Asteya and Parenting: Part 1 of an Occasional Series on the Yamas and Parenting

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“… 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”

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Whispering Bodies

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(“The Space between the Fox and the Hare” – Image credit Jackie Morris)

“When the body speaks

All else is hollow”

Depeche Mode

Under, behind, and through the noise of civilised life, our bodies carry on conversations with everything and everyone they encounter. Our many senses take in and filter a constant stream of data, and through this, we come to know the world and our place within it. This is a dialogue, an exchange, with our bodies giving out breath, sloughing off skin cells, that texture and scent and sound may be imbibed.

Sometimes, it’s true, bodies may shout, exalt, and exclaim. Urgent messages may need to be relayed about sickness, exhaustion, once-in-a-lifetime attraction. But mostly, bodies whisper their truths.

Flesh mutters and murmurs.

Essence insinuates, hints, trades gossip with its hinterlands, and with those outside its boundaries.

Whisper is …

From Old English hwisprian, of Germanic origin; related to Germanic wispeln, both meaning “whistle”.

To murmur, breathe, mutter, mumble, purr, speak in hushed tones, say softly, utter under the breath

To gossip, hint, intimate, insinuate; to suggest or to rumour

To rustle, sigh, moan, hiss, swish, sough, susurrate.

(from the Collins English Dictionary)

Body is …

From Old English bodig, related to Old Norse buthkr, meaning “box”.

The entire physical structure of an animal or human being: physique, build, form, figure, shape, make-up, frame, constitution, flesh and bones; the flesh, as opposed to the spirit

The trunk or torso, not including the limbs, head, or tail

A dead human or animal; corpse

The largest or main part of anything: the central part; the majority; matter, heart, material, mass, substance, bulk, essence, hub

A separate or distinct mass of water or land: expanse, area, mass, stretch, sweep, extent, tract, breadth

A number of individuals regarded as a single entity or group: company, group, society, association, institution, corporation, syndicate

A three-dimensional region with an interior (mathematics)

An object or substance that has three dimensions, a mass, and is distinguishable from surrounding objects (physics)

Substance or firmness; texture, density, solidity.

(from the Collins English Dictionary)

Riffs on “body”:

A body of water (sometimes poetically called a waterbody) is defined as a significant accumulation on a planet’s surface, and can refer to oceans, seas, lakes, ponds, areas of wetland, and sometimes puddles. Most waterbodies are naturally occurring, but some, such as harbours and reservoirs, are created through artificial construction.

A waterbody does not need to be still, or even contained and clearly delineated, to be defined as a body. Rivers, streams and canals, for instance, are in constant movement, the water flowing from one place to another, but are still considered bodies of water.

An astronomical or celestial body is, like a waterbody, a collection of matter that constitutes a unit. It can refer to a single planet, or a comet, or an asteroid, or to a grouping of objects such as an asteroid belt or a nebula. The term refers to a cohesive structure that is bound together by gravity, and sometimes by electromagnetism.

body of work does not refer to a single piece of work, but to a substantial amount of output by an artist, or author. It is distinct from an oeuvre, a word that most often refers to an artist’s lifetime of work. A body of work is comprised of multiple pieces that are cohesive in nature, and might therefore be grouped together by subject matter, colour, or media.

Professional and regulatory bodies have specific intentions and scope, such as advancing the knowledge and practice of professionals within a specific sector, or responsibility for some area of human activity in a supervisory capacity. The individuals making up these bodies are required to adhere to a clear framework, which bestows authority upon the body as a whole.

So is a body …
A discrete entity
Defined in opposition to bodies around it
Delineated and knowable, with fixed borders?

Is a body a conglomeration of cells, atoms, bacterial colonisers
A temporary coming-together of separate to create not-separate
A community, an orchestra
Conveniently boxed-in to appease the human need to know with the intellect?

How might we speak to the body, from the perspective of being in the body, and of the body?
What might those conversations sound like? And feel like?
Can this precious body, maligned as not-spirit, not-intellect, not-me, not-good-enough; ridden over roughshod just as we plunder, rape and ravage the body of the Earth, ever do more than whisper?
Can we – should we – ever expect more than mutterings, murmurs, silences; interludes and lacunae; sporadic outpourings?
Might we tease these suggestions into declarations and expressions?

