Lisa

by Angela

Lisa Kaufman died this week, peacefully in her sleep. She had turned 53 on August 9th. The medical report found no cause. She was in extraordinarily good health. Her heart stopped. She leaves so many of us who have been connected with her, most notably her husband, and sons ages 13 and 16.

But a lot of you didn’t know Lisa. She’s been practicing ashtanga since the 90s, but with us only three years. So part of me hesitates to ask you to focus on crystallizing a memory of Lisa, if she’s not already real for you. First, because we are so broadly networked across spacetime that maybe it’s best not to highlight individuals. Our community practices in 15 countries; you span learning relationships formed in different contexts since 1999. Second, I hesitate because 2020 is making landfall. Maybe your mind does not need to think extra about dying. Dominic and I asked each other five days ago: is this American mood a gathering of stormclouds, or are we in the actual storm? So much had not happened yet, five days ago. She was still here. And still right now, so much has not happened yet.

But I realized, sharing this wonderful human with you is the most nourishing possible move. Those who did know her remember light, gentle humor, utter stability, maturity, open curiosity, presence, joy. So just for a bit: silence, concentration, and Lisa’s spirit. And anyway I want to be part of the kind of person who stops on the field of practice to honor the lost, who places the attention and the emotions deliberately at times when this twittering world wants to monopolize them instead.

Lisa would stop me here. Every time I’d approach the topic of her mastery in the ashtanga practice, or that of the long historical memory she had to share with us because she’s been on this path longer than I have – that was when she’d shake me off, change the track, make her self evanescent. She did not want to teach. She was too dedicated for that; she knew how to protect her practice from such nonsense as what I do. She’d always cite Patanjali about the dirga kala – practice must be done for a long time and without interruption, then she’d claim, oddly, that taking time away from the mat when her boys were small constituted a break in her practice, and she started back at the beginning from then. Then we’d roll our eyes at each other and I’d find subtler ways to tell the others: you can learn from this one, a lot. She understands.

In August one of you came to my house for a long walk, to talk about the recent years of your sitting practice. Impermanence had emerged as a dominant characteristic of your experience. We discussed how the direct knowledge of the non-graspability of experience gets into your body. The carnal knowledge of impermanence. I shared how Shinzen taught me to perceive the “vibe” of a practitioner as a way to perceive their relationship with emptiness – spontaneity gets into the body, the energy “rides” through the tissues, emptiness pours out of the cells in the form of light. I write this knowing that the impermanence, and emptiness, that coursed through Lisa’s system were at work when her heart stopped. But I have not yet accepted that her heart didn’t start again to make her stay with us. I’m not spiritually mature like that. She was.

Lisa had a brilliant mind, which she also voiced with spontaneity, curiosity and lightness. I only knew about it because she used her intellect to take care of me in difficult times. She figured out that my naive spirit thrives on art and writing and jokes about emptiness. At the shala you might have noticed we had a running in-joke. That was it, something utterly dark and deathly and morbid, and simultaneously full of light and tiny laughter. Nothing lasts Angela, not even cruelty. She gave me that because she saw it kept me bouncy. Lisa came into my life just as the revelations of Patthabi Jois’s sexual abuse were breaking. She was the first to tell me they were true, not on the basis of our feminist commitment to believing victims: on the basis of her own experience. She’d seen him grope a woman in the classroom two decades ago, and had never gone back. And for the duration of that slow revelation, she had my back: this was real; it was the reason women in her generation were silenced by men close to Jois; and now the truth could be in the open and the light. The same open, and same light, that were so much of her character. Nothing to defend or pretend. She gave me all that during the most difficult period of my own practice.

This spring, as work got weird she was DMing me little morsels of Rupert Spira – and we were sparring very darkly about the ways old men like Sasaki Roshi use their understanding of impermanence and emptiness specifically to get power over sincere women. Last month we had a funny exchange in which I said Ken McLeod loves capitalism too much to be taken seriously, she expected I’d say that so she pasted his most genuine passages on emptiness into our thread until I admitted their wonderfulness. This month on the road, I read Timothy Morton, so that I could share his work with her now – she would always read with me – I knew she would be tickled by the way this philosopher accidentally (beautifully) illuminates Zen metaphysics. During a period when there was so much reason for despair, Lisa threw me this nerdy line on impermanence that helped me to stay in a state of effervescence. Being with the spiritual truth of emptiness has fostered openness to change and to life even in times of isolation, endings and existential despair.

