Yoga from the Ashes
Ten years after the tragic events of September 11, a yogi considers the city’s strength, and fragility
By Valerie Reiss
The dust was everywhere. Filling sidewalk planters, fogging store windows, settling deep into cracks. It was doing what dust does best: cover, coat, infiltrate. The consistency of talc, the color of concrete, it was like toxic snow that was blanketing lowest Manhattan.
When I saw the mind-halting moonscape myself, a few days after the attacks, I immediately thought of vibhuti, or sacred ash. Several years before, when I was living in Maui as a post-collegiate fledgling yogi, a friend brought me a little baggie of whitish powder from India. To ashram-enchanted me, this was primo stuff. And indeed it is to Hindus: Vibhuti is supposed to heal. It’s often made from burned cow dung, but sometimes ghee is added, or Ayurvedic herbs. Those photos you’ve seen of naked sadhus covered in ash? That’s vibhuti. In its most potent form, it’s made from cremation ashes—and called the prasad, or sacred food, of fire. It’s supposed to represent the transcendence of death and karma—the God essence that remains once everything changeable has burned away. My baggie of ash smelled a bit sweet, like crushed roses.
When I returned to my native New York from Maui, the spiritual dime bag came with me. I groped into the real world—got a dotcom job and scored a tiny apartment downtown. Then the tech bubble burst and I freelanced. On the morning of September 11, 2001 I woke pondering deep questions: lipgloss or lipstick? black skirt or denim? I’d been at my temp job on the 100th floor of the World Trade Center’s south tower for a couple of weeks. It was OK—there was a cute guy to impress (hence the fashion crisis). My supervisor, Lizie, and I had shared leftover conference-room papaya the week before. And my cubicle mate, Denise, was a devout Christian with a sense of humor. One day when I screwed up, I said, “Jesus!” And then, remembering the crosses on her desk, quickly added, “Pardon my French.” She gave me a sly smile and said, “I don’t think that’s French.”
By the time I entered the World Trade Center concourse that morning, newsstand workers were yelling, “No! Don’t come in here.” As a New Yorker who is hard to faze, I reluctantly turned and headed outside, on the off chance it was more than a broken pipe or a fake bomb scare. I looked up and saw the north tower burning against a clear blue sky. Everyone was stopped, staring up. It was nearly silent and the only movement was office paper raining down from the sky.
I was officially fazed. As I fled north, I called my mom, remembering that my last email to her had said: “I had no idea how gorgeous the view from the 100th floor would be.” While I was reassuring her, I heard an explosion behind me and didn’t look back.
I gathered news from car radios. There had been an accident. A plane had flown into the tower. No, it was two planes, two towers: It was an attack. An attack like nothing we had known. I decided my apartment, 20 blocks away, was too close. I landed at a church in the Village. Its doors opened to Fifth Avenue, with a view of the towers above the Washington Square arch. Crouched on the floor of a pew for protection, I ate the hardboiled egg I had packed for lunch. Then I heard the screams of a terrified crowd outside. My mind flipped through possibilities: armed gunmen, worse. As I closed my eyes and breathed, a vision materialized behind my lids. I saw beings made of light, like paramedic angels, swarming the site of the attacks in what seemed to me an extraordinary spiritual rescue effort. The vision lasted only moments, left me feeling more peaceful and less alone. When I opened my eyes, a church employee was yelling: “They’re down. The towers are down.”
The moment opened into an incomprehensible maw. I later learned that my colleagues Lizie and Denise, along with 173 others from the company, did not get out. I’ve stared at pictures and counted windows, and studied the timing, and realized that the boom I heard was likely the end of their lives.
OUT OF THE ASHES
Then, the un-unite-able city united. Our usually disparate, chaotic, jostling metropolis felt like a giant platonic ideal of a yoga center. There was eye contact, hugging, doors held open meaningfully, and “How are you?” asked with a pause for a real answer. “The whole city was really in a satsang,” says Ruth Lauer-Manenti, a Jivamukti yoga teacher and author of the book of essays Sweeping the Dust. “There was this gentle, hopeful feeling. New York City did not want retaliation. I think the city saw that they were made up of non-violent people. Everywhere you went there was gentleness.”
By all reports, in the midst of dust and smoke and fear and grief, yoga centers were packed like never before. Indeed, anecdotal reports said the only New York businesses thriving post-9/11 were bars and yoga studios. I would guess, though, that plenty of us who felt too overwhelmed for hatha yoga had an nearly unprecedented opportunity to put our practice into practice: simply breathing into our pain, finding solace in a connection to something greater, offering compassion where we could.
