Lisa and her "personal assistants"
I have been practicing Ashtanga yoga since 2009. In those nine years, I have had two children, and another one is on the way. Needless to say, I have some insight on balancing practice with motherhood.
As a thrice pregnant yogi, a (relatively) long time practitioner, and a yoga teacher, I get asked frequently about how to manage practice during pregnancy and early motherhood. My answer is that asana practice during this precious time isn’t about gaining, or even maintaining, some level of physical prowess. Instead, it’s about doing just enough to adequately prepare for and deal with pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood.
This will, of course, mean different things to different people, as it should. The practice that I need won’t be the practice that anyone else needs, but I think all women are served by the principles of non-attachment, compassion, courage, and faith, above all else. Luckily for us, these are the tenets of Ashtanga yoga.
Make no mistake, this took me a long time to learn! For years, I would shift between over-exertion from doing too much, and shame from doing (what I perceived to be) too little. I clung to so much of what I thought my practice “should” be, all the while missing the larger lessons of compassion for myself and detaching with grace and trust, which, of course, would have served me so much more than keeping up with Second Series. Fancy backbends are useless when your baby is screaming at 3 am. I've yet to meet an infant who is impressed by Kapotasana.
It sounds so reasonable, right? And it is reasonable. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. We must practice grace, faith, patience, and non-attachment just as we practice jumping back. None of that comes naturally to the vast majority of us, that’s for sure. This is why yoga is so beneficial during the mommy years. It provides the perfect place to practice letting go, assuming you can stay focused on the positive lessons, which is harder than it sounds.
Every time you feel yourself wince that you can’t lift up quite like before, you have the opportunity to practice the skills you need in motherhood—the skills that WILL help you when your baby is screaming in the middle of the night. Every time we come to our mats we have to make a choice. We have to decide which voices we listen to. Being clear about that becomes all the more important in Motherhood. Babies don’t care for Kapotasana, but they thrive on compassion, patience, and love. And so, too, do mothers.
Being a new mother means losing just about everything about yourself. Physically, spiritually, mentally—you will transform before your very eyes into something you don’t recognize, and also something you don’t necessarily appreciate at first. Again, this is where the practice comes in handy. Remember the first time you tried a new, challenging posture and everything felt foreign and terrible? This, times a million, is what motherhood feels like.
It is neither pretty nor comfortable (though we can usually find a split-second, photo-worthy moment to make everyone think it is, can’t we?) and the skills we need to survive are not physical ones we might force out of a strenuous asana practice. Instead, they are the ones we glean from understanding that all is well no matter what our physical practice looks like.
This can be hard for many reasons. Culturally, of course, we face pressure as people, but also especially as women, to push through no matter the toll it takes. There is also immense pressure from social media, if we allow it to become that way. We see snapshots of people’s lives and practices that reveal very little actual information about their ups and downs, but we nonetheless compare our outtakes to their highlight reel. Even within some Mysore rooms, there can be an air of competitiveness and a lack of understanding from the other practitioners and even the teacher.
We must be so strong as mothers to not succumb to comparison and doubt. If we feed those beasts in our practice, we are guaranteed to battle them tenfold in our lives. Again, we have a golden opportunity in our practice to hone the skills of humility, compassion, sacrifice, and so much more. We will reap so many benefits from these—so much more than we do from competition, ego, and relentless self-criticism.
Mothering and Ashtanga yoga, I’ve come to learn, are about grace. They’re about compassion for yourself and everyone else. They’re about courage, faith, and love. For years as a mother, I was afraid. Afraid of losing myself, my practice, or everything. Giving of myself in the most challenging, intimate, complete way was terrifying and I resisted it for so long, which only added unnecessary misery to my life. I’ve gotten much better at it now, but I still need to keep practicing it.
Asana, my friends, is almost completely nonessential, and motherhood and yoga are very much the processes of shedding the non-essential. Give yourself unequivocal permission to do only is what you need to stay healthy, physically and emotionally. Give that permission with the utmost compassion, love, and trust.
We’ve got babies to grow and children to love and we simply don’t have the space to deal with attachment to things that don’t serve our highest purpose. Your yoga practice should always be a place where you grow, spiritually most of all. If it becomes a prison of drudgery or negativity, you know it’s time to make a change.
Yoga—real yoga—will help you unveil the best version of motherhood that lies within you. And you’ll come to find that motherhood—the nitty, gritty, terrible-yet-painfully-beautiful—will help you unveil the best version of yoga that lies within you. But only If you let them.