It’s 1976, I’m seven years old and two things happen. First, mum becomes very fat. And second, she finds God. These developments take me and dad aback. Where has her old body gone? I care about the new way mum looks. She wears homemade tent dresses because nothing from the shops fits anymore. Dad – a borderline atheist – is bemused about the religion.
“It gets her out of the house,” he tells a relative on the phone. “It doesn’t much matter what they’re talking about.”
One Monday morning in the school holidays, I go with mum to her Bible study group, held in the lounge of her friend Heather’s house, which smells of newly fitted wall-to-wall carpet. Ten or fifteen ladies sit on an assortment of chairs pulled in from other rooms. Heather strikes up the piano. This is better than watching mum cut out shirtdresses from swathes of fabric. The tunes are good too, slow with sweet melodies. Mum and the ladies sing with their eyes closed and their hands in the air. They talk about a Bible passage. Then Mum prays a heartfelt, freeform prayer for God to help someone called Maureen. Mum’s GP friend Sheila prays for God to help mum. Someone else prays for God to help her son, her philandering husband and many other wayward relatives. I am glad no one prays for me. Afterwards, they drink instant coffee – I get orange squash in a glass – and eat custard creams. They chat in low voices, conversations I am not supposed to overhear.
Sheila talks to mum. Her pink plastic-framed glasses have slipped down her nose. She says ‘blood test’ and ‘appointment’. Mum nods. Mum has been in hospital a lot, so this doesn’t sound unusual. But after many more Monday mornings, it turns out that Mum’s levels of thyroxine are abnormally low – causing her to gain weight and become depressed. An underactive thyroid gland is a serious, lifelong and irreversible condition, but can be treated. Sheila prescribes levothyroxine, and slowly mum’s body and mind become more like her again. The ladies say God has healed mum, but I know it was Sheila.
Forty years later, I start doing yoga because I fear, deep down, that I will suddenly swell up like mum did. I have birthed two children; my body is malleable to an extent I can’t control. So each Wednesday night at 7, I sit cross-legged on the laminate floor of a room heavy with incense, feeling the tug of the tight muscles in my lower back, and I chant with the others:
Om buhr bhuva swaha
Tat savitur varenyam
Bhargo devasya dhimahi
Dhiyo yonaha prachodayat
Our teacher, Karen, tells us it’s in Sanskrit and called the Gayatra Mantra. After a while I don’t need to look at the sheet to remember these syllables; they stick in my head with the sequence of yoga postures and other indelible memories: the registration number of our family car in 1976; the landline number of every house I’ve lived in; my grandmother’s birthday.
At the front of the yoga room is an anatomical skeleton decorated with fairy lights. Today Karen uses it to demonstrate the finer points of a new posture. She bends the skeleton’s knee to demonstrate how the muscles simultaneously lengthen and relax. She rotates the skeleton’s leg to show movement in the hip socket. Traffic rumbles past outside.
As I move through the postures, the skeleton looks on silently. The lights draped over its shoulders radiate a dim glow, like candles. Students like to touch its parchment coloured bones. The wired jaw has come off after someone fiddled with it. This annoys Karen. “It’s not an ornament,” she says.
Yoga does not mystically make things better. It doesn’t even help much with weight gain. But there is a comfort in being present with others, whatever we are going through, week after week. I crawl out of post-natal blues, then get made redundant. Someone’s partner dies. Someone else gets breast cancer. This is about more than our bodies. We are in this together.
When mum and I sit in Acute Care Room A as my father slips out of life, the hospital’s Anglican chaplain asks if he can read a prayer.
“No,” we say, simultaneously.
A nurse removes the tubes that take vital fluids into and out of dad’s body. Dad’s breaths grow shallower. I am too scared to touch his hand. I wish I could reach out to it as easily as yoga students touch the skeleton’s bones. Instead, I watch dad’s face. The familiar, unintelligible syllables of Gayatra Mantra come into my head: Om buhr bhuva swaha … I pray them, silently, despite myself, as the room becomes quiet.
In the mess of days that follow, the chant sticks in my head and I find this translation online:
Through the coming, going and the balance of life,
the essential nature which illumes existence,
may all perceive through subtle intellect
the brilliance of enlightenment.
The words soften the memory of a body on a hospital bed, just as lights do on a broken skeleton. When we leave Acute Care, I carry a plastic bag with dad’s possessions, and mum and I hold hands.
Mum, now in her 70s, and on holiday in the town where we used to live, revisits her Bible study group. Many of the same women still attend. I pick her up afterwards.
“How was it?”
Mum sniffs. “They did nothing but moan.”
How can she dismiss her old friends like that?
“I have moved on,” she says as she lowers herself stiffly into the front seat of the car.
These days she has made new friends and sings in a choir. Perhaps what we do together isn’t the point. Perhaps we could paint fences. Or learn coding. Or crochet. Maybe practising anything with others creates bonds of attachment if we stick at it, even only for a few hours every Monday morning or Wednesday evening.
Wednesday evening, it’s dark and I’m lying on the floor of the yoga room under a purple blanket. I am tissue and hair and tendon and muscle and fat and bone. My heart pumps blood around my body as I breathe deep and slow. I hear the others sigh. We inhale and exhale, regenerate and decompose. For a few moments, we dream together. I leave the incense and the sound of buses passing, and float up, above this little room, out into the darkness until I can see thousands of millions of us, all skeletons decorated with tiny dots of light.
Ebba Brooks is a former journalist and book festival founder. These days she teaches creative writing at the University of Leeds and digital skills at the University of Salford. You can read more about her on her blog.