Before Amy Weintraub published her first novel, Temple Dancer, she was known as the bestselling author of Yoga for Depression. Readers may be surprised to find out that prior to becoming a Yoga therapist, she was a fiction writer for many years, suffering from depression. She explains: “There is a myth, perpetrated by many artists who have little joy or peace in their lives, that great art must emerge from great suffering. I almost resisted being happy. I believed that when I began to practice Yoga and peace was the foundation of my life, I would never write fiction again. I wrote books on Yoga and mental health and taught the practices that had saved my life and transformed so many of my student’s lives. I traveled and worked hard at this, with a great passion to alleviate suffering through Yoga, as my own suffering had been alleviated. And then there was a wakeup call. I read Stephen Cope’s The Great Work of Your Life, and I felt the pull of my dharma to write fiction again. After nearly two years of contemplation, I sold the LifeForce Yoga Practitioner Training business to Rose Kress, who is now the director of the training. Although I still teach LifeForce Yoga and look forward to doing so at Yogaville, I have more time to follow my bliss—to write what I feel called to write.”
**(Please note that the link in the current issue of Integral Yoga Magazine eWeekly for Amy’s upcoming program via Yogaville Online Sept 19 –20 was incorrect. This is the updated link for LifeForce Yoga to Manage Your Mood.
The following is an exclusive excerpt from Chapter Three of Amy’s new novel, Temple Dancer. Set in India at the end of the Raj, in Boston in 1997, and in Yogaville in 2016, Temple Dancer is a spiritual thriller, a mystery and a tragic love story steeped in Yoga philosophy. Find Temple Dancer on Amazon (paperback & Kindle) and wherever books are sold.
We have rolled enough beedis [thin, Indian cigarette] for my sister’s dowry. I feel sad that Amma [mother] is not here to celebrate Lakshmi’s fourteen-year-old birthday and to see her in her beautiful red wedding sari with roses woven in her hair.
This is the day we have been planning for so long. I am awake early to offer a special puja to Krishna and Radha. I shall ask for their love to surround Lakshmi and her new husband Shankar and to bless their marriage with many sons. Her husband is very handsome. We saw him when he came with his parents to inspect. Lakshmi was much pleased with his appearance, but now she is afraid of what will happen when she goes to live in his mother’s house. It is not the work, I think, that frightens her, for she is a hard worker like me. She is afraid that a mother-in-law will make her long for our Amma all the more. That is what I would fear if I were facing the wedding ceremony today. Here, at least, are Amma’s pots and saris and bangles. Here, I can remember her as I boil the rice in her pot or pray before her altar.
The rose petals I gathered are fragrant, and I have saved a few grains of the wedding rice we will boil later this morning. As I pray to Radha and Krishna, I offer a prayer of my own. I ask for this boon—that I never have to leave my mother’s house. I do not know from where the money would come for a second dowry, so it is not such a difficult wish.
When I close my eyes, I can still see the light from the arati lamp, burning behind my eyelids. I focus on the light as it merges in the center of my forehead. It is quiet this morning. I am the only one awake at this hour and I sit in silence for a very long time. As I breathe, I feel the lamp light glowing around my body. My skin is tingling as it did when Amma rubbed me with sesame oil. It has been so long since I felt my Amma’s touch, and now I am feeling touched all over. I am so bright; I am suddenly afraid there must be fire. When I open my eyes to look, it is only the small flame of the aarti lamp burning, and I am just the same as I was. I am simply a girl doing her morning puja before God.
But I feel changed. I feel the glow inside me now, everywhere inside me. I know now that God is with me, and that the Divine Mother has heard my prayers. My boon will be granted. I will not be a servant in my mother-in-law’s house. I will never leave my Amma’s side. I know this altar is mine now, that the Divine Mother has wrapped me in her holy light, that I am divine.
I begin to make sounds, like chanting without words. I know they are blessings from the Divine Mother. “Ma,” I call, and then I begin to chant to her in all her many names, chanting the name of the Goddess, Saraswati, for whom I am named, and Lakshmi, the Goddess of abundance, and Parvathi, Shiva’s consort, and wonderful wild Goddess Mother Kali, and terrible demon slayer, Durga. And soon the household is awake and gathered around me, and I stand in prayer, swaying still with the fullness of song in my heart. When I open my eyes, Appa is bowing at my feet.
