Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Ties that Bind: A Conversation with Actor, Author and Yoga Instructor Amanda Erin Miller

One Breath, Then Another, by Amanda Erin Miller

A t the end of the last semester I found myself telling my dissertation advisor that I didn’t like any of my ideas, anything I had ever written or perhaps anything I would ever write. She, who has seen it all before, advised me to stop reading, to stop writing/rewriting, to just stop. Why would I though?? I had become effortlessly neurotic, a walking warning, a nutcase phd candidate...insomniac, firing on all cylinders and ready to snap. In the thick of it, I got a gift in the mail from writer, actor and yoga instructor Amanda Erin Miller. I couldn’t have been more grateful. There’s a sense of amazement that accompanies every book that comes to the house addressed to Shivers Up the Spine: despite any and all difficulties, there are always other people willing to share their stories to the benefit of those of us wound up a hair too taut. I quickly glanced at the back of the paperback:

“From a young age, Amanda identified with her father, a heavy smoker with food issues who starved himself until he was skeletal. She, in turn, developed a severe case of anorexia that led to hospitalization. A year after she recovered, he died of lung cancer.

Amanda Erin Miller
Amanda Erin Miller is an actor, writer, yoga instructor and massage therapist, intrigued by the ways these practices inform each other. Amanda recently published her memoir One Breath, Then Another about her quest for healing to avoid her father's self destructive path on her own Lucid River Press. She has adapted the book into an interactive solo show about studying yoga on an ashram in India, which will premiere as part of Theater For The New City's Dreamup Festival in NYC August 2013. Excerpts from One Breath, Then Another have been featured in Freerange Nonfiction, Underwired Magazine, Om Times, Love Your Rebellion, Runaway Parade and So Long: Short Memoirs of Loss and Remembrance, a memoir anthology. Her writing has also appeared in The Rumpus and UC Riverside's Cratelit. She hosts and books the monthly literary/ music series Lyrics, Lit & Liquor at The Parkside Lounge in NYC.  Amanda earned her BFA in Acting from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and her MFA in Creative Writing from The New School.

Amanda’s book One Breath, Then Another, a memoir, is a moving retelling of her formative years that exposes the depth to which we bond with fathers, mothers, siblings, friends and lovers, and how relationships are manifest in very real physical patterns. Quite simply, people seem to get under our skins; we embody those we love, and those ties that bind are sometimes the same knots that require a lifetime of undoing.

Amanda Miller (left), her father David Miller (right)

"Okay," he said and turned. I followed him down the hall and through the kitchen, where my mom was washing the dinner dishes. He held the front door open for me, and I stepped under his warm into the early evening twilight, planted my feet, and turned back to watch the door swing shut behind him. We began walking side by side in stiff silence, moving slowly due to the poor circulation in his leg. Neither of us looked at the other. Instead, I tried to see inside the windows of the houses we passed. I wondered what other families were like, what other fathers were like, what kinds of relationships they had with their daughters. I listened to my father's heavy breathing until it became the only sound in the world. I imagined the inside of his lungs; they probably looked like the smokers' lungs I saw in my health book at school, part inflamed, part black and shrivelled. As he dragged his leg along, I thought about his heart working so hard to pump fresh blood into his clogged arteries. I thought about his body straining to perform its basic functions. I considered what I'd done to my body and realized I was partially attempting to emulate him." (Amanda Miller, from One Breath, Then Another

 Shivers up the Spine: The Yoga Examiner, A Conversation with Amanda Erin Miller, May 2013.

"He was fifty-three and had just been diagnosed with lung cancer… Stage Four is the most difficult to treat, and a patient's survival prognosis is typically eight months to a year. My father's doctor predicted he had six months.
Cancer was the death ticket he'd been waiting for. Maybe it was his chemical constitution. Maybe he never got over being adopted. Maybe he never found his niche in life. So heavy he could never quite lift himself up, couldn't release the tension in his jaw, his shoulders, sit outside and enjoy the sun, couldn't relax. Life seemed to fit him like a straitjacket. He wanted out." (Amanda Miller, from One Breath, Then Another)
David Miller (left), Amanda Miller (right)

Priya Thomas: I just wanted to start by thanking you for doing this because I really enjoyed your book. I actually cried my way through parts of it. The book is a memoir, which is unusual in the first place. Do you want to talk a little bit about the purposes of writing a memoir? Why a memoir? What did it mean to you?

