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The Sticky Mat: Interview with Leah Kim
One of my discoveries becoming a parent has been that as a freelance yoga teacher there is little real information about how to handle maternity leave and the massive changes that affect my practice and my teaching. I remember speaking to one studio owner while I was pregnant and feeling confident that I would return to teaching (at least part-time!) after a few months. The reality of how I felt and how my practice has changed with my new job (full-on mom) has been quite different. Hence this blog! I’m really happy to help get more information out about the reality of having a long-term yoga practice, one that includes huge life changes. One of my colleagues has been an inspiration and a very generous spirit in her parenting and yoga teaching lifestyle. She's honest and candid, and a very talented teacher as well. I met Leah in London where we both worked at The Life Centre and Equinox, and helped cover for her with Nike when she went on maternity leave. I asked Leah some questions and am straight-up pasting her responses here. She says it well, and I am really grateful for her sharing. I hope that reading about her experience will inspire you as well.
When you first became a parent, what did your practice look like (style or poses you were practicing/how much time if any you had for practice)?
Because I had an emergency cesarian, and then a complicated recovery, my practice was non-existent when I first became a parent. When walking and getting up from sitting down is painful, you don’t try to ask more of your body that is already working so hard taking care of your new baby. Doctors say to wait at least 6 weeks before trying to exercise, so I unrolled my mat at Week 7. I was shocked and heartbroken to discover I did not recognize my body at all. I felt searing pain from tightness in my legs in Down Dog. I literally could not hold myself up in Plank for 1 second. Even supine twist was painful - I felt like my body was being ripped apart from the inside. All I could do was roll onto my side and sob. I was too traumatized to try again for several weeks. How did you deal with the challenge of making time for your practice with a new baby? I didn’t deal brilliantly, to be honest.
I recently saw a video my friend (Johanna Andersson - you should ask her to answer these questions!) posted, with her newly born second child. She was holding the baby while doing squats and making giggly faces to the baby while upside down. I was amazed. I could not have imagined incorporating my mom-self onto my mat like that. I don’t know why certain things make sense for certain people and not for others. But for me, motherhood and my practice felt very disconnected. Eventually, when my baby was about 7 or 8 months, I brought in a babysitter so I could go and take a class or do my own practice. My practice has always been something I needed and wanted full mental space for. I do remember a few times in the early days, I practiced in the baby’s room while he was sleeping, so that I would be able to quickly try to settle him back to sleep if he woke up. I remember the floor would creak and I would freeze, fearing that I was going to be the one to wake him up!
Many parent and baby yoga classes today include nursery rhymes and a lot of play for the babies. Did you attend any classes like this with your children, if so how did you feel about the contrast to non-baby inclusive yoga classes?
I never went to any parent & baby classes. I think they’re great if it’s something that works for you, but as I mentioned above, baby plus practice just wasn’t something that made sense for me. Do you share your home practice with your kids? If so, from what age and in what way? Funnily, my son learns yoga at his preschool. So he knows Down Dog and strettttching, but it’s not from me! He recognizes my yoga mat and loves to unroll it and do some moves on it. In those moments, we play - I ask him to lift a leg in down dog, I hold him up in a handstand which he thinks is hilarious. The one thing I have very directly taught him is to take some deep breaths. I have been saying this to him from when he was a newborn, well before he could understand my words. If he was upset, I would say, “Sometimes things are hard. Let’s take some deeeeep breaths.” And to my amazement, he started copying my deep breaths fairly early on, and now that he understands me, he will take those deep breaths on his own. I also regularly teach him about the importance of kindness, having a good heart, and looking after others. He has naturally shown a lot of empathy towards children that are upset, from very early on, and I try to emphasize and validate that. For me, that’s the yoga that is important.
Assuming that you were a freelance yoga teacher when you had your children, how long of a maternity leave did you take? Did you take time off before the birth of your children and after?