Listening to the body is an art.

Though we may misconstrue its meanings, and glean its messages only partially, and though it may be a lifetime’s work to learn its language, the body does not – cannot – lie.

Ssssshhhhhh …

“Listen to your body”, Yoga Teachers Say.

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Does your body speak in a recognisable language, one that you are fluent in, or will listening to it require you to retrieve skills not used since your childhood, when you leant your mother tongue? Are silences and pauses part of your body’s language?

Do you understand what is at stake here: stepping out of old paradigms of knowing into the surging-forth of unrelenting, inconceivable interconnectedness?

Embodiment is picking up the scent of a hidden, ancient and well-trodden path, tasting the fear of making the journey alone, trusting that the path will intersect with others’.

What would your body say if it could? What fresh tenderness, what ancient ache, would call for your attention? How would it give voice to long-held suspicions – with relief, accompanied by glorious outpourings of emotion?

What inconvenience would we be presented with if we attuned our inner ears to the requests of embodiment?

i cannot thrive in town …
i need to know you exist at night, not just in the waking hours …
i am tired, so tired; i am exhausted beyond comprehension …
… actually, you know, i am not hungry just now …

In body-based methodologies, such as yoga has primarily become in the west, certain bodies are listened to in preference to others. It is a truism in every area of life to say that if you are white, male, able-bodied, heterosexual, yours is a body that shouts in relation to a black, female body. Even a scorned and societally unacceptable body – the man stinking of piss on the bus, the young woman lingering on the corner with a shifty eye and a palpable desperation as she awaits delivery of the substance her body has come to need, the toddler braced against the buggy as he screams – all of these whose physicality assaults our sense of rightness and niceness are listened to far more than the buzz of the bee as he passes by your ear on the wind, the hiss of the wind itself, the speck of life that is the ant crossing the vast plain of our foot. We sign the online petitions wanting to ban neonicotinoids; we travel to exotic countries and exclaim over the native flora and fauna, letting the novelty of the beauty there wash us clean – we care, for sure. We care about our world, and we care about our selves. Entire schooling systems have sprung to life attempting to give children the access to nature that researchers now say impedes our development as human beings; grief at the immeasurable loss and senseless destruction of Earth is now recognised by psychotherapists as a real phenomenon experienced by many.

And yet: what do we do when actually confronted with the wild voice of the other? We all have lines in the sand we’re not willing, or able, yet, to cross. My partner – OK, I’ll listen to him. The ache of my womb for a few hours a month, telling me, perhaps, that I need to rest and slow down. My best friend, calling to tell me about the dissatisfaction of her work/life balance. These, I can, nowadays, almost hear without fitting those voices into my own grand narrative. I can listen to them as they are, and let them be.

Mowing the lawn yesterday, trying to strike a balance between avoiding wholesale destruction of insect ecosystems and getting the job done, I felt my body ease into the state of awareness in which the boundaries between me/not me become porous. The world enters me, and I expand; the world receives me, and I rest in its embrace as a child with her mother. Flashes of memory came to me as I stood there on the lawn, the mingled scents of lilac and wisteria washing over my skin as palpably as a warm bath – sparrowhawk inexplicably lying dead on my doorstep, fox almost hurtling into me in her headlong flight from the hunt, glowworms lying like alien jewels on a midsummer night.

If we listened with our animal senses to the world around us, would we be lost? Or would we mirror ourselves back with sharp clarity?

I was recently part of an online conversation which initially looped and skirted, and then settled on a thorny subject that many of the participants found challenging. Positions were staked, often in relation to others’ perceived opinions; ground was gained and then lost as voices were added and then fell away; as contributors mustered command of language to express themselves with lucidity and clarity. Posts became heated and inflammatory and were TYPED IN CAPITAL LETTERS. One lone voice needled and attempted to draw out some thought-through honesty on others’ parts. The debate was over before it really began, as the admin of the group deleted the conversation when it strayed into uncharted and difficult-to-navigate territory. For some weeks now I have been bothered by the silencing of the one voice, and unable to pinpoint just why it jars so badly. This has nothing to do with politeness, decorum, or arcane online debating rules, or even what the voice was trying to articulate. It has to with the choice to open up to what is happening in every given moment: the surging of life, painful and joyous and continually breaking us open so that we might understand and participate fully in the mystery of life. It has to do with choosing relationship over the taking and hoarding of power. It has to do with choice, awareness taking precedence over conditioning.

