cOMpassion near Ground Zero

The heart of loving-kindness is awakened through caring for ourselves… Then we extend that same warmth and concern to others, who are more distant, less familiar. The more expansive the circle of our care, the more we discover the big heart of true compassion.~ Gaylon Ferguson in Natural Wakefulness

Billows of smoke rose from Ground Zero the day after the Twin Towers fell. Although the wind blew the smoke away from lower Manhattan, the acrid smell of death and destruction pervaded the air. Everyone in the street walked somberly, courteously stepping aside for their fellow New Yorkers.

I climbed the shabby narrow stairs from West 14th Street into OM Yoga Center for the 6:30pm Open class. The Wednesday evening class always filled to the hilt, with only a millimeter of floor peeking between the mats. Another teacher subbed for the usual one. The sub – a teacher known for her sense of humor and amazing knowledge of alignment – was distressed.

I hugged her. Her hands trembled on my back. When she stepped away, a tear rolled down her distraught face. I snatched a tissue from the reception desk and blotted her cheek.

“Amy Dara, there’s still no news about several fellow OMmies who work in those buildings. I don’t know what to say…” her voice trailed off.

“We all need a safe place to process and heal,” I suggested, “this includes you.” This is what you need to show us. She nodded dubiously. She’s in an unfamiliar place, along with many of our fellow OMmies.

The emotional familiarity provided me with fresh wisdom. Eleven years earlier, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) detonated bombs in Paddington Station four hours after I took the train to Oxford after visiting my cousins. Seven years after the London attack, a staccato of three explosions sent hubbub into havoc in the Jerusalem shuk (open-air food market) at the spot where I purchased a half-pound of raw carob pods three minutes earlier. The quick boom-boom-boom and subsequent screaming after the triple Hamas suicide bombing still sounded too fresh to me four years later. I shuddered, slowly exhaled, and managed an encouraging smile to the OM teacher.

6:28pm. I reached for the box of tissue and caught the receptionist’s eye. She gestured for me to bring it into the studio. I weaved among the students, who gratefully pulled out a sheet or two, before placing the box in the center aisle near my mat. I knew most of the students, who were aware that I was completing the Road to OM Advanced Teacher Training, a bridge program for those who were certified elsewhere. The teacher situated herself in front of my mat.

As we OMmed three times, the vision of the fireball bursting out of the South Tower replayed in my mind’s eye.That’s right about where Cousin Ruthie worked. My eyes flew open to bring myself back into the present, straight into the eyes of the woman facing me. Tears streaked her cheeks. It’s okay to cry. You’re safe here.

We balanced the forward folds with the heart openers. We created a safe space to cope with the shock, and grieved for our brethren who vanished. In a surya namaskar B adho mukha svanasana, the teacher’s hands trembled on my thighs as she lengthened my hips away from my hands. She needs help. Now. I slowly rose up, met her teary gaze, and nodded reassuredly. Keep teaching. I’ll assist. Relief flashed across her face. She continued to instruct while I distributed tissue in between the hands-on adjustments.

We opened our heart wide in ustrasana (camel pose). We sat on the heels with the toes tucked under and breathed in the suffering in the big stretch in the sole of our feet, in our soul. After the third ustrasana, we neutralized the spine with bharadvajasana twists. Balasana (child’s pose). Sobs resonated through the room. One student clenched her fists. I pressed my hands down on the back of her pelvis. Her sobs vibrated through the bones. If you’re feeling anger, acknowledge it. Breathe through it. Her fists relaxed.

Savasana. Several students rolled onto their right side early and quietly wept. On the way to my mat, I kneeled in front of the teacher and gave her hands a squeeze. She mouthed to me, “We did the right thing.”

Ten years later nearly to the day, I wonder whether any of the readers were in that Wednesday 6:30pm Open class at the old OM studio on September 12, 2001. It was in that class that I experienced how to teach through my learning experiences. It was through spontaneously assisting a distraught teacher that I fully understood how compassion flows from caring for yourself into caring for everyone around you.

About the author: Amy Dara Hochberg is a devoted OM Yoga student who has been teaching for 11 years in New York City, Boston, and currently Washington, D.C., where she lives with her cat, Simon, whose previous owner was among the perished in the Twin Towers along with her cousin Ruthie.

Reprinted from OM Yoga’s blog, published September 8, 2011.
©2012 Amy Dara Hochberg. All Rights Reserved.