Mother's Day. The celebration brings up the immense gratitude I have for my mother, but it was also tinged with grief. For eight years I'd longed to have a child of my own but hadn't been so blessed. My husband and I live in Japan where adoption is rare. Bloodlines here are almost feudal in their importance, and adopting away your future heirs is uncommon, especially to non-natives like me. We had applied to adopt, but even though my husband is Japanese, our chances were slim. At age 43, I feared that my long quest for motherhood might be at an end.
Thankfully, my yoga practice helped me look at this challenge as a kind of practice in itself. As the years passed, I had to ask myself a question many mothers never consider: Why did I want to be a mother anyway? I meditated on the answer. I wanted to experience an-other kind of love, something beyond what I knew or could even imagine. Mother love.
At the moment when all the pain and disappointment of remaining childless became too much to bear, I realized that I hadn't been loving myself. So while we waited for an unlikely placement from the orphanage, my husband suggested I go on a pilgrimage to the motherland—India. If I wasn't able to have a child, could I let go of that desire and find contentment with life as it stood? I needed to find out, so I packed my bags and boarded a plane, hoping India would be the perfect place to heal.
Making a Wish
My destination was Kerala, India, and the ashram of Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, the spiritual guru Amma, whom some call the hugging saint. I arrived at a nearby seaside hotel after midnight one humid August evening and spent the night in a grass hut by the ocean. Crows cawed and wild dogs howled throughout the night, sending me into a hallucinogenic state before I drifted off to sleep. The sound of the waves woke me in the morning. After breakfast, a driver took me along roads that skirted the palm-fringed backwaters—rivers, canals, and lagoons—that run inland and bustle with boats ferrying fruit, fish, and cargo.
Our Jeep shared the road with cows, farmers, women carrying loaded head baskets, and motorcycles loaded with entire families. When we hit giant potholes, my head hit the ceiling. The cacophony of humans, animals, and vehicles outside the Jeep was matched by the Bollywood hits blaring from our speakers. Hours later, we arrived at an iron gate in front of the massive pink concrete ashram. In the auditorium, where Amma was giving blessings, thousands of people sat on the floor, chanting devotional songs, meditating, or sleeping while they waited for their blessing. I felt peaceful and hopeful.
It was an auspicious day. Amma, a soft, grandmotherly woman in her late 50s, with thick brown hair threaded with gray streaks, was dressed like Devi, the female aspect of the Divine. Wearing a gilded silver headdress and a flowing blue and red sari, she sat on a podium, surrounded by devotees, for hours on end, opening her arms to hug people, not even stopping to go to the bathroom. I was struck by how emotional many of the devotees were. Some held on to her and had to be pried off. Many wept and wailed passionately.
Is it her pure heart they're so taken by? I wondered. Amma teaches, "One is not the limited body and mind but eternal blissful consciousness." According to Hindu belief, the energy transmission received in the presence of a holy person awakens those same qualities in us. Are all these people tapping into her blissful consciousness? Could I?
Sitting and waiting my turn for a blessing, I melted into a calm spaciousness. Though she is not a biological mother, Amma—whose name means "mother"—is the most maternal being I've ever seen. She opens her arms and pulls each person to her forcefully, whether they're covered in open wounds or wrapped in the most beautiful silk saris money can buy. Her whole being radiates compassion. This is what it means to be a mother, I thought. Surrender and sacrifice. I found myself overcome with emotion as I watched her giving unconditional comfort and love. The room was enveloped in a cocoon of tenderness. It was contagious.
As I finally neared the podium, the crowd's jostling became more intense, and a volunteer dressed in white cotton instructed us to make a wish when Amma hugged us. When my turn came, I whispered, "I wish to be a mother." As Amma enveloped me in her soft, warm flesh, she placed her lips to my ear and sang a mantra. My eardrum vibrated, and the sound took over my body, and seemingly the whole room. It sounded like "Durga, Durga, Durga."
Durga is a fierce form of the Supreme Goddess, or Mahadevi, the manifestation of feminine power in the world. She's a badass warrior, riding on the back of a tiger, 18 arms holding weapons to slay the most formidable mental demons such as craving and clinging. Her power embodies every god in the Hindu pantheon. Still buzzing, I stumbled back through the crowd. "Did Amma really give me that mantra?" I asked myself. "Does she give it to everyone? Does it matter?"
I felt empowered. In sacred places and in the presence of enlightened beings, it's said to be easier to remember who we are, to tap into an expansive energy field. I bought a string of wooden prayer beads at the ashram gift shop, to remind me of this moment, of my mantra, of my wish. Then I worked my way through the maze of the compound and found my driver waiting outside. The mantra rang in my ears on the bumpy ride back to the seaside. Hours passed like minutes, and I still felt the bliss, the warmth of Amma's out-stretched arms. Back in bed at the hotel, I was lulled to sleep by the waves.
