WLHQ: 3 Reasons My 3-week old Baby is the Best Yoga Teacher I’ve Ever Had
No, he’s not correcting my errant hip alignment in trikonasana. Nor is he imploring me to take the plunge on a daring handstand sans wall. But now that my firstborn son has amassed more days on earth than the total tally of his fingers and toes, this tiny teacher is underscoring how three lessons that I thought I had already “learned” from my yoga practice were really only ever “learned” superficially. Using his silver-blue eyes, a precious pout, and a set of incredibly hearty lungs, he is truly schooling me: forcing me to step whole-heartedly into these unknowns and experience them in a whole new, vulnerable, clumsy and glorious way.
THE “NOT KNOWING” IS NOT ONLY OKAY, IT'S MANDATORY
When most people talk about “beginner’s mind”, for the most part they are suggesting the somewhat romantic image of a wide-eyed student, unencumbered by previous expectations and unfettered by rules. We talk about inhabiting this mindset when we come to our yoga mat, so that we might experience things we’ve done before in a novel way. I have previously loved experimenting with this mindset, trying to hear a much-repeated song as though for the first time, or approaching a friend as I did the first time I encountered them. But these were, indeed, just exercises, useful or enjoyable as they may have been. As any new parent will tell you, there’s perhaps no experience in your adult life that will humbly bring you to your knees more quickly than the arrival of your first child.
I’ve never felt the raw exposure and possibility inherent in being a total beginner so viscerally as I did the night I brought my baby home from the hospital, all of 24 hours “old”, whereupon at the age of 36 hours “old” he unrelentingly showed my husband and I how shockingly little we knew about the roles in which we’d just been cast. As we stood, face to face in the cold light of our kitchen with a sobbing (okay, screaming) babe between us, we might as well have had cartoon captions over our heads with large vapid question marks in them. Yet, exhausted as I was, and depleted of most common sense, I was still able to recognize that at that moment we were on the very threshold of a whole new knowing, and was able to utter the humbling realization to my husband, “Don’t worry ~ It will never be as hard or as daunting as it is right NOW”.
Not that it hasn’t been hard since. It has. But when I uttered those words, the NOW suddenly felt so specific ~ that gaping unknown surrounding us was a “you are here” moment whereupon I could step into the unknown with surety, knowing there was no other choice. Even though I wanted so badly to “know” what was wrong with our poor crying child and “how” to fix it, it was now time to embody the truism of the thousand-mile journey beginning with a single step. The shock and anxiety of being a highly competent and yet suddenly-totally-clueless person was assuaged by the very visceral knowledge that it would become more familiar with each step. That mistakes would be undoubtedly made, and then learned from. That each cry or burble or hilarious gassy face that our child shared with us from that point onward would give us some small inkling as to how to respond.
Suddenly, equipped with an assurance that the roadmap would only unfold before us with each fleeting experience, it really did feel “okay” to step so brazenly into the shockingly vulnerable place of the huge unknown, trusting that our tiny little sleepless sherpa would give us the clues we would need to embark on this journey with him. It recalls Rilke’s instructions to the young poet, and (once the top-decibel crying has subsided, I grant you) never has it been easier to “love the questions” as easily as when that question is a version of your own genetic code peering back at you.
YOU CAN ONLY LIVE IN THE PRESENT
We strive in our yoga or meditation practice to be in the now. Do you notice that I used the word “strive”? That’s because I’ve felt that it has always been a conscious effort to really dwell perfectly in the present. Sure, I’ve read and re-read “the Miracle of Mindfulness” and I actually have come to love doing the dishes because of the very precise meditation Thich Nhat Hanh suggests in that book. But too often, my attempt to live in the present moment requires a mental effort that suggests that this concept hasn’t become second nature to me.
Well, baby now makes it possible to live in the present across all activities, not just those on my yoga mat, my meditation cushion, or at the kitchen sink. We are truly on ‘baby time’ during these first few weeks, where any plan can (and will) be thrown out the window as the baby makes known his needs. Walk to the pediatrician? Sure. But not before baby tells you that it’s lunchtime (again). Bedtime? Nice try, baby actually is wide awake and would rather beat up on the hanging banana slug in the bassinet.
