Monday, November 6, 2017

LOVE: The Soul Survivor

This is what Love looks like…

It was the most terrible, beautiful, heartbreaking day. The day that cancer won. The day that Love whispered in Death’s ear, “You cannot touch me,” even as Death resolutely refused to take no for an answer. The day that Hope shifted and drifted and then suddenly sank. She sank into the ocean of dashed dreams and abandoned plans. Momentarily, She was seduced by the glint of Denial, shimmering and beckoning, I can save you. The sharp barbs of Panic threatened to slash Her to pieces. The undertow of Fear also motioned to Her, I will sweep you away from this terrible moment… come with me. Love was stronger than all of them. Undaunted, Love exclaimed, Stay with me!

Hope descended deeper and deeper, dropping into the dark abyss of Doubt. Taunted by Doubt, What is right? What is true? What is real? Who can I trust? Love answered, Trust me. Only I am real. I know the way. Stay with me.  Until finally, Hope surrendered, drowned out at the bottom of that deep ocean of Pain.  At the very depths of that ocean, Love cradled Hope as She lay dying, exhausted from years of facing unbearable pain. Love held on… It’s OK. I cannot die. I am here. I am with you. I am the Soul Survivor.

This is what Love looks like…

On that most terrible, beautiful, heartbreaking day, I awoke astonished. Astonished that I had slept through the night without the call: Come now. Astonished that Hope survived the night. And so I began that day, as I do every day, with the simple mantra: I am Love. A reminder that we are all Love, even and especially at the depths of our darkness. And then a prayer. Knowing that Hope had worn thin and was faltering, knowing that Pain was brutal and demanding.  Knowing that only the fiercest of Love would prevail. This was my prayer:

May she be at Peace. May she know the depths of Peace beyond the pain of her body. May she feel Love. May she know that Love surrounds her. May Love sustain her. May Courage bolster her spirit. May the Courage of her brilliant, bold, beautiful life continue to guide her. May she be at ease. May her pain be overwhelmed by Love…

And in the midst of this made-up, winging-it, doing-my-best prayer, the text: Come as soon as you can. And without a thought, I grab my car key and put on my shoes and I am out the door. Because Love can’t wait.

This is what Love looks like…

I am driving before I realize that I need to cancel my day. I make some shaky-voiced calls, trying to sound calm, yet urgent. Please, do not ask questions. Please, understand. I am driving before I realize I do not know where I am going. Literally: destination unknown. The irony escapes me until this moment, as I write it down. As I am driving, I hear in my voice and know in my heart that I need a new prayer.

I take your pain and suffering and I send you peace and love.

If you are not familiar with the Tonglen practice of taking and giving, this sounds a little crazy. In the surreal world of terminal illness where the rules don’t matter and nothing seems fair, nothing and everything seems crazy. The only thing that will make you lose your mind is trying to make sense of the impossible, devastating truth that you must abandon Hope.

This prayer is my anchor, my background, my offering. I offer it to my friend and all of those who love her. I offer it to the parade of nurses and doctors and caretakers. I offer it to the space. But mostly, I receive it over and over throughout this terrible, beautiful, heartbreaking day. It steadies me and opens me to the gifts of Love.

This is what Love looks like…

I arrive at the door of her room in the ICU and see but do not register the sign to stop and put on a gown. The gown is protecting me, protecting her, the other patients? It seems bizarre, this hand washing and gown donning. And yet appropriate to have a ritual before entering.  I cross the threshold of this most sacred space where Hope is dwindling and Death is calling. The only thing that does register is Love. Love is on fire, crackling loud and burning bright, radiating light and warmth. Fear barely smolders along the twisted territory that trips up Hope, as She searches for the trail of possibility.

