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What do yoga and maternity have in common? How can taking control of our body help us to reflect on ...
2021-04-21 09:00:00
healthy living
My Mini Me

What do yoga and maternity have in common? Does control of the body let you control other spheres of life? Or is it the opposite – it frees us from expectations towards ourselves and the world?

Read in 11 minutes

I am doing an Utthita Parsvakonasana – an Extended Side Angle Pose. I am wobbling a little, yet I keep tightening and stretching my left leg, trying to push my bended right knee towards the elbow of my right arm. My awareness goes towards my left foot. At least that’s what the teacher wants. In practice, however, it means making sure that my left foot is not bent too much and that it stays on the mat. I am supposed to breathe and enjoy the position. The face should be calm and the breathing steady. It is a little difficult to be enjoying it, while at the same time taking care of all these bends, keeping things straight and tight, when my body wants to do exactly the opposite of what’s needed for the proper Utthita Parsvakonasana. I feel, however, that in the long run, when I have stretched and strengthened all the muscles involved, there’s something pleasurable in reaching the position, which will give me joy, or at least satisfaction. That I’ve mastered it so well, that I can reconcile opposites, that I’m in control of my body and have an awareness of all its tiniest parts, of the tensions and contractures, which I am systematically working on, mastering my Utthita Parsvakonasana to perfection.

Awareness of the right foot

“Thanks to yoga […] we can fill every cell of our body with awareness; each and every particle. We can know them, each one separately. We can control them, each one separately.” These are the words quoted by the French writer Emmanuel Carrère in his book Yoga, published last year in France. The phrase is ascribed to Faeq Biria, one of Carrère’s yoga teachers and a student of the famous guru B.K.S. Iyengar.

It seems that yoga is inextricably linked to awareness (the awareness of your left foot!). In Carrère’s book, the term ‘awareness’ (in French: conscience) appears 65 times. This is a lot. For comparison, I checked how many times it appears in my book on Algerians in France – only nine times. In the previous one, on Spiš, just six.

To have awareness of something, to be aware, to realize, to know. How far is it from here to control? After all, Biria said it loud and clear: to be aware of every cell in your body and to be able to control it. Can practising yoga satisfy this vital need of control? Or is it the opposite – it makes it go away? Because if you master yoga, you will be able to master your life as well?

An unbearable need

Very often, when I am standing on the mat listening to the teacher’s seemingly contradictory instructions, I get the feeling that the subsequent asanas are metaphors for my life. When I’m trying to straighten my back, my hip goes up, I lower my hip, my back becomes rounded. When my back is finally straight, my foot goes up. And once I’ve glued it to the mat again, I find it difficult to keep my knee straight. And so it goes, over and over again.

My life looks very similar. I make sure to be perfectly prepared for every class and then I don’t have enough time for the kids. I take care of them – go for walks, play games, take them to the cinema – but then I’ve got no time to clean up, and my activism is down to zero. I get involved in social activism again, and my kids go hungry all day or survive on sandwiches, and before I know it, it’s Sunday evening and I haven’t re-read the materials I asked my students to read. It also turns out that my hair is dirty and I’ve forgotten to call my friend back. This is even more difficult than yoga. The awareness alone of all the spheres one would like to get under control exacerbates the horror that so many issues have remained unsolved.

There is one sphere of life that is a field of struggle between awareness and control, of searching for the right proportions between them or, quite often, losing them both altogether. I’m talking about maternity. It starts already when you’re pregnant. The awareness that there is another life growing inside you comes rather late; before that, you realize you have no control over your body. The changes start from the very first days. Your breasts get bigger and start hurting, you gain weight. The stomach starts showing much later; during the first pregnancy, only at the end of the fourth month. When the abdomen has gotten big, your stomach will suddenly tighten now and then, and this is the worst. Then the kicking that can wake you up from the deepest sleep. In theory, it should help you realize that what’s in your womb is not you, not a part of you, but a separate being. This knowledge, however, comes much later. I’d say it comes to you even about a dozen years later.

