There are no golden rules in motherhood. The beauty lies within the uniqueness of every mother.
It can sometimes be hard to see the connection between ancient spiritual traditions and our contemporary modern lives. The separation is actually not as big as it seems and to illustrate this I’m on a mission to interview spiritual teachers who also decided to live right in the midst of our fast-paced society. It is from them we can learn all about bringing the wisdom we need into our daily modern life.
As such, I got deeply inspired by Wambui Njuguna-Räisänen who, together with her husband Petri Räisänen and two boys, travels around to world to teach yoga.
Wambui has been an Ashtanga yoga teacher and practitioner for nearly a decade and was authorized to teach the Primary Series by R. Sharath Jois in 2016. Her approach is gentle and suitable for modern moms. As I feel that we contemporary yogi moms are in a need of guidance on how to combine yoga with motherhood, I asked her to tell me more about her vision.
Hopefully her wise words will inspire you as much as they did me.
Before diving into motherhood I am curious about the meaning behind your tattoos and piercings. Can you tell me why you have them?
There is – at this moment – not so much thinking behind them. For me it’s more about the ritual behind them that makes them so special. Getting a tattoo involves pain and there’s also energy behind it which is in some way connected to a deeper part of you. Because of this I see tattoos and piercings as a rite of passage. And since we are (at the root of it all) primordial people, we need rituals in order to be grounded within the deeper fabric of life. However, in the quest for meaning, it’s important for me not to be someone that I’m not, and therefore I don’t want to ‘wear’ somebody else’s culture. I’m very sensitive to that. That’s why I keep things very symmetrical and simple. Lines, triangles and dots exist everywhere. I don’t want to appropriate or steal from different cultures, without having a relationship with it or being involved in the context in which such practices exist.
We need rituals in order to be grounded within the deeper fabric of life.
How was it for you to practice ashtanga during your pregnancy and did your approach change with the second child?
Yes, definitely it did. When we tried to get pregnant for the first time I suffered from a miscarriage very early on. This created some trauma which was still quite fresh when we conceived with our first child. I felt very tired during the first pregnancy so I slept a lot and I remember that the asana practice (yoga posture practice) was really much slower and softer then with the second child. In the first and last trimesters of my first pregnancy, I did some sun salutations and standing postures and, especially because of my swollen ankles, I practiced viparītakaraṇī (legs up the wall) every day.
With the second pregnancy I had much more energy, but I still took the first trimester off with the Ashtanga yoga practice, since that’s the recommended approach. Not only because practicing yoga in the first trimester increases the risk of miscarriage, but also because things are changing so much during this vulnerable period. Instead, I practiced prenatal yoga which was specifically designed for the first trimester to help navigate these sensitive fluctuations. I felt more confident and brave during the second pregnancy all around. There was more strength and pitta energy. Therefore I was able to practice a modified second series until well into the second trimester. It felt so good.
Towards the end of both pregnancies, I attended prenatal classes to prepare for birth. This was really beneficial for me. What was even more supportive were the postnatal classes I took after giving birth. In these classes I could take my infants and breastfeed whenever it was needed. These classes helped me to regain pelvic strength and to bring stability back into my body, not to mention meeting a community of new mothers, some of whom I’m friends with still to this day.
So yes, there was definitely a difference. Not only because of the miscarriage and the different energies of the beings I was carrying within me, but also because I was a different woman with the first and second child. All these factors played an important role in the way that yoga shaped my pregnancy experiences.
Could you perhaps give a golden rule to support new mothers with their pregnancy? Something that helps them to go through this process more lightly?
The beauty lies within the uniqueness: every mother is different, every pregnancy is different, every child is different and every family dynamic is different; so there is not one golden rule that is going to fit every mother. Yet I would say if you are practicing Ashtanga yoga it’s very good to take a break of some kind for the first 3 months. It’s really a time to prepare you holistically for the sacrifices and the letting go that family life requires from you. It’s not just taking a reluctant break because it increases the risk of a miscarriage, but to reshift perspective because of the huge life change that’s coming. If you’re going to keep trying to practice and live the life you lived before having a kid (or even the life you have already with one kid) then chances are, you might suffer. You are going to feel disappointed and frustrated that you can’t meet your own expectations. Your old life is not going to fit into your new life and without mental preparation, that can cause a lot of disappointment. Especially with a modern Western outlook on life, in which we expect, or are expected, to bounce back immediately after giving birth. And of course we want to practice yoga, because it makes us feel good and more energized, so that’s hard to do. When you need your yoga practice more due to the stresses and demands of your new life but might not be able to practice in a way that satisfies high expectations. So I’m not saying neglect your practice, but I am saying that it has to change and match with your new stage in life. And the yoga becomes about doing more (for others) with less (for yourself). Not so easy with such a societal emphasis on individualism.