And so it begins. The beginning of the end. The nurse is gentle with the GPS. You are here. The road to recovery is officially closed. Hope asks for a miracle, a side road, any opening. Access denied. Hope shifts to a more modest possibility. Weeks at home. Time to reflect. Time to accept. But just as Hope shifts with the blazing support of Love, Time shifts again. Hope drifts off. So many words, so much information, too much to absorb. What is possible? What is real? How do you know? Help me understand. Help me! And another doctor, another timeline. Always shorter. Cruel even with the most gentle explanation. Full code. DNR. Comfort care. Life support. Invasive. Non-invasive. Risks. Complications. No one is pressuring you. Time is pressuring you.

Hope negotiates. Hospice at home? The staff scrambles against doctors’ better judgment. Maybe. Hope clings to the idea of serenity at home. Another chance. Please, give us one more chance. Another doctor, another timeline. Minutes to hours. No way out. Hope flounders and begins to sink. Buoyed by Love, Hope renegotiates with Death. Can she stay with us long enough for family to arrive? Give us just this day. Just let it be hours and not minutes. Too many goodbyes. So much Love.

This is what Love looks like…

Love creates a sacred space, a place of peace. But people can be messy, unskillful in the shroud of grief. Loved ones arrive, some talking too much, too loud, pressing too hard, getting too close for too long. It is all too much. How is one to know? How can you explain? Everyone is doing their best. Sometimes confusing their own comfort for hers, their own needs for one more exchange, one more precious moment of connection, one more chance. If only they could do something in this place of being.

Others are magnificently attuned, understanding that she is already in the space between this world and the next. Knowing that Love is allowing and not demanding. They offer Reiki, prayers of comfort and ease, silence, space… their tranquil presence palpably empowering Love to expand. And songs. How do you find a clear, sweet voice to sing to your beloved? How do you step back in what may be the final moments because you feel her asking for space? How do you silence your own pain and desires enough to clearly hear hers? How do you insist that a breathing mask stay on when you know it is distressing and yet know that it is the last bastion of Hope to keep her alive, if only for a little while longer? And knowing that, how do you acquiesce, relieving her temporarily of the mask, knowing you are bringing her comfort, while watching hawk-eyed as the monitor numbers become erratic, then plummet, imperiling Hope? How can you deny her anything, knowing soon she will be denied of everything?

This is what Love looks like…

Family arrives at last, peaceful, heart-centered. They are so filled with gratitude for this time, this space to hold vigil, to say goodbye. Time has been kind in its way. Death has been patient. And the patient herself has been a Rock Star through it all. She has understood that she was waiting for them. Time is suspended. Hearts transmitting what words cannot say. Then, finally, enough. Enough of the breathing mask. It is all way too much for way too long. OFF!

Choosing Death is the pinnacle of courage for one who loved and lived Life with awe-inspiring vitality. Choosing to honor that impossible decision is the most heartbreaking, loving gift one can offer. Does she understand, really understand, what this means? Can anyone? Ever? How do you ask again, do you understand? How do you clarify? And repeat to the nurse? And again to the doctor? And how do you wait for the orders to come through for the comfort care to arrive? How do you explain that we are listening, that the final medicine is on its way? How do you insist that the mask stay on for just a little while longer, knowing and yet not knowing that meds will keep fear and pain at bay?

Knowing that you are in the space of the unknowable, how do you let your heart break wide open when Hope has nothing left to offer and Love has nothing left to lose?

This is what Love looks like…

Hope’s final request arrives. May she leave her body in peace, without fear, without pain. In a place of no promises, the nurse does just that. She promises: She will be calm and that will keep you calm. After years and a day of too many decisions based on unreasonable options, the only choice is to trust the nurse because the alternative is too insufferable. For everyone.

I take your pain and suffering and I send you peace and love.

After repeatedly asking the unbearable question: how long? Knowing no one dare answer… This time, no one dared ask: how long? It is her choice. Until the end, it was always her choice.