When your child is born, your whole life starts resembling one big Utthita Parsvakonasana. You double and triple your efforts, tighten here, press there, yet reality still escapes your control, like your abdomen, which, instead of turning in the direction of the arm that is lifted above the head, sags down, surrendering to the overwhelming force of gravity. You want to control everything. You want to have your baby fed, changed and bathed. Used to taking care of yourself, you expect similar results with your baby, precisely because you don’t fully realize that the baby is not a part of you. Your efforts do not translate so easily to how he or she feels. The baby’s not your knee or your triceps – your will and effort are not enough to keep it straight or bent. He or she doesn’t go to sleep when you want them to, doesn’t eat when you think it’s the best time to eat. It is not enough to learn something for your baby to know it.

I can still remember the horrible feeling of powerlessness and the ensuing guilt I felt during one of the first walks with my elder son. Witek must have been 10 days old. It was the middle of September, a chilly day, but sunny. I took him to Praga Park in Warsaw. Before we went out, I fed, changed and burped him, just like I had been instructed. Even before we entered the park, somewhere on Cyryl and Metody Street, he was already wiggling and kicking his blanket off. I experimented with covering and uncovering him, but it didn’t help. By the time we reached Jagiellońska Street, he was crying really loud. In the park, I took him out of the pram, hugged, spoke to him, hoping to calm him down. It didn’t work. Neither did my attempts to feed him, or holding him, or rocking him in the pram. Whatever I did had no influence on how my child felt. I was afraid it was all my fault. 15 minutes later, I felt so frustrated and powerless that the only thing I wanted was to burst out crying myself.

A separate being

Paradoxically, it seems that the child is the first one to realize that they are not one organism with the mother. Gaining awareness of one’s separateness is popularly known as the two-year-old rebellion. The kid throws himself at the pavement, gets furious, tears away the coverall you’ve been painstakingly dressing them in for the last 15 minutes, before spitting their spinach gruel at you. You still hope that these are just temporary communication problems, that if you keep making an effort, your will is going to be enough to make the kid do what you want. That you will be able to control your child, just like you control yourself; you just need some determination and strong will.

Discovering that it is impossible is a long and painful process. For both the children and the parents. At least it was for me. For many years, I could not accept that my son is not like me. As if he had no right to be different, as if his duty was to fit the mould I made for him, or rather – for myself. I was so focused on making him fulfil my expectations that I could not see how good he was in other spheres, in areas in which I did not expect him to succeed.

When he became interested in music, I hardly cared because I don’t know much about music; I can’t feel it. Instead, I regretted that he didn’t want to ski or didn’t read many books, because I ski and read. The less successful I was in convincing him to my interests and hobbies, the more I treated it as a pedagogical failure. I could not understand that even if he started doing the things I expected him to do, he would have probably done so just to make me happy.

Even though he wasn’t the little Witek whose blond curly hair I used to comb and whose milk teeth I used to brush – a little boy clinging to his mother – I did not realize that he is a separate person from me. I kept feeling that he was an emanation of myself, a limb over which I have less and less control, and I don’t know why. It hurt me so much that I could not appreciate and enjoy the fact that he was becoming a wonderful, sensitive and clever boy.

The lack of trust in life

Control has become one of the most popular ways to numb the pain of existence. One of the causes of anorexia is the desire to regain control – at least over your own body. Not eating or rationing food is a simple way to isolate a sphere – even if it is only the weight of your body – over which you have influence. In the times of all-pervading anxiety and a feeling that an increasing number of things happens without our control, in an era that the remarkable Indian anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has called the times of “deadly uncertainty”, we really need the awareness that we can decide about something after all.

Yet the soothing effect of feeling in control eventually turns out to be an illusion. Ryszard Kulik – a psychotherapist and champion of the philosophy of deep ecology; a student of Janusz Korbel, one of the precursors of ecological thought in Poland – wrote about it beautifully. “The compulsion to control stems from the lack of trust in life. It is time to welcome everything that is there, stop being afraid and take a deep breath […], let yourself be, and let anything that wants to naturally manifest itself be, and take it as it comes. Come to terms with wild rivers, dead trees, wolves, woodworms, that forest which has its own wisdom and doesn’t need our faulty ideas.” I’d add one more item to the list: accept that your kids are late, that they make a mess in their rooms and are not dreaming of following in your footsteps. That they are themselves, and not your copies.