Amanda Miller: Sure. Well, I just felt like I needed to write it all out. I felt like part of it was a way to get past it. But I know that there's a difference between a journal entry and a memoir for other people to read. I think we all have these difficult things that we go through and these things that we aren't comfortable sharing because we're ashamed or we don't want to be judged.
And I've always found that in connecting with people about those things is healing. And so I thought that maybe if I shared my personal experiences and was really honest about it, people could connect to that. And maybe feel less alone...

photo: Francesca Woodman
Priya Thomas: I think, for me, what made the book seem so candid is that you detail the difficult, sometimes violent relationship you’ve had with your own body... and the ways in which we can inflict violence on the body as an expression of deep longing or sadness. And I wondered how your relationship with expressing sadness through your body changed when you finally came around to exploring various types of physical practices, whether that was message therapy or yoga...Did it change?

Amanda Miller: Oh, it definitely did. It definitely did. Because it made me feel more connected to my body and have more awareness of it. And see that the mind and the body are interconnected, as opposed to before where I felt like the body was kind of this thing hanging off of me. And also in massage and in yoga, things feel so good. It feels so good to get a massage and to practice yoga. And so it could feel good to be in my body, and that was new for me.

Priya Thomas: There’s a curious inverse relationship in the book between your recovery and your father's relapse that seems to make your bond with him so very fragile and beautiful. I wondered if you might speak to how your father’s struggles shaped your experiences of your own body and bonding with other people.

Amanda Miller: Yeah. Well, I think as I start to mature and become more aware of what he was actually doing to his body and the fact that I had in some way mirrored what he was doing. And then watching him literally become sick from what he had done to his body and die. It was very eye opening for me in the sense of, you know, this is an option. People do die from abusing their bodies. When you're really young, you don't really think about that at all. In adolescence, if you're self-destructive, you don't necessarily equate that with serious health problems that might one day kill you. And so I remember very strongly after he died feeling so driven to live and to really make the most of every day. And I still struggled, for sure, but I had an awareness that I didn't have before.

Priya Thomas: In the book you say that when your father finally did get cancer, that it was the death ticket he'd been waiting for. I think the wording was, “He couldn't release the tension in his jaw, his shoulders. Life fit him like a straight jacket. He wanted out.” I wonder, do you imagine that he might have benefited from something like yoga?

Amanda Miller: No, I mean, I think maybe massage he would have benefited from...I don't know. I honestly can't imagine him doing yoga, but maybe he could have. Maybe something other than a Vinyasa class or something. [laughing] But if he could have done some Hatha where he was breathing and connecting to his body, sure... I actually am glad you asked that question because I never imagined him doing yoga before.

Priya Thomas: When you teach your classes or when you put your hands on people, whether that's as a massage therapist or otherwise, do you remember your father?

Francesca Woodman
Amanda Miller: Oh, absolutely that's connected. Yeah. Yeah. And when I was first working as a massage therapist, I mentioned in the book the spa I was working at had this cancer night for breast cancer survivors. And that very much made me think of my father. And the relief that I was giving them, it definitely made me think about the relief that he possibly could have gotten.
It also made me remember how connected the mind is to healing, and how the idea of these therapies with a mind body connection can improve quality of life and improve prognosis potentially. You know? My father had received a diagnosis and he checked out.

Priya Thomas: At what point did you figure these bodily practices could help cope with the more difficult experiences of loss or self-inflicted violence? Was there a moment where you finally thought, “This is actually starting to help.”

Amanda Miller: Certainly, when I started studying massage... Just the feeling of helping someone else through body-work was very powerful. And it just took me out of myself. Helping someone else made me feel better which was also interesting. And then taking up the yoga practice was very powerful. With yoga, it had like this effect of breaking me up, and then it triggered all these physical feelings of loss. I wrote about crying in savasana a lot, but feeling that it was fine to express that grief, and people being supportive of that in the room...or the yoga teacher coming and lifting up my head and pressing on my shoulders and being present with me. That was very healing. And it was sort of like grieving for my dad in a way that I hadn't experienced before. And that's when I was really heavily practicing yoga. Like every day of the week, pretty much. I mean, I found these practices to offer a quicker opportunity for transformation than talk therapy for instance. And it's hard to articulate exactly why that was because it's not language based. But just practicing yoga and breathing and feeling the sensations in the body and having that trigger emotions and being able to release emotions is healing.

