Why I failed as an Atheist….or, how I tried nothing and failed epically

August 30, 2009

I tried to believe in nothing. And I failed. It was simply too difficult for me to let go of a belief in God that is as innate to me as the English language.

I was born into a secular Jewish family. We observed the holidays as cultural events. The existence of God was implicit, even as I went to public school and studied science and learned about evolution. No one forced me to believe in God. No one even told me to believe in God. No one told me to pray or taught me to pray.

I don’t remember the first time I talked to God, but I think that it was around the time that I read Judy Blume’s “Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret?“, which puts my age then at around 10. A pre-adolescent with lots of confusing thoughts going round in my head, I liked how the main character seemed to get something emotionally satisfying out of talking to God. And so I did the same. I liken it to when having read “The Diary of Anne Frank“, and taking note of how Anne framed her diary entries as letters to her imaginary friend, Kitty, I decided that I too would frame my diary entries as letters to a friend.

Essentially, I gave myself a friend to talk to, when I was, in essence, talking to myself. It was totally unrelated to any real belief in God’s existence. But it felt good.

My first and possibly only brush with the “dogma” of my religion was when I asked my parents about Jesus Christ. They told me there was no such thing. I asked them to clarify. Did they mean that there was no such deity, or no such man? They answered that Jews were “supposed to” not believe that Jesus Christ had ever existed. This didn’t make sense to me. Why would it matter if Jesus Christ was a man? And why should anyone be telling me what I should and shouldn’t believe?

I put that aside though. It seemed like a minor flaw in an otherwise satisfactory religion. Not that I participated much in my religion. My family never went to synagogue, didn’t even belong to one. It was more that being “a Jew” defined me culturally. It gave me brisket and bagels and some holidays to celebrate around the dinner table.

As an adult, I did not join a congregation until my firstborn son was ready to enroll in preschool, and then, it was only because we were required to do so by his preschool, which was part of Park Avenue Synagogue. For years, we drifted along as barely-participating members of this congregation, drifting anemically into enrolling our sons in the Hebrew School, then leaving Park Avenue Synagogue for a less rigorous Hebrew School, then leaving the city and joining a synagogue with a Hebrew School that was so lacking in rigor that it doesn’t even call itself “Hebrew School”, but rather “Jewish Identity Education”. Finally, this past year, we have found ourselves drifting rather lacksidasically towards my older son’s Bar Mitzvah.

It wasn’t until we attended a training session for parents of Bar Mitzvah age children that I was jarred out of my trance. It was at this training session that our rabbi basically summarized the Torah (the first six books of the Bible) in an hour’s time. He started with the Garden of Eden and he ended with the death of Moses. As a lover of literature, I expected to be delighted with by the stories that are told over and over again throughout literature, drama and music, whether directly or as metaphor. Instead, all I heard was this:

“God built, God destroyed what he built, God rebuilt, God destroyed it again. God was angry, God was proud, plague of this, plague of that, flood, fire, destruction, war, slaves, more death, my way or the highway. The end.”

I walked out of that lecture traumatized. This God that the rabbi spoke of, that the Bible spoke of, could not be benevolent. He certainly couldn’t be my imaginary friend. This God was vindictive, arbitrary and capricious, like a child, building towers out of Legos and then smashing them to bits. And if God were not really anything like that, the Bible was still glorifying a God that could kill entire races because they displeased him.

That night, I couldn’t sleep. It dawned on me that using the Bible as a reference, one might suppose that the Holocaust was evidence that the Jews had displeased God, and that God was simply cleaning house. My mind reeled: Hurricane Katrina as God’s will? Children with cancer? Orphans? Plane crashes? Of course, intellectually, I understood that the Bible was written by people who witnessed, or were told of, terrible events, and were simply trying to make sense of it. So, either, I couldn’t believe in this God, or I couldn’t tolerate the Bible as anything more than the rantings of scared, primitive people who needed to believe that there was a reason for all of the things that frightened and displeased them.

