If the Pittsburgh Steelers had been in the Super Bowl that year, I probably wouldn’t have gotten divorced. Instead, my husband and I would have hosted a black-and-gold-themed party for twenty or so friends. Some would have driven Porsches (like Jim’s), others hybrids or Mini Coopers (like mine). Some would have worn Steelers’ gear to support our beloved team. And a few would have arrived in Philadelphia Eagles’ jerseys–because the locals never won a Super Bowl.
Instead, on that early February morning, I loaded a yoga mat and overnight bag (containing an expensive screw-top red wine Jim bought by the case) into my new friend Peggy’s trunk. We were going to a yoga retreat in the Berkshires. The getaway was a much needed recharge before starting a new job the following week. It also filled my therapist's prescription to find a community of friends with similar interests – one that didn’t include work, wine, or shopping. Since I spent most days (and nights) working as a corporate salesperson, the idea seemed unimaginable. A dream.
I’ve been in therapy since I was diagnosed with anxiety and an “all things medical” phobia in college. At times I think I don’t need real friends because I pay my therapist Michelle to be one.
Looking over at Peggy, I noticed she looked younger than me even though she was a few years older. Maybe it was the purple streak in her dark pixie hair, or the Sanskrit words tattooed on her slender wrists. I met her through Jim – she was the wife of one of his Porsche car club buddies. Which may be why he was okay with me going away on a girl’s weekend. He usually objected to them because I traveled so much for work. Although he didn’t mind the resulting paychecks.
“Wait here a minute while I take the pups out,” Peggy said as she ran into her house. She came out with two older greyhounds in tow. I nuzzled one behind the ears and the other under the chin.
“How hard is it to adopt a greyhound?” I asked, watching Peggy scoop up one dog’s smelly deposit into a pink biodegradable bag.
“It’s pretty difficult. You have to fill out an application and get personal references. But I know a lot of the people in the rescue group here. I could help you out.”
“That would be great. Let me get back to you.” I’d been wanting a dog for a while but didn’t think Jim would go for it.
Peggy went into the house again and returned with Anita, a tall thin brunette with red highlights. She looked to be a size four and wore an adorable grey Lululemon outfit and designer sunglasses. I was wearing twenty-dollar XL leggings and a torn Sara Bareilles concert t-shirt.
My tendency to pull back, make fun of, and resist all things new kicked in. Was everybody at the Kripalu Yoga Institute going to be thinner and hipper than me? Anita’s once-over glance gave me the answer.
Peggy and Anita spent the first few hours of the trip catching up on their kids and analyzing Anita’s latest relationship. How awful it must be in the dating world. So glad I didn’t have to put myself out there.
After a break in conversation, Anita looked down at me through the rearview mirror and asked, “So how long have you been into yoga, Donna?”
“A while.” I explained my trajectory from guided meditation and yoga on DVDs to classes at the YMCA. What I didn’t mention was how regular yoga practice soothed my anxiety. That despite all my body insecurity and clumsiness, at the end of every class I felt better. And yoga filled a spiritual hole left by my preacher father's fatal heart attack thirty years ago.
I sorely missed him. His quiet strength and kindness. His focus on doing the right thing, not taking the easy way out. His beautiful handwriting, deep voice, and strong silence. His belief that everyone was extraordinary – and love didn’t need to be earned.
“Peggy mentioned something about you changing jobs?” Anita said.
“Yeah, I’m taking a sales job at a financial research company.”
“Good for you. It’s tough to find a job in finance these days. Ray is thinking of getting out of the industry altogether,” Peggy said.
I got that. The finance industry has gone through many bumps in the last decade, but I was grateful to work in such a lucrative field. In undergrad, I was a theater major but by senior year realized I couldn't make a living at it. So I got my MBA. And turns out theater skills are helpful when making connections and orchestrating successful client meetings and events – the primary role of a financial salesperson. Over time, I gained a reputation for handling all types of clients, especially the difficult ones. A skill learned in childhood.