“To motivate myself, I spent my nights compulsively making collages of emaciated women in magazines, primarily from Vogue. Sometimes I cut out the whole woman in whatever skimpy outfit she was wearing, her collarbones like handlebars. Other times, I just cut out a part of the woman, say, the lips coated in vamp red lipstick. Or the eye: blue or green or brown with heavy streaks of colour above and below, like circus face paint. Sometimes, the whole head: powder-white skin and frizzy teased hair, hair like my mother’s. She brushed out her Jewish red hair until it was huge. My father always told her to straighten it, thin it. But Vogue’s women made hair like that sexy...I cut out legs, torsos, feet, arms, hands, noses, eyes, heads, lips, whole bodies, layering them on top of each other until I’d plastered a Picasso like arrangement across my entire ceiling... At night, I closed my eyes in bed and ran my hands along my bony protruberances. I placed my fingers on the jutting base of my sternum, then slowly dragged my hands outward, tracing each nearly unearthed rib. ” (Amanda Miller, from One Breath, Then Another)

Francesca Woodman, Untitled Providence
Priya Thomas: So did you carry around, and do you suppose a lot of people carry around some measure of shame for their less-than-pretty emotions?

Amanda Miller: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. And I think these body practices hold space for emotion. And I think it's about being present with emotion. If you're in a room with a yoga instructor who's going to be present with you while you feel that, or you're going to be around people who are going to support it, it helps...without even having to do anything but just being there. I think that that's powerful because I think sometimes emotions are also beyond language. And you can try to talk about it, but sometimes in trying to talk about it it's also frustrating because it's hard to find the exact words to explain it. And then also the words can lead a shame experience because when you're talking about it, it can make you sometimes feel worse. You know?

Priya Thomas: That's interesting.

Amanda Miller: Yeah. I think it's connected to my father in a lot of ways. Because when I was struggling with my anorexia, he was very impatient with me. And I think that the reason he was like that was because he saw similar behavior in me. I think it made him angry to see it. I don't know, it's hard to... But you know what I'm trying to say.

Priya Thomas: Yeah, of course.

Amanda Miller: Yeah. And he would say things to me like, “Oh, you're draining all the energy of the family by doing this. Stop doing this.” And I think that really built up a shame for having negative feelings or expressing negativity.

Priya Thomas: And I suppose finding performance and theatre gave you a similar space? I remember you talking about a certain kind of emotional intensity that you were able to express with the people that you met through theatrical work. I think you said it was in the 10th grade that you first started doing work with drama? Or was it the 7th grade?

Amanda Miller: Well, I went to theater camp as a kid. But in 10th grade, I was discovering it as a more mature person and seeing how it was helpful for me. Because when you're performing, you're taking heightened emotions and expressing them. And there's no shame in doing that because you have the framework of performance. And so that was really great for me to be able to channel all these feelings into a frame that was acceptable socially. [laughs] And yeah, so I wonder if other performers... You're a performer, right? You're a dancer?

Priya Thomas: Yeah, yeah... But in the book you say: “I was completely engrossed in the imagined reality of the theater.” I was kind of taken with that idea of being engrossed in the imagined reality. I wondered, do you think the imagination you have (and the access that you have to it), has anything to do with the more difficult things you've been through?

Amanda Miller:
Certainly. [laughs] Yeah, absolutely. Performing allows you to transform your own experiences into something else. And you draw, obviously, from your own experience. As much as an actor creates a role that's separate from them, it's still coming from them. So I just think that the difficult experiences add a lot of depth and complexity to whatever you're trying to portray because there's always many layers of what's going on...the behaviour behind the behaviour.

Priya Thomas: Is that process similar to yoga?
Francesca Woodman

Amanda Miller:
I think with yoga, it's like being able to access – it's like the experience of being fully present with your experience and not judging it, ideally. And so I'm actually taking a massage class right now and we're talking about emotions and memory in the body. And how if you work with a certain part of your body that relates to a memory, that it can trigger an emotional release or an emotional reaction. And I think that that happens a lot in yoga. For me, the hips are always a juicy area. [laughs] And opening the chest. That's a big one for me because I have all my anxiety and depression. It's in my chest. So I've noticed that hips and chest, I think all of that stuff is still in there. And yoga is a practice, so it's like a daily practice of reconnecting with you and everything you've experienced and being OK with it. You know?

Priya Thomas: It must be nice to have a place you can actually put your finger on your body and say, “This is where it lives.” You know?

Amanda Miller: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

Priya Thomas: Do you think of writing also as an embodied experience whereby you can tap into those same experiences? Is that part of the reason for this book? Do you think of writing as a cerebral activity or was book a physical practice for you?

