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Applying the Yamas and Niyamas in Motherhood

Yoga Resources

by Elise Bowerman

“A lot of yoga practices have been designed by men, are fairly rigid and have been handed down in systems that say everyone should be doing what the teacher says at the same time. They also originate from tropical places and a lot of the people doing yoga are not in tropical places, have a womb, and are not men, so that’s not a good fit.”

- Uma Dinsmore-Tuli, author: Mother's Breath

The practice of yoga was not meant to include women or birthing bodies. Over the years courageous women desired and fought to be included. Some of these women are: Allama Praphudeva, Blanche Devries, Eugenie Peterson (Indra Devi), Sylvia Hellman (Swami Sivananda), Lilias Folan, and Greeta Iyengar (B.K.S. Iyengar’s oldest daughter). There are many unsung women who will never be named as their stories remain untold.

In gratitude to all women who came before us, we know the yoga practice can include women and birthing bodies. By nature the female body/mind is tuned to the Divine Feminine energy as nurtures, birth-givers, and our protective mother-bear instincts. It is no wonder women are drawn to yoga as a way to spiritually connect with the self and baby(ies) in a profound way during pregnancy and postpartum.

As a pre/postnatal yoga teacher since 2009, this is when the majority of my students explore yoga for the first time. No other phase in life is someone more open to looking inward to connect with the deeper understanding of this calling as a birth-giver and mother.

The ‘right way to live’ to gain freedom

The ancient texts of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are reflected in a variety of yoga practices.

Applying The Sutras to motherhood is beneficial to aid in cultivating compassion and celebration for the sacred transformation of the woman: the role of mothering her child(ren) and the role of unfolding herself to a new sense of purpose and being.

The first two paths (of the eight-fold-path as described by Patanajli) toward liberation (moksha) of personal suffering which leads to spiritual enlightenment are the yamas and niyamas. Together they are often referred to as ‘moral ethics’ or the ‘right way to live.’ 

The 10 yamas and niyamas can be difficult to acknowledge; especially when reflecting on one’s own thoughts and actions… and then reflecting on the landscape of relationships, community, environment, and beyond. This is active work.

Through conscious consideration of the role of mothering - and the woman who once was and is - can be enjoyed more fully. The yamas and niyamas lay the foundation to move forward to practice the remaining six limbs: postures/movement (asana), breath work (pranayama), and dive deeper to focus (pratyahara, dharana, dhyana) into a state of bliss/oneness (samadhi)... to be one with the human/mother/self, one with child(ren), and one with all.

Embodying the yamas in motherhood

Below are brief descriptions, explorations, plus an affirmation to begin self-reflection on this phase of life. (There are other ways to apply and interpret the scriptures for parenthood. A healthy discussion of brainstorming and hearing other's perspectives is something we enjoy in Prenatal Yoga Teacher Training.)

The word yama is often translated as ‘restraint.’ Consider how a mother acts towards herself, her children, and others.

Ahimsa: non-violence; be gentle and tender

I am the chosen and ideal mother for my child(ren).

Acknowledge and release critical or perfectionist thoughts. Soften the harsh edges to cultivate tenderness for your personal life journey which brought you here to this moment.

Provide care and protection to child(ren). Speak and act with gentle tone. Step away to breathe and focus to gain better clarity before reacting.

Satya: be truthful and honest

I embrace the loving, creative, and intelligent woman I am.

Acknowledge and release the woman you once were to the woman you are and are becoming. The ‘rite of passage’ birth-givers go through is a time for celebration and grief. The life a mother once lived will be different than the one she is creating to be the parent to her child(ren).

Provide child(ren) a living example as a speaker of truth. Living life within your value system and moral codes will set imprints on babies and children from conception throughout their days.

Asteya: non-stealing; be generous 

I am grateful for the life I live.

Acknowledge and release attachment to the way other families live life. Share in excitement when another mother is celebrating big news. Lift others up.

Be consciously present with child(ren) as much as possible. Listen and watch. Your presence is the most valuable piece to shape who they will become.

