The Yoga of Motherhood

What parenting taught me about the art of ahimsa—and the true nature of yoga.

June 5, 2013    BY Kate Hanley

When I was pregnant, I thought I’d feel nothing but adoring love and a deep sense of peace once my daughter, Lillian, arrived. And I did. Occasionally. But mostly I felt stressed out and ticked off.

The mere sound of the doorbell sent me into a snit. Convinced that each chime would wake the baby from a hard-earned nap, I snapped at more well-meaning repairmen and UPS drivers than I care to admit. If Lillian started crying while my husband was holding her, I’d bellow, “Give her to me!” and snatch the baby out of his hands. When my stepmother sent an e-mail to her friends and family announcing our daughter’s arrival with a thumbnail version of the 72-hour labor, I replied to all and painstakingly pointed out all the errors in her retelling.

I knew I had to get back to basics—down dog, shavasana, child’s pose—since I would be practicing at home, on my own, with a body that still needed to heal.

To some extent, I understand why every little incident took on the importance of life and death. I was, after all, immersed in an unfamiliar world where survival was tantamount: Was the baby eating enough to thrive? Would she succumb to SIDS in the middle of the night? Many of my first experiences as a mother were steeped in actual physical violence. In the delivery room, I blew my voice out while pushing, and I tore as my daughter emerged. The arrival of my milk—and the rock-hard melons that developed where my breasts used to be—strained my skin to the point of cracking. The pain that accompanied the scabs on my nipples as my daughter and I learned how to work together felt like something out of a horror movie. I stuck with the nursing—in my 10 years of practice, I’d learned that what’s hard one day can feel effortless the next. So even though the thought of sitting down for another nursing session made me want to get in the car and drive away (at least for a few minutes), I sustained myself with visions of the two of us nursing casually on the couch, without the multiple tries and mountain of pillows we currently needed to get the latch just right.

For the first time in my life, I felt primal, even savage. As an only child of divorced parents, I was expert at keeping the peace, not rocking the boat. The only yoga practitioner in my circle of friends, I had a reputation as the laid-back one. And hadn’t I just written a book about how to relax in the midst of daily debacles? Even though I could acknowledge the irony, I didn’t recognize the frazzled woman I had become. Motherhood yanked the reins on my low-drama demeanor out of my hands, and I felt myself caroming through the day like a deflating balloon, whizzing through the air with a Bronx cheer for everyone in earshot.

Not all my mood swings skewed toward the negative, thankfully. I did have swells of loving feelings: when my daughter fell asleep in my arms, her cheek resting on my shoulder, her sweet little sighs a salve on my wounds. Or lying in our bed—where Lillian slept for the first several months—my husband and I on either side of her, our clasped hands resting on her tightly bundled body, both of us silent as we stared at her, dazzled by her and in awe of ourselves for creating this being. But my entire capacity for love focused solely on my daughter, and everyone else could go hang. Even myself.

Determined to get things done, I never heeded the advice to “nap when the baby naps.” I ended up so tired that I forgot to grab a pot holder before removing a pan from the hot oven, and I still have the scar to prove it. Over the years I had spent many hours on the yoga mat and meditation cushion in search of mindfulness, and now exhaustion and neglect of my own needs rendered me mind-less.

The only way I knew to ground myself was to return to my yoga practice, which I had let slide in those first fuzzy weeks. I knew I had to get back to basics—down dog, shavasana, child’s pose—since I would be practicing at home, on my own, with a body that still needed to heal. So each morning as Lillian slept, I’d roll out my mat and gather my blocks, bolster, and belt. But despite my best intentions to take things slow, I found myself whipping through the poses, hoping the faster I went, the faster I’d get my body—and perhaps even my mind—back. What I didn’t understand then was that I had to go back even further than my asana practice to one of the most fundamental truths of yoga, the practice of ahimsa. Most often translated as non-violence, ahimsa also means love for all beings, including ourselves.

I had to remember one of the most fundamental truths of yoga, the practice of ahimsa. Most often translated as non-violence, ahimsa also means love for all beings, including ourselves.

I can’t point to a single defining moment when I figured out that softening—toward myself, my loved ones, even the UPS man—would be my salvation. Over the rest of that first year of motherhood, as my daughter became a toddler and her needs became less urgent, I started trusting the sitter—and my husband—and left the house more. With more time to myself, I began attending a weekly women’s Iyengar yoga class that reminded me of the power inherent in slowing down and accepting things as they are, and in mindfully undoing the kinks in my muscles and thought patterns with consistent yet gentle work. I knew all these things, or had known them in my former life, but they’d slipped from my consciousness. Thankfully, my body remembered, and the pleasant hum it felt after each class helped me be more loving at home. Once yoga gave me a more profound avenue of release, I stopped relying on my nightly glass or two (or three) of wine, which interfered with my sleep, and finally got the rest I needed.

In the end, it’s the monotony of parenting that saved me. Daily tasks I resented at first became part of an unexpected—and unexpectedly powerful—practice. Instead of sitting and meditating for 20 minutes at a time as I did in my pre-Lillian life, I spent 20 minutes a night reading and re-reading the same book. Goodnight, Gorilla takes on deep spiritual meaning somewhere around the 223rd reading: the animals want out of their cages so they can spend the night in the zookeeper’s cozy house; the zookeeper’s wife patiently leads them back home. I discovered that the same metaphor works equally well for kids who want out of their crib in the middle of the night and for unhappiness-promoting thoughts seeking free rein.

In response to the food, crayons, and toys that ended up on the floor during the course of the day, I also became a devoted sweeper. Each night as I swept up a small mountain of crumbs, my feet, hands, breath, and thoughts aligned in a quiet synchrony. It became a ritual I looked forward to—a time when insights would bubble up on their own accord. Dumping the debris into the trash can, I felt calmer, lighter, more grounded. Not euphoric, but gratified.

These instants are the true gift of parenting—the mix of the mundane and the sacred, the recognition of perfection in the chaos.

Approaching the realities of my new life with ahimsa helped me find santosha or contentment, which in his book The Tree of Yoga B.K.S. Iyengar translates as “delight.” And it’s the sense of delight in the details that finally helped me find my bearings: the sound of Lillian crunching on an apple, the sight of her face lighting up when I return from work, the smell of her head when I first pick her up from her crib in the morning, the warmth of her body resting in my arms as I nurse her to sleep.

These instants are the true gift of parenting—the mix of the mundane and the sacred, the recognition of perfection in the chaos. Even though things have only gotten more chaotic since the arrival of Lillian’s little brother, I’ve also discovered more moments to revel in. They both help me see motherhood not as an upheaval, but an adventure. The monkeys may break out of their cages from time to time, and high jinks may ensue, but my formal and informal practices ensure that there’s always a path back home. It’s a story that never gets old.

Kate Hanley
Kate Hanley is a yoga teacher, the founder of Ms. Mindbody, and author of The Anywhere, Anytime Chill Guide. When she’s not being present with her kids, she specializes in introducing mind-body practices to moms who only wear yoga pants to the grocery store.

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