I decided to reject the Bible. And that was no small feat given that the Jewish religion is based on the Torah, on celebrating the Torah, on revering the Torah (for God‘s sake, we KISS the Torah, as if it were a living being). But I decided that no one could tell me how to be a Jew. And I decided that I could tolerate my son having a Bar Mitzvah, so long as I told him that he doesn’t have to “believe” in the Torah to participate in the ritual (he had already expressed his own doubts in the existence of God, which makes him vaguely agnostic, but still a Jew).

Not long after this, I was talking to my brother-in-law, who I like to refer to as an “Extremist Atheist” because of his efforts to convert the entire world to atheism, and his epic intolerance for anyone who believes in God, about my decision to reject the bible. I told him that my feeling was that the Bible is the problem, as opposed to God, that I could believe in God but not believe that he was single-handedly responsible for every bad thing that has ever happened in the history of the world.

My brother-in-law’s reply was to ask me this: “What evidence to you have that God exists?

I thought about it. And I thought about it some more. But I had no answer beyond, “How could this world exist without intelligent design?” And even I knew that that was not “evidence”. You might call it “faith” of sorts, because “faith” cannot exist except in the face of a LACK of evidence. But still, it wasn’t evidence, and I knew that.

And for lack of a better answer, I decided, “Yep, I’m an atheist.”

Except I couldn’t stop talking to my imaginary friend, God. And I felt weird trying to not use the word “God” in sentences like, “God knows…” and “God help us” and “Oh my God!” But mostly, I couldn’t stand the idea that there is no greater power out there, and I couldn’t tolerate my own hubris at denying the existence of something that might be beyond my comprehension. I don’t understand a word of what Stephen Hawking writes, but that doesn’t mean he’s a raving lunatic. I don’t know if there is life on other planets, and I certainly have no evidence of it, but wouldn’t it be a bit short-sighted to refuse to believe that there could be?

And so, as quickly as I made the decision to reject God, I made the decision to stop rejecting God. I know that isn’t saying a lot. But it’s enough for me. Sure, I’m still not a fan of the way God is presented in the Bible. Sure, I don’t understand why bad things happen to good people or otherwise. Sure, I don’t like how religion has been and continues to be the root of so much violence. But having that “imaginary friend” is a comfort to me in my life. And I don’t presume to know anything more than that. Which is kind of the point, I think. Isn’t it?

The truth that is sweet

August 30, 2009

is boring.

The truth that you don’t want to acknowledge is soooo much more interesting.

Lisa, aka Bindi, or Bindifry has suggested, quite wisely, I might add, that I practice Second Series but execute a soft Kapotasana and not feel bad about it. I am intrigued by this idea. But it scares me. Is it an acknowledgement of defeat? Or worse, if I wave the white flag for one pose, is it just a matter of time before I begin applying that rule to another pose? And then another? Until I have lost all semblance of discipline? Until I have spun totally out of control? Until I am just a lazy blob sitting on the sofa eating bonbons? Until I’ve gone catatonic and the kids no longer know me. And the kids become derelicts. And they end up in jail. And so on.

Silliness, I know. But the notion of really committing to letting go of fruitless effort (notice, how I qualify “effort”; it would be too much to ask of me to let go of fruitFULL effort, and why would I want to anyway?) scares me. There’s comfort in repeatedly slamming my head into a brick wall. Really. There is. It’s a form of denial. Running full steam into that wall, time after time, allows me to forget that I am failing to conquer this particular challenge. Allowing myself to “go soft” would require fully accepting that it’s never going to happen. Imagining endless horribles arising from simply letting go of effort in Kapotasana and moving onto the next pose as if Kapotasana either weren’t there at all, or simply didn’t matter, distracts me. It keeps me busy and keeps me engaged in the effort.

Well, enough already.

This summer, after a stalled effort, I finally tapered fully off of my SSRI. I spent the entire summer slowly, slowly calibrating smaller and smaller doses until the level of drug in my system was below 1/100th of a milligram. On the whole, I feel fantastic. But I am still getting used to being able to cry again, something I have barely been able to do in the past seven years of SSRI-gobbling. And I am still getting used to feeling my feelings, in general. But it’s good. It’s worth it, I think. Even if it’s not forever, even if someday I decide to go back on something because I now know how peaceful life can be when you’re just a little numb, I’m liking feeling my feelings again. Maybe letting go of Kapotasana can be like that.

