Letter to Francoise about WellWoman yoga
Letter from Birthlight teacher Maria Andrews to Francoise (kindly reproduced with Maria's permission)
I love the energy of a Birthlight get together and the sense of belonging to a tribe. When I go to a Birthlight conference I am surrounded by women who radiate nurture and I feel compassionate towards my younger self. Adventures with full throttled men who pitched their muscles against mine caused me somewhere along the line to give up putting myself in that flow of men. When I go to a Birthlight event, surrounded by women whose nurture radiates in different ways, they bring home to me the fact that even if I still don't really know how to truly nurture myself yet, I am on my way. There is no judgement to hinder me from finding my feet on this path, one step at a time.
When Paje Tchydjo sang out my heart loved being blasted with the force of his song. It washed into my heart with an energy like waves of the sea. I loved the fact that there are 4000 people in his tribe and they are the guardians of one plant in the Amazon. That each tribe is the guardian of a particular plant. That the plants and the elders are the books in their university. That after fathering six children at 40, he was ready to become a shaman. I love the questions he begged in me, as I imagined every secondary school in London becoming the guardian of one wild medicinal London herb. I let the fantasy form a picture in my mind of the teens on my estate taking up the plants growing through the cracks in the paving.
I love the sense of opening up my idea of passage in space, culture and time that a Birthlight perspective brings. I love coming upon the clearing of my own conclusions after a day of exposure to science, anthrolopology, current protocols, passionate stories spreading the word on best practice. Coming upon that clearing to stop and integrate the day's new knowledge with the self reflection that a heart and body based practice gives back to me. I love that those reflexions are present in every class we teach. That the Birthlight approach never becomes codified, its always attending to the openings energetically. What is there to be discovered as a group when we come together to move, free up our bodies and listen to them? This is a social act, acknowledging our relatedness as a yoga family and in the kind of thinking about relatedness that triggers reflecting in a completely different way. I went away from the conference wondering about the nine month journey a placenta takes, the birthing ceremonies we make and do not make, the rhythms in which a baby partakes as the conducting partner in a social dance.
I loved the fact that the first Birthlight conference brought together the great pioneers of the last century and that this conference was a return, that two of the speakers Sheila Kitzinger and Colwyn Trevarthen returned in person. With Sheila I got a sense of a lifetime of campaign and change and a desire for renewed campaigning, with Colwyn I got a sense of a lifetime of being attentive to the agency of babies, always putting their perspective first and communicating the full range of subtle nuances of their agency. The passion of Michel Odent to protect a labouring woman from interference was augmented in the passion of the doula trainer Lilliana (whose births had been attended by Michel) to be the most simple and effective a bodyguard for her 'queen' in labour. The dispassion of Pascal Odent's presentation of data and questions from his anthropological research on a puzzling question, if the first breast milk is so good for babies, why do young mothers in Nepal discard it? was a contrasting approach. Time is the changing of practices, Time is a passing on of practices, we pass through it, as though on a journey.
This resonates with my experience of mothers as a birthlight teacher and in my own mothering. Mothers time travel: reliving our childhood in the acts of mothering our children through every stage of their growing. For me that really is similar to crossing a frontier, walking a path through it. We walk through the old ground even as we pass over what is virgin territory in our own lives. In my case this was manifested in finding myself teaching mum and baby yoga in the building complex that, 45 years ago, was the maternity hospital where my mother gave birth to her stillborn daughter a few years before she fell pregnant with me. It manifested by later finding myself teaching in a women's centre a street away from where my grandmother lived as a young woman. These were interesting discoveries for me to make, as a woman who had left home at 16 and had made sure to have as little to do with my mother as possible!
Its such a strange feeling as the memories resurface triggered by our children's trials and tribulations. Going to a place in our hearts where we begin to understand what our own mothers were going through when they had us. It can lead to questioning our lineage, wondering about our mother's origin, our grandmother's origin and their childhoods. This time travel is surreal and yet as mothers we are harnessed by the mundane day to day practicalities of caring for our children who force us to live in the here and now.
