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Fall 2005

Wheelchair Yoga

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Lynne Sharon Schwartz

"The yoga teacher is coming this afternoon at two. Why don't you try it?" the physical therapist suggested to my friend Marian as he settled her back in her wheelchair. Marian had just taken ten small steps with the therapist standing in front holding her arms and an assistant standing behind, pushing the chair in case she needed to sit down in a hurry. I walked alongside.

From time immemorial, Marian had gotten up at five every morning to walk several miles before going to work. Some mornings she varied her routine by bicycling. She'd kept that up until four months ago, so it seemed preposterous that now she couldn't take a step unassisted. It was a gross error in the scheme of things and I wanted to fix it. The doctors must be overlooking some crucial glitch, I thought; if only I could locate that glitch and let them know, Marian would be restored to her former powers and could forget all about these abject baby steps.

At the suggestion of yoga, she shook her head, no.

"Why not?" I urged. "Let's do it. We can go together." We would all try to get her interested in the various activities the nursing home offered, but with little success so far. Before her illness what interested her was going to museums and plays. Concerts too, so long as the music was pre-1850. I once suggested a concert that included Mendelssohn and she drew back, eyebrows raised, as if I'd proposed something unthinkable, like bungee jumping. Most of all, she loved books. Whenever we met for dinner we would each report on what we'd been reading and exchange titles and authors' names. She was the most dedicated reader I've ever known, except for fellow writers. But she read with more selectivity than writers, who tend to read everything at hand, even the trivial. Marian's taste was too exacting for trivia. She favored large-spirited writers who dwelled on the dismal nature of human destiny, Samuel Beckett, for instance, and she would describe their works with contagious animation, in enchantingly rich sentences, her dark eyes aglow, her voice musical and mellow, its accent unmistakably New York.

She didn't watch television, so the TV in her room was useless. Friends had brought her art books and mysteries, though she'd never been a mystery fan, but they lay ignored in a pile on her night table. Occasionally when I visited and she fell asleep, which she did often— her head lolling to one side, her eyelids drooping closed—I would leaf through the mysteries. There was one I had started a few weeks before about a serial killer in England; each week I turned a few more pages, but to date only two bodies had been found, somewhere in the bleak marshes.

To my surprise Marian agreed to go to the yoga class, or at least she didn't refuse.

The class was held in the dining room, where the tables and chairs had been moved aside. It was a light, bright room; one wall was all windows looking out on a parking lot and its surrounding lawn, still green in early September. One by one the residents rolled in and arranged their wheelchairs in a rough semi-circle. I pulled a dining-room chair over beside Marian's wheelchair. The space in front awaited the yoga teacher.

"She's a charming girl," said a woman to Marian's left. This woman was ninety-three, she told us, and appeared to be in excellent health, rosy-cheeked and sprightly. She had been a buyer for Lord & Taylor and was originally from Virginia but had lost most of her accent, she said, though in this last she was mistaken. "Charming," she repeated. "Always smiling and cheerful. We're lucky to have her." She leaned over to nudge Marian. "You should come every week." Marian proffered her dazzling smile—a quick flash of teeth, her big dark eyes gleaming so that they looked even larger. The smile and the eyes were all that remained intact while the rest of her was falling away. The smile, now as in her days of health, a mere few months ago, was like a net of sunlight flung over you.

When she was first brought to the nursing home, Marian had said she didn't feel she belonged among her fellow residents. They were "they," the old or sick or moribund or forgotten. She was "I." There was no "we." I wondered whether agreeing to take the yoga class meant she now accepted being one of the group, or whether her attendance was only provisional, like mine.

The teacher sailed into the room, all smiles, as predicted. She was slim, young, and blonde, with curly hair and milky skin. "And how are you all this afternoon?" she asked, gazing intently at the class of about twenty-five people, four of them men. All wore nondescript clothing —bland-colored slacks and shirts, faded cardigans, a few of the men in checks and plaids—except for the former buyer for Lord & Taylor, who was dressed and made up as if for a ladies' lunch. Still, everyone was neatly turned out, a credit to the staff of this humane place on a green hill in a suburb that was also home to a prison, so that most of the people who got off the train and shared the waiting taxis were going to visit either the prison or the nursing home.

