“Good girl”. I hear Harmony Slater praising another yogi’s efforts in a difficult posture from across the room. Yes, I know, I’m supposed to focus on my own practice, but I chuckle to myself when I hear her say it. From others, it might sound condescending. But there’s something about the positive energy in the room, our teacher’s simultaneous desire for us to push ourselves and also be where we’re at, and the encouraging tone of her voice that from her, it just doesn’t. And maybe it’s because it’s also the voice of a parent; I’m certain that like every other mum out there, Harmony has both challenged and praised her own son so many times that to me, it doesn’t feel unnatural for her to help us along in the same way. She is a nurturing teacher, but one who gives her students space to push ourselves as well.
Last month, I did a two day workshop with Harmony, mother to seven year old Jediah and one of three “certified” Ashtanga teachers in Canada. It was the longest I’d been away from Juniper, then just 4 months old, even though Eric brought her to me in between sessions to nurse.
Over the course of the weekend, Harmony used the phrase “fighting gravity” a few times; yoga can be seen as the process of overcoming the heavy, dull aspects of our lives and lifting ourselves to a place of clarity and conscious living. I believe that this is also the work of motherhood: to “fight gravity”. We are bogged down by expectations, tasks, our kids’ behaviours, and fatigue, but we also have to lift ourselves to a place where we are the calm our children need, where we are attentive to our own lives, and where we still provide all the material things our families require to be safe and healthy. And sometimes, I do feel like I’m fighting gravity. There is no way to “get it all done”, to “be everything”. And I need to learn to be OK with that. Gravity inevitably still wins at times, but it is still important that we try.
Harmony insightfully points out that in yoga, our “mats become little microcosms of who [we] are- they are mini-situations of stress, triumph, and pain”; this is both the beauty and vulnerability of a yoga practice. At some point in the weekend, while in headstand, I actually start to cry. I’m not as strong as I used to be- I can’t hold myself up as I used to and there’s too much pressure where there shouldn’t be any. I descend and deflate into child’s pose. The tears continued to come, silently, conscious that I didn’t want to take anyone out of their practice; the expectations I had for myself were unrealistic. Harmony’s words rang true; “how we respond and react [on our mats] is the same as everywhere else.” I pushed it- I tried to be everything I was before having 2 children, and I ended up deflated. So I tried something; I said no. No more headstands until I regain my strength.
Child’s pose allowed me the rest I needed, and I’m trying to take this time for myself in my days as well. It seems fitting that this posture of rest is important to Harmony as well, as you’ll read in our exchange below, as she gracefully obliged in answering some questions despite her busy life. I hope you’ll appreciate her wisdom, grace, and insight as I have.
Mat Leave: What did you eat for breakfast today? (Seriously! People love to read about food!)
Harmony Slater: This morning I had eggs and cheese on toast with butter and coffee.
I’ve been pretty much strictly lacto-ovo vegetarian for over twenty years. Before I became pregnant with my son, I was a practicing vegan, but around the end of my first trimester I really started craving dairy and eggs, so I started eating them again and haven’t really felt the need to stop.
ML: If you could choose one yoga pose that represents motherhood to you, what would it be? Tell me a bit about why.
HS: I would choose Child’s Pose. I think this is one of the most nurturing and comforting postures. After giving birth and becoming a mother I really felt the need to nurture myself a lot more then ever before. So much energy was directed towards caring for my son and the needs of my students and all those around me, I noticed a huge necessity to also do the same for myself.
To take the pressure off, be kind, compassionate, and gentle with whatever I found myself experiencing on any given day. I practiced a lot of child’s pose.
ML: When you first became a mom, how did the nature of the role sit with you? What aspects came more easily to you, and which were more challenging?
HS: I remember giving birth and becoming a mother was like being reborn as a complete different person. I found the transition in my life to be very challenging. I was still working pretty much full-time running our new yoga studio, teaching classes, and all of a sudden I had the extra job of figuring out how to breastfeed, be a mother, and carry on with very little sleep. It was not an easy period of my life. I felt I had very little personal time, almost no time to practice, and that was extremely disorienting to my sense of balance. I struggled a lot with feelings of depression during the first couple years, and it started to shift in a more positive direction once I was able to dedicate some focused time on my Ashtanga practice again.
The easiest part was loving and cuddling this sweet new baby. My attachment to my son was immediate and I was extremely protective of his well-being and care.
The most challenging aspect was trying to figure out how to once again make room for myself in this new life that I felt had been thrust upon me rather suddenly.
ML: What advice do you have for mums really looking to balance their passions and/ or careers, and their family?
HS: Children grown up so fast. If you don’t stop to take the time to stop and appreciate what a miracle they are and to just be with them, you will miss some very special moments.
The days are long, but the years are short, and you don’t get the opportunity to be present for something after the moment has passed. Sometimes there is only one chance to get it right – to cuddle, to listen, to watch, to learn, to be attentive to what is going on for this little person. So, in my mind, children and family come first.
