By Kathleen Wiebe
You know that moment when the baby is born—that relief, that release, that moment of indescribable bliss when time stands still and we experience the mystery of life? Intuitively, you know that moment is perfect. That moment is yoga.
What about that other moment? The one when your crying baby wakes in the middle of the night— again. Your milk leaks and you are sweaty, sleep deprived, feeling slightly insane, in pain, and afraid of what you may do to your baby (not to mention your partner) to make the crying stop? Truth is, this is yoga too.
The goal of yoga is to remind us of the Divine inherent in everything. Not only in miracles and bliss but also in all the challenges and difficulties a new baby brings (perhaps some of the most difficult challenges a woman will ever face).
Practicing yoga can be tremendously helpful in the first six weeks after baby’s birth—but not necessarily doing backbends and headstands. Though asana is the door most of us use to enter yoga, it is actually only one part of the practice.
No, it’s the yamas and niyamas (also known as yoga’s moral precepts and internal, personal observances) that can help us in these early, vulnerable post-partum weeks.
Subtle practices of behavior and awareness, the yamas and niyamas are described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, written about 2,000 years ago. They are considered the gateway to yoga, the first two limbs of Classical Ashtanga Yoga’s Eight Limbs: postures ( asana), breathwork ( pranayama), and four stages of meditation ( pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi). These observances help us create the healthy conditions that lead to peace of mind by offering guidelines and suggestions to develop positive patterns of response and behavior.
The yamas advocate gentleness, honesty, not stealing, moderation, and not wanting or accumulating too much. They advise when to stop and when to go, and they counsel when to push and when to release. Most helpfully, they advocate learning through the process of living a life with respect and love for ourselves and others.
The niyamas advise cleanliness, contentment, discipline, self-study, and letting go, and they suggest developing self-awareness as well as a spiritual practice.
Together, these practices offer a map and compass, a rudder and instructions to life’s direction and pace. They suggest how to make a slight adjustment here or there, and propose how to handle the doldrums of parenting day in and day out. They teach ways to respond positively, lovingly and with respect when the wind blows you off course. Yamas and niyamas are meant to get you where you’re going (along the path of fulfilled parenthood) safely and with enjoyment.
In Sanskrit, the yamas are called ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truthfulness, honesty), asteya (to not steal, nor covet, nor be jealous), brahmacharya (abstinence, moderation,) and aparigraha (non-possessiveness). The niyamas are saucha (purity), santosha (contentment), tapas (discipline), swadhyaya (self-study), and Ishvara pranidhana (surrendering to God or the Divine in everything—you might be more comfortable thinking about this one simply as letting go or releasing). Why yoga? Let’s see?your baby is born, your partner has returned to work, your mother’s visit has ended, and you are alone with your child for the first time since giving birth. Yes, your baby is sleeping peacefully, but you are flooded with a sense of overwhelm. “What should I do first?” you question anxiously. The choices are endless—wash the clothes, clean the dishes, sweep the floor, make a meal, comb your hair, indulge in a nap. Your anxiety level is raised a notch. Now is the time for yoga. The yamas and niyamas can help you decide. Ahimsa counsels gentleness—this includes, and in fact prioritizes, you. Perhaps lie down and enjoy this moment of peace your sleeping baby offers.
Remember that savasana (passively reclining on your back upon completion of a yoga practice) is an asana. Enjoy it. If you choose to do some chores, allow saucha to guide your hands—clarity and cleanliness will help clear your mind. If time is limited and you know you cannot clean the entire house (or that idea alone overwhelms you), then simply begin with yourself. Have a shower. Well done; you just practiced yoga. Now embrace santosha, which teaches the importance of contentment. Ishvara pranidhana suggests letting go—this includes housework. Do not be troubled by what you are unable to achieve.
Is your baby one of those non-sleepers? A grumpy little colicky tyke? Perhaps your child was born with an illness or a medical condition and you are disappointed or afraid. Swadhyaya can help you understand your reactions. Practicing aparigraha can help you accept this human being exactly as is. Acceptance allows you to focus on what you can do.
