Taking Rest (part two)

The First Trimester

For years I had made my practice a top priority in my life. I was fortunate to have an equally weird and independent partner who thought that my being in India for 2 months at a clip was an acceptable way to be married. I had always worked another job or two alongside of practicing and teaching, so I was used to being malleable in the details of practice – early or late, hot or cold, ideal or inconvenient, it always got done no matter what. I went to bed at 7pm and got up at 3am if I needed to, but there was nothing really all that out of my control. Yet, I knew that I would need to let go a bit if I was ever going to be able to shift gears with any amount of grace to being completely out of control of my daily schedule.

In mere months, I would be at the beck and call of a child, and knew I needed to slow down to be fully and completely present with the experience of being pregnant instead of pushing though like I generally do during time of transition. The space between here and there has always been the most uncomfortable for me, so I forge ahead in order to get from here to there as quickly as possible. I also knew that if I didn’t deal with the ever hungry energy that lived inside of me and demanded I perform feats of strength on a daily basis early on, when there was still space, then I would certainly hop back on my mat immediately after giving birth, despite the fact that real rest is required for healing to occur after such a transformation. So in service of my daughter and my future mother self, I did the thing that did not come naturally. I rested, though I still practiced daily. I learned a restorative sequence, did alternate nostril breathing, chanted The Gayatri Mantra, and sat with my feelings and my fears every morning instead of Ekam inhaling.

I cried the first three days of this “new normal”. Rivers of tears and snot and self-pity, followed by waves of self compassion and finally lightness after deciding to drop my cape and be vulnerable and scared in the face of the rebirth that was to come.

The Second and Third Trimester

After the nausea that set in around week 8 subsided and I stopped falling asleep sitting up, I resumed the asana practice at week 14. It was (and is) ever changed. Much of what I did was guided by the wisest of the many wise women I know, Sharmila Desai, both in terms of the gross and subtle aspects of the practice. The second trimester was a practice of softness and space and the sweetness of having literally no internal pressure. The third was marked by a heavier, fuller body and a slowing mind. I learned a different breathing pattern in preparation for labor. I softened my jaw and my bottom and sat, sat, sat in fewer and fewer asana. I chanted some more  and rested some more, too.

The Birth

I taught until the middle of my 38th week. (Thank you, assistant teachers. Thank you, thank you.) Then  I went on maternity leave. During those final two weeks my blood pressure began to creep and I developed pre-eclampsia, like many of the women in my family have. I was induced at 40 weeks and 3 days when my blood pressure finally crossed the line into the danger zone. My perfect birth guided by a midwife at the birth center was not to be. Still, the work I did during the preceding 9 months was there for me, and I really believe that practice of letting go and actually sitting still when all I wanted to do was push carried me through my disappointment, and through an ensuing medical mishap that resulted in some heavy bleeding and terrifying moments when I thought truly that my baby or I might die. In the end I was fortunate.  I was able to deliver vaginally and walk out of the hospital with a healthy child in my arms, but I was certainly worse for the wear. Rest, once again, was going to be imperative.

Postpartum and Beyond

I observed, to the best of my ability, the sacred window of 42 days following birth. A specific Vata pacifying diet, oil massage, belly binding and a conscious withdrawing from the outside world helped mark the transition into being a mother and honor what is called a Kayakalpa (body time). This window of time is considered to be an important opportunity to emerge stronger and healthier as a result of deep transformation and tonification. I was fortunate beyond belief to have my mother there most days onve my husband returned to work after two weeks. My wish for all new mothers is that they have the opportunity to be supported in such a profound way.

Following my six week check up, I saw a pelvic floor PT for a few sessions. They are expensive and mine was not covered by insurance, but I was beyond fortunate to be able to afford three sessions to be properly checked for Diastasis Recti, have my pelvic floor function assessed – it was hypertonic – and get a small amount of manual work done. I was then sent home with some exercises to connect to my Transverse Abdominis and breathing to release and lengthen my pelvic floor. I also did some alternate nostril breathing each day. Mostly though, I nursed and nodded in and out of consciousness as the every 2 -3 hour feeding cycle and constant diaper changing made every day seem like one long never-ending dream. I waited until 12 weeks had passed from my delivery and I slowly started to practice again.

