mama karma yoga

Geeta Iyengar and the mother of asanas

andrea rollefson Full length article:

I am seven months pregnant, upside down. Legs up the wall, hips on a chair, shoulders and head leaning back toward the floor. We are in the middle of a yoga intensive with Geeta Iyengar, hosted at Yasodhara Ashram. The classroom of this remote mountain ashram is filled to capacity with eighty students from across the globe. The laying down of mats each morning is a delicate geometry, reflecting the precision of the Iyengar approach to yoga.

Depending on the pose, Geeta directs those of us with limitations to use the wall, her teaching platform, or chairs as supports. Each time, quick shuffles and sharing of props ensue, creating camaraderie in the group.

I have been given instructions especially for pregnant women throughout the asana practices. It is the third day of the course and while leading the group into Shoulder Stand, Geetaji has directed me to do the asana supported on a chair. Part of me was unsure while the pose was demonstrated. The variation was new to me and looked precarious, but I pushed past the hesitation.

The baby’s weight pulls upside down. Deep in my pelvis there is a stretch entirely unfamiliar. I feel I am slipping and unsupported even as my arms grip the chair more tightly. Some of the experienced Iyengar teachers also taking the course come to support me by placing bolsters and blocks behind my hips and under my shoulders, but nothing seems to make the pose more comfortable. “It is too intense,” I manage to say.

Geeta comes to take a closer look and says the chair is too small for my height. I do a Shoulder Stand on the mat instead, glad for familiar ground. I roll up into the pose. Quickly there are people all around me, adjusting my position. I am startled and can’t think. A vertebra in my neck is taking too much weight, but I cannot find the voice to say it hurts.

Eventually I come back to the floor and the class resumes, the focus of the group elsewhere.

The last time I took a course from Geeta Iyengar was seven years ago. I was just moving into my first solo apartment and Geetaji’s teachings had a big impact on my learning about how to be independent and consciously create the life I wanted. Now, just as I enter motherhood, I have the rare opportunity to study once more with this great female figurehead in yoga.

Although Geetaji never married or had children, she respects and knows a great deal about parenthood and the life cycles of women. She wrote a whole book on why yoga is “a gem for women.”[1] Geeta was only in her late twenties when her mother Ramamani, who she describes as her Guru, passed away. I am touched by Geetaji’s abiding respect and devotion to her own amma, as expressed in the dedication of her book: “The debt to a Mother can never be repaid.”

Geetaji has become the female head of her yoga family and a huge extended family of aspirants around the world. She co-directs the Iyengar Institute in Pune, India, with her brother, Prashant, and her father, B.K.S. Iyengar. I have heard that Geeta is the caretaker at the Institute. Now in her mid-sixties, she personally carries out everything from meal cooking and teaching classes to organizing social service projects, large gatherings and devotional celebrations, all with great vigour and attention.

I traveled across Canada to Yasodhara Ashram to study with Geetaji as a pre-baby pilgrimage. I knew it was a unique chance to learn from a woman who has practised yoga since childhood. I was also glad for some time to reflect and practise in a spiritual centre where images of goddesses are everywhere. The ashram was founded by a woman, Swami Radha, a contemporary of B.K.S. Iyengar who many years ago invited Geeta to visit her centre. Although Swami Radha is no longer alive, it feels as though these two adept and strong yoginis are finally keeping a long-awaited date.

I sensed that this unique experience could help me sort out questions that have increased with the size of my belly: What do I do with a tiny baby? How can I know what is right for me and my child? When the child grows into a will of his own, how would I deal with conflict? Who will I be as a mother?

I have been feeling a bit like Arjuna stuck in the middle of the battlefield. Krishna counsels him on how to act from wisdom and perspective. This is what I want, to learn the secret of karma yoga: how to take right action as a parent, how to access the just and clear authority that good mothers embody.

