When I first moved to New York from Cambridge, MA, I swore the noise here would drive me mad. The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway wrapped three sides of my apartment and countless construction projects provided hours of solid migraine material. The subway platform made me feel like I was going to swallow my tongue. The truth is, I didn’t exactly arrive here the perfect picture of calm. Equally a victim and an advocate of this generation’s favorite fantasy, I’d been certain that if I could just find my “passion” I’d feel “fulfilled” and “happy” — yet two dreams had just collapsed and I felt like a straight up mess. I felt paralyzed by self-doubt, worry and that old bastard fear that refused to grow up and move out. The funny thing is, it took a move to the maddest place on earth to give me the kick in the pants I needed to fight for my peace of mind.
When my sister and I drove the U-Haul down from Massachusetts through Hurricane Irene at the end of August 2011, my sanity was most certainly in question. I was coming off a stint at divinity school, where I’d studied philosophy of religion and intended, entirely earnestly, to excavate the farthest reaches of my intellect and spirit. I brought with me the rubble of not one but two eight-year relationships: one with the academy, the other with my first love. Both had treated me well, and I’d given myself passionately over to them, but I’d come to realize through a lot of heartbreak that neither was what I wanted. I trusted I’d made the right move, but was devastated by both losses and felt I’d lost myself in the process.
At first, I turned to my old releases. I ran miles and miles — over the Williamsburg Bridge, up the East Side, back over the Queensboro — desperate to soothe the vertigo of facing the unknown. I was well accustomed to burning off excess emotional energy with exercise, to running so fast or lifting so intensely that my problems would sizzle out and fade in a dopamine-inspired delirium. Yet my body began to register years of emotional exhaustion and these old reliable fixes no longer did the trick. I knew I needed to stop and get to know myself again, but each time I sat still my mind would race on. Besides, New York was supposedly this magical jungle gym — why go inward when everything was out there for the taking?
There’s a refrain that visited me with considerable frequency as I gorged on New York: You can never get enough of what you didn’t want to begin with. For the whole first year, everything seemed to permeate aggressively. Confused about who I was and what I wanted, I allowed it all to flood in indiscriminately. The sounds, the sights, the smells and even the good stuff like invitations from friends and new dates began to feel uncomfortably intrusive. In the effort to find myself, I became oversaturated and ended up feeling more lost than when I’d begun. Here — where everything is available in superabundance and consumption is contagious — I found myself repeatedly over-indulging against my better judgment and then needing desperately to retreat, leading to swings from hyper-social hedonism to ascetic isolationism. Desperate for spiritual sustenance, I was stuffing myself with social engagements and cultural events that didn’t really speak to my values, yet the less they satisfied me the more I hungered after them. I managed to keep my nose (and my liver) clean, but I regularly felt my integrity and immune system were compromised. I felt guilty when I resented the city, knowing that I was the one doing something wrong, but I couldn’t quite process how to repair my relationship with this place, let alone myself.
The more my phone blinged the arrival of another invitation to another loud bar with another crowd of new people, the more irritated I became. First of all, graduate school had been all about potlucks and Bananagrams. Don’t get me wrong, theologians know how to get down, but our intimate if raucous gatherings were soul-rich, comprised of home cooked meals, grace and other feel-good accoutrement—a far cry from what I was encountering in New York’s night scene. More than that, my heart was broken and my will had flat-lined. Since “I’m feeling utterly lost and bereft” is not exactly your best opening line at a party (take my word for it) and I’m wholly incapable of faking it, I began to dread these invitations. I wasn’t doing anything I felt good about so I just didn’t have much to say.
My disillusionment with scholarly pursuits had led me to a job in commercial real estate working for a family who owns some of the most sought-after property in Manhattan. Cushy as it was, I hated it. What the hell was a philosopher doing showing Madison Avenue properties to Christian Louboutin? One evening, as I dragged myself up the subway steps after a long day of gawking at plastic faces on the Upper East Side, I stumbled upon a yoga studio on the corner of Roebling and North 7th — blocks from where I live. There, at Greenhouse Holistic, I found what I’d been missing since I left divinity school — a community that takes the soul seriously and provides an atelier for inner work. Lord knows I needed it.
Over the years, I’d mostly practiced yoga on my own from books, random websites and the occasional visit to a studio. Starving grad student that I was, I could seldom afford to take classes, but that hardly mattered. I’d long been comfortable getting my spiritual needs met in piecemeal fashion — it’s easy when you study philosophy and your friends are poets and preachers — but out of my New York loneliness came a deep need for community and guidance. Teachers at Greenhouse demonstrated robust knowledge about the body and the tradition of yoga. They spoke about philosophy, big questions and what-the-hell-are-we-doing-this-New-York-thing-to-ourselves-for with impressive grace and subtlety. Ragged and diffuse as I was, I thought this might be a good place to take respite.
I don’t know if yoga kept me sane — I make no claims to having maintained my sanity — but it did keep me honest. I would come to the mat and tears would come to my eyes. When I got quiet I had to get real. Departing from the career path I’d chosen for myself seemed to signal deep down that maybe my choices thus far in life had been arbitrary, which is why I’d entertained the random real estate gig. I could no longer see myself doing any of the things I’d imagined for years, but neither could I see myself doing anything else. Daily, I bemoaned my distance from my calling, which I understood to be care of the soul — but in what form or context? Friends from the old days, with whom I had little in common anymore, said I took myself too seriously. “Everybody hates their job, Al. Just fuck off and have a drink.” I looked back at them with horror, knowing I could never accept a life like that but also feeling hopeless, tired and out of options. Finding a place to practice yoga didn’t equip me with new friends at first but knowing I was surrounded, even in silence, by people who shared some of the same basic values about the quality and purpose of life was enormously comforting.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras say Yoga chitta vritti nirodha — that yoga frees us from the chattering fluctuations of the mind. Indeed, the unrelenting emotional turmoil slowly began to ease as I allowed myself the space to simply feel — loss, sadness and confusion, yes, but also fight, excitement, desire to press forward into new possibilities. Observing my thoughts and reactions as they arose allowed me to filter them, slow them down and release their hold on me. Some might call this liberation. As I came to recognize myself again little by little, I made a plan to quit my job and struck out as a freelance writer/editor. I’ve been learning to listen to myself for years, but I consistently found that the speed at which I attempted to slog through the issues kept them circling back. With the meditative practice of yoga, I was able to find and keep a certain level of equanimity that had eluded me and to rebuild a strengthened sense of self around this newfound balance.
Confused as I was through that first year, I couldn’t shake my sense of calling. The more I struggled, the more I wanted to find a way to help others to gently, lovingly and gracefully navigate the difficulties of existence with as little bloodshed as possible. It was ultimately gratitude that led me to embark upon a 200-Hour Yoga Teacher Training at Greenhouse just over a month ago. If I can share with others some of the benefits I’ve experienced through yoga, I’ll be moving in the direction of my purpose — whether this training is a career path or simply a long-term investment in my own mental health. With this in mind, I will spend my weekends through June gathered with 15 other aspiring yogis learning to breathe, sit and move in a way that enhances our own lives and the lives of others. We will do renovations and rebuild life practices in the interest of achieving inner quiet. That way, we can better enjoy the noise out there.