I started going back to teaching in bits. At 4 months, I travelled from London to Paris to launch a Nike Collection. I took my family with me and it felt so great to be back in the game, despite still feeling frumpy and fat! I continued taking a lot of those types of commissioned projects, but it wasn’t until nearly 1 year from the start of my maternity leave (about a month before my due date for my studio classes), that I went back to my regular classes. And then it was a bit of a struggle because some of my classes were 730am’s, which meant a 545am wake up , and with unpredictable baby sleep patterns, I was often making my life much harder and more tiring for myself! I’ve been learning a lot as I go, as far as what makes the most sense in how I spend my time.
Did you have any colleagues who had gone through maternity leave to speak with as references or examples on re-entering the workplace and taking time off?
I definitely asked as many people as I could how things went for them. What I realized was that everyone had a different setup that made sense for them. I remember about 10 years ago, when I was still living in LA, my mentor would teach class while wearing her newborn in a sling. At the time, I considered that perhaps I would do something similar, but when it came down to it, that was not remotely in the realm of possibility for me, for many reasons. Another friend was able to totally resume her pre-baby teaching schedule in a few weeks, but her husband runs their yoga business with her, so they both had flexible schedules where this was possible. My husband works full-time and long hours, so for me to leave the baby with him in and around my classes was simply not an option. I kept trying to fit in with what other women were doing, as well as trying to fit in with how I used to be, and it was all very exhausting. I just had to give myself time to figure out my own way and rhythm.
Did you or your students/studios have expectations about how long it would be before you returned to your previous schedule? How did the expectations measure up to the reality of how you felt in your post-natal state?
I think I was the one that had the toughest expectations on myself. I remember speaking with one of my studio managers, who is also a mother, and she was very wise and supportive. She said, “Just see how you feel. I’ll mark it in my calendar to check in with you in a month, but, if you need more time, it’s fine.” I felt an urgency to prove I wasn’t going to let becoming a mother slow me down in any way - ha! I’m so grateful for the wisdom of all the other parents in my life who encouraged me to be gentle with myself. When each month or two months passed and I checked in with my various managers, I hung my head feeling ashamed that I wasn’t ready to come back yet. But I was only ever met with total compassion and understanding. It kind of felt like everyone aside from me got the fact that I’d just HAD A BABY.
How do you feel the time away from your students affected your teaching, both practically (i.e. Did you lose students/classes) and philosophically (i.e. Did you feel that you changed as a teacher)?
When I went back to teaching while still living in London, I didn’t feel that I lost students, and I didn’t lose any classes. It wasn’t something I was too concerned with. If anything, I felt like people were happy to have me back, and curious about how things were now that I was a mother. I think fellow parents are eager to be a source of understanding and support, and people who are not yet parents but considering children in the future are eager to ask how you manage it all. As far as philosophically - I changed incredibly. So much so that I wasn’t even able to digest all my internal changes as they were happening. A major change was a humbling realization of how much I had taken my body and the physical elements of my practice for granted. Because I started yoga relatively young, in my teens, and basically had had several hours of yoga per day every day in my life for many years, and because I’d never had a big injury or a surgery, I never knew what it was like to have real physical pain and limitation. Of course I’d overdone poses here and there, and gotten sprains and strains over the years, and of course, poses were challenging, but I’d never been through anything that was debilitating.
Recovering from childbirth was intensely painful, and a traumatic shock to my entire being. I finally felt in my own body how challenging if not impossible asanas could be, the same asanas that I was once able to drop into without so much as a sun salutation to warm up. It literally brought me to my knees and deepened my compassion for others with physical struggles, and further validated the belief I'd already had that to be a yogi does not mean to be good at yoga poses. What advice would you give to yoga teachers today for the transition to parenthood? See how you feel. There is no way of predicting how you will feel on the other side of parenthood. Be kind to yourself. Be real with yourself. Give yourself time to figure it out, to carve out your own day, schedule, career, and life-view, irrespective of what anyone else is doing.
It’s possible to go back to teaching after a few weeks, it’s possible you may want a longer break. More than ever before, as a parent, you’ll probably find that you’re making it all up as you go along, and you know, I really think everything is going to be okay.
Leah Kim: https://www.instagram.com/leahkimyoga