Amanda Miller: Interesting. Yeah. Well, I think it depends what you're writing. But for the purpose of this book, it was definitely a combination. Yeah, because certainly there was physical experience in the process of writing it because it was so personal and was so bodily. And I don't know for sure what other people feel when they feel emotions, but I know when I feel them they're very physical and visceral. And that was definitely happening. So I guess in that sense it was sort of like a lot of electricity in the body while writing.

Priya Thomas: Towards the end of your book you talk about a trip you took to India.

Amanda Miller: Absolutely. OK, so the decision to go to India was one of the most intuitive decisions I've ever made. It was not really something I deliberated about. It was like, “I need to go.” And it was because of yoga, because yoga was really so powerful for me. Again, it's a hard thing to articulate. But it really helped me so much to release so much and to be kinder to myself. So anyways, so then I was like, “I need to go study yoga on an ashram in India. I really want to do that.” And initially I didn't think I wanted to teach yoga, but I found this thing that was a yoga teacher training and it was reasonably priced. And so I was like, “I'll go and I'll study yoga and then I don't have to teach.” [laughs] Which of course ultimately I decided I definitely wanted to teach.
And it was one of those things. The trick was like, “OK, I'm going to quit my job and I'm going to cash bonds from childhood. I'm going to use all the money I have to go and take this.”

Priya Thomas: What was life like at the ashram?

Amanda Miller: Well, it was honestly life changing. It was like totally terrifying at first. [laughs] Because I was all by myself and there was so much culture shock and it was really a process of breaking down everything, everything because there was nothing from my life there. There was no society. There was no electronics. There was no money exchange. It was really a slow paced situation and very basic living. Like, very basic. And it was a lot of time to be with myself.

And it was very slow paced yoga. So it was very hard for my mind to kind of slow down and be OK. So at first there was so much anxiety in trying to transition. And it was like waking up at 5:00 am and it was this long day of yoga practice. Living a yogi lifestyle. But I did eventually transition and I did eventually find peace in the environment and be calmer in my mind. And by the end I really wanted to stay longer, but I guess that's how things go.

Priya Thomas: Do you find to think that in some ways the thing that broke you down was not having reminders of your life or the things that you associated most with yourself?

Amanda Miller: Yeah.

Priya Thomas: And yet the book is all about trying to honor what you've been through, those memories, with some space. Right?

Amanda Miller: Yeah, absolutely.

Priya Thomas: Well then it seems that there's a kind of tension, (I think we all experience this) between the voice that says, “OK, I need to remember my story” and the voice that equally knows that the more you tell yourself that story, the more true it if your life story gets fossilized, constrained, defined by the plotline. My question is, can you speak a little bit to this idea of not having any reminders of your ‘story’ and how that might have freed you up?

Amanda Miller: Absolutely. Well, that was part of why I wanted to go by myself. And not having reminders, it was like it was more letting go of everything that defined me. And being able to really become just like... [laughs] This is hard. It's sounds... Whatever. [laughs] But sort of just become a spirit without all of these definitions, which, I think, at least part of what you're trying to do in yoga. It's like kind of get rid of the self, at least temporarily, and just exist. And so I feel like it did accomplish that. It was sort of like shedding all this identity and all this past and everything that constituted daily living. And I think it was successful, ultimately.

Priya Thomas: At one point in the book there is a curious overlap between some of the bodily mortification practices at the ashram (vamana dhauti: vomiting done after meals or on an empty stomach practiced in ashrams to cleanse the digestive and respiratory tracts) and the things that you obviously experienced before you got there. I mean for years you would binge eat and then go and expel your food with the same practices. I’m guessing it would have been a trigger for you to have to do that as a ritual practice. And yet you describe it as powerfully cleansing. Why?

Amanda Miller: Right. Yeah. It was interesting. I mean, this practice that was supposed to be a cleansing and healing practice was, at that point for me yes, associated with something that had been very self destructive. So it was powerful to do it and to think of in a new way. And the difference for sure was that with vaman you're doing it before you eat and you're drinking salt water. At first I was quite nervous about doing it, but I did feel kind of like it helped my anxiety.

Priya Thomas: Did it also rewire your memory or your “story”?

Amanda Miller: Yeah. Yeah, it also was like, “I don't do that anymore and this is a different context. And this is for a different purpose.” And it didn't make me want to do that again. You know? Yeah.

Priya Thomas: In the book you mention your father was adopted. Perhaps related to his sorrow, your book really deals with your own issues with trying to find a community. I found there were continual recollections of Jewish summer camp experiences with that of the ashram.

