October 21, 2012

Om Chemo: My Teacher’s Cancer Helps Me Let Go. ~ Audrey Mei

Image via shutterstock

It has been a rickety emotional roller coaster with my teacher alone in the front seat.

Back in the aughts, I was an aspiring yogini in San Francisco. It was a commitment I’d made to myself, but it came with a snag: my allergy to spiritual pretense. I was raised in an Asian Buddhist home, hence my skin tended to prickle whenever a 20-something yoga teacher spewed spiritual blah-blah. How much could one know about the Dharma after a one-year training course? All snarkiness aside, these young teachers in 2002, I thought, might have been Jazzercize instructors in 1982.

After a period of searching, I found Karl, an advanced Iyengar teacher. He was forty years fresh, tall and thin, wore glasses and possessed an endearing geek mystique that was juxtaposed with a head full of rock-star curls. But most important was the humility he showed to his Iyengar yoga lineage.

The purist in me was smitten. I delved into the practice, bought the books, learned my forward bends and philosophized about the sutras. I attended Karl’s classes and basked in the low-key atmosphere: he didn’t pretend to “love” everyone, he never faked a smile and he never made a brand out of himself. He just wanted to teach as perfectly as he could. Alongside asana practice, we discussed meditation, perception, compassion and the self. Yet, despite his being our teacher, there was never any feeling that Karl was better than any of us. His teaching was his service to us, in service of yoga.

Photo: Heather Champ

Chatting after class one day, I told Karl that I was a cellist. He lit up like a kid and suggested we get together to play. He’d been studying North Indian singing and had bought a harmonium. In the traditional Hindustani way, a music student moves in with a master, who is also a spiritual guru, to share meals and a household while learning the age-old, unnotated tradition. The learning happens hour by hour, year after year.

Limited by our day jobs and nowhere near to living in a musical guru’s domicile, Karl’s and my ambitions were rather hopeless. But we persisted, lugging our instruments up and down the streets of San Francisco to play and perform. Whenever Karl sat down at his harmonium, he exuded an unmistakable boyishness that carried me along despite the old Russian-school voice in my head scolding me for playing off score.

This was my personal project: yogic immersion—body, mind and cello.

Then, in 2006, as my itchy feet dictated, I moved to Berlin to live as a bohemian writer. As pure as had been my dedication to yoga in San Francisco, just as absolute was my detour into the artist’s life—nicotine, alcohol and three-day all-nighters that left my melatonin stores in shambles. Eccentric artist friends enriched my writing and exhausted my adrenal glands. By 2010, my lungs felt like wooden crates, my left ovary burned and my bank account groaned with hunger. I moved back to San Francisco to recover, physically and financially.

During my first nights back in San Francisco, I stayed awake obsessing about my abdominal pain (scar tissue? cysts? tumors?) and reflecting on the sorry, broke life I would leave behind. On a Monday morning, I started making appointments to have every complaint examined. One by one, doctors wrote my symptoms off as benign. Then, a month after my return to San Francisco, I received an email that changed everything. It was titled: “Please pray. Karl is very ill.”

Karl had cancer, not me.

I first visited him at a friend’s house after his initial round of high-dose chemotherapy. He came out of the bedroom in a bathrobe and a knit cap that kept his bald head warm; he was thin, like a bird who had fallen out of a tree.

“Hi, baby,” was all I could say. No hugs were allowed; hand disinfectant was required. The treatment had destroyed his immune system.

He flopped onto the sofa in the winter garden. I took a seat on a stool at the kitchen counter and popped open my thermos of coffee.

“Wow,” he said. “I can smell that from here.” The barrage of medical toxins had heightened his sense of smell. Every strand of rock-star curl was gone. His peachy complexion had been replaced by a greyish chemo-tinge. But in his eyes I could see it was my same Karl, eager to chat and exchange ideas.

“What do you think about this thing I’ve been working on?” he asked, flipping open his MacBook and showing me an online radio podcast site. “I can upload lectures on Vedanta that people can listen to at any time. And here are Skype discussion groups that people can join from anywhere.”

Indeed, his pure and excited wonderment was intact, only briefly interrupted by a wave of nausea; he assured me that I needn’t fetch a bowl. As we talked, I realized that, by moving his teaching into a virtual space, Karl had no intention of letting cancer hinder his passion for yoga.

Two years later, Karl’s lanky body has gone through two rounds of bone marrow transplants and high-dose chemo, as well as surgery to remove tumors around his kidneys.


The doctors’ prognoses are blurry at best: it has been a rickety emotional roller coaster with Karl alone in the front seat. He keeps a schedule of friends who help him run daily errands, go for walks and keep his spirits up. He maintains a light lecture schedule and is creating a video series on Vedanta. He even completed and published articles on religious beliefs and compassion. Teaching is always on his mind.

And his teaching is in our hearts. Because with Karl’s humble willingness to share his experience, there is another lesson we as his community have learned: It is life that teaches us.

With Karl’s illness, we practice compassion by giving care, time and necessary money with no expectation of any particular result. Although we give by choice, our decision is also self-evident. We could never demand anything in return from Karl. We bite into the nourishing salad of giving, in and of itself.

There have been uncountable lessons in letting go.  Letting go of the way we thought things would be today (Karl cancelled our meeting last minute, feeling tired), this week (I made a mistake in a fundraising letter, oh well) and beyond (his treatments may stop working).

And letting go, of course, of life itself. Not just because of the uncertainty of Karl’s life, but because of the uncertainty of each of our lives. Karl may seem perilously close to death right now, but as I leave his apartment to ride my bicycle without a helmet, I am a thousand times more likely to die today than he is. It is not about being gratuitously morbid, but accepting impermanence on this planet, for all of us. I savor this reality when I’m sitting with him in his kitchen. The subtext of our conversation is that we are sharing the rawness of the moment, aware of our own mortalities.

“Can you be so present in this moment that you are aware of the present moment?”

He pours hot water for the tea. In the middle of a lively discussion about relationships, life and the way things are, another wave of fatigue sweeps over him. He stops talking to take a breath.

The young man squeezes his eyes shut.

I wipe away two tears.

There is only this moment.

And I am grateful for my humble teacher.

Update: Karl passed away on the morning of July 30, 2013, surrounded by loved ones.

See Karl’s articles on elephantjournal here:



Our fundraiser for Karl’s medical bills: www.indiegogo.com/karl-erb


Audrey Mei is a cellist, writer and Advanced Certified Rolfing practitioner based in San Francisco, CA, and Berlin, Germany. Her arts and wellness blog is at: standard-gravity.blogspot.com.




Editor: Jayleigh Lewis

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