Name: Nicole Chemi
Location: Haverton, Pennsylvania, USA
Occupation: yogini, mom, brain aneurysm survivor
Asatoma Sat Gamaya
Tamasoma Jyotir Gamaya
Mrityorma Anritam Gamaya
Lead me from the unreal to the Real
Lead me from the darkness to the Light
Lead me from the temporary to the Eternal
Without fail, every time I read the Upanishads I cry. It’s not a sad cry or a mad cry, but a joyous heart-felt recognition cry. When I hold my copy of the translation by Eknath Easwaran, it feels like I am touching truth with my very own human hands. Throughout my almost 16 years of yoga practice, I can always bring my mind back into balance by simply opening my well-worn copy and reading whatever passage that catches my eye. To me, the most beautiful words ever written come from the Kena Upanishad, “The Self is the ear of the ear, the eye of the eye, the mind of the mind, the word of words, and the life of life.”
Each year when we cover The Upanishads in our 200 hr. Yoga Teacher Training course, I read the Kena, out loud to the class. And each year with a lump in my throat and tears streaming down my face, I get through to the end, my heart filled with joy. I am never sure how many of the trainees get it, how many of them think I am insane, or how many of them feel the same tenderness in the center of their chests. But each year, with great anticipation, I read and cry and feel intense love for all creatures.
Early on in my yoga studies, I found it extremely challenging to sit in a meditative posture and try to concentrate my mind. I know this is common for many beginners, however I have always been the model student, perfectionism plus. So try and try I did and the more and more frustrated I became. With years of practice and finally putting into practice the concept of detachment, I started to make some progress in meditation. After asana and relaxation, I would sit still; sometimes observing my breath and sometimes just watching my body and its stillness. I can remember when meditation switched from being a chore to being something I looked forward to; a time for me to stop doing, moving, being, trying to attain, trying to teach, trying to fulfill someone’s needs turned into a time to witness, observe, watch and be quiet.
I attended a wonderful workshop on meditation at The Himalayan Institute, and Rolf Sovik gave very clear concise instruction that I followed for years. Meditate on your breath or utilize the So-Hum universal mantra. I still teach this to our students today. I am not sure when or how this changed but at some point in the last couple of years, I began to meditate on a mantra, for me a prayer from the Upanishads. “Oh Lord, lead me from the unreal to the Real, from darkness to the Light from death to Eternal Life.”
Sometimes, spontaneously, it would run through my mind in Sanskrit; at times driving in the car, waiting somewhere in line, waiting for students to arrive, waiting for the school bus, just me and the mantra. Communicating with the Divine- “Please lead me from all this suffering to what is Real. Make me a true yogini, help me practice karma yoga, free me from these bonds I have created for myself, rescue me from this negative thinking, free me from the past, teach me how to live in the present moment, make me a better mother, make me a better teacher, show me love, take away my loneliness, relieve my sadness. Please.”
Friday, October 14, 2011, New York City
7pm. An evening with Thich Nhat Hahn, Vietnamese Buddhist monk and enlightened being. The beloved teacher and prolific writer floats out onto the stage and takes his place on a cushion in lotus posture. His smile lights up the room and warms my heart. I immediately begin to tear up as he speaks. One of the very first things he asks us to do…“Close your eyes and draw your attention to your eyes. Take the time to consider your sight. Be grateful for this gift and be thankful for something you take for granted every day.” “Now,” he instructs, “Open your eyes.”
Tuesday, November 1, 2011, Springfield, PA
For the past two weeks I have been experiencing pain in my left eye. As a 43-year old yoga teacher, I am used to the occasional ache or pain. No big deal. It will go away on its own. I have recently moved and sold the home where my ex-husband and I lived when we moved to Pennsylvania. I was in that home as a single mom for 10 years, and with the poor economy and the 30 minute commute I had driven to the yoga center for the past 7 years, it was time to move on. One of my dear friends, a student at the yoga center, suggested that I get the eye looked at. At the ophthalmologist’s office I explain that it feels as though I have been punched in the eyeball. He examines me and tells me that there is nothing wrong and it is probably a headache. However, with the other odd symptoms I have mentioned to him, he suggests seeing a neurologist, just to be sure.
