Classified as a disabled veteran of World War II, my father received all of his medical care at the VA. While he underwent radiation and chemotherapy, I studied the photos of young soldiers going off to World War I, World War II, Vietnam, Korea and the Persian Gulf that decorated the hospital walls. The contrast between the smooth faces represented in the photos and the reality of the broken and bent bodies of my father and the other veterans in the VA waiting room was jarring. Most men were in wheelchairs, had limbs missing, were awaiting rounds of radiation or were connected to IVs. After a period of remission, my father's cancer had spread to all parts of his body and he was losing weight rapidly. Like the other men in the room, he looked at the floor in silence as he waited instead of engaging with others.
Having gained new insight into how my own repressed emotions had blocked my ability for new experience I wondered at what the men still held in their bodies. I couldn't help but think that the present condition of my father's deteriorating body was the culmination of years spent downplaying the importance of the physical and psychic effects of serving in battle and shallow breathing. He was only 19 years old when his World War II tour ended, but throughout the five decades to follow, he proudly defined much of his identity by the fact of his veteran status. He'd taken an early graduation from high school so he could join the Navy and participate in bombing raids over the Philippines. After several months of flying in the damp South Pacific he contracted pleurisy, an inflammation of the lungs, and was so ill he was placed on a hospital ship bound for the States and given last rites.
As an adult, his common colds flared into pneumonia. Once, he came home from work with a collapsed lung. But he approached life with the grin -and -bear -it attitude born of the war. His prescription for any malaise short of nonstop bleeding was generally, “Oh, it will be all right” and a shrug, and he stoically endured his bouts with illness in silence.
I'd been particularly close with my father since infancy. Within a few hours of being born I was so sick that I was placed in an incubator and given the same last rites as my father by a Catholic priest who told my mother it might be better if I died. Nonetheless, I was released from the hospital three weeks later, and ironically it was my weak lunged father who helped revive my breath.
“When we brought you home you were barely breathing,” my father told me. “But I played with you and played with you and, finally, it was like a light going off.”
The early attention he gave me and, perhaps, the shared near-death experience forged a tight bond between us. While growing up, I took both his love for the natural world and his attitude toward the physical body to heart. I became the prototypical tomboy, holding my own with my brother on the playing field and shrugging off bumps and bruises. As an adult, I demonstrated my toughness by participating in competitive sports, riding bikes through blizzards and jumping out of planes, all of which thrilled my father.
But as his illness progressed, the yoga studio functioned increasingly as a refuge from the aftereffects of war I witnessed on a daily basis. The agile, well-cared-for bodies and careful attention demonstrated by my fellow yoga students provided a huge contradiction to the radiation and chemotherapy treatment my father's body was subjected to.
As my father's cancer took a firm hold on his body, it became clearer to me that his attention and approval, as an infant and as an adult, had propelled me through much of my life. In fact, it had been the basis for much of my faith in what I chose to do. He cheered on the belief I held in my freedom to “do” anything. If I accomplished something and was able to report it to him I felt good about my self. For much of my life I had defined my self based on achievement, on ego, and my father had been my biggest mirror. But as I wandered the halls of the VA hospital, I questioned the foundations of my father's definition of freedom and regard for the body: the chronology of photos on the wall attested to the continuity of war rather than peace.
“For you, its about attachment,” my teacher said one day as I cried my way through a practice. The comment made me furious, but he was right. Simply breathing was becoming challenging for me than assuming a certain posture. Each inhalation affirmed life, each exhalation forced me to let it go, both of my habitual patterns and of one of the most important people in my life, even if some of the lessons he'd taught me no longer served me well.
It seemed a priority that I truly learn to breathe without condition of anyone's approval. At the same time I was grieving my father's decline, Jois announced a world teaching tour — including a month in New York. I jumped at the chance to study with the person with the most extensive understanding of linking breath to body that I could think of, and readily booked a flight.