Between morning asanas and afternoon pranayama class with Geetaji, I am taking time each day to do a personal practice, repeating the name of Divine Mother. Female images of the universal presence have always resonated with me, providing comfort and inspiration. But now that I am expecting a baby, ironically, the concept feels mysterious. What is a divine mother, anyway?

Today, I centre a statue of the goddess Uma on the altar before starting to sing the mantra. She is beautifully curvy, sitting full of ease, with a natural and all-knowing smile on her young face. Two fingers meet in a delicate mudra, full of intention. Who are you? I command, chanting her name. What are you trying to teach me? She remains the picture of equanimity. I invite her gentleness into my cells, but the irritation in my neck from the morning’s Shoulder Stand remains.

I used to think of Divine Mother as the embodiment of perfection. That is what I see in Uma today, but it is not an image I can live up to. Could there be a bridge between her divine mother-ness and my human uncertainty?

Geetaji generously offers to speak with me about what I experienced in the Shoulder Stand. I enter her quiet room after dinner and explain that I was startled by the sensations of doing the pose on a chair and by being adjusted so physically by other people.

“Why didn’t you tell me it was painful?” Geeta asks. “Pain in the neck is very common, I would have helped you. This holding you are doing, this holding back, it is not good.”

She shares stories of some of the many women in Pune who were helped by yoga through difficult pregnancies. The images of smooth labours and healthy babies are inspiring. I know Geeta’s approach to Hatha Yoga is based on keen insight into women’s bodies. For my body and this point in my pregnancy, though, I needed more preparation in order to attempt new positions.

“Let me show you something to ease your neck,” Geeta says. She asks me to lie down on my back and shows me how to roll a towel, placing it between my shoulders and head. My neck feels light and perfectly supported. I am surprised and pleased to learn this simple way to care for myself. I express my gratitude for what I have been learning in the course and leave, reflecting on Geetaji’s question.    

Why didn’t I say what I was experiencing, while I was in the poses? It is true that I have a pattern of holding back. I was trying to be a “good student,” keeping quiet and doing what I was told. My inner knowing said I was going past a limit that was not right for me, but I accorded more power to the authority of others. Even more, I gave power to the worry that if I raised my voice, I would be criticized.

In Yoga: A Gem for Women, Geeta describes the benefits of the Shoulder Stand: “Sarvangasana develops the feminine qualities of patience and emotional stability. As a mother struggles throughout her life for the happiness of her children, the ‘mother of asanas’ strives for peace and health of the body.”

The pose has been a favourite of mine since I was a girl. All my life, I have taken refuge in the asana because it brings me the effects Geeta mentions, a sense of repose and balance all over. In class, I had the opposite experience. The unfamiliar variation and worries about expressing my discomfort filled up the peaceful space that the Shoulder Stand usually holds open.

Becoming a mother is shouldering a great responsibility. Maybe that is why this role brings with it innumerable “shoulds” — the criticisms and directions about what is right action. My baby isn’t even born, yet I am flooded with internal pressures and the opinions of others about how to be a good mother.

In my next mantra practice, I ask Divine Mother to illumine what the mother of the asanas is trying to teach me. Who are you? I demand again. Who will I be as a mother? As the practice progresses and my thoughts relax, I realize Divine Mother has many many faces — Mary the soft mother, Durga the warrior woman, Kali the destructress and, my favourite, Sarasvati the river of creativity.

I remember a teaching that says the divine feminine is all creation, no part left out. She is our mind, she is our challenges, she is our healing and our confusion. If Divine Mother has all this in her, maybe my own experience of motherhood will also encompass these paradoxes. I realize that joy and assuredness, hesitation and anxiety, have already been part of my experience in pregnancy. It will be the same when my baby is outside of my belly. I will make mistakes and I will gain clarity.

In class, I am aware of how Geetaji also embodies many different approaches as she teaches. During asana practice, her instructions are often a torrent of detailed anatomical adjustments: “Calf muscles to the inside leg — tailbone descending — armpit-chest forward — dorsal spine in — sternum lifting — shoulder blades down…” The constant directions sometimes confuse me, so that I become unsure of what my body parts are doing.

