When I was growing up, I was fascinated to see my father each day recite the morning blessings mandated for Jewish men. While the rest of the household bustled sleepily—my mother in the kitchen, my brother and I taking turns in the bathroom, my grandmother slowly getting dressed—my father, still in his pajamas, would stand in the center of our small living room, yarmulke on his head, tefillin wrapped around his arm and forehead, tallit draped over his shoulders. Using a tattered old siddur he had brought with him from Cairo, he would face the east and begin the ancient Hebrew prayers: “Blessed art thou, Lord our God, King of the Universe . . .”
I never knew then the content of what my father intoned, but I knew how committed he was to his practice: he prayed every morning without fail, from the day of his bar mitvah at the age of eleven (the rabbi in Cairo had decided to initiate him early because he had lost his father as a young child) until he a few years before his death at 84, when he became debilitated by Parkinson’s Disease. Ours was not a traditionally Orthodox Jewish family—we did not observe the Sabbath or keep kosher—but my father’s faithful performance grounded him and all the rest of us, bringing us us to what T.S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world.”
I am certain that my father’s daily practice is what enabled him to survive and to move gracefully through a difficult life: growing up without a father, enduring the anxieties of the second World War in North Africa, immigrating from to the U.S. in uncertainty and fear; struggling to make a living; standing two hours a day on the subway to and from work; dealing with two wayward children.
And although I am not exactly following in my father’s footsteps, he is one of my inspirations as I work these days to develop and maintain my own daily ritual of communion with what I consider to be the sacred.
Since the mid-1970s, I have been a practitioner of yoga, a student in the Integral Yoga tradition founded by Sri Swami Satchidananda. But although I have spent many days and months at Satchidananda Ashram/Yogaville, following a strict routine of daily meditation and hatha yoga, and although I have occasionally taught yoga myself, I have not succeeded in developing a steady, daily home practice.
I recently returned from an especially wonderful retreat with two teachers who, like my father, serve as inspiring examples of the equanimity and poise brought by prolonged daily practice.
And so, that is my goal for this, my 70th year in this body: to cultivate a daily practice. It should be simple: to wake up in the morning, sit for meditation and then do a few asanas. And yet, when I wake up, the first thing I want to do is get to my desk and immerse myself in whatever writing project is engaging me at the moment. So I have set aside a different time for practice: after a few hours at my desk and before lunch or afternoon commitments. For the most part, this schedule works: having spent time reading or writing, I feel freer to devote myself to my practice, my deliberate effort to connect with with my own true Self.
But often, still, something interferes. I fall sick, I grow complacent, I get lazy. I say to myself “I’ll do it later.” I feel pressured to respond to someone or something that seems to tug at my attention (my messy kitchen, my needy cat, a sick friend, my darling husband, the horrifying world news) . . . I put off my practice and then I never get around to it that day. And then a few days (or weeks, or months) go by and my body grows stiff, my mind distracted and confused. I feel as if I must start again from scratch.
In the Yoga Sutras, one of the most important ancient Yoga texts, Sri Patanjali asserts,
Sa tu dirgha kala nairantarya satkara-asevito dirdha bhumih.
You must cultivate your practice over an extended period of time; it must be steady, without gaps, and it must be done correctly — for then a firm foundation is laid.
In other words, daily practice is key if one wants to achieve the goal of yoga, which is, according to Patanjali, the stilling of the mind: Yogash chitta vritti nirodhah. Or, as translators Geshe Michael Roach and Christie McNally put it in their The Essential Yoga Sutra:
We become whole by stopping how the mind turns.
Meditation and hatha yoga, along with countless other devotional practices from different faith traditions, are ways to center the self or “stop” the mind, bringing it into the “still point”—the place I believe my father found through his daily recital of the Jewish blessings, the place I discover when I sit quietly and repeat my Sanskrit mantra. Through daily practice, we become more and more firmly grounded in the experience of that place, until, if we are lucky, we are always there, always calm, always whole.
Goddess traditions invite us to embrace a world of immanence and change, rather than seeking to escape into transcendence, as some yoga teachings seem to advocate. Yet I have come to believe that the “still point,” as Eliot writes, is precisely where “the dance is.” In other words, daily practice grants us the capacity to move through the world with grace and joy, accepting whatever comes. The mind remains steady as it encounters and embraces the turning, changing world. We are whole.
Time now to sit and do some asanas!
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”
Joyce Zonana is the author of a memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile’s Journey. She recently completed a translation from the French of Egyptian-Jewish writer Tobie Nathan’s Ce pays qui te ressemble [A Land Like You], a novel celebrating Arab-Jewish life in early twentieth-century Cairo, forthcoming from Seagull Books. She served for a time as co-Director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual and has also translated Henri Bosco’s Malicroix, forthcoming from New York Review Books.