“… Let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.”
Khalil Gibran, The Prophet
Children don’t require 100% of our attention all the time. Even the tiniest, neediest, most vulnerable baby sometimes sleeps, is happy in someone else’s arms, or content in their own company for a few moments. In these times, we can step into the wisdom of asteya. Traditionally translated from the Sanskrit as “non stealing”, I was originally taught to explore it as “not taking what is not freely given”. As a non-traditional slant, this might be problematic; however, as an embodied enquiry, it enriched and deepened my asana and pranayama practice. Like some of the other yamas (ethical observances), it has also given me a framework within which to explore the nature and purpose of parenting, and the relationships between myself and my children. I offer this short piece as a riff on traditional takes on asteya, that it may give you similar opportunity.
We can move bodily, with gratitude and breath, into the times when we are not needed by our children. Sometimes, they are really just moments. I have had many, many practice sessions when I had just started to settle into a juicy supported back arc, feeling my body sink gratefully into the ground and the blocks, and my tired, strained upper back and chest open and breathe more fully ….only to be called by my sleeping child who was stirring fitfully, or rousing into light sleep, or bawling at the indignity of finding himself awake but still tired and/or grumpy. And of course, in the rest of my life, there have been near-constant interruptions of whatever I have been occupied with (including sleep), when I have felt an almost gravitational pull of my attention towards my child and his seemingly unending needs.
When moments of space open up, we can be attentive to them, and give ourselves some of the nurturing that we have become so adept at giving to our children.
My sense is that many of us find this very difficult. This might be in part due to the models of female behaviour that we have been handed. It might stem from the economic conditions that most of us are required to parent under, which may lead to thought trains such as the following – “baby’s asleep – thank god – I’m exhausted – but so’s my partner, and (s)he’s at work – at least we can still pay the mortgage even though I’m not working – I’d better just do the hoovering”. And I think it also stems from the chronic tuning-out of the body that we’re all subject too. So even though the baby might be sleeping peacefully (and perhaps your baby is even – I’ve heard they do exist! – a RELIABLE sleeper, and so you can pretty much guarantee (s)he’ll be asleep for an hour or so), we’re still completely on duty. Our parenting antennae are still feeling around, being drawn in by our baby’s every snort and snuffle, ready to minister to him or her as soon as we think we’re needed. We are in a state of high alert that becomes the new normal. Tending to ourselves becomes an unimaginable luxury – either we cannot allow ourselves to relax into the time that is not dictated by a child’s needs, or we cannot gift ourselves with it in the first place.
I hope it’s obvious that I’m not advocating tuning out the needs of a child here. As a staunch advocate of what has come to be known as attachment parenting, I have been breastfeeding continually for almost 14 years, sharing my and my partner’s bed with a small one for most of that time, and, I’m somewhat less proud to say, spending a lot of time feeling that I’m mouldering away at home while the real business of the world goes on elsewhere. (A mindset that I examine carefully, as I suspect it says more about the what modern culture values than it does about me, or my values.) I do not pretend to have got the balance between my needs and those of my children right for much more than a few days at a time. Asteya helps me to understand that the balance is a process, and is a foundation of any intimate relationship.
I use asteya to understand how we can live our lives wholeheartedly and joyfully while still giving ourselves fully to our children. When our child is asleep, or contentedly engaged, we can relax into that moment. We can unroll that dusty yoga mat and lie in a restorative pose. We can breathe deeply, giving light attention to the outbreath, allowing it to leave fully and to clear the way for an aware, prana-giving inbreath. We can allow our attention to rest in our buttocks as they settle into the seat of the car, feel our pelvis, thighs and spine adapting to the bumps and jolts as the vehicle moves. We can feel our baby as he or she breathes against us, snuggled in a comfy sling. We can taste our cup of tea, feel the wind on our cheeks, hear traffic on the road … we can move into this space that has unexpectedly opened up for us, and fully inhabit it. We can rest with deep engagement and interest in the richness and vibrancy of this moment. We can feel something within us stir and expand, as naturally as leaves unfurl, time and again, from the bud, whether the winter has been long and hard or relatively easy. We can look upon that, and the knowledge of its poignancy – of how much we need and deserve this time and space to ourselves – as a gift of parenthood.
