Not My Mother’s Yoga

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My mother used to chant in Sanskrit in her study before sunrise every morning. Though she died when I was 16 — 22 years ago — I always hear her voice that way. Off-key, but strangely hypnotic, the language both complicated and pure, reverberating around our house.

For a kid growing up in Southern Ohio — Bible belt country — the sound was both alluring and repellent.

“What’s your mother doing?” my friends would ask.

“Being a weirdo,” I told them.

My mother stood on her head and practiced alternate nostril breathing for fun. She let her hair go gray by the age of 38 and wore white linen almost every day. She gave up her contact lenses and worse glasses as large as Sally Jesse Raphael’s, with peach-colored rims. Her jewelry was all made of sandalwood and crystals with “meaning.”

Now I am a weirdo, too. I stand on my head. I practice yoga daily. I lead rooms full of sweaty bodies in asana and chanting. But back then, when I was a bonfire-attending, Gap-clothing wearing, track-running middle schooler with a lot to prove, my mother — the yogi — was humiliating.

“Why don’t you try some foundation,” I’d ask her, my own 13-year-old experiments with the stuff leaving my neck and face two different tones of brownish-orange. She’d smile, then smear Dr. Hauschka’s rose cream all over her bare face.

Other moms dyed their hair perfect shades of red. They wore trendy clothing and drove little sports cars. They went to church on Sunday and baked cookies for the bake sale. My best friend’s mom wore a bikini in the summer and drew all kinds of admiration from the girls in our school as well as the boys. I wanted to be their daughter, to have the kind of mother who would show me how to curl my bangs and how to hold the hair spray can so my hair didn’t turn into a frozen waterfall of crusty flakes.

To be sure, my mom was a freak. But I also adored her. She smelled like roses and sandalwood and had soft hands that would stroke my face when I fought with a friend and hold me when I was sad. She listened to every annoying middle school saga and knew all of my friend’s dramas and remembered to ask all the right questions.

She took me to her ashram (now the Kripalu yoga center in Stockbridge, Mass.) multiple times during the weeks at a time she’d stay there. I’d choke down the vegetarian food and count the days until my father would come and pick us up, bringing me ice cream and normalcy. Yoga was slow, much too slow for a skinny adolescent who loved running and jumping and sprinting and hurdling.

My mother was never pushy about her practice. She stuck to it and encouraged me to try, but she didn’t force it on the rest of us. As I grew, I started to like yoga more. I used it as recovery from my running. The stretching and slow movements helped me to get into those muscles that track cool-downs never seemed to touch. But even so, I always assured anyone who asked: “Yoga is just not my thing.”

It continued to not be my thing all the way through my mother’s illness. When she became too sick to practice herself, we’d bring in CDs of the chants she enjoyed, and when the cancer ravaging her body made its way into her brain and left her blind, we bought her books on tape about yoga, books that helped her breathe more deeply and surrender to the sickness that killed her within 11 months.

I couldn’t touch yoga after that. Even the smell of sandalwood made me want to crumple into a ball of hurt and pain. I ran every day, trying to outrun the grief, but it was always there. If I had an eight-minute mile, the pain was jogging 7:30. Always a few steps ahead. Always breaking the victory tape long before me.

I was 24 when I finally got back on my mat. My fiancé and I were living in Boston, a few doors down from Baptiste yoga. I was still a runner and would do a three- or four-miler, then head into class, already dripping with sweat. Baptiste is an athletic flow, much faster than my mother’s slow-flow hatha. We were moving through the sun salutations at breakneck speed, each breath bringing another posture. There were arm balances and binds and long chair pose holds that strengthened and toned my glutes and biceps – all in a room heated to 98 degrees. The sweat poured off my body until my mat was a slip and slide full of hard work and pain.

This was, literally, not my mother’s yoga.

I started going daily. I found humility in the practice. All around me, women with taut abs and muscular shoulders flowed from one pose to another while I shook and swayed in airplane and wanted to scream during 90 seconds of chair pose. It was just what I needed. The marrying of my long, sweaty runs with my mother’s work on the mat.

Yoga started to transform me. The changes included stronger arms, flatter abs and much more focus. There were no more tears during two-minute side planks. The little things that annoyed me off the mat — co-worker squabbles, rude drivers in other cars, people who don’t stop at crosswalks — bothered me less. My worldview changed from one of want and need to one of compassion and love. I was just happier. And it occurred to me: Maybe this is what my mother loved so much. At that point it had been almost a decade since she died and it was the closest I’d ever felt to her.

We left Boston and my beloved Baptiste studio and I continued to explore yoga, eventually settling into a new hot studio in our community just outside of New York City. And there, on the mat, just after a particularly drippy, soaking vinyasa practice, I decided to become a yoga teacher.

I wore my mother’s mala beads on my first day of teaching a yoga class. It was hard, harder than anything I’d done before. And yoga has changed since my mother’s time. There was no Instagram when she practiced, no bendy and perfect bodies on display with 4,000 likes wrapped in scorpion pose without the help of a wall. But, as yogis might say: Be here now. And here I am.