The author planned a trip to mark her daughter’s last year at home—“the purgatory between childhood and adulthood, parenthood and the unknown.” Photograph by James Kegley
In yoga, the route to self-understanding is in the breath. “Inhale,” yoga teachers instruct. “Exhale.” My 17-year-old daughter and I arrive at Satchidananda Ashram—known as Yogaville—on an August afternoon almost too hot to breathe. I’ve brought Ralli to mark the beginning of her last year at home before college.
At the yoga retreat there are 18 of us, Washingtonians ranging in age from 17 to 60, plus our instructor, Gopi Kinnicutt. We’re staying at the remote Yogaville for six days. The ashram is home to a hundred or so souls living and working on 700 acres in Virginia’s Buckingham County, 40 miles south of Charlottesville. Before he died, founder Sri Swami Satchidananda traveled the world lecturing. He told his listeners, “If you want to see a heaven, come to Yogaville.” I’m touched by the “a” that he put before “heaven.” Finding our personal piece of heaven seems like a proper goal for our mother/daughter trip.
I’ve defined the retreat to Ralli as a chance to be together. We still share a house but seldom the same state of mind. The drive to Ralli’s school is like sitting in a recording studio on the opposite side of the glass from the musicians. I’m no longer part of the action. Ralli tunes the radio to Top 40, plays pizzicato on her cell phone, bows her lashes with a mascara wand. I discuss dinner and homework and flinch when Ralli swats me aside. She and I have entered that realm of purgatory between childhood and adulthood, parenthood and the unknown. We haven’t said the last rites for her childhood, but we’re nervously fingering the bedspread, listening for its final breath.
The word “yoga” is derived from the Sanskrit for “yoke” or “union.” The discipline is made up of a system of postures called asanas. I’ve found that, when combined with conscious inhalation and exhalation, yoga allows me to step into myself and put my buzzing thoughts on pause. I came to my yoga studio in DC’s Cleveland Park hobbled by back pain from 20 years of running but stayed for the sweat and friendship. Yoga is a low-calorie alternative to Cheers—an Om Bar where everybody knows your name. It’s a physical and mental discipline—the exhale of self-doubt, the inhale of forgiveness.
Yoga is the “union of our will with the will of God,” writes B.K.S. Iyengar in Light on Yoga. My friend John, a Catholic professor of religion, teases me about practicing “latte lite” religion. He tells me the ancient Indian religious practice of yoga has been transformed by yuppies into a combination spiritual fad/high-end aerobic workout.
“I wish you would go to India and sit with Hindu yoga masters who approach the practice of yoga in a traditional manner,” John says. “You hunger for something more genuine, I suspect.” He tells me I must choose my path: “Otherwise, you’ll go from one craze to the next. As Kierkegaard put it, either/or is the way to heaven, both/and the way to hell.”
I tell him I don’t believe I’m on a spiritual journey. In yoga as in jogging, the union of breath and movement simply feels good: lifting arms overhead on the inhale, exhaling into a forward bend. Yoga reminds me of connection with my children, the ebb and flow of our days together, the bond of our blood and lives.
Much of my life with my kids has taken place inside cars. When Ralli was barely five, she and her older brother and I converted to Judaism, my now ex-husband’s faith. Ralli and I learned to read Hebrew. I taped index cards with Hebrew letters around the house, naming the door, the mirror, her bed. She liked me to sing the Sh’ma to her in the car, a passage from the Torah that translates as “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is God, the Lord is One.”
Ralli sat behind me in her car seat, waving her arms like a happy cantor. “Cover your eyes, Mommy!” she’d cry, recalling the Jewish custom that when chanting this prayer, one must remove all distractions from God.
“I’m driving,” I’d say.
“Cover them anyway! Cover them!”
Listening to rapper Kanye West, she and I arrive at Yogaville, where there’s no cell-phone reception, only the two of us sharing a small room. Friends from my yoga studio who are also here this week greet Ralli and me in the parking lot with hugs. It’s like jumping into a mosh pit of spiritual love, a whirl of brightly colored skirts and mala beads.
And yet . . . . Every week in yoga class, Gopi preaches self-acceptance and nonattachment. No matter how rancorous the workday’s PowerPoint meeting, how stiff-necked my down-dog pose, Gopi tells me I’m okay. What a wonderful thing that is.
When I was a kid, my family lived in Georgetown, and my dad somehow registered both as a Democrat in DC and a Republican in Maryland. Logically it made sense: He was a Republican at heart, but DC was a liberal’s city. He expressed glee at being a member of both parties—and neither.
My father confused me when I was a child; he was always joining a new group—the school board, a tennis committee, a city land-use organization, whose intent and members he then savaged to us at home. In matters of religion, it was the same. His extrovert’s soul couldn’t resist the offer to join the vestry of my mother’s Episcopal church, but at home he told me he was an atheist.
In raising Ralli and her older brother, I tried to provide them with clear meaning. The question of their religious belief system arose when three-year-old Julian said on Columbus Day that he’d like to meet Christopher Columbus for lunch.
“We can’t,” I said. “He’s dead.”
“Dead? How can he be dead?” said Julian. “Where is he? Let’s get him up.”
Episcopalianism, my birth religion, wasn’t going to fly for Julian and his sister. My mom was proud of her Anglican roots, but my atheist dad hadn’t given me a strong attachment to the church. In fact, crosses provoked extreme anxiety in me. Entering a church was like sneaking into someone else’s country club.
My ex-husband’s father was a fiery, intellectually passionate Jew. We argued religion at breakfast and dinner, and when he and my mother-in-law moved into an apartment, he gave me his collection of Yiddish novels. My own dad blessed my conversion in his way. He said he’d join me by converting to paganism and then danced a barefoot caper around a tree in the front yard.
When my kids were born, I hoped to give them one clear path to follow. I wanted them to love themselves and the world and have the courage to hold to their beliefs in the face of doubt.