I found out about Leiby Kletzky’s death when I was settling into a yoga class. The instructor dedicated the class to him, adding that he had been found, and that he was not alive. She cried a little, and moved along. I didn’t know I was holding my breath about this case until I heard that and exhaled. I live just miles from where this happened, so had seen the missing-child signs go up.
Something strange happens when you juxtapose grief with an intense physical experience. The mind can hollow you out with “what ifs.” So the body becomes a space of refuge. If you just follow your breath inward, you connect to a place where you can iron anguish out of your joints and sinews. Vinyasa flow classes are tough under the best of circumstances. Even for those of us who have put our time in on the mat. But try holding a five minute headstand with tears running across your forehead. That will teach you about equanimity in inversion, about using healthy fear to counterbalance an aching heart. The need to physicalize grief is powerful. As Jews we have K’riah, a small act of material destruction to speed catharsis. It lances the grief to the extent that such a small gesture can.
My favorite class is a darker shade of yoga, all squats and crouches, deep in the hip flexors, where you have to anchor to your pelvic floor to navigate the practice with any grace. This is not delicate, violet colored yoga, by any means. It reminds me that for all of the Shakti, there is Shiva. For each small delicate life, there will be a death. And it is reflected in my body. I feel vibrant after a strong practice, but the sides of my big toes have gone numb from years of picking up and jumping back (not me in video, btw). Even with all of the awareness that I have cultivated in certain areas of my body, some are going dark. The transaction does not yield a net gain. But those losses are tangible, calculable. Those losses are safer than facing the one that Leiby’s parents now have.
The Jewish story is one of physical exertion. The texts are full of runners and fighters, soldiers and slaves, men and angels lifting boulders, crossing desserts and dancing in times of joy. Physical pain is etched deeply in the narrative structure of this people; the physical scars match the emotional ones in their breadth and depth. Yet, these are people who carry on, both biblically and historically, in spite of physical duress. Abraham supposedly went out looking for guests shortly after circumcising himself. Job lost everything and still kept the faith. Biblical language often links emotional suffering and moral failings to specific body parts. There is talk of broken hearts, bones crushed as if by lions, etc. The body and the material world matter deeply in Judaism, they are evidence of the creative force that shapes us, and ground for discovery of self as an individual, but also in relationship to a larger communal whole. You are not just Jewish in your head and heart, but at the most basic cellular level, and then out again from that nucleus. Davening is an extension from that center, a pulsation. For it is not just a verbal recitation, it involves that rhythmic swaying and rocking. When I first saw it, to be perfectly frank, it reminded me of the self-soothing movement of autistic children, who often rock back and forth in place. But I think it just serves a similar purpose, a way to scratch a psycho-spiritual itch. My yoga practice is like that, rhythmic action, sometimes rote, sometimes frantic and breathless, but always an attempt to integrate body and spirit into some kind of vibrational whole. In spite of my sloppy spirituality, and semi-latent agnosticism, these stories still resonate with me. I feel sadness in the back of my throat and hovering around my temples.
This horrible thing happened in my town, and I imagine, horribly, my own child, disoriented and vulnerable, humbling himself to ask a stranger for help. I can catch the faintest aura of what Leiby’s family is experiencing, and it is blinding. So when I walked out of yoga, I had to wonder why no one else seemed upset. The city felt heartless and cold, and I felt alone. Then, a woman saw me crying on the F train, and, without a word of question, handed me a tissue. May we be able to extend that same compassion, many times over, to the family mauled by this murder.