Brahmacharya: non-excess; reserve energy

I am in a healthy relationship with my child(ren).

Acknowledge and release the needs and wants from the life lived before having children. Cultivating a balance between personal desires and that of child(ren) nurtures a new maturity level to a harmonious parent/child relationship.

Notice when enough is really, just enough. More is likely unnecessary and unhelpful. Maybe next time will be different… or not. 

Aparigraha: non-possessiveness; be free from greed

I release old thought patterns that no longer serve me well, and invite new ones of love, generosity, and gratitude into my being.

Acknowledge and release the embedded images and identities of oneself to unfold the layers of who you are becoming as the mother of your child(ren). It is impossible to go “back to normal” after childbirth. A new sense of self is expanding into creation.

When appropriate - let child(ren) lead. Babies and children typically are not attached to certain outcomes. The journey of discovery and exploration along the way keeps their mind expanding to more possibilities.

Observe oneself to ensure your child(ren) live authentically to who they are; not who you want them to be… or wish you were at their age. They have you; not your mother as their mother. You are not your mother. Your children will have a different childhood experience than your own. You get to re-frame the parent/child relationship in the family cycle, if it requires repairing.

Embodying the niyamas in motherhood

The word niyama is often translated as ‘observances.’ Consider daily acts of healthy living.

Saucha: purity

I prioritize my wellness in order to be the best version of myself as a woman and mother.

Acknowledge the new found curiosity of prioritizing nutrient rich foods which support the creation and sustainment of human life.

Create a general flow to the day or week for personal care; like bathing, massage, yoga, etc.

Santosha: contentment

By slowing my pace of life, I welcome greater happiness in the small things. The small things add up to the most valuable part of growing a family. I am happy and loved.

Acknowledge and release the past desires of who you were becoming before pregnancy and child(ren). This may be temporary or a long-term commitment to finding contentment within as perspective shifts walking into motherhood.

You are enough. A big home, a nanny, all the amenities in the world cannot fill the void of understanding in your heart of hearts: you are enough. 

Tapas: self-discipline

I smile when I see myself being present and taking care of what needs to get accomplished and releasing the need to do it all myself.

Acknowledge the determined effort (discipline) it takes to bring contentment into the everyday tasks of motherhood… especially when the day turns upside down.

Ask yourself - who are you becoming now? What qualities or goals would invite greater inner peace and happiness? Be diligent and acknowledge when you are succeeding at becoming the person and mother you want to be.

Svadhyaya: self-study

I reflect upon my own life to expand my conscious awareness.

Acknowledge how becoming a mother is affecting you as a person. 

Welcome time set aside to invest in self-reflection through journaling, talk therapy, conscious communication, reading, and the like to mitigate possible projection of unhealed wounds onto your child(ren) and others.

Isvara Pranidhana: surrender

I trust the decisions I make for myself and family.

Acknowledge and release the idea that humans have complete control. Surrendering to the changing body while growing a human is one of the first ways becoming a mother slows us down to pay closer attention.

Traditionally, this final - most inward focused - niyama is referencing a spiritual connection and surrender to a higher power. Sometimes referred to as God, the Divine, Love, Allah, etc. 

Through the courageous act of ‘letting go’ - rather than ‘holding on for dear life’ to every activity and outcome - one can move forward in the day and in life with an open heart.

When we collaborate together in yoga classes and teacher training programs a realization becomes crystal clear: there are countless ways to consider the yamas and niyamas for motherhood. This compilation is a glimpse and starting point to bring the practice off the mat into daily routine - into the mundane. 

This is where the mind and body will be strengthened and stretched. 

By doing so one will shift to a state of awareness: observing, being present, and connected to the whole. Unity.

Imagine a world where mothers all around respect and lift up one another. They tend to their own wellbeing before extending themselves to the community. They take rest and notice when enough is truly enough.

Their children witness this compassion on a grand scale causing a ripple, like a wave, as they grow and become the future caretakers of humanity and our planet.

Photo credit: Alle Sanchez Photography