just another human, being

The girl behind the smile

There are two things in my life that have been most emotional for me — dance and health. If you ask me about either of these, or if touches on either of these in an indirect manner and the stars are aligned, you will glimpse the deepest truths to my existence so far. Whoa, that sounded dramatic there!

Most of my life, I didn’t know that I loved dance. I remember watching the cheerleaders and the dance team during pep rallies, hardly taking a breath. That was during the days I chose to attend the pep rallies rather than finding an empty classroom and studying, which was my preferred, safe choice during the free, pep rally time. It didn’t register in me that this thing I was witnessing belonged to the same world that I inhabited. That I could be a part of that world. Instead, I inhabited a glass bubble world with only books and cards.

That ephemeral layer between that world and mine got broken during the final year in high school when I participated in a local Indian dance event in Texas. I must have enjoyed it. I don’t remember. What I remember is some aunty telling me that she finally “saw” me. Years later, I can clearly see that that is when I stepped out of my bubble world. Until then, although I was a blabber mouth at home, I was too shy to even respond to questions from people outside, unless they were known, like those in my math team. College happened. I worked in DC. Then I moved to NJ. Then NYC. Started taking some dance classes at Broadway Dance Centre. Very erratic and very few classes that I could manage considering my 1.5 reverse commute for work, but I loved it.

Around this same time, when I was living in DC with my sister, I had a fairly major car accident. In trying to avoid a car, I swerved to the side of the road, went off the road and hit a tree. Blacked out and was in a coma for a few hours. All I remember is being super thirsty at the hospital and not being given water because it’ll interfere with whatever scan they wanted to do. And my sister coming (she lived with me at the time) with my huge teddy bear in hand. 🙂 I had a cut on the head which they stitched up and removed in a few weeks, no big deal. In the next few years, I had a few other minor accidents that caused whip lashes (I used to be an adventurous driver, with a Lexus SC 400 and a Yamaha YZF 600).

Alongside this, because I had a terrible eyesight that, even with contacts, didn’t correct my almost “officially blind” level of vision since childhood, I would crane my neck forward to be able to see the computer screen. A screen that I would be in front of most of the day, most days of the week, either for my work or for my personal interest. It just so happened, conveniently for my eyes, that I had a very long neck, so I could crane quite a bit!  After about 7 years of working, I was told by chiropractors that my neck was curved opposite to normal. I was in terrible pain every day, but I was skeptical as they didn’t guarantee being able to fix it. So I didn’t pursue any treatment.

Around this same time, when I was living in NJ, one day I experienced an excruciating pain in the right side of my abdomen. This was still during a time when I didn’t really know how to make good friends, but somehow I managed to make a few—mostly a few boys from work from Antigua, Jamaica and Trinidad. The unfortunate fact was that it was Thanksgiving. And anyone that knows anything of Thanksgiving in the US knows that it is the one day of shut down in the year, when all the shops are closed and people are with their families. It is a great time to feel the existential truth of being alone in this world if you don’t have family or friends around you. Anyway, thankfully one of these sweet friends was around and he took me to the Emergency Room. They kept me overnight and put every specialist on me to figure out my condition. They found nothing and released me the next day with heavy painkillers, probably assuming I was a hypochondriac. What I remember in the few weeks following that emergency room visit is laying in bed in so much pain that I would lament having to get the painkillers from the nightstand. You realise that any movement you make involves the use of the abdomen and it becomes nearly impossible. Such that moving those 1-2 feet in the bed towards the nightstand makes you feel even more alone than you knew possible. At the same time, that experience readied me for so many such experiences in the future that I know today that there is nothing I cannot handle. And handle with grace.

Two weeks later, you could see a strange figure in the parking lot of a company in NJ walking towards the office building bent over 90 degrees as she walked. That was me. I was able to move by then, but only straighten up halfway. <imagine a funny cartoon insert here 🙂 > Taking off 2 weeks from work is not a small thing and I had to come back, straight or not! From then on, even after I “recovered’ a few weeks later, I would feel a strange pull/dull pain in that same place in the abdomen. I experienced all other strange and uncomfortable sensations in the tummy that made life difficult but my mind didn’t register it. I was too busy being ambitious. Neck and stomach pain that was beyond any “normal” limit were simply hindrances for me towards my goal. My goal was vague, it was to simply explore life since I’d been mostly sleepwalking most of my life until then. And my exploration was slowly leading me towards the performing arts.