Yoga teacher Sadie Nardini says her yoga studies helped her find the equilibrium to walk 200 blocks downtown the day after the attacks to help, as so many New Yorkers did, and make sandwiches for rescue workers at a roadside tent on the West Side Highway, where ash, debris, and smoke were hanging in the air. She used a Rumi quote in her classes: Wherever you stand, be the soul of that place. “Wherever you stand is not always going to be quiet and peaceful,” she says. “How can we remain in our core integrity while the world swirls around us?”
Every yogi in the city likely grappled with similar questions. People often speak of the New York yoga community as if it were one entity, when in fact the city is a honeycomb of more than 200 studios, and within those, those dozens of communities exist. Each responded to the day in different ways with a similar heart.
The Ashtangis had synchronicity on their side—their beloved teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, was in town for the month of September teaching a workshop. “It was such a blessing that he was in New York,” remembers Lauer-Manenti. “And then he just became leader, healer, source of strength, parent, teacher.” On September 12th, Jois held a Narayana Bali ceremony at Ashtanga Yoga New York to pray for and release the souls of those who have died a sudden or violent death. It proved healing for the living, too. Classes resumed on the 13th and continued throughout the month. Ultimately, more than 1,000 students passed through his sweaty, loving teachings. On the last day, he paired his usual short-shorts with an FDNY shirt.
Cyndi Lee, the founder of Om Yoga, hosted a sold-out benefit for a nearby fire station that had lost nine firefighters. She found the practice a powerful way to work with her own anxiety and PTSD. “We didn’t try to make sense of it through language but just sat together in silence and were processing it cellularly,” she says. “It was just about being alive. Finding stability, finding connection.”
And at least one downtown studio was, quite literally, born from the toxic ashes. Schuyler Grant was inspired to open a studio after watching the events from her Brooklyn rooftop. “The feelings of motivation and helplessness were so intense,” Grant says. “Everyone wanted to do something but didn’t know what to do.” She rented space in a building four blocks from Ground Zero and started construction for Kula Yoga in January 2002. “One of the things that kept giving us pause was having a space that was largely about health and breathing in a part of the city where the air was so compromised,” said Grant. So she bought air purifiers and sponged the dust herself. The studio began slowly but was instantly close-knit. “It’s hard to forge a sense of camaraderie in New York sometimes,” Grant says. “But because of the situation there was an immediate sense of tribe.”
Throughout the city, bumper stickers, tattoos, and murals implore us to “Never Forget” September 11, but those words land oddly on the ears of yogis. “The truth is the opposite—it’s not that you must remember it; it’s that it’s impossible to forget, ” says Stefanie Syman, author of The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America. “‘Never Forget’ feels like a way to whip up a certain kind of animosity, which is not productive in any way.”
In the weeks following the attacks, our memories were seared by images from the TV news. We watched as the planes crashed into the towers over and over again. We saw the survivors covered in ash, holding their shoes, trudging north. With Osama bin Laden having been killed in May, our memories are fresher than ever. In the immediate wake of his death, yoga teachers in most classes I attended spoke out against celebrating anyone’s death, and these words were on the Facebook page of pretty much every New York yogi I know: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
For those of us turned off by the war, politics, nationalism, and profiteering that followed the attacks, yoga continues to offer refuge, with its teachings on patience, forgiveness, and compassion—it’s a way to balance remembering with living in the present moment.
A few years ago, after a period of an off-again, on again yoga practice and being thrown by a life-threatening illness, I became a regular at the sweaty 7 a.m. class at Kula Yoga Project’s original Tribeca location. In that formerly dusted place, cleared for just this purpose, I regained my balance, I deepened my breath, I reunited with my body. That’s what the whole city has done, in the spaces cleared of the ashes that baptized us into death.
Like the sadhus who cover their bodies in vidbhuti to symbolize our ability to transcend death and karma through enlightenment, we breathed those ashes and they taught us about losing, about being reborn, about our tenuous mortality. Lee remembers the fragility of her students on the day after the attacks. “People did not do Savasana,” she says. “It was a little too vulnerable to lie down on your back like that.”
Today, the dust is gone, along with the towers, many beloveds, and our illusion of a clear separation between life and death. We are stronger in the knowledge that at our core, we are what remains after everything burns away.
I don’t know how many other yogis read the Book of Common Prayer, but I find comfort in this funereal ode to loss, the cycles of life, and all that never changes: “Earth to eath, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection into eternal life.”
Indeed, we will never forget. But I prefer the other slogan that circulated during that time, a poster that read: “I Love NY More Than Ever,” with the word “love” represented by a singed heart. That’s how the city feels to me now—whole, and yet more tender for the imperfect truth: The most infallible city in the world is fallible, and also, resilient. As we all are.