If we habitually tune out some voices and prioritise others in the world around us, what do we hear? Nothing that will challenge our comfortable thoughtforms. Confirmation bias. We need voices to question and challenge and jolt us out of our comfortable, numb existences – particularly those of us who make a commitment to the supposedly spiritual life. We need, in fact, to make a spiritual practice of listening to something that we don’t really want to hear. Your new baby, your scorned ex. The ant colony inhabiting your lawn.

There are very compelling and complex reasons not to listen, often born of our vulnerability, our sensitivity, our need to fit in with a group and to feel ourselves accepted and part of something greater than ourselves. And I get it. Some voices are easier to hear than others. Some tell us that we’re kind, thoughtful, good people, and we want to hear that song. Some tell us we’re mean and thoughtless and will never amount to much and it’s easier to ignore them. We’re mean and thoughtless and arrogant and destructive individuals, or families, or communities, or cultures. Some particularly tricksy voices tell us neither, but murmur that nothing is black and white. Still, I contend that if we choose to silence another’s voice, then we will never be able to really hear the whisperings of the body. If, for whatever reason, we don’t open ourselves up to the uncomfortable truths the body offers us (the nagging pain of the sacroiliac joint as we try to “square the hips” in virabhadrasana I, the dull dragging of gravity on a womb emptying herself, flesh recoiling in sympathy that feels like pain as I walk past my newly-strimmed hedge), then we are similarly deafened to the uncomfortable truths of another being. The skill gained in one provides an entry point into the other. They are in fact one and the same thing: the depth to which we can allow the wild voice of the other is the depth to which we are willing to dive within ourselves. Our individual internal power structures replicate those that we impose upon our world; if we are committed to dismantling one for the good of all beings, we are called to engage with its mirror.

Gotcha: Modern Western Yoga Culture and Toxic Mimicry

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Many disparate and wide-ranging factors are combining to create a culture in which what we commonly view as “yoga” is in fact a toxic mimic. A term I am borrowing from permaculture, toxic mimicry describes the present situation more starkly and effectively than the constant bandying about of esoteric terms such as avidya or kali yuga (meaning ignorance/misconceptions/misunderstandings and the present-day era of strife, war and material focus, as described by Hindu scripture). (Incidentally, although permaculture is of course a world populated by complicated and flawed individuals with unacknowledged shadows, it is one with far more of a focus on ethics than the modern yoga one has*.)

Toxic mimicry describes a situation within an ecosystem in which an animal lures prey by taking on characteristics and/or behaviours in order to mimic the healthy food source. Applied to yoga, the teaching of poses and breathwork, chanting and devotional singing that has proliferated in the west within the last fifteen to twenty years certainly bears resemblance to practices described in ancient texts, and in some cases passed down in what is claimed as living tradition (parampara). But while modern yoga looks like something we assume to be yoga, I contend that very, very few of us in the west, even in a small way, know what yoga actually is. I include myself in this. We may certainly have inklings and flashes and partial understandings. But because our society is so profoundly disconnective – it actually requires disconnection in order to survive, and therefore has evolved multiple insidious means of separating us from ourselves, our fellow humans and non-humans – our resultant perspective of fragmentation, alienation and atomisation ensures that we are unable to say what it is to be whole. We are further entangled in the confusion by our society’s immature spirituality – who of us can say that they have a true teacher, who can light our path to wholeness because they are intimate with it themselves? And, do we even want one? Are we able to make wise, discerning  choices as regards surrender and trust?