Finally, it wasn’t any of the physical pains that led me to make a major change in my life. It was a combination of many things, but the distinctive moment was a subtle one standing on 24th street in NYC, heading from my yoga class to home and abruptly standing perfectly still, taking in my feeling. It was feeling of absolute groundedness and contentment. A feeling of potential energy in my being that had no desire to express itself. This was new considering I was used to using up whatever energy I had and more every second of the day in ambitions and exploration of life. They were completely new feelings I had never experience, hence never knew existed. It struck me that there is something to this Yoga more than I had realised until then. It was one of the few definitive moments in my life.

My calling to return to my homeland of India, my discovery of love for dance and music, the fact that studying these things full-time in the US was an expensive affair and that definitive moment on 24th street led me to quitting my job, giving up my apartment and possessions and going to India for a planned 6 month long trip that became a pretty-much lifelong affair that continues today. But back to the matter at hand—health and dance—which now journeys in India. By design, I did a 1-month yoga course in Kerala, but purely by the hand of fate, I found and got into the beautiful oasis for dance in Chennai—Kalakshetra. If anyone were to go back and interview my classmates and ask for the most enthusiastic student, I am fairly sure I would be at least in the top 3. I was a sponge, soaking in the country, the school, the culture, the beauty, the nature, and of course, the arts that flourished in it, namely dance and music. Forget all the glaring issues that soon became obvious within this oasis from the past. It was still beautiful and it allowed me the chance to dive into simplicity and art. But I digress because it’s hard for me to talk about the school in plain terms for what it marked in my life, but that is for another time.

By the time I reached India the pain in my neck had been there for long enough to where my upper back had lost its curvature and I could no longer sleep on a bed without waking up in pain, so I was used to sleeping on the floor. I also had gotten more deeply into yoga because I woke up everyday in pain regardless of how I slept and yoga was the only solution I’d found to manage it. So by the time I came to India and found myself at the ashram and then the dance school, I was fighting through my spinal issues and stomach issues on a daily basis to be able to pursue what I was increasingly starting to identify as my passion in life—dance. I went on a school trip with the students to Mahabalipuram and a tourist asked who we were and someone responded that we are dance students. I remember feeling the strongest feeling of belonging and purpose that I’d ever felt. The feeling of the dance in my body was the most emotionally satisfying feeling I’d ever experienced. I didn’t feel like continuing to “explore life”. I was thirsty and the ocean lay before me…how could I not drink it up in large gulps?

Every morning at Kalakshetra, I would find myself mentally gearing myself up for dance class because I knew it would be physically draining beyond what it was for most people (I’d figured out by then on my own that I had some minor heart issue that drained me). Despite my eagerness, will power and daily practice twice a day, I had to push myself minute by minute while I danced. After every class, I’d make my way back to my room where I would pass out under the fan, utterly exhausted and unable to get up and go to the cafeteria for lunch. Added to this, some joint and muscle issues also developed along the way. Still, my heart was so alive and I had never been happier! But at the start of the second year of school, I made the difficult decision to leave the school in order to respect my body. I wondered if I was a quitter, if I lacked focus and purpose in life, etc. But I know I gave it my all and it was the right decision. So I hung dance up in the winter closet and opened it from time to time to have a longing look, try it on and see if it still fits the same.

After this point, despite whatever else I was doing, most of my efforts ended up invariably centering around health—both physical and spiritual. Those years are a blur of travelling between the US and India, visiting ashrams, being alone and unfettered to anything, seeing alternative doctors, teaching yoga, starting businesses and generally trying to find my place in the world.

In the US, I was told by allopathic doctors, after doing the usual round of colonoscopies, endoscopies, MRIs, etc, that I was in great health and they had no clue why I was in pain. But they were always funnily eager to offer me painkillers as if they were giving me christmas gifts! All they could do is label me with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome — a catch-all “diagnosis” for anything to do with the stomach that doctors can’t figure out! Somehow if we label it and put it in a box, we feel we’ve figured it out!). I tried chiropractors, acupuncturists, muscle testing, etc. all without result.

In India, it was at least more interesting. I found an Ayurvedic doctor that helped me to some degree, some traditional healers using tree bark and sap that made things worse, many great traditional healers who had passed on by the time I reached them, etc. It at least offered me some interesting travel because anytime anyone mentioned knowing a good doctor or healer anywhere in India, I would simply get up and go.

I became knowledgeable about health and the human body and had collected many stories, but I was emotionally drained after the endless cycles of hope and disappointment.

