By Natalie Santoshi Blacker
I was excited to leave in the morning. It had been over four months since I’d been home, since I left everything behind to deal with the pain of what I had experienced earlier in the year.
Months ago I flew from Los Angeles to my mother’s homeland of Hungary to take refuge at our family’s lake house for the summer, and to travel around Europe with close friends. That night before I was bound for LA, I told myself it would be an easy trip: 11 days of sun, food & fun—it was even possible I could stay home for good if things went well. But really, I was posturing at my own expense, and ignoring that what I had been seeking for months now had not entirely been sought.
Less than a year ago I was working at an LA-based creative agency founded by one of the world’s most recognized contemporary American artists. It was a good position in a creative environment where someone with an untraditional way of thinking should thrive. Except I wasn’t; I was functioning on cruise control the whole time, going through the motions of working and living with very little happiness or satisfaction. It was easy and I was in a position many people would love to have. So I kept telling myself to stick to it, be grateful and keep quiet. I forced that nagging feeling of unhappiness deep down in my gut until my father was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer (in laymen’s terms that means you’re pretty much fucked) —then I freaked out.
My father’s cancer diagnosis forced me to look at the choices I had made in my life: I was living life off the fray, instead of going corporate I always opted to work in the creative space at independent media outlets, for artists, designers, photographers and for myself (I also founded an international creative women’s network that at one time was highly successful and popular). I knew a whole lot of awesomely talented and successful people who were pulling the strings within culture, art, music, finance, politics, you name it. I was in the mix. I had the gift of being able to immerse myself in whatever was going to be the pulse of the moment, and beyond. I had loved some men, they had loved me; I had broken hearts and finally had my heart broken. I had participated in a wide array of spiritual paths and ceremonies, eventually finding my way deeper into a yoga practice through Jivamukti in New York City and becoming certified to teach at Integral Yoga in San Francisco.
I had accomplished all of this on what I thought were my own terms. I chased the dream to live beyond “society’s norms,” I had been able to attend exclusive events and parties, traveled the world, had a closet filled with designer clothes, shoes and handbags (wait, isn’t that an aspirational norm?). I ate at the bougie vegan spots and hugged Amma but I was still miserable. I was an unaware wreck going through the motions of what I thought was an evolved way of being and it took a death warrant for me to recognize it.
My father’s impending death—yes, I was realistic even though I prayed for a miracle—was like a punch in the face. It was as if someone was holding my head underwater to the point of drowning. I gasped for air, but nothing came until I reached a breaking point. I left my full-time job, opting to freelance for a short period before leaving outright. I sublet my apartment, eventually letting it go and spent most of my days and nights with my father. I was his confidant, his nurse, his cook, and many other things, but most importantly his dedicated daughter. Those times I spent with him, regardless of whether it was cleaning up his post-chemo vomit, taking him to see his rabbi and surprise(!) hearing my father ask him to perform his funeral service or just going to the store to pick up whatever it was on his list, are what I cherish. He passed away on May 1st, 2013, International Worker’s Day or May Day; quite fitting for a man who spent his lifetime in the labor movement and in the progressive political arena.
After those six months of dedicating myself to my father, I was left alone to sit next to his body after he died, to clean out his closet, organize his funeral with the Rabbi and deal with the highly dysfunctional family he left behind. Plus, I had my own feelings of grief and severe pain to sort through. I felt so alone, no matter how many people called or surrounded me.
I was lost.
How do I pick up the pieces? Where do I go from here? There were many questions and I was searching for answers. I set out for Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. My best friend had arranged a month long trip for us. All I had to do was give her my debit card and, she booked all the flights and most of our accommodations. We had 29 days of back to back travel—there was laughter, arguments, travel fuck ups and new experiences. But my time for dealing with my feelings fell to the wayside. After our trip I went back to Hungary where I rekindled a romance with an unsupportive, lingering boyfriend, friends came to visit, I went on more trips and I cried a lot whenever I had the chance to be alone, which wasn’t very often.