The doctor confirms. The nurse consoles. The drug is injected with more on standby.  The drug begins to soften her body. The mask is removed. The monitor is turned off. No more warnings. No more decisions. No more Hope. All attention is with her. Love is vigilant, holding the space as she is/is not holding her breath. Breathing deeply. Pausing too long. Breathing again. Pausing. No rhythm. I breathe with her. Maybe we all did. Minutes pass. All anyone can feel is her breath and her presence and the space in between, all held in the space of Love. Until finally, peacefully, too soon and yet too long, she doesn’t breathe again.

I see nothing. Yet I know. I know her soul has escaped, free at last, because my eyes are fluttering, somehow signaling me. I stop waiting for her next breath. Instead, I wait for a sign from the living, an acknowledgment from her truest, deepest Love who has set her soul free, who will hold her heart forever.

This is what Love looks like…

Silence. Tears. Laughter. Stories. Memories of her amazing Life, her courageous spirit, memories shared with hearts broken wide open. The nurse returns. She is Comfort Care personified. She offers condolences. She is in awe of the Love in the room, the generosity of honoring her wishes. We are in awe of all of it, this most sacred space and the courage of all who enter, forgetting to save the courage to leave. Still holding her hands, brushing her hair, closing her eyes, re-membering her. Remembering her promise to give signs of her presence. Knowing she is gone and not gone, nowhere and everywhere all at once. Feeling the depth of this terrible, beautiful, heartbreaking day. Knowing that the only thing left is the one true thing, the only thing that Death cannot touch, the one thing that lasts forever, The Soul Survivor… LOVE.

Leslie Kazadi

(Original post on

Friday, March 3, 2017

 What the Hell are you saying?

I got some great advice from an experienced teacher (thanks, Micheline Berry!) before I started teaching yoga:  You have to be willing to make a fool of yourself because you will end up saying the most ridiculous things.  It’s so true!  Confusing left and right is an easy mistake to make.  I’d be retired if I had a dollar for every time I heard or said that one.  But when I say elbow and I mean foot, you’d think I was a stroke victim.   What’s up with that?  Luckily, I teach older adults who understand and forgive the brain lapses of these silly mistakes.

It can be quite comical when I say things that make no sense and watch the quizzical looks as students consider how to actually follow my crazy instructions.  I catch myself saying “your big feet” when I mean “big toe” as I pray I’m not looking at someone with big feet –oops!  Or “put the strap around the arch of your ankle…”  Good luck with that! 

Then there is the unforgettable time I made the self-deprecating comment on a day when I was tired and couldn’t get my words to sync up to my brain – or maybe I just couldn’t get my brain to sync up, period.  I said, “I’m sorry I’m retarded today.”  One of my student’s son is mentally challenged and was devastated by my insensitivity. It was a humbling moment for me that I won’t forget. I won’t make that mistake again! 

Another advantage of teaching older adults is that they will tell you straight up, “I have no idea what you are talking about,” or “That doesn’t make sense.”  They teach me to be clear.  I was startled the first time a senior literally yelled at me from the back of a crowded class, hands in fists on her waist for emphasis, “I don’t know WHY you say RELAX anything!  There is absolutely NOTHING relaxing about this!!”  I have no idea how I responded, but I got it loud and clear – literally.  If I’m teaching mindfulness through movement then I better mind what I say or suffer the heckling of straight-talking seniors.

So I know I’m going to keep saying ridiculous things and fumble over my words and that some days are better than others.  But I am grateful for the honest feedback that keeps ME honest so that I mostly do know and mean exactly what the hell I’m saying… in teaching and in life.


Leslie Kazadi

Monday, February 20, 2017

Something's Gotta Give

I think we are all pretty tired of all of the talking points and pointed accusations that are being made on all sides on many issues. It's all too easy to repost, regurgitate, and repeat. The problem is mostly, people aren't listening. Everyone's just waiting to talk -- or not bothering to wait at all! -- or selectively listening for the parts that bolster our beliefs.

We all have strong beliefs on many issues. But if we're not curious about why others disagree and why our ideas are threatening to them and vice versa, if we're not curious about our role in all of it, we can't ask anyone else to be. If I can't acknowledge that my lens is necessarily unique and limited, I have no possibility of seeing the bigger picture. 

