Ashtanga Mama: Harmony

Astanganyu Harmony
Since my son was born and a growing baby came to be part of my everday life – with all its joy and fatigue – I see ashtanga mothers from a whole different perspective. They don’t call it by chance the seventh series. As we take on the role and the responsibilities of a parent, our practice shifts, asana often taking a back seat, while other aspects of the yogic lifestyle take foreground, have their time to blossom. I have a deep respect to all the mothers, who practice in the mornings (even asanas) in the challenging time period of their lives as a parent or just stands on the mat for a few moments until the next time for nursing their babies!
Our new interview series is addressed to them (or mothers soon to be) and about them to ease their everyday responsibilities and the challenges they face with the practice of the science of yoga even in an intense life-period like parenthood.

BW: What has changed in your practice since the arrival of Jediah in regards of your physical asana practice and the other limbs of yoga?
Harmony: My practice has gone through many different phases and transitions since Jediah was born. These ups and downs continue and changes are still happening. The physical aspects of the practice are not always getting better, as in advancing into more difficult postures. Often it feels like the asana practice has gotten a lot worse and there is a seemingly unending period of rebuilding it again. The highs are amazing, but often short lived. Mostly, my asana practice sits on a plateau, not really getting better or worse; But that is just the on the physical side of the yoga practice.

The real practice of yoga is about keeping the mind steady, calm, and equanimous despite what is going on physically or emotionally. 

After giving birth, I noticed that even though my asana practice wasn’t at all like it used to be before – everything felt so heavy and thick – (an extra twenty pounds will do that to you) – I felt a much deeper connection to my breath and an ability to acutely focus within myself. 

In this way, even though the physical practice is often challenging after pregnancy, along with balancing the demands of family life and young children, I’ve noticed that I can often move into a deeply centered and concentrated mental space. Consequently, I feel that I’m able to receive many more benefits out of doing much less because my awareness is so acutely tied to the present moment.  

These days, I feel physically, emotionally, and mentally stronger than I can ever recall, even without making the asana practice the main focus of my day. I’m continuing to work on and learn how to integrate the principles of practice into every part of my day, and my son has been an amazing teacher for me in this way. 

BW: What do you suggest for mothers to rebuild their practice after giving birth? Is there anything in particular that you need to pay attention more (besides the newborn)?
Harmony: After giving birth, I would suggest that new mothers focus on three things: rebuilding muscle tone, strengthening the core to maintain the integrity of the spine, and making breath the primary focus of the practice. Yoga is a wonderful postpartum practice for helping to prevent or alleviate some symptoms of postpartum anxiety or depression. However, it is good to go slowly and methodically. Build the practice back up starting with only sun-salutations. Gradually add in some standing postures and then some seated postures. Do not feel any pressure to “get your practice back.” Use the yoga to help support and nourish you. You should always feel more energy at the end of the practice, not less.

Often women experience abdominal separation during pregnancy, and some women are particularly at risk to even create this separation after giving birth, as the abdominal muscles take time to come back together. I would recommend not doing positions or exercises like crunches such as “boat pose” or deep twists like Marichyasana D, or asana-s that overstretch the abdomenal area, like any intense back-bending postures, for at least three to six months after delivery.

If abdominal separation is not healed properly it can cause further abdominal weakness, pelvic floor weakness, or other more serious problems like an umbilical hernia.

It’s important when new mothers are practicing yoga they make sure to hold the core muscles in tight and not overextend or protrude the stomach muscles. Holding the ‘high plank’ position for five breaths while drawing in the abdomen firmly before lowering into chaturanga dandasana (chatvari) can be very helpful. As well, supporting the legs when practicing navasana (boat pose), so you lessen the pressure on the abdomen will be useful. Back-bending can be good, but I would suggest starting with a more gentle posture like “little bridge pose” or “baby backbends” and work on regaining the strength of the core and legs again before moving onto deep positions like full urdhva dhanurasana.

BW: In the first few months how did you manage to find yogic self-time? Was little Jediah next to you when you were practicing? Can you advise something for beginner mothers how to do this?
Harmony: After Jediah was born finding time to practice was very difficult. My practice was sporadic and all over the map with timings. Some mornings I would try to wake up early and practice before he awoke, and other times I would practice in the mid-morning or mid-afternoon while he was napping. I didn’t have a set schedule and most often it would seem like I would finish the standing sequence and then he would wake up. So, then my practice would be cut short and my attention would naturally be on him again. Sometimes I would place him beside my yoga mat and practice with him in a bouncy chair or on a blanket. It was really just doing whatever little practice I could fit in, whenever I had enough energy to face doing it.

The best advice I can give is for new mothers is to let go of their expectations, ambitions, and to release their own personal desires, especially when it comes to the physical asana practice. Look for other ways to experience yoga. Maybe that takes the form of singing devotional songs to your new infant, or chanting mantras while changing diapers or driving in the car. Perhaps the practice of yoga shows up in the form of selfless service (Karma Yoga) while you attend to your new baby, or in experiencing the fullness of Bhakti Yoga or devotion, when you notice that you have completely lost yourself in a moment of all-consuming love. Asana is only a small part of the practice of yoga, and becoming a mother opens up pathways in the heart and mind that were not previously accessible, so relish in these new experiences and inner discoveries.

