A turtle led me to yoga.
Of course, I didn’t yet know it. I was just ten years old and becoming a yogi was about the furthest thing from my mind. But even though I had little say in matters concerning my own life, I would soon choose if I would stand up for another being that had no voice at all.
Choosing between the easy thing, and the right thing, is yoga.
My father had taken us on vacation to the British Virgin Islands. It was a confusing time in our lives, so if you are confused and miserable, then by all means take along an adolescent. At dinner, the waiter mentioned the resort’s famous turtle soup.
“What makes the soup so good?” my Dad asked.
“We use our own turtles,” the waiter replied.
We sat speechless. OMG, I thought. There are turtles in turtle soup? I thought it was make believe, like chocolate “turtles” are caramel and welsh rarebit is just cheese, no rabbit.
After dinner we meandered down the beach to where there was a stone wall in the water. I started tip toeing along the wall when I saw something splash. Then I saw a flipper, and when I bent down closer, I saw a face.
“Dad,” I screeched. “There are turtles in here!” We stared at their majestic bodies in silence. Then Dad said, “Nobody has the right to cage a turtle.”
Dad waded into the pen and started lifting out the turtles one by one. For the next few nights we worked quickly and precisely. On the last night, the pen had been marked off with yellow tape and a sign that said anyone caught poaching would be imprisoned. Ending the vacation in jail was not the bonding experience Dad had in mind.
By now, we had freed most of the smaller turtles but the largest remained, particularly one giant turtle. He looked extremely sad to me, as if he knew he was just too big to get over the wall. When I realized Dad was going to leave this turtle, I started to cry.
My Dad cannot stand crying. It kills him.
“All right,” he said. “We will try to set him free.”
A choice is not often between the obvious right and wrong. There may not be anyone else on your side. But you know you have done the right thing when you cannot live with yourself having done anything else. That night, we chose the turtles over the law.
Together we coaxed the largest turtle to the sandy edge of the pen. He swam willingly. Then with Dad at the front, and me at the back, we somehow managed to boost him up and over. The turtle tumbled into the shallow water and then he turned and gazed at us. I looked directly into his wise old eyes and I thought he might have said thank you.
As humans, we are given the gift of choice. It is a powerful gift.
We choose what to believe in. We choose who we love. We choose when to fight, and when to lay down our sword. The Gods and Goddesses of Hinduism have a more limited existence as they do not always have the full gamut of choice. We, on the other hand, can choose our path.
Yoga is only a little bit about the postures. The postures are there to reveal who we are and how we react when things get difficult. Like life, our yoga practice is a constant practice of choice. Yoga is ultimately about discovering ourselves, and taking that knowledge into service in our lives.
Neither I nor my Dad had heard of yoga in 1970. But that night we became yogis. If yoga is about leaving the world a better place, then in that moment there was no question about what we would do. The choice was clear.
Excerpt for Yoga Journal, February, 2013.
Michelle Berman Marchildon is the Yogi Muse. This is an excerpt from her book, “Finding More on the Mat: How I Grew Better, Wiser and Stronger through Yoga.” Her father is the veterinarian Dr. Lewis Berman, who if given a choice, would still free a turtle today. You can practice a yoga sequence celebrating this story called “Choose” on www.yogadownload.com.