Maybe rather than demanding that other people listen to us, we could stop talking and listen to ourselves. Hear the tone in our own voices, feel the tension in our own bodies, acknowledge the deeper fears and hopes that we have. That we all have.

Maybe if we want people to listen to us, we listen to our own hearts and recognize that when we speak from our hearts, we are easier to hear. And maybe even if "they" don't listen to "us," we do it anyway. Because when I listen to you, we both are changed. Maybe rather than reacting and saying that "they" are crazy, greedy, stupid, wrong, we get curious about their lens. Maybe if we could stay steady and open long enough, we would realize that we have the same fears. Maybe then we can stop reacting out of fear and begin responding with love.

Because the truth lies in the middle. And the path of peace is full of ambiguity and acceptance. Because we all have our darkness. And we all have some incongruent ideas and actions. Let's make peace with our own complexities and own our true values with our actions. Let's go inside and ask the really difficult and only questions that illuminate the pieces we have control over: What is my piece? What am I willing to give up for the greater good? How would I be acting differently if I lived from the very inconvenient truth that all lives matter?

Together, we can practice peace. Because, seriously, something's gotta give! 

Friday, February 17, 2017

Everything Happens...

Everything Happens...

I dunno about you, but this winter is bringing some major storms. And I'm not just talking about the weather! I am reminded again and again of one of my teachers, Pema Chodron, who says: You are the sky. The rest is just the weather. Aspiring to see the sky in this winter of my discontent, I looked to Pema's teaching, Awakening to Love. The day after the election, to be exact. And every day since. Aspiring to find love in an avalanche of hate. Aspiring to find courage in a mountain of fear.

For whatever reasons, both I and a number of those whom I hold dearest in my heart have been facing a lot of "opportunities for growth" lately. Not the Mercury is in retrograde and that's why your computer crashed variety. Which, to be blunt, annoys the shit out of me - the "mercury is in retrograde" bit more than the computer crashing bit. Shit happens. Life happens. Everything happens. Let's not debate the "for a reason" bit. Let's choose to focus on the bits that we can all agree on. The difficult truth that sometimes life is beautiful and easy and fun. And other times life is challenging and scary... and if you can muster up the courage, if you can face the challenge, there is nothing more beautiful than facing your fear with aspirational love.

Thanks to Pema, I've been doing a little experiment. When I feel frustrated or afraid of someone/something, I've chosen to send loving kindness to them. And something really shifts when you can see obstacles through that lens. I haven't exactly worked my way up to 45, but I have really noticed that when I have lost my bearings and wished for a do-over, I have forgotten my practice. Every. Single. Time.

Aspirational, to be sure. Hoping to be loving and kind to all beings at all times. Choosing to believe it is possible. Knowing you are falling short. Hoping to be forgiven. Choosing to start again and again. Knowing you will fall down again. And again. Choosing to get back up. Choosing to love and forgive yourself may be the highest aspiration of all.

If we are going to wake up, show up and open up to everything that happens in our lives, we need support. Lots of support. And lots of love for ourselves and each other. This is why we practice - to be in a community, to share our joys and our sorrows, to believe it is possible to make the world a better place by aspiring to our own greatest potential.

Leslie Kazadi

Friday, November 11, 2016

Wake Up and Take a Stand for love: Who’s with me?

Some people I love voted for Trump. Family and friends. And I don’t mean random FB friends. They don’t fit the Trump profile. They are not all white. They are not misogynists. They are not evangelical Christians. They are bright and well educated. They love their daughters. Yes?! They have daughters. And, yes, that stumps me, too!

And, yes, I am well aware that you may be re-evaluating who you think I am because I know and love some people on the #trumptrain. Especially now. Now that I and almost everyone (else) that I know and love is some combination of shocked, devastated, heartbroken, scared and/or F-cking furious.