At the end of the list, Kulik explains that we also must accept our own passing: “Freeing yourself from the urge to control means to ultimately come to terms with life, accept it as it is, and with a calm mind enjoy its riches, living simply, humbly and temperately, so naturally that there is no need to give this state a name.”

In his book Yoga, Carrère advocates a similar approach. He writes about meditation: “The idea is to sit motionless, in silence, and focus on the breath, be mindful of everything that appears in our field of consciousness, pay attention to it, but don’t judge it, forget about expectations and the need to control, let go.”

But how do we reach this state outside a Vipassana meditation retreat? Carrère often insists that yoga goes way beyond a simple set of exercises. Just like his book, which was originally conceived of as “a nice little book on yoga”, but eventually “went beyond” and became, as is often the case with Carrère, a story about himself, with yoga as the main thread. Yet even when he still meant to write solely on yoga, he came up with a short note to be featured on the back cover. Reportedly, it was to read like this: “What I call yoga is not only a set of healthy exercises that so many of you do, but a whole array of practices aiming at widening and homogenizing the consciousness. Yoga shows us that we are much more than our little, forever lost, scattered and scared ‘I’, and that we have access to our true selves. There is a path that leads there, and there are others who have walked the path before us and can show us the way. If what they say is true, taking this path is really worth our effort.”

Kulik provides a very similar answer: “The assumption is that our little ‘I’ is an illusion we succumb to; that it is in essence unreal. Of course, we believe in it and identify with it, but many of us have an intuitive conviction that our true essence transgresses the narrow confines of the ego.”

Coming to terms with the world

In a beautiful essay on Wisława Szymborska’s poetry, Poezja jako świadomość [Poetry as Awareness], Czesław Miłosz discusses issues similar to the questions raised by Appadurai in his scholarly writings. “It is a peculiarity of our century that we focus so much on the fragility of our bodily existence,” Miłosz wrote. He also quoted, not too faithfully, a fragment of Szymborska’s poem “Tortures”, which he felt talks about this very issue:

Nothing has changed.
The body is a reservoir of pain;
[…]
The little soul […]
disappears, returns, draws near, moves away,
evasive and a stranger to itself,
now sure, now uncertain of its own existence,
whereas the body is and is and is
and has nowhere to go.

He pointed out that Szymborska’s poetry, despite its sadness, “offers us a world, in which we can breathe. This is possible, I guess, mainly thanks to an objectification that goes so far that the ‘I’ with its personal dejection is completely excluded and all we can see is a game that gives us the impression of a great richness and multiformity of human existence, despite everything.”

Cast out egoism, come to terms with the world. Connect our own, individual consciousness with something much wider and bigger. To dissolve in humanity and thus enter its higher level. I need it so badly – as a human, as a mother. I did not expect I’d understand it via yoga and an acquaintance with the old egocentric and charmer Emmanuel Carrère. I didn’t realize that the distance between the need for total control and the renouncing of any control is so small. I haven’t reached the state of giving up all control, I’m still struggling with my Utthita Parsvakonasana and sweating, but the thought alone that there is another way, gives me hope.

I am getting better at being happy about my son’s successes and not treating his failures as my own mistakes. I let him be who he is. It turns out we do have a common passion after all: writing. We have found it by following different paths – we have different sensibilities and tastes. I am happy you are yourself, son. Yourself, not me. Each of us practices life on our own account.

In preparing this article I used the following sources: Emmanuel Carrère, Yoga, Paris: P.O.L., 2020; Ryszard Kulik, “X zasada ekologicznego „ja”: pozwolić Życiu żyć,” ekopsychologia.edu.pl; Czesław Miłosz, “Poezja jako świadomość,” Teksty Drugie. Teoria literatury, krytyka, interpretacja, 1991, no. 4 (10), 5–7

Wisława Szymborska’s poem “Tortures” is quoted in Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh’s translation: Nic dwa razy / Nothing Twice, Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie 1997

 

Translated from the Polish by Adam Zdrodowski

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Ludwika Włodek

was born in December 1976. Shortly after her birth, her mother wrote a letter home from hospital to tell the family she’d come out just like Kokuś, her favourite cat: feet first. These days the problem is with her hands rather than her feet. She’s got so many things on the go – giving talks, writing books and articles – that she doesn’t always know what to grab hold of first.