Love Is the Measure of Our Practice

As the children of aging parents do, Cyndi Lee, teacher and founder of the OM Yoga Center, returns the love and care her mother showed to her. She finds teaching yoga has given her the tools to help. 

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

My mom can’t move her foot. She tells it to move. She looks at it. Nothing happens. She’s been slowing down for some years now, but this is not slow. This is stop.

The reason for this suddenly becomes so obvious that it’s like the stun-gun effect of the Dallas air-conditioning, or the wake-up slap of heat when you walk back outside. A click of insight reminds me that life is a Rube Goldberg machine, a game of Mousetrap. A rolling marble travels through a tilted chute, plops down a stairway, and lands in a pool of water, which splashes up, tipping a match, which strikes and lights a candle. Aha! A certain set of causes and conditions have ripened.

Looking back, I can see how things have been developing this way for awhile, and who knows what karma or genetics—are they the same thing?—are at play. But in the meantime, I am grateful that I can help my mom.

Over the years of teaching yoga I’ve developed a deep, wide bag of tools for helping people connect their minds and bodies—to align intention with exertion and positively affect their momentum in the direction of health and joy. So when I say to my mom, “Move your right foot toward me” and nothing happens, I try something else because words aren’t working.

First, I demonstrate by lifting my right foot up high and firmly stomping it forward. Sometimes that clicks with her and she can mimic that action. If that doesn’t work, I tap her right leg lightly and say, “Can you move this leg?” We try shifting weight back and forth, wiggling toes inside shoes, bending knees, looking at her leg and looking at where we want it to go—whatever I can come up with to access the ability available to her in that precise moment.

This all takes so much longer than you would think. In the slowness, space opens in my mind and I remember all my teachers who are right now helping me to help my mom. I feel all my teachers are with me, as if they were right here holding my mom’s arm, leading her through a relaxing breath sequence, teaching her that pushing down with the arms creates a lift in the chest, and that’s how she can use her walker.

My gratitude extends to all my students who have given me the opportunity to develop my teaching skills: a keen eye, sensitive hands, a firm and encouraging voice, and an understanding of how the body and mind work together. I’ve always thought of teaching yoga not as a job but as a practice, just as “doing” yoga is a practice. Teaching is a method of cultivating wakefulness, with the students as the dots of awareness that tell me what to do when and how—if I can only pay close enough attention to them and remember to apply kindness to all that I see. What better gift have I received from my students than the ability right now to help my mom when she needs me?

My other practices are also helping me in new and unexpected ways. Years of meditation and pranayama are giving me the patience I need to go through this process on my mom’s timing, not mine. Once we do get going, we go together very, very slowly. Not my usual zooming-around-Manhattan pace, but literally one step at a time and “It’s OK to rest whenever you need to.”

I’m not known to be a naturally slow or particularly patient person. I’m ambitious and driven and I like to move! But things are different now. I would do anything to help my mom, and I would never want her to feel that she is a burden to me in any way. So I am patient, and those years of walking meditation are coming in handy.

Honestly, it’s easy and natural for me to help my mom. I don’t need to do compassion meditation to try to open my heart to her, because she is my heart. My mom taught me how to do a cartwheel and the splits, how to knit and sew, solve crossword puzzles, be a smart and fast shopper, use moisturizer, hold my ground and be fiercely loyal. All these lessons are currently in heavy use in my daily life. Through these direct transmissions, just as a guru’s mind becomes one with his students, my mom and I are one being. Not to mention that we look exactly alike. So it is not a stretch for me to feel her frustration, her sadness—and her still-witty, fierce personality—and want to help her.  Even though she is my mother, it feels more like I’m her mother now.

Our formal practices develop skill sets for dealing with real life, those times when the rubber hits the road and there is friction. That’s why it’s called practice, and real life is called real life. But at the same time, I am starting to think that sometimes real life is practice for…further practice. It’s a fertile ground for deepening, extending, and connecting in unknown ways.

Though they are long-term projects, our spiritual practices do get put into immediate use, even for beginning meditators and yogis. It’s like we are knitting a sweater that we will wear later, or making a cake that we will eat later. In yoga and meditation we are wearing the sweater at the same time that we are knitting it, and yes, we are actually making our cake and eating it, too. It seems that at the same time that I am drawing on my years of meditation, yoga, and pranayama to manage this challenging time, the actual experience itself—caring for someone as if they were my only precious child—is starting to affect my awareness and actions in other situations, as well.

Can I translate what I am experiencing with my mom, both in feeling and in action, into a practice of opening to all others? Can I cut down on my hesitation time before reaching out to help another? Can this experience be a fat juicy reminder that we really are one?

We know it’s true that what any of us does affects all of us, every time, all the time, and the popularity of the green movement is an example of this realization growing worldwide. But even though many of us have made this a guiding principle in our lives, we forget. We just forget that we (people, bugs, dolphins, eagles, poodles, et al) are all interdependent.

I have found yoga practice to be practice, a grounded method of imprinting this sense of connection. In yoga we are always exploring the results of our actions, in immediate ways such as how planting the four corners of the foot creates stability, and in long-term ways such as how kindness to others shows up as a result of being patient and curious during hamstring stretches.

At the end of the day, the measure of our practice is how we interact with others. Those “other” beings aren’t really others after all; they are us and we are them. Just as the love and kindness, fun and firmness my mom showed me when I was a child has made it natural for me to return the favor, it also created the conditions for me to care about and help “others.”Isn’t that what our practice is supposed to do? Isn’t that what our parents are supposed to do?

The Rube Goldberg contraption is now evolving into a perpetual motion machine. Science says that perpetual motion machines cannot exist because, due to friction or air resistance, they lose more energy than they create. Can we find a way to just keep going? Can we deny the law that says energy cannot be created or destroyed and continue to recycle our own air/wind energy? Buddhism says that our mind rides on our wind, our breath, our prana. If we don’t resist the way the wind is blowing, the actual situation at hand, then we can ride our mind and be free.

I’m not going to let this make me tired. I’m going to keep going—inhale, exhale, stay present, lift your leg toward me, good job, Mom. You took care of me, now I take care of you—a perpetual motion machine. I will try not to let my mind wander and wonder who will take care of me. I will practice literally going one step at a time.