This is the first column by Aisha Chapra who will be contributing to Aaj's digital properties on topics as far and wide as mental health and physical well being, the wellness industry, parenting and her experiences as a yoga practitioner navigating her new home in Islamabad. Aisha has also recorded an audio version of this column which you may listen to below.
I went looking to fix my broken heart in a yoga class. My husband had left me just a year after our wedding and he made it clear that it was all my fault. Specifically it was my unpredictable and manic rage. I flashed back to all the terrible fights we had been having the few weeks leading up to that September evening and his stone cold eyes. All the things that I had been screaming about suddenly seemed so insignificant at the thought of losing him.
We tried counseling but the relationship stayed empty and unloving. A few months later he filed for divorce. I desperately prayed that in the one year of separation that the Canadian legal authorities required before granting a divorce I could fix my rage problem and convince him to come back to our marriage.
The world ceased to be everything that I thought it should be. I left Toronto for Karachi with just some of my belongings and took unpaid leave from work. A few weeks later I cancelled my return ticket, quit my job and left behind many good friends.
My yoga mat occupied my days. TV, junk food, cigarettes and hash ruled my evenings and nights. I never wanted to lose my temper again. I never wanted to be off-balance again. I was ashamed of my failed marriage and I retreated in Karachi from socializing and social media. I could only muster the energy to go to my aunt Shakila’s yoga classes twice a day. It felt so natural for me to practice yoga that everyone told me I should teach. I agreed.
I didn’t want to just teach yoga because I was good at it. I wanted to get trained “properly”. So I did what any colonized subject would do. I found white yoga teachers in a small town in Baja Mexico and spent 26 days completing my first 200 hours Yoga Alliance certified training. I told my fellow trainees the supposed birthplace of Yoga, the Indus Valley Civilization, was no longer in India but in a country that is called Pakistan.
It was too uncomfortable to address my rapid transformation, so I floated above it. I used to be a social justice activist in Toronto, sharply aware of every sliver of racism, colonialism and capitalism in my daily interactions. It was exhausting and unfulfilling. So when I found myself living in a tent by the Pacific Ocean, singing, hugging (mostly white people) in our treehouse yoga shala and I felt alive in a way that I had never been all my concepts of separation dissolved. I was able to connect and heal by forgetting an intellect that had for too long served me only anger and pain. My dreams of going back to the life I had in Toronto with my ex-husband had been entirely replaced with pursuing travel, yoga and wellness.
When Covid arrived it had been 11 years since I had discovered the power of yoga to still my mind, to feel my body’s sensations, and to provide me adventure and community. I had listened to the Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle over 20 times, I had read a library of self-help books by famous and not so famous New Age gurus, I had tried alternative therapies like acupuncture, cupping, massage, cranio-sacral therapy, and I had been in talk therapy for extended periods of time. They all helped a little and some of them helped a lot, but in the end my core pain was no closer to being “fixed.” I was stumped. I had everything I had prayed for: a second chance at marriage, children, and a life of ease and comfort doing things that I thought brought me meaning and purpose. But it still wasn’t enough.
The strange compression of time during the first few months of the pandemic put me in one of my worst disassociated spins. I was nursing a newborn and I had insomnia. I was eating my feelings. I was exhausted. I was fighting. In that midnight place of my personal hell, I realized I had been bearing an impossible burden unconciously. I believed that if I could be perfect then I could avoid pain.
Even with yoga, which was a doorway into a spiritual and authentic life, I found myself mired in its shadow side. An immature part of me started to over-identify with the projected image of a yoga teacher, and I used its practices to cover up and avoid my core pain. Later I learned that some call this “spiritual bypassing.” Like a beautiful highway built over a slum the bypass may get you from one point to the next but it does by feigning ignorance of what is underneath.
I began to notice how many of the New Age beliefs rested upon an aggressive and incorrect premise that as individuals if we just did everything right and tried hard enough we could control our fate, be happy, skinny and also make lots of money. It made me angry and uncomfortable that “the secret” to getting the life you wanted was to find the right sentence structure, repeat it to yourself and then to watch it manifest. I knew too well growing up rich in one of the poorest cities in the world that this secret was a hokey garland of shiny metallic plastic to wear around your neck.
I have cringed at the clever deception, perhaps unknowingly, made by yoga teachers, health and wellness experts to people at their most vulnerable looking for a cure for their grief. The wellness industry takes what is true at one level, like positive thinking, imagining and visioning a full and healthy you, and perverts it with products and false promises. Adding to the confusion of this vast multi-billion dollar industry is among them there are genuine doorways to truth. Finding a gem in this maze of advice and marketing depends perhaps somewhat on luck but mostly on your individual discernment.
So far no amount of positive mantras had been able to get me to the root of my own misery. No amount of juicing and clean eating was releasing me from a cycle of blame, rage, shame and repeat. Trust me, I had tried it all.
As the months went on and my capacity to hold things together disappeared I came back to some of the true practices that this accidental journey in wellness had given me. First, it was surrendering and accepting the feelings I usually pushed away and covered up. This helped me create some boundaries and loosen the grip of wanting others in my family to be happy. Second, it was quiet movement, with no outcome, no rushing, just being there, in the body’s landscape, watching the storms, watching the calm, watching the memories resurface of a young little girl who had no better solution than to rage, disassociate and blame to survive the conditions she was in. Third, it was a felt sense of relief from dropping all my self-imposed expectations of a clean home, a varied menu for my kids, and a perfectly attuned life partner. For years self-compassion had been an abstract intellectual concept. Now it was in my heart and it was pure grace. I was ok, my kids will be ok, my marriage is ok, my husband is ok, I can’t have it all, I won’t have it all, I don’t need it all, I am here, this is all I know. I am here. I don’t have to fight to make things perfect.
I woke up one June morning in Arizona after a night of seeing visions of the ocean. I knew it was time to move back to Pakistan. I kept stumbling about in a wordless grief, my nervous system hijacked and in a state of heightened alarm over the dramatic changes that were inevitable. Over and overs others asked, why do you want to go back? I intellectualized differences between urban and rural. I ranted about racism and Islamophobia. It was all a cover up for the truth. There was no way to make sense of my choice. I had to follow the pull in my heart and trust my elusive longings.
We sold our idyllic house in nature and I stuffed four suitcases with just my kids toys. I hugged my few real friends tightly for I knew that I may never see them again. I said goodbye to the rooms and the sycamore trees that had welcomed my one year old son and two more newborns. I still can’t believe I had to give away my forever dog Pepper because we couldn’t move her back with us.
Amidst winter rains and rainbows our plane took off. The abrupt and intense changes from the pandemic gave me a second chance to life but this time my burden was lighter. I had no hopes or desire for perfection any more.
Today, I look in the mirror and see my belly’s gathered skin after three pregnancies. I look at the lines on my face, the grey under my eyes, and my pigmented skin. The soles of my feet cracked and rough. No time for the things that I loved to do alone. My hair, my nails, my style, all just the bare minimum. Our diet, simple, but not organic or varied. My house, unkempt, barely filled, and still feels impossible for me to manage. Amidst the mess blooms a new gentle love that gathers in all that is me, my life, and my environment without shame and without bitterness.
Life’s imperfections, like a river, have run over the rocks of my impossible expectations, wearing them down to unveil a reflective and accurate gratitude. To walk this path of becoming conscious is no easy matter and there is no easy fix to our core pain or to the losses that life will surely send our way. If the “fixing” is real then the outcomes are evident. More kindness, more compassion, more authenticity, less control and less anxiety about the future. Finally, I know I’m on the right track.