Last year on Nov. 22, a few days before Thanksgiving, I found in my in-box a link to “Hatha Yoga for Gratitude” by my favorite yoga instructor, Lesley Fightmaster.
The video, which ordinarily would have been quite welcome and timely, came with a crushing note from Duke, Lesley’s husband and videographer, saying: “I am saddened to share that my beautiful wife and your beloved yoga teacher passed away unexpectedly this weekend.”
I was in shock. Though Duke said nothing about how Lesley died, asking that “you honor our need for privacy at this time,” I immediately suspected that Lesley’s demons, which she had so publicly wrestled with, had finally overwhelmed her—and an email that I received from one of Lesley’s colleagues in response to my query implied that I was correct.
At certain moments during the approximately 600 videos that Lesley created, she let her students know that she had long struggled with depression, and she had also spoken about how yoga had helped her and how it could help you, her yoga student.
But with her self-inflicted death, it was clear that yoga was not enough to keep Lesley alive. Neither was the adulation of her students at home and abroad, the wonderful yoga retreats, her two school-age boys, or the love of her husband, Duke Fightmaster. In the end, at 50 years old, Lesley gave in to her pain.
Besides being shocked, I was also angry. Why didn’t Lesley, who was so self-aware, get better psychiatric help? I turned to my friend Joy Epstein for consolation and insight. I had introduced Joy to Fightmaster yoga and she was just as saddened as I was.
Because she is a therapist, I thought that Joy could give me some professional insight into how a person like Lesley could end up taking her own life.
“The struggle with mental illness is not an easy thing; it’s not a matter of just taking a pill and feeling better,” Joy said. “If someone is feeling desperate and struggling with their own fallibility and their own emptiness, with their own darkness inside, and they fight against it and fight against it and fight against it, at a certain point they sometimes give up.
“Perhaps Lesley gave the world as much as she could possibly give. Without yoga, maybe Lesley would have committed suicide 15 years before she did. She gave to the world more than other people give over a much longer time period. There is a place for great sadness at Lesley’s suicide, and even for anger and disappointment, but all this ought not wipe out our good memories of her and all the good that she did.”
I have avoided Lesley’s videos since last November. Her death is too sad and distracting for me. But I would like to remember Lesley in her own words from her last video.
Here are some wonderful lines from that video:
* “Practicing gratitude and thanksgiving are wonderful ways to increase those positive neural pathways in your mind and they make you feel happier.”
* “Find that feeling of gratitude in your body, the sensation of it. Think of something that you are grateful for within yourself.”
* “You have something that makes you very special; connect with that.”
* “Find that feeling again, that feeling of gratitude in your body, and breathe into it. Notice how it shifts your energy. All of a sudden you start feeling a little more joy in your body, your mind, and in your life.”
Lesley closed her very last video in the beautiful way that she always did, and I will end my column with her traditional ending, but not before encouraging all of us on this Thanksgiving to look deep within ourselves and into the hearts of our loved ones. And if we find pain, we should try to do what we can to lessen that pain.
“Hands together, bring your hands to your forehead reminding you to have clear and loving thoughts, and hands to your heart reminding you to have clear and loving intentions, and hands to your mouth reminding you to have clear and loving communication. Sending all of this thankfulness and gratitude out to all beings everywhere. Namaste.”
TEDDY WEINBERGER is director of development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.