But all of that was too much to share. “I’ve always had an hourlong commute with lots of travel. The new company is only ten minutes from my house in West Chester, and they gave me a local territory.”
The discussion moved to Sienna’s departure for college. After years of effort, we’d cemented a strong relationship. We did everything together – from watching Bravo, to working out, to shopping.
After Sienna left, I would still have Sylvie at home. But I’m embarrassed to say we weren’t as close. Largely because she’s smarter than me.
When the kids were little, we bought the game Mouse Trap. Sienna and I struggled to put its maze-like game board together. Once constructed, we played the game with four-year-old Sylvie, but soon lost interest. We disassembled the game and put it on a bookshelf in the family room. When I came home from work the next day the Mouse Trap structure was reassembled. I asked the babysitter what had happened, and she said Sylvie had put it together by herself. Since then, she’s been obsessed with building things, which eventually led to programming computers and playing complicated games constructing cities or worlds. I’ve tried to play with her but don’t have the ability. And neither does Jim or Sienna. This left Sylvie alone a lot in front of a screen learning new computer languages or playing games with her friends. Maybe Sienna going would force us to find things in common. I hoped so. I really wanted that.
Peggy and Anita were empty-nesters, so they sympathized with my losing Sienna. Then Peggy mentioned a Reiki and crystal yoga class she went to and Anita asked where it was. I rolled my eyes when they started talking about “feeling energy.” My resistance kicked in – that was too “woo woo” for me (even though I lived and died by my horoscope).
I turned toward the window and watched the barren trees fly past the highway. *
The only evidence of the retreat center was a small road sign with the word “Kripalu” in glowing letters. We turned the car up the windy driveway and found a large, concrete, dorm-like building perched on a steep hill. Its enormous front windows overlooked a serene lake and a sign out front pointed to a nearby meditation labyrinth. Before I could ask, Peggy said it had once been a monastery.
We parked and walked toward the registration desk. I handed the young dreadlocked clerk my credit card and he gave me a form to sign promising not to wear perfume. My mouth twitched. Did lavender-vanilla body lotion count?
Keys in hand, we grabbed the bags and headed toward our rooms. Anita and Peggy were staying together. Since I didn’t know them well, I’d reserved a private room.
We took the elevator to the fourth floor and separated. My room was as small as a cruise ship stateroom. I sat on the twin cot, ran my fingers over the prickly sheets, and looked around. No TV. I felt sweat form under my arms. Looking in my overnight bag for a distraction, I took out a chick-lit novel, a tattered book of poetry, two magazines, and the bottle of wine. I was about to open it when I heard the ping of a text. Peggy. Dinner service ended in twenty minutes. I snatched my room key and ran down three flights of stairs to the cafeteria.
There are two food lines at Kripalu: kale and extra crunchy kale. Okay, the actual names are Non-Vegetarian and Vegetarian/Vegan. But calling what the Non-Vegetarian line offered “meat” was misleading. Only one dish on the entire twenty-foot serving line resembled chicken. The rest was a variety of vegetables, starches, and other unfamiliar items. And there was kale. Lots of kale.
I hate kale.
During dinner I chewed on my food (which was surprisingly yummy) and the decision to come to this place. It was way out of my comfort zone. Kripalu’s website advertised a tranquil spa-like atmosphere, but the concrete block walls, perfume restrictions, and scratchy sheets made me feel like I’d fallen into a Buddhist boot camp.
And I really hate camping.
The next morning, I headed downstairs to the cafeteria for coffee before the 6:30 yoga class. Nothing. I headed to the reception desk hoping to get a cup of employee coffee before regular coffee service started. I asked the curly-grey-haired woman with wire-rimmed glasses if that was possible. She peered over her spectacles. After a moment of awkward silence, she said that to support those detoxing from caffeine they only provided coffee in the café – which opened at 8:00 a.m. Even though my mind was screaming un-yoga-like thoughts, I nodded silently and slumped away.
