I needed something. Everyone was dying. Or at least a lot of people were dying and it felt like everyone might, including me, die at the drop of a hat. I was having panic attacks on the subway. I was avoiding elevators and scaffolding and spinach and caffeine and planes and hospitals and graveyards.
I couldn’t breathe.
My parents are not religious. Someone told me to try yoga.
I was a gymnast for the great majority of my childhood. Yoga came easily. I breezed through the ranks.
I ended up in an Ashtanga class in Amagansett and had no idea what I was in for.
Ashtanga doesn’t bill itself as the “yoga of forced breathing,” but it might as well. It’s the same series, “system” of movements done (or supposed to be done) every morning, every day. It is strenuous and sequential and smart. At the core of it is the notion of synchronizing breath with movement. For every movement, a breath, which sounds nice enough but is challenging. Very. Because of the intensity of the poses, most people sweat. A lot. It’s different from Bikram in that the heat you create is from the inside out. It’s all you. Ujjayi breathing, or “victorious breath,” consists of steady inhales and exhales through the nose, equal in duration, accompanied by the “ocean sound” made by constricting the throat as one does to whisper. Ujjayi’s purpose: improve endurance, decrease distractions, release tension, warm the blood, which improves circulation and cleanses toxins and regulates heat. Too, and most importantly to me, Ujjayi calms the mind. Breath becomes a rhythm, a lullaby. In and out and in and out and in and out.
My first Ashtanga class nearly killed me—and got me completely hooked. My first Ashtanga teacher has been my only one really, or at least the only one that’s really mattered. She’s a die-hard. If she cannot hear your “ocean sound,” she says so. If she sees your mouth open, she says so. And if you cannot breathe, in and out and in and out and in and out, you cannot. You just cannot. It took me many months to get a place where I was comfortable with the poses, and then even longer to a place where the breath was as crucial as the positions. But eventually it was. So much so. In and out and in and out and in and out.
At first, I stopped thinking about dying because I was focused on the movements, on not messing up. After a while, I stopped thinking about dying because I was trying to do the movements better. When I became halfway decent, I stopped thinking because I was focused on the breath. On better breath.
I am aware that I said “better,” regarding yoga. Kill me. I am no longer afraid. On a plane, in turbulent moments, I practice Ujjayi. Elevators don’t paralyze me. Bring on the spinach. I am better.
In Ashtanga, I didn’t find God. I did, however, learn to breathe. I breathed like I meant it and then I breathed because I had to. You have to. In and out and in and out and in and out. And by breathing I realized that I wasn’t dead yet. Just the opposite. I was all breath.
This past May I published an essay in The New York Times titled “Do the Jews Own Anxiety?” Not long afterward, I received an email from a reader I will call David C. David C. began his email by quoting my essay — “We, the Jews, have encouraged the world to think of us as anxious” — and proceeded over the course of 240 headlong words to berate me for being one of those “self-absorbed, highly neurotic” American Jews who are “quick to internalize the inferiority cast upon them by the gentiles.” The email ended in a particularly indignant fashion with the following lines: “With Jews like you, who needs anti-Semites? Kol tuv, boychik.”
I attended Hebrew school and was Bar Mitzvahed. I went to Brandeis, which has a prominent and esteemed Hebrew department. I have been to Israel. Yet I have no knowledge of the Hebrew language beyond a smattering of common words. I had no idea what kol tuv meant. I had to Google it.
All the best.
Kol tuv, boychik: All the best, young man.
David C. correspondent was sneering at me.
It wasn’t a pleasant email to receive, but I wasn’t surprised. I’d been expecting a note like this sooner or later. In fact, I was almost glad to receive it. David C.’s resentment was its own sort of Bar Mitzvah, its own coming of age. I had already been initiated, up there on the bimah twenty-one years ago, into the tribe of Jewish men. Now I had been initiated into the tribe of Jewish writers who get in trouble for discussing what is commonly referred to as “Jewish neurosis.”