To clarify, I didn’t grow up in the Blue Coast Bubble. I grew up in the opaquely saturated red state of Oklahoma. Clearly, the lens is pretty different there. So as comforting and convenient as it might be to label “them” as hateful, bigoted, crazy misogynists, the truth is not that simple. Because the truth is never that simple.

I will not speak for them – cannot speak for them. But I have spoken with some of them. (They are definitely not all interested in talking politics with me.) I cannot agree with them but I can understand them. Because I dared to listen to them without ASSuming I was better or smarter than them. I cannot say that I entirely understand their positions or that I am swayed by them. I can say that I feel less devastated and more hopeful because I was able to have a civilized conversation with a Trump supporter as the election results were rolling in. In realtime.

Like a lot of us, I was anxious on election day. I cried when I voted. Normally, crying is not really my thing. Let’s agree on one thing: there was nothing normal about this election cycle. When I got home around 6pm, I immediately turned on the computer to see what was happening in the election. I had had a nagging concern that had been developing over several days. Brexit kept coming to mind. The polls might have been way off. My Blue Coast bubble was about to burst. Interesting feeling to be shocked and not surprised all at once. I was in multiple WTF text conversations with friends because I couldn’t bear to be alone in it. A girlfriend called in confused horror: What is happening? We talked for a while, listened to the news, texted our friends, pretended to be fully present as we distracted and consoled ourselves with our oh, so easy multi-tasking technology. Because the news was presenting some increasingly not-so-easy-to-digest information.

And then I did something really stupid. I sent a text to a friend in Florida. “fucking florida.” Like blaming Florida was gonna make me feel better. Like engaging my Trump-supporting friend in this particular moment was gonna be constructive in any way. Banter turned into talking points, heading South in a hurry. Not surprisingly, we don’t even agree on the facts.  So I called him, not sure he would pick up the phone. He did.

Honestly, past experience told me this conversation was going to go badly and end abruptly. But I was desperate to make some kind of sense out of it.  I wanted someone who voted for him to give it to me straight in that way that you can only bear to hear from someone you really know well. I needed a heart-to-heart. And I got one. When I really needed to believe that we are bigger than our differences, I got exactly what I needed. For two hours, we talked and we listened. And we talked and we listened. Without a moment of raised voices or cheap shots, we heard each other.  Not just heard each other.  Felt the source of our mutual concerns. We hung up the phone and I listened to Trump’s acceptance speech. And I cried. Again.

I am heartbroken. Not only for the people who are afraid of losing Obamacare, afraid of losing their LGBT – and to be clear, human! – rights, afraid of losing women’s rights, planetary rights… I could go on. I am heartbroken that I had no real idea of the pain and suffering of the #trumptrain. I am heartbroken for the impoverished mentality of a wealthy nation. I am heartbroken for a nation of people who don’t feel safe to express themselves in civilized ways. I am heartbroken that fear won. For now.

For now, I am awake. And I am so clear that anger and fear lead to hate in equal measure. No one gets immunity. The only thing I know for sure is that impossible conversation on the night of the election was made possible because we both knew that we were in a fragile state; we both knew that we had no option but to listen with kindness or come unraveled. And we revealed to our selves the deeper truth that we ARE bigger than our differences, that love trumps hate. We have to grow up and wake up. We cannot go back to sleep.

I know some people are really angry and scared and sad. And that’s understandable. Others don’t get it at all. And - tough news – that’s also understandable through their lens. No one can ever make you wrong about your feelings. And that’s universal. We can’t swipe left and make it go away. We can’t #Calexit. We are not moving to Canada.

As a nation, I know that we are better than this. As an individual, I am taking a long, hard look at how I am better than this life I am living…. Not in an egoic I’m so great or above it all kinda way. Rather, I am asking the questions: What does my best self do? How do I quell my own anger and fear? How does love respond? What is for the greatest good? Where do I need to do better? What part of me needs to grow up, wake up and stand up? What does positive action that unites us even look like?

Who’s with me?

