yoga in a post-9/11 world: a collective & personal response to tragedy

New Yorker Towers

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On September 11, 2001 I was living in Japan, and I had just turned on the TV to watch the 10pm news in English on NHK, as I did every evening. Instead of the familiar news anchors at their desk, I saw a bright blue sky, the Japanese characters for “New York City” in the corner of the screen, and a building that I instantly recognized as half of the World Trade Centre. I had no idea what was happening, but it felt bad. Disastrous.

The confused Japanese commentary was replaced by confused English commentary, trying to figure out how to communicate what they were seeing and knowing as little as I did. I got on the internet and searched “planes, World Trade Centre, New York City,” but I couldn’t find anything that explained what was happening on the television screen (this was pre-Facebook/Twitter – life was so hard when we didn’t have everything reported to us in Real Time!).

And then another plane came from out of nowhere and flew into the remaining building. I spent the next six hours in front of my TV and computer, on the phone with Canadian and American expat friends, watching the story unfold.

I had never felt so alone, confused and disconnected as I did that night. I thought it was the beginning of the end of the world. I was scared to go to sleep because I didn’t know what to expect the next morning.  The only thing I was certain of was things were never going to be the same again.

This was my immediate, visceral response to 9/11 from the other side of the world. I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to be in NYC or even on American soil when it happened. Even though I don’t have that personal experience of I don’t think it matters, because we were all affected, because we’re all connected. As  human beings witnessing this act of overwhelming violence, we are all part of the collective trauma.

For the past few days, as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, I’ve been reading and rereading Lawrence Grecco’s wonderful post on the Independence Project blog. He wrote:

The fear and sorrow was palpable for people all around the world on that beautiful sunny day, and we realized that we could no longer entertain the illusion that no harm could ever set its foot on our doorstep.

What are we to do with those aspects of ourselves or our lives that terrify us?

Instead of being depleted or paralyzed by fear, and instead of allowing it to take us over and dictate our actions, we can use it as a path to awakening.

We can use the sense of urgency that goes along with fear to remind us never to take anything for granted because our time here is precious and short.

I know that I can be cynical about the rise in popularity of yoga over the past decade. But I think that on some subtle level it’s a response to the post-9/11 climate of fear and terror (this has also been cited as a reason behind the increased popularity of knitting). And I can see why people would turn to yoga after a massive, incomprehensible tragedy: it’s healing to be in a collective space, to be near people united only by breath and movement, to express with our bodies what we can’t express with words.

I can’t say that I took up yoga as a personal response to the tragedy of 9/11, at least not directly. But I did come to the practice a few years later as a way to find solace after the collapse of my own Twin Towers of heart and mind (note: I also started knitting around the same time). It was instrumental in my own awakening and overcoming depression, and in working with my fears of death, being alone and losing what I love.

Ten years later and I am geographically closer to NYC, but I think even if was on the other side of the world I would need to reflect and remember on this anniversary weekend. I know I will need silence and togetherness, to feel vulnerable and connected ~ and my yoga practice, quiet and spacious, will provide a space for this to happen. I will take comfort knowing that I will be part of a collective whole grieving the lives lost in the fallen buildings, the lives lost in subsequent attacks in the Middle East, the survivors and their families.

What you can do:

practice in community ~ there are commemorative gatherings in yoga and Buddhist communities around North America. Yoga Journal Buzz Blog and Well+Good NYC have good round-ups of events.
listen ~ the fantastic radio show On Being recorded a thought-provoking 9/11 special in St Paul’s Chapel, on the edge of Ground Zero
read ~ New Yorker editor David Remnick’s essay, “When the Towers Fell” (and the rest of the commemorative issue of the New Yorker)

If you turned to yoga or Buddhism as a way to process the trauma of 9/11, tell us about your experience. And if you practice Buddhism, you may want to take this survey on Buddhism in America in the ten years since 9/11.

  1. I’ll be teaching on 9/11 an evening class in CT. Many people here were directly touched by the events and so not addressing it in some fashion would be like ignoring the elephant in the room. I’m making a playlist based upon suggestions by folks to for songs that made them think of the events. It will be a slow and gentle class with lots of spaces for peace. Then, I’ll be leading a meditation and moments of silence followed by a continuous (three rolling) Oms.

    Thanks for the links above!

    • very cool! this sounds like a wonderful class and way for your community to be together!

  2. Thanks, Roseanne. Beautifully written.


  3. Thank you! I cannot tell you how much reading this means to me. I was in Michigan on September 11 and had just started my sophomore year of college. Today, however, I am in New Zealand. I have been struggling so much about how to deal with my own fear and sadness at remembering 9/11 while being bombarded with anti-American sentiment from so many people here. I am not, by any stretch, happy with the US response over the past 10 years, and I am absolutely cognizant of the fact that there is far more terror in other parts of the world, but none of that diminishes what I, what we, felt ten years ago.

    I have been teaching a weekly yoga class here in New Zealand, mostly with friends, but it has grown a wee bit. It is on Mondays. Interestingly, it will be 9/12 here, but 9/11 at home. I have been struggling with how to teach the class; I think I am the only person from the US who is there, though at least 2 Canadians as well. Your post has really helped me understand how to be fully present for the class. I cannot thank you enough.

    Sorry for the long sharing, but I have felt incredibly alone here, in some ways since Osama Bin Laden was killed, and this post has really given me some food for though. Namaste!

    • hi rebecca, thank you so much for your thoughtful response. i’m so glad that this post resonated with you. i can definitely understand how an american living abroad could feel isolated and uncertain on this sad anniversary, especially if you’re confronted with animosity towards america. i agree with your observation that american foreign policies and actions don’t diminish the grief and sadness that regular americans are experiencing, both in the US and around the world.

      good luck with your class! i hope you are present, strong and available to your students.

  4. Thanks for this, Roseanne.

    I’ve posted the piece I wrote on my old Karuna Notes blog the day after 9/11. At the time, my website was a new gift from a student, and this post was only the second one I wrote.

    There’s another one I’ll post tomorrow that speaks to the amazing spirit I saw and felt in NYC for about 5 or 6 weeks afterward that sadly was lost. For me, it seemed like an opportunity that was allowed to slip through our fingers.

    much love,
    frank jude

  5. I’ve heard the Dalai Lama say that true compassion is having compassion even for those who hurt us, even terrorists. Until that happens, nothing will change.

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