Saturday, May 5, 2012

Getting Real about Yoga & Mothering with Ashtangi Stan Bryne

Ashtanga practitioners have a certain reputation. They generally are strong and athletic, don't mind a little bit of sweat and pain, and are extremely dedicated to get up early six days a week and practice their craft. It takes a certain kind of person.

What sort of person though, does this practice for nine months while pregnant, day in day out amidst morning sickness, body blossoming, while sharing a body with someone else?

Toronto yogini Stan Bryne is who. And she not only completely amazes me with her dedicated yoga practice, but this decade-long vegan also captures my fascination with her quirkiness, wit, and wisdom. As a former Kingergarten teacher, she has a certain lightness and playfulness about her too.

Stan not only talks the talks, but walks the walk. Just like her partner, one of my teacher's in Toronto, Stan is both sweet and humble.

Stan, or Miss Stan as she is know in the blogosphere, teaches at Ashtanga Yoga Center of Toronto (AYCT), one of the biggest Ashtanga shalas outside Mysore. She is a mother of 22 month old Holden, and partner to David Robson, the co-owner/director of AYCT.

Stan with baby Holden and David while on their trip
to Mysore India.  Photo by Tova Steiner

Knowing how challenging pregnancy and mothering can be, I was curious to see how to other yoginis are handling it.

Domestic Yogi: First things first, can you tell us what your practice was like pre-baby/pregnancy?

Stan: I think I was a sensitive student before I became pregnant. I would worry about injury a lot. Every ache and pain was a huge catastrophe. I worry less about that now, but in other ways I am still the same student. I am pretty dogged. I practice until I am exhausted, I never skip days. I am not the most talented person asana-wise. I have to work very hard at every new pose, sometimes for an embarrassingly long time. But I am consistent. I am the Capricorn of yoga students.

You were working on the second series though right?

When I became pregnant I was close to being split on intermediate (so just doing intermediate and no primary).

As a yogi, how was being pregnant for you? Did you like/not like? 

I loved being pregnant. In the first trimester, the practice really helped my morning sickness. I would walk in the door to the studio and the smell of sweaty students would make me want to throw up on everyone, but by the end of the standing poses I felt much better. I loved being able to chart the baby’s growth with a daily practice. Everyday the binds would get tighter, my toes would be further away. It was actually fun to see.

I thought I would not have as much energy or strength as I did have during my pregnancy. And I liked inversions and backbends, which I thought I would hate.

I practiced the Ashtanga primary series, a few intermediate backbends and dropbacks. I did this all the way through. I think the last week I was just doing standing and dropbacks.

What “position” did you spend most of your last trimester in? Feel free to say couch-asana. 

Haha! I should have done more couch-asana. I loved backbends. I am not that bendy, but during my pregnancy my back really opened up and I would sometimes do 10 dropbacks in a row for fun.

No kidding! Here is the proof. Watch Stan's drop backs at nine-month pregnant. 

May I note too, that Holden was 10 pounds at birth! And good to mention that Stan had a drop back practice pre-pregancy. This isn't recommended for women who did not have a regular drop back to begin with. 

And the birth, how did that go?

I’m never sure how to answer that question. It is actually something I have struggled with quite a bit since Holden was born. On one hand, if you give birth to a healthy baby and you are okay too then I guess the birth went really well. But in terms of the beautiful hippy-home birth that I dreamed of – no I didn’t have that.

Holden was two weeks late and when I went into labour I had a fever. My water broke and my midwife noticed meconium (poo) in the water so I had to go to the hospital. I labored for about 24 hours, but Holden’s head was in the wrong position for pushing and his heart rate started dropping considerably with every contraction. I tried and tried to put it off, but eventually the doctors insisted that I have a c-section because of the heart rate, my fever, and the amount of time Holden had been in utero with his own poo (they were concerned he would breathe it in and get an infection – which, actually, he did).

Ashtangis have a reputation for having difficult births. I know in birth, anything can happen – even to people who have a history of fast labors. I think my yoga practice makes me a better person and a better parent - bottom line. I don’t think my practice led me to have a difficult birth, but in retrospect I think my approach to my practice didn’t help. I was very reluctant to give anything up in my practice, I didn’t take long rests afterwards, I didn’t go easy when I was tired.

I hope I have the chance to raise another child, and if I were to do it again I would focus more on sleeping and less on holding uth pluthi for 10 breaths. 

I just had no idea how un-relaxing having kids is and how little sleep I would be operating on. Now when pregnant women ask me what they should do in their practice I tell them to do what feels right, avoid what feels yukky and go to the movies.

They say yoga practitioners are more prepared mentally/physically for birth. Do you think that is true, and do you think it helped in your case?

During labour I counted all of my breaths, which is a very ashtangi thing to do. So, certainly my practice informed my labour. I think my practice helped me get back into shape quickly after a tricky c-section.