After stumbling upstairs to the intermediate yoga class, I kicked off my shoes at the cubbies and paused to read the black and white sign by the door. The class lasted ninety minutes. I was used to hour sessions. How would I go that long un-caffeinated?
As we began, the slim ponytailed instructor asked us how we felt. It seemed like a strange question. No instructor had asked me that before. Why does it matter how I feel?
She prompted us to “find our edge” between what we could and couldn’t do. When we got to that edge, we were to soften and surrender into the pose for as long as we could.
After about the twentieth downward dog, my arms were shaking. I was about to surrender to the café – and the sweet bliss of caffeine – when the instructor came over. She rubbed her hands together and placed them on my wrists. Her touch felt awkward, but soon the pain subsided. Before I could say thank you, she pulled away and returned to the front of the class.
When she cued us to stand in mountain pose, my gaze drifted outside. The sun was rising. Large feathery flakes fell through tree branch veins. It was mesmerizing. Had snow always looked like this? Or had I never stopped to notice?
The chattering in my head slowed. I came here confident I knew what yoga was, but this was something different. Not just postures and breathing, but an in-and-out-of-body experience.
Moments later the teacher cued the end of class and suggested we get comfy on the floor with bolsters and blankets. I was both exhausted and peaceful. And hungry.
I met Peggy and Anita by the shoe cubbies and walked with them to the cafeteria. When I mentioned the instructor touching my hands, Peggy said, “That was Reiki. She was giving you the energy to go on.”
Maybe Reiki wasn’t so “woo woo” after all. I made a mental note to read more about it.
We enjoyed a tasty kale-free breakfast heavy on vegan baked goods and long on silence. Kripalu urged guests to refrain from talking during meals to allow for mindful eating. On the way out of the cafeteria, Sienna texted me from home. I broke off from my friends to call her.
When I returned to the cafeteria, Peggy and Anita were gone. Alone, I looked at the seminar schedule and found a “must-attend” session called Kripalu Sharing Circle. I made my way down to the basement and entered a windowless room with grey tiles and a musty smell.
About ten people were sitting on the floor in a circle. Each one was leaning on a black cushion with a stiff chair-like back. The moderator, who had a grey pageboy and thick black glasses, shut the door and sat facing the group. The session, she said, was an opportunity to share something briefly. Once each person finished, the rest of the circle members were not to respond. We were only to provide a safe space. What’s said in the sharing circle stayed in the sharing circle. My gaze wandered down to the grey tiles. What could I share?
My first clear memory of Mother is from the Sunday after my big sister Deb left for college. I was four and Deb was fourteen years older than me. I used to think she was my Mama because she took care of me all the time. But she was just my sister. That’s why it was okay for her to leave me.
I see Daddy. He’s standing at the pulpit wearing a black robe with a purple satin-looking scarf. He looks at me and smiles. I throw him a kiss. I’m so proud of my Daddy.
His head bows and he reads from the big Bible I’m not allowed to touch. Mother is beside me. She is wearing a blue-flowered dress because she loves flowers. I’m wearing a stiff skirt with a white sweater. I’m so excited because I’ve never spent so much time with Mother or been allowed in adult church before. Up until now, I’ve always stayed in the nursery during services.
Daddy talks about how Jesus felt dying on the cross. His words make me squirm. I start kicking the top of my buckled shoe on the pew in front of us. Mother grabs my hand and squeezes it hard. “Stay still,” she says. How can she talk with her teeth together like that?
I pull my hand away and dive underneath the pew toward Daddy. I always play under the benches when Daddy practices his sermons on Saturdays; I crawl to the front of the church and he laughs and picks me up and hugs me.
Not today. Mother grabs my ankles and drags me back toward her. The course rug scrapes my knees and I cry out. By the time she settles me back in the pew, I’m rubbing my brush-burned knees and weeping softly.
“Stop it,” she says. I look into her scary steel-blue eyes and cry louder.
She drags me from the pew and down the aisle of the church. Some churchgoers stare as we pass. Others look away.