Leslie Kazadi, C-IAYT, ERYT-500

Monday, July 18, 2016

Diving into and out of Panic
at the Great Blue Hole

We’ve all panicked from time to time, to some degree or another. When it’s over something harmless, like waking up late, it’s the stuff of comedy.  Think Hugh Grant’s character, Charles, in “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” Funny because we can all relate. You realize you missed the alarm and you have alarming thoughts doused with expletives, rushing around as if you could make up for lost time. Only to realize you are running around in circles. Hijinks for observers.  Being late, after all, is not the end of the world.

Not so funny is an actual panic attack. Until you’ve experienced it, it’s really hard to grock. This does feel like the end of the world. Like a heart attack. As in, I can’t breathe, I think I’m dying attack. Typically, they come seemingly “out of the blue.”

Diving the Great Blue Hole in Belize doesn’t really fall into the out-of-the-blue category. It’s a 130-foot dive with a brisk, 3-minute descent time that allows you 8 minutes of meandering underneath a wall of 40-foot stalactites next to a 400-foot, deep-blue, eerie abyss. Made famous by Jaques Cousteau’s naming it one of the top 10 dives in the world, it’s a bucket-list badge of honor for divers. It is not for the faint of heart or beginner diver. Or logically, for a moderately experienced but out-of-practice diver like me.

Yet there I was in Belize with my bucket list. I had to do it. Despite nobody I knew going with me. Despite my long respite from deep dives. And let’s just say, despite my better judgment.

I’m excited and nervous as I wait on the pier for the water taxi to take me to the dive shop. It’s uncommonly still. No breeze – which is bizarre because it’s always breezy in Belize. This means the 3-hour boat ride to the Blue Hole will be smooth. This means getting into the water at the Blue Hole will be easy. This means I can relax.

At the dive shop, the staff seems calculatedly nonchalant.  Someone tosses me a mask and declares from 6 feet away that it is a perfect fit. My previous snorkeling excursions earlier in the week were not so lucky. They don’t bother to offer me a wetsuit, though everyone else has one. They seem a little too relaxed. “You don’t really need one. The water’s warm. This one should fit if you really want one.” I try on the wetsuit with purple and pink stripes, another good sign. It fits. The staff keeps repeating how easy the Blue Hole dive is. All seven of the divers are excited and nervous. No one thinks it’s an easy dive. None of us have done it before. I feel comforted that we are all metaphorically in the same boat.

As we near our destination, the dive master gathers us around and goes over the basic safety routine – how to clear your mask and your ears, universal hand signals, air supply. He reminds us that we have a second, emergency regulator to breathe through. Between reminders of how safe the dive is, he warns that we have to go single file and stay at his depth. He warns us that there will be no stopping and that if you have a problem and have to go back, you are on your own. “We can’t sacrifice the group for one.” Ummmm…. What?! “The dive is really safe… there is only one thing that can be a problem - nerves.” Only. One. Problem.

I fidget with my equipment. I make sure the BC (buoyancy compensator) will inflate. This is what keeps you from sinking to the bottom. If you sink to the bottom at 400 feet, you are not coming back up. Period. Once you dive below 50 feet, you start to sink rapidly without the BC. I check the regulator, literally the pipeline to your air supply. I check the air gauge. I remind myself that I am brave.  I’m the second one to jump into the water. I do the 2-foot dive below the surface test as instructed. There’s only one problem.