The difficulty in this lesson for me lies less in the being flexible during the daytime hours, but in the dark, seemingly endless nighttime hours, when, already running on fumes, I can sometimes hit a wall that ACTUALLY FEELS like hitting a wall. A very, very, very concrete wall.
I try to prepare for this moment by using daytime feedings as makeshift (and drastically-simplified) meditation sessions for myself. To calm my mind, as baby feeds, I just breathe in the white light of PATIENCE. And I breathe out everything else. My reasoning is that patience will feed love. Patience will feed the ability to listen. Patience will feed my ability to support. But if I don’t have patience, nothing is possible.
This simplified meditation has worked for me ~ I know that my well of patience has increased significantly since I started consciously inhaling it. But I will confess that there are moments where this well hasn’t been deep enough. And in those moments, I turn with full exposed vulnerability and have to ASK FOR HELP. (Just ask my husband, although he might say it sounds like a desperate cry for help rather than a polite plea for assistance.) Which leads me to the third lesson…
YOU CANNOT TAKE CARE OF ANYONE UNLESS YOU TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF FIRST
Now, I’m writing those words knowing that I probably couldn’t string together a combination of words that pose a bigger challenge to myself. I am absolutely the WORST at this skill than perhaps any other survival skill you could think of. I’m so bad at it, that I might not have even mentioned it in this piece had my husband not made it abundantly clear that this was the one crucial area I still had to work on. He even offered to write this part for me himself, which would have made for a rather hilarious and public rebuke of my Canadian-raised nature, which at its core is to always put others before oneself.
I thought that pregnancy would force me to take better care of myself, and in many ways it did, but now with the mewling babe in front of me, it’s more crucial than ever that I keep a reserve of sleep and energy that will ensure that this well of patience doesn’t run dry. I also need to stay fed and hydrated, because man oh man that tiny tot will suck me dry. I aim for the “when he goes down, I go down” goal, which includes “when he eats, I eat”. But for the most part, I’m pretty sure I get a D- when it comes to keeping my own needs in the equation.
So, what’s so hard about taking care of oneself? For me, it’s twofold: for starters, you need to ask for help. Not easy when you're a stubbornly independent kind of gal. The second factor is that when putting yourself before a helpless child requires you actually stepping away from the helpless babe to take care of yourself, well, nothing feels more selfish than that. It’s not the fact that I think I know better than the person in whose charge I will leave him, but the fact that really, in the end, he just wants my presence (which is to say, my boob). So why be so cruel as to put myself first and take up a kind soul (grandma, husband, friend) on the chance to get an hour of sleep? Because if I don’t, I’m setting myself up for failure. And it takes some pretty concerted effort of grandma and husband and friend to physically force me into bed. But once I do, I awake feeling able to leap buildings in a single bound. For like, 3 minutes. But it pays off because it delays the hitting the wall moment that might come at 1am or 4am ~ and very likely buys another hour of deep patience to experiment with the ways in which babe needs satisfaction. (There’s that “unknown” stuff again, mixed in with those “minute by minute” lessons, too. Not a coincidence that these three dovetail into a unified, and rather challenging, curriculum for a longtime yogi but first-time parent).
All of which is to say ~ the best yoga teachers, in my mind, have always encouraged me to take the freedom, pleasure and challenges I was exploring on my mat, and apply it to my relationships and the way I live my life. Yoga has, for some time, not been about the physical postures for me, although I grant that I have miles and miles to go to hone my asana. The real gift of yoga for me lies in learning how to make this journey through life more rewarding, clearer, deeper. And the arrival of this precious, perfect peanut is, for me, like the arrival of a hilarious little guru, reminding me again and again the things I need to work on to walk this path with more clarity, more love, more patience, more receptiveness. And I am the very definition of grateful to take this journey with this tiny teacher, who is all at once an absolute beginner and a wondrous sage.
~ Karina Mackenzie is lucky enough to be able to produce the Speakeasy Lecture Series and curate the Wanderlust Journal with a tiny teacher attached to her at all times. Or at least, the times when he's not sleeping and she ought to be.