MKY's beloved teacher, Kathy Livingston, first came to yoga in a moment of need. In her memoir Yin, Yang, Yogini: A Woman's Quest for Balance, Strength and Inner Peace, she recounts how yoga informed and helped her on her journey through fear. Having been raised on a steady diet of worst case scenarios, Kathy finds she has to reinvent herself in middle age in order to face and move through her reality. Below are excerpts from her relatable, humorous, and poignantly-told story.
I've come to yoga... because I'm falling apart. My therapist (a soft-spoken, slender lady whom I've recently begun seeing) believes it might pull me together. I'm doubtful, but what's to lose? I have a wonderful husband, three perfect boys and a charming little home in a New Jersey suburb. On the outside I appear content and in control, but something tugs violently at my heart each morning: the mistakes I've made, the wrong turns I've taken, the losses that come with middle age, including the deaths of both of my parents. I have yet to find the gains of aging (except at my waist). Might yoga be a path?
I need a path because life has come to a sudden halt, as if I've stubbed my toe at the gate to year fifty, and sit bleeding. I'm afraid to pick myself up and carry on. I'm afraid to move forward, and I can't go back, and in my paralyzed state, I wonder if I'll even be able to figure this yoga thing out at all. In the past, I would have turned to my mother; though she couldn't calm my fears because she had too many of her own, at least we could commiserate. But now she's gone, and there's no one who seems to understand the agitated state of my mind. When I crawl into bed at night, my thoughts take hours to settle, and even when I'm sleeping my worries seem to hum and vibrate beneath my pillow. I'm literally "driving myself crazy," and without my mom in the passenger seat, I know I can't continue to travel through life in this way.
I'm afraid of little things, like traffic merges and snapping turtles, but I'm also afraid of sending my fifteen-year-old son off to study in England for a month, afraid of flying, of losing my three nearly grown boys to adulthood and independence, frightened at the thought of them going off to college, afraid of illness, terrified of death -- my own and everyone else's -- and even scared of fully enjoying life because it can so easily slip between one's fingers. I hope -- and if I prayed I'd be praying -- that yoga will make a difference. But I'm not a spiritual woman and I'm certainly not an avid exerciser. I haven't been to church in more than twenty years, and the last time I moved fast enough to break a sweat, I was chasing a toddler around a park.
Kathy struggled to get comfortable in yoga classes and in yoga poses and with yoga philosophies, but along the way discovered that they nourished her. She leaned on yoga and her practice developed. Then, after two years of practice, Kathy was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was forced to face perhaps her greatest fear, her own mortality. She brought so much of what she was learning about herself and life in yoga to getting through her surgery, radiation, and nights of worry. Thankfully, she got through and is cancer-free today.
[My yoga teacher] Jeanine says that Mercury is in retrograde, which supposedly causes some kind of confusion in our lives. I guess I do feel a bit confused; getting to know and love this new person I've become is quite a challenge. I'm a person with seven pinpoint blue tattoos on my breast (used to guide the radiation therapists), a two-inch scar, and a calendar filled with doctor and treatment appointments, a person who had cancer, a person who may still have some cancer cells lurking around that need to be zapped for survival. I'm a woman I never imagined being, as if my past and future selves have just been introduced at a dance neither one of us really wants to attend. "Who is that awkward kid in the plaid dress?" my future self asks. Never mind; just dance with her, show her the steps.
But according to my yoga teachers, this is really not who I am anyway: we are not our thoughts, our words, or our worries. My divine and perfect self is and always has been here, like a cookie in a jar, waiting for a little kid to reach her hand in and pluck it out. I can almost see myself standing in front of that cookie jar, gathering my courage. We need so much courage just to love ourselves.
Over 10 years ago, I faced a devastating diagnosis: Breast Cancer. My disease forced me to undergo surgery and radiation; it also forced me to confront deep fear. That’s when I learned the Kundalini mantra Sa Ta Na Ma.
At the time, I had never heard of Kundalini Yoga, but I was practicing Vinyasa at a studio near my home, and I found that yoga was helping immensely with my ability to face this challenging and frightening time in my life.
