Richard Freeman, Roshi Joan Halifax and more on practice while pregnant
By Catherine Harris
I took a bus up to Santa Fe this past Thursday and walked up to the Upaya Zen Center where Roshi Joan Halifax and Richard Freeman held a workshop to wed Buddhism and Ashtanga Yoga. We were silent for the better part of three days and practiced zazen for two plus hours a day and yoga for around five. The whole experience was profoundly moving, especially in the correspondences in the practices. Or rather, it felt like all one practice. The first full day of sitting, I was impatient as we began the last sitting before the dharma talk. By the beginning of the third day, I was happy to be settled into the silence, motionless observation, and experience of my mind.
Richard Freeman taught a beginning version of the primary series, which could as well serve as an introduction to teaching the primary series. He emphasized the goal-less nature of practice and the lightness of being in practice. He would remind us “no matter how flexible and strong you get, you will die.” It sounded comforting at the time. His voice and patrician bearing brought a sort of hypnosis to the room. Often, the Roshi, who practiced with us, would fall asleep, comforted by the motion around her and by Richard’s voice, mellifluous and relaxed, urging esoteric understanding of the relationship of prana and apana expressed by motions of coccyx and pubic bone.
We laughed often in the dharma talks and in Richard’s yoga classes. The last night, we asked questions that became a forum for Roshi Joan to talk about death and dying and her work with dying people. She transfixed us by leading us in chanting the vows of the boddhisatvas and ending with her voice alone reciting a verse ending with “Do not squander your life.” She explained the importance of non-duality, the physical understanding that we are all one, which struck me as why I seek a community to practice yoga. The breath in the room melts the individual boundaries and I start to understand my practice as being part of everyone else’s.
Some of Roshi’s best advice was “If something causes pain, sit with it and understand that it will change, as all things do.” Richard said that joint pain in yoga is a signal that alignment is off and muscle pain is a signal to stay where you are and become non-judgmental about the pain. Roshi Joan also said, “Pain and suffering are linked. If you tell the story of the suffering, it usually increases the pain.” These precepts are something like what I learned through the birth of my last child. When you are laboring, if the pain feels like it is too much to bear, try another position. If I didn’t label the feelings as pain, but rather treated them as sensations and tried to stay with them with interest, the sense of being a victim of pain dissipated.
Since last I wrote, my practice has continued to change, as indeed Roshi Joan suggested all things do. I have grown rounder of belly and more awkward. I was able to do much of the Primary series practice that Richard gave us, but I do drop some poses. Navasana is not good with the separated abdominal muscles right now, so I just squatted in between, as Richard’s excellent assistant Jennifer Amman suggested. I also drop twists and do an abbreviated halasana with my feet parallel to the floor. It just isn’t comfortable to fold over my belly. I carry about 25 extra pounds right now, so there is more weight to everything. Binding in yoga mudra doesn’t feel good. In the context of the workshop, being a bit slow, didn’t matter, but as I have come back to my second series in the past few days, I really feel the pacing difference. Richard encourages an aware curiosity about your poses and a playfulness, which suits the current state of change in my body.
In second series, I am still using the modifications I wrote about last month, but dropping most jumps. I can jump forward into a seated position, and jump back with my feet touching the floor between seated poses, but I feel happier just switching sides. I have dropped the jumping in Vatayanasana because my belly prevents my foot from staying in place. Being upside down feels fine as does back bending of all sorts. As the uterus has moved up from the base of my pelvis, Parighasana now is fully accessible, when a month ago it was uncomfortable to bend past ninety degrees. I have added in Hanumanasana on each side when I am doing my modified versions of Eka pada. Dwi pada is, as last month, utterly unavailable, and Tittibhasana, likewise, is simply the arm balance with none of the binding. For reasons I don’t entirely understand, my Padmasana has become wider and does not come easily in Karandavasana. I often end up holding a half lotus with my left foot stuck on my knee for five breaths before coming out of the arm balance.
Laughter is a good way to understand these changes, as is curiosity and awe. The baby moves more strongly now. My practice feels like a boon, not a struggle, as I become softer and inwardly focused. Upaya was an amazing place to contemplate these transformations and feel empowered to continue teaching. The food was wonderful and nourishing, the sheets clean and soft, the landscape, verdant, high desert. I can’t recommend more highly the experience, though it is perhaps not for those dogmatically devoted to the pure Ashtanga series. The essence is a mixing of disciplines, but the bones of Ashtanga shine through. As Roshi Joan and Richard discussed, the practice of yoga was common in the Buddha’s time and likely he was an accomplished yogi. I have always sat some after practice, but this weekend gave greater meaning to the relationship between being present for the mind and being present in the body. Roshi Joan suggested that “As we become aware of our own body, we are able to truly perceive another.” Motherhood and teaching yoga both require such awareness.
Catherine Harris teaches and practices in Albuquerque, New Mexico with Ashtanga Yoga of Albuquerque, ashtangayogaabq.net. Come visit us!