A Butterfly and a Bird

Imagine for a moment that you are unable to move your body; that your only means of communication is by blinking your left eye.

How would you keep from losing your mind?

Think about this for a minute.

You’d have to go deep within yourself, wouldn’t you? You’d have to engage your mind, your imagination and your power of recall. You’d have to focus on something other than your physical situation.

Jean-Dominique Bauby

This is what Jean-Dominique Bauby did, as illustrated by his memoir,The Diving Bell and The Butterfly. He was the Editor of French Elle magazine until he suffered a massive stroke at age 43, leaving him completely paralyzed.

But for his eye.

With his mind and this one eye, he composed the type of prose you’d expect from the editor of a major French magazine– eloquent.

An assistant would read the alphabet aloud (each letter arranged by order of frequency of use) until Bauby blinked his eye, indicating that it was the letter he wanted.

Mr. Bauby died two days after the French publication of his 28-chapter memoir, which went on to become an international best-seller.

Newsday called it,

“An admirable testament to the unkillable self, to the spirit that insists on itself so vehemently than it ultimately transcends and escapes the prison of the body.”

What he accomplished reminded me of the practice of dharana in Astanga-yoga.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali describe the practice of dharana as the restriction of one’s outer senses while engaging the mind in concentrated meditation. Traditionally, yogis meditate on the paramatma within; Bauby meditated on vivid memories and on the alphabet.

Ready for another one?

Now imagine you’re hiding in a closet-sized bathroom with 7 other people of your sex. There is so little room, everyone must take turns sitting down. A full-scale genocide has paralyzed the country. To survive, you must remain utterly silent and accept scraps of food delivered under the door by your host every few days. Months pass in this way.

How would you keep from going mad?

Immaculee Ilibagiza

In one of my all-time favorite books, Left to Tell, Immaculee Ilibagiza describes how she endured months of voluntary captivity in a neighbor’s hidden bathroom and then fled across Rwanda to survive, but lost her entire family in the process.

How did she manage?

Like Jean-Dominique Bauby, she went deep within herself.

She engaged her mind and intellect by teaching herself English (using a dictionary), but she also dove deep within her heart while praying the rosary fervently and without cessation; doing so, she entered a deep state of grace.

In this way, Immaculee was able to forgive those who murdered her family. Like a bird, she “soared above Rwanda,” and was liberated. Incredible.

She now works for the United Nations and speaks to groups about forgiveness, devotion and peace, both personal and global. Immaculee Ilibagiza is a devout Catholic. In my eyes, she’s also a bhakti-yogini.

Bhakti is the yoga by which everything, including one’s self, is offered to God by means of loving devotion. It is described as the yoga of saints.

So there you have it: Two examples of yogis who didn’t think of themselves as such. They were just doing what they had to do.

Sometimes, yoga happens.


I find I’m often drawn to stories like these. You?

A seed germinates in darkness. Maybe that’s why.

I welcome your thoughts in the comments below. On Twitter, I’m @TheYogaofLiving. Warm wishes.

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