“I can’t get enough air from the regulator,” I say, taking the regulator out of my mouth.  And so it begins. The rapid-fire, rabbit-hole rationale that begins and ends with: This is a big mistake! Before I got into the water, I checked to make sure the regulator was working. But I didn’t actually breathe out of it to make sure it was working correctly. I don’t know this equipment. I don’t know these people. The resort didn’t recommend this outfit. Nobody in this group gives a flying f*ck about me. What if my mask doesn’t really fit? My mask didn’t fit when I was snorkeling the other day and I spent the whole time clearing it with my eyes burning. I can’t do that at 130 feet. What if I can’t clear my ears? I couldn’t free dive to 15 feet without my ears hurting the other day. And I could not clear them. This is crazy. What if I can’t clear my mask or my ears at 100 feet? I can’t go straight back up because then I’d have to go to a decompression tank. You can’t go straight back up anyway because you are diving on a diagonal underneath limestone after 50 feet. How would I find my way back? What EXACTLY does sacrifice one diver mean? What do you mean, “You are on your own”? Where IS a decompression tank? I can’t fly to it because you can’t fly after a deep dive. What exactly are those rules again? What if I can’t breathe at 100 feet? What if there are hammerheads? Why had I been hoping to see a hammerhead (shark, that is)? I am crazy?! I can’t breathe NOW! I don’t think I can do this. What the actual f*ck was I thinking?! This is a big mistake!

Every thought, a dead end.

Someone checks and assures me that the regulator valve is all the way open.  This does NOT make me feel better. This only confirms that there is a problem with the equipment. I breathe through my nose.  I can breathe fine through my nose. I put the regulator back on and still can’t breathe freely. Proof that it’s the regulator.  I take the regulator back out and announce in a tone of voice that says it all, “I’m feeling a little panicked.” Then something really interesting happens. I notice that I also cannot breathe freely on my own without the regulator. I’m confused because I thought that I could, but now the regulator isn’t part of the I-can’t-breathe equation. I am gulping air in through my mouth, not yet realizing this, only aware that I cannot get enough breath and that I don’t think I can do this. I’m on the surface. I can’t breathe. This is what asthma or COPD must feel like. This is interesting. I make a mental note that this is going to be interesting later, followed by a note that I ASSume there will be a later.

The dive master is standing on the boat and pronounces, “You are panicking.” (I think but now realize I am not 100% sure that I said that out loud already.) “Stop treading water. You are going to wear yourself out. Inflate your BC (aka your don’t-drop-to-400-feet rescue device). And relax. Just breathe.”

OK. Even then, I appreciated the humor. You wouldn’t think that someone telling you to breathe and that you are panicking would be helpful. And we all know how maddening “just relax” is. But for me, it was a moment of insight. I had been absolutely unaware that I was treading water. I was some combination of confused, embarrassed and amused that someone was telling me how to breathe… even as I couldn’t. I recognized that I have been working like mad to stay afloat. Maybe that’s why I was out of breath. Maybe it was nothing. Just relax. I inflated the BC. It pressed into my ribs and exaggerated rather than ameliorated my I-can’t-breathe status.

Then something magical happened. I recognized that this can’t be true. BC’s do not inhibit breath. Scuba equipment does not make people sink. I don’t have asthma. I know how to breathe. And I witnessed myself as being in a self-induced, self-deluded panic attack.  Nothing is wrong and I can’t breathe. Now, this IS interesting.

I decided to question my thoughts against what I know to be true.

1.     Mouth breathing can be panic inducing. Sort of a conundrum when you are breathing through a regulator, necessarily through your mouth. The problem is you can gulp in more oxygen than you need without getting the CO2 that is required to get the oxygen to your tissues, and in particular to your brain. This is a classic case of less is more. I choose to breathe through my nose while I sort it all out as I’m floating on the surface.

2.     I have a rational mind and a fact checker in my brain. It’s always running in the background. Sort of a PITA at times, but my best and only friend right now. If I can talk myself into panic, I can think my way out.

3.     If you can speak, you are breathing. Period.  Good to know, right? If you can’t breathe, you will pass out so your autonomic nervous system will reset your breathing. If you are on land, this is also good to know. In the water, not so much.

4.     I understand the nervous system. Panic is just my nervous system in fight/flight/freeze. It’s beneath the surface of consciousness. Three elements are at work subconsciously deciding if the situation is A) malevolent or benevolent; B) “permanent” or transitory; and C) out of or within my control. If I can wrap my brain around the idea that the situation is benevolent, transitory and within my control, I will relax. Awesome. I’m already starting to feel in control.

