By Ankita Rao
When I was growing up in Tampa, Florida, practicing yoga was akin to eating broccoli or doing a math test. If you wanted to succeed in life, you had to do your asanas—simple as that.
And so I did. First as a four-year-old, copycatting my dad when he did his Downward Dogs every morning, and then at an after-school yoga class in middle school that replaced karate as my favorite “sport.”
My parents are longtime yogis. My father learned as a child in Pune, India, and still wakes up before 5 a.m. to meditate each morning and then unfurl his mat as the sun rises. When we go on family trips, he throws a towel on the hotel floor and greets the sun in Paris, Rome, or San Jose with a set of Surya Namaskar.
My mom also learned in India growing up, and started her own studio in my hometown. Her generosity is infectious, and people come to her classes to experience her warmth as much as they do to practice asana.
In my parents’ spiritual pursuit, our house was sometimes rendered a yoga retreat. From a wild-haired man who spent half of every year in a Himalayan cave to a pair of yoga teacher trainers, my mom was often busy trying to figure out which of her own spin on ayurvedic dishes and spicy Indian specialties she could serve to our guests.
The only holdout was my older sister, who called yoga the “Y” word, refusing to use its whole form in a house where pranayama and the Bhagavad Gita peppered the majority of conversations. One time she hid under her bed to escape the jovial ramblings of a yoga instructor staying at our house.
When I left home to go to college, I took my metaphorical mat with me everywhere. I dedicated the summer of my freshman year in college to a teacher training at Sivananda Yoga Ranch. Studying abroad in Italy, I attended yoga classes taught entirely in Italian. And when I spent an intense six weeks in India on a service trip, I climbed up to the top of a hill in a tribal village and found that my practice was the only thing that could orient me to a place so far removed from anything I had known.
Nowadays I’m living in Manhattan, trying to scrape by on a budget and balance a work cycle that starts before 9 a.m. and definitely doesn’t stop at 5 p.m. I pass by yoga studios on the way to interview people for articles, and bump into rolled up mats on the subway as I head back home to write.
But even now my parents will call and, sensing my exhaustion, ask me, “Are you doing yoga? It doesn’t sound like you’re doing yoga.” Of course they’re always right, even from miles away, so I grab my mat, head to a class and remind myself what it feels like to breathe on purpose.
In my family, yoga is the foundation on which to build the rest of your life. Whether it’s dealing with financial issues or making a big decision, the idea is that you start from a place of stillness. It can be stillness through meditation or a rigorous vinyasa practice. It can be the solidarity that comes from reading philosophy and understanding that the words will apply when you’re 13, 30 or 60 years old. But it should be there, in some way.
Once I joked to a friend in high school that all her family asked from her were good grades and a college degree. “Straight A’s are easy,” I said. “Try parents who want you to achieve enlightenment.”