Desai smiles hugely when she speaks of her two young children, daughter Asha, 7, and son Arjuna, 5. “In many ways becoming a mother has allowed me to live a more pure yogic life,” she says. “Having my children’s welfare in mind, I learned to say ‘no’ to anything unhealthy and distracting. This gives me the opportunity to be in the present with my children and to explore the everyday with them in the fullest sense. It also creates time and space for what I value in life such as having a spiritual practice.”
Desai is a longtime yoga practitioner and certified Ashtanga teacher who humbly counts high-profile New Yorkers such as Sting and Trudie Styler as students. She recently released her second book with co-author Anna Wise, Yoga Sadhana for Mothers, an exploration of birthing, pregnancy, and motherhood within the context of yoga. These journeys are diverse, some easier than others. “We wanted to show the complexity and the multiplicity of experiences,” Desai says. “Every woman is different, and each woman’s practice will look very different over the course of her pregnancy.”
In some respects Desai’s disciplined personal practice, a journey she began in 1997, could also be considered a preparation for being a mother—from the 4 a.m. wake-up calls before sunrise yoga in Mysore, India, to the honing of calm, focused attention and the experience of surrendering to something larger than herself. When we met her at 632 on Hudson, a triplex near the Hudson River where she got married 10 years ago, Desai’s eyes gleamed as we climbed the steps to the rooftop garden. Here, she shares some details about her daily rituals, her philosophies about yoga and motherhood, and what keeps her inspired.
How did you find yoga? Tell us about your early journey with the practice.
My grandmother Hima Devi and great aunt Menaka were renowned Indian classical dancers and dramatists. Part of our study under their tutelage was to practice yoga at dawn. Simple asanas and morning prayer. My grandmother believed these rituals would infuse into all that we did the rest of the day. I experienced this daily practice as a young child and over time it influenced the way I experienced the world in a beautiful magical way.
Guruji, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, was my first Ashtanga yoga teacher. When I was in Mysore in 1997, I learned my first Sun Salutation from him. At the time, there were one or two other people in the class. I knew from the first time Guruji said “Ekam,” which is the first count in a series of breaths and movements, that this form of yoga and Guruji as my teacher was what I had been searching for in my life.
When did you decide you wanted to become a teacher?
My main focus has always been to be a genuine and dedicated student for my teachers Guruji and Sharath Jois. Teaching came organically as an extension of being a student over many years and not so much in a conscious decided way. I look at the form of Ashtanga yoga itself as being the teacher and my role simply as sharing with others the form in the way that it was transmitted to me.
I have been fortunate that from early on in my studies I had people in the practice encourage me to teach, in particular, Hamish Hendry and Anna Wise, Trudie Styler and Sting, John and Lucy and John Scott, Margaret and Dan Loeb. They were always in my corner generously creating opportunities for me to share what I know.
What are your daily rituals?
Ashtanga yoga, mantra, and meditation are my daily rituals. For my family, going around the table at mealtime and sharing what we are thankful for each day.
Do you have other elements besides yoga (dance, movement, poetry, for example) that also show up in your daily practice?
Before I had children I also had dance practice and rehearsals regularly. Now I incorporate dance into my daily existence in any way that I can. I live a few blocks from the Hudson River and I try to walk by it or be by it as much as possible. Being in nature and humbled by it is something I try to do whenever I can. I appreciate the rituals that create space in my mind, body, and spirit.
How has motherhood affected your practice?
Having children has made my practice grow in a profound way. Every day I practice with deep attention, as it is one of my few moments to go inside and see myself. When I am done, the rest of the day revolves around tasks for running a household, whether it is cooking, cleaning, reading to the children, taking them to school and activities, working to contribute to the family fund…whatever it may be. I have learned to bring the attention from my practice to all of these others things, and to do them with joy no matter how mundane. Often I have to adjust to their schedule. In fact there is a lot of adjusting going on, but I always make time for my practice now with a soft detachment and evenness.
