Family and friends were stunned by the rapid physical decline of a kale-eating Reiki master who rose before dawn to meditate and had seemingly boundless energy to care for her elderly mother, two young grandsons and anyone else in need. She said perhaps the sages needed her help.
During nearly 45 years of marriage to attorney Michael Neufeld, Mrs. Neufeld morphed from an elementary school teacher to a party decorator to a yogini. She attended her first yoga teacher training for her 50th birthday because she wanted to share the practice with her mother, Selma Fishkind. Mrs. Fishkind, 91, has lived with her daughter and son-in-law since 2014.
Mrs. Neufeld studied with Rod Stryker, founder of Para Yoga, and Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute in Honesdale, PA. For the past decade, she taught The Four Desires, a course Mr. Stryker developed from an ancient yogic text to help people identify their dharma, or purpose, and any self-sabotaging patterns preventing them from living it. She was a devoted student of Sanskrit who often sent distance Reiki, or energy healing, to others.
Mr. Stryker gave Mrs. Neufeld the Sanskrit name Ambika, evoking the complete and perfect embodiment of the Divine Mother. She was extremely close with her own mother and with her two daughters, Sara Neufeld of Astoria, Queens, and Heather Neufeld of Brooklyn. She and Mrs. Fishkind drove to Astoria every Thursday in recent years for a sleepover with grandsons Maceo and Paxton Clemens, now ages 4 and 2. Artistic and creative, Mrs. Neufeld made an elaborate bulldozer Halloween costume for Maceo while undergoing chemotherapy last fall.
She was born in Waterbury as Susan May Potoff on Aug. 11, 1951. She called Stephen Potoff her baby brother even though he was two years her senior, supporting and advising him from a young age in exchange for many laughs. Her father, the late Rubin Potoff, owned Metal Fabrications, a company that made cosmetics containers. Her parents divorced when she was 18, a painful experience that eventually led her and her brother to seek spiritual guidance beyond their native Judaism. (He is a devout Buddhist.) She forgave her father as he grew older and fostered loving connections with her three half-siblings.
Mrs. Neufeld graduated from Wilby High School in Waterbury, where she was voted prom queen, most studious and most likely to succeed, and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from Simmons College in Boston. She was introduced to Mr. Neufeld after their mothers met playing golf in Westport, and they married on her birthday in 1973. She has supported her husband through his own struggle with prostate cancer since 2010, as he has supported her spiritual journey.
A petite woman often mistaken as her daughters’ sister, Mrs. Neufeld seemed to be a model of health and vitality until last June, when stomach cramping led to the discovery of a large tumor in her uterus. She underwent surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where she put handmade OM stickers on all the bags of chemo drugs streaming into her and distributed yoga nidra (guided relaxation) CDs to the nurses.
A scan on Dec. 27 showed her to be cancer free, but by early February, the disease was found to have metastasized. A second round of chemotherapy was ineffective, and she sought alternative treatments this spring at the Sanoviv Medical Institute in Mexico.
She retained her characteristic optimism until her final days, with hopes to attend her daughter Heather’s upcoming wedding and spend a summer on the Milford beach with her grandsons. And yet she was at peace with the prospect of death and asked friends and relatives to send her love and light, not fear. After a week surrounded by family in Mexico, she was scheduled to fly home by air ambulance on May 12 but passed a few hours beforehand, overlooking the Pacific Ocean and with Heather by her side.
One Four Desires exercise requires participants to write their own eulogy, and she did so for herself last month. “I came, I lived, I appreciated, I shined, I loved,” she wrote. “And my blessed ones, I left. Find me in the stars, in the sacred fire, in a giggle or a smile. Find me in your joy and your love.”
In addition to her husband, mother, daughters, grandsons and brother, Mrs. Neufeld is survived by son-in-law Christopher Clemens of Astoria; future son-in-law Adam Muller of Brooklyn; sister-in-law Deborah Potoff of Wellesley, Mass.; half-sister Lynn Potoff of Wells, Maine; half-sister Jayne and brother-in-law Michael Civitello of North Franklin; half-brother Joseph Potoff of Middletown; and brother-in-law Alan and sister-in-law Sylvie Neufeld of North Miami Beach, FL. In addition to her father, she was predeceased by stepfather Seymour Fishkind, mother-in-law Lorna and father-in-law Herbert Neufeld, and brother-in-law Brian and sister-in-law Barbara Neufeld.
A memorial service took place on Wednesday, May 16 at Temple Emanuel, 150 Derby Ave. in Orange. Details for a subsequent memorial at the Himalayan Institute are forthcoming.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Himalayan Institute’s new shrine for peace or to Temple Emanuel’s community action fund and JCARR fund for refugee resettlement.