I was never a woman who couldn’t wait to become a mother—babies just weren’t really my thing.
Before my own child came along, I’d changed a diaper precisely twice in my whole life. Back then, nothing came before my yoga practice. Getting on my mat every day was a must.
I’d spend hours intricately sequencing my yoga classes for the week, and would spend evenings hunched over anatomy and philosophy textbooks. I wouldn’t allow anything to disrupt the system I’d so carefully orchestrated.
I could not fathom turning my back on the years of hard work I’d devoted to my personal practice and my career as a yoga and philosophy instructor. Abandoning my yoga for a baby was inconceivable to me.
And then I gave birth, and was no longer able to devote such vast amounts of time to the mat, meditation, breathing techniques, or sequencing my classes. I had done what I swore I’d never do: give up on yoga as I knew it.
I learned some valuable lessons as a result:
1. I Learned the True Meaning of Yoga
The word “yoga” stems from the Sanskrit root yuj (italicize), which means to bind or yoke. This is why yoga is often translated as “union;” it is both the act of bringing together and the experience that transpires as a result.
So what, exactly, are we uniting? According to the ancient yogic texts we are uniting our consciousness with reality. Sounds lofty? It’s not. It means that we are accustomed to living in a state of separation, often resulting from the ego. It’s the ego’s voice repeating those damaging mantras: “I’m not good/smart/talented/attractive enough.” In so doing, we live in our heads and detach from what is right around us.
The entire point of yoga is to bind us to the current moment, and anchor our fleeting thoughts to what exists within it. This is true presence. Yoga teachers cue breath to movement, because when we do this we unify the breath and the body, and the mind tends to follow soon after. The calm sensation that results after a yoga class is due to the fact that you’ve just spent time fully inhabiting your body, as opposed to the anxiety that results from ruminating on problems, doubts, and issues—all that occurs in your head, disconnected from your body. Yoga is the act of binding to what’s here, and what’s real.
Mothering a newborn is the quintessential act of presence.
When I say I “gave up yoga” I don’t mean that I stopped working on postures altogether, but rather that I gave up the attachment to my practice. I let go of the need to twist myself into elaborate poses in order to feel good, alive, and present. As a result of releasing these things I discovered an even deeper level of yoga. I did not anticipate finding much of anything in that sleep-deprived, zombie-like state, especially not amidst the chaos of diaper changes and breastfeeding. But it was within those messy, simple moments where I found a sense of presence unlike any other.
No other experience in my life (not even the encompassing days of meditation retreats) compare to what it’s like to have a human being depend wholly on you—for sustenance, love, cleanliness, shelter, and everything else necessary for survival. When caring for my little one, an entire day can pass without me having an opportunity to delve into the mental muck of tomorrow’s errands or worrying about split ends. I exist with him fully, and am able to tend to his every need at the drop of a hat. It is the purest form of being here and now I’ve ever experienced, and it all happened effortlessly. This is the ease that Patanjali speaks of in the canonical Yoga Sutras—the ease of true presence.
2. I Learned to Listen
The yogic wisdom tells us that compassion arises out of sincere listening. I had no idea how deaf I truly was until I had a child. Prior to having a child I thought I was skilled at listening to my body or the bodies of my students, but I had no idea that listening could have such further depth.
My child—unable to coherently express himself or even understand his own basic needs—relies on me to hone my ear for his survival. In order to fully listen, I had to learn how to quiet my mind and had to become an expert observer, so that I could pick up on his nuanced cues. Listening, I came to understand, happens not only with our ears; it is a whole-bodied activity.
I enhanced and deepened my listening by studying his body language––the movement of his eyes gave me insight into his current mood. The various pitches of his cries informed me of what it was exactly that he needed––a low moan indicated a lack of entertainment; a high-pitched wail signaled a soiled diaper. As I fine-tuned my listening skills I began to realize just how divided our attention generally is with one another. I started to wonder how our connections to each other might evolve, and how much more compassion we might sow, if we could learn to listen to one another fully—with mind, body, and heart.
3. I Learned to Trust My Gut
If you think the presidential race is gruesome, you haven’t experienced mommy wars, or more aptly, the war on mommies. As a new mother, everyone you meet will have an opinion on what you are doing wrong and won’t hesitate to share it with you.
On the mat, we are taught to listen to our bodies—this is how we prevent injury. Our bodies are our guides, our gut our compass. This motto could not resonate any truer for me than it does right now. Mothering has strengthened my relationship to my intuition. I created this small being from my own flesh, muscle, and bone, and he inhabited my body for nine months. Now that he’s out, he still spends the better half of his day attached to my body, either for nursing, comfort, or fun—we are still one. In the midst of millions of opinions about every conceivable topic, anyone can go nuts. Never has it been more imperative for me to lean into the trust I have for my intuition, and rely on my inner guidance system than during motherhood.
4. I Learned to be Still
It’s no surprise that parenthood is chaotic, and yet, like yin and yang, chaos and stillness complement and necessitate one another. It is a beautiful dance. In the rare moments that my son is napping and the house is quiet, I have learned to take the opportunity to be still. While my meditation practice no longer spans hours, these rare moments of stillness are somehow deepened by virtue of the chaos that surrounds them.
Motherhood has taught me that cultivating stillness isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity. If I am to be fully aware for my son, I must take the time to be still, even if it’s only for two minutes. It is, after all, the space between activity that hones our intuition and sharpens the ear of our heart. Even though I’ve always appreciated meditation, it still took effort for me to sit. I actually look forward to stillness now—to be with my breath and retreat into the simplicity of the cycle of inhalation and exhalation, the coming and the going, one of the simplest and most profound meditations.
5. I Learned to Let Go
In many ways I think the current American yoga culture has us striving for things—the perfect Instagram picture of ourselves contorted into an impressive pose, a tight bum, or fashionable Lululemon pants. I was in no way immune to that societal pressure. I was certain that the post-childbirth weight that would cling to my frame would bother me. I used to think that giving up a large percentage of my classes would be devastating.
Instead, motherhood has taught me what yoga has been trying to instill in me for a long time: I’ve learned to let go.
The practice of yoga helps us focus our mind and find connection to ourselves so that we may become more aware of the fluctuations of prakriti, or nature. Movement, or change, lies at the center of our human experience, and ironically most of us are pretty crummy at dealing with change. The result is suffering. Suffering happens when our expectations and attachments do not match the reality of our situation. To temper suffering, the yogic sages tell us, we need to let go of our attachments.
Motherhood, in essence, is jumping into the deep end of non-attachment. Most things will not go as you planned. A simple activity, like washing the dishes, can take hours because a baby’s needs come first. When I was initially cleared to go back to physical activity about two months after giving birth, I made a calendar for myself of when I would practice yoga. It took about two days to realize what a joke that was, that my day was no longer in my hands; it was in my son’s. I would practice when he would allow me to, and I could either be upset about that or face the fact that I wasn’t in control, and in fact, that any control I previously thought I’d had was just an illusion.
With an infant there is no such thing as “planning.” You must go with the flow, and be with what’s here now.
The more you resist this, the more suffering you will endure. If we let go of what we believed ought to have gotten done, and who we ought to have become, the suffering lessens. We will realize then that our suffering has been mostly our creation all along. This realization is the key to our freedom, freedom that I’ve been uncovering for years through my yoga practice, and that my tiny four-month old guru reminds me of every day.
Author: Tatiana Forero Puerta
Image: Sarah Graybeal/Unsplash
Editors: Catherine Monkman; Travis May