News & Politics

A Mother-Daughter Trip to Yogaville

A daughter’s transformation—and the challenge of confronting my own purpose in life—awaits 40 miles south of Charlottesville

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.

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While planning our mother/daughter togetherness project, I discovered Swami Satchidananda’s exhortation that to succeed we must live as one family “helping each other.” In the gravel parking lot, kissed and patted from all sides, I feel warmed, but my instinct is to push back the love. Ralli’s actual family, as she knew it, disappeared in divorce seven years ago—I balk at the thought that anyone, even other yogis, can replace what she lost. Nor have I come to terms with the knee-jerk group hug that seems part of the yoga DNA. My WASP genes demand restraint. I’m also pretty sure it isn’t true that “it’s all good,” the yogic response to anything bad.

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.

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.

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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.

Mother and daughter in a yoga pose. The retreat wasn’t easy, but it may have helped prepare them for what lay ahead. Photograph by James Kegley

At Yogaville, I’m beginning to worry about choices. Ralli shadows me the first few days. The other yogis start to call us Mama and Baby Vamp because Ralli is deeply absorbed in Stephenie Meyer’s vampire books. The others in the group give us space to be together. On the fourth evening, Sunday, I have to drive back to DC for a meeting with lawyers but plan to return Monday afternoon. I arrange for Ralli to sleep in a room with some of the women but worry she’ll feel lost without me.

Ralli hates to be alone in our house, a trait she spies out in others. The previous winter, she snuck a Christmas tree into her history teacher’s living room. The teacher’s parents had fallen ill, and she’d had to make an emergency trip home in December. Ralli realized the teacher would return to a dark and empty apartment during the holidays, so she raised money to buy a tree and lights, then enlisted a classmate with a car and a teacher with an apartment key, and they adorned the flat together. “I decorated my first Christmas tree!” Ralli cried. “Pretty good for a Jewish girl.”

I’m irritated to miss a day of the retreat. Gopi has asked us to be prepared on the last day to present the group with a life purpose, which each of us will act on after leaving. I feel inadequate because I don’t have a purpose I can articulate.

In DC, I meet with the lawyers and suffer culture shock. They’re black-suited and poker-faced. I realize that over the past few days of the retreat, I’ve come to look forward to the other yogis’ hugs and smiles.

There’s a saying in yoga that you shouldn’t be late for class but you’re always welcome. “Thank yourself,” says Bentley Storm, founder of my DC yoga studio, every time he begins a class. “Forgive yourself for everything else.”

This summer, the threads of my life have begun to unravel. My longtime boyfriend and I have parted. The start-up company where I’ve run the department on health-communications strategy has been bought out and my job eliminated. Our Sheltie has died of old age. But what brings me to tears as I head back to Yogaville after my meeting is the emptiness of my womb. Twenty years of single-minded devotion to raising two children is gone in one mighty, final exhale. What now?

On my return, I worry that I’ve abandoned Ralli for too long with the other yogis. I see her and the yogis tramping down the hill to the dining hall, tears and mascara streaking my daughter’s face. The group has had a come-to-Krishna session at which each has revealed her deepest sorrow. Ralli talked about her dad, who lives in New York. He sees Ralli regularly, but divorce takes its toll. “I began to cry,” Ralli says. “It was so weird, because even my friends have never seen me cry. Then all the grownups in the circle began to cry. I realized I was crying for all the adults, not just for me. They all saw their pain in my pain.”

Ralli beams at me. Like the others, she seems transformed by the sharing of pain and appears almost to float. She holds hands with the yogis, pulling me into the group. They dote on her, stroking her hair, and she chats with each of them as if she, too, were an adult.

At the retreat’s last meeting, Gopi asks each of us how we’ve been transformed and what changes we intend to put in place. I can’t come up with a single idea. I seem to have missed the climax of the retreat: the “peak pose” of personal transformation shared by my daughter and the group. I feel only an unraveling and the need to soldier on.

We’re sitting in a circle in a large sunlit room, our eyes closed. The smell of sweat and lavender mat spray lingers. Gopi is playing the harmonium, chanting: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna. To ourselves, Ralli and I substitute the Hebrew Sh’ma for Hare Krishna.

I open my eyes after the meditation. Outside, a train blows its horn. If I stood up, I could look down past oak and beech into the valley of the James River. Two days earlier when we were lying in yoga nidra, a semi-trance state, I saw myself as the train, heading off into a rich future. Now, as we prepare to leave, my mind is blank and the possibility of that—or any—future escapes me. What do I want to change about the way I lead my life? I’m lost. I came here hoping to find direction, but unlike Ralli—who’s able to process her hurt, share it, and grow—it isn’t happening for me.

Yuuki comes to hug me goodbye. “I love your daughter,” he says. “When I’m married and have a daughter, I want my wife to bring her to study yoga when she’s 17.” Yuuki is 26, and his face is beatific with possibility.

Ralli drives home. She recently got her learner’s permit, and the country roads offer good practice. When we arrived at the retreat six days earlier, she suggested she take a test drive in search of a Starbucks. Yogaville is a good hour from the nearest espresso drink, and I nixed the idea. Now, closer to home, her iced Frappuccino is melting in the cup holder. As we approach Chevy Chase Circle, the Scylla and Charybdis of novice drivers, I blanch. Cars are entering and leaving at breakneck speed. I groan, and Ralli cries, “What? What?” She spies the circle ahead. “I can do it,” she says. “Just breathe me through it.”

I breathe her through the circle and all the way home. I realize the best thing I could have given my daughter was a day without me to say goodbye to childhood.

I let go of my own future. It will come.

This article appears in the August 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.

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