Speaking of that, how long did it take for you to get your practice back to where you were pre-baby? What were the hardest parts?

It was probably 8 or 9 months. By 9 months postpartum I felt light and graceful again, it was a dramatic shift from slogging it out on my mat the previous 8 months. In the first 8 months after my baby was born my weight fluctuated a lot and I was more prone to injury -  hamstrings and shoulder stuff since my core was not as strong. Now I am back to the usual slogging it out. I don’t feel like I had a baby. I just have a little pink scar to remind me. Oh yeah, and a baby.

Stan, 9-months pregnant
photo by Tim Berminghan

Since your practice has come full circle, how becoming a mother changed your practice on the mat, if any? 

I noticed in the first few weeks back on the mat after Holden was born that I would be scared or nervous to try something and then a little voice in my head would say, “Whatever, you just had a baby – buck up and do it.” I am less worried about injury, and I don’t feel as attached to what happens daily on the mat. I mean, I am human and I am attached to it – I get frustrated, impatient and jealous on my mat– but less so. I feel very grateful for the opportunity to practice everyday. It is gift. Many moms have work and then homelife. But I also have a little space on the mat for myself. I am lucky. I don’t think I knew that before I had a baby.

How do you think you’ve changed off the mat (since becoming a mom)?

I am more uptight, I have less time for friends and family, I am quite rushed. Basically I have become a shittier person. But I have a crazy amount of love in my life. More then I ever imagined. I am shittier and luckier.

Ha, that is pretty honest! Tell me, what has been the toughest thing as a mother for you?

The hardest thing for me was not sleeping. Holden was a terrible sleeper for the first 18 months. Because my husband gets up at 3 every morning to practice I was on night duty. Not sleeping makes everything so hard. There were times I felt so fragile, sad and angry and then every parenting issue becomes so much more troublesome. I almost don’t want to talk about how I am sleeping now because I don’t want to jinx it and go back to staying up all night praying the baby will sleep.

Tell me about a poignant moment you’ve had in the last day or two with your son – good or bad.

We have lots of fun together. This morning, I thought he might like to graduate from his high chair into a booster seat. So we took the stroller to the store and picked out a booster seat and a book. He read the book on the way home. I made lunch and he ate it in his new booster seat. He was very cool about the whole thing but I could tell he was proud of himself. I like it when we find the right moment to take a step forward and it feels effortless. Sometimes, I try to push things on him too soon. I want him to be brilliant and quick to learn and always ahead of the curve. But that doesn’t really make any sense because my deepest wish for him is to be happy, not the greatest at sitting on the potty or whatever. Ultimately, he is always the best guide.

I suppose you can draw an analogy to Ashtanga there. The practice is our guide and it will change us when we are ready to be changed, despite what we feel we should, could or ought to be doing.

You can read more about Stan and the benefits and pitfalls of raising a vegan family, in Today's Parent Magazine.


  1. i loved this post! also, so interesting to hear about the changes it brought. :)

  2. stan is a really brilliant person, parent, writer, cook, and yogi and i'm glad to see this! i also like that she tells moms to be to go to the movies. the best thing, however, would be getting to go to the movies with stan, that and taking a class she teaches.

  3. Wow that is such an honest rendition! I loved how straightforward, honest and clear she is about all the ups and downs during and post pregnancy. And strong as well! so strong!

  4. great story!, loved reading it.

  5. The part where she mentions ashtangis have a reputattion for having difficult births scared me! Why does she say that? I've never heard that before... I'm trying to get pregnant, should I lower the intensity of my practice?

  6. Hi Carola, so exciting about wanting to get pregnant! Don't let anything scare you too much. The baby will come out one way or another. What Stan is referring to here is that Ashtanga yoga puts a lot of emphasis on a strong pelvic floor/bandhas, so that regular practitioners will have very strong pelvic floors. (So do gymnasts, horse back riders, ect).

    It is beneficial for anyone, especially those carrying a baby for 9 months to have a strong pelvic floor. That is why they recommend practicing kegel exercises while pregnant. However, a too strong pelvic floor may hinder the final stages of labor when the baby's head descends through the birth canal. The pelvic floor muscles not wanting to release to let the baby through, making pushing the baby out harder.

    A healthy muscle is one that is strong when it needs to be strong, but also is soft and can be fully relaxed when it needs to be.

    So my advise is, when you get pregnant, place as much emphasis on learning to train your muscles to relax (everywhere...even down there), as you do with maintaining a certain amount of strength to keep your body and baby healthy. In birthing, from my experience, both strength, and surrender/relaxation are needed! Hope this helps!
    And best of luck!

  7. Thank you so much, this whole idea was all over my mind since yesterday. At the end everything relates to practicing "harder" the "letting go" part... I really love my practice, it makes me very happy, I wouldn't like to be in a position to choose... again, thank you so much for taking the time to explaining me this.