The LOTUS temple, or Light of Truth Universal Shrine, is a centerpiece of Yogaville. Photograph courtesy of Diana Morgan
I’m not the only one at the yoga retreat determined to be independent. Yuuki, a sweetly handsome Japanese-American who is the second-youngest of our group, arrives late with three others in an ancient Cadillac. He got lost. “I wouldn’t let anyone in the car give me directions because I was sure my route was correct,” he says at our first group meeting. We’re sitting in a circle discussing our goals for the week. Yuuki is on the corporate track at a DC insurance company. “When I pulled up through the pink arch at the entrance,” he says, “I saw that on the back of it is written ‘There are many paths. There is one truth.’ ”
We’re each asked to say a word to describe what has brought us to Yogaville.
“Truth,” says Yuuki.
“Yoga,” I say because I can’t think of anything else.
“Mom,” Ralli says, grinning.
Others say “peace,” “grace,” “under-standing.”
My decision to register Ralli for the retreat was made in guilt. I was working too many hours, and Ralli was spending almost every evening alone in the house. I took yoga classes with Gopi every Sunday, but buying six days away would feel like an indulgence if it were only me. If I signed both of us up, I could devote a week to being with Ralli.
As a working mother, I move through many worlds. I know the terrifying loneliness of raising children alone, I know the warmth and comfort of women, I know the hard-edged excitement of work. My daughter lives in multiple worlds, too: the hierarchical jungle gym of teenage girls, the austere landscape of her divorced father—but always there’s the cocoon shared with brother, dog, and mother.
As the yoga group sits in the opening-night circle, I realize I forgot to prepare Ralli for the adult yogis, a sometimes emotional bunch. One friend, a tough lawyer and the father of a 16-year-old boy, cried when we sang “Happy Birthday” at a party for his 50th earlier in the summer, and he breaks down frequently during the afternoon practice. A female friend, a government contractor, bursts out sobbing when Gopi takes us into yoga poses called hip openers, intended to release pent-up emotion.
But Ralli rarely cries. For a teen girl, she is tough, responsible, driven: editor of the yearbook, business manager of the newspaper, captain of the crew team.
She’s also concerned with her appearance, devoting 20 minutes each morning to her ablutions and makeup application. I’m smitten by her beauty, memorizing the planes of her face and waves of her hair as I once learned the curve of her infant toes. I commit her 17-year-old’s smile to memory as if it were the Hebrew alphabet, necessary to understanding her past and reading our future. In her flashes of laughter is a memory of my youth.
On the second day, Ralli and I climb to a hill above the LOTUS temple, our foreheads dotted with sacred gray Indian bindis. The LOTUS—Light of Truth Universal Shrine—a big pink-and-blue building shaped like a lotus flower, appears to float in the reflecting pool in the valley below. Ralli strikes a pose from a recent ad featuring Angelina Jolie, lifting her chin for me to photograph. She appears both Eastern and Western: pale white skin, black mascara, firm Welsh chin, and smoky smudge of bindi marking her sixth chakra, the body’s energy center known as the “seat of concealed wisdom.” I’m tempted to chastise both Ralli and myself for our un-yogic absorption in the superficial aspects of beauty. But her youthful posing is the thrust of green things growing and I quiet myself.
Each morning, Gopi leads the group in an exhausting yoga practice. In the evenings, she invites us to examine our souls. The second night, she asks, “What is your purpose for being on the planet?”
Gopi teaches vinyasa, or “flow,” yoga at Hot Yoga in DC’s Cleveland Park and at Flow Yoga Center near Dupont Circle. Beautiful and dark-skinned, she grew up in London. From age 18 to 28, she lived celibately in an ashram in Ireland. Her spiritual studies seem to have suffused her body, which moves like a panther’s, every muscle contracting and releasing in harmony with her breath.
“Ask not, ‘What is in it for me?’ ” says Gopi with a whiff of John F. Kennedy. “Ask, ‘How can I serve?’”
I begin the retreat neither sure of my purpose nor how I can serve. Over the next six days, I cast my mind back over the years raising kids and further back to values instilled in my childhood. When Kennedy gave his inaugural address, I was learning to talk. He ushered in an era in which baby boomers like me were lavished with a degree of prosperity unknown to our parents and grandparents, who had struggled through two world wars and the Depression. Rumbling beneath it was our parents’ self-doubt: Who were they—and we their children—to enjoy such riches?
Here I am now, marking half a century, not sure what comes next. I turn over in my mind the question of how I was able to raise kids to have a sense of meaning and purpose when, like Yuuki, I’ve never been entirely sure of my own path. Yet Ralli somehow has a work ethic and moral compass to match those of her Pilgrim forefathers.
When she was in middle school, my daughter and I walked our Sheltie around the neighborhood before bed. We talked about teachers, friends who changed their minds to suit the wind, responsibility. Personal responsibility became the omega to the alpha of her charm. Ralli worked late hours alone at school on the yearbook. She stepped trembling into local shops to ask gruff owners to buy ad space, forcing herself to return again and again.
The summer she was 11, we sometimes drove by a Bethesda movie theater where teens loitered in the evenings, like flocks of feeding birds. Stopped at the red light, we watched the girls in short skirts, their breasts lifting out of spaghetti-strap tops, the boys eyeing them.
“They need their moms to tell them how to dress,” I said. Ralli wasn’t allowed to wear short skirts or thin straps. “When you wear something skimpy,” I continued, “you’re broadcasting a message about yourself: ‘The first thing I want you to know about me is how sexy I am.’ You have to ask yourself, ‘Is that what’s most important about who I am?’ ”
Ralli nodded, and I was pleased when she consulted me over the years on her clothes.
I’m not always so good at personal responsibility myself. The same movie theater is both home to my sweetest memories and the source of self-recrimination. Every Friday night of Ralli and Julian’s post-divorce childhood, we forsook Hebrew services for blaring movie soundtracks. I’d drive like a demon from my office in Virginia to meet the children, curl up between them, and pass a jumbo box of Butterfingers. We saw The Matrix, Shrek—whatever was showing.
One Friday, the summer Ralli turned nine, What Lies Beneath opened. The character played by Harrison Ford has an affair with a much younger woman, whom he murders; he then attempts to drown his wife in the bathtub. For months afterward, our babysitter reported, Ralli and Julian kept watch for each other outside the bathroom while the other bathed. The movie was small in the scheme of things, but like so many bad choices, it came from a blithe indifference to consequences.