FEBRUARY 6, 2016
Serendipity. Fate. Call it what you will, but worlds aligned in major ways this past week as my very first yoga instructor from college blessed us with her presence to lead a retreat here in Tulum at Utopia.
Please be advised that this is not a light-hearted tale but one of my journey with loss and release.
In 1994 I was a freshman at Appalachian State University in the hippy-dippy town of Boone, North Carolina. Dreadlocks, patchwork dresses, Dead shows, Phish shows. All set in the glorious Blue Ridge Mountains, a truly magical place. At the time I was studying Commercial Recreation (what my father accused of being ‘basket weaving’) with a minor in International Business. This is when we all set up our first hotmail account in the computer lab on campus and well before the social tattletales of Facebook were commonplace (thank God!). We talked to each other, we hung out in dorm rooms, we connected soul to soul and face to face. We formed our new families after leaving the comfy nest of our parent’s homes for the first time as young adults.
In the Student Union, at the back of a room full of workout machines and free weights was a sanctuary of a space with wooden floors and mirrored walls. Inside was where we, as impressionable 18 – 22 year olds, were introduced (most of us for the first time) to the practice of consciousness through the avenue of Yoga. Kundalini yoga to be exact (the ‘fast-track to enlightenment’, they say). A little lady with greying hair sat at the front of the class. Her presence was soothing. Her instruction concise. Her name Akal Dev Sharonne. She invited her students to maintain a strong connection between the mind and the breath via the classic Kundalini mantra of ‘Sat Nam‘. A mantra that got me through many a tough time to come and many ever since.
Several times per week, my friends Marty, Jason and I would meet up at the bottom of the hill to walk over to class together. Albeit I was 18 years old, through her instruction I could breathe my way into the deepest expression of most postures and when she played her magic flute during savasana, oh the places you’d go! More than once I recall her telling us what colors were vibrating strongest in our auras and the deep soulful look in her eyes was a healing all its own.
On March 17 (the Ides of March), 1995, two of my best friends were in a terrible car accident on a beautiful sunny day on a winding mountain highway. My world collapsed. Lisa was too young, too full of life to no longer be in ours. Laurie had to learn to walk again, to brush her teeth, to be in rehab for the years that she should have been enjoying her formidable years in college with the rest of us. Dan was driving the Corvette, T-tops out, and had been killed on impact but the girls had to be choppered to ICU at Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, my hometown. My brain was numb. My body was numb. It was too much for my young self to comprehend. Lisa left us after 8 days of being in a coma in the hospital bed. Two back to back funerals later, I returned to college life trying to focus again on my studies. Empty desk chairs in classrooms that once held my friends were too tough to take. My mom helped me get the professors to cancel those classes, to get our deposits back from the real estate companies we had planned on renting from during the upcoming summer and following sophomore year. My world had been rocked. Hard.
The only thing that could hold my attention, keep my mind from wondering why they hadn’t picked me up instead of Lisa on the way down that hill, was during yoga class with the mantra : Sat, on the inhale; Nam, on the exhale. Sat on the inhale. Nam on the exhale. I loved being in yoga class. It was a peaceful place that held me, that rocked me like a baby and slowly, day by day I began to deal with the blows life had dealt us. Little by little, bit by bit. Yoga was the cure for my broken heart and I was hooked.
As we know, life moves on. Time heals. Every day gets a little better but some days, especially anniversaries and holidays, it all comes crashing down again no matter how long it’s been. ‘Death is a hard one’, my teacher in our 200 hour RYT training in 2012 had said when she brought up why my Root Chakra journal entry needed to be re-written. I suppressed the lingering feelings still associated with this energy center nearly 20 years later because death never goes away. No matter how much therapy and how much yoga I had done, it never went away. We learn to move forward without. We learn to cherish moments more fully. We learn that we are never guaranteed another day and that life is literally too short sometimes.
I rewrote the entry. It focused on Lisa and how my chosen community had been shattered at a tender age. The depth of sadness was still there, fresh as ever, even with two decades of time and space between. We entered a temazcal sweatlodge ceremony moments after and I decided I would dedicate that sweat to my dear friend who I still missed and loved. We chanted with a drum beat and the heat began to rise inside the dark dome of what seemed like the infinite. I had been in temazcals many times before, but suddenly I needed out. I needed to get out of this space. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to deal with what was coming up. I laid a hand on my neighbor’s knee and whispered to her that I needed to scoot out behind her, that I needed to go. She held my trembling hand in hers and told me that was ok, that she could move so I could leave and suddenly it was a little better. I needed contact. Reassurance. We’re all in this together I remembered. We’re all in this dark dome, in this life, on this path, together and we need to deal. So I stayed. I settled back into the darkness, my darkness. I wept and said goodbye again, but maybe for the first time really, to my friend Lisa. I felt her ascension spiraling out of me up into the dark far, far away. It was calming.