All day I am filled with the blessings of the Divine Mother. On the way to the wedding hall, I stop. Tears come to my eyes as I step on an ancient crack in the surface of this dry sunbaked road. I am so young in this body; yet, in this moment, I am caught in the current of an underground stream of wisdom that has been flowing since the beginning of this world. Only this body is new. The cracks in my path tell me of this and of many other secrets existing deep beneath the surface of this earth we call reality.
As the wedding guests arrive, they are brought to me, one by one. I do not know what words to speak, and yet the words come from a place inside me that my mind does not recognize. I listen to the words, hearing them for the first time, just as the guests hear them. Each guest pranams at my feet. Even the swamis and saints in saffron robes bow down.
It takes a long time for the wedding ceremony. My sister is beautiful in her red sari trimmed in gold. She is fragrant and sweet as the roses and jasmine twined in the locks of her hair.
As I look around I see God everywhere—in the weary old woman who sits toothless and grinning in the corner, in the beggar with one leg who waits at the door for the guests to remember him, in the little one, unused to wearing pants who has pulled them off to do his business in the corner of the tent. I see God in my beautiful sister and in my mother’s sister, and in each chapatti and each sweet that was made with so much love and attention for these guests on this special day.
There are many musicians sitting together, but only the tabla player is beating his drums. Now the veena player begins to pluck the strings. The room is bright with excitement. My father calls for a dance, and several ladies rise. Three women and a girl about my age begin the slow circle on the ground in front of Lakshmi and Shankar. “Dance, Saraswati,” Appa says. “It is why God gave you legs.”
I have never danced in public before. I am shy at first, moving slowly, pacing my movements with the others. We move with precision, each lifting her hands and raising and stamping her feet to the pattern of her neighbor’s movements. I feel the peace of moving in harmony with my sisters and forget there are others watching. The tempo of the music increases, and we circle faster and faster, our saris and skirts fluttering as we spin. Suddenly, I am pushed into the center of the circle and dance my own dance as the women circle me with the graceful rhythm of their limbs. I dance until my hair unwinds from its braid as my head moves by itself on my neck and my hands fly into mudras. Then my eyes flutter back, my body trembles, and I am on the ground, shaking in the embrace of my Lord Brahma. Light shoots up through the top of my head, and I am with Amma. I am in bliss. I am the Goddess; I am Saraswati!
Wendy puts the manuscript down on the nightstand and takes off her reading glasses. She feels more awake now than she did before she started reading. What is she reading? She’s never read John of the Cross, but she thinks maybe she should. This manuscript … it’s like reading the old testament. All those miracles, the burning bush—the fire that burns but does not consume, the tablets carved by the hand of God. It’s exciting and disturbing in equal measure. It feels right to be reading it here while diving more deeply into her practice—meditating three times a day with the swamis and devotees and community she loves. She’ll ask Ramesh to send the original back to her in Rhode Island, so she can hold the small red book in her hand again, even if she can’t read the words. It has the weight of love in it. Love and trust. Why would she possess it, if Saraswati hadn’t trusted her? It feels like she’s been given a second chance.
Her long hours at work provide too many distractions to meditate more than once a day, let alone give this story the mindful attention it’s due. Her private practice consumes her in a way that would not allow her to sink into this story. Now, she has five days to read before she joins the Yoga and mental health program next weekend.
She’s excited about the workshop—how to integrate appropriate Yoga practices into her clinical work. Yoga helped her survive the divorce and has contributed to her emotional wellbeing ever since. Why shouldn’t she be able to share a little of what transformed her life with her trauma survivors? She thinks of 52-year-old Jeffrey who can’t get out of bed in the morning. She would like to teach him something he could do right there in his bed, so he starts his day with more energy. And 37-year-old Carla, who calls her between sessions, always in crisis and usually angry and blaming someone. What might she teach her to self soothe? She wants to finish this diary or whatever it is … fiction? Memoir? before her focus lands back on her clients and how what she learns this weekend can deepen their work together.
She was happy to see the program for therapists and Yoga teachers listed in the Yogaville catalog. She could have taken the same program closer to home, but Yogaville, and its temple and shrines nestled along the James River in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in rural Virginia, is special. Those fleeting moments on her mat at home that take her beyond the boundaries of her mind, seem limitless on the grounds of this ashram. A few years ago, when she tried to explain the healing potential of Yoga to her colleagues, eyes would roll, and the subject would be changed. More and more though, they are curious and a few of them have even become Yoga teachers.
