Yoga Teacher, Wendy Bramlett, Offers Life Lessons for Those She Leaves Behind
I walk into Wendy Bramlett’s Saturday morning class at Studio Be Yoga in Boulder, Colorado, pick up a mat, and choose a spot at the far corner, in the shadows, where I can turn my face to the wall and let the tears come, if they do.
I’m brand-new in town, and I’m grieving. Just days ago, during my cross-country move, I learned that my older brother, 55, is dying of colon cancer. He has smoked for years, lived hard, and for much of his life he ate nothing but junk. When I’m not tearful, I’m furious. How could he be so heedless of his body, or of those who love him and depend on him?
Surrender to Gravity
Class begins. We stretch out on our backs on the floor.
Offering your weight generously to the earth, the earth generously supporting your weight.
Wendy’s voice is still and steady, a cheerful lilt ripples just below the calm.
There is a fine intimacy between your body and the earth.
Intimacy. Now there’s a word you rarely hear in a yoga class. Funny thing, too, when yoga is all about bringing body and mind into connection.
Oh, no, thinking. I catch myself and return to the room.
Be very deliberate in how your body meets the earth. Be aware of each point of contact.
My attention turns to my back, and I feel the pressure between vertebrae and floor.
If the vertebrae contact the earth beneath them with consciousness and care, they will be more receptive to gravity.
Being receptive. My breath responds, slowing and deepening. Around me, the pre-class bustle has quieted, each body now receiving the words, receiving the earth.
Our bodies are most harmonious with gravity when we are lying on our backs.
Barely five minutes into class and I’ve already softened, my body opening, my mind carried by a flow of words fresh as spring water.
We practice on our knees, extending one leg-arm pair, then the other. Wendy’s voice traces connections between the movements in our bodies and the earth. Breath links the two.
Between the earth and your body, an exchange of breath, a flow of recognition. The breath and gravity are old friends.
Something in me wakes up, softly astonished. Of course, how simple—body and earth. Each body here, on its mat on the floor. The larger body of us all, the earth. And flowing between them, the breath. Gravity hugging us to earth, dependable and involuntary as breath.
Let the earth breathe you, soften you.
A small release between my ribs, and the tears begin. I turn my face to the wall and reach for the tissues next to my mat.
For most of a year it is like this. Through my brother’s death, through the months that follow, I show up in Wendy’s class, tissue in hand. Always she leads me back to the body, back to the earth. In almost every class, I turn my face to the wall for a few moments. But I keep coming back.
Is it the flow of words, clear as water? Or the tone of her voice, fresh as a cool cloth on a heated brow? For whatever reason, though the yoga choices in Boulder abound, I never visit another studio.
Find Ease and Balance
On our backs, our hands stretching overhead. One knee is bent, the sole of that foot meeting the other thigh.
Vrikshasana. Tree pose. We can experience it on the floor, fully supported. Feel the clarity in the hip joint, the breath moving freely through the hip because it receives the affirmation of the ground. . . . The earth is reliable. Avail yourself of its support.
When, after a series of stretching poses on our knees, we finally rise for a verticalvrikshasana, she calls attention again to the hip.
The standing leg is strong, but without extra effort in the hip. Remember how it felt on the mat? The breath can move with just as much clarity through the hip now that we are balancing on that leg.
Our minds follow the interior streams, our eyes finding a still place on the floor before us. Her voice flows on. The standing leg full of appreciation for the earth beneath it. The sole of the foot firmly grounded and the hands reaching skyward . . . Receiving the dual input of both earth and air, ground and space.
I have never heard so much talk of the earth in a yoga class. As if, for her, nature and yoga are not separate. It fits well with the work I am doing, writing a book about our relationship to earth.
Then we move on to a twisty pose, parivritta trikonasana (revolved triangle). Though I’ve been practicing for years, I still feel precarious in this posture. I’ve never managed to keep my balance.
Bending, breathing, we make our way carefully toward the pose, one foot behind the other. Bending, breathing. Then, hands on blocks, a slow twist, one hand moving to the hip. Wendy invites our spines to open a little further.
Listen to the callings of the spine. The body doesn’t seek discomfort. The body seeks ease and balance. . . . Move in harmony with your body, not in argument.
I’ve been arguing with my body about this pose for a long time, but suddenly I find a new avenue of breath, a tiny opening. Lifted by the breath, my shoulder rises. Within my heart a new feeling of ease. More room.