I know there is an Obi-Wan thing going on here, that the honoring of Lisa is done by keeping my foot in the breach of the void, into which she’s traveled. She lived like that, in a way everyone who encountered her describes in different ways: as light, pure sanity, radiant kindness, humility, humor. Long time practice in her system radiated a deeper-than-philosophy insight about the empty, impermanent, non-selfy nature of nature.

I know she is still throwing out the line, the pervasiveness of emptiness in our world of form is clear now like never before, with her gone. But it was easier when we could talk.

There’s one other teaching that feels important to share for the moment. Lisa could be with volatility, because she held lightly. As she grounded me in the truth of the women’s stories, she bore witness to the blistering misogyny and strategic erasure that ashtanga women (myself included) experienced in retaliation for shining a light on how our community had enabled abuse of women by worshipping authority. She let me know she saw the intimidation that women in leadership were experiencing. She’d been around this practice longer than me; this was a sickness we could work through, and wait out. This attitude channeled a kind of integrity into me. I didn’t need to make a thing of the hard parts, didn’t need to turn them into gossip. It was enough to have one senior woman holding space, acting as my teacher. Her way was to acknowledge, grieve the harm done, learn, move on, do not make a thing of it. This made her the kind of person who you could ask to hold the emotional equivalent of dynamite. She was just cool, not fascinated by the thing. She did not need to make up a story about it for later. She didn’t think it was special to be in the know about my suffering. She’d just hold the fragile moment, put it down when it was done, and model for me how to let the experience go. This illustrates the impermanence that permeated her personality. Se how that quality in her being made her compassionate and trustworthy? Most of us can’t hold dynamite yet, because we cling.

So many of you told me yesterday, you feel connected to Lisa through this practice and this community. Some of you enjoyed her friendship and her implicit teaching because you did practice with her in person. However this lands for you, I want to affirm that Lisa was a person entirely committed to on the spiritual path who had integrated a disciplined practice into a relaxed, peaceful family life. The grit and commitment of householder practice was so normal for her that you never sensed she was pushing, even when she was in the expression of full power. She got into ashtanga when it was a narrowband nerdy thing, and she practiced in a devotional manner for decades. The vitality she reflected back to you was real in her, and it’s real in you, and it’s just part of how the yoga works over time if we do it correctly. I feel sad for those of us who have lost her, but I feel deeply at peace for Lisa herself. She had this funny stability about her. The memory of her still does.

Our group talked last year about how yoga is preparation for a good death. Lisa recorded the class and was excited to see the shala go all existential and raw that day. I don’t even know anymore. The elders of Native communities everywhere are dying of Covid, democracy has fallen, climate change overtakes us. It’s hard to be present to so much loss, and celebrate life at the same time. In that class, we talked about being present with pain, and loss. That is what practice is – watching experience appear and disappear. Practicing on the knife edge of the present moment, even when we know yoga won’t save us from suddenly disappearing some day.

The last time I saw Lisa was Labor Day morning. I mentioned the day before that I’d like to finish up teaching at the tennis shala by 8:30, in order to drive to Lake Superior by dark. She stopped me, saying “Do you want me to hold the space until the last person is finished? I would love to do that.” She understood: we had to close that portal we created outside this summer with as much consciousness and gravitas as we had opened it and brought it to life each day. This is the structure of correct method: giving equal weight to the endings as to the beginnings.

So, the next day came, the last day of the experience we had in Summer 2020. Many of you brought herbs and vegetables from your gardens, there were actual raw food confections filled with love, and we all took from the fall harvest bounty on our way off the courts. When I left, arms full of your gifts and letters, I turned to touch the threshold of the tennis court where it meets the sidewalk. Lisa was practicing off to the north, deep in her concentration, not acknowledging me as I left for 4,000 miles alone on the road. The others were dispersed around her and I could see how she held them up and held them together with her practice. Holding space. I rarely have the confidence to slip out of class early, because I worry that the proper attention will not be placed on the ending. But that one I left with her. I knew she would close our Summer portal and bring the experience to an end better than the rest of us yet could.

Tennis Shala, Summer 2020