As much as she loves to visit, she would never move in. Ashrams, like every other organization, have their politics. Can we ever be entirely clear, she wonders, free of unmet childhood needs, or of our own self-interest, despite prayers for an “ego as pure as crystal?” And she loves that about humanity—loves the push and pull that makes life interesting. As long as she’s a visitor here, who adorns herself with an “in loving silence” badge in the dining hall, she is immune to the push and pull of ashram life. This is her retreat. For Saraswati. And for Becky. In her heart’s mind, everything she does is for her daughter. But that’s not the way it has looked to others. Not to her family. Not to her friends. Certainly, not to Becky’s father Aaron. Becky is the only one who knows. And to Wendy, Becky’s knowing is all that matters.
In the morning, Wendy lies in bed. Instead of going to the early meditation, she ponders the vivid scenes she read the night before. Could these truly be the words of a young girl of what, ten or eleven? After the initial hurdle of first grade, when survival meant training her mind to seek shelter somewhere, anywhere, other than here, Wendy was reading and had a good vocabulary by eight. Still out-to-lunch in second grade and barely there in third, she had mastered reading and it had mastered her. She was enslaved by those childhood mystery series about the Dana Sisters. But she could not have expressed herself clearly about anything, much less life and death and transcendent states of Samadhi. And Becky at ten, smart as she was—could she have been so precise? Becky, grown now, despite or because of her brilliance, was still beautifully child-like at 29.
Unlike Becky, Wendy had been an introverted child, burrowing into the corner of the bed after school with a gothic novel, and then drawing into a sketch book her imagined Nancy Drew or Heathcliff or the mad wife confined in the tower. Becky didn’t escape into reading or drawing as a child, but as soon as she could walk, she danced alone around the living room until she dropped, sometimes so dizzy she banged her shin into the coffee table, and once her head on the Queen Ann side table, so that she had to get stitches in her brow. Becky danced to “Beauty and the Beast” and “Miss Saigon,” the call to dinner unheard. She and Becky were both like that—tuned out or tuned in, depending on your perspective. Except for the terrible time when she was ten, Becky has never stopped dancing.
The trance of the dance, the absorption of art. Creation. The flow. Saraswati’s description is familiar to Wendy. Had she been born in India, maybe her absorption in the things that didn’t seem to count in Sharon, Massachusetts, would have been considered holy. Instead of … what had her parents called her? Not space cadet. But something like that. Scatterbrained. Absent minded. She remembers those report cards in elementary school. Daydreaming, inattentive, distracted. Slow. She does not pay attention in class. Today, she would be sent to the school psychologist. She might have been labeled, just as Becky had been when she was ten and therapy had been suggested for her supposed ADHD. Becky’s teachers wanted to subdue her angry outbursts, her speaking out in class. But, oh, there was good reason for that.
Ritalin had been recommended by the medical director, but thank God, the therapist, a former colleague at the clinic from which Wendy had been forced to resign, had a different perspective. After watching Becky fidget and kick a Lego construction her last client had left in the corner of the office, Sarah had the brilliant idea of putting disco music on her boom box and leaving the room to use the bathroom. When she returned, there was Becky dancing, bright eyed, smiling. Really, she hadn’t stopped taking dance lessons since. There were still more years of disruptive behavior, alcohol and drugs, and on-going therapy, but the dancing never stopped after that.
Wendy rubs her eyes, as though she could rub out the vision of ten-year-old Becky sobbing, her arms thrown around Wendy’s neck and then pushing her away. Where were you? Enough of this! Wendy throws off the covers and climbs out of bed. If she doesn’t wash her hair, she can make the second meditation that begins at 6:20 am. But she’ll skip the Yoga class, so she can fit in a little more reading time before noon meditation…
About the Author:
Amy Weintraub, E-RYT 500, C-IAYT, MFA, YACEP is the founder of the LifeForce Yoga Healing Institute and has been a pioneer in the field of Yoga and mental health for over twenty years. She is the author of Yoga for Depression (Broadway Books), Yoga Skills for Therapists: Effective Practices for Mood Management (W.W. Norton), and numerous articles and book chapters. Her new novel, Temple Dancer is now available. Amy offers professional trainings and workshops for mental health and Yoga professionals and speaks at medical and psychological conferences internationally. She is involved in ongoing research on the effects of Yoga on mood. Amy’s evidence-based LifeForce Yoga protocol is in use in healthcare settings worldwide and is featured on the award-winning CD and DVD series LifeForce Yoga to Beat the Blues. See the many free online resources for mood management on www.yogafordepression.com and at www.amyweintraub.com.