Marian was definitely not a yoga type. She was skeptical of everything the least bit faddish or ameliorative. In the same vein, she distrusted any kind of zealotry or political enthusiasm. I think in her youth she had had political enthusiasm but had been disillusioned, and typically, once something disappointed her, she wanted no further part of it. She erased it from her personal landscape. I imagined that the skepticism came from her training in the Freudian tradition, for she was a psychiatric social worker. Vanity, all is vanity, or sublimation, or something of the sort, though I couldn't mount a logical argument on that score. It wasn't that she distrusted enthusiasm itself: she had it in abundance, but she reserved it for weighty, durable goods like the works of Thomas Mann. Samuel Beckett aside, she had a penchant for the Germanic, the heavy, the somber, the perverse, and when describing such books with her glowing animation, she would make them seem dazzlingly aglow as well, though they weren't. She had no interest in political or social themes, and if I tried to interpolate them, she would listen politely, then say, "Yes, okay, but...," and return to her preoccupation with the intricacies of human behavior and the generally hopeless nature of human destiny, all presented with such vast enthusiasm that each book sounded like her private discovery, as if no one had ever read it before. The appeal of her enthusiasm was its purity, and by purity I mean it was untinged by the professional writer's focus on craft—how it was done rather than what was done. I had enough of the former from other writers. Marian read for the savory pleasure the books gave, and that pleasure was in perpetually broadening and deepening her understanding of the dismal human condition.

I was not a yoga type either, but for different reasons. I had taken three or four yoga classes in the past, at wide intervals, and would come away contented yet not sufficiently motivated to return. After a while I'd try again, thinking vaguely that perhaps I hadn't been in touch with my yoga vibes (thinking about yoga generates this sort of language). In fact, I found yoga too static. I preferred classes where you jumped around, modern dance or Afro-Caribbean dance, where the drummers kept up a steady uproarious beat that inspired ever greater efforts of will and exertion. Yoga classes, in my limited experience, transpired either in silence or else accompanied by a kind of soporific, underwater, insipid music, which was precisely what I now heard emanating from the back of the dining room.

We began as usual with deep breathing. We relaxed all the parts of our bodies, starting from the feet. Then we proceeded to arm movements. Up, down. Up, down. To the side and down. Five or six of the students appeared very relaxed, indeed asleep or otherwise unconscious. One man who'd started out peppy had already nodded off. Others were attempting the arm movements but not doing them properly. The woman at the end of our row, for example: when the teacher said up she moved her arms to the side, and vice versa, which irritated me. I wanted to fix her.

Marian was doing better than I'd expected. On previous visits she'd told me she couldn't get her legs to move, but now she was bending her knees, flexing her ankles, moving her feet in small circles, whatever the teacher said. She even wanted to lower the footrests on the wheelchair so she could put her feet on the floor, as some of the postures required, so together we figured out how to do that. Wheelchairs are unnervingly complicated.

I, needless to say, was the best in the class, far more accurate and vigorous than the others. I mention this not to boast, but because it was a new and gratifying experience for me—doing so well in a movement class, that is. I've taken many such classes over the years, not only modern dance and Afro-Caribbean, but ballet and jazz. Never before had I been anywhere near the top of the class. I usually brought up the rear. My timing was excellent, I could stay unfailingly on the beat, but I was not good at picking up the patterns, especially when they got complex, which they invariably did as the class progressed.

Amid the wheelchairs in the nursing home, however, I excelled. I was pleased with this unexpected bonus added to my visit. I usually came away feeling discouraged and impotent because there was nothing I could do to stop the inexorable, nothing I could fix. I couldn't locate the glitch. I could only watch. Once I watched as Marian was being weighed. The scale was curious: a large, elaborate contraption that included a chair. An attendant helped her get from her wheelchair to the scale chair by bringing the two very close together and then maneuvering so that she wasn't on her feet for more than a second or two. She weighed ninety-two pounds. The next week she told me she had lost four pounds.