Maybe without the veil of effort, I will actually be comfortable saying, “No, I can’t.” Maybe I’ll find that it’s okay, and the parade of horribles never arrives. Maybe I’ll be able to take the lessons learned there and apply them to my life in general:

– No, I can’t stop myself from getting older.
– No, I can’t stop my kids from growing independent of me.
– No, I can’t love what I’m doing 100 percent of the time.
– No, I can’t burn the candle at both ends.
– No, I can’t make one choice and still have the other choices available to me.


And speaking of maybe, I MAY BE, scratch that, am SUPPOSED TO BE, going to the CT Shala tomorrow morning, bright and early, 8:30 a.m. Will I be able to do it? I want this one to be “Yes, I can.” Hold me accountable to this. Please. Make fun of me mercilessly, if it turns out that I sleep through.


Kapotasana = death

August 29, 2009

In any physical endeavor, there will be a point at which linear progress is no longer possible.

When I ran marathons, I came to a point where I understood that I had already run the fastest I was ever going to run, at least at that distance. I also came to a point where I understood that I had already bested myself at every other distance in which I was interested in attempting. Progress was no longer possible, at least not with the level of work I was willing to put in (50 mile weeks seemed like plenty good enough, and running less didn’t seem like an option at the time, although looking back now, I wonder if I might have been able to beat my fastest time if I had tried “easier” instead of trying “harder”…hmmmm).

So it is with the shape of my body. I will never be tall. I will never be lanky. I will always be muscular and sturdy (reflecting my lineage of Russian peasant stock!). Even at my absolute skinniest, I have always been a mesomorph. I suppose that I could test the theory by simply dieting down to 90 pounds and seeing if I was tall and lanky yet. OK, well, at least short and lanky, assuming that is possible. But why would I do that? I like my weight. If I were any smaller, I would not be able to buy adult clothing.

When I began practicing yoga, I never really thought about the logical ending point for linear progress. I assumed, simply, that I would keep getting stronger, keep getting more flexible. Until what? I don’t know. Until I was able to spontaneously levitate? I don’t know. As I said, I never really thought about it. I just kept at it.

When I discovered the wacky-cool poses of the Ashtanga Primary Series, I knew that I wanted to “conquer” them. And I knew that the only way I was going to do that was to go to a Mysore-style yoga shala and get individualized assistance on each pose that posed a challenge. My goal was to complete the Primary Series, unassisted.

I checked that one off the list of Things To Do Before I Die about two years ago. Not too long afterward, some new poses were taught to me. These poses are part of the Intermediate Series.

(As an aside, I would like to add that the names “Primary” and “Intermediate” are serious misnomers, given that the Primary Series includes at least six poses which are anything but elementary in nature, which the name “Primary” would seem to imply, and given that one of the most difficult backbends of which the body is capable is included smack in the middle of “Intermediate” Series.)

These new poses were fairly easy for me to learn, and much easier than many of the poses in Primary Series, several of which took me 12 to 15 months to learn. And then I got to Kapotasana, the ninth pose in the Intermediate Series (Stand on your shins, bend backwards and touch your feet with your hands: Ninth Circle of Hell, anyone?) Suddenly, I was completely incapable of progress. Sure, I could get into the pose if someone assisted me into it. And by assisted, I mean practically ripping my arms out of their sockets. Or having two assistants, one at my legs and one at my arms, simultaneously pulling my legs in the opposite direction from my torso and arms. But all of that was so traumatic for me that I began requesting that my teacher to NOT help me into the pose anymore. And I began not showing up in class at all. And after more than a year of backing off, I still shudder to think about the ripping feeling in my triceps.

At home, in my self-practice, I began to stop before Kapotasana. I would practice right up to it, and then stop right there. Or kind of go into the pose, but limply, with no effort.

Not long ago, I realized that, to paraphrase Woody Allen in Annie Hall, what I’ve got here is a “dead shark”. For me, my yoga practice has always seemed to be a “shark” – needing to move forward. And when it stops moving forward, that’s death. A marathon runner would call it “hitting the wall”, except that most marathon runners can muster up the energy to “push through” the wall (if that were not true, the Willis Avenue Bridge would be known by runners as “the saddest place in Manhattan”).