Finding the balance can be difficult, especially during the first few years.
Find some friends, family, a community who can support you.
Ask for help.
Take the help when it’s offered.
It is impossible to do everything, so prioritize, and realize that doing a little bit less will often yield the same results you are looking for.
ML: Any words of wisdom for mums who are also yogis/ Ashtangis specifically?
HS: Your practice will always be there, but children are not children forever. The practice needs to serve you. You cannot sacrifice yourself on the altar of sadhana. Use your yoga practice to give you more energy, more balance, more peace within yourself, and don’t feel guilty over not doing as much as you set out to do.
Make your goals realistic and celebrate the small victories. Take the pressure off to get your body back as quick as you can, or your practice back, or really even your life back… It’s mostly all gone… the center of your Universe has shifted. Accept this transformation.
Start fresh from wherever you are. Everything is a new experience, and each day is a new day that will bring new opportunities and discoveries. There is no back – there is only forwards.
ML: Out of all the lineages of yoga, why did you choose Ashtanga? What speaks to you about it?
HS: Tradition and authenticity. I like things that have been tested with visible results. I don’t like to waste my time or energy on things that are not going to work. This practice has a history, a lineage.
Almost every senior teacher I’ve met, including Guruji and Sharath, have all expressed receiving immense benefits from this practice – their lives are better, they have experienced a sense of deep transformation of Self.
Initially, I was very attracted to the emphasis on the marriage between the breath and the movement, along with the specific points of focus in each asana. It felt like a moving form of meditation, and I could feel how it was changing and affecting my physical and mental self immediately. Once I had tasted the effects of the Ashtanga Yoga Method, and experienced these benefits for myself, I never looked back. It was powerful and transformative.
ML: How has your practice evolved since having children?
HS: My practice has gone through many different phases and transitions and continues to change still. It is not always getting better. Often it feels like the asana practice has gotten a lot worse, and then there is a seemingly unending period of rebuilding it again. The highs are amazing, but short lived. Mostly my practice is on a plateau and often times a downward spiral. But that is just the physical side of it.
The real practice is keeping the mind steady, calm, and equanimous despite what is going on physically.
After giving birth, I noticed that even though my asana practice wasn’t at all like it used to be before – everything felt so heavy and thick – (an extra twenty pounds will do that to you) – I felt a much deeper connection to the breath and focus within myself.
So in this way, even though the physical practice was often a challenge, I found that I could go very deep into a very centered and intensely concentrated space mentally, and consequently, I felt I was getting much more out of doing much less because my awareness was so acutely present in the moment.
Ultimately this helped my physical practice to grow stronger, steadier and more focused over the course of five or six years.
Eventually, I grew to learn and practice much more advanced physical asana-s after giving birth then I was before becoming pregnant.
I felt so much stronger and more flexible than ever before. However, this was a long, long, journey, and it continues to change and shift. Nothing is permanent.
This was an important experiential lesson I learned throughout this process of pregnancy, and recovery – don’t become attached to the physical asana. It comes and goes… the most important aspect of the practice is how it is effecting your mind. Is your practice helping to create more balance and stability within your mental, and emotional being?
ML: In what ways do you bring the various limbs of yoga into your home?
The foundation of the practice and of life are the first two limbs: Yamas and Niyamas. This becomes especially salient when you are trying to teach your children values, and support them in learning the lessons they need to assimilate in order to help them become successful, good, compassionate human-beings as they grow up.
Creating a space for you to practice, be silent, listen to your breath, listen to God, listen to the Spirit… Inspiration, Expiration… the vibration of being alive, is essential if you are going to be the best version of yourself on a daily basis. This doesn’t necessarily mean more time on your yoga mat. It can happen in the car at a stop light, it can happen in the park watching your child play, it can happen reading a book at night, singing a song, saying a prayer – all day long we have the opportunity to channel and direct our minds towards the deeper experience of Yoga, to focus on the breath, to be present to the Divinity within ourselves and all others.
Guruji would say, “Yoga Practice All Day Long” – and this, in my mind, is what he was pointing towards. Learning to connect in a moment to the Oneness of the Life Force within that holds and connects all things together.
ML: How do you think your son would describe you if I asked him?
I’m not too sure. It would most likely depend on what kind of mood he was in! He’d probably say I work too much.
ML: Anything else you’d like to share with my readers that we didn’t touch on here?
Making time for yourself in your own life is a very important practice.One thing that helped me out a lot is to realize that we can only do our best, and as long as we are trying to show up and be our best every day, we are doing all that we can. Even fifteen minutes of sincere and focused practice can go a long way to creating greater mental stability and inner balance through a hectic day.
Mothers have the hardest job in the world, and the pressure rarely, if ever, lets up. Our children are always on our minds, and the work is never done!
It is important to create the space and time for yourself, so that you can show up as a whole and complete person for all the people who depend on you, and you can feel like you’ve given a little something to yourself also. This is where having a regular practice of yoga really helps!