The very lithe, very under-40 and very downtown photographer, clad head to toe in pink spandex that clashed with her red pipe-curls, looked obviously disappointed when she walked into my yoga class for women with breast cancer at St. Luke's Hospital in Harlem. She'd been sent by a small New York City magazine to take pictures for a story about the group. My students had been excited about it for weeks but only three out of the ten women in the class showed up that day.
One was Helen, a robust, white-haired, 86-year-old quilter whose pathology report became a patch on her latest work of art. The day she brought it to class, she told us, "Cancer is just one piece of the quilt that is my life."
Helen had lived in Mexico and Brazil for years after traveling extensively in the Americas. She often spoke about what it was like to be a white woman from the US in a developing country. I admired her consciousness; she neither condemned nor defended her whiteness. I too, have a gentle plan to live in Mexico someday. Once I told her that I wanted to be just like her when I grow up. (I'm 64.)
Rosa, a grandmother of 4, arrived bald. She had decided that yoga worked best that way the day we hung forward in "Ragdoll" and her wig fell on the floor. When she stood up, clutching her hair-do close to her mastectomy scar, several of us commented on how good she looked. One of the women asked if anyone ever noticed that Women-of-Color, in general, seemed to have nicely shaped heads ... and that led to a discussion which ended with a riddle:
Question: "When do Black Women, White Women and Latinas wear the same hair style?"
Answer: "When they're on Chemo.
I was surprised to see Gloria. She had called right before the class to say she wasn't feeling well. I told her that many of the others couldn't come either. "Ay, Dios mio!" she said, a little bit too loud into my ear. "Oh my God!" Gloria loved to speak her native Spanish although she was fluent in English, having learned it over sixty years ago, when her family moved to New York from Honduras, just in time for her to begin school. She rushed right over, forgetting to change into pants. She was wearing a skirt and carrying a cane.
The rest were too sick to come.
Without even introducing herself, the photographer immediately set down her equipment and took out her cell phone. I heard her mumble something about "the models" and then say, in a much louder voice, "You mean you want me to do it anyway?
Her face looked stern as she arranged her lights, screens and camera. We watched patiently, sitting toward the front of the room, in a half-circle of metal chairs that we had set up to surround the blue, vinyl yoga mat that Rosa had carefully placed on the floor earlier in the afternoon. Finally, the photographer announced that she was ready to begin the "shoot."
I asked who would do Cobra Pose and Helen happily offered. I guess the photographer got nervous about such an elderly "model" because she immediately blurted out, "How about me?" At first, I ignored her. But, when she got up from her seat and started heading towards the mat, I let her know how I felt. "You don't do yoga," I said, aware of the annoyance in my voice. "You're not in the class, you don't have cancer, Helen has already volunteered ... and besides, who do you think will take the picture? Me?"
She stopped in her tracks and put one hand on her chest. For a long moment, we just stared at each other. Helen broke the silence without saying a word. She got down on the mat, carefully placed her hands, palms-down, under her shoulders and lifted her head and chest in a proud cobra pose. The photographer withdrew slowly, taking tiny backward steps toward her camera.
I shared my students' sense of relief - even victory. Shoulders lowered and spines lengthened. Jaws unclenched. We started to breathe again. I found a chair near one side of the room and relaxed into it, happy to become an observer in my own class.
Rosa got as close to Helen as possible without being in the picture and whispered a meditation to her:
"Think about all the women who only see people who look like Jane Fonda doing exercise ... See them looking at pictures of us ... all the different bodies and ages and races in our wonderful class..."
For the next picture, they switched roles. Rosa stood on one leg and brought the foot of her other leg to her standing ankle in a very modified Tree Pose. Helen led her in a visualization:
"Imagine a woman in Puerto Rico who has cancer but no support group or yoga class ... she feels so alone and her body aches ... and she sees this article where she goes for her treatment and thinks 'That woman looks like me... maybe I can do that'..."
The whole afternoon was a meditation. At one point, I realized that I had naturally moved into a classic Zen position: spine erect, ankles crossed in front of my pelvis (even though I was sitting on a metal chair), hands resting on my thighs, palms facing upward. I let my eyelids become heavy; nothing was needed here that wasn't already happening.
The women were so supportive of each other. They kept saying things like "Que lindo! How beautiful," or "You're perfect just the way you are."
Gloria sat next to the CD player and made sure each woman had just the right music while she was on the mat ... soft, piano sonatas for Helen, Salsa for Rosa. Helen posed with her eyes closed and Rosa kept saying,
"I feel so useful."
Afterwards, the photographer packed up her equipment and said good-bye to the class. When she got to the door, she turned to face us. "I just want to say ..." she stopped. It was as though she wasn't sure what she wanted to say. "I just want to say that you all have very good energy ... and another thing, my name is Denise."
The piece was published several weeks later. Fourteen lovely images graced the shiny pages of a picture-story entitled "Awesome Afternoon in Harlem."
Roberta Schine teaches "Yoga for People With Cancer" at St. Luke's Hospital, Beth Israel Hospital, Roosevelt Hospital and Hospital for Special Surgery and Stop Kvetching/Start Stretching at Town and Village Synagogue in New York City. Her work has been featured in several newspapers and TV shows including the Village Voice, The New York Times and CBS News and her writing has appeared in Art & Understanding Magazine, SIDA Ahora, Kripalu On Line, It's All Right to be Woman Theater and the AIDS Theater Project. Roberta will be celebrating her 24th cancer-versary this fall.