However, there were a few significant moments along the way:

I developed a pain in my right eye. What I and doctors assumed was a corneal scratch became yet another elusive pain that no one could figure out. For the next six months, I moved around somehow, practically blind without glasses or contacts (my mom would joke that I should find out about getting the handicap tag to get the nice parking spots). I managed to move about, teach yoga, etc, by keeping a pair of glasses with me for emergencies. I didn’t qualify for lasik and I was against medicine, much less surgery. But eventually I gave in. And the reason was an unexpected one which I find fascinating even today: I felt very alone, missing eye contact with other human beings. I felt disconnected from the world. Since then, especially during my art therapy program in Bangalore, I’ve discovered that many people are uncomfortable with eye contact for more than a second or two which was surprising as it is such an essential part of communication for me. The surgery itself unfolded such that it was one of the most traumatic experiences in my life, but that story will have to wait for another day. The end result was that my eyesight was corrected, there was no pain in my eye and I didn’t need contacts. 🙂 Just the minor issue of turns being difficult in dance which, I swear, wasn’t the case prior!

The next year, I opened the winter closet and experienced the usual ache return quite strongly. I decided to use whatever little money remained to stay in NYC and just study dance for 6 months. To decide if there was any indication that I should walk that path again. Or how to put it away, file it away. To know what to do with the longing. In this journey, one day during warm-up in one class, my neck simply gave out while my head was upside down. It was a painful task to move it back upright and sit down. I then knew I had to focus again on my neck and get it cured. But I stayed on and gave myself those 6 months. When I found myself back in India the next year, fate led me to a chiropractor in Bombay who greatly helped my neck. Within one month, I was able to travel in an auto without pain. I could even wake up everyday without sharp pain in my spine. There was the beginning of a new kind of freedom.

My mom, sister and I are a formidable team of health researchers! For many years, we researched, experimented and exchanged notes on various aspects of health. We became experts on holistic health—with me being a forgetful expert!  About two years after the chiropractic treatment, I was blessed to discover the GAPS diet through my sister. By this time, I had grown weary of being nomadic and decided to go back and stay in NYC. Implementing the diet, therefore, became more feasible:

I eliminated all grains, such as bread, rice, pasta, etc. I soaked and dehydrated almonds, made kombucha, slow-cooked my food, etc. I eliminated milk but bought raw milk from underground, secret raw-milk deliveries from Amish farms in Pennsylvania to make 24-hour fermented yogurt. I bought free-range eggs and grass-fed organ meats like heart and liver, again from those far away farms. Apart from the diet, I decided to experiment on eliminating certain family of vegetables that I thought culprit, such as nightshades like eggplant or cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower and cabbage. This new experiment with food meant that I sometimes showed up to improv class or to met friends with eggs in hand because those secret deliveries required pick them at very specific times of the day in odd locations like churches. It meant only eating food that I cooked, mainly just vegetables. It meant standing at the organic vegetables section of Whole foods staring at the yellow and green squash feeling miserable for having to buy, cook and eat the same thing again. It meant my boyfriend, at the time, sweetly carrying around heavy glass containers full of cooked vegetables as we roamed about the east village on a sunny Saturday afternoon. It meant eating raw eggs at work (I had a part-time job by then) when I didn’t have the time to make breakfast. It was all well worth it: the healing for my stomach had finally begun! And the relief in my stomach extended to my mind, for an irritated stomach is an irritated mind! Bhadrakali me started to fade…!

The healing journey continues. The desire to keep dancing continues. I have accepted my limitations and am dancing in life itself, blurring the boundaries of what is work and what is pleasure and discovering and indulging in new loves like music and writing. It’s a new chapter now with the dance and health struggle fading away…

I’m grateful that rather than having part of my intestines removed and my vertebrae fused together (which I know from all the years of teaching yoga and encountering all types of students that that is what would have happened had I not taken charge of my health), I found a path out that continues to lead me to new levels of health and happiness.

Some people find me pretentious for wanting to know what the ingredients of a dish are or tell me to enjoy life and not be so picky about what I eat. Some advice me on how to gain weight. Others listen to me for a few minutes and then start giving  health advice. Very few people are curious enough to simple ask. The few that do are always surprised to hear what I’ve gone through because I don’t “look” like I’ve gone through much. I realise there is a beauty to keeping your struggles separate from yourself and remaining light as you move forward. I look like I’ve not gone through anything because that’s how I feel; I’ve left the details behind and only carry the wisdom from the lessons with me.

Things usually aren’t as simple as they appear. The greatest truths are simple, but arriving at them usually isn’t.

4 comments on “The girl behind the smile

  1. Tanushree
    August 9, 2017

    Love this. Wonderfully written 😊

  2. Shankar
    August 27, 2017

    well written. Hope your dreams gets fulfilled soon.

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