A relief. A sense of freedom. Then as if on cue, the shaman opened the door to the dome, let in fresh air, fresh energy, let out what we had trapped inside. They gave us fresh water to drink and then brought in more heat, more hot lava rocks because this moment was not finished. There was more to this ceremony and there was more to this process for me. The door closed to the temazcal and the chanting began again.
I didn’t know how far down I had buried my feelings for Dan, the driver who had essentially killed my friend. He had died too. How could I have let myself be mad at someone who had also lost his young, precious life? It occurred to me there in the dark, 20 years later, that I was mad at him. Really MAD at him. I had held him responsible at my core and had suddenly, like an epiphany, realized it. I embraced my anger as I had never let myself truly feel it. I cried. I curled my fists. I spoke to him through all the chanting and echos of the group around me. I told him I was mad and that I hated him for what he had done. I let myself feel the anger I’d been housing towards him. The years of quick tempered responses and off the handle tantrums suddenly became clearer to me. I felt my anger for what seemed like an eternity but what was really only less than an hour. Once the tears and the rage subsided I knew it was time to forgive, to love him again. I knew it wasn’t his intention to hurt the friends that he had loved too. He had made a horrible, irreversible mistake. Sitting there in the darkness, in a pool of my own sweat and tears surrounded by ancient songs of the Mayans, I decided to release the anger I felt towards him, suppressed down deep for far too long. In the darkness of an earth womb on the edge of the Yucatan peninsula, lifetimes away, I forgave Dan.
I said goodbye to him and along the same path that Lisa spiraled out, he followed. Into the darkness, upward to the sky, out of me. It was a heavy experience. I literally crawled out of the steamy dome and face-planted in the sand, out in the fresh air, unable to move. Once I was able to come to a seat, I looked around and realized that my neighbor who had held my trembling hand was right there beside me, face down too. She had had a very similarly deep experience right next to me and we didn’t even know. Of course we are all going through the same things in life, different details but the same emotions. I couldn’t drive home that night. My friends and teacher helped me to a bed at the retreat center and I slept there like a baby through the night. I awoke with the sunrise and felt drained yet lighter knowing that major shifts had been moved inside me. We went to yoga practice bright and early in the jungle studio at Maya Tulum. It was an Ashtanga Vinyasa training on this particular day and we had been asked to break down the Primary Series. I was working on Upavistha and Supta Konasana when suddenly my heels hit the ground before my calves and the sound of my medial hamstring coming from my sit-bone and my knee was audible and echoed throughout the room. Immense pain. I grabbed my thigh in shock at what had just occurred, a major injury in the middle of my teacher training. Luckily our instructor was trained in Sports Medicine and we had an incredible massage therapist also in the group. They wrapped and iced and anti-inflammatoried me up. It was brutal. I couldn’t walk for 4 days. My teacher training turned into me sitting in a chair at the front of the studio, leg propped, transcribing in little yoga stick figures the sequences being taught. As I sat there thinking about my own sequence of events, it dawned on me. I had released a heavy emotional burden the night before in the temazcal but the physical energy needed to be set free as well. It needed to go! And in its own, very abrupt way, it physically left my body through my root chakra, the place it had been residing for twenty long years. It was finally gone. The burden I had been holding onto, not the sadness of the loss or the longing for a friend who should be there with me, but the heaviness of it all was finally free. It was an incredible process and even though I couldn’t do yoga for 6 months after my training, it was still amazing to me the journey yoga let me explore to the depths of my being. Again it was the cure for my broken heart.
As college had moved on I created a new family for myself. There were 9 of us in total
by the time the degrees were earned and we headed out into the world to go our own ways. We called ourselves The G.R.I.T.S. (Girls Raised In The South) and we made it our mission to get together once per year over Labor Day weekend to catch up and laugh and take a break from life. It was our religion. We were thick as thieves. Marty, Dawn, Kelly, Sunny, Cyndi, Brooke, Sara, Tracy, and myself. Coming through for each other in ferocious ways at the drop of a hat, any time day or night. We were soulmates. Life goes on, babies and families happen, friends move far away but we still managed to keep the tradition alive as best we could. Then on November 20, 2015 our soul-sister Sunny decided she couldn’t continue to take the blows of life. In the darkness of the night, in her darkness, our dear friend ended it all leaving behind many who love her, children, family, friends, and the things that she could no longer deal with in this life. It was shocking and sad and painful. We pulled ourselves out of our worlds and came together again, under circumstances that noone wants to face, and we dealt. We held each other. We cried. We laughed. We looked at old photos and did all the ‘remember whens’. We felt the feelings and expressed the anger that was coming up for each of us. We understood but we didn’t. Chemical imbalances cannot fully be understood by those who are not affected by them. We don’t know what it is like to be that low. It must be a horrible place. It was for Sunny. Marty had known Sunny since they were about 8 years old. I knew I needed to be there for Marty. She needed all her rocks in place for this. I knew how it felt to lose your best friend but this was beyond the friendship I had with Lisa. Marty and Sunny were inseparable for the past 32 years. You didn’t think of one without the other. They could finish each other’s sentences and could make each other howl with laughter. It was amazing to witness and to be a part of. She needed us, so we went.
