“The roar of joy that set the worlds in motion
Is reverberating in your body
And the space between all bodies.
From The Radiance Sutras by Lorin Roche
I am midway through my yoga teacher training when my first child is born. When he is a few weeks old, I attend the weekly training session with him, at the behest of my teacher and fellow trainees.
As usual, we sit in meditation to begin. My son sleeps peacefully next to me on the mat, swathed in the blankets I have used countless times to pleat in complicated pranayama lifts, allow slippage and therefore safety of my neck in sarvangāsana, lie under to stimulate my surrender to savāsana.
I follow the map I have used before to settle my body, breath and mind, drawing in my antennae and opening up to my inner world. I dilligently follow my teacher’s instructions to return to my breath with gentleness towards myself. And yet – my child. Is he part of me? Should I include him in my awareness, or do I accept his proximity, his shiftings in body and breath, as some kind of benign distraction, the way I do with my fellow trainees? Should I withdraw from him, or is he part of what I am supposed to open up to? Where do I end and where does he begin? What and where is the “me” and “mine” I am meant to be concentrating on?
The space between us hums, filled with he-and-i-ness, as obvious as my sitting bones pressing towards the ground, the sound of my teacher’s voice, the bright winter light filtering through my closed eyelids. I feel I am standing on the edge of something. I have no map for this territory.
Several months later. I am strung out with exhaustion from night feedings and the intensity, demands and overwhelming emotion of new parenthood. I cry if I drop a teaspoon, get on buses going the wrong direction. I do not sleep in the day, when my son does, as I am constantly exhorted to do. I am a yogi, I plan to return to teaching soon, and I need to keep my thoracic spine from closing, to soothe my squashed hips, to massage my shoulders and arms, aching from constant carrying and feeding, with yoga. I haven’t been to class since before I became a mother, and my practice is a strange, shifting mix of quiet, still and restorative, and extremely physically demanding. I don’t know in advance of actually being there on the mat which extreme will predominate; like the rest of my life, yoga seems driven by something that, if not exactly external to me, is not in my direct control, either. I don’t know if my poses are the best they’ve ever been, because the effort required is so much more than muscular, or the worst – my body feels so strange and is often beset by aches, weaknesses, misalignments. I don’t know if I am freer than I have ever been, or if I am actually now enslaved by the constant feeding, changing, carrying; the soothing, caring, and loving that pours out of me like an un-dammed river.
It’s the hottest summer for a decade. Naked for much of the day and all of the airless, too-short night, I melt and dissolve in the brutal heat and the call of my child’s flesh for mine, mine for his. The shimmering space between he and I expands, condenses; stretches, retracts as we come together for feeds, leave each other as he drops into the arms of sleep while I practice, he lying on cool sheets next to limp curtains; me sweating in the stillest of sitting poses. I am at once grateful for this embodied experience of oneness, amused by its mundanity – nappy changing can be a self/other meditation! – confused by its proximity (do people engage in lengthy retreats to understand this spiritual fundamental? Am I kidding myself that this is even what is going on here?), and, somewhere, enraged that what I know of spiritual practice has never, ever led me to believe that it’s right here, in the muck and the mire and the mess of my utterly normal life. I am buoyed by this voyage of discovery, while deeply, unendingly alone as I undertake it.
“Sleep train him“, friends, family and colleagues advise, when they see how ragged I am. “Then you’ll have time and energy for your yoga”. One sultry evening my husband and I droop with exhaustion and, after the extended feed that usually presages a few hours of deep sleep, we put the baby in his moses basket in the spare room, rather than next to our bed. He awakens almost immediately. Never having been left to feel the truth of his isolation in the world, his body as separation and loneliness – always having known his flesh as treasured, precious beyond measure, the co-generator of the mysterious connection between he and I, his snuffles quickly become gasps, then sobs, then screams, then high, bubbling wails. My husband and I sit in increasingly panicked silence on the other side of the wall. Is this normal? How does this lead to “self soothing”? How do other parents steel themselves against the agony playing out in the other room – and our own bodies?
The only way I can make sense of it is to commit what feels like a grievous violence – to ignore, even deliberately rupture, the thrumming space between my child and I. The space that comprises the physical relationship between my son and I has been filled, mainly, with coos, whispers, and giggles, soft sighs, intermittant exclamations, very occasional cries. A lovemaking of sorts. Now it vibrates with pain and need.
I am in tears within minutes. The act of going to him and bringing him back to us, and to himself, has set the tone for my parenting and my yoga practice ever since. I am following a meandering, deeply personal path to find the most precise tools that will allow me to hear and see the resonances between myself and my not-self: to investigate the communications and connections that flow, ceaselessly as the seasons and frequently as unheeded, between me and my immediate world – children, partner, the patch of wild Sussex countryside that seems to have claimed me as its own. Some days, I call the deliberate, patient tending to these relationships yoga. Some days it is parenting; others, partnering. Rarely at the moment, it is “teaching yoga”. Increasingly, my practice both on and off the mat feels like ecology.
In a fragile, uncertain and rapidly changing world, I want to have trust and faith in the invisible threads that connect us all. I view my parenting and my yoga as ways of exploring, honouring and nurturing those contact points, communications and connections. Along the way I have learnt that for me, my immediate world contains and generates all the fuel, practice opportunities, challenges and rewards that the most luxurious yoga retreat might promise. My horizons have narrowed, certainly: which means I can attend to the tiniest nuance of relationship.
I use the wonder of the relatively untraumatised flesh of my children, born at home, breastfed for years, snuggled in our bed for longer, as a kind of lodestar to draw out my disembodied, lost selves. What does untraumatised flesh, bodymind that knows itself as the centre of a spreading web of interdependence, look and behave like? How might it call to mine, and how might mine respond? If the gap between my flesh and others is as obvious as these two tales illustrate, mundane as they are, might the spaces between me and everyone else be more permeable, fluid, than I (maybe you?) previously thought? Might the call and response of flesh to flesh, both me and others, and me to myself, be trustworthy? Might this relational field in fact be the most trustworthy thing in my life? How might it deepen my understanding of myself? What memories, and new possibilities, of wholeness within myself might be called forth?