Approximately three months had past since my father died and I still had a deep aching pain in my heart. I have always gone back and forth with my yoga practice. Sometimes I was 100% committed to asana, pranayama and meditation; other times I focused on karma. Then there were times when I just didn’t practice in a committed sense. It was a kind of self-harm, knowing damn well I wasn’t taking care of myself, too wrapped up in other things. But sure as the sun rises every morning, each time I find myself slipping into a place of unease (terror, heartbreak, sadness), I gravitate back to my practice. This was one of those times and I reached for the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (commentary by Swami Satchidananda) and my yoga mat and went deep down into my soul to figure out how I was going to deal with all that was happening inside of me.
My big breakthrough came during successive days of practice next to the lake. It was just me, a yoga mat and the Sutras. There, after a beautiful asana practice overlooking the Balaton (the Hungarian Sea as it is often referred to), I opened up the Sutras to the chapter where I had left off: serendipitously the consecutive chapters* I read revolved directly around the major issue I had been struggling to understand surrounding my father’s death. It was then that I let go of the pain and suffering I was carrying. Two days later I told my boyfriend to leave my house. The irony is that after my father’s death, I felt alone but wasn’t. Now, after months of denying myself the opportunity to heal with so many distractions, I was finally alone to pursue this sudden surge of strength, peace and awareness.
It was during this period of isolation that I started to find myself again. I had learned to let go and be one with my soul. Slowly I have felt happiness begin to grow within, a gift of contentment (which is what my sanskrit name, Santoshi, given to me by Swami V at Intergral Yoga SF, stands for) and a newfound will to strive towards my goals and dreams—those dreams I had forgotten so long ago before I opted for the easy route of using autopilot as a way to get through life.
My trip to Los Angeles taught me that the time alone I had spent was not enough. As soon as I returned to LA the cruise control kicked in; I went back to bad habits immediately and found myself falling back into a deep dark hole of depression. I was Alice in Wonderland and this was not where I wanted to be. After less than one week I decided I had to return to my self-imposed isolation. I had to go back to Hungary and this time, move from the lake to Budapest, a city I had fallen in love with as a child, a city that gives me peace and isolation as well as the challenges of living, finding a job and limited relationships. But that doesn’t matter because dammit, I am working through so many of my multi-layered pain and issues through this isolation.
It’s not the easiest path. When I made the decision to go back many of my friends and family were up in arms: why would I want to go back to that awful place (my mother had escaped the perils of Communism in the 70’s)? How will I live? Where will I find work? Is it good to stay away for so long? What about my career? They all had the same concerns. During my yoga teacher training I had once participated in a silent retreat in Bolinas, California where during those four days of not speaking or being spoken to by others, I had experienced tremendous growth that helped shape me for the course of years. I consider what I am doing now to be an extension of a silent retreat. Away from noise of regular life I am slowing starting to realize happiness, become the person I truly am, connecting with my destiny and find true contentment.
I always say that yoga saved my life, and it continues to do so. The only things I have are myself and my practice. Over this last year I have experienced pain on so many levels—my father’s terminal illness, his death, professional limbo, losing a lover, family strife, friendships being tested, the realization of what I had become, etc. I am letting my entire life become my yoga mat, my practice, my growth, my purpose. It’s going to be a long cold winter in Eastern Europe but I trust that my soul is warming up to become an eternal summer.
*for those interested in the Yoga Sutra verses that granted me peace in my grief please see Chapter 2 verses 1- 9.
Natalie Blacker is a seasoned creative and business development consultant. Her lifetime fascination with media, art and subculture, inseparable from her innate desire for positive change, has led her to work with the likes of media mogul Arianna Huffington and world renown artist Shepard Fairey. Besides practicing yoga and seeking adventure, her current projects are based upon personal experience with a collection of interviews on grief and healing as well as the evolution of her baby, the creative women’s digital networking hub, Ladies Lotto. She hopes to inspire people and remain inspired by others – keep in touch with Natalie “Santoshi” Blacker at natalieblacker.com.
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- Rage, Fear, Sadness, Fatigue. The Yoga of Darkness.
- Questioning Queer Yoga