5.     Nothing in nature is malevolent. (We can argue this point ad nauseum but for now, it’s my story so play along.) Everything is transitory. (ditto) Besides, I know exactly how long the dive is, to the minute.

6.     If I start clearing my ears and my mask from the get go, I can’t possibly get out of my depth with this. If I’m good at 30 feet, one depth down, I will know from past experience that I am good at 130 feet. If I’m not, it’s a straight shot up with no repercussions for resurfacing from 30 feet down. I can choose to bail if I need to.

7.     I will know as soon as I get under water that if I can breathe at 2 feet that the regulator IS working. Then I can also breathe at 130 feet. I know I can change my mind. I am in control.

8.     I remind myself that I am absolutely mesmerized and at ease under water. I do not suck air. I do not panic. I can trust myself.

9.     I am brave. THAT is real.

Meanwhile, the dive master is in the water. He looks at me and says, “You are first after me.”  It’s go time. I remind myself that I can change my mind. Then I deflate my BC so I can get below the surface. And my regulator and my breath are absolutely fine. And I AM mesmerized and at ease. I kept repeating - like a mantra - clear your mask, clear your eyes, take slow breaths, stay with the dive master. And before I knew it, the 3-minute descent to the gigantic, limestone stalactites is over. We have arrived at the 130-foot depth.  I can breathe. I am fine.

The Blue Hole is a collapsed cave, so that the normal sway you experience underwater is absent. It is virtually still. Except there is a curious, constant stream of tiny slivers of limestone silt shimmering all around. There is almost no sea life in the crystal-clear water. The stalactites are nothing like the sparkly, pointy, icicle-shaped ones I have seen on land. Instead, they look like something out of Dr. Seuss. They are enormous, round, ropy-shaped and neutral-colored sculptures that go on forever. As we glide alongside them, it is an uncanny juxtaposition – the massive, solid-stone tapering structures piercing the spacious chasm of the translucent blue sinkhole. It is an unbelievably ethereal experience.

Back on the boat, we are all elated that “We did it!” I feel incredibly grateful that I changed my mind. I freed myself from fear and opened up to experience what was actually happening. And what actually happened was a magical adventure I will never forget.

It was an incredible re-mind-er of the real goal of yoga as an awareness practice. It allowed me to go off the mat and into a whole other magical world. It gives me the tools to be brave. Granted, I didn’t have a full-blown take-me-to-the-ER I-think-I’m-dying panic attack. It only lasted a couple of minutes, thanks to the firm observation of the dive master. His reality check cued me into my body and out of my insanity - as in I was out of my mind and in a fantasy of frightening thoughts. This is the essence of mindfulness: recognizing thoughts, questioning their veracity, feeling the impact of thoughts on the body, and shifting attention to feeling the experience of the moment.

I know that full-blown panic attacks may not be helped with suggestions to relax, breathe and stop panicking. I know that I only got a glimpse of how crazy-making, isolating and scary panic attacks can be.  I have a lot of students who get panic attacks. And one of the things that makes them difficult – the panic attacks, not the students?! -- is their mysterious arrival.  Out-of-the-blue, out-of-control anxiety and the inability to track its triggers or its source.

There are short-term strategies, while you are riding out a panic attack. Here is a great article with a simple acronym, AWARE, and simple – not easy! – steps on what to do and how to BE in the midst of an attack:

There is a saying, “Panic is not a long-term strategy.” Super not helpful, right? Yoga IS a long-term strategy for panic attacks. Panic is an out-of-body experience; yoga is a get-in-your-body practice. Panic is an isolating experience; yoga is a community activity. Panic takes your breath away; yoga connects you to your breath. Panic makes you feel out of control; yoga teaches you self control. Panic can be caused by stress; yoga reduces stress. Panic is steeped in fear; true yoga is imbued with love.


Yoga. Breathe. Love. Live. Your bucket list is waiting! and so is your yoga community! 

Leslie Kazadi