Using yoga practice to reconcile dichotomies in family & spiritual life.

collage by cristina sitja rubio,

excerpted from the print magazineÖ

On a Sunday afternoon in August, I hear Robert Thurman on the radio. The Columbia University Professor and one-time Tibetan monk has just written a new book, and is making the media rounds. He suggests mother-love is a universal experience, which can be useful because we all have it in common. The person beside you may believe or value different things, but they understand hugs and kisses. You can bet they received some along the way. Otherwise, he chuckles, they would be all demented by now.

I wonder briefly about the statement. Is it true that mother-love is a universal experience? Universal love is not the first thing I feel when I think of my own mother.

On the other hand, I admit I was held. I accept that is probably important. There is some foundation of body-level, emotional trust and understanding on which to build. I donít know whether this is enough.

Mr. Thurman goes on to suggest eastern spiritual techniques are useful for investigating the mind. It is not a question of belief, he says. I follow this far. Then he says it is a good idea to prepare for lives after this one. It is a bet one cannot lose.

Here I balk. Turn off the radio.

Why do I react to Robert Thurmanís reincarnation comment? I donít think the issue is whether or not I believe in reincarnation. It is more my general attitude towards spiritual ideas. I speculate in over-simple terms: My mother is more likely to accept esoteric things, and I trust her less; My father is more circumspect, and I trust him more. The choices are to be spacey and happy, or responsible and alienated.

Except it is not that simple. My parents are not the caricatures I have made of them. More importantly, I imply a dichotomy between them. Maybe that is understandable. Maybe it is even common to parents and children all over. The choice is hopeless, though, so the dichotomy must be wrong. There must be another way.

Practicing yoga gives me plenty of opportunity to observe and consider this suite of issues and responses, because some aspects of the practice make me feel like turning off the radio and going home. I understand this is at least partly because of my family history. Can the practice be an opportunity to do something more interesting than get fed up? Can understanding my history make yoga more clear? Can yoga help me better understand my history, and do more useful things with it?


When I was born, everyone was well so we headed home from hospital. We take a forty-minute ferry ride to get there. While waiting for the ferry my mother went to phone her own mother, to let her know the baby had arrived. She must have been exhausted and dazed, because she didnít notice the ferry arrive, then depart again, with my father and I on it. We spent 2 hours on the other side, waiting for the next ferry to bring my mom. My father began learning what to do with a hungry new baby. My mother, I donít know about.

After that, my mother stayed with me for the first six years of my life. Even those who find her otherwise difficult concede this. I screamed a lot, and she held me.

My mom left when I was six years old. She took a train from British Columbia to Toronto, and took my four-year old brother with her. My father and I were always close, and she didnít think it would be fair to take away both of his children. I stayed with my dad.

I do not doubt she loved me, or wanted me. Had I objected to staying with my father, I could have probably gone with her. They didnít fight acrimoniously, or make it difficult for us to stay in contact. Each tried not to colour our perspective of the other too strongly. They are, in short, reasonable people who care for my brother and myself. This is a story about something more subtle than tragedy.

I have letters my mother sent after she left. There is one very early one, written from Toronto on brightly coloured heart shaped paper to a small child. ďSee if you can feel the love thoughts I sendĒ.

My mom has a guru. There is a picture of him in her photo album, but I have never met him. I remember arguments about money spent to see the man in the picture. I associate him with her certainty about leaving.

I donít know that my associations are fair. I donít know what reaction I inherit from my father, and what is my own. I donít know that things would have been better had she not had this guru, or had she stayed. I can see there were reasons for her going. I remain wary, of mothers and gurus both.


My relationship with my father is strong, reliable, and inspiring. That does not mean he was easy to live with. I was always an emotionally volatile child, and after my mom left this intensified. At least once every week or two through my growing up, I would get terribly upset. The proximal cause was rarely relevant Ė a floor I forgot to sweep, or one that got dirty after I swept it. Characteristically, my father would ask why I was upset. I wouldnít know. He would continue to insist on reasons, and I on emotional catharsis, until we eventually exhausted one another and moved on.

Earlier, I called my father circumspect. He is also practical. For work, he builds houses. All the observations so far suggest some classic male-female dichotomy between my two parents. But this is not right. In a conversation we had recently, my mom said she learned intuition from my father. I could see what she meant.

My fatherís father died when I was 21 years old. I flew in for the funeral, and my Dad picked me up at the airport. On the way back to the house we had a quiet minute, before the strange bustle of activity resumed. I asked a question about some detail or other, and he asked if I could just leave it open. He copes with the logistical demands of life and relationships as necessary, but often seems to be looking for undecided space, where there is room for unknown responses to emerge.

My dad got gentleness from his father. He talked that day about how small his dadís hands were. He had not noticed that before.

My Grandfather trained as a plumber when he was young. He also plumbed the house where my family gathered to prepare for the funeral that day. So it was with some ghostly irony that the sewage system backed up in the basement, an hour or so before we left for the funeral parlour. When we got back to the house, my dad changed into work clothes and went to the basement to clean up. Superficially, it was awful down there. In another way, it was perfect. To have something clear and useful to do was the best possible thing. There is something essential in the memory of us, standing ankle-deep in the basement that day.

Josie Hughes has spent a good part of her life in university, wondering about forests, people, and the consequences of underlying assumptions. She is currently working on understanding herself and mountain pine beetles in Nelson, BC, and is grateful for kindness, patience and all kinds of tools.

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life