The funeral was horrible. Sunny would have walked out herself if she could have. The preacher was going on and on about some old story about a cake when she and her sister were kids at his house and as we were all sitting in the front rows of a Baptist church in North Carolina, breathing through the overwhelming anxiety, staring at an urn and a photo of our smiling blonde friend. Sara finally whispered to the group a hilarious memory of a classic Sunny moment, and just like she would have wanted, the GRITS busted out laughing in the front row of her funeral. It was our way of dealing with the shit hand we had been dealt by our friend. We had to get through the moment. Little by little, breath by breath. It was how we were able to deal.
Being together was a great way to celebrate Sunny’s life and to remember her but we eventually all had to go back to our lives. We had to go home and we had to deal in our ways, on our own. We all have been checking in on Marty and each other but its easy to slip back into our worlds. Out of sight, out of mind. The sadness surfaces though. On occasion I think of her amazing kids and how much love we need to give them. Her husband who needs to pick up the million little pieces of their lives and try to trudge on. It’s a long road, a never ending road but one that needs to be felt. Not buried down deep.
Akal Dev had surfaced to a ‘Boone Life in the 90s’ group on Facebook back in the summer of last year. I was thrilled to have been connected with her again and I (and Marty coincidentally) reached out immediately. I just had a cancellation with a teacher leaving an opening at Utopia for a retreat. I knew I would love to be able to practice with her again if she would be up for it. I invited her to come lead a retreat end of January, 2016 and she graciously accepted the offer. Marty immediately signed up for the retreat and Kelly also said she would join as she frequented her classes back in the day as well. When I was leaving Charlotte from Sunny’s funeral we knew we’d see each other in Tulum in just a few months. I knew a little more time to process for everyone would be good in the grieving process.
Sunny’s friend from Tucson where she had been living, Rainbow decided to join the retreat in Tulum as well. I had not met her but I knew she had been rocked by Sunny’s death and that she needed to be here with us too. The circle formed here in Tulum as it always does, week after week, but this circle was different. I was no longer the outsider holding space for my guests coming to deal with their own lives, I was a participant in this group there to deal with my life, our lives together, and the loss of a dear, dear friend still so fresh and raw. There could not have been another teacher there to hold us and heal us at this time. It had to be Akal Dev. I have never been in the presence of a more powerful teacher. The healing that occurred during those 6 days was a lifetime of work condensed but at the same time, the tip of the iceberg, but it was a start. A crack in the surface, a place to start to deal for all of us, but especially for our friend Marty. ‘Death never goes away’ I said to her, ‘we deal with it little by little and bit by bit. This is your opportunity to deal with some of it, here in this sacred place surrounded by friends, by nature and the elements. Let yourself. We’re here if you need us’ and she walked off down the beach on her own putting one foot in front of the other, seeing through her tears. She was starting to deal with her loss in her own special way, step by step and one day at a time.
The photo below is of us doing our Mayan Mud ceremony. This time it worked out, serendipitously, that our circle was held in the middle of 800,000 hectacres of preserved land in front of an ancient Mayan Ruin. Akal Dev suggested that before we started with the mud, we do a healing meditation for Sunny and for her friends and family. Through tears and closed eyes we sent out, with all our mite, healing prayers for her loved ones left behind, to her babies but mostly for Sunny. We prayed for our friend as she passes through on her journey home for now but knowing that upon her return to this plane, her feelings and the issues that were too big for her this time around will be waiting for her so she can deal. Hopefully next time in a different way. The wind howled, the trees swayed, we held each other up and in that precious moment, we dealt. Just a little. Maybe just the tip, but we allowed ourselves to feel it and that is a start. It’s all we can do. Buried feelings do not decompose, they lie within waiting to be processed. One foot in front of the other, day by day as we walk our own paths, we deal. Some days are worse than others, and it’s in those moments you realize that sometimes, you have to step up and be your own best friend.
In loving memory of our dear friends Sunny Daniels Thompson, Lisa Ann Matos, and Daniel Berry.
Anita Moorjani, author of the book ‘Dying to be Me‘ delivers a powerful message about her near-death experience that I found incredibly interesting and reassuring. I encourage you to take the half hour to listen to her describe her experience.
From the heart,
*Sunny’s nickname for me although it has been confirmed that I do not actually stink : )