This past weekend, I attended an afternoon workshop with one of my yoga mama gurus, the deeply fabulous Jenn Wooten. It was a yin yoga workshop, a practice to which she introduced me over two years ago, and one with which I fell deeply, madly in love. In yin yoga, poses are usually done close to the ground, and held for long periods of time, the better to target and stimulate the deep connective tissue woven around the joints, and the joints themselves. It's a practice in which we play with the edge of our discomfort, lean into sensation, and, as Jenn beautifully put it, learn not to feel stuck even when we are stuck.
In short, it's a perfect primer, and support, for motherhood.
|image source :: half pigeon pose|
Let me give you an example: you move into pigeon pose (or as it's known in yin yoga, sleeping swan.) You settle in for a hold of about 3 minutes. At first you're sailing along, breathing, remaining present. And somewhere into the second minute, an irritation begins to rise, like an itch that's becoming more and more imperative to scratch, and all of a sudden, you feel this urge to bolt. Get me out of here. In this very moment lies the heart of a yin yoga practice, and all that it has to teach us: how to grow curious about the sensation, find our breath, remain present, re-commit to the moment. On the other side of this high pitch of discomfort lies a deeper sense of ease, of space, of softness. If we learn to stay and abide with the strong sensation, not push it away but lean into it, there is a whole world of peace to be gained.
Or, shall we put it another way? It's 4pm, and you've exhausted the amount of times a reasonable parent will let her toddler watch Thomas & His Friends. You are both tired of each other, and it's either too hot or too wet to go outside. You are trying to work on dinner, and your little ray of sunshine needs your help every 2 minutes to retrieve the truck he insists on driving under the couch. There is no more wine in the fridge. And now little arms are wrapping themselves around your legs, you feel tiny teeth bite down into your thigh, and grubby hands grasp at your pantleg and pull as a chorus of mama! mama! mama! pours out from your child's mouth. Do you feel it? The urge to bolt. Get me out of here. Except that, in motherhood as in yin yoga, we have committed ourselves to stay. There is nowhere to go. What to do?
Lean in. Soften. Breathe. Find the space.
The infinitely wise Karen Maezen Miller says that in order to practice at the kitchen sink, you have to practice at the cushion. If we are to have the resources and resiliency to remain present through the challenging moments of motherhood, we have to hone or practice those skills somewhere--and, for me, both the meditation cushion and the yoga mat are that training ground. And whether I am on the mat, the cushion, or at the kitchen sink, what I am working with is the same: that urge to bolt, to scratch the itch, to reject the present moment. Tibetan Buddhists have a word for it: shenpa, which means "attachment", or "being hooked" or "stuck." This hooked feeling has a familiar, ancient flavor: we've been there a million times before. Something irritates us, displeases us, doesn't line up with what we feel should be happening in the moment, and before we know it--boom, we're hooked. We're hooked, and we're being reeled into an old story about how unpleasant things are, and there's this irresistible urge to act out in a violent way: to bail, to scream, to lash out. Sound familiar?
What mindfulness practice gives us, whether it's yoga practice, yin or otherwise, or meditation practice, is not a life free from such moments of feeling hooked. (Wouldn't that be nice?) Instead, it teaches us to develop the skills to first recognize when we're being hooked, and then to allow a pause in which to breathe, find space, and soften. That pause is what allows us to remain present with the difficult sensations in the pose, and find the release on the other side. That pause is what allows us to remain present with the cranky toddler, to find enough space in which to breathe, and connect to the inner resource that will turn the moment into a tickle fight instead of a generalized tantrum.
I wouldn't have a prayer of finding that breath, that pause, at the kitchen sink, if I hadn't developed the ability to do so on the mat. When I first encountered yin yoga, I knew I had found a practice that would profoundly inform and support me when I became a mother. I leaned on the practice all throughout my journey to conception, and through my pregnancy. Since becoming a mother, it has been a constant companion, a resource and a refuge, one for which I am deeply grateful. I drift away from it from time to time, oftentimes being too tired in the evenings to even go lie down on my mat. But it was a wonderful treat to revel in over two hours of guided practice this past weekend, to go back to the source as it were, and to find fresh inspiration. I know I'll reap the benefits of it next time I'm at the kitchen sink, feeling that old familiar itch again.
For much deeper and more eloquent discussions of shenpa, please turn to two wonderful books by the incomparable Pema Chodron: Practicing Peace in Times of War, and Taking the Leap.