I still remember the first time my teacher put me into full supta kurmasana, or reclining tortoise pose.
I was a 28 year old graduate student, a yoga practitioner of 4 years, and soon to be a dedicated Ashtangi. I had no way of knowing this, disoriented and swaddled by my own legs, but an aerial view of my body—legs crossed behind my neck, hands binding at my lower back, forehead on the floor—would have looked much like I was, well, giving birth to myself.
My breath came in jags and spurts as I tried to hold the bind, to make sense of the shape of my body at that moment. I struggled to get hold of the breath, but I wasn’t really struggling in the pose. In the months that followed, I figured out how to get myself into that pose and, one by one, a handful of others that required my ankles to hold strong at the nape of the neck, and it was easy. I know. Even I want to smack me for writing that.
Blessed with open hamstrings and short limbs, I am a natural forward-bender. And so I bent forward, and back, 5 or 6 days a week, every week, for the next 6 years. Using all of the energy I didn’t spend on struggling with the poses, I delved deeper into the other seven limbs of Ashtanga: yama (self-restraints), niyama (self-improvements), pranayama (breathing), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (liberation).
I practiced intensely and began to teach; I started molding more and more of my lifestyle to my practice, going to bed earlier, rising earlier, practicing first thing in the morning. I traveled twice to Mysore, India to learn the practice from the late, beloved guru of Ashtanga: Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. In 2006 I sustained a lower back injury; it slowed me down a little, mainly making kapotasana, a pose in which we kneel on the mat and slowly dive backward until we can take our heels into our cupped hands, absolutely petrifying. But with the help of my teacher, I carried on and faced my fears and successes daily on the mat.
And then I became pregnant with my son.
For the first months of my pregnancy, I practiced sparingly. In his book, Yoga Mala, Pattabhi Jois recommends leaving the practice during the first trimester of pregnancy. The body needs time to adjust to the huge changes pregnancy brings, and the embryo benefits from not having heels and hands jabbing at it as it settles into its uterine home. Notice that I couldn’t bring myself to stop altogether—my first inkling that I was attached to my asana practice.
In the second trimester, I felt better and returned to my daily practice, a shift that felt right and was also sanctioned by teachers of the lineage. But now there was a belly to contend with, one that grew daily and which I vowed to always treat as if it were bigger than it actually was for the protection of its precious contents. Instead of doing 10 surya namaskar, I did 9, in homage to the number of months of pregnancy. Suddenly, moves that had been so easy—jumping back and through my arms, binding my big toe in lotus with opposite hand behind my back, putting my legs behind my head—started to grow heavier and clumsier, taking my breath away.
In the third trimester I became huge all over, and began to give back all the poses that had once been given to me, one by one. And it was then that I really began to practice yoga.
Since my endurance seemed to be inversely proportional to my size, those last months involved only a few sun salutations and as many of the fundamental asanas as I could muster—baddha konasana, half pigeon to combat sciatica—for about 30 minutes rather than the hour and a half I used to put in. These poses I performed slowly, deliberately, taking many more breaths than the exact number budgeted for them in Ashtanga’s precise vinyasa system. Instead of doing the traditional closing inversions, I would conclude with a seated meditation, during which I would talk to the contents of my belly, practice relaxation and breathing in preparation for labor.
Sometimes, residual anxiety about childbirth would wash over me, and I would let it, face it, shivering from it, then breathe into it and it would fade somewhat. My practice, to the eye, barely resembled Ashtanga anymore, but I recited the opening invocation daily and chanted the closing mantra every time, feeling profound gratitude for it, feeling it was still Ashtanga, still my practice, the same practice I’d always done but seamlessly transformed into this very different thing. Does that make sense?
The gradual shift in my daily practice silently announced the radical change my son would bring to my life. Two weeks late, Misha was born via c-section after a two-day induction failed and I was too beat to keep trying. A day after I was cut open and stitched back together, I was asked to get up from the hospital bed and walk. The body that as recently as 9 months prior could hold a forearm balance slid off of the bed, placed its feet on the floor and nearly fell to its knees. The walk around the maternity ward, bolstered by my sister, was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
Six weeks later, I was given clearance to “exercise” again and finally rolled out my mat. I had never gone that long without doing an asana practice in 12 years. In the sticky August air in Miami, alone on my balcony with my son sleeping just inside the door, I recited the invocation, paused for a moment, and inhaled my arms up—the first vinyasa of the suryanamaskara A. Breaths later, I finished one sun salutation, nine movements of it, and was left panting. I laid down on my mat and took savasana.
Being Misha’s mom came automatically. He would cry out for me and I would tend to him. I began to get better and better at reading him and giving him what he needed. But practicing yoga was now hard. I was always tired and felt my passion for the practice deflating along with my jiggly belly. Gone were the days of jumping eagerly onto my mat to perform effortless poses. Samasthithihi became the hardest pose—just getting on the mat, ready to move into the practice.
But I forced myself. I did two sun salutations the second and third days back. Added another the following week. And so, pose by pose—like the first time around but 10 years older, many pounds heavier, much more tired, much more humble—I began to take back my body and my practice.
Misha is now 18 months old; happy, healthy, and likes to chant “Om, shanti, shanti, shanti-i.” Am I back to where I started? No, we never can go back. In some ways, I am more limited now. I can’t always practice first thing in the morning, still can’t jump back or through, have a hard time with some binds, some twists.
I am, however, so much more in tune with my breath than ever before. I am deeply grateful for whatever time I get to spend on my mat and my fierce intentness gets poured into making those moments as intact, silent and sacred as possible. I spend more time sitting quietly at the end of my practice and less working on getting any particular pose. I am much more humble and, because of it, a better teacher. I have much more compassion for students who are trying as hard as they can and even when they can they are still working on doing it with ease and equanimity. Formerly a deep forward-bender, I now have a rough time getting my legs behind my head.
Pregnancy and childbirth changed my body physically. The experience as a whole has changed me deeply. But not all the changes flow in the same direction; some things are tighter and more difficult, while others finally flow. For instance, as I work back into the backbends that used to take my breath away, like kapotasana, I now feel ease. I may not be taking my heels in it yet, but the pose seems like no big deal now.
I’m not sure if my leg-behind-head challenges stem from my hips being tighter now or the fact that I’m a bit more fleshy than I used to be. Perhaps my body’s memory of making space for a little person keeps it from wanting to be rolled in so tightly. What I do know is that back bending has been simplified for me because carrying and birthing my son trained me for it. It opened my heart.