Finding Space for Yoga in Motherhood
I enter my body again: feel the precise curve of my spine, the pads at the base of my first fingers, the length of my hamstrings. I lie on my back and pull my right knee into my stomach. My thigh and abdomen have been virtual strangers, but now they kiss and my breath rocks them up and down with each inhale and exhale.
For the past two years, I have been practicing what I’ve called life—being a partner, caring for a baby, having a career. I sacrificed the Tuesday evening and Saturday morning yoga classes I had attended regularly for seven years. A few months after my son’s first birthday, when my mother was visiting, we sat on my front porch swing reviewing the dailiness of my life.
“I miss yoga terribly,” I lamented.
“You can’t do everything, honey,” she assured. “You have different priorities now.”
I had no idea that the loss of my yoga practice factored significantly into my suffering.
I agreed. It was one thing to do yoga when I was, say, pregnant. Then, going to a hatha class every week was touted as a necessity: at least three yoga studios offered prenatal classes where round-bellied women glowed. But after Jake was born, I had to make choices, give up certain things in order to mother. And I was miserable. Just immature, I called myself. Not the mothering type. I had no idea that the loss of my yoga practice factored significantly into my suffering—at least not until Natasha, a dear friend and yoga teacher, offered to meet with me for a few private sessions.
“I know you’ve been really struggling, Nancy.” Her voice sounded warm, even through the static of my old answering machine.
I stood staring at it, listening to her voice.
“I’ve been thinking about what I can do to help and wondered if you’d like to do a few yoga sessions with me to get your practice back on track.”
This wasn’t the first time she had offered. My postpartum depression, once severe enough to require hospitalization, had lifted considerably, but a heaviness still dragged behind me, tied to my waist. Occasionally, I did something people could see—cried when a friend asked me how I was, delayed answering phone calls or e-mails for weeks, or blurted out in a rush how much I didn’t want my life to be the way it was. I’d done this shortly before Natasha called, so this time, I couldn’t resist her generosity. I’d felt my edge.
When I arrive at her house, we hug and chat, and then she ushers me into one of her small spare bedrooms. In the middle of the room is a purple yoga mat, diagonally across the floor, one end pointing to a lighted candle, the other toward the door. It is awkward at first: we are friends; this is a favor; but Natasha was also my first yoga teacher, hers the voice that taught me to stand “feet hip-width apart, shoulders relaxed.”
“We’ll take things slow,” she says, and for the first time in two years, “slow” suggests a positive choice rather than a sluggishness I’ve come to associate with any unhurried movement. The simple stretches feel wonderful. She asks if she can do some adjustments, which I gratefully allow. She pushes on my extended leg while the other stretches toward the ceiling, “reaching up through my foot and relaxing down through my hip.”
“Your flexibility is still excellent,” she says, and I inwardly beam. Maybe she even notices a grin flash across my lips. I’ve always valued my flexibility, pitied those whose limbs were stiff. She has me move my upwardly-stretched leg to the side. She applies gentle pressure and I feel my unused muscles tense.
“Too much pressure?” she asks.
“No,” I quickly respond, “it’s great.”
I wonder if I will suffer later for this semblance of boundless flexibility and think of the way I schedule my business appointments. I hate to see myself as part of the overscheduled, never-enough-time working mothers’ club, so I act almost blasé about my availability: “Oh, sure, that will be great. Whatever works for you.” But later, I will not have time to wash a dish or fix a bed. The house will start falling down around me and I will crumble with it. I will rarely appear harried, but I really don’t have the flexibility I pretend to.
I will rarely appear harried, but I really don’t have the flexibility I pretend to.
It has been several years since I’ve done yoga with Natasha. Both single when we met, I am now a wife and mother; she is newly engaged. I am entering warrior, a pose I remember learning from her. Then, we did hatha in a large open studio in a falling-down building on 4th Avenue. It was a morning class with only a few students. As she talked us through the positioning of our feet, legs, and arms, she reminded us that the warrior faces forward but never loses consciousness of what’s behind her—this as a reminder to keep our back arm straight and our back leg strong. So many years later, I am waiting for her to say “strengthen,” and “extend,” when she surprises me.
“Instead of focusing on reaching out,” she says, “pull your energy in.”
I am standing with my arms outstretched, so the image at first eludes me. My energy has moved out through my fingers toward the candle in the corner and the door I’ve shut behind me. I’m not sure I can catch it.
“Feel your muscles shrink-wrap around your bones,” she says.
I close my eyes and imagine sinews embracing skeleton, lending a support I didn’t know I had, a centeredness I often feel too extended to experience.
“Then,” she pauses briefly and continues, “allow the energy to radiate out organically.”
I think of how small I’ve wanted to make my life lately, as if the only alternative to being open to the world is to retract. I am an introvert living an extroverted life, I often complain. It takes me hours, sometimes days, to replenish my energy after I’ve taught a class, been with friends, or played with Jake. Why can’t I keep more of my energy inside?