I love the many time and space dimensions of the mother's reality. How that stretching back and forth in time is still placed in the blood and guts of a human body. I love a mother's expansive consciousness in spite of the primitive way western culture tries to represent it. I know that the six years teaching mum and baby yoga in East London informs my way of thinking, because of a relationship with the Mother country that so many new mothers I taught had. I see the science fiction in mothering choices, to wear your baby in cloth? to surround it with the most up to date gadgets? To speak in two tongues fluently, to have two mothers, a mother and a grandmother, to have aunties or cousins or sisters play their part so a mother can go back to work. To sing the songs of a mother country, to sing the songs in the assimilating language of a destination country. My co worker, Rahena, a mentor for me in warmth, wisdom and good nature, who taught me Bengali songs to adapt to our Birthlight yoga had come to Shadwell at fifteen years old. She had to transmute the powerful grief of the loss of her mother country as a young woman. I saw how skillfully she could absorb the shock of young mothers we worked with, who found themselves in the cold, oddly quiet, concrete dominated world of Shadwell. I came to see the culture around mothering and early childhood as about smoothing the passage of time from one place to another, from inside the womb to outside, from the village to the city, from circles and spirals to planes and straight lines, from mother earth to man made tower block. I love the fact that this fluid, amazingly shape shifting combination of mother and child to thrive at a confluence of cultures always defies the billboard single dimension representation of women.
I love to question what we read and when we read it and how we story our lives in relation to telling our children stories. I love the grace with which a Birthlight approach allows us to do this. We enter into a beautiful cosmic story when we go to pregnancy yoga. Listening to our dreams, we open our bodies to make more space. There is a great acceptance of the heart, integrating past wrongs, making room spiritually with breath and relaxation. And when the babies are out in the open we receive all their wows! and provide all the grounding at the same time. They are bundles of nervous system working with gravity and with the powerful connection of the heart. I practiced mum and baby yoga teaching for six years and there is a definite quality of the energy in such a class. We hold a space which allows for an awareness of our cosmic closeness to the Source, the planets bursting into being through women, (life's longing for itself) and we are at the same time grounding and anatomical in our approach (unkinking tubes and giving internal organs space to function, unblocking pathways and columns, lengthening and stretching muscles, strengthening).
What I explored with my work on well woman yoga was how this story develops and where it sits in a bigger picture. How mothers and daughters relate at different stages in their lives. I worked with daughters aged 9,11,17, 38, 40 and 52 and mothers aged 44,46,50,54,59,65 and 77. It sparked an interest in the stories that we tell ourselves and each other as we live through these life phases- in the absence of a supportive woman's group, or a women's space where we can go when we have our period, or a set of supportive ritual practices, like bathing together in the full moonlight!
Well woman yoga is a great way to explore all the stages of our womanhood and our means of passing from one phase to another. I found it interesting to follow the period just before puberty and just coming out of puberty from the point of view of a young woman's mother as well as the young woman. And it brought me to the view that in fact a woman quests in the same way a young man does. She journeys. The body of a woman, her cyclical nature is able to work through grief, and the power of a woman, her grit and her sinew is able to work through struggle. And this is a literal journey for the trafficked women of the world, or the women who leave for economic reasons to work in the service economy of other countries, or the women who leave through their marriages to another place far from their maternal home, or the women who run away from their families, as well as the women who find themselves studying or working independently, self realising in a room of their own! That this questing is reflected in the many cultural means in place to keep a woman within strict cultural, religious, or physical boundaries and reflected in the many means of her escape, of questing beyond these boundaries.
As Wendy James touched upon in her talk an interesting cultural question occurs when a woman becomes pregnant and loses her baby and then a subsequent pregnancy comes to term. Wendy's talk brought home the fact that these are social events. Another theme that came up in my well woman yoga practice was women becoming mothers when they had lost their own mothers early in life. I started to see the work as integrating past phases of loss and laying foundations for future crisis through body based movements, throughout all our stages of womanhood. I find it interesting to think that the Well Woman yoga began with Francoise working with women postnatally to lay the physical foundations of a good menopause. I found Well woman yoga touches on all aspects of woman's experience, on all aspects of what the body of a woman bears as she travels through life's journey. I found that in many cases what a woman bears isn't visible but is marked in the body, often cut from or cut into the body, or in the form of a felt wrong that is held there, mapped, like a dam in the country of herself. I love to understand how energy transmutes, becomes a force for realisation and self growth. I love to understand how energy transfers in sisterhood. The time it takes. I think that women never stop questing, that the questing after menopause is as rich in adventure as the adventures that bring forth new life.