The next day, I went to an Ayurvedic treatment center south of Kovalam to take ancient cures. I had booked a weeklong stay, hoping that the traditional techniques could help me become more fertile. Or, if not, that they could at least help me relax. I met with the Ayurvedic doctor, who evaluated my doshas, or elements, and diagnosed me with a vata imbalance—too much nervous energy. Like many urban women, I'm too busy, scattered, and need to get grounded. To restore balance in my body, the doctor prescribed a daily treatment of yoga, meditation, and abhyanga, a traditional oil massage, for a week. In a coconut-leaf-thatched hut, I sat naked on a wooden chair while a young woman made an offering of water, flowers, and prayers, painted a red bindi on my third eye, and waved burning incense over me. Covered in sesame oil, I lay face-down on a mat while she held on to a rope suspended from the ceiling above me and worked across my back and legs, digging her feet into my skin in rhythmic strokes to stimulate my circulation and melt stiff muscles. Then I turned over, and she did it all again.
It was 110 degrees. I sweated. A lot. When it was over, I was given a whole coconut to drink from, nectar of the gods. Breakfast was homemade bread and vegetarian curry. I felt radiant and relaxed, and it was only the first day of seven. "This is surely heaven," I thought.
After eating, I walked down to the beach. It was still before 8 a.m., and the local fishermen were catching small sardine-like fish in their nets. But there was also by-catch—scores of blowfish gasping for life, their spiked bodies inflated to fight off danger. They had been freed from the nets, but the fishermen didn't even bother to throw them back into the sea. In Tokyo, where I live, these deadly creatures are a delicacy, but apparently they aren't here. Perhaps the chefs have not learned how to serve them so their poison isn't ingested.
Hundreds lay along the shore, struggling to breathe. "This is surely hell," I thought, almost tripping over a large one, its sad eyes fluttering. I tapped it lightly with my shoe and tried to roll it into the ocean. But the strong waves sent it back to shore again, tumbling like a stone. I tried to pick it up and hold it, but the spikes hurt my hands. Then it softened—it was weak, or perhaps it felt my intention. So I hurled it into the ocean and watched it try to swim away, hoping it would reach safety. Irrationally, perhaps, I felt strongly that the fish was pregnant. How badly it must want to survive, to lay its eggs, yet the forces around it might be too powerful to overcome, I thought. I wanted to stay and watch to make sure it didn't get pulled back to shore again, but suddenly sheets of rain came down, and I had to take refuge inside.
In my hut, I rested and reflected: "If I want to welcome a life, I must value all life forms." Later that night, a bee fell into the honey pot at the dinner table, and I scooped it out to set it free. Then a caterpillar was nearly lost in the spray of my shower. I gently intervened, realizing there are hundreds of ways to be a mother, only one of which is to give birth.
At my next checkup, the Ayurvedic doctor looked at me sympathetically as she told me about a village where women use their wombs to grow others' babies. "You could go there," she said. I caught myself feeling defensive at her unsolicited advice. Over the years, everyone I've talked to about my struggles to have a child has told me about a special treatment, diet, doctor, or visualization that worked for their sister, aunt, friend, or second cousin twice removed. Nothing has worked for me. But instead of saying that, I thanked her for her care. In my mind, I hugged her. I channeled Amma.
Later that day, I opened a newspaper and learned that Amma had been attacked the day I visited her ashram. A man had run up to the stage with a knife. The weapon was quickly confiscated, and he was arrested. It happened at 6:45 p.m., but Amma didn't want to cause panic, so she didn't stop hugging until 5 a.m. the next day. The visitors in the back, like me, had been oblivious; those in the front knew. That's why they'd been so emotional. Amma forgave her attacker, saying, "All those who are born will die one day. I am going ahead keeping this reality in mind." Durga, Durga, Durga.
Finding New Hope
During my week in India, I realized what yoga had taught me: Fertility is not just the ability to bear a child—it is a receptivity to the creative force of womanhood in all its manifestations. The more I embrace yoga, the more I discover—and find ways to nurture—the juiciness and magic of who I really am, including going back to the seeds of my own mother's Jewish wisdom. The Torah says a miracle is what happens when God moves beyond natural law and demonstrates unlimited power; a test is when God invites us to do the same; and people who pass tests cause "miracles" to happen. In the Torah, tests break the barriers between creation and creator. When some-thing doesn't come easy, it's often a test. And tests help us to awaken to, and hopefully grow beyond, perceived limits.
Could my crooked road to motherhood be a test, and could this test be a miracle in itself? Whether we have children or not, our journey in this life is to give birth to our authentic selves.
Soon it was time to leave India. The last morning, my husband called to say the orphanage we'd applied to had found us a match. There had been hundreds of younger couples higher on the priority list, yet somehow we were chosen. It's a miracle, I thought.
News spread quickly at the Ayurvedic center. My new friends gave me a surprise baby shower. They draped me with flowers and showered me with song as we made offerings to the great Mother Earth and the ocean. I allowed myself to receive their blessings and to hope. I was filled with love for them, for Amma, for the female doctor and the massage therapist, for the mothers who lend their wombs, for the pregnant blowfish who refused to die, and for the heart-mind that perceives us all.
Shortly after arriving home from my pilgrimage, my real journey began. My miracle was coming. His name is Yuto, and my love for him is limitless. Ever since, I look forward to Mother's Day. But then again, now I know: Every day is Mother's Day.