Baby’s crying in the night. You’re tired, the front of your tee shirt is soaked, and the aroma of your armpits reminds you that you didn’t get your shower today (or was that yesterday?). You feel anger at the baby. You hold it tightly—you’d do just about anything to make it stop crying. Use swadhyaya to become aware of your anger and fear without condemning yourself ( ahimsa). Get someone to help you. If you’re alone, take yourself away for a few minutes. Bathe yourself in some divine understanding. Later you can practice satya by talking about it. You’ll be relieved to hear similar stories from other mothers. You’ll laugh about it eventually, and support someone else in the same boat.
Now here is a description of each yama and niyama. The accompanying poetry is intended to help your brain unlock the secrets of how these practices work. They are many-layered and multi-dimensional, and meant to help you rediscover the Divine in everything.
Ahimsa: On one level non-violence is a no-brainer— it means not squishing the baby like a bug even though the thought enters your mind. And it includes an immediate and built-in forgiveness despite the distressing thought. Life with baby is rich with tenderness and joy, but it is also rife with frustration, irritation, anger, and fear. By practicing gentleness with ourselves we can encourage the same in our children. Taking long slow breaths to calm myself, I found that my newborn responded immediately and stopped fussing. If that miracle doesn’t happen for you, then at least you are calm. Gentleness is contagious, as is its opposite. When my second child was born I observed my exuberant three-year-old approach his baby brother with tenderness and wonder. Three months later I heard that same child shout at his baby brother to stop crying and go to sleep already! It took me months to fall “in love” with my babies—for the first few weeks fear and confusion were my primary emotions. In the meantime, a deliberate practice of ahimsa ensured that I acted gently—both to myself and my children—and eventually what I practiced became reality.
His scent invites me.
Pressing my face into his head
I caress soft that defines soft.
I gaze into eyes that see the world for the first time.
Who is the first to look away?
Can I love myself as much as I love him?
I am as perfect.
Satya is practicing truthfulness of speech, thoughts, and actions. We can practice honesty by accepting our feelings, by communicating lovingly, by being assertive about our needs, by giving constructive feedback, by forgiving (others and ourselves), and by being non-judgmental. We can also practice satya when we are overwhelmed, unhappy, and confused. This is a very effective way of getting necessary help and support. The early days of motherhood are charged with complex emotions and situations. Rarely are we as challenged to remain steady. Practicing satya can help us act and speak in ways that get the results we really need.
I am unhinged,
my body, a conduit,
foreign, non-functioning, frightening.
I let go of masks
and expose some other, inner me
that loves and hates,
and hisses and sighs
in bliss and boredom,
confusion and compassion.
Am I a mother or a monster?
Accept all this,
tell someone how it is.
Be honest –
your true confessions will remind others
that beauty lurks
behind the beast.
Asteya means non-stealing, not coveting, not being jealous. Its practice includes using objects the right way, proper time management, cultivating a sense of completeness and self-sufficiency, and letting go of cravings. During the post-partum period, this means taking it easy, not pushing too hard at the start so that we can recover over the long-term. It means resisting the urge to do too much. It means being satisfied with how it is right now, despite all that is undone and imperfect. It means making a to-do list when we have a moment so that we can do what needs to be done when we have five. Asteya asks: What is most important now? My mother had six children. She was a master of staging. No chore was ever finished, but everything was in a neat stage of readiness— laundry sorted and folded into piles that we were supposed to put away. Don’t waste your time indulging a craving when it’s more beneficial to do something constructive. Though it’s tempting to collapse in a heap at the end of the day, or when the baby’s asleep, be conscious of your priorities. The time you spend readying things for the next go around will save you time over the long haul. On the other hand, if reading a chapter of Chick Lit will put a smile on your face, then go for it so that you are prepared to go forth and rally when the time comes.
Do you have a lot of time on your hands now?
Or are you busier than ever?
Can you find a balance between
doing for your family and
doing for yourself?