How was it for you to pick up your yoga practice after giving birth? Are you as a mom of two boys able to practice yoga anyway?
Picking up the practice after giving birth takes a while. Your body really needs time to recover. I adjusted my practice as long as I needed to find strength again.
Now with two kids, every day is different. Some days I can have a long practice, other days it’s short. This morning I only did some sun salutations and took a long savasana (rest), because I need to keep enough energy for my kids next to teaching and giving massage treatments. It’s all about prioritizing. For now it’s like this, but next week I’ll go to Sharmila’s shala to practice with her. Therefore I know that there will be time for me as well. I mean even if it’s only one week in which I can dive deep into the ocean of yoga I feel blessed.
In the end, every practice is a good practice. There’s not always the need to do 1,5 to 2 hours practice to say that you have done your practice. But of course this is hard sometimes as the nature of Ashtanga yoga is a sequence and with a sequence we sort of go into the idea that it’s fixed and linear. That there is a start, a beginning and an end. And that there is no flexibility to do it a little bit shorter. But of course there is. We have to work with what is available for us at any particular moment.
However, I do think that, especially in the beginning of learning the ashtanga system and if you have the ability and time, to keep the sequence. But with families, or those using the practice for healing and acute therapeutic purposes, there are different priorities to take inro consideration.
Every practice is a good practice.
So you don’t try to follow a schedule?
On the road, I think that is a little bit too prescriptive. Because who knows what is going to happen every day? I have tried to plan it, but I stopped as it doesn’t feel natural. At home, the chance of keeping to a schedule is more likely. I like routine and crave it, but travel and family life teaches me not to adhere to anything too strictly and tightly.
One thing yoga also teaches us is sensitivity. So even if on Monday you have planned to do a certain practice you might feel you have to make a change to that plan; you need to shift. Yoga teaches us that to recognize these fluctuations and shifts. Above all the practice should feel natural. We do what is the best possible response at any given moment.
How to bring the yoga philosophy into parenting?
Just by experiencing life. I haven’t read the Yoga Sutras since having the kids. There hasn’t been time and mental energy. But now I feel I want to study them again and with new appreciation. Because now there is a certain tone that the obstacles have taken. For example, I have had to confront my own self-cherishing much more than before I had the kids. All this was brought up to the surface and magnified when I had kids. So with mothers and fathers and caregivers, we sacrifice and do our duty for the child. And all the while, we try to be as mindful as we can. Be as self-compassionate as you can. Take care of yourself physically, mentally and emotionally. There’s a thin line between self-care and self-cherishing at the expense of other people however, so keeping in mind that kids and family of part of the householder stage of life might be useful in bringing collectivity to the yoga practice. That what we once did extensively in the laboratory of our mind and body on the yoga mat, we’re now doing in relationship with our family members.
There is no way to separate the yoga philosophy from the practice and parenting. They are intertwined. But it is a good idea to re-read spiritual texts when you’re facing doubt or feel overwhelmed. Parenting is often a hard struggle but there’s also capacity for great joy and transformation. The whole experience of love is so large, so grand, so limitless, it can be mind-boggling. And re-reading these texts can give us context, inspiration and fresh understanding that we can then apply to our lives.
There is no way to separate the yoga philosophy from the practice and parenting.
I know that in Amsterdam mothers would love to raise their children vegan although they weren’t raised vegan themselves. What is your point of view when it comes to nutrition during pregnancy and when raising your kids?
Our family is not strictly vegan, but we are vegetarian and we try to avoid as many animal products as possible. But we also have to be flexible sometimes, especially when we travel. I became vegetarian on the age of 27 when I started the Ashtanga yoga practice. I had tried it before, but was not able to stick to it. Yet when starting the practice it just came as part of the package.