And so parenthood can be a seed of passionately engaged living (and spiritual practice, if we’re so inclined). The ability to go deep within our own experience, even if for a few breaths, nourishes our innate but perhaps dormant capabilities to give to others. And the care, attention, love, and clear-eyed seeing that relationship with a small being develops can be applied to our precious selves.
The dance of intimacy, in which we immerse ourselves in the reality of another, and the inevitable disentangling from that otherness, can teach us much about how to live healthfully, with boundaries and openness mutually reinforcing each other. And it can teach us too about the extraordinarily supple nature of consciousness. As parents, we can shift in the blink of an eye from awareness that is almost oceanic in scope, so that our child can bodily feel our loving attention even while he is a different room, to minute and delighted concentration upon the exact shape, colour, texture of a mug we turn over in our hands as we wash it up for perhaps the thousandth time. As he leaves toddlerhood, my son can splash in the bath by himself, delighted in his discovery of the silvery path of water across his skin as he pours it from old shampoo bottles, wrapped and cocooned in my care even as my attention is given to this piece of writing.
These thoroughly commonplace experiences are described in a surprising way in yogic literature – translated as “attainments” or “perfections”, the siddhis are the famous yogic superpowers and magical abilities. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, for instance, a yogi is described as one who can “shrink the body to the size of the atom … [and] become very large” (pada 3 45, transl Alistair Shearer), which oddly fits the description of elasticity of consciousness that a mother can experience, many times a day, in relationship to her child. Of course, it is highly unlikely that Patanjali had the daily miracle of childrearing in mind when he complied the sutras. By the time hatha yoga practices were being codified in such a way, lineages of female practitioners had largely died out, been subsumed into dominant (male) narratives of spirituality, or allied with other areas of practice altogether such as Buddhism and tantra. And women’s work has been undervalued within dominant culture, including spirituality and religious practice.
The Yoga Sutras are pored over by modern practitioners and form a cornerstone of most, if not all teacher trainings, but these parts of the text tend to be ignored in favour of more prosaic and easily applicable diktats such as “perfection in an asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless” (pada 2 47). As Uma Dinsmore Tuli says in Yoni Shakti (read it!), “it is as if they are the ‘forgotten sutras’ that contain all the weird and embarrassing stuff none of the popular promoters of yoga ever talk about” (pg 112). Personally, after a decade and a half of studying various translations of the text, I am suspicious of Patanjali’s text’s world-denying and renunciate implications, and I tend to find inspiration elsewhere. But it is useful here to illustrate the possibilities contained within the life of a mother. Perhaps the mundane work of childrearing is a most magnificent opportunity for self-knowledge. Perhaps we can learn much as about the nature of embodied practice through motherhood – for even after a pregnancy ends, motherhood is most definitely a discipline of the body, as any exhausted mother will tell you – as at any luxurious tropical retreat. And perhaps also there is an invitation, in noticing the sneaky, sidelong advances the call to waking up makes upon us, to expand our understanding of what a modern spiritual practice might be, and to place centre stage the skills and wisdom of women who are right under our noses, whose daily experiences refuse, disrupt and defy neat, convenient categorisations of “practice” and “life”.
What can I tell you about all this?
After all we are ordinary, and surely
you’ve seen us, in the park, by
the lake – daily, we watch the swans,
yearlings, come in their dozens,
pale-beaked, identical, throw
them our bread again and again.
I have nothing to say and will say
anyway: we are commonplace,
he and I, we are borderless, glorious,
we are mother and child coming
home together, and we walk
on fields as green as any field …
Kate Clanchy, “Commonplace”