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What Becoming a Mother Taught Me About Teaching—and Practicing—Yoga

Pranidhi Varshney confronts "the motherhood penalty" and its implications for her career and her children—and explains why she wouldn't have it any other way.

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It’s 5 am and pitch black outside. I’ve just finished nursing and rocking my 9-month-old son back to sleep. My 4-year-old daughter is asleep a few feet from us. I listen for the steadiness of her breath as I lay the baby down, relieved that both kids are resting peacefully. Quietly, I contemplate. Do I close my eyes again until one of them wakes me? Or do I try to tiptoe out of the room so that I can get a head start on my day in the hopes of making it to the shala, the little yoga school where I teach ashtanga yoga, with enough time to sneak in a practice?

This decision is one of the countless choices I have to make as a mother of two young children, and indeed, it is a privilege to have choices at all.

My take on “the motherhood penalty”

Gone are the days of rolling out my mat before dawn with singular focus. Practice is a messier affair now, and teaching is something I squeeze in between making lunches and signing the kids up for swim lessons.

This is what sociologists refer to as “the motherhood penalty.” My work is no longer the most important thing I do all day. My responsibilities extend far beyond the walls of the shala—and those other responsibilities often take precedence. If our nanny calls in sick, the baby comes with me. If he cries during class, I nurse him to sleep, placing a meditation cushion under his head as a pillow while students carry on practicing, careful so as not to wake him. When our daughter has a day off from school, she comes along with me and brings her iPad. After I get her set up in a comfy corner, she asks, “Mama, when are you going to start working?” I laugh and tell her, “This is my work.”

In this way, the shala isn’t always a place of quiet presence anymore. It’s a place where we practice how to practice yoga amid the complexities of life. As stated in the Bhagavad Gita, skill in action.

Since becoming a mother, I teach fewer hours. I’m perpetually running 5 to 10 minutes late. I leave the shala early so that I can squeeze in a grocery run before my childcare ends. Even finding the time to write this article required negotiation. The calculations are constant. I’m sure I’ve lost students along the way as a result. What I’ve gained over these last few years, though, is immeasurable and seismic.

What being a mom has taught me about…everything

Over the course of two pregnancies, births, and postpartum seasons, I’ve experienced incredible changes within my body. I’ve had no other option than to surrender. I have a visceral understanding of impermanence because my body has literally grown another body and then rebuilt itself. Twice.

I see the futility in clinging to postures that are no longer within reach and the depletion that grasping after them brings. Yet I also see the benefit in expending appropriate amounts of effort to strengthen the body, breath, and mind. Asana practice is medicine and an energy drink. Lying flat on my back for 10 minutes after practicing is the healing balm that allows me to get through the rest of the day.

My yoga practice is the time I take to drop into myself. Because I spend so much of my time attuned to other people and their needs, this time to attune with my inner life is essential. It allows me to parent from some semblance of wholeness. And in turn, motherhood has given me a fullness of life that I simply didn’t have before. When I see my children with my parents, when I realize how rich and fleeting each moment is, the numbers matter less–how many students came to class today, how many followers or likes I have, how many views, even revenue. It all matters less.

Yes, I’m paying the motherhood penalty, but this sharpening of perspective is what I’ve started calling “the motherhood gift.” Motherhood has awakened, for me, the true purpose of asana—to bring to us a felt sense of well-being. Motherhood has increased my capacity to do the work of loving and caretaking, and I bring this increased capacity to my teaching. At the shala these days, there will be times when students do not get my undivided attention. But they will feel cared for and they will learn the practice in a way that empowers them. Motherhood has shown me that growth and depth are by-products of showing up, imperfectly and consistently.

When I chose to become a mother, I had no idea how life-altering it would be. Becoming a parent divides life into a clear “before” and “after.” A few years into the after, I see that I can’t lean my way into having it all. Sacrifices will be made. Balls will get dropped. But the feeling I have when my baby sleeps on my chest is the closest I’ve come to samadhi, a connectedness and a well-being that I now understand is our birthright. It is this feeling that we can cultivate through our yoga practice. It is this feeling that I hope to share when I touch a student’s body. And it is this feeling that I hope the student can access when she lies down to rest after practicing her asana.

After getting the kids and myself ready in the morning, my daughter and I have a ritual of hugging and kissing each other goodbye, and then air hugging and air kissing each other goodbye. We sprinkle pretend sparkles on the kisses and then blow them to each other. One morning she wants one more hug and one more kiss, and then one more hug and one more kiss. We keep going until she says “Bye, Mama.” I get in my car and drive to the shala, 10 minutes late.

See also: A Gentle Yoga Practice for New Moms

About our contributor

Pranidhi Varshney is the founder of Yoga Shala West, a community-supported Ashtanga Yoga studio in West Los Angeles. She is also mother to two children who she describes as “courageous and wise little beings.” The thread that runs through all her work is the desire to build community and live from the heart.