"Short people are quick to temper, and they like to do backbends, especially Viparita Chakrasana." And with that comment from Geeta Iyengar, Maty Ezraty and I looked at each other from across the yoga hall and could barely resist bursting out laughing. Her eyes were huge pools of blue with a mile wide smile that was many miles deeper. She was a fellow short person. We liked backbends. It is still hard to fathom that Geeta and Maty are no longer with us.
I spent time with Maty when we were both studying in Pune, India. Our paths crossed on a few trips. One time she was there with her then-partner, Chuck. On another trip, when I really got to know her, she was alone. I was, too, and I will never forget our intimate conversations, walking on Fergusson College Road, looking for WiFi sticks or shopping, joking about our shared anxiety around technology, and having what felt like forbidden conversations about yoga, and relationships, over idli and sambar and numerous cups of chai.
Maty was a senior teacher of Ashtanga yoga. She was also an avid student of Iyengar yoga. To me, and for all practical purposes, she was as much a teacher of Iyengar yoga as of Ashtanga.
My memories of Maty are mostly echoes of our conversations, which happened most often in India, but also over the phone, and in farther-flung places like Australia, where we both happened to be teaching at the same time. In Pune, we talked about how it felt to feel like an outsider even within our own communities. We talked about the positives and pitfalls of lineage and guru-based systems. We talked about the prevalence of sexual abuse, and of abuse in general. We talked about how best to take care of oneself in the intensity of the classroom—especially in Pune, where doing exactly as you were told without question was the order of the day. During one visit, Maty had situated herself in the back corner of the asana hall, near the prop closet, so she could discretely use a brick under her head in Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward-facing dog pose). She was healing from a shoulder injury at the time and wanted to take care of herself while maintaining a low profile—literally, but also out of the teacher’s watchful eye—so that she could do the needful for herself. I admired that. I admired her.
Our conversations took us to places where we did not always agree. Yet we always found a way to laugh about it. To connect, and get back to what we felt was most important and most meaningful about the practice we shared.
One such conversation went something like this: It was after a Wednesday morning ladies’ class. Maty and I went to Vaishali, or perhaps another similar eatery, on the crowded and congested Fergusson College Road in Pune. We would have a post-class breakfast/lunch of dosas, idli or some similar south Indian snack. The night before, we had both attended Pranshant Iyengar's Tuesday night advanced class, where the theme of the class had been worthiness. Throughout the class he would ask us if we felt worthy: worthy to stay in the pose, or worthy to do a certain action, or worthy even to be students or teachers of Iyengar Yoga. "Are you worthy?" he asked, over and over and over.
So that Wednesday at noon, Maty and I sat quietly, waiting for our idli while briefly discussing the ladies’ class we had just taken with Geeta Iyengar. Then one of us asked, and I can't remember which one of us, "What did you think of last night's class?"
Maty was Israeli Jew, born there and moved to the US as a young person. I was from a Polish family, and raised as a Catholic in the early part of my life. Neither of us were practicing the faiths we were raised in, and yet we had a strong and similar reaction to Prashant's class, and to his persistent question of worthiness. As we weaved through our various feelings we realized that we both had spent years struggling with a sense of unworthiness, and even guilt, for a good part of our lives. We were both women, brought up in a patriarchal cultures and religions. We discussed how challenging it was to find be able to find our own voices, and embody them; to find our ideas, and ourselves, as fully and fearlessly as the men around us seemed to do quite easily.
We wondered if Prashant understood how his question of worthiness might affect people differently depending on gender, culture, religion, upbringing, and a whole host of other factors. He was, after all, an Indian man born to a Brahmin family—a very fortunate birth in many ways and one that afforded him a deep sense of worthiness, most likely reinforced by those around him from childhood. Of course, we cannot know how he was raised and how he really felt, but this was what we discussed and surmised at that time.
We shared how we were navigating our insecurities, our passions, and what we wanted out of practice, our relationships, and our lives in general. We talked a lot about simple things, like the simple pleasure of cooking for ourselves when traveling, and the sweet refuge of practice. Of course, these were also the most profound things. In that small cafe, in the wake of a shared experience, we felt safe enough with each other to share that which can so easily remain hidden.
Sometimes I wonder if the part of us that knows our time here is limited, speaks through us and incites us to act accordingly. We become more present because we have to, and more fully who we are for the time that we are. Maty was full of presence, and anyone who knew her could attest to that. Whether she knew or sensed she would die so young we’ll never know, but that maybe somewhere inside she knew that she did not have time. Do any of us?
For those of you who called Maty your teacher, your mentor, or "yogamama," I am so sorry for your loss. It must be immense. For me, Maty was a colleague and friend, and over our brief slivers of time together, she shared a lot of herself with me, and I with her. And the thing is—and this will come as no surprise to anyone who knew her—she was the real deal. She was a truly good human doing her best to live an honest human life, and help other humans do the same in the best way that she could.
And like so many people, after we left that cafe one dusty February in Pune, I thought I would see Maty's mile-wide smile again. Why wouldn't I? Someone like her seems too full of life to ever die. It was easy to imagine her becoming something like Tao Porchon-Lynch, rocking 100-plus years and still doing Mayurasana, and still dancing! And maybe she is now, in some place we cannot know.
My friend Michael Glenn from Tokyo, who was with Maty in the days before she died, wrote eloquently in his recent post about her death that some things are just unexplainable. Yes—some things are unexplainable. Things like the breadth and depth of her smile, her very being-ness and the untimely cessation of it all. Unrepeatable, inexplicable. Michael also mentioned a favorite musician of his, the late Warren Zevon, whom he found himself listening to after Maty's death in Tokyo. Warren had cancer and wrote about how facing death reminded him of the importance of enjoying every sandwich.
After hearing of Maty's passing, I kept thinking about Christopher Hitchens’ book Mortality, where he writes about literally losing his voice, and how important it is to reach out to other people when you feel even the slightest inkling to do so. And of Oliver Sacks’s book Gratitude, where he writes about the simple pleasure of resting on the Sabbath, or of seeing the night sky "powdered with stars,'' quoting the words of Milton. He viewed such a sky in the high Atacama desert of Chile, and of wishing to see such a sky again as he was dying. Or of the words Paul Kalanithi wrote in his book When Breath Becomes Air for his then- infant daughter as he was dying, telling her "that she filled a dying man's days with a sated joy. A joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied." Many reminders of the importance of enjoying what we can in this life, every star, every sandwich, every pause, each other.
I think Maty did that. I hope I can, too.
Photos: Joe Arcidacano, DJ Pierce, James Wvinner