Reflections on Spiritual Pursuit, New Motherhood, and Career
By guest contributor Teresa Stilling
Deep in the Kootenay mountains of Canada’s Pacific Northwest, nestled on the shores of Kootenay lake, lies Yasodhara Ashram. Founded in 1963 by Swami Sivananda Radha, Yasodhara Ashram welcomes spiritual seekers of all denominations for spiritual study and yogic practice.
A mainstay of the Ashram’s offerings is the Yoga Development Course (YDC), a three-month program that sees attendees engaging in a robust schedule of physical and spiritual study. During their stay, YDCers must give several talks at an evening service called satsang.
This essay has been adapted from one of these talks given in February 2021 by Teresa Stilling—mother to The Three editor Karly Stilling and recent attendee of the YDC.
While almost everyone at the Ashram is having their Sunday morning lie in, I get up early to connect virtually with my two daughters spanning the time zones—6:30 am for me, 5:30 am in Vancouver for my oldest daughter, and 1:30 pm in London for my youngest.
We chat about normal everyday things, about what has happened in the week, about the weather, and about life in the time of Covid.
We talk about mental challenges; the anxiety my youngest daughter experienced around Covid when expecting her first child—then about the real issue of actually catching Covid days before her due date, and about the restricted access of spouses in the delivery room. Thankfully everyone is okay.
My oldest daughter talks about the anxiety she is experiencing in getting ready to produce her first feature film; about the real and ever-tightening restrictions imposed by BC Public Health on the size of her film crew, and the problems with location scouting.
Then there is me, arriving at the Ashram while my first grandchild was being born in London. Covid restrictions have made it impossible for me to be there, but I’m there in my heart. I console myself knowing that if I can’t be there, the next best place for me to be is here, focusing inward, getting to understand myself, looking for that inner peace.
Birth is a process of accepting and of letting go. There is no bypassing this process, whether it be physical birth or spiritual birth—we have to accept the pain and learn to breath through it.
Breath is our friend. It reduces discomfort, it allows for lengthening and stretching, it allows for space. It calms the mind and decreases tension. I’m most grateful for my yoga practice when I go through times of stress. Coming back to the breath and the inner light reassures me. It gives me something concrete to focus on when I’m helpless to do anything else.
I’m finding that there are many aspects of becoming a new mum or a film producer that I’m also facing as a fledgling spiritual aspirant.
None of us know what’s going to happen next. We do our best to plan for what we think we know, what we’ve been told, only to find that the landscape is always shifting beneath our feet. We are forever trying to navigate ourselves into the flow.
“We have to begin where we are…. Man’s drive and inner restlessness are there, but by courageously changing the viewpoint from old established positions, something different can happen. New avenues of thought can come into focus. Maybe there is a purpose in all that happens, be it pleasant or unpleasant. In any event, it is worth finding out…. At this point, take a deep breath and decide to begin.”-Swami Radha, Kundalini for the West
My daughters and I, we all suffer from lack of sleep. What newborn sleeps through the night? What film crew doesn’t work 12-15 hour days? Meanwhile, I’m up at the crack of dawn because I have to be at a yoga class, or I have a paper to finish, or I hear an alarm in the distance and can’t get back to sleep. I’m often up in the middle of the night. It’s when my mind likes to problem solve.
We’re all sleep deprived, and we share something else as well: we’ve all made a commitment to something bigger than ourselves.
We’ve accepted responsibility to and for others. We’ve had to learn to let go of our own self-importance. A baby, a film, a spiritual practice. These commitments are not easy. We have to trust, to surrender. At some point, after we’ve done all that we can, we put our hopes into the light and let go.
During my time here at the Ashram, I’ve discovered that I can manage with a lot less than I thought. My needs are not all consuming—even the need for sleep.
“It is important not to fall into the trap of our times which advocates the fulfillment of needs. If we felt this to be essential, we would have to allow our children to have everything they wanted. What counts for the baby on the human level also counts for the spiritual baby. Discrimination and self-control must be exercised. Discipline has to be accepted.”-Swami Radha
Becoming a parent and producing a film require tremendous dedication. There are no half measures. I’ve also been struggling with devotion in my spiritual practice, which makes it hard to fully commit—and I want to be all in.
For me, something shifted after I spent some time reflecting on what devotion really means to me.
My daughters won’t hesitate to tell you that I am forgetful. I’ve learned that my forgetfulness can be a result of not acknowledging my emotions, and my time here has shown me that I need to relinquish control and let my heart take the lead.
I’ve also come to realize that devotion is an emotion—one I’ve been resisting. But it’s a safe place to start learning to accept my emotions. Devotion won’t hurt me, even if it may be difficult. My daughters are learning this too.
Now that a piece of the puzzle has fallen into place, I’m beginning to see how yogic practices can open up for me, and how I can get to know myself so much better through simply being aware. I see the potential for more learning, and I’m curious to discover the next piece of the big puzzle that is me.
“The baby learns to walk, clinging tightly to the mother’s finger. When it has gained enough self-confidence from the practice of walking and the process of learning, there comes a moment when the baby of its own accord will let go of the mother’s finger. What a great triumph the baby experiences and how it cherishes the joy of this demonstration and the delight of those around it! The true Guru is in the same position with the devotee who, having had the encouragement of the Guru all along the way, will know when the moment of independence has come. At this point timetables no longer need to be checked by the Guru, nor all questions answered. The disciple finds that the answers are within.”-Swami Radha, Kundalini Yoga for the West
My involvement with Hatha yoga began when my girls were in their teens. I was back to work full time, juggling motherhood and a professional career. I was very busy but needed a way to take care of myself while taking care of everyone else—so when a friend of mine started teaching yoga, I naturally drifted to her classes.
I was hooked from the very beginning, appreciating the restorative nature of the asanas (yoga poses) and the much-needed relaxation that they brought for both my mind and body. A few years later, my yoga teacher friend suggested a trip to the Ashram and a long weekend course exploring yoga beyond the asanas and into personal and spiritual development. I was all in.
There’s been no looking back since then, just a slow and steady movement forward. I’ve taken weekly courses off and on over the years, punctuated by weekend courses in Vancouver and at the Ashram. The three-month Yoga Development Course is the culmination of my yogic study.
The YDC offers yoga in the deepest sense of the word: as a path leading to liberation. I’ve been able to focus inward on my own development while being supported by a community of courageous and curious people. It’s taken me far beyond the perimeters of what I used to think hatha yoga was—I’ve come to know it as so much more.
Yoga is a spiritual path, one that begins with the asanas but leads towards self-development and growth. It’s a journey to spiritual awareness, and to the light that’s within us all.