As anyone who has been reading me can guess, this is a very very bitter pill for me to swallow. It is sad and painful and disturbing and disheartening to know that I have gone as far as I am ever going to go in backbends. Ever. Finito. OK, so fine. I’ve also gone as far as I am ever going to go in lawyering, in baby-making, in French cooking. So then why is hitting THIS wall so painful for me? Why is it making me cranky and bitter and sad?

The answer occurred to me yesterday as I wound up my self-practice, alone in the peaceful yoga room I installed in my house this summer, with lilac walls and French doors looking out onto the garden. In my stretched-out, sweated-out, blissed-out, post-yoga head zone, the answer smacked me in the face so hard that it literally brought tears to my eyes:

Fear of death.

Fear of death!

I had a teacher a long time ago, really a teacher’s assistant, but still a teacher to me, who would say “Fear of death” matter of factly, whenever I would express my fear of getting assisted into one particularly scary pose (Prasarita Padotanasana C, the forward bend with legs straddled and hands clasped behind the back, where the height of the pose occurs when the hands end up on the floor behind the head). And I got it. But somehow I forgot it in the four plus years since I last saw him.

Having hit the point where I can make no further physical progress in backbends, I come face-to-face with my mortality. Like, this is as good as it’s ever going to get, it’s all downhill from here, and after that, I die.

Strange really, given that I came to yoga as an affirmation of life after facing a life-threatening illness, the treatment of which was essentially cell-murder, good cells, bad cells, indiscriminately. Perhaps I feel betrayed by a system that seemed so life affirming, but is now insistently (nay, cruelly!) reminding me of my limitations as a mortal, reminding me that you start out young and innocent and full of hope, and then at a certain point you realize that you have achieved everything that you are ever going to achieve.

Then what?

I suppose that I can find a new physical endeavor that will challenge me and fill me with the false sense of hope of endless self-improvement (read: immortality). Or I suppose I can face my limitations (read: aging) with grace.

If only there were an injectable for this.


Things seem to be picking up around here…

August 27, 2009

When I tell you that I have never been a slave to my stat counter, I am being totally honest. But right now, I am being totally slavish. Not for my ego, per se, but to ascertain whether all systems are go here: are my links working? are my meta tags (or whatever they’re calling them these days, those search terms embedded in the guts of a blog, where they can’t be seen) working propertly? So, imagine my pleasure at finding that YogaChickie v.2 has been “hit on” more than 300 times on its second day of life! Hoorah. Seems like all systems ARE go. And most people are accessing my blog either directly (meaning they know or have already bookmarked the address) or from a link from facebook or from my now-defunct blogger blog’s redirect. A FEW people, a very few people are finding me through Google (since apparently, Google has not yet done a full “crawl” of my content…they really should since they owe me $85 dollars for the ads I let them put on YC v.1….least they could do if they plan never on paying me back). And of those that do, here are the search terms used:

yoga chickie: chicken soup for the navel 3 (forget about gazing and soul)
marichyasana letter d 1 (a long-ago obsession of mine)
ashtanga bad for you 1 (poster girl that I am)
yoga chickie 1 (what is there to say about this?)

I wonder why no one has found me in a search for Supta Kurmasana, my longest-standing obsession of all? Or Kapotasana, my own personal Waterloo?

This is mildly fun.

Back to our previously scheduled programming soon.


Well…maybe it’s a good thing.

August 26, 2009

I googled myself. I was trying to determine if Google had yet “crawled” this new blog address and included it in searches. What I found was that (a) no and (b) it seems that my image has become synonymous with my bitching and whining about Ashtanga, at least lately.

