When Yoga Matters the Most



photo credit: hannes.a.schwetz

Each time I leave my mother’s home, I must become a bit like steel. She starts to cry when I reach for my coat. I button my coat and tell her I love her. “I will see you soon!” I say brightly. I pick up my handbag and I open the door. Hug her one more time. Shut the door. I hear her childlike sobs as I walk down the hallway. She is shouting through the door, “Good bye, Rachel! I love you!” If I didn’t turn hard at that moment of “Goodbye,” if I looked back, I wouldn’t have the strength to leave. It is how I return to a life. My life. The one I am trying to make, despite the constant feeling that I am failing; that I am just treading water to not drown in my mother’s bills and pills and co-pays, phone calls from nurses and aides with questions I don’t have answers to, but must provide.

How can I change, fix, soften the feeling in my gut when I leave her room and walk out into the lobby where the loud television blares Wheel of Fortune, and the aides from Sierra Leone and Kenya and Colombia who don’t speak much English (yet, who are ostensibly responsible for my mother’s care) smile at me politely? How do I quiet the guilt that seizes me as I push the elevator button that takes me to the main floor, where I pass people dozing in wheelchairs – people who don’t want to live any more, too sick and tired to care about living? And again as I walk out through the automatic sliding glass doors and into the cab that is waiting for me, driven by a man from Ecuador. “Nice. You visit your grandma. Ci, mama?” No, “My mother,” I say. I look out the window. I am tired. I have spent much of this visit cleaning blood off the walls.


photo credit: arvindgrover


My mother has bloody noses and no matter how many emails I write or calls I make, no one there cleans it up. I cleaned around the toilet. Whether her bladder can’t hold or she can’t see, I am not sure. I styled her hair, in a fun makeover moment whereby she walked into  the bathroom, asked me, “Where is the bathroom?” and proceeded to take a plastic cup full of water and dump it on her head. “I  needed moisture.” she says. My mother, who once quoted poets and intellectuals at dinnertime and wouldn’t let a Sunday pass without reading the Times from cover to cover now finds making ornaments out of pipe cleaners her proudest accomplishment. My friends’ mothers are enjoying their new retirement: traveling, running marathons, helping them choose their wedding gowns or giving advice how to soothe their new babies. My mother, who at age 59 spent every dime she had until Medicaid stepped in is trying desperately to remember where she put her glasses, her phone, the name of the person she just spoke to, the day off the week. Just five minutes more and the driver will drop me off at the bus stop on the side of Route 32 somewhere in Jersey, which is where my mother now lives in assisted living. A bus will pick me up and take me back to New York. Back to a life.

On route back to New York, my insides feel wrung out. I desperately want comfort, to be held, to be wrapped in padding.
I want to eat thick doughy things. Soft cookies and bagels, bread, pastries and cake. Warm chocolate brownies. Food that makes me feel soft and numb. I want to cover myself in blankets. Bury myself down in, especially my head. I want to curl my body in the fetal position and stay there. Protected. Safe. I don’t want to carry the heavy burden of two lives – one mine, a case of fits and starts, and that of my mother, who requires from me more patience than Job. But, when I get off that bus in the hustle of Port Authority, I do not succumb to to my wish of living in padding.
I practice yoga instead. I show up when my wish to be invisible, sob or scream is at its highest. Here, I have learned that often our greatest acts of courage are private. They merit no medals or words of praise. We all possess shadows that threaten to pull us down and under. Each of us fight mini-wars  that others know nothing about. This has taught me compassion, and to not judge a person by what I see, for there is always so much more.

At brunch or parties friends ask, “How are you?” I can’t exactly say over my mimosa (in between discussion on Keith Olberman’s last rant or my feelings on Occupy Wall Street) that I wish I could live in a padded suit. One where no one could see me. One where, maybe, I could close my eyes and collapse for just a moment and the padded suit would catch me, its warm foamy, flannel fabric hugging my every curve, supporting me so that finally, I could rest. Instead I say, “I’m good. Busy, but good.” The other reason I don’t admit this desire is that I wish to rise above it. Transform it. Work through it. Get to the other side. And so, I practice yoga.


photo credit: hannes.a.schwetz


The other day after class, a man came up to me. “You were in front of me.” he says. “You’ve got an incredible practice. Some people move through the postures, but you dance.”

I smile. I try to make the smile real, but I feel that I smile a sad face.
“Thank you,” I say.
How can I tell him that my dance through the poses, that each deep breath in as I reach, and every deep breath out as I fold is a war cry? A plea. A thank you that I am well. A prayer to stay well. A promise, damn it, that I will not waste this life of mine when I have seen it end so quickly for two parents I loved? That my yoga is a celebration, as well as my way to let the grief in my heart spill out with every breath? How do I tell him that for the past five years I have felt like an orphan, though still technically having a mother who breathes in and out, and that in fact yoga is my mother and father and lover and me. Most of all it is me learning how to be my own parent. That it is, in fact, better than a padded suit and is the only way I can escape from my fear, anger, responsibility and never ending belief that somehow my mother’s Alzheimer’s is my fault. To rise above the feeling that if I’d loved deeper, had visited more often, that somehow, she would be well.

 But, I cannot say all this as I zip up my black boots. Instead, I say thank you. Ask his name. Tell him mine. And walk down the steps and out into the spilling crowd.



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Rachel D. Bennett is a writer, yoga teacher and dancer living in New York City. She is a graduate of Hunter College with degrees in dance and writing and also of the William Esper two-year acting program. She attended the Boston Conservatory Summer Dance Program and Oxford University Creative Writing summer school and has completed her 200-hour teacher training through Yoga Works. She attends dharma talks at the Shambhala Center and Interdependence Project where her mind is constantly stretched, specifically in the ideas pertaining to what is self and compassion? She is a SAG and AEA member and continues to dance and practice yoga as a way to celebrate being here. She teaches yoga that focuses on the breath and getting out of the mind. Rachel is working on a memoir about her mother and Alzheimer's called "REMEMBERING MY MOTHER."

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