Even for a person who craved thinness, this was too thin. Marian was built small, of average weight or less, but was always dieting, and the diet, as I'd observed during our many dinners out, consisted of roast chicken and green salad. No matter what type of restaurant, she always managed to find roast chicken on the menu. Sometimes I would try to tempt her by reading aloud the descriptions of succulent dishes, but she would only flash her dazzling smile and, with a tinge of irony, say firmly, No. She would leave half her portion of roast chicken, sometimes with a bit of potato alongside, and ask the waiter to wrap it up. "That will be for tomorrow."

The yoga teacher kept saying, "Good, good, that's fine, that's right," but the class didn't look fine to me. They barely raised their legs from the floor. Their arms were limp, their posture sagging. The woman at the end of our row persisted in her willful disregard of the instructions, bending when she should be straightening, raising when she should be lowering, and so on. More people had fallen asleep, or showed the signs of sleep. Others were awake but not participating, just occupying space. I wanted to stand up and declare that as long as they were here they might as well take part; I believed in that as a general principle of life. But of course I restrained myself.

The teacher didn't seem to mind their non-participation, though. The teacher was happy to accept any half-hearted or faulty effort, even no effort at all. She had no standards, or perhaps had abandoned her standards when it came to wheelchair yoga. Unlike me, she had no longing to fix anything. She was an accepter. "Good, that's fine, that's right."

Marian, on the contrary, performed valiantly, especially given that she was dying of cancer of indeterminate origins, with fluid on the brain that made her constantly dizzy and nauseated; also, she could hardly swallow any longer. An aide had just brought her some grainy mush in a tiny paper cup: it was easier to swallow something viscous rather than liquid. Marian told her to set it aside, she'd take it later. Good, I thought. What was the urgency, after all? Had it been a martini, maybe she would have paused for a sip. At dinner, her one indulgence had been an extra dry martini, which she would order with great specificity—very dry, very cold. All her sensuality was concentrated in that martini, which she sipped slowly, making it last. But martinis were not on the menu here, though roast chicken and salad probably were.

I used to tease her about the roast chicken she carried home in a plastic bag. "But what about the rest of the week? Always roast chicken?" To entertain me, she gave a catalogue of what she ate for lunch and dinner every day, and this catalogue resembled a comic monologue out of a Beckett play. Besides the heated-up dinners of leftover restaurant chicken, there were the lunches. Every Sunday night, she explained, she made two kinds of salad, tuna and chopped herring, and then made five sandwiches which she lined up in the refrigerator, removing one each day, alternating between the tuna and the chopped herring. "But don't they get soggy, all week in the fridge?" "Not at all," she said. They kept fine.

I was intrigued by all her habits, not just the dietary; they were, to put it mildly, routinized. Besides getting up at five in the morning to walk or bike, on Tuesday mornings she got up even earlier and cleaned her whole apartment. On another morning, I forget which, she did her week's shopping. When I asked if it didn't get dull, knowing exactly what she would be doing when, she said no, that was exactly what she liked. Weekdays, after work, she would read, then go to bed very early, usually by eight o'clock. Sometimes when we'd been out to dinner on a Friday or Saturday, she would drive me home—she zipped around the city in a small, dark Toyota—and I'd invite her up to my place for a while. "No!" with a look of horror. "It's already very late for me." This was at about nine or nine-thirty. Then, grinning at her own eccentricities, she would rev up the little Toyota and charge off into the night.

Every few years she replaced the Toyota, but the new car was always so much like the old one that I couldn't tell when she'd made a change. She had formidable luck finding parking spaces on the streets of Manhattan. This, I was convinced, was because she was cavalierly optimistic about finding them. Those who expect success tend to find it, I've noticed. I envied the bravado with which she handled the car, but maybe bravado is too strong a word—there was nothing prideful about it, simply the same thoughtless ease I also envied in the better students in my dance classes. What a mordant twist, I thought, that after being so adept on wheels, on her bike, in her car, she should be confined to a wheelchair.