When I finally got back on my mat I was dying to feel “like me” again, whoever that was. Part of me was eager to “get my practice back” as soon as possible. Part of me was dying to drop the baby weight as soon as I could. However, I knew that if I was really listening to my body it simply wasn’t ready. The foundation of the house was not strong and to build anything on a weak foundation would be folly. Again, the first trimester work was there to draw from. It helped me to be steadfast in what I intuitively knew to be right for me; to mind my own business, as it were. It was tempting to compare my experience to the experiences of others, but instead I tried to go inside and leave the noise of the internet behind. In the end it came down to one simple thing: just breathe, breathe, and breathe.  

A year and a half later and I am, strictly speaking in linear terms about poses, where I was before pregnancy. Although I’m honestly not sure that even matters anymore. Many, many days I do half of my practice and call it good. Right now my high energy toddler needs me to be fully present with her. When I get itchy to do more (and I do get itchy for the days of long, intense practices) I try to remind myself that everything has a season and this one is exceedingly short and precious. Practice and progress are not linear and I “knew” this before, but now I really understand.

Also, as it turns out I never did “get my body back”. I never got “the old me” back either. We, my body and me, are forever changed and for that I am unspeakably grateful.

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Taking Rest (part one)

For Sharmila, who taught me when to apply effort, when to allow for ease, and how to know the difference.

There was a relentless pull at the corners of my consciousness in the early days and of motherhood; an awesome and often overwhelming sense that I was responsible for meeting all of a tiny, vulnerable human’s basic needs. Foggy headed mornings, sitting in the semi-dark of the living room listening to the soft whirring of the breast pump (wheedum, wheedum, wheeedum) and the occasional shifting coming from the baby monitor, I could not help but wondering if it was possible to feel like “her” again, that person who confidently carried and prepared for the baby all those months, then walked into the delivery room, seemingly never to be heard from again.  In her place was a stranger, unsure and exhausted, who leaked lochia, then breast milk and tears at the slightest provocation. 

When I gave birth to my daughter it was as though a new concept of self had also been born, and the person I thought of as “me” had simultaneously died. The process of carrying my daughter had worn away the more well-formed edges of my self-identity armor. First it was the morning sickness that stretched to the early afternoon, then the early weight gain and accompanying shame, followed by an increasing feeling that I was losing agency as people suddenly started feeling free to touch me without consent, push their opinions onto me about how I was moving through my daily life, and finally began to freely comment on my suddenly enormous breasts and to offer the assessment that my face was fuller or that I was “all boobs and belly.” (I believe this last one was meant to be a compliment, but to someone who had an eating disorder in her teen years it was an uncomfortable bordering on painful.)

These challenges rubbed up against my sense of control and served as a contrasting backdrop to the insanely beautiful moments, like when I felt my daughter kick my belly and it made my skin jump. Or those quiet moments when I would practice and afterwards chanted for her, and the late afternoons when I would sit in the rocking chair in her newly created room alone and read to her or talk with her about how I was feeling and about all the beautiful things in this life I hoped to share with her.

For me, pregnancy was mainly about learning to accept the inevitable transitions. It was about finding the still moments of brief but perfect nothingness that exists in between the tugging opposites of acceptance and rejection. Part of facilitating that transition was that I did not do my usual practice during my first trimester. I sought the advice of two people whose thoughts I most valued on this particular subject and ignored the unsolicited thoughts offered by others. (This was also preparation, although I did not know it yet. As it turns out, much of parenting is learning to trust my own instincts, and those of my husband then observing the feedback my child offers and ignoring the noise of the world outside of those relationships.)

“But why?” was the most frequent response I heard to my decision, asked incredulously with a head cocked to the side; an unsolicited opinion disguised as a question. I did not answer at the time. I could not. I mostly shrugged and mumbled and occasionally cried when I thought no one was looking. (Hormones and attachment are a potent combination.) I was too mired in my own internal war to explain. Now that two years have passed, I am starting to understand my choice and why it was deeply necessary for me.