Let the breath be generous in the upper chest. . . . Watch how the breath moves your body, how generously it creates space within your body. The breath is enormously generous, as generous as the body allows.
Then my hand reaches upward, stretches toward the ceiling, and I’m in revolved triangle—and I’m breathing, still breathing.
“Wendy believes in the essential innocence of the body,” a close friend of hers tells me, “in the natural intelligence within each of us."
Invitation, not effort.
“Wendy believes in the essential innocence of the body,” a close friend of hers tells me, “in the natural intelligence within each of us." Sometimes we practice a kind of fascism toward the body—it’s all about discipline, shaping, forcing—but Wendy sees that the body can do its own healing. She would say that when we get out of our own way, the body knows how to self-organize. And all we have to do, really, is recognize the truth of what’s going on inside.”
“What would you like to work on today?” Wendy asks at the beginning of class. Responses come from various directions. “Shoulders.” “Hips.” “Upper back.”
“Upper back? Oh, that’s a good one. We can work on that.”
Wendy has no plan for today’s class. Instead, she listens for what wants to happen. During class she is attentive to what unfolds in the moment. As if the best foundation for life is none at all beyond simply listening.
“I sometimes hear myself saying something I haven’t consciously thought about,” she confesses one day, “and then I wonder, is that in the yoga texts?” She goes home and checks the Yoga Sutra, she says, and sure enough, it’s there. “It amazes me,” she says. “Thousands of years ago they were putting into words the things we still experience in our bodies.”
“It amazes me,” she says. “Thousands of years ago they were putting into words the things we still experience in our bodies.”
In each pose, the alignment Wendy encourages us to find has nothing to do with how the pose looks. Not a word about straightening an arm or leg or stretching to our edge. Instead, Wendy eases us away from the edge so that breath can flow, so that we can receive what wants to happen. She takes us into the heart of the pose, deep into the tissues of the body, the place where breath and cells are joined, where movement arises.
Listen to the sensations.
We are tangled in gomukhasana, cow-face pose, knees stacked one on top of the other, hips screaming with the unfamiliarity of it.
Sensations are the language of the body.
One elbow points skyward, the other reaches toward earth, hands behind the back and fingertips making their way toward the exact place in the upper back where many of us hold so much tension.
There is room for discussion in the body.
“My shoulders are sure talking to me!” retorts a student at the far end. Many chuckles around the room. We all just want her to release us from this pose.
Instead, she draws us with her voice deeper into our bodies until we have witnessed, fully witnessed, the process taking place within.
There is room in the body for a conversation you can listen to. The wisdom is in the listening.
Wendy is famous for holding poses longer than her students. She has been uncommonly strong her whole life. During college, when she discovered yoga in Austin, she would often bike from her home to Barton Springs to practice for a couple hours under the pecan trees above the pool, then swim for an hour in the chilly waters of the spring-fed pool, bike to campus, attend classes, and then head to work, arriving home at 2:00 a.m. And the next morning begin again.
A Time for Good-bye
For five years I attend Wendy’s Saturday morning class—sporadically toward the end as work on my book intensifies. I can’t wait to be done with the writing. Most of it took place during the years I have known her. I look forward to finally sitting down with her, getting acquainted with her, talking over with her what it’s like to seek out words for experiences that seem so indescribable.
But then, just a few weeks after the manuscript is done, I hear that Wendy is leaving teaching for a while. She needs to focus on healing. She was diagnosed in early January with cancer. A mass on her liver, late stage 4.
Her students are stunned. When we last saw her, she was the picture of radiant health.
Chemo does not arrest the disease.
In the spring, Wendy’s students ask her to record a yoga class so it will be available in the future. “I have nothing left to teach,” she responds. “In fact, there is nothing left within me for teaching. Just an open, complete emptiness.”
ON JUNE 15, I’m scheduled to leave the country to attend a conference. In the week leading up to the trip, I hear that Wendy is moving toward death.
The day before departing, I spend time in meditation. It is like attending a birth—waiting, watching, breathing. In the waiting, time shifts away from minutes and hours toward simple presence. Threshold time. The air feels charged with beginning and ending.
Wendy is drawing away from us.
That night in Houston I miss my connection and am stranded for 24 hours in an airport hotel isolated among freeways. The next afternoon I take out my yoga mat and practice. For a break I walk once around the hotel, and there in the parking lot, Bootsie the Clown’s van advertises “Laughter Yoga, Ho Ho Ha Ha Ha.” Wendy would love it. I swear I can hear her laughing.