What do you need?
Can it wait?
Or is the time now?
Do you look around and see that
other families have it easier,
other mothers are better at this,
other babies sleep more, smile more?
Can you accept things exactly as they are?
And know that your way
is the right way
Brahmacharya, in the traditional practice of yoga, advocates celibacy. While abstinence from sex is certainly part of the immediate post-partum period, brahmacharya also advises a more general practice of moderation. This yama is not about repression but control of sensual cravings, which leads us, as the Buddhists say, to freedom from the suffering our cravings cause. During the immediate post-partum period, attachment to seemingly healthy practices such as yoga or a wheat- and dairy-free diet might actually be unhelpful if we become angry at interruption or the lack of time to practice and prepare. Notice if you’re feeling deprived and treating yourself to tastes or feeling sensations that aren’t as satisfying as a real reward. Get a massage instead of eating a litre of ice cream. Take a walk and breathe fresh air instead of drinking another coffee. On the other hand, drink a fortifying cup of tea if you’re feeling beat—a small amount of caffeine is a mild anti-depressant. Appreciate the messages your emotions bring and don’t condemn yourself. This is not a time to be excessively strict with yourself. Practice ahimsa in your brahmacharya—moderation in your moderation.
See how baby sucks -
eyes closed, focussed on one thing only.
Fists clench, body strains.
Growling and gurgling, mewling and grunting -
See how intense it is to get what you need.
See how satisfying it is to get what you want.
Allow your wants to guide you to your needs.
Love this about yourself.
Aparagraha is about non-possessiveness: not being greedy, not taking more than is needed, non-hoarding. It is about fulfilling needs rather than wants. Now that you are with child, your things will multiply—it’s a fact. Aparagraha reminds us to consider our purchases and accumulations carefully. Can we do with fewer things so that baby gets more of what it really needs at this stage—us, our bodies, our attention, our time? Aparagraha is also about becoming aware that wanting things to be different than they are causes us to struggle and to suffer. Babies are inconvenient, their demands incessant. I got locked in a struggle with my first baby over sleeping. I expected him to sleep on his own, by himself, all night. When I finally let go of my idea of how I thought it should be and moved us into a family bed we all slept soundly. “Your children are not your children,” wrote Kahlil Gibran. “They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”
Who is this person who has come to you?
Not to be shaped,
not to be bent,
not to be formed,
not to be changed -
but to be loved.
Can you recognize
that everything you mistrust and fear in your child
is a part of yourself that longs to be loved?
Saucha is purity, cleanliness. In the first days and weeks after giving birth, offer bhakti—devotion—to yourself. Love your amazing body, apply the oils and medicines and scents that nourish and heal you. Brush your teeth and savor a clean sheet. Take a bath with baby, applying welcoming love with every touch. When you can, clean your space. Sweep the floor. Do a load of laundry. These activities provide you with mild exercise and the blessing of cleanliness. If you can’t see beauty, then you need to clean— literally and metaphorically. This will help you stave off depression. But you don’t have to get everything done. I create altars of cleanliness—our family bedroom is always my first priority because I believe a clear, clean space contributes to healthy sleeping. I also maintain a few spaces out of reach of children where I arrange special rocks or pieces of beach glass, and dust frequently. Then, if I’m feeling overwhelmed by mess, I let my eyes rest on these oases of purity and I find I can breathe easier. Open a few windows, even in winter, to let clean air blow through, ridding your house and your lungs of impurities. Make sure your vacuum or broom is accessible. And when you just can’t get at anything, take a few clearing breaths to clean your mind.
What to do first when there’s so much to do?
Brush your teeth, wash your hair,
wipe behind baby’s ears.
Stretch, breathe, sweep the floor.
This is all that’s required. This is all that’s needed.
