February 1, 2013

The Cat Who May Get Me into Heaven.


Photo by Jill Shropshire

Traveling yogis must make adjustments.

I find myself meditating and practicing in a variety of strange, smelly, hard-floored or softly cushioned places while on the road. It’s part of the deal you make when you choose this life. Even if you go on vacation and stay up all night drinking far too many cocktails, you will get up in the morning, ignore your hangover, and very quietly make your way to the hotel bathroom. You will try to not awaken your friends, and try not to focus too much on the toilet seat that is nose level during your meditation. It’s one of those mornings you decide to skip your pranayama and keep the breath as shallow as possible. Traveling yogis must make adjustments.

It was a few weeks ago when I attempted to go from downward dog to lunge and almost smashed the head of my friend’s cat, a wide-faced, yellow-eyed rascal named Moon. I was staying at her house for the weekend, and she offered up her bedroom for a few hours so I could have some privacy. I rolled my mat out and turned on an Ashtanga primary series podcast to follow (I need an honest count, or else I wimp out and give up the pose after 20 seconds).

It didn’t take long for the beasts to gather around my mat. My friend is an open-hearted gal, has three cats, and is unafraid of cat lady cliches and daily litter box cleanings. She loves them unconditionally, yet is quick to admit that they are a pain in the ass. They are constantly waking her up in the night with paws to the face and noisy litter box visits. They shed enough hair around the apartment to create a wardrobe of hideous calico sweaters.

They are also, according to my friend, always under foot. I remembered this as I was falling face first to the ground so that I wouldn’t smash poor Moon’s head. I had to make a quick decision—it was Moon or me. I offered my body up the floor and the cat ran under the bed.

The other two cats watched me begin sun salutation again and quickly got bored. There were strings and dust balls to play with. Off they went. Moon, however, continued to fuck with my flow. He weaved in and out of my legs during triangle pose. He sat on my stomach during fish pose. At one point, he decided that the head of my mat was the perfect place to collapse for a nap. When I tried to move him, he became limp and heavy as a full-grown human.

I turned off the podcast, which was useless at this point. I’d lost track long ago due to Moon, but I was still determined to complete the series. Stay there, I said to the cat. For real. I made my way to the wall and kicked myself up into headstand. I adjusted my shoulders and let my feet gently glide over my hips. I was unsupported and relaxed. I closed my eyes.

It’s a lie that cats only have nine lives. I counted at least two near-death experiences for that feline in less than an hour. Because as soon as I closed my eyes, Moon had his pink tongue on my forehead and I hit the floor, trapping him under my belly. He stuck his head out from underneath me, then a paw.

My friend called from the next room, having heard my thud through the door, “Is everything okay in there? Is Moon getting on your nerves?”

“No,everything’s great. He’s behaving,” I called back. I didn’t want to admit that I had almost murdered her cat. My yoga practice has been the cause of tweaked knees and wrenched shoulders and ill-advised pairs of spandex pants, but never murder.

He’s being good, I swear.

This is when I decided to embrace the space, to go with the environment I’d been offered for my practice. I’m always having to do this, and keeps my mind as flexible as my body. It never fails that I will go to a class, ready for a really intense and sweaty sequence of arm balances and inversions and the teacher tells us to grab the bolsters and get ready for a relaxed, restorative class. Or I visit an Ashram ready for a nice quiet retreat and end up rooming with two loud, rich teenage girls from New York who’ve been sent there for rehab by their mother. While I read The Yoga Sutras on the top bunk, they take shots of Jager while watching Shiva Rea videos on YouTube on the bottom (“Oh my God, I so want an ass like hers!”).

I know that yoga is about more than posh yoga retreats and having Shiva Rea’s junk (which, hard as I try, will never happen). I know that its lessons come less from success, and more from getting the butt you were genetically programmed to have—your mother’s flat, exercise-resistant European ass. It’s about acceptance of what you are, of what the world around you is. The Buddha meditated in blistering heat and the coldest of winters with nothing but a small cloth to shield him. He accepted his surroundings, and by doing so, transcended them. Surely, this house cat could be nothing more than a small disturbance.

I meditated. Moon crept up on my lap, soundlessly. I kept my eyes shut and felt his paws on my right knee and the vibrations of his purring running along my calves. For a while, I tried to match the soft thump of his purr with my breath, but he began to speed up until I felt like I was hyperventilating. Like I said, he’s a rascal.

I gave up and let my mind take me where it would—which ended up being the vinyl beanbag chair in the reading nook of my sixth grade classroom. There is me with a wiry thistle of permed hair and a “New Kids on the Block” shirt. I’m reading a book with a yellow cover, a book called The Cat Who Went to Heaven.

I’m transfixed by this book, by the story of a poor, hungry artist who learns about compassion and Buddha nature from a stray cat his housekeeper brought home. It’s about reincarnation and Prince Siddhartha and an entire world that I hadn’t known, at 12, existed. I thought about my own cat and my rabbits. Were they gods and goddesses? They seemed to believe they were. Who had I been in a past life? Who would I be in the next one? I hoped I wouldn’t have to be a boy. Yuck.

So it was there, I believe, in that sticky, blue beanbag chair, that I first considered becoming a vegetarian. The idea that animals had souls was something I understood from the first moment I crawled up to my parents’ black lab, Agatha. I’d been surrounded by pets my entire life, and considered them part of the family. Part of the bloodline. But the idea that all animals, not just those that chose to return to my house, were deeply connected to me was, well, disturbing. I began to wonder if that Shake ‘n Bake chicken on my dinner plate had been my grandmother or Judy Garland in a past life. It wasn’t what I was eating anymore, but who?

This spiritual transformation didn’t last long. It was replaced by wanting to become Jewish after reading Anne Frank’s dairy, which was followed by a lengthy Harriet the Spy obsession (binoculars always at the ready). Children don’t really need trips to Italy or the White House. They have an ability to travel through space and time at will. They reincarnate and shape-shift without boundaries. Often, it is the things they pick up along those brief journeys that end up being so important in adulthood.

No, the spiritual transformation didn’t last long if you consider that we may live thousands of lives. In the grandest scheme, even if I live to be 90, it’s merely a small drop in an infinite ocean. I am, though, determined to make this life, this small moment, one without meat. It’s a message I’ve been getting since the beanbag, over and over again. It’s that nagging voice that ruins my expensive sushi dinners. It’s the videos of animals being caged and “chemicalized” in factories. It’s the truck in front of me on the interstate packed with cage after cage of squawking chickens. It’s the rain of their feathers on my front windshield and the grilled poultry on my Cobb salad. It’s my dog. It’s Moon.

Thank you, Moon, for reminding me I’m on the right path. Thank you The Cat Who Went to Heaven for opening the gate. Namaste.


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Ed: Brianna Bemel

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