Thursday, July 11, 2013

A Powerful Night: Craft Short Documentaries – Yoga for Health and Healing

Streams of brilliant sunshine poured generously on a vibrant Vermont evening in June. 

Ellen Fein, the evening’s host, and genesis of the project, mirrored the sunshine with her chartreuse top and jewelry, which complimented her open and enthusiastic manner.  Jennifer Szymaszek, the project videographer, hustled around, lovely in kelly green, with an abundant smile, as she oversaw the nervy moments before her series of film shorts came to life.

I wandered outside the Montpelier Senior Center to direct fellow community members to the screening room.  Upon my return, the room buzzed with palpable excitement and authenticity.  I recognized some of the film subjects as they arrived, some nervous, and some beaming, to see themselves writ large, on the big screen.  The Montpelier yoga community was represented, as well as friends and family.

Where are all the people?

Oh, here they are!!

Yoga for Health and Healing is a series of short films documenting individual’s use of yoga in their own healing journeys.  Ellen introduced the project to a packed room.  She wanted to show how real people use the personal practice of yoga as a means to manage real issues in their lives, and how the tools can be learned by anyone.  These films affirm yoga’s status as a learned, personal, healing tool as opposed to a spandex-fest for 20-something ballerinas. 

Ellen Fein brought the gift of Viniyoga, amongst her other therapeutic methodologies, to our small community, starting in 2004.  She has worked with people of all sorts.  Some of her longest student relationships came to life, and we all had the pleasure of sharing in these candid, loose, and spontaneous interviews, artfully captured by project collaborator, Jennifer Szymaszek.

The subject of our first story is a breast cancer survivor, who lived her whole life as a Type-A personality.  She became unable to practice as she always had, with severe restrictions in her neck and shoulder due to cancer-related surgeries.  Her warm and measured words rang through the room, and a ripple of laughter erupted as she described how she now chants in Sanskrit in the shower.  She embodied a sense of contentment and reflection, and noted how she seemed different to herself – in a positive way.

audience perspective

In the second vignette, we viewed the story of Linda, a survivor of chronic pain.  She was plagued by injury and terrible hip pain throughout her life.  It’s hard to imagine the transformation she had gone through as she appeared so vibrant, happy, and truly radiant in the film.  Her enthusiasm abounded, seeming to spill out over the edges of the screen.  She was full of giggles as she described herself as pain-free, able to move, and “just a kinder, gentler person.”

image compliments of -
this is just a model of what scoliosis looks
like in some cases
Patty, the third subject, shared her story living with severe scoliosis from childhood.  She recalled the two years after spinal fusion, where she was first in a full body cast, and then a full body brace.  As she shared that she uses large amounts of naproxen to manage her pain, a sort of empathetic groan and gasp was audible.  The hope and wonder in her face was infectious as she moved on, to discuss a moment in class where she was able to sense her right shoulder, usually so tense and twisted, as free.  She portrayed so much strength and determination, and seemed to enjoy her practice of asana, chanting, and meditation.  She learned how to support her body in everyday life by working on the right side of her body.  Her eyes shined as she talked about how she is developing skills that allow the right side of her body to share in supporting her bodyweight.  Her hope for her ability to manage her condition in the future hung in the air as the film faded to black.

The tension in the room mounted with the story of a student who experienced severe trauma, in the loss of family members in a fire that she witnessed.  Personally, as the mother of a two-year old, I wept.  I wept at the pain she must have felt and the terribly hard and long PTSD recovery that is still ongoing.  We heard her account of developing a home practice that helped her keep her nervous system in check.  She had lived in “fight or flight” mode (sympathetic nervous system activation) for quite some time after the event.  The practice she and Ellen crafted together became a means of feeling safe in her own body again.  She was able to create more parasympathetic nervous system activation that helped her with her sense of panic. 

This story has had a profound effect on me, and my sense of human survival in the face of grave trauma.  This story may not be shared publicly due to privacy concerns.  But I want to write about the power of hearing a mantra put to use.  She spoke of a mantra that I’ve heard from Ellen before – It goes something like this:

image compliments of

                 May my heart be open
          May I dwell in my heart
          May I find healing
          May my healing inspire 
              the healing of others

She said, “That’s why I’m here, talking with you – to be true to this, and to help other survivors.”  This is the true meaning and use of mantra.  It had seeped into her consciousness and body through practice, and became the way she got through her days of heaviest grief to “continue to put one foot in front of the other.”  As the lights came up for intermission I reached out to Jennifer, sitting next to me, and my friend and colleague Linda, for supportive hugs.  It took everything I had to hold the huge heaving sobs inside my body. 
It was mostly dark, by intermission, and the room was full of humanity.  Attendees were so moved.  Even the interviewees had not seen the finished product of their own interviews, and showed a tremendous amount of curiosity toward the other stories.  It was hard for me to say anything more about intermission, as I was trying to hold it together.  I can say, with authority, that many delicious cookies, warm tea, and other delights were enjoyed thoroughly.

We returned to our seats and shared our time with Dick, the next subject.  Dick describes himself as an empiricist, and a lover of unexpectedly beautiful moments in life.  His jovial manner provided a sort of companionship.  He talked about yoga as a tool for helping him rise comfortably in the morning, as an 80-something year old.  He said that yoga has helped him be present to discover more of those special moments that mark our journey as humans.  And, he was another voice in support of the practice of chanting in Sanskrit, in all its mystery. 

We then witnessed Andy’s story.  He worked with Ellen before he developed intestinal cancer, treating more everyday injuries, like knee pain that kept him from running.  Ellen was able to continually adapt his practice as they chased his pain around his body.  After a short while of working together, Andy found himself in the hospital repeatedly, and ended up with intestinal cancer, requiring removal of a few feet of intestine. 

image compliments of wikipedia
Andy shared how Ellen visited him in the hospital.  He said that he missed practicing, and she encouraged him to practice in his mind, moving the energy around.  Andy comes from a family that has strong healing traditions, and described his mantras used in practice, and the effects they had on him.  His breathing practices in the hospital granted him a sense of peace.  He used a visualization technique Ellen taught him, of imagining himself, then the room he was in, then the hospital, the state, the country, the earth, and the galaxy.  It helped him in the face of the unknown, his possible death from this serious illness.  As he slowly returned to health, Ellen continued to modify and adapt to his condition, and the effects of different medication on his ability to practice, or even to stand.  Andy, today, is the embodiment of childlike wonder, housed in a grown-up’s body. 

Finally, the story of Ondis graced the screen.  Ondis is living with breast cancer, a disease that closes in on her daily.  She practices “yoga for dying,” as she refers to it, with a wry smile.  Her wit and her love shine through as she talks about her conception of the end of her life.  She brings mantra and gesture into her practice, even when sitting behind the wheel of her car in daily life.  The yoga Ellen has taught her has given her dignity and grace, in the face of a terminal illness.  She hopes to leave this life without struggle.  She was in the audience, with a friend, and imbued the qualities she discussed in the film even as we watched her story.

The lights came up again, and we all looked around, as if dazed by our human condition.  I think we were all inspired at a level so much deeper than where we live each day.  The stories of joy in the face of so much pain were profound.  After the films, a discussion followed about how much preparation had occurred before shooting, (none), and how both Ellen and each interviewee learned so much about the experience of the yoga by talking about it and documenting it.  I have a deep respect for Ellen, a professional mentor to me, and to Jennifer, a colleague and a tremendous video artist and storyteller.  Their clarity and openness created the atmosphere of acceptance; the field in which these seed-stories blossomed toward the light.

image compliments of

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