Photo Credits: Mason Rose & Aaron Mizushima
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali suggests a central idea of “atman,” meaning the true self—the true nature of an individual. Contemporary yoga may describe it as an “inner truth,” or “the light that shines within.” However way it is expressed, the atman is clear and bright, unblemished by the experiences or circumstances of life. It is the center and the starting point, like the blank paper before the ink; the still lake before the ripple; the empty canvas. Atman is the pure essence from which our existence begins.
What complicates this idea of the true self is that life’s very meaning is to travel through constant change. As humans, we seek to immerse ourselves in experiences, challenges and relationships, all of which result in unpredictable outcomes and emotions. This activity causes vibrational disturbances upon the pristine surface of the true self, and if we are not careful, may alter our perception so much so that we may no longer recognize or identify with the atman. The Sanskrit term for this altered perception is referred to as “maya,” or the “veil of illusion.” A consistent yoga practice allows a period of self-reflection in order to access and continue a relationship with the atman.
On my journey as a yogi, pregnancy redirected me towards another path. I remember when I felt confident about the best way “to yoga,” and thought it applied to everyone. I was adamant about folding over in half, back-bending deeper, about teaching and taking classes that were more “physically challenging” and “unique.” In many ways I was the perfect, modern, western, yogic cliché—I wore the tight, bright clothes, drank the green juices, and went to as many yoga classes as I could fit in my busy schedule—sometimes two or three times a day. I was a hardcore yogi. At the time, this was the clear path towards light and happiness and press-up handstands.
My yoga rhythm changed quickly when I found out I was pregnant, and intense nausea bound me to bed all day long for almost two months. I could only keep down toast and saltine crackers. I taught every yoga class in discomfort. Even subtle changes in my figure made me feel odd in tight yoga outfits. I became so disconnected from my asana practice that I felt an immense sense of loss and frustration. Then I remembered atman and maya. Yoga should be a practice of self-reflection; a chance to unveil illusion, and connect with the true self.
So I went to the beach. I felt the sun on my skin, the wind in my hair, the clear, salt-tinged air in my lungs. I went at sunrise and at sunset. Sometimes I went in the water, and sometimes just sat in the sand. And although I wasn’t in a yoga studio, in an arm balance or a deep backbend, I was able to be present in the moment simply because of the beauty around me and within me. I began developing a new kind of trust, dependent on my self-awareness, my surroundings, and the little light twinkling inside me. When the nausea eventually subsided, I started practicing asana again. As conditions changed, I adapted. Patience and surrender took on new meaning in a new context.
Surrender was how I began to enjoy my pregnancy as I was no longer trying to uphold any unrealistic standards of (what I thought was) yogic perfection. I didn’t expect or demand anything from my body, and though on some days I challenged myself with a hot power vinyasa class or a long hike, those were rare exceptions. On most nights I stayed home, breathing long and steady through deep yin postures, balancing on pillows and blocks, and bonding with the little ball of magic brewing within. Coming to terms with some of the changes in my physical body was not easy, but overall I was in a constant state of wonderment with what the body was capable of accomplishing.
Now six months since giving birth to my son, so many things have changed—almost every aspect of my life is consumed by a new role and responsibility. It takes time after birth to heal, and I have felt and entertained the urge to dive right back into the asana practice I once knew. But I’m learning that taking the time to enjoy the experience that has been allowed to me, and giving my body proper time to heal, is all part of this amazing process. When I think of it, the distance between the identity of “new mother” and the initial “true self” seems daunting, but in actuality, they are one and the same. On the surface of my “clear lake” ripples of new life are forming, larger and larger, and only time will soften and settle them.
In the meantime, I have found ways to cast the illusion—the maya—aside. My morning practice now consists of feedings and snuggle sessions with my son, and an opportunity to pranayama (breathe), and enjoy “here and now.” I pay attention to tiny baby toes, fingernails, eye flutters, and lip quivers. I do my best to be in the moment, and try not to rush the day forward until after he finishes feeding. My son is better at pranayama than I am, so I let him teach me the rhythm of his breath. I now know that three rounds of his breath is equal to one of mine. I have a few moments of clarity this way, and certainly, I feel close to the divine. During the day when he naps, I roll out the yoga mat for a single downward facing dog, simply to breathe, feel, and be still. I feel grounded, as a short amount of time is all I need now to reconnect with my true self. A cry could erupt at any moment, so I value the time in downward dog more than I ever have before. I no longer think of poses as more advanced or less advanced. Every pose is simply a gift.
Six months postpartum, I’ve finally started to attend one weekly yoga class at a studio. Who knows when I’ll return to a two-, four- or six-days-a-week practice, but it will be soon enough. My son is growing up faster than I can comprehend, and before I know it I’ll be able to prioritize an asana practice again. The practice of yoga has not stopped, but the methods I use now are different, simply because the challenges and circumstances are different. Western culture may glorify the physical aspects of yoga. But energetic awareness can exist in even the smallest action or inaction—in both rest and recovery—if it is done with the right intention.
Naomi Iwabuchi is a yoga teacher and practitioner in Honolulu. Her continued yoga practice throughout pregnancy, her son Elijah’s birth, and the slow but critical postpartum healing experience allowed deeper understanding of the necessity of enjoying every movement, every step, one breath at a time.