Thursday, November 3, 2011, Bryn Mawr, PA
Meet the neurologist. Explain symptoms: Headaches, dizziness, fatigue, pain in the left eye, vision issues, “oh yeah, and the time I was blind in my left eye for about 20 minutes following a massage.”
MRI. Brain. Neck. With and without contrast. Very loud banging in that tube- but I was calm content and relaxed. Thank you yoga practice.
Tuesday, November 8, 2011, 1:30 pm, Bryn Mawr, PA
“99% of the times we do this test we find nothing, however, you have an aneurysm in your Internal Carotid Artery behind your left eye. Here is the number of a neurosurgeon in Philadelphia. You should call as soon as possible and get an appointment.”
15 minutes later, home, Google, bad news.
“A ruptured aneurysm is a medical emergency. In about 30 percent of cases, ruptured brain aneurysms are fatal.” Mayo Clinic.
Thankfully I have an aneurysm that is intact. It is on the large side, 7mm. I call University of Pennsylvania Hospital and Thomas Jefferson Hospital. Both hospitals are 30 minutes away and have some of the best doctors in the country. I am so lucky to live here. Two appointments scheduled- Monday and Wednesday.
Bright and early Monday morning, Philadelphia, PA
I meet my surgeon- Dr. Michelle Smith, young, petite, pretty; soft-spoken but smart and confident. She explains to me and my boyfriend, Joe, that this is serious. I am young and very healthy. I should live a long life, however if this aneurysm were to rupture, my chances of fulfilling that destiny are slim to none. One thing I have neglected to reveal; my daughter Meredith is my whole life. As a child from a dysfunctional family, the one thing that meant the most to me was to have a family of my own. I would do better. I would right the wrongs. I would always put my daughter first. Her dad left when she was just over a year old. Since that day, she has been my world, my best friend, and my reason for waking up each day. Sometimes, of course, this is great for Meredith. And, of course, sometimes this hurts her deeply.
Monday, November 21, 2011, Philadelphia, PA
Let me speed this up for you. Angiogram= catheter into femoral artery, past the heart, into the neck. Dye injected into the brain. Pictures, pictures, pictures. “Nicole, hold your breath!” more pictures. “You did great!” By the way, having an angiogram really sucks. They put you into a drugged out state where you are half-asleep and half-awake to get through the ordeal. In recovery, the drugs wear off quickly and you have to keep the leg, where they inserted the cath, still- Completely still, for six hours. Thank you yoga practice. I have had three angiograms since this original one. How do normal non-yogis deal with the pain and discomfort?
While I’m still groggy and in a drug-induced fog, the doctor says to me, “I am so sorry but we cannot treat this with coiling (a semi-noninvasive procedure done with catheterization). You will need to have a clipping and craniotomy.“
“NO. No. NO WAY Joe. I am not ready for that. I am not doing that. I am not telling Meredith that I need brain surgery. No way. What the hell? I am not doing that.”
“It’s fine. Only like 1% of these things rupture anyway.”
In my mind I’m thinking, “GET ME THE HELL OUT OF HERE. Are you kidding me? I am the healthiest person I know. This is not happening. What a cruel joke.”
Friday, December 16, 2011, Philadelphia, PA
Today I underwent an 11-hour brain surgery to clip off the pesky brain aneurysm with a titanium clothes pin. My oldest brother was there from Northern New Jersey. My mom flew in from South Carolina. My boyfriend (of 10 years) was there. My daughter was cared for by her dad. That morning, I arrived at the hospital in my favorite royal blue sweatpants, an East Eagle Yoga tee shirt, and a comfy, over-sized sweater. We went through admissions, I smiled and laughed and told my mom, bro and partner that I loved them. I took a moment to experience who I was before, as I had no idea what would become of me after.
I don’t remember much. I know my student and friend, Kate, came to bring food to my family and when I saw her I made some idiotic remark calling her my baby girl and blurting out the year of my birth “1968!” The next thing I can remember is being in ICU. I met with the on-call nurse who was immediately my enemy asking the name of my husband. “I don’t have one of those. B*tch!” I think to myself.