Santosa is contentment. “As a result of contentment, one gains supreme happiness.” So say the Yoga Sutras (II v. 42). After the birth of your child, you will feel bliss and overwhelming love, yes, a lovely, natural high. You will likely also experience the opposite at some point, a deep falling of unbelievable proportion. And the thing to keep in mind while zooming around on this roller coaster is that contentment—the practice of cultivating satisfaction with exactly how things are, whether good or bad—will lead to happiness. Practice contentment right from the start—when the baby cries, when your partner slams the door on the way out, when you don’t recognize the person looking back at you in the mirror—and become skilful at it so that you can be happy despite—or if you’re really serious, even because of—parenting’s challenges.
laundry basket overflowing.
No one wants to eat off the floor, but they could!
Body, soft and unwashed.
Baby, cooing, gurgling,
smiling with its whole body.
Can you too?
Tapas is known as austerity, or discipline. It is your inner fire. When your energy is low, nurture your flame. Know what you need. Be strong—make a list of the practices that support your physical, mental, and emotional health, and use five minutes here and ten minutes there to practice. At the end of the day you will benefit from these bits and pieces, and eventually there will be larger and larger chunks of time for you again. Remember that advertising jingle—when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Find the toughness of your inner warrior. Let your mind be strong. Remember this: drop by drop, the bucket is filled.
Between the dishes and the drama of your three-year-old,
between the laundry and the letdown of your milk,
between the cooking and the crying -
there is a moment to breathe,
there is a second to stretch,
there is a time to engage the bandhas.
Can you grasp that slippery space
and seriously practice?
Swadhyaya is the study of sacred texts. Another interpretation is self-education, self-study, the cultivation of self awareness. This is a helpful practice at any stage of life, but invaluable during the post-partum period and throughout our parenting careers. Who hasn’t said things we vowed we’d never say? Who hasn’t repeated unhealthy behavior patterns? You can practice swadhyaya in company, say at a breastfeeding or parenting support circle, listening and learning from the stories and examples you hear? You can turn to trusted friends, fellow parents, books, or professionals to help you learn. You can rely on—or develop—your spiritual practice diligently: meditate, pray, read, breathe, sing, laugh, be mindful in whatever you do. I like to let myself be led—I simply open the book and see where my finger lands—to a passage or line in a book that gives me an insight I need right now. Learn to parent with awareness.
While you nurse your baby
open a book and discover a teaching,
examine your heart,
experience your mind:
What is important to learn right now?
Listen. Watch. Learn.
Allow your child to teach you
all you need to know.
Ishvara pranidhana encourages us to surrender all experiences and impressions to the divine. A way to practice is to accept that every situation is perfect—as is and right now! Practice releasing frustrations and letting go of expectations. Baby’s not sleeping well? Lie down and nurse him. Baby’s crying? Hold her, nurse her, carry her—do whatever needs to be done. Read the signs and give in to what is rather than holding out for what isn’t. In the sensitive and precious first six weeks of your child’s life, letting go of previous conditioning and unhelpful behaviors provides you with energy, appreciation, and awareness. And with enhanced awareness comes superb, supreme joy, the experience of the underlying reality of bliss, the Divine that is inherent in everything. Namaste.
So much to do,
so much else to do.
What is important?
Not enough sleep,
no time for you.
Can you slip into the current and
let yourself flow?
Kathleen Wiebe writes when her two children are asleep in their 60-square-foot family bed. She practices yoga when they are awake. Certified as a yoga instructor in 2000, Kathleen teaches gentle, relaxing Hatha yoga with emphasis on stopping, stillness, and breath. “Take it easy,” she advocates. “It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do.” An author since she could print, Kathleen’s first novel, Willow Creek Summer, was published in 2000 by Coteau Books and nominated as best first novel in Alberta that year. She trained as a journalist at Ryerson Polytechnical University, and has had articles published in a variety of publications, including Calgary, Alberta’s Birthing Magazine and Costa Rica’s Tico Times. Raised a Mennonite in Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula, Kathleen is interested in spiritual pursuits and is further certifying with the South Okanagan Yoga Association (SOYA). She is currently writing a book of Practices for Parenting—A Spiritual Journey through Motherhood.
Published: September 11, 2006