Out of the goodness of her heart, the owner of the studio, came to my house the day before my breast cancer surgery to lead me through a visual imagery meditation in preparation for my operation. But just before she left that day she turned to me at the door and took my hand. “Say these sounds--Sa Ta Na Ma -- pressing your fingers like so,” she instructed, “every time you are afraid. This will help to calm you.” As luck would have it, she had recently been introduced to the mantra at a Radiant Child Yoga training (Kundalini Yoga for Kids), and she showed me how to press thumbs and forefingers as I said Sa, thumbs and middle fingers as I said Ta, thumbs and ring fingers as I said Na, and thumbs and pinkies as I said Ma.
This was a moment of grace because the mantra became my refuge. Although I didn’t know what the sounds meant yet, I took her at her word. As I lay on an examining table awaiting my surgery, I pressed my fingers together and silently chanted. As I went for radiation treatments, firmly secured in an immobilization device called a “mold,” unable to move even a fraction of an inch, I silently chanted the mantra. As I waited for test results, as I tried to fall asleep at night, as I woke up in the morning filled with fear for my future, I chanted the mantra. Somehow, I got through it all—thankfully, with the mantra Sa Ta Na Ma as my comforting guide.
The mantra Sa Ta Na Ma represents the creation cycle: Infinity, Life, Transformation, Rebirth. Some of you may know it from Kirtan Kriya, a popular Kundalini meditation which balances the hemispheres of the brain, and has been studied by scientists for its role in guarding against Alzheimer’s Disease. Sa Ta Na Ma can also be chanted to bring a sense of calm and peace. In fact, that’s exactly what it did for me.
Many years have passed since my diagnosis and I’m now cancer-free. I’m also a Kundalini Yoga teacher, and Sa Ta Na Ma is still my go-to mantra. I use it when I am worried about my sons, when I’m traveling, when the future looks dim or hopeless. I use it when the news is bad, when I can’t see the light, when everything seems topsy-turvy, whether in my personal life, or in the universe. I use it whenever I feel unbalanced or afraid—not just in dire circumstances, such as facing down cancer-- but to bring ease to the everyday challenges of living in these times.
Touching the tips of the fingers to the thumbs while chanting is said to light up and balance parts of the the brain, but I’ve also found that it balances the heart and restores a sense of trust.
Before I found yoga, I was a skeptic, a doubter, and chanting mantra was something I never even considered doing. Back then, life seemed random, unpredictable, and often quite scary. I questioned everything, including my own beliefs. But cancer led me to search more deeply, and yoga helped me to find my center.
“To believe,” my very first yoga teacher told me, “all you have to do is look up at the sky.” Whenever I doubted, her advice was the same: “Trust. Believe.”
Whatever else it may do or mean, for me, Sa Ta Na Ma will always be a mantra of trust. There is a cycle of life we can count on, and all is as it should be: Infinity, Life, Transformation, Rebirth. Sa Ta Na Ma brings balance to my brain, my heart, and my life.
Trust. Believe. Look up at the sky. And chant Sa Ta Na Ma.
Kathy (Harjot Kaur) has been practicing yoga for more than a decade and completed her Level 1 (200 hr) teacher training with Gurudass Kaur Khalsa. She began practicing Kundalini yoga six years ago; a breast cancer survivor, she found it to be a wellspring of courage, trust and joy. The author of the memoir Yin, Yang, Yogini: A Woman’s Quest for Balance, Strength and Inner Peace, Kathryn blogs frequently for the Kundalini yoga music website SpiritVoyage.com. Her spiritual name, Harjot, means “light of the creative Divine.” Kathy is excited to share her light and love with her students at Montclair Kundalini Yoga; she strongly believes that Kundalini yoga is for everybody and every body: There is something for everyone on this uplifting, heart-centered path. She is also a practitioner of Iyengar and Vinyasa yoga and is deeply grateful to all her teachers. Join Kathy on Thursday mornings for Kundalini Yoga & Meditation. She plays the gong for relaxation. Here's what one of her students had to say about her awesome classes: "Harjot is one of the kindest, most knowledgable, and fun-loving kundalini yoga teachers I have ever had. I started attending her classes almost two years ago; and, in that time, I have noticed significant shifts in how I live my life. Something major that has changed in me, which I most certainly was not expecting, is that I am now so much more comfortable DANCING! At parties, in my living room, on the street... through the compassion she radiates as a teacher, Kathy has helped me open up to joy inside of myself and let go of whatever shame and insecurity was holding me back from letting that inner joy out of me. I think the capacity to help someone feel completely unashamed of who they are is a true mark of someone who has been touched by Grace. I am so grateful to be her student." - Jacob, Parsippany