As far as the physical asana practice goes, it is good to be flexible with when and where and what you are able to practice. Also, let go of your expectations of what it means to do a “full” practice. Allow whatever time you have to fit in physical practice of asana to be enough. Whatever you do – that IS a full practice. You need not get to any particular posture or finish at a certain spot for it to “count” as a “real practice.”  Take the push out of your practice and observe more deeply the effects and benefits you feel, even after something as simple as sun-salutations.

BW: Let’s talk about diet a bit. Most of ashtanga yoga practitioners – following the guidelines of this method – are following a vegetarian (or even vegan) diet. As being convinced that this is a good habit, as ashtangi parents we might want to surpass this habit to our children too. On this matter we might face various objections, institutional ones ( from the pediatritian, nursing school for instance) and on social level too (from concerned friends, family). How do you deal with this?
Harmony: As parents, and especially as new parents, you will face all kinds of criticisms and people telling you how you should be and what you should do or not do. I strongly believe that as parents with a spiritual practice, like Ashtanga Yoga, you have a very special capacity to be sensitive and aware to what your child needs and what is best for him or her. Trust yourself and trust your intuition. It’s good to listen to what others have to say, but also think critically about what advice is being given. The most important thing you can do in life is listen with awareness and trust your own instincts. Don’t follow blindly any one particular ideology, even veganism or Ashtanga. You should question everything and realize that needs change depending on different situations and circumstances. Trying to force something to fit when it doesn’t only creates frustration and suffering. Everyone will have an opinion, but only you know your child in the most intimate way, so it’s important to find the inner strength and courage to stand up for what you feel is right regarding their care and needs. There is no “one right way” when it comes to raising children.

BW: Jediah is really lucky with you, he has already been to India, at the source. How was it to travel so far with a small kid to a completely different world? Do you recommend the trip to Mysore to yogis with children?
Harmony: Jediah was almost 2 years old when he made his first trip to India. I really couldn’t imagine bringing him before that time, as it took me about a year to really adapt to becoming a mother and I certainly wanted to feel very comfortable in myself and my abilities to care for a child before traveling such a far distance with him, and to a place that didn’t have the same kind of healthcare or amenities available as Canada.

In addition, I knew that personally, I felt very a home within India, as I had already made 8 trips there over seven years, both traveling within the country, as well as living and practicing in Mysore and Goa, for periods of six months at a time, which accumulated in having spent over 2.5 years of my life in India, before bringing Jediah with me.

All factors played into my decision to bring him to Mysore the first time. It was a wonderful time for me, as I had help in the mornings taking care of him, which gave me the time I needed to really focus on my practice again, something I hadn’t been able to really do since he was born. However, I was also very tired during the days, as I was still breastfeeding at night and periodically during the day. As well, I had to be very vigilant with him all the time, as there are so many hazards just around in that environment, and he was a very busy, curious, and active child.

Since that first time in 2012, he has subsequently made six trips back to India and has lived there for over a year of his life. However, now he has absolutely no interest to return!  He has friends in Canada, as well as different activities and school which he doesn’t want to miss or leave for long periods. I would say there is definitely a limited time period when you can easily travel to India with children before they become involved in school and their own interests.

I think if you feel comfortable traveling with your young child, then making a trip to Mysore is definitely a nice way to be able to dive deeper into your practice while balancing the responsibilities of parenthood. It helps to have some solid support though with you, or to find a reliable childcare provider there to help you in the mornings and during the days.

BW: As ashtanga yoga teachers we might have the experience that teaching is not one-way process, but rather mutual and we can learn a lot about ourselves in this role. I feel like it is similar to parenthood, there is a lot of self-knowledge that comes while our children grow up. What did Jediah teach you about yourself?
Harmony: Our children are our best teachers. They reflect back so clearly all of the areas we need to work on, whether it is patience, compassion, organization, discipline, or simply learning to relax and have fun. I think that what Jediah has taught me the most is to really cherish all the little moments and not to take any of them for granted. His presence taught me how everything that we do can be an act of service and devotion, and that this is true bhakti. Daily tasks as simple changing diapers, preparing meals, or driving him to school, when performed with a sense of love and duty, without any expectation for return, reward or acknowledgment, can become a central part of my practice of yoga. Learning to keep my mind steady amidst his temper-tantrum, or burst of frustration, and then being able maintain a soothing and calm environment in response to his emotional imbalance is demonstrating yoga in action.  Knowing when to be strict and disciplined and when to be soft and comforting. This is the practice of yoga when it comes parenthood. Most of all, Jediah has taught me that I’m a long way from perfection and that there is always more room to grow.

BW: Thank you for the interview Harmony!

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