Yoga has become a toxic mimic because although it may bear hallmarks of what we presume to be “the real thing”, it has the paradoxical effect of separating us from yoga as a path to wholeness and freedom. Yoga has taken on the characteristics required to be accepted by our culture. It values the effervescent surface over depth, privileges male voice over female, replicates uneven power structures, and positions yoga as a package to consume rather than a ceaseless, intensely personal process. Let’s make no mistake – there is nothing that is accepted or propagated by late capitalist, neoliberal, patriarchal, colonising white culture that wants you to feel whole, worthy, or connected. Happy people don’t buy Product, and are disinterested and even bored by the notion of having power over others. To be accepted by mainstream culture, yoga has had to stop being Yoga.

This is not to say that there aren’t pockets, here and there, of what may be the Real Thing. But they are rare gems, and one has to get exceedingly lucky (“ripened karma”?), or mine a terrifying lonely seam, in order to unearth them. As practitioners in our costly, purpose-made yoga trousers, at an expensive retreat on a tropical island thousands of miles from home, sipping from plastic water bottles and lying on mats made of a finite resource – no matter the quality of teachings received – we will be under the impression that what we are doing is Yoga. As teachers, posting shiny pictures of ourselves in advanced asana, or gushing that we’re “inspired” by those photos (hashtag soboredofreadingthat), clamouring to cover classes when our teacher goes away to teach that retreat (and secretly hoping that we’ll be able to do the same one day); rather than promoting or supporting yoga, we ensnare ourselves in our culture’s myths about freedom and happiness, and we add a brick of our own making into the edifice of that shameful culture. Don’t think you can beat it at its own game. It’s bigger and stronger than you, with all your oms and your many hours of practice and your acolytes … bigger, even, in the final analysis, than your moments on the mat broken and teary and lost and bewildered that feel like truthful, breakthrough practice.

Human beings have an innate need for attachment and belonging, and as little ones we evolve highly creative ways to prioritise our primary bonds. If our authenticity bumps up against the relationships with our caregivers, we are hardwired to at ignore, squash and even disown our individual truths. This pattern continues throughout a life, particularly an un-looked-at life, in which the inner work of mature individuation from groupthink (which is in fact indivisible from being able to experience that oft-used yoga translation, union) is not undertaken. I believe that we are all to some degree drawn towards a path of wholeness, but in the most common scenario, practitioners and teachers both seek out these kind of “yoga” scenes again and again in order to meet our needs of fellowship and inclusion. Perhaps one in a hundred of us will meet and study with a true teacher who can mirror us our wholeness, perfection and unique preciousness. (Maybe the number is way lower.) The rest of us, driven by the unconscious, unslakeable need to be accepted, plus a bite-sized morsel of apparent spiritual teaching, will take what’s on offer.

For me – I have no problem with admitting that I don’t know what liberation, or true happiness, or unending compassion looks like, feels like. Stretching back to childhood, I have had regular flashes of experience that I could label with these attractive-sounding buzzwords. But I’m starting to understand that an aptitude for such states has probably predisposed me to try and get this fix in my adult life any way I can. What is on offer in order to support this to full maturity is, I’m sorry to say, woeful. It’s groundwork at best. Apologies, yoga friends, but most of it isn’t even that. It is a lure. The hook can’t be yoga, because it’s a hook: they are totally at odds.

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Sure, some of these will be fun, and challenging, and supportive on some levels. But … yoga?

And thus, through attending teacher trainings and workshops and immersions and retreats, and 200-hour or even 500-hour “Yoga” Alliance-accredited trainings in this stuff, we’re ensnarled in a cycle of consumption and being deafened to our own barely-glimmering wisdom that leads us ever-further from liberation, because liberation simply cannot be bought or sold. We cannot buy insight or truth. They cannot be sold, because they belong to us to begin with, and to try to conveniently package them is therefore a heinous theft. There are the result of the steady, determined, tortuous journey of unpicking our inner, secret selves, and our worldly selves, and the relationships between them. If the worldly self plays the game of the world and thinks it can win, the inner self will suffer. This is not to say that there is no value in teacher trainings, or in having a teacher. It is not to say that what is called yoga has no value, either. But it is certainly a call to waking up to what it is we are training in, and teaching, and not misrepresenting them because we gain personally from that.

* See this list if you think the modern yoga world is peace, union, love and light.