Growing Up with Yoga: Lessons from My Father’s Practice

June 19, 2015    BY Portia Brockway

One afternoon before I was born, my mother and father were watching TV. They happened upon a show on which India’s Prime Minister Pandit Nehru was discussing the affairs of the day with Aldous Huxley, author of Doors of Perception and father figure to be for the sixties’ counterculture. The year was 1956. The subject of yoga came up. My father had never heard of yoga before, but what Nehru and Huxley said fascinated him. He turned to my mother and asked her what yoga was. She said that she didn’t know; why didn’t he get a book on it?

So, during lunch hour at his job as an advertising executive on Madison Avenue in New York City, my father found a book on hatha yoga called Yoga for Perfect Health by Alain. I still have it on my shelf. He brought it home and tried out the poses and breathing exercises. While practicing he started having strange internal experiences, like sensing his chakras (wheels of energy centered along the spinal column) and seeing a light in the area of his third eye. The book said that it was advisable to find a teacher, so he called one yoga center and ended up dialing another number “by mistake.” The man who answered the phone, Sachindra Majumdar, has been his teacher for the past 40 years.

While practicing he started having strange internal experiences.

Somewhere in the midst of all this I was born. From infancy, I was exposed to Darien, Connecticut’s success-based culture as well as the wafting smoke of amber kasturi incense in the early morning, ragas playing on the phonograph on Saturday mornings, and, most importantly, Daddy meditating at 5:30 every morning and practicing his yoga poses on the sun porch.

I remember his straight back, bare in the summer, as he sat cross-legged in the lotus position early every morning. Sitting, and yet something more. I sensed the space around him charged with presence. So my doors of perception opened at quite a young age, or perhaps I should say they never closed. My father spoke little about philosophy. He never called himself a member of any religion, nor is he. Yet there was a philosophy, or a way of life, that went along with the meditation and the poses. It was a philosophy of loving and acting responsibly, of not harming others. It was felt and acted out through caring intention.

Daddy first taught me hatha yoga poses when I was two or three. The one I remember best is the bow, because he commented that I was very good at it! The shape that emerges in this pose resembles that of a bow drawn to pierce its arrow’s intention. Here I found joy in yoga.

As I grew older, my brother came along. Jay was born with a mild form of cerebral palsy. My father taught my brother yoga to help with his balance and coordination. We brought him in to New York City on Saturday afternoons to learn from Mr. Majumdar, putt-putting into the city in our 1964 Saab. Jay took his lesson nearby while Daddy and I strolled through the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Over the years I was not always a willing yoga student. While vacationing in the Virgin Islands I remember preferring to snorkel for treasure among the sands and coral reefs rather than to practice with my father and brother. But Daddy was strict about me practicing because it provided camaraderie for Jay. And for the most part I enjoyed it.

The years slipped by and my father continued his practice while Jay and I were otherwise diverted. I began practicing again in the eighties, when I was in my twenties. Yoga helped me to deal with the stresses and strains of whatever job I was unhappily holding at the time. I was never satisfied working for others. I found conventional workplaces dysfunctional: death traps for my creative spirit. They exhausted me.

Finally, in the early nineties, I decided to trade in my misery and my enviable wages to try to become a happy yoga teacher. With healthy doses of both encouragement and skepticism from friends and family, I took a part-time job as a data-entry operator. I found a lovely chapel in Harvard Square in Cambridge in which to instruct a group of 15 students grandfathered to me by the Nityananda ashram moving out of town to Oregon. Not since I was a child sharing my father’s immersion in meditation have I met peace as frequently as I do now.

I have joked over the years that perhaps I was conceived in a yogic state. The Indian sacred text the Bhagavad Gita says it is a great honor to be born into the family of a yogi. But to me, yoga is not some holy ordeal outside the realm of ordinary experience. It is the process of joining the ordinary with the extraordinary during our daily life. Awareness gradually brings us understanding and relief: breath to thought to silence, joy to laughter to sadness to tears. Nothing is left out. Yoga is a tool for bringing all of life into full view.

Yoga is not some holy ordeal outside the realm of ordinary experience. It is the process of joining the ordinary with the extraordinary during our daily life.

I do not feel as though I must perfect the poses. I simply choose to do them to the best of my current ability for the purpose of repose and clear response.

I neither have nor seek a guru. I feel that I have the guidance I need from within. Yet I do have a spiritual lineage that provides me with support. From me to my father to Mr. Majumdar to his guru, Swami Sivananda, my lineage flows back to Sri Ramakrishna, who did no hatha (physical) yoga at all. He was a bhakti yogi. He experienced many religions, including worshiping God with and without form. He said that just as people prefer different foods according to their distinct constitutions, so each personality gains the most from a spiritual path that suits their unique inclinations.

Ramakrishna’s goal was simple. It was to know God, or Brahman, the source of all life, as one’s most intimate companion. Each individual is free to choose how to best perceive and approach Brahman. Ramakrishna worshiped Brahman’s manifestation in the form of Kali, the great black goddess of creation and destruction, whom he knew as his own mother. When asked if he wanted to do something, he would frequently reply, “I must ask Mother.” He meant no earthly mother, but Kali herself.

Although I am intrigued by Kali in her fierce beauty, it is my father’s example that inspires me. I remember the sun porch best: the early morning sunlight streaming in through nine windows riding three turns of 90 degrees, the sweet scent of incense curling around me in the next room; the striped rug, the clay incense pot, the black piano behind him on which he played “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” to us kids. I see my father standing six feet (a great height to little me), long-limbed. He is standing on a single long leg in the dancer’s pose, the other ankle looped back, held by one long arm, the other arm angling upward to the dawn sky, touching space.

Portia Brockway
Portia Brockway is a yoga teacher in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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