Back inside I check my e-mail, and learn that Wendy has passed away—just a few hours earlier.
Hold On to Let Go
At a small grief gathering some days later at Studio Be Yoga, the faces around the room say it all: What do we do with such a loss? It is immense, far bigger than any of us can say.
The woman leading the ritual invites us to place ourselves in a continuum according to how close we felt to Wendy. We cluster like piglets near the head of the line. Whether or not we knew Wendy outside of class, all of us felt close to her. Several say, “Whenever I talked with her, she made me feel like there was no one else but me.” Heads nod. Later her husband tells me, “She believed healing takes place when the person is seen clearly. Everyone really just needs to be seen.”
At the end of the ritual I have one final question. “What kind of cancer did Wendy have?” I am expecting “liver” or “pancreatic,” the kinds that take people quickly before they have a chance to respond.
“Colon cancer,” I hear. “Metastasized before there were symptoms.”
For a moment the room disappears. I blink hard to get it back. It’s the same cancer my brother had had five years ago when I first arrived at Wendy’s studio, the cancer he died from at the age I am now. How can this be—colon cancer in Wendy, a woman whose life was defined by listening, who paid exquisite attention to the whispers of her own body? In my brother it made sense, but in Wendy?
Instantly I see the truth: I have been wielding a sword of judgment against my brother. As if by blaming him for getting sick, I could stave off the thing that took his life. But my weapon is made of cardboard; my tidy conclusions about the world will have to go. Even in death, Wendy teaches a more generous way: It is time to lay down arms against my brother.
Trust in the Breath
We are on our backs in shavasana, the pose of the corpse. At the end of class, after the releasing we practiced in each pose, here is the chance to let go for real.
Listen in the silence to how your body wants to release.
Wendy’s voice flows through the quiet.
Let the earth move into the body, the body expand into the earth, so that each can replenish the other. . . . Shavasana is a reunion with the earth.
Around the room, all is calm. The busy minds we dragged into class have quieted, slowing to the pace of the body, the pace of the earth. Each of us breathes evenly, deeply. From two mats away I hear the beginning of a snore.
Not extracting ourselves, but connecting to the earth, the source of our vitality. Feel the nourishment of the ground.
Beneath us, a sure embrace. Within us, not solidity but something more generous: spaciousness. More room, a little more trusting of the breath. Our only foundation the act of opening. Continually opening.
When you’re ready, come to sit. Let’s breathe together for a few moments.
Wendy’s voice is barely audible, sliding gently between our breaths.
In a few minutes we’ll walk out of this studio; in a few hours or days we will likely feel tangled in the knots of living again. But in these moments, palms together, we breathe. Grateful, serene.
Namaste, she whispers.
Embracing the Journey
A late night unexpected trip to the ER changed everything for a passionate and creative life. In the fullness of her life, Wendy Bramlett, my wife of 28 years, friend, teacher, mother, and generous leader in the community, was diagnosed with late stage cancer. Five months later she was gone.
During her last months of life, Wendy knew her asana practice was complete, yet her yoga practice continued in profound ways. Wendy stayed in the inquiry of yoga, with the wisdom of the body, with listening to what is, while gently and fiercely tending the wholeness of her being. Through this example Wendy not only taught me the power of embracing life fully, but also what it can be to die with grace, dignity, and compassion.
There were plenty of gritty and heartbreaking moments in our life—in this passage to her death—but Wendy always stayed true to a deep listening in her life, to life’s beauty, and to our inherent health beyond all appearances. This was the way she lived her life and ultimately the way she embraced her death, a living inquiry of compassion with self, with other.
One morning she awoke and said she had just dreamed of kissing her body from head to toe, giving gratitude to her beautiful body for serving her so well, for moving her with such grace through this life, saying, “Thank you, Sweetie, thank you.” Perhaps when we fully claim the beauty and difficulty of a whole life, we may be fully free to come home to ourselves, to belong to ourselves in the most profound way, to belong in that deep communion that is the “yoke” of yoga.
Recently I brought Wendy’s ashes to a beloved ocean bay in Mexico. As I filtered them down from my hands to the white sands below, I heard her voice say, “Oh King of Hearts, here’s your gold crown.” I felt something hard in my fingers and lifted my hand from the water to see it was a gold crown from her tooth. Tears came, then laughter. I knew Wendy was challenging me to stand fully in my life, to say yes to the whole journey, nothing excluded, no exiles. —Russell Bramlett