Throughout my pregnancies I also ate mainly vegetarian, but with Sumu there was a craving for fish so, while remaining very mindful, I did eat fish. I really want to be careful with answering this question as there are more things to take into account whether being vegan or vegetarian is an option or not.
With all these yamas and niyamas (ethics) and how to relate to all the issues in the world we are living in right now, I don’t think it’s a question of doing things perfectly. Just do the best you can. Because the greatest impact will not be made by a few people having a rather zero waste lifestyle, often with lots of economic, social and environmental privilege, but by millions of people doing it imperfectly and to the best of their abilities and circumstances. In order to make real structural shifts towards sustainability, the bulk of the responsibility is also not on the shoulders of consumers and individual. A much larger shift in ethos between all facets of society needs to happen. So I don’t want to isolate anybody or make veganism some exclusive, privileged thing that makes you feel bad if you are not able to participate or sustain. Just do what you need to do the best you can and that’s what can encourage more positive, collective change.
When it comes to raising my own kids, while both Petri and I are living, modeling and encouraging a vegan/vegetarian lifestyle, it’s not in our parenting nature to use language that’s dogmatic, rigid and privileged as this is not sustainable nor beneficial. So while we eat and serve them vegan/vegetarian foods, there was a phase when Sesam asked for some fish. So we gave it to him; he very soon lost interest. We talk about where meat comes from, how fish are taken from the oceans, watch documentaries about our planet. Creating the opportunities for our children to make connections, begin to think both critically and compassionately, so that they can make their own decisions at the end of the day.
How do you cherish yourself and take care of yourself as a mom?
I think I can set my boundaries very well. Nobody is going to give you the time and space. You have to take this for yourself. Know that if you fill your own cup you have more to give. This is not something that women are taught explicitly nor encouraged to do.
A very simple way to take care of yourself is by doing (guided) meditation. As a mother you can even do this while breastfeeding. This is more accessible than getting on a yoga mat especially in the beginning. Another boundary that is easy to set is to just let your family know that, for a fixed amount of time, you’ll be closing the door to take your own space.
However, we should also not forget that we have our husbands/partners/co-parent. There is a relationship there too, and it’s not just about the kids all the time. This is tricky, as everything needs your attention. Timewise being a mom can make you become very efficient. Because if you only have one hour for yourself you will make sure you get the right things done in that hour. And sometimes that right thing could be taking a long rest or doing nothing at all. Be open to what will best serve you, especially during the early days with a new, beautiful and very demanding baby.
Do you have any book recommendations for us mothers to read?
There are so many books, but I would say do not engage too much with books. It is good to get inspiration, but please keep following your intuition. Something we also need when giving birth. It is so powerful experience. Only for this experience I would want another child. It is so deep and real. Something we miss in our modern world. Yet I really loved reading Yoga Sadhana for Mothers by Sharmila Desai and Anne Wise. It’s a very good one especially because it includes Ayurvedic recipes for postpartum care as well as interviews from different Ashtangi mothers.
I also suggest that we also talk with our mothers and grandmothers to keep the traditions and family rituals that are unique to our various parts of the world. For example, Dutch mothers can find out what Dutch women did before. In this way, we’re not only able to appreciate parenting wisdom from other places, but keep our own distinct sense of culture and lineage alive as well.
Keep your family traditions and rituals alive.
Are there any failures that, when looking back at them, made you stronger as a mother?
Well, with Sesam I had the idea to breastfeed him until 2 years, but I got burned-out from all the traveling. I stopped at 14 months, and in hindsight neither Sesam nor I were ready for that. I really needed to go through a grieving process and forgive myself. Looking back now I would say trust your intuition. It was a decision I made when I wasn’t really listening to my deeper self. And this is why with Sumu I’ll let him decide when it’s time to stop. There is no timeline. It’s the relationship between you, your child and your body. And also if you somehow have to stop and feel sad about it or you want it to be different than it is, have deep compassion and forgiveness for yourself. Don’t be too hard for yourself. We tend to be so hard on ourselves. Yet people always do the best they can at any given moment. That is why ‘failure’ needs to be taken with a grain of salt. We all do the best we can with the tools and resources either available (or not) to us. All of us.
Photo credits for Coni Hörler.