The Yoga Dialogues

After a friend’s sudden death, even a yoga teacher has trouble quieting her mind

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Pastiloff, practicing yoga

I’m in a yoga class with my forehead pressed into the mat — this cheesy orange mat with a giant sunset and a backlit tree branch — and my friend Steve Bridges is saying “Hi Gin.” A transplanted Texan, Steve says my name, Jen, like I’m booze. And he’s talking to me during yoga.

The thing is, Steve is dead.

“Steve, it’s Jen, not Gin. I hate gin. At least call me Wine.” We used to laugh at that.

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The author with her late friend Steve Bridges

The mat was his. It’s my second time practicing on it since he died almost two years ago, and I was caught a little off-guard how emotional I got when I unrolled it.

I’ve been struggling with my own yoga practice lately. I’ve recently gone off my antidepressants and my mind feels unwieldy, wild, broken. I’ve taken to doing the elliptical machine at the gym where I teach yoga. I watch all the TV shows I’ve heard people talk about as I climb. My brain slips into “Scandal”: Why is Olivia Pope’s lip quivering now? “Orange Is The New Black”: Piper stuck her foot in her mouth again. “Breaking Bad”: Jesse just can’t catch a break. And I feel nothing. The shows end; I find new ones to watch.

My mind is not quiet, but it’s busy playing make-believe as I bounce up and down. I am thinking of Olivia and Piper and Jesse but not of myself. There’s a relief in that. An ease I can’t find in yoga these days.

With yoga, I find the quiet all consuming, deafening to my already almost deaf (literally) ears. But I try and go to class because I’m a yoga teacher. It’s what we are supposed to do.

Steve’s voice is trapped in that mat. I’m in child’s pose and I see him in Mexico, and hear him doing his imitation of Bill Clinton. (He was a famous comedian and impressionist.)

Had I known I would never see him after that Mexico trip, I would’ve hugged him longer that time up in the palapa, after everyone had left. It was just Steve and me in the yoga room, which was nestled high up in the trees. We stood hugging for longer than would normally be comfortable for a hug, except it was comfortable. Time stopped and years passed and there we were: still hugging. Had I known that a month later, his maid would find him dead on his sofa in Los Angeles, I’d have suggested we hang back a little longer — his goofy orange mat under our feet, the ocean farther below.

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Steve Bridges, right, was a famous presidential impressionist.

Looking down we saw that we were standing on the sun.

After he died, I went to his house to pay my respects to the family. I met his sister, a hair colorist up in Northern California. She gave me things of Steve’s: vitamins (he had a vitamin obsession), the yoga mat, a necklace made of some weird lava that I now use as my lucky flying necklace so that I know the plane won’t crash. (It’s worked so far.)

I took the mat and hid it behind my sofa.

Almost two years later, after having gone through an ectopic pregnancy, I think about Steve telling me in our last conversation how it would be a travesty if he never had a family. “It would,” I agreed. “You’d be a great dad.”

“I’m forcing myself to go to yoga today,” I tell my husband. “Even though I hate it right now,” I say in my head. I hate it because I can’t get quiet. I fall through space in class.

I am down the rabbit hole once again. I lay on my back and press my stomach to see if I can feel things but in no way am I quiet or “just letting it be” or any of the other things yoga teachers (me!) say.

Until Steve talks.

My head is down so I can hear him better. With my hearing loss I have to get in close to the source. He just says my name. I remembered then, why I fell in love with yoga almost 15 years ago.

I was starting to forget my father. He died when I was 8 and his voice was going. His sheep’s cackle of a laugh. His smell. His beard and the way it felt against my face when I leaned in to say good night. It was all going, despite my efforts to time travel back into the past. I’d beg his voice to remain in my brain. I’d find things that felt rough as a beard and rub them against my face to try and recreate a father.

I started doing yoga and found that for a few brief moments, at the end of class, during final resting pose, my father would lay his hands on my forehead. He would say the magic words, “It’s going to be okay. It’s all going to be okay,” and I would believe him. There on my back, I’d believe him for a few moments.

Now was it really him?

Who knows. Does it matter? I’d felt connected, electric, safe. I was no longer floundering. It was a way to remember.

Fast forward to this morning, and the class is in a standing pose, warrior two, and I stay in child’s pose, pressing my face into the sun to get closer to Steve. “I’m right here,” I say. “I’m right here.”

He says, “Me too. I’m right here.”

Jennifer Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station blog. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including, most recently, The Rumpus. She can be found drinking coffee (or wine), reading books, writing or downward-dogging. She leads yoga/writing retreats and workshops around the world.

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