Geeta must be used to this response in students. From day one, she has encouraged us to go past our limitations, comparing this muddled state to that of Arjuna’s in the Bhagavad Gita. “You do the asana and you don’t know whether it is right or wrong. Like Arjuna, people say, ‘Oh no, I can’t manage that, this will be too difficult for me.’ Do not remain stuck. How do you know you can’t manage?”

During pranayama practice a few hours later, Geetaji’s approach is nearly opposite. Rather than taking the lead, she gently helps us turn authority over to the natural flow of the breath: “Don’t listen to Geeta’s instructions — listen to yourself! Increase the length of the breath when your breath wants to. Be patient. Follow your breath. Wait for that sensation.” I am soothed by the calm rhythm, and I can tell the baby is too.

In yoga, authority and wisdom are found both within ourselves and outside. There is value in taking in the knowledge of others, especially an experienced teacher. Listening to Geeta’s instructions helps me get past some body habits, such as a subtle sinking of my chest. I find I am standing straighter, in class and outside, increasing the lift of my breastbone while supported by the mid-back. This open-chested, receptive stance reflects the inner strength I seek entering motherhood. The strength will be built on discernment — being aware of the inner and outer voices that affect my thoughts and choices.

Geetaji’s talk on karma yoga during the course reinforces for me the importance of reflecting on my motivations: “You have to think twice about doing any karma [action]. What is your idea behind it? Is it serving this purpose, this purpose that you think? The intention should be pure.”

In the Shoulder Stand, why did I retreat into silence? What is behind my worries about how I will be as a mother? Who benefits from that stuck and hesitating feeling of “I don’t know”?

The “good girl” in me often acts, or avoids taking action, in order to do what she thinks is expected. She wants to please others and avoid mistakes or judgment, but that usually means denying an inner wisdom. Becoming a mother, I may have to give this good girl a time out…

I make one more retreat to the prayer room to be alone with Divine Mother before leaving the ashram and returning to the big city. The wooden door swings gently behind me. The air in the room feels warm and soft like a perfect hug.

I do not need to sing her name today.

I see an image of the last five days as a whirlwind of influences telling me what is right action: Geeta’s encouragement to reach past limitations. The effort of students in the course, all eager to learn no matter their experience level. The often conflicting opinions of others about pregnancy and parenting. My anxiety over speaking up. The negative reaction of my own internal “critical mother.” And through it all, an abiding desire to understand and access my power as I embrace motherhood.

What is my service to my child? Like all acts of karma yoga, parenting well seems to be about making my best effort and the sincerity of my motivation. I aspire to be real with my child, and to speak and act from experience. More and more I will, I hope, increase awareness of the voices that influence my actions. When I am confused about the right thing to do, I can reflect on what purpose the confusion serves, or where the inner conflict comes from. When I feel upset with my child, I can find out what is underneath — surely not always in the moment, but when possible.

I don’t think there will be an end to the questioning I have about how to trust my inner authority, nor to the alternating waves of knowing and not knowing. I sense Divine Mother can deal with these waves, especially Sarasvati, my favourite goddess, who is a river herself. I am wavering but ever evolving.

two-week wish

(a poem, 12 days before baby is due)               

soon your gurgles and cries will be added
to the voices that call me to act

that call me to eat, that call me to speak

that move my hands and legs
and stir my emotions.

now in my last month, making a place
for you
in our home and my life,
i learn how daily choices
use my precious energy.
i have less energy to walk and clean

more energy for listening.
i hear clues and feel a gentler rhythm.
in serving myself i am serving you.

Juniper Glass: I am a writer, new mom and committed karma yogi working for social justice, especially opportunities for girls. My “li’l kicker” came into the world a week early (while I was still writing this piece!). His name is Joah Gustave Arjuna and he has already precipitated the greatest challenges and joy of my life. I enjoy feedback on my articles:

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