I was in a stupor. 50+ staples in my shaved head. Hospital gown. PAIN. LOTS of pain. I shook uncontrollably. I was inconsolable. I cried. I hyperventilated. I was pissed off. Majorly pissed off. I have been under the care of a psychiatrist for many years, and for years I have been on medication for my struggles with anxiety and depression. My anxiety meds have been increased over the years, however they had not been updated in the “Penn Medicine” online charts, and now these doctors were giving me a significantly lower dose than what I needed. All of a sudden, I am a drug crazed fool. My mother is flipping out when I explain to the on-call docs that I need more ativan. “You people have been giving me .5 mg per day when I regularly take 4x that amount.”
Within 45 minutes of my morphine dose, I am screaming, shaking, convulsing. When my mom and boyfriend are not in the room with me in ICU, I press the call button over and over and over. Clearly I pissed the nurse off. She could care less. I start to cry and weep and plead…“Someone help me please. I need to use the bedpan. Help me.” For a second I realize how pathetic I am.
I haven’t eaten in days. A sick vain side of me thinks that maybe I will lose a few pounds. Seriously? Am I that shallow? This ridiculous thought quickly fades and all I want to know is when can I get out of this bed? Mom shows up with Joe. They feign happiness, excitement, positive thoughts. All I can think about is my daughter. I call her on the cell phone and try to be as upbeat and happy as possible. When I ask her today, she doesn’t remember how she felt or what she said. My scariest concern wasn’t all I made it out to be. Guess a mother’s love and fear are stronger than what is real.
The day I leave the hospital is one of the scariest moments in my life. “Who am I? I am not my body. I am not my mind. I am not my relationships, my job, my home. I am not a liberal, I am not a vegetarian, I am not a yogi, a parent, a girlfriend, a sister, a daughter. I am not my bank account. I am not an animal rescuer. I am not a yoga teacher. I am not a damaged and treated brain.”
“The Self is the ear of the ear, the eye of the eye, the mind of the mind, the word of words and the life of life. Rising above the senses and the mind and renouncing separate existence, the wise realize the deathless Self.”
Thankfully today: Sunday, August 5, 2012
I have learned so much. What I wished for came true. My prayers were answered. Obviously not the way I had expected them to, but isn’t that life? I asked the Lord of life, the Lord of love to transform this broken, sad and lonely girl into a yogini and my prayers were answered. As I have read over and over in the yogic scriptures: The two things that are required for success in yoga are practice (lots of it) and detachment. I am still learning. I am still a beginner. However, I recognize that what I asked for was provided; maybe not in the way I had expected or preferred, but in the way that would count. My left eye sucks. Maybe 60% vision. I get tired very often. I am hyper-sensitive to sensory input. I am forever an HSP- (Hyper Sensitive Person). Oh, well, me and my quirks! Sounds crazy, I realize, but I am grateful for this experience. For me. For my daughter. For my students. For my partner. For my mom and my brother Bobby, and last but not least for my pups of the heart, sweet Blue and charming Linus.
Nicole Chemi took her first yoga class at the age of eleven while attending a performing arts camp. After her daughter was born in 1997, she came back to yoga as a way to center herself and reduce the stress of being a first time mom. In order to deepen her yoga practice and study of yoga philosophy, In 2001, Nicole studied and was trained as a teacher at Yogalife Institute, an affiliate of The Yoga Institute in Mumbai, India. She is currently enrolled in an advanced course for teachers at The Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy in Honesdale, Pennsylvania.
Nicole has taught classes on yoga postures, meditation, and philosophy for adults and children at all levels of practice. In 2005, Nicole was able to fufill her dream of opening her own yoga center, East Eagle Yoga, in Havertown, Pennsylvania, with her best friend and partner, Joe Finnerty. As a writer, Nicole has been published nationally in Lillipoh Magazine and was a regular columnist in Yoga Living Magazine. She has been featured in Philadelphia Magazine. Nicole is a member of The Yoga Alliance and The Himalyan Institute Teacher’s Association.
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