Originally published at Elephant Journal
On a Sunday last month I was taking a workshop with a leading yoga instructor and 4,000 miles away my father was enjoying his last day alive. As I explored a down-to-earth approach to the subtle body, my father was beginning a dive into the ocean. As I practiced pranayama, my father was drowning. Over and over again I replay the events in my mind to try to understand what happened. But the truth is that we will never know. To the best of my understanding, a medical event occurred in which my father passed out while snorkeling back to the boat. He was found four hours later after an extensive search and rescue operation that was televised and featured in local newspapers.
I did not know much of this until I arrived bleary-eyed and exhausted the next day from a transatlantic flight into the arms of my grieving mother and sister.
Out of some sense of habit and responsibility, I included a yoga mat as I haphazardly packed my suitcase the night before. Up until that day, I thought I knew how yoga figured into my life. Practicing since university days in gyms and yoga studios in New York and London, and studying for the past year and a half to be an instructor myself, I thought I knew why I practiced. Looking back now I realize that most of what I was practicing was how to be good at practicing yoga asana. At the best of times, I chased a vague idea of holistic wellness. Often, I just spiritually stretched.
My first morning home I awoke to the hysterical cries of my mother, longing for her high school sweetheart and husband of 42 years. I came into her room and into her bed, and did not have any idea what to do. I suppose it is important to note that I know my grief is not exceptional within the human experience. Of course the minute I voice that I also say to myself that no one was like my father. I suppose as well that this feeling is not exceptional. But no one starts a week thinking they’ll be writing their father’s obituary within a few days.
“Breathe,” a voice within me said. I, who always grew impatient with pranayama, began to practice a slow deep ujjayi with my mother to cool and calm our bodies. Soon, we were standing with our arms extending upward with the breath. What was I doing?
Later that week when I finally unfurled my mat with hopes of a self-practice, I seized up in confused emotion. A few lazy sun salutations later, I rolled up the mat and went downstairs to one of the many casseroles friends and family had sent to the house. What could exercise do for me right now? How could it deal with the police investigators? The lawyers? The journalists? The job I had left? The eulogy I needed to write? The bills we needed to pay? How could it return my family to some form of normal?
“Do you feel a sense of loss when the adjustment ends?” said the yoga teacher that last Sunday. We were discussing some incredible assists we had just learned and I immediately discounted this emotional dissection of it as hippie mumbo jumbo. “Do you take the adjustment for granted or do you treasure it and learn how to find it on your own?” I inwardly rolled my eyes and waited for the next physical practice. But now I keep thinking about it.
I had lost the father that guided me. That in many ways held up me and my family. How could I find that guiding hand once again? Would learning how to find difficult poses on the mat without an instructor to assist me have something to teach me in this moment?
When I began my teacher training last year, one of our instructors said that when we find alignment in the body through asana, the prana flows more freely, and with that our existence is transformed.
With the loss of my father, I felt seriously misaligned. The entire narrative of my life had been disrupted and I felt disconnected from my life, love, and body. But could I realign my body and heart without my father? Could I feel the energetic flow throughout my body that signals I feel good and I feel love?
I had to change my definition of prana, if I ever had one at all. What I once understood as a vague notion of vital energy I would now attempt to seek out as the essence of my father transformed. I would ask my father to guide me, to realign my body, to help me return to my body so I could help my mother and summon the immense amount of strength and compassion I needed.
I took my mat outside to the sunshine of my father’s garden, stood on my two feet in tadasana and felt an electric charge through my body as breath filled me. My father was with me. What was happening?
It’s been hard to sleep so I’ve been reading a great deal. Recently I picked up the huge tome London by Edward Rutherford. The first chapter ends with a boy losing his father in a bloody battle. Heartbroken, he visits the local priest who says to him, “end your grief -the river is your father now.” I read the words over and over again.
My father died in the ocean he loved; his life diffused into the waves. The ocean is my father now. Depending on your science and religion, my father was transformed into the ocean, the sky, the movement of energy all around me. He has not left me.
So years into it, I have finally found my practice. When I step on to a mat I seek to align my body through increasing challenges to the flow of energy around me. To feel the transformation experienced at its simplest level while moving from a slouch to an upright seated position – from despair to joy and possibility. As I practice each pose, and open my body to breath, I connect to the energetic flow of prana. And when I am connected to the flow of prana throughout my body, I am connected to the unexplainable compassionate bliss of the universe that contains, in some way or another, the lingering presence of those we’ve loved and lost. And I’m no longer rolling my eyes at that.
I come to my mat for strength, for love, and healing. When I come to my mat, I meet my father and he holds me and guides me and leads the way.