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“Don’t Let a Good Crisis go to Waste,” and Other Spiritual Lessons Yoga Taught Me About Surviving a Tsunami

Kimberly Dunn | May 27, 2014

After surviving one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history, I was left with tremendous survivor’s guilt.

I was also angry at God. “Why did this happen, why was I spared and why were all those innocent lives taken?” I was unwillingly thrown into a full blown spiritual investigation.

It was 2004, and my husband Shannon and I were living in Hong Kong. We decided to visit Phuket, Thailand for the Christmas holiday. I wanted to stay in a cute thatch roof bungalow but all that was available was a room at the Hilton. Not my first choice, but this modern hotel with a concrete structure would later prove to be instrumental in saving our lives.

We arrived on Christmas Day and had a lovely time exploring the island by canoe. I was mesmerized by the extraordinary seascape of limestone outcrops and cliffs rising sheer from the sea. The people were warm and the food was spicy. Thailand had the makings of a perfect holiday.

The very next morning, my bed began to shake so fiercely that it startled me out of a deep sleep. I was no stranger to earthquakes as they occurred quite frequently when I lived in Japan. However, I knew this was not your average, run-of-the-mill quake.

I could hardly keep my balance as I made my way to the patio to look outside. I could feel the hotel swaying as I held onto the deck railing bracing myself in some version of malasana (squat pose). Then came complete silence. It was over. Or so we thought.

Little did we know, Mother Nature was just warming up her fierce wrath. The earthquake that we just witnessed was so powerful it would soon set off a tsunami that would alter the topography of Asia and take the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

After the earthquake, we continued on with our day as normal. Shannon left to go scuba diving off of Phi Phi Island and I headed out for a day at the beach.

On my way, I saw a small handmade sign nailed to a tree. It simply said “Waterfall” with an arrow pointing away from the beach and up into the mountains. I was instantly flooded with wonderful memories of the times I spent with my mom in the Bahamas, reading our books under a beautiful waterfall.

Noticing that sign saved my life. I decided to change my beach plans and find the waterfall. As I spent the next few hours listening to the deafening sound of the falls, I was completely unaware of the utter chaos that was occurring just hundreds of yards away.

Around noon, I decided to go for a walk. As I got closer to the beach, I began to get that eerie feeling when you know something just isn’t right. I had walked right into the core of an unfathomable cataclysm.

The road between the hotel and the beach was completely covered deep in mud, cars were thrown upside down, motorcycles were scattered around like toys, and the windows in the hotel were shattered. All of the cute thatch roof bungalows had been demolished. People were frantically running down the road carrying bodies on stretchers.

It looked like a set from “The Walking Dead.” “What the hell was happening?” I met a French family who spoke a little English and they told me about the big wave. “Tsunami.” I had to think back to fourth-grade geography to even remember what that meant.

As I looked out to sea, past the obliteration, I got weak in the knees as the enormity of the situation began to sink in. Where was Shannon? I couldn’t get any details on his whereabouts because the dive shop was wiped out. I eventually received information from the BBC reporting 100 divers off of Phi Phi Island were missing.

I spent the rest of the day in angst with others who also had missing loved ones. The outcome was growing more grim as it approached 6 p.m. and we knew it would be getting dark soon. Almost nine hours had passed when, nothing short of a miracle, I saw Shannon.

They were out at sea when the captain heard that another boat got thrown into a reef by a huge wave. Instead of continuing on to Phi Phi Island, he decided to change course and wait it out. They were the only dive boat that we know of that made it back to land that day.

After returning to Hong Kong, I cried for the people who were still stuck in Thailand and for those who were injured. I cried for for the people who lost loved ones and those who were still missing. But did I really need a tsunami to get a lesson in compassion?

As I deepened my yoga and meditation practice, the anguish began to dissipate. This created the space necessary for spiritual questions to surface: “What lessons am I to receive from this crisis? What is my dharma or true purpose in life?”

Eventually, the lessons emerged. It was through profound compassion that I felt a deeper connection to others and was left with a sincere knowing that we are all one, all part of a universal force. It was through the grief that I felt a true connection to my authentic self leading me on a path for spiritual growth. Yoga has taught me that while we have no control over the suffering in life, we can control our response to it.

Another blessing of grieving is when the pain subsides, what’s left is a healing hug of gratitude. Yoga teaches to let go of what’s not serving you. I no longer ask the guilt-filled question of “why was I spared and not others?” Instead I choose to be incredibly grateful.

I am grateful for the synchronicity of previous life events melding with divine intervention. Author V.C. King once wrote, “The probability of a certain set of circumstances coming together in a meaningful (or tragic) way is so low that it simply cannot be considered mere coincidence.”

I am grateful that I was aware and present to notice that sign, and flexible enough to let go of my original plans that day. If I had been rushing through the day like we often do in life, I easily could have missed that sign (literally and figuratively). I am also grateful that the captain chose to listen to his inner wisdom and intuition. I am so grateful to experience this miracle of life and give thanks for my copious blessings every single day.

True spiritual investigation is a pilgrimage to your authentic self which takes earnest, heartfelt work. Through continuous asana (postures), meditation, pranayama (breath work), and svadhyaya (self-study), I am able to connect with my true essence. Honoring the wisdom of my yoga practice, I was able to receive the lessons and blessings that unfold from a crisis

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