Down the stairs to the first floor we fly. Past the Sunday school rooms with tan partitions and grey tiled floors. Down the middle stairs to the musty basement bathroom no one uses – two floors below the sanctuary and far from the first-floor nursery in the back of the building. Down where no one can hear.
Mother opens the door of one of the old wooden stalls and pulls me inside. She drops the toilet seat and sits, then throws me on her lap, bottom side up. The rusty screws that hold the white porcelain toilet to the floor are close to my face. I’m afraid of rust – Mother told me it causes tetanus, and you can die from that.
I try to tell her, but her hand is already in motion. The force of the strike makes my eyes water and my stomach roil. I try to scramble off her lap, but she anchors me with her right arm and continues.
I cry for help, but no one comes.
The room grew tense as the sharing circle participants told their stories. It felt awkward to hear them and not provide comfort. One recently divorced woman was struggling to make a living running a yoga studio. She’d come to Kripalu to learn techniques to help her business. It was hard for me to relate. Why couldn’t she just keep her marriage together?
After she spoke, the leader told everyone to breathe in what she’d said. Breathing in her feelings and exhaling comfort settled me. The next speaker recently lost her husband to cancer. As the stories streamed, the space warmed. To my surprise, I felt like sharing too. But the thought made my cheeks burn.
When the silence between stories lengthened, I took a deep breath and said something only my family and Michelle knew. “I come from a long line of abuse.” My voice stalled for a moment and then came back. “My mother was removed from her mother’s house as a child because she was abused. Then she physically and verbally abused me.”
I looked at the shocked faces and decided not to add that her paternal grandparents raised her. Because after her parents separated, her father died - from excessive alcohol use.
The room was quiet. No one interrupted or told their own tale. They just gave me space to tell mine. My throat relaxed. “But this story has a happy ending.” I shared that Sienna called earlier because a friend had hurt her. And after we talked it through, she decided not to retaliate. Instead, she was taking time to figure out how to communicate her feelings without losing the friendship.
Even a decade ago, I would have wrecked a relationship if something similar happened to me. And Mother? I don’t remember her having friends.
“I’m so proud of her. We’re breaking the pattern.” The eyes looking at me were kind, supportive. I was surprised. I had never been heard like that outside of therapy. “Uh… thank you for listening.”
As the next person spoke, I hugged my knees to my chest. Why had I shared that? Could it be this place – or was it the yoga?
Whenever I saw someone from the circle during the rest of the retreat, they nodded but didn’t say anything.
It was like it never happened. But I felt different, freer.
Because my secret was out.
Later that day, I attended a seminar titled “No Excuses” based on the book by Brian Tracy. The description said, “Most people think success comes from good luck or enormous talent, but many successful people achieve their accomplishments in a simpler way: through self-discipline. No Excuses! shows how to achieve success in all three major areas of life, including personal, business and money goals, as well as overall happiness.” Sounded perfect.
I entered the presentation room and sat on one of the cushioned metal chairs. Anita was a few chairs away. I gave her a small wave.
The moderator told us to think about things we wished to do but lacked the time, money, or motivation. He asked us to write something we wanted more than anything else – something we would do with “no excuses.” What would I do? More to the point, what would I do if I didn’t have to answer to Jim? The answer surprised me.
The moderator asked us to share our “no excuses” item with someone else. Feeling more comfortable with someone I knew, I gravitated toward Anita. I was nervous, so I asked her to share first.
When it was my turn, I felt a little breathless. “I want to become a yoga teacher.” Since my dad died, I’d found it hard to go back to church because it reminded me of him. But something about this simple, reverent place was familiar – comforting. Maybe digging into something like yoga training would fill the spiritual hole in my life.
And more importantly, it would give me something to do when Sienna left.
But Anita’s expression stopped me from sharing any of that. “Really?” She started to say something else but stopped. “Oh great,” she smiled. “You go for it.”
I thanked her but immediately felt a stiffness in my neck. Did she have the same doubts I did? How would I fit teacher training into my busy work life? And how would I become graceful or body confident enough to pose in front of a class?
And finally, what was Jim going to say?