“Good,” she says, and I wonder if she’s noticed in my limbs what I’ve just begun to picture in my mind: I go to dinner with friends and don’t talk until I really have something to say. I sit with my son as he plays in the dirt with his front loader—not restless or anxious about what needs to be done, not making truck noises with him, not even being bored. Just sitting centered and present, letting love reach him silently.
The evening before birthing Jake I was in an advanced yoga class, bending my shape around his. People are always impressed by this, but I can’t imagine what else I could have been doing. Pregnancy made me so aware of my body—I was so undeniably in a body, a body so undeniably inside me—that the postures seemed a natural extension of the experience. I didn’t know, however, that pregnancy was only the beginning of my body being used for someone else’s existence. Not just my breasts, but my arms picking him up in the middle of what should have been my sleep, my legs walking countless miles from room to changing table to bath to crib to bouncy seat to room, my back bending forward from a front-pack carrier where he slouched in sleep, my eyes ever-vigilant for signs of what he may need to tell me without language, my newly supersonic ears—Is he finally asleep? Do you hear him? Is he OK?
After all the years of practicing yoga, of feeling finely in tune with my body, I couldn’t see how my connection to it was ebbing away after Jake’s arrival, how my body had begun to exist primarily for the service of him. Like many women, I gained weight and my sex drive waned. Experts often attribute both to hormonal changes, but when Natasha suggests that I do bridge pose, I know suddenly that, for me, it’s been a fundamental forgetting that I am incarnate; that in order to express my spirit, I must first feel my body. My pelvis lifts toward the sky and energy races there, as if wanting to offer itself to the heavens. I feel more alive than I have in months.
In another session, Natasha and I focus on standing poses. We go from warrior 1 to warrior 2 to triangle—some of my favorite asanas. She is having me hold the poses: “strengthen the back leg...bend the front leg a little more.”
“You’re strong,” she says. “I can’t even hold the poses that long.”
But just as I appear more flexible than I am, I am also less strong than I appear. My body will feed back the results during the week: the ache in my back, the spasm of muscle. But I am so excited to feel connected to my body again, I push and paddle it. If I’m going to have a body, I want it to buck up.
“I feel a lot stronger than last week,” I say, firming my stance. And she replies, as if born with this knowledge, “Our bodies are different every day.”
What if what I feel at any given moment isn’t who I really am?
I have always preferred striving for a fixed idea about myself, no matter how contradictory: I am flexible, I am strong, I am depressed, I am not the mothering type. To be reminded so matter-of-factly of how these characteristics may fluctuate gives me a new perspective on what I’ve always considered instability. What if what I feel at any given moment isn’t who I really am?
As we move toward the end of the session, Natasha suggests a prone spinal twist. I love the feeling of my muscles wrapping around my spine, wringing out the tension. That is where my focus is when she reminds me to relax my left shoulder. I adjust the way she directs, taking my right hand and pushing gently in the soft muscle underneath my left collarbone.
“But don’t tense the right side,” she adds.
Her teacher calls it “residue,” the way we tend to one thing and cause pain or discomfort to another.
“The goal,” Natasha explains, “is to adjust without residue.”
I actually chuckle at that, painfully aware of the metaphor. Adjusting to motherhood, I slip into depression. Adjusting to depression, I threaten my relationship with my son by withdrawing so far inside myself, he cannot reach me. Later, as I’m driving home, I wonder if resuming my practice—adjusting my body in the time-honored asanas—will help me navigate all the emotional adjustments motherhood requires. I feel the language of yoga trying to get through: “Let go of everything you don’t need. Your muscles are working, but relax into the effort.”
During my final session with Natasha, she sets me up in a supported pose, what some call “restorative yoga.” On my back, my feet touching the wall, she puts a bolster underneath my hips and another length-wise under my spine; my arms hang over the sides, allowing my chest to open. She places a soft lavender bag over my eyes.
“Just relax,” she says.
Perhaps it is the culmination of our sessions together, my body having awakened a little more each time. Or maybe it’s the pose, the heart exposed to the elements. At first, I am simply grateful in the absorbed way that comes when we finally get what we want. Then, another feeling, much more intense, floats up from the recesses of my chest, spilling over and bathing my body. I do not know what to call it, I only know with mysterious certainty that I will always be lonely—and I will always be perfect.
I lie on the purple mat, the feeling dissipating and then disappearing—a braided wisp of remembering and forgetting. I wonder what inside of me has been restored, what still may be in need of repair. At Natasha’s request, I roll off the bolsters, eyes remaining closed, and sit cross-legged with my hands in prayer position. I want my mind to stay still, but it is already remembering that Jake’s library books are due today and wondering whether it will be too hot to go to the park this afternoon.
“Namaste,” I hear Natasha say.
“Namaste,” I respond, more from reflex than reflection—until my thumbs pressed lightly into my chest remind me of what that Sanskrit word means: “I bow to the Spirit within.”