In the back row of my Monday morning yoga class, a mom and her daughter unrolled their mats, side by side. I noticed the pair, as I bent over in downward-facing dog, gazing backward through my legs. The girl was thin and pretty, and looked to be about 12 or 13; wisps of fine, brown hair fell out of her ponytail, framing her soft face. She pressed her lips together as she concentrated intently on each pose, looking over at her mom from time to time, to be sure she had the correct form. A pang of yearning shot through me; I missed practicing yoga with Mom.
Mom had introduced me to yoga through a TV show called "Yoga for Health," that ran in the 1960s and '70s, hosted by Hatha yoga practitioner Richard Hittleman. Mom had bought the complete set of Hittleman's large-format paperbacks that illustrated the asanas. As a child, I carefully studied the illustrations in the bright yellow and orange books, and practiced stretching and bending my limbs into the shapes of the poses.
Handsome and fit, Richard Hittleman would instruct us, his clear voice speaking through our black-and-white TV, into the living room of our five-room garden apartment in Queens. Practicing yoga with Mom was a mother-daughter treat, like dancing to her Bossa Nova records—an oasis of calm amidst the chaotic apartment life of two working parents and three school-age children.
When my two younger brothers made too much noise roughhousing, our downstairs neighbor, whom we called "the Witch," would knock on her ceiling three times with a broom. She once had the audacity to do this when Mom had accidentally dropped and broken a dinner plate. Mom stomped furiously three times on the floor; the toxic mix of claustrophobia and mom's fiery temper sent me scurrying to my room.
Yet yoga could relax Mom, a vibrant redhead who didn't fit the 1950s-housewife mold. Snuck into factories in the New York City Garment District when she was 14, she maintained a strong work ethic and always wanted to earn money working outside the home. Although she attended Hunter College for a year before she married my dad at 19, she never completed her degree: my Eastern European immigrant grandparents pushed her to pursue "commercial" coursework, when what she had truly wanted to study was art. She worked in retail, as a bookkeeper and as an office manager at a catering business. I admired her radiant beauty, her fierce independence, her take-charge attitude, her effervescence. I was pleased when people told me that I had Mom's smile.
But the stress of being a working mother took its toll on her. She had suffered from migraines all her adult life; there were days when she awoke, eyes peering warily into the light, and nights when she arrived home from work, drank a cup of strong black coffee, popped a Fiorinal and went straight to bed. As the oldest child and the only girl, it fell to me to make dinner, wash the dishes and help supervise my brothers' homework. On those nights, while Dad watched TV with us, Mom slept.
When I was in high school, a new yoga series appeared on public television called "Lilias, Yoga and You." Mom and I would sometimes watch and practice together. We took a series of yoga classes at a local studio. By that time, I was becoming more interested in jazz and modern dance, but I still appreciated the refuge of yoga and being enveloped in a gentle space, that we could inhabit together.
In 1995, Mom and Dad moved to a small gated community in Del Ray Beach, Florida. I was by then a harried lawyer with three young sons, living in the Philadelphia suburbs; I was the one practicing yoga to relieve the stress of being a working mom. I went through a phase in which I distanced myself from my mother, as I struggled to come to terms with her anger and the way it had affected me. Mom felt this distance and yearned to be closer to me. During one of her visits, I invited her to accompany me on a weekend yoga retreat at an ashram outside the city and she eagerly accepted.
Mom didn't seem to mind sleeping in a rustic cabin and she enjoyed the vegetarian meals; she even found it charming to take classes in an airy barn. But the absence of locks on the dormitory-style bedroom doors unnerved her and she carried her huge handbag with her into each class.
"No one here is going to steal from you, Mom," I admonished her. "This is an ashram, a spiritual community."
During one guided meditation, I lay next to Mom on the smooth wooden floor of the barn and her hand found mine. Some defensive armor that had built up in me over the years cracked open at that moment and tears trickled down my face. I could've reassured her then, about what this intimacy meant to me. Instead, I told her about my friendship with an older woman at the university where I worked. Mom seemed to understand that I needed an older confidante, someone who, in a way, had taken her place. "I'm happy for you," she said, and I know she meant it.
When the retreat was over, I drove Mom to the airport but missed the exit, and had to rush so that she could make her flight on time. Anxiety about missing her flight brought on one of Mom's colossal migraines; I instantly felt remorse that our mother-daughter weekend had ended this way. I had left a white cotton nightgown on my bed at the ashram. As soon as I unpacked and noticed it missing, I called to see whether it had been found. A few days later, it arrived by mail, freshly laundered; I remembered my conversation with Mom about her pocketbook and felt vindicated.
My last yoga class with Mom was held in the clubhouse at her gated community in Florida.
Our family had made the 21-hour drive down to Florida with the kids, like we did every winter. Even in Florida, Mom never completely retired. She worked as a restaurant hostess, a caregiver at a day-care center and a freelance bookkeeper.
At the end of class, I lay in savasana, final resting pose, savoring the familiar sweetness that arose between us, after yoga had worn through our defenses. A few weeks after that class, Mom awoke with a sore throat and overwhelming fatigue. She was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia at the age of 65.
Yoga was my refuge from the sadness of losing Mom. I practiced on Mom's "good" days when—draped in two hospital gowns and wearing a paper mask to guard against infection—I sat next to her hospital bed, taking notes, as she instructed me on who was to receive her possessions when she died. I admired the perfect contours of Mom's bald head as she drank water blessed by a rabbi from a local Kabbalah center. She kept the 72 names of God under her pillow; we stared at the names together, whispering prayers for her healing. I practiced yoga on her "bad" days, when she curled into herself from the side effects of five battering rounds of chemo and couldn't lift her head from her sweat-soaked pillow.
Mom died in the hospital, two weeks after the bone-marrow transplant, for which I, a half-match, served as her last-ditch donor. Approaching the 18th anniversary of her death, I kneel on my yoga mat and press back into child's pose. Other mothers and daughters will discover the special bond of practicing together. I breathe deeply through my sorrow, grateful for the enduring gift that Mom gave me.