Pregnancy, like practice, is unique to each individual so I’ve been reticent to share my experience broadly. I know it isn’t universally applicable. However, I recently felt bombarded with a barrage of images of women “not letting their pregnancy get in the way” of their lives and “getting their bodies back” immediately during the postpartum period. I see images of women multitasking and “doing it all” in ways that deny the transformative nature of becoming a mother and make the messiness and discomfort of transformation something to be hidden away and airbrushed out. So I am sharing now to perhaps, in my own small way, make space for a perspective different from the “superwoman/supermom” narrative. Take it for what it’s worth. I’m sure it will speak to some people and not to others and that’s as it should be. I am simply offering a different lens through which to look.

There is so much our culture glorifies about busy and “badass” and bootstraps and other concepts that deny the frailty of having a human body and a human mind. I am writing to say that there is nothing wrong with taking rest, taking a step back, and asking for help. In fact, standing still is a specific type of tapas for the more linear, achievement oriented students among us. Superwoman is a comic book character. She is impossibly strong and flatly perfect. She is all outcomes. I am flesh and bone. I am the process, so much softer, messier and infinitely more interesting.

When I first heard of the general recommendation that a woman take rest from the asana practice in the Ashtanga tradition I thought it was utter patriarchal nonsense. Much like my initial reaction to the suggestion that women rest from the asana practice during menstruation, I pretty much dismissed the idea. (This is another subject matter for another time. But as an aside, after experimenting with that course of action for several years I noticed some not so healthy bleeding patterns occur and over the past five years I have sharply changed course, taking several days off each month, with better results.)

After much consideration and deliberation I decided not to practice during the first three months of my pregnancy for two reasons. First, it felt like the best way to take care of my body, which rapidly turned into an unfamiliar home. For me, practice is ultimately about the trance state that is experienced through tristhana. It is dropping into a different level of consciousness, which is made possible through my body’s repetition of the same movements and breathing patterns over many years. Yet it very quickly felt like I was no longer in the same body. I began to feel “loose” and weirdly uncoordinated. I was no longer stable where I had once been and the changes seemed to unfold in tiny increments almost daily, or at least weekly. This freaked me out to be honest, so I did some research and talked to my midwives (like the control freak that I am, I like to know the why of any given experience) and I was surprised to find out that the hormone relaxin begins increasing in the body after ovulation each month. If fertilization occurs it continues to increase throughout the first trimester, reaching peak levels by week 14. (This is later followed by another surge in the third trimester.) As it was explained to me by a midwife I worked with relaxin increases the water content of the collagen fiber of the connective tissue, which increases the elasticity of the ligament. If a ligament is accidentally overstretched it never goes back to its original tensegrity.

So for me, it became apparent that if I was going to really take care of myself I would need to back off, particularly on asymmetrical forward folds, until the changes I was experiencing weren’t quite so rapid fire. Similarly, I quickly realized I would have to change the way I was assisting students in order to preserve myself. (Thankfully the people who practice with me were and are wonderful and understanding and I have always been blessed with wonderful assistants.) As it turned out by week 8 or so I was so nauseated and exhausted that the question of “whether or not” to practice seemed a moot point.

The second, and perhaps more important, reason I decided to take the first trimester off was that I knew I was (am) deeply attached to my practice and it seemed like a different kind of practice was required – the practice of letting go. My sadhana is many things. It is one of the tools that I use to help manage a mood disorder. It is something I tend to find a lot of joy in doing, even on days when I don’t. It’s a tool that helps me see and deal with myself in a way that is both honest and compassionate. It is ultimately the tool I use to call “bullshit” on myself and keep myself honest. It’s also, for better or worse, something I identify with as being a part of “Meghan.” I was afraid that by allowing it to transform I would somehow lose it and lose myself in the process. Thoughts are important. The stories I tell myself have a funny way of coming true. So those three months represented an important opportunity I knew I had to engage with…

(To be continued in Part 2)