Pam knew she wasn’t real. The calm, effective yoga studio manager that other people saw was a front she put up, “Guru Baba’s right-hand woman.” No one knew about her missing pieces, or the pills in her purse, waiting in a small plastic case. She often fingered the case like a talisman, making sure it was available if the first signs started. She’d be fired if anyone found out.

Guru Baba wasn’t real either. Sorting boxes of his old personal files, she’d discovered that he was born Steven Waters. Her job entailed doing anything Guru Baba asked, though, unlike the students, she never had to move cement blocks during renovations or weed the garden of the upstate retreat center. Internet research revealed that the tan skin and black hair people assumed showed Indian origins actually came from his Puerto Rican mother, and the ability to do difficult poses, which he claimed was the fruit of “balanced energy and controlled desire,” was developed during years of childhood training at his parents’ dance studio.

Nevertheless, something was working. The students left quieter, smiling -- beautiful twenty-somethings in spandex and the shy, older, or less fit in baggy sweats. Not always, of course, but often enough that most classes filled. When Pam became manager, she made over the bare space, adding large statues of Shiva and Ganesha, hanging posters with inspirational quotes on the walls. What people saw first mattered. Though Guru Baba said, “Truth lies beneath the surface’s illusions,” he’d given her free rein, and they’d gone from a cramped room to a whole floor, with a stable of teachers, a meditation room and gift shop.

Pam took classes several times a week. All the teachers were trained by Guru Baba and spouted his same mix of esoteric philosophy and homey aphorisms. Pam loved the movement, the feeling of ease and peace in her body after she stretched her muscles and worked up a sweat. She zoned out when he preached. “Yoga means ‘union,’ not looking good in poses,” was one of his favorites. “Of course, a perfectly-aligned posture helps us attain this union.” Pam was forty-six, and had been practicing yoga for fifteen years. She felt fitter, more flexible, and, until recently, far less anxious. But she didn’t feel any closer to “union with all there is” than when she had first started, and if yoga really worked, she wouldn’t keep having these episodes.

Pam had always been anxious, though no one used that word when she was growing up. “Pam’s a worrier,” her parents said. “Chill out!” her friends said. “You are such an uptight bitch,” an ex-boyfriend spat. But her anxiety had been something she could live with, like an irritating background noise. Until six months ago, it had never overtaken her.

The first time it had happened in a grocery store. Pam was tired and hungry, cranky from an argument with Ted. Her local place was closed, so she went to the late-night one -- a huge supermarket with a pharmacy, a bakery, and a florist. Pam wandered, unable to find the things on her list. She felt hot and realized she was sweating. Her heart started to pound, and grew so loud she could hear it above the piped-in musak. Her chest was tight. Chills travelled up her back. Was she having a heart attack? The fluorescent lights turned everything to wax. She had entered a movie, or a nightmare, with something invisible inside squeezing her chest. She was going to die in an aisle of canned beans. She tried to catch her breath, but her dizziness increased. Pamela sank to her knees. A shelf stocker noticed and helped her call Ted, who drove her home.

The worst part was that not all of her got in the car. Part of her was trapped, not in the supermarket exactly, but in the pit of terror she’d fallen into. She kept this from Ted so he wouldn’t think she was nuts. But not telling him kept distance between them, even when he held her tight and stroked her hair.

“A panic attack,” her doctor pronounced after the EKG and all the other tests came back normal. He wrote out a prescription. “This is a rescue medicine only. They’re addictive, so only take one if an attack starts. But you need to see a therapist to get to the bottom of the issue.” He wrote a name and number on a second form. Pam filled the prescription and put the therapist’s number in a drawer.

The next attack was at work. Pam was discussing membership options with a blue-haired teenager with blotchy skin. She felt her heart speed up and cold sweat dampen her clothes. “Excuse me,” she gasped, grabbing a pill from her purse, which she swallowed dry on her way to the meditation room. There, without even remembering to take off her shoes, she kneeled, shaking and trying to breathe until the pill kicked in and her body relaxed. When she returned, smoothing her shirt, the girl was still there. “You’re so inspiring!”


“In the meditation room. I followed you.” Pam had been completely oblivious. “You were having such a powerful shakti experience.” The girl paid for a year-long, VIP membership. Still shaky, Pam went home. Another part of her was missing. She called the therapist.

The therapist was a slim woman in her mid-sixties, with small round glasses and a long, gray braid. She wore tailored pants, and when she laughed, her eyes crinkled shut. Pam liked the softness of the chair, more like a living room than a medical office. She told the woman why she had come.

They talked about her life as a whole – her job, her relationships, her hopes and disappointments. How the attacks seemed to come out of nowhere and how helpless she felt to prevent them. “Often there are many causes, rather than one event,” the therapist explained. “We can work on the deeper issues under your anxiety, like taking straws off a camel’s back. But that’s long-term work, and in the meantime, there are things you can do to control the attacks. Have you tried breathing exercises?”

“I manage a yoga studio!”

“You could manage a health food store and still eat junk.”

Pam smiled. “Fair enough.”

“Feel your feet on the floor,” the therapist began. Pam rolled her eyes and interrupted in her best yoga voice, “Imagine a root growing out of each foot and deep into the center of the earth.”

“No,” said the therapist kindly. “Don’t imagine. Observe. Pay attention to what you’re actually experiencing.”

Pam let the therapist guide her through a simple exercise, no complicated counting or holding like in Pranayama lessons.

“Practice every day when you’re not overly stressed,” the therapist directed. “Then you can call on it when you are.”

Pam doubted it would work, but she agreed to try.





Alison Stone has published seven full-length poetry collections, Zombies at the Disco (Jacar Press, 2020), Caught in the Myth (NYQ Books, 2019), Dazzle (Jacar Press, 2017), Masterplan, a book of collaborative poems with Eric Greinke (Presa Press, 2018), Ordinary Magic, (NYQ Books, 2016), Dangerous Enough (Presa Press 2014), and They Sing at Midnight, which won the 2003 Many Mountains Moving Poetry Award; as well as three chapbooks. Her poems have appeared in The Paris Review, Poetry, Ploughshares, Barrow Street, Poet Lore, and many other journals and anthologies. She is also a painter and the creator of The Stone Tarot. A licensed psychotherapist, she has private practices in New York City and Nyack, NY. www.stonepoetry.org, www.stonetarot.com. Alison recommends Planned Parenthood.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Saturday, June 8, 2024 - 13:37