortion was still never mentioned, and the doctors who performed it were wary.
My doctor understood that the operation was unavoidable, but since he had delivered two of my three sons, I sensed his ambivalence. And I was ashamed. I was asking the man who had helped me bring life into this sad world to hasten life out of it. And yet there was no other way.
The turmoil and loneliness of the days leading up to my hospital visit were nearly overwhelming. Other than one close woman friend, there was no one in whom I dared confide, and of course my husband was to know nothing. How my state of mind affected my sons, I hardly dare to imagine; certainly, I would have gone through the steps of care-giving, feeding them, taking them to the park, and so forth, but my mind seemed to be floating a foot above my body.
The good fortune that has nearly always lightened my burdens and the consequences of my bad judgment was with me then, however. A few months earlier, I had, on impulse, enrolled in the course in beginning Yoga.
How this came about I don’t remember. Certainly I was concerned with “getting my figure back,” as we called it, after the birth of my youngest son. But probably what made the choice seem safe to me was that the woman who was to teach the class, Brenda, brought her children to my sons’ kindergarten.
She must have spoken to me during one of those interminable times when all of us mothers (there were no fathers around, then) sat in a lounge, waiting for our children to be released from class. Brenda must have told me she was starting to teach Yoga, and that it was for beginners. Why she was doing it, or where she got her training, I never knew. Nor do I remember paying her.
Two mornings a week I went to her apartment house, one of those towering buildings that line Park Avenue. Her door would be ajar—there were only two apartments on each floor, so nothing was locked, except at night—and when I stepped into the foyer, I was reassured by familiar clutter: bikes with training wheels, strollers and baby carriages, as well as the large, black New York umbrellas, their wings furled like crows’.
Brenda called out to come in, and I crossed the hall to the dining room.
The dining room, too, was familiar: one of those high, stark, elegant rooms that appear in all pre-War New York apartments. But it had no furniture, not even the usual big table.
Five or six other woman were laying out mats on the bare parquet floor.
What we wore I don’t remember; this was before leotards and tights appeared on the market, and none of us possessed sweat suits. Whatever we had on would have been grey, brown or black–the colors of city women, discreet plumage to disguise the individuals underneath.
First we took off our shoes and socks, which was, in itself, a radical act, since most of us never went barefoot and had not since childhood (if then). The floor was cool under our bare, tentative feet.
There was a good deal of smiling and chatting, but it was limited to the minute or two during which Brenda was saying goodbye to her children, who were usually on their way with a sitter to the park. Once that was done, she turned her full attention on us, and the chatting and smiling were over.
She was a small, slender woman, hardly taller than her oldest son, and she exuded an air of authority that fascinated me. It had nothing to do with words, which were, then, the only form of authority I recognized.
In fact Brenda spoke very little. But the sight of her lithe, strong little body beginning to form the first of the poses—Downward Dog—was inspiring. Here was a woman burdened like me but without my agonies of indecision—at least, that was what her physical presence meant to me.
A woman who had found a way.
A woman who knew how to do something really well.
She was a skilled teacher. She did not describe where yoga had originated, or what the various asanas might mean. She simply moved into the easier beginning poses, and we, awkwardly and uncertainly, imitated her.
Sunlight fell through the tall, bare windows, or we looked out on pouring rain; when it was chilly, the big radiators in the corners clicked, heating up. The glass doors that led into the front hall were closed, and no one passed by them. I never heard a telephone ring, which seemed a miracle in those days before answering machines. Brenda had arranged her schedule and her life to nurture her practice, and in that process, her practice was nurturing me.
In the beginning, the poses were difficult for me. It had been years since I had taken any regular exercise, other than the daily drudgery of pushing strollers and hauling groceries. I was quite stiff, and my lack of confidence in my body made me hesitate.
Brenda helped me to ease out of that area of doubt and diffidence. Over a period of months, I began to copy her with greater ease, and I could feel my entire body loosening. I remember my triumph when I was able, after many tries, to do a shoulder stand.
My body began to feel firmer, more reliable, as though it would, on its own, lead me out of the fearful forest of my mistakes.
Yet it was my body that had become pregnant.
My body, perhaps, possessed a wisdom my mind repudiated. Love is felt most keenly through the physical self, and my body was in love, no matter how my mind might rave against it. So, in a way, to become pregnant was as natural and as inevitable as that finally-achieved shoulder stand.
But the shoulder stand and its related poses found a place in reality–my reality. My pregnancy did not.
At last the day approached for my appointment at the hospital. That morning, I went to what I sensed might be my last yoga class. By now I was comfortable there, and moving freely. Yet I had never become more than distantly acquainted with the other women, or with Brenda.
When it was time to leave, I ventured to say something that hinted at what the class meant to me. “You’ll never know,” I told Brenda, “how this has helped me.”
I don’t remember her reply. She seldom had many words. And of course I had just brushed against the powerful reality I didn’t dare state: that in the face of chaos, she had provided me with a stay.
No woman who has had an abortion would claim that the procedure is easy. And it was worse, then. To shame and fear was added the terrible weight of loneliness.
There is nothing lonelier than a hospital corridor, where I spent a great deal of time that day. The women passing up and down might have been the women from the yoga class—later, with the help of the women’s movement, I would begin to feel our connection—but I was not able to speak to them. I did notice that one woman was accompanied by a friend, or a sister, who seemed able to help her with her tears.
For there was weeping, in that corridor, and helplessness, as we sat and waited, or walked up and down in our flimsy gowns and cardboard slippers. Now and then, an orderly in gown and mask would lead one of the women away.
I was somewhat reassured when I saw my doctor. Later, waking up in the recovery room, I again heard a woman sobbing.
After it was over, I went to spend the night with my friend and her husband, who took care of me until I was able to go home.
And then it was time to deal with the consequences.
My survival, during the abortion and the days afterwards, and during the break-up of my marriage, which followed quickly enough, depended to a large degree on the poses I’d learned in Brenda’s dining room. And yet I don’t believe I ever went back.
But this much I know: no verbal aid could have done what the physical changes in my body accomplished. The healing began, and continued, on the physical level, even while I was battered by the abortion and its consequences.
Finally, it was the silence of that dining room, and Brenda’s avoidance of explaining or consoling words, that stayed with me. As a child, I had been deeply moved by certain phrases in the Episcopal prayer book, phrases that later had a hollow ring. My little practice restored my faith in one crucial phrase, one crucial possibility, which I feel to this day, and that is the possibility of achieving through my body the peace that passes understanding.