The main reason I wasn’t surprised is that when I was in my late teens and twenties, I developed a passion for the work of Philip Roth. I had read, in the basement of the Brandeis library, Roth’s precocious 1959 debut, Goodbye, Columbus, and later his memoir The Facts, which he subtitled “A Novelist’s Autobiography.”
Roth was only twenty-six, an austere and brilliant literary novitiate, when he published Goodbye, Columbus. He was happy, no doubt, for the praise and adulation lavished on his book, but he was wholly unprepared for the angry criticism that came in the wake of success. In The Facts he tells the story of the “most bruising public exchange” of his life. He was appearing alongside Ralph Ellison and the novelist Pietro Di Donato on a panel at Yeshiva University when the audience turned antagonistic, then threatening. How, they insisted, could he have written about such unsavory, conniving, unethical Jewish characters? (They were especially upset about his short story “Defender of the Faith.”) Where was his tact? His compassion? His self-love? Where was his loyalty? As Roth tried to leave the hall, the most hostile of the audience members began to surround him and shout. Roth writes:
“I listened to the final verdict against me, as harsh a judgment as I ever hope to hear in this or any other world. I only began to shout, ‘Clear away, step back – I’m getting out of here,’ after somebody, shaking a fist in my face began to holler, ‘You were brought up on anti-Semitic literature!’ ‘Yes,’ I hollered back, ‘and what is that?’ – curiously wanting to know what he meant. ‘English literature!’ he cried. ‘English Literature is anti-Semitic literature.’”
In short, Roth had been trained in self-loathing. His critics deemed him a “self-hating” Jew. Or as my correspondent David C. asked: “With Jews like you, who needs anti-Semites?”
I don’t intend to compare myself to Philip Roth. (Perish the thought, sweet as it is.) I mean only to say that when one is a Jew who writes about his tribesmen in a way that can, in even a small way, be construed as undignified or unsavory, one has to be prepared for anger and insults — and sneering. David C.’s was only the first such response. I don’t expect it will be the last.
In my last post, I described the technical difficulties that occurred when I appeared on Talk of the Nation earlier this month. Instead of the regular broadcasting configuration — a single interviewee responding to the questions of a single interviewer — I was forced to contend with a welter of voices and noises created by wonky technology, all while trying to sound poised, normal, and more or less intelligent.
When the problem first occurred, I experienced a very familiar and unpleasant sensation: anxiety. My muscles tightened, my heart sped up, my brow started to sweat, and I felt a growing constriction in my chest muscles. Worse, because it threatened the proceedings, my thoughts began to race, first and briefly with questions about my sanity (“Where is all this noise coming from!?”) and then with questions about my abilities to handle the situation (“I’m going to lose it on air! I’m never going to get through this”).
But then another feeling took over, also familiar but this time much more comforting: focus. Once the host started to ask his questions — he was unaware that I could scarcely hear him through the din — all my worries burned off in the heat of what needed to be done. I was here. I was speaking live on national radio. I had no choice but to go forward.
I have a job to do, dammit!
This is a reaction for which I have become, throughout the years, very, very grateful. Not all anxiety sufferers do well under pressure. Does that sound like an odd formulation, given that anxiety is generally thought to be all about being bad under pressure? Well, it isn’t. Anxiety is more often about being bad with the consideration of pressure. Anxiety feeds off of uncertainty, contingency, and doubt. But high-pressured situations don’t necessarily contain these elements. As often as not, high-pressured situations wipe uncertainty, contingency, and doubt right off the table. And what is left in place of these things is … necessity. Purpose. The need for action. In short, the present moment and nothing but the present moment.
It is for these reasons that in my adult life I have often yearned for a more publicly performative job than writing. Writing is not only solitary, it is a deferment of performance. At the writing desk, one can always look back at what was already written and forward to what has not yet been written. This is a sure formula for anxiety. Performers, people who work on stage in front of live audiences, don’t have the luxury of this looking around. They are forced by conditions of immediacy to deal only with what is in front of them: this line, this reaction, this emotion, this idea.
Oh, to have that pressure more frequently! I’m in Los Angeles at the moment, talking about my book and seeing some friends. Maybe it’s time to go on a few auditions.