May 9, 2011

What Childbirth Taught Me that Yoga Never Could.

What Childbirth Taught Me that Yoga Never Could.

A few years ago I ran into a good friend, fellow yoga teacher and yogini, who had just had a baby.  When I asked her how the birth went, her eyes bulged and she said,

“NOTHING can prepare you for it.”  “We are so NOT prepared for it in this culture…  I don’t know, maybe if I had worked in the fields my whole life.”

I took this to mean that without a lifetime of squatting and a connection to the cycles of nature that a connection to the earth offers, we (read: all modern women) are pretty much screwed. 

Another thing I understood at that moment was that I could throw out any notion I had that my yoga and meditation practice would help me in the labor process.

Something in me already inherently knew that. So when I was pregnant and everyone kept saying, “oh labor will be a breeze for you, you are so flexible and you know how to breathe.” “You’re a yoga teacher, having a baby will be so easy for you.” Or “you are such a calm and relaxed person…”,  I just politely smiled and repeated to myself, “do not believe this; don’t you dare believe this.”

Years later, my own experience of childbirth proved to me that there is indeed no preparation for childbirth. Birth does what yoga can only attempt to do-  to show us who we are in the raw, unadorned state- our complete power and vulnerability simultaneously.  Birth shows us our fragility, elicits humility and shows us that as much as we like to think so, we are not in control. As much as we plan everything, or plan nothing, we can be sure that things will not go exactly as we expected.

If you were one of the blessed ones with a quick birth and no labor pains, surely you suffered some pain breast-feeding or a few sleepless nights. No one gets out of birth or parenting unscathed and ego intact. Everyone confronts feelings of inadequacy- how can something that seems like it should be so natural be so difficult?  Everyone has moments of feeling incompetent and ill-equipped as well as moments of deep intuitive understanding. No one is exempt from the experience of painful separation and profound connection.

The law of impermanence, anitya, has never been more obvious. Just as you think your baby has established her own schedule, everything is turned on its head by a night of gas, the coffee you drank, teething, or for the more likely reason—the unknown. We want to think of this new being as a machine, wanting some clockwork regularity in eating and feeding.  Then we could plan; then we could understand or we could take a decent shower or go to the bathroom calmly for Christ’s sake. WE could figure it out.  Your mother, your doctor, your neighbor all have theories for every sound your baby makes, every red bump that appears on her skin- all in an attempt to explain away the insecurity and unknown territory. We all confront the difficulty of not-knowing and our impatience with uncertainty.

I have never felt anything so powerful (a new life entering the world) and at the same time so normal (babies are being born every second around the world). Birth shows us that we are not who we thought we were- we are so much more and so much less.  The things we used to do to make ourselves feel good- shower, put on makeup, practice yoga, make love to our partners- all require time, relaxation and some vacant mental space.  As new mothers, we have none of those. And so we encounter friends in the street looking haggard.  We do a 30 second downdog at the kitchen sink.  We write our partners notes telling them we love them, but we have no energy. And for a lot of new mothers, we realize for the first time that we need a lot more than we have to give. We have to learn to ask for help and truly receive. We have to claim our new identity of caretaker to our child and potentially relinquish or set aside our identities of wife, daughter, granddaughter, friend or professional.

Where yoga gives you bite-size chunks of difficulty and intensity to digest at your own pace, birth shoves it down your throat. The lessons of impermanence, surrender, letting go or non-attachment, which may have previously been contained to our mat come barreling at us at an alarming rate. Our body literally splits open; one heart becomes two. In one magical moment, the veil between worlds lifts. But it is not just the veil that lifts, our whole pelvis reshapes or our belly is carved open to allow the passage- our body, our home, our physical reality forever transformed.  We welcome a new life to realize that there are two things being born- a child and a mother.

The moment a child is born, the mother is also born. She never existed before. The woman existed, but the mother, never. A mother is something absolutely new. ~Rajneesh

As the mother, we experience a death as well as a birth and a rebirth. We are unprepared for all these changes. How could anyone be prepared to lose their identity, to enter into a symbiotic relationship and to grow into a new identity all at once?

In the death to our old identity, we have to let go of what it is we want and when we want it.  Our sense of asmita– of I-ness- is shaken and reformed. Now we have to put things on hold, let go of our agenda, and stop trying to get things done, because the immediacy of the basic needs of our child trumps our desire for order.

These moments of dropping it, of forgetting about the dishes and sitting down to play with the baby are the moments when the yoga happens.  True yoga, albeit unglamorous, happens in the everyday–when we stop trying to arrange and plan so that we can fit everything in and realize that true attention to our new baby is all that is required of us to experience connection. And what is yoga if not deep connection, surrender and sweet unconditional love?

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