Yoga

The Muscle Memory of Loss: How Yoga Saved Me from Myself by Cassandra Lam

This October will mark 3 years since yoga saved my life.

I’m reminded of it each year when the final days of September melt away to welcome earlier sunsets and cooler evenings. One sniff of autumn’s first crisp air and I'm teleported right back to where it all started. To where I started. This visceral reflex, once capable of robbing me of breath and voice, lands differently now, but still hits me hard. I twitch from time to time from the muscle memory of loss. The difference is now, I don’t break.

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In October 2014, I was reeling from an unexpected break-up that put an end to a serious relationship with someone I thought, just maybe, someday, I might marry. I was deeply in love and it was devastating. It was really hard for me to cope – we had been swept up and intoxicated by each other from the start, delving into the most interesting conversations for hours on end, studying with undying interest each other’s souls. Then, we were nothing.

The pain of separation in the aftermath was crippling. It often brought me to my knees on the bathroom floor where I would sob alone until I exhausted myself enough to sleep. Other times, I'd curl up tight into a ball under my comforter, clutching my stomach, sometimes screaming into my pillow in anguish, wishing that I didn't have to face the world. I hate pretending that everything is okay when it's not, but never as much as I've always hated people asking me, "Are you okay?" for weeks on end.

We broke up on September 27, 2014. I remember the date vividly because we met up after I took one of my best friends out for a belated birthday dinner in LA. Perhaps it was naivete, but I was so brutally unprepared for what was to come. The remainder of the conversation by now is one big blur, but I'm certain I was reduced to a blubbering puddle of tears. To make matters worse, the terms of our particular break-up were extremely complicated, layered, and fuzzy. It was the kind of break-up where you couldn't point a finger at anyone or say with confidence what the right decision or best path forward looked like. There was no winner, just two losers, neither of whom had answers to the big questions looming over our heads.

Have you seen the movie 500 Days of Summer? The male protagonist, Tom, goes into a dark spiral after his girlfriend Summer breaks up with him. While I’ve never been the kind of person to wear struggle publicly, I felt like Tom on the inside – beaten up, emotionally volatile, and stuck on replaying the what-ifs. I didn’t know what to do with myself to silence the din of shitty thoughts in my head. 

To make matters worse, I had been in a rut all summer in a couple different ways:

  1. I was starting to dread coming into the office because of the politics and personalities
  2. I increasingly realized I didn't love my job and my career wasn’t where I wanted it to be
  3. I felt directionless and questioned my decision to not apply to law school
  4. I had been itching to find my community but couldn't seem to break out of my own circles or comfort zone
  5. I kept comparing myself to friends who had found their passion, their THING to excel at and succeed in, and criticizing myself for not having accomplished the same

The break-up was the final straw that broke the camel's back. I felt like I was free-falling towards rock bottom. Any day now, I expected to hit the pavement and smash into smithereens. To my surprise, I landed on something much softer. My yoga mat and this ancient practice saved me.

In desperation, I threw myself into the deep end of my yoga practice. It was the only thing in my schedule that shut my mind up and put a pause on the real world. At the time, I was practicing at Hot 8 Yoga in Santa Monica, a studio down the street from my office. I went to class religiously ~6-7 days a week, sometimes taking 2 classes a day on weekends, pushing my body to its limits in order to feel something, anything, other than pain. The heated studio cut right through the mental fog I struggled with in reality. I became addicted to the way my heart beat strong in my chest during these 60-90 minutes of class; it reminded me that I was still alive. My practice became the one thing I looked forward to every day, a brief reprieve before I relapsed into dark places again. It was a sacred ritual for myself by myself.

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After each class, I’d walk out of the studio and take a deep breath of fresh air, feeling so purified from head to toe, but dreading the slow, awful return of reality. In the beginning, it would hit me hard just 20 minutes after class ended during the car home. But slowly, that became 25 minutes, 30 minutes, 1 hour, 2 hours. I grew stronger and saw my body change in fascinating ways. My scrawny arms could finally do a proper push-up. I could inhale and exhale deeper than before. After years of terrible posture and at times, excruciating pain, my back finally found relief. Eventually, I stopped seeing a chiropractor altogether because yoga took care of my issues. But the most stark change of all was in my mind. My thoughts, usually so loud, critical, and relentless, had started to quiet down to a manageable pace. Instead of my sadness dominating my consciousness every waking moment, throwing me into a reactive state where I had no power over my emotions, I began to feel more in control. I could breathe and reckon with my new reality.

The reminder of once being broken came really close to making me bitter and hardened. Going to bed with only your demons to keep you company takes a toll. So does waking up enshrouded in darkness and fatigue. Some days I wanted to give up. But eventually, I grew tired of being this sad, shriveled, and cowardly version of myself. I realized to move past this, I had to fight for my own transformation. It was, and continues to be, a sobering and humbling process. The road, peppered with ugly moments, doesn’t lead to glory or redemption for a long time. But if you keep at it and do the work, even sadness has the potential to metamorphose into something beautiful.

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The Japanese created an art form dedicated to celebrating the beauty in broken things. Kintsugi is a method of restoring that which is broken with a special lacquer mixed with gold, silver, or platinum. Rather than hide the cracks, kintsugi philosophy is dedicated to celebrating the history and reality of an object by making something beautiful out of its own imperfection.

And that, to me, is the practice of yoga.

Dancing in your darkness to truly know yourself. Running towards your demons to feel the things that typically scare us in order to taste freedom. Coming to terms with the natural duality in life that's required to appreciate happiness. Recognizing my brokenness with sincere humility and love instead of shame. Finding the courage to forge something more powerful, beautiful, and sacred in the face of the ugliness that makes being human inexplicably wonderful. Acknowledging that I will forever be a student of my own struggles with so much more to learn. Understanding that ultimately I can only control myself, but that if I know how to do so healthily, my Self is all that I’ll ever need.

P.S. Kintsugi is also the name of the last album from Death Cab for Cutie. A couple months after the break-up, I packed up my things and flew cross-country to move to New York. When this album was released in Spring 2015, I saw the album cover art and felt drawn to the philosophy behind kintsugi. Carrying that knowledge - that new beauty is made from imperfection - into my healing process, I felt, for the first time, that my own transformation was coming. That it was already underway. I didn't need to wait for any signs to start becoming myself again. And No Room in Frame was my favorite song off of this album for these opening lines:

I don’t know where to begin
There’s too many things that I can’t remember
I disappeared like a trend
In the hum of the five in the early morning
— "No Room in Frame" by Death Cab for Cutie