How has yoga aided in your personal transformation over the years? Tell us about the ways in which you feel you’ve grown personally through yoga.
Guruji once said that this practice takes time, possibly many lifetimes. This sense of time in the long expansive realm resonated with me. My growth and transformation will always be ongoing and eternal in yoga.
How did your physical practice change during pregnancy? How did those practices aid you during your births?
I started softening my practice and slightly shifting the way I did things before I got pregnant with the hopes that I would. I believe that the softening and shifting facilitated in me getting pregnant instantly. I continued with this once I was pregnant. I followed Guruji’s recommendation of not practicing for the first three months. I swam regularly and walked on the river daily. After the first trimester, I incorporated a modified practice into my daily routine inclusive of mantra and following my breath while sitting for a period of time.
I felt very connected to the growing baby inside of me for each pregnancy through these practices. This feeling of being deeply connected to my children in the womb I believe facilitated water births.
How do you celebrate your femininity on and off the mat?
On the mat, I just practice. Off the mat, I appreciate being around other women whom I respect, admire, love, and find wholly unique in their vision.
Ashtanga yoga, particularly, is a very beautiful personalized and individual practice. How did the yoga work within you in connecting you to yourself and to your children?
On a personal level Ashtanga yoga is a search for truth and an experience that fills me with light as well as compassion. I believe children are on a similar path making sense of the world around them and seeing the magic in life. Ashtanga yoga helps me connect with that part of who they are and their sense of wonder. We seek together and are open to discovery.
Does your partner practice yoga? How did you include your partner in your “sadhana,” or spiritual practice? Or did you not?
My husband practices yoga. Our sadhana together is raising our children and creating a healthy happy home life.
I’ve heard writers liken the process of writing a book to having a baby—it can be a long labor of love! What was the writing process like for you?
Writing this book was definitely a labor of love. Anna [Wise] and I often referred to the making of this book to the birth process. We were fortunate to have a collaboration of honesty, complimentary skills, and mutual respect. I will admit that it was very hard work for us as two working mothers who prioritize spending quality time with their children and have serious practices. That being said, we also had an incredibly supportive and empathic relationship, which made the work joyful and possible. We were both clear from the beginning that we wanted the book to serve women and the Ashtanga community. We also wanted the book to be rooted in the teachings of Guruji and his family. Our shared vision was a compass in the making of the book and made navigating the details simple.
You interviewed some pretty amazing women for this book. What are one or two of your favorite stories or people you came across?
To be honest I feel as if every birth story in the book offers something revealing and is an essential sum to the whole. I really appreciated that Saraswati Jois and Sharmila Mahesh sat down with us to share what they had learned from the perspective of mother-daughter wisdom and oral tradition over the generations. Understanding that there are other components to the practice such as keeping the body warm, having regular oil baths, and eating medicinal herbs, seeds, and specific foods was particularly insightful.
What are some other practices outside of Ashtanga that you would recommend for pregnant women?
Slow walking, swimming, mantra, modified Ashtanga practice. Being in nature. Anything safe for the baby that brings you joy and peace will bring positivity.
Is there a mantra or text that you return to over time to keep yourself inspired and tapped in to your intention as a teacher? What about as a mother?
The Gayatri Mantra, which praises divine immanence, has always been my favorite. Perhaps because my grandmother loved it so much and I would often awake to her voice chanting it when I stayed with her. Only later in life did I fully realize that it applied to my personal journey as seeker, mother and teacher.
If people have only five minutes every day to dedicate to their wellness or practice, what would you suggest they do with their time?
I think it would depend on what their lifestyle would be like. For some I would recommend simply sitting and following their breath. Others I would recommend Sun Salutations if he or she only had five minutes.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received (and who was it from)?
“Practice and all is coming.” -Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
Photos by Hailey Wist and from Sharmila’s personal collection.
By Shira Atkins