The Life Lessons My Father Taught Me Through Yoga
In honor of Father’s Day, our writer shares the insight and clarity she found on the mat alongside her father as she was coming of age.
In my adolescence, I had the pervading sense that things were not okay.Some of my concerns were banal (Where do I fit on the social hierarchy? Do I have the right possessions, the right stuff? Am I beautiful?), but others were weightier and often more pressing (Will I ever find a way to like myself? What kind of life am I going to lead? How can I figure out which people belong in my life?). I felt simultaneously like I was missing out on everything important and that I should hole up in my room and read everything I could—alone.
In my last two years of high school, my father sometimes taught Sunday morning yoga classes at a local dance studio. (This was the late ’90s, when there was then a single yoga studio in a town that is now saturated with them.) I would sneak into those classes after staying out with friends all night, feeling slightly sick and worried that there was no place for me in the world. It would be easy to dismiss this feeling as teenage angst, but that would be simplifying it. It was the teenage incarnation of feelings that resurface for me every few years (and that I might go so far as to claim are just part of the human condition). They are shape-shifting fears—that I’m not good enough, not interesting enough, not smart enough, that I’m just a fool. The list could go on and on.
But when I entered that classroom led by my father on Sunday mornings, the world made a certain kind of sense. My father began each class by reminding everyone that egos ought to be checked at the door to the best of our ability. (Is there better advice for a teenager than something along the lines of Take this opportunity to stop thinking about yourself?) It was freeing to stop thinking about myself. It planted a crucial and paradoxical seed of something like wisdom in me: In the moments when I can stop thinking about myself and my desires, I can find the internal metric for determining my value, my self-worth.
One memory especially stands out: During the summer before my senior year of high school, I was awake in the middle of the night, inexplicably. I wandered to the kitchen for water and a snack and heard music coming from downstairs. It was one of my father’s favorite albums to play while practicing yoga, John McLaughlin’s My Goal’s Beyond. I walked down the stairs and joined my father, moving silently through a slow series of asanas, side by side. My father told me about one of his favorite exercises from his time in the Canadian ashram, where he lived for a summer before my parents married: “Imagine that you’re laying flowers at everyone’s feet,” he said. “Think of the people who have hurt you the most. Lay flowers at their feet. Think of the people who have shown you kindness or generosity or interest. Lay flowers at their feet. Bring a beautiful bouquet to everyone who’s on your mind. Lay it at their feet. Figure out how to be thankful for every person you’ve encountered.” This is the lesson my father taught me before I entered the world as a young adult, naïve and afraid but hopeful. There was only one middle-of-the-night yoga session, but it was enough.
In the deepest and darkest territory of adolescence, practicing yoga alongside my father helped me find some shred of confidence and strength. I was a dancer and a swimmer, and though I had found some bodily confidence in those endeavors, it was yoga with my father that began to shape my intellect. In Downward Dog, we talked about the nature of consciousness. In Pigeon Pose, we wondered aloud about what a good life is. During Savasana, I learned to slowly release some fears and to trust that I was smart enough to keep figuring things out. I understood that my teenage concerns would eventually fade away and that my time on the mat was a preview of the sense of freedom that would move in once those concerns moved out. When we practiced together, I began to understand that I could exist in the world thoughtfully, gracefully, and with strength.
My father doesn’t live the stereotypical life of a yogi or someone who once chose to live in an ashram (he is a full-fledged businessman), but he often radiates tranquility. Meditating beside him, I learned how to work through anxiety, listening to his calm reminders that “breath control is mind control.” For years I would return to that refrain—a reassuring, focusing mantra—as I navigated the most difficult moments of my late teens and twenties. (And even today, briefly, as my three-year-old daughter melted down fantastically when I told her she couldn’t have chocolate for lunch.) Meditation was unfamiliar to me as a teenager, but over the years it taught me concentration, sharpened me, and helped me meet the demands of living in the world, sometimes with grace.
Recently, at the start of a yoga class, the teacher asked us students to reflect on what brought us to yoga. As I do so often, I thought of my father.
There have been times in my life when I haven’t practiced yoga—when I’ve been busy with other things, when I haven’t had the time or interest or money, when I haven’t wanted to be alone with myself—but I have always returned, because I need to keep asking myself the questions yoga taught me to ask. Each return has felt like a homecoming. Each return has been a reminder that the yoga my father taught me, in which the asanas are just a small part, helps me live well.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad. For the gift of yoga and so much more, I lay flowers at your feet.