"Tapas" is the Sanskrit word for "discipline." It literally translates as "to burn," meaning that by disciplined practice we burn off that which no longer serves us. Yoga is meant to peel away the layers of tension and stress so that we may, for a moment, feel free. It's meant to uncover the layers of illusion that have us feeling separate and cut- off, so we may experience yoga, or "union" with each other -- and with a Universal Source. Laura Ziskin had tapas. She was one the most dedicated yoga students that I have ever had.
Much has been written about her tragic passing on June 12, 2011 and every title she has been given describes her heroic nature: Producer, Writer, Charity Co-Founder, Wife and Mother. To that list I'd like to add "Yogini."
Being a yogini is more than just consistently practicing physical yoga postures. By definition, a yogini is a spiritually autonomous being that embodies all aspects of creation. As described by Laura Amazzone in her book Goddess Durga and Sacred Female Power, a yogini "cannot be pinned to one particular quality... their natures are fluid." Specifically, that means a yogini embraces "both/and" rather than "either/or." Few people did this more than Laura Ziskin.
Those who knew Laura, knew the complexity of her nature. She embraced her contradictions and duality. She was a perfectionist that embraced her imperfections. She was in constant motion for all of her waking hours -- but sat completely still in meditation. She allowed herself a feminine vulnerability, while she would "come out swinging" with a masculine passion. In work and in life, she was both fearful and fearless at the same time. In the yogic sense, she was both "Shiva" and "Shakti." To the Taoists, she was both Yin and Yang. To me, she was both superhuman and supremely human.
I met Laura back in 1998 when I was called in to replace my friend, acclaimed teacher Saul David Raye. He had been teaching Laura for many years and was passing the torch to me. After teaching yoga in Los Angeles for many years, meeting Laura was like getting a bucket of water thrown in my face. Completely humble and self assured at the same time, down-to-earth, curious and funny -- Laura kept me engaged and on my toes three times a week for about 6 or 7 years.
No matter what project she was involved in (and often several at once) she would show up for her yoga practice. One morning, after I knew she had slept only a few hours, I asked her how she could work so hard, be such a great mother and still find time for yoga. "I can't NOT do it. If I didn't do yoga, I wouldn't be able to do all those other things. It's what gives me the energy and makes me sane enough to handle it." I thought to myself, "If this woman can find time to do this -- none of us have any excuse!"
I continued to stand there fascinated and inspired, with my mouth hanging open. We held each other's gaze until she gave me that "come on" look of hers -- I had kept her in one side of Warrior 2 while having the whole conversation! We burst into laughter as I had clearly just had one of my extremely imperfect moments of teaching.
The physical or "asana" practice of yoga can be a reflection for how we navigate our day-to-day lives. In yogic circles it is said "the way you do yoga, is the way you do everything." Those of us who are teachers, are meant to see it in others. It is said that a good teacher "should be able to know everything they need to know about a student in three moves or less." With Laura, all I needed was one -- the one where she dragged her teenage daughter, Julia, into the yoga room. Coming up with this creative solution as a way to bring her practice and family together was, both literally and metaphorically, the perfect balancing act.
Actions speak. We can give lip service to Laura being a great mother, but the real evidence is that instead of rebelling, Julia grew up to become a yoga teacher herself -- and a good one! (She is also happily married and working as a creative developer at Laura Ziskin Productions.)
At Laura's memorial service on June 28th, her beloved husband, Alvin Sargent, courageously spoke of her fear. Alvin explained that most people don't think of Laura as a fearful person, but she was. She was human, and fearful, just like the rest of us. But instead of hiding behind the fear, or pretending that it didn't exist, Laura would use that as motivation. She would use her fear as inspiration to act.
It played out in the yoga room every session. How she wanted to be able to kick up into a handstand on her own! Terrified and determined she would go at it with renewed vigor again and again. It didn't matter that she was never quite able to kick up unassisted. Achieving the goal wasn't really the goal -- Laura enjoyed the ride. Each time after she had exhausted herself, she would crumple and laugh, the perfect example of both effort and surrender.
After many years, both of our schedules changed. As had been done for me, I passed the honor of teaching Laura on to my associate, Erika Schnicke. Laura and I remained friends, and soon after she was diagnosed with cancer. Erika loyally continued to teach her throughout her illness.
Everyone loved Laura and she is honored as one of the few that has been able to navigate her career success with her personal relationships into a dynamic balance. But from a yogic standpoint, the most important relationship is the one we have with ourselves. Laura treated herself and others with humor, compassion and unconditional love. I will remember her as one of my great yoga teachers.
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