The Yoga of Motherhood
By Stephanie Livaccari, May, 2007
On our last family vacation, my daughter swam with the dolphins. She was ecstatic, her face beaming bright as these charming and clever creatures pulled her through the water. As you might imagine, dolphin fever took hold at our house in the weeks following, and we learned a lot about them. One thing I learned was that dolphins form “maternity pods”—groups of mothers and babies swimming together. Smart animals; it seems that dolphins know all about sangha.
About eight years ago, I found my own maternity pod right here at Yoga Shanti, in the Baby & Me yoga class taught by Subhadra Fleming. I was a new mother—anxious, sleep-deprived, grappling with my radical new role in the world. My saving grace was finding other women just like me. We were from varying backgrounds, with diverse interests and hobbies, but united by this common thread of motherhood. These women continue to be some of my best friends in the community. The children, now eight and nine years old, still delight in seeing one another. They can’t believe it when they see pictures of themselves together as babies.
Full of gratitude for my experience, I wanted to re-create this for other new moms, and so I began teaching the Baby & Me class several years ago. I see this same pattern happen time and time again: before the first “om” is chanted, or the first asana performed, the yoga is there in the room. It is in the relief in the faces of the mothers as they share stories, vent frustrations, and celebrate milestones together. With extended families spreading out across the country, and sometimes across the globe, the sangha of motherhood is more necessary and vital than ever. Many women no longer have the wisdom of their female elders to guide them. We need each other.
So my first daughter started me on a journey that would bring me deeper and deeper into my yoga practice—eventually to the point where I would teach, first children, and now adults. Strangely, however, my second daughter wound up leading me away from my yoga practice: for some reason, yoga didn’t feel so good to my pregnant body the second time around. The mere thought of an inversion nauseated me. Gradually, my formal asana practice began to slip away.
This is not something I’m proud of; I do lament its loss. I can’t pretend it doesn’t bother me when I stop in at the studio to drop something off, and someone says, “Are you coming to class?” Gosh, I wish I were. But then I get to the car and catch the tail end of a conversation between my two daughters in the back. I wonder what sweet little moment I missed in those brief minutes I was gone. And I know that yoga, in a formal sense, will still be there when they are old enough to get around themselves.
My yoga practice is not completely gone: it has crept in, in new and interesting ways. I try to ground through my big-toe mound and stand in tadasana when I’m washing dishes. I coordinate my inhale and exhale while bending and straightening to pick up toys in the playroom. My focus of meditation is the rhythm of my daughter’s breath as I lie beside her in bed. And I have found that when sung with the right intent, “Row, Row, Row your Boat” is the most beautiful mantra ever written.
I have also found that many of the principles and lessons we discuss in class—devotion, impermanence, compassion—are inherent in the practice of mothering. It is a practice of complete devotion, pure bhakti. My gurus are my children. And they are not always the most accommodating teachers; they can be manipulative, and they are great at exposing my insecurities and weaknesses. They don’t often tell me that I’m doing a great job. But with a smile and a hug, they transport me to a state of blissful contentment. There is a line in a Mary Oliver poem which goes, “And the sands in the glass stopped for a pure white moment while gravity sprinkled upward, like rain rising.” It’s kind of like that.
Every day it is inevitable that I come into contact with someone who looks wistfully at my two year old and feels compelled to tell me, “It goes so fast.” They’ll trail off for a moment and I imagine they’re remembering their own children when they were young and held so close. These people may not be standing in front of an altar, but I understand their lessons: these days are fleeting, impermanent.
Fortunately, that screaming, kicking, on the floor tantrum that happens every morning because my daughter doesn’t want to wear a jacket is also impermanent. But so is the delightful way she says “Sure.” Last July, David Swenson wrote Yoga Shanti’s Focus of the Month. In it he writes, “We could say that the truly enlightened individual is one that is grossly absorbed in the activities and duties of their daily life. Living to the fullest extent their true purpose. With such enlightened activities as getting their children dressed and ready for school. Approaching their job and all actions and encounters that each day has to offer with the greatest of integrity and presence.”
I can’t say that I feel enlightened early on a Monday morning when I’m rushing to get the kids out of the house (late again), can’t find my keys, and my daughter is on the floor crying and refusing to wear a jacket. Enlightened? No. Fully absorbed and present? Absolutely.
So for now, more often I am standing on my head, not in sirsasana, but to make my kids laugh or to persuade them to take another bite of their meal. And I’m bending over backwards, not in urdhva dhanurasana, but to make sure I give them all the tools they need for a secure, happy, rich and meaningful life.
Happy Mother’s Day.