Amanda Miller: Oh, yeah, that's true. The times where I felt the most unhealthy or out of balance was when I was all alone. I didn't have a community. And both those experiences (camp and the ashram) are situations that exist separate from society and civilization. They’re located out in a natural setting. And you live with the same people and you don't leave. And you're there for a month at least. And both had rituals because the summer camp was a Jewish summer camp, so you have rituals for meals and for the Sabbath. And at the ashram you wake up and you meditate and you chant and practice yoga and don't talk during meals. So they both had these rituals and both had a spiritual intention behind them. And I think also the separateness from society enabled some very profound connections with the other people because it was really about being with people.
And so you feel really close knit with these people in a very short amount of time. And both of those situations made me feel very supported. And also I was able to express emotion in both of those environments with other people in deeper ways than I generally am in daily life.

Priya Thomas: And what about yourself now? Are you in a place where you feel like you're over the worst of it? Or is it a come and go situation? Like every day is a new thing...

Amanda Miller: Well, certainly it's not as extreme as it was. Yes. I feel like I have much more awareness than I've ever had about how my system functions and my mind operates. So even when I have difficulty, I have better perspective. So I know it's not going to last forever and that – yeah, and that helps. But, you know. I'm a human and I'm by no means perfect. And I still have a lot of emotion and can be triggered and I can have anxiety and sadness. But I think the main thing is that I'm very driven to do what I want to do. And I feel like I've really empowered myself to pursue what I want to pursue. And I have a good support system. I have a really sweet partner. And so I think the main thing is that I have better perspective.

Priya Thomas: You mention at the end of your book that your dad was the one who encouraged you to write.

Amanda Miller: Well, I've always written since I was little. I was always writing books and stapling
them together and drawing illustrations for them. He just thought I was good at it and he really encouraged me to keep doing it. And he was an intellectual type. And he had read a lot and he just connected with the fact that I was writing. And he thought that I was good at it...he would tell me my writing was good and that I should keep doing it. [laughs]

Priya Thomas: That’s invaluable. What was your father like?

Amanda Miller: Well... (long pause)

Priya Thomas: He sounds like he was a complicated man...

Amanda Miller: [laughing] Yeah, that was the first thing I was going to say. Yeah, he was complicated. But he was very intelligent. He was passionate about history and interested in politics. He was an intellectual. And he was very hard on himself. And sometimes quite hard on the people that he was closest to. But he really did love those he was closest to. And I have some of my most difficult memories with him and I have some of my most loving memories with him... 

Francesca Woodman

P erhaps it's not so unusual that we should learn many important things early on in life, only to spend as much time later trying to unlearn them. It brings to mind something one of my yoga teachers had said to me about one of my areas of ‘mastery.' I was busy explaining that I had turnout very deeply established in my hips from earlier training when he said: “Learn it and let it go.” It’s a strange rule of the universe that the things you trained for, even that yoga pose you are convinced you have ‘mastered’ will be your undoing.

The point being, the very things that we learned by becoming mirrors of those we love, in emulation or identification, the very things that helped us survive or cope must also, at some point, be uprooted. I don’t know why. It just seems that once you’ve learned something well enough to repeat it in your sleep, its utility diminishes: everything is useful until it’s become a habit. So we have no option but to admit it: Strategies of a sound practice must be based on change, motion, on transience… Maybe we do yoga so that our bodies can be thrown headlong into centrifugal force, the sharper curves, without losing dead-center. Or, maybe we do this practice of mindful postures (and its inevitable accumulations of habit) for much stranger reasons. Perhaps somewhere in us we know that beyond its promises of thermoregulation, biofeedback, and spinal alignment, yoga is a system ultimately designed to undo itself, to finally unravel completely. And then, possibly, hopefully, we might let go.

• For more information about Amanda Erin Miller, please visit

• For those located in NYC, you can see Amanda in performance in One Breath, Then Another: An Interactive Yoga Show which will officially premiere as part of Theater For The New City's Dream Up Festival.  8/18 8pm, 8/21 6:30pm, 8/23 9pm, 8/25 2pm, 8/28 6:30pm. $12
Tix available here

One Breath, Then Another: A Memoir is available on Amazon in print and for Kindle


  1. Excellent, moving interview. Thanks to both of you.

    Posting this to Best of Yoga Philosophy.

    Bob W.

  2. thank you Bob, hope you are well. priya

  3. breath-taking.
    gratitude for that.