I had to admire the yoga teacher's ingenuity: notwithstanding the wheelchairs, she devised movements that exercised every joint, even the hips. Still, it bothered me no end—it offended me aesthetically—that she didn't correct the class's flawed performance. Of course I knew this wasn't a performance; it was a class. But I tend to regard everything done in public as a performance, and the fact that these students were old or sick or moribund did not alter this tendency. Had they no pride? It was all I could do to stay in my chair and not go around fixing them. I wanted so much to fix them and make them do it right, the way it should be done. But I could only try to make up for the shortcomings of their performance by my own excellent one.

The class was scheduled to last an hour. About fifteen minutes before the end, when we had moved every movable part, the teacher had us close our eyes and again relax from the feet on up. To relieve the boredom, I peeked. All eyes were obediently closed. But was it true yogic relaxation or ordinary sleep? Could the yoga teacher tell the difference, and did she care?

At last, breaking the silence, she announced that she would go around to each person in turn to give a back and shoulder massage. I wondered if she would come to me, if I was considered part of the class by virtue of my earnest participation. I peeked again. She was standing behind one of the men and gently massaging his shoulders. I closed my eyes. I might as well relax along with the others: I had the train trip ahead and was planning to go to the gym once I got back to the city.

She didn't massage me. I was both disappointed and relieved. Disappointed because I felt I had earned the right to be considered part of the class. Relieved because I was spared the sense of awkwardness, even of bad faith, had I received her massage—as if to merit it I ought to be old or sick or starved for a human touch. Marian must have had a massage while my eyes were closed, even though she was not starved for a human touch, not one of those who languish alone in their last days. But everyone with a terminal illness is alone. This I learned from my watching, and Marian surely knew; she didn't need Samuel Beckett to teach her that.

Suddenly I was roused by applause and thank yous. The wheelchairs were rolling; people were leaving the class. I must have dozed off.

Marian and I agreed that we had had a good time. But she was worn out from the effort. She swallowed a bit of the stuff the aide had left and I wheeled her back to her room, where she fell promptly asleep. I read a few more pages of the mystery; no further bodies were found. Soon it was time for me to go. We hadn't had much chance to talk, and I missed that. Her conversation was sustaining. Early on in her illness she had seemed confused—maybe it was the medication or the fluid on her brain—but lately, to my relief, she had recovered her lucidity; her analytic bent was resurgent. She was grimly articulate about how she felt. "Terrible," she would say each time I asked. "How are you?" seemed a foolish question at this point, but it's hard to break the habit. Terrible, and she would launch into a vividly detailed account of being helpless and sick and facing death. Though she never spoke about death itself, only of her illness. What she feared, she said, was what further sufferings and limitations and indignities it would force upon her. That unknown frightened her more than the unknown of death.

But that was only a small part of what we talked about. Often she would ask if I'd seen any good movies or read any good books since my last visit; she wanted to hear the plots. The week before, I'd told her about a droll French film called Intimate Strangers: a woman walks into a tax lawyer's office thinking he's a psychiatrist, and begins to unburden herself, and soon a close relation develops between the two, based on this misconception. That was the sort of story Marian loved, and she listened with some of the old radiance in her eyes. Intimate Strangers was the last movie I got to tell her about. I had also seen Spiderman, but when I mentioned it she laughed as though it were beneath consideration, which incidentally I thought too.

I couldn't make it to the nursing home the next Wednesday so I called a good friend of Marian's and told her, "In case you're there on Wednesday, go to the yoga class at two. She really liked it. So did I." But as it turned out, Marian wasn't strong enough to take the yoga class the following Wednesday or any of the succeeding Wednesdays. Ours was her first and last yoga class, and if she hadn't been so sleepy she would have liked talking about it afterwards. No wonder, then, that I'm writing this with her in mind. She of all people would have appreciated what I have chosen to include and exclude. She wouldn't have been put off by how I describe the students in the class, and she would have understood my discontent with the yoga teacher, though she wouldn't have shared it. She would have been accepting. She would have nodded in her wry way and offered a smile of amused understanding, the smile that hung on when nearly everything else was gone.

It happened that I took another yoga class a few weeks later, with ordinary ambulatory students, and as usual in those circumstances, my performance was mediocre. I could only excel at wheelchair yoga, amid the moribund, and I finally accepted that, along with all the rest.

Lynne Sharon Schwartz is the author of many books of fiction and nonfiction. She lives in New York.

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