It’s always a warm, fuzzy feeling when I find links to my writing, especially when said links are preceded with, “I thought this was smart” or “Check out this funny piece” or even “This inspired me” (okay, that one is rare, usually occurring approximately once per year, around the month of October, when pink pervades). But I was shocked (I don’t know why I should be shocked) and dismayed to see some of the reactions to Five Words That Do Not Belong In Yoga, as presented and linked to by other bloggers. Apparently, I’m perceived by some to be “bitter” and “going through” some sort of “thing”. As if I can’t have just fallen out of love with this particular yoga system. I am also, apparently, perceived to be personally attacking the ENTIRE population of Ashtanga teachers, and individually attacking all of my own teachers, without exception.

Apparently, my communication skills are not what they should be. Either that, or people read what they need to read into my writing, my criticism of certain aspects of the practice (FIVE WORDS, people. FIVE WORDS. Not the entirety of the system), in order to remain confident in their own choices.

I do know that I stand firm on this: criminal, crank, bad, cheating and pain are five words that do NOT belong in any yoga practice unless to say that it is criminal to crank a person into a pose, that it is bad to feel pain in the context of yoga and that cheating is just another way of saying “yes I can”.



August 25, 2009

This is very weird for me to be blogging here. Is anyone out there? I think so, based on my newly discovered “Blog Stats” feature on my WordPress Dashboard. Not that that should be important…and yet it is somehow. It’s like, I can’t write anything coherent if I don’t think someone is going to read it.

Unfortunately, Blogger.com seems to be a lost cause for me. Can’t get rid of the malware warning, and truth be told, I think they are very very real: after repeat visits to my blog (my OLD blog, now, sigh), my laptop needed some reconfiguring before I could turn it on this evening.

Talk about an exercise in non-attachment.


Cranked, yanked, spanked

August 23, 2009

Today, on another blog, I read this: “[P]eople sometimes lose faith in their teachers. I wonder if it isn’t more about a loss of faith in one’s self that then gets projected on the teacher. I wonder if that isn’t the root of teacher discontent.”

I knew who this was directed to, since I am, at the moment, the poster child for “loss of faith” in teachers, and since this particular blogger recently deleted a comment of mine that questioned the sanity of desperately attempting to go deeper in poses that our bodies (aging bodies, I might add) simply are not meant to go deeper in. I had written that perhaps there is a “wall” at which progress stops, and why fight it?

Deleted. Truth hurts, huh?

Anyway, I would like to address it here.

It’s my blog after all, and I would rather expend my words here, than waste them …well…there. So here goes:

Of course, I can’t answer for everybody, but I know why I have lost interest in being “taught” yoga by a yoga teacher (with some exception). It is because I have come to a point in my practice where I totally understand what is going on in my body and where I totally know what my body needs on any given day.

A projection of loss of faith in my SELF?! HA! Not even one bit true. It is the opposite of true.

I am a senior teacher of yoga…of myself. When it comes to teaching me, it doesn’t get more senior than this. I am the expert, plain and simple, inside and out. I know what my body needs, what my body tolerates, what feels good and what causes pain. I choose not to have my body cranked and yanked into poses. I choose to honor my body by keeping it safe from harm caused by teachers who think that we WANT our shoulders dislocated and our spines bent the wrong way (newsflash: the thoracic spine is not meant to be bent in the same direction as the lumbar spine). Well, maybe some of you do. But I no longer see the point.

Yeah, see, I don’t feel the need to seek approval from a teacher, and I don’t need my Intermediate Series “validated” by anyone other than me. God knows, the people who actually matter in my life don’t even know what the fuck I’m talking about right about now.

I am not so desperate to prove…I don’t know…something…about my body, about myself, about my youth, about wielding control over the aging process…that I have any urge at all to get INJURED on a daily basis. And that is what some people are doing. Injuring themselves daily. Getting cranked, yanked, and, basically, spanked. For WHAT? To come back tomorrow and do it again? To grumble about my feelings of inferiority because I will only ever “graze my toes” in Kapotasana?

My backbends ARE inferior to some of those out there. Hell, they’re inferior to many. Halle-fuckin-lujah…I still get to the mat, and I still run, and I still hike, and I still use my body in any way that I desire and any way that I am able. I’m not saving it for the mat. Who gives a rat’s ass?

I like to feel good. All I get when I get put into Kapotasana by a teacher is ripped tricep muscles. I’m over it.