The Yoga of Parenting

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The flight that my family took from Montego Bay to New York to return from our Jamaican vacation lasted four hours. My daughter Josephine screamed nonstop for three of them. The trip had all the elements of a traveling parent's worst nightmare: We spilled multiple drinks on fellow passengers while my normally sweet, well-behaved 1-year-old kicked, frothed, and left bite marks. There was much writhing in the aisles, with subsequent pleading, scolding, and bribery with lollipops. Meanwhile, my husband could only watch. Already grappling with a piercing sinus headache, he had our other daughter sleeping on his lap—and she had just wet her pants.

Needless to say, the sense of serenity I'd attained through a week in the tropics soon escaped me. I tried everything I could to console my daughter, but as tactics failed one after another, my frustration and desperation mounted steadily. But then a thought came to me. Certainly the situation posed a challenge, but weren't my expectations presenting an even bigger one?

The preconceived notion that I would sip on a 7-Up and read magazines while my very young children quietly occupied themselves flew in the face of reality—yet I was unwilling to let it go. Indeed, once I relaxed and just accepted the present moment, I instantly felt better. And (you guessed it) Josephine calmed down too.

Looking back on that incident, I can not help but wonder whether acceptance wasn't something I learned on the yoga mat. Notions of how my forward bends and shoulderstands should look greet me every time I practice, with ensuing frustration and finally an effort to be with what is. In fact, a whole host of lessons learned in yoga apply to the joys and challenges of raising kids. As I've since discovered in talking to the parents of children young and old, yoga's tenets often translate seamlessly to the trials and triumphs of family living.

Inhale and Exhale

Breathing marks the first lesson in yoga, and not coincidentally the first message in childbirth education too. "The importance of breath starts right from birth. Women breathe through labor, gathering strength. Conscious breathing helps them from that point forward," notes Sarah Perron, the cofounder of Baby Om, a prenatal and postpartum yoga program, and coauthor of the book Baby Om (Henry Holt, 2002).

Unfortunately conscious breathing can fall by the wayside in the course of day-to-day family living. It's hard not to hold your breath as you watch your yearling take her first steps—or your 10-year-old appear in the school play or your teen leave on a first date. In fact, it's safe to say that parents could spend decades, from their child's initial bout of fever to the last day of driver's ed, holding their breath in fear, anticipation, or hope.

"There are definitely those times that you're anxious and you're running around like crazy. Maybe you're late and you have to pick up the kids," says Jyothi Larson, a New York City-area yoga instructor and author of Yoga Mom, Buddha Baby (Bantam, 2002). Larson, a mother of two girls aged 9 and 13, emphasizes the need to breathe deeply and correctly—and not just in yoga class. "By applying what you have learned in yoga about full breathing, you'll get more oxygen and energy. And then you'll relax a bit, knowing that it's all working the way it's supposed to."

Let Go

Patanjali named raga (attachment) among the main causes of citta vrtti, or modifications and disturbances of the mind. In yoga we sometimes cling to ideals such as how long we should hold a pose. "I'm very weak in my handstands," offers Larson. Even after years of practice, she explains, "it's very easy for me to get angry when it doesn't happen for me." But she has learned to apply the concept of nonattachment, which enables her to keep trying—and she's found the approach works well in parenting too.

"My oldest daughter is at that stage where she does not want me to attend the same party as her, as I'll 'embarrass' her," Larson laments. "Sometimes my ego wants to say, I've done so much for you and here is what I get! But I try to take my ego out of it." In fostering nonattachment Larson is thereby able to support her daughter's natural quest for independence without taking things personally.

It might seem to be counter-intuitive that a loving parent would want to cultivate non-attachment. But non-attachment does not mean loving our children any less or showing them less affection. It means stepping back, taking our yearning and preconceptions out of the equation. "It means loving kids for who they are," explains Laura Staton, Baby Om cofounder and mother of 2- and 4-year-old boys—whether or not they reject you, wake you up at all hours of the night, or wreak havoc on the airplane.

Mind the Details

When we are practicing yoga, we take care of the finer points, like positioning the back foot just so in Trikonasana, consciously placing weight on toes and heels in Tadasana. Seemingly minor adjustments can transform a pose from a lackluster or even painful exercise to a therapeutic one.

In a similar way, looking at the little picture can often completely turn around a parent-child interaction. "A lot of yoga is working on putting your knee here, arms here, sit bones here, and then seeing how your body stacks up. The nuances of daily life with a child require the same attention," says Staton. With young ones this may be as simple as giving advanced warning of an impending transition to stave off tantrums: Five more minutes at the park and then we need to leave. For older kids, allowing them to pick the radio station in the car might set a good tone for the day. "Sometimes it doesn't take much to feel better," Staton adds. "Often when one of my kids is in a crabby mood, I'll put him on my lap, give a cuddle, and then he goes on his way."

Practice, Practice

Of course, in minor adjustments and major ones, knowing what approach to use does not come just by accident. It takes doing it a hundred times. The effectiveness of even a quick fix, like a cuddle, is born of trial-and-error through repetition. As Vivekananda put it, "Practice is absolutely necessary."

"Beautiful asanas don't appear by magic," explains a yoga teacher in Northern California and father of three children ranging from ages 9 to 17. "If you see someone in a perfect backbend, it means they have discipline and have been working at it." Since parents are mere mortals, resistance can crop up in the same way it does for the yoga practitioners. It is tempting, given what we pack into each day, to fall back on shortcuts to fully attentive parenting: yelling instead of explaining, not bothering to follow through on our word, letting the TV baby-sit. But as this yogi explains, you get out of parenting what you put in. "If everyone in your yoga class is doing Headstand for six minutes and you can not, you have to practice. In the same way you have to study what needs to be done in your family life and decide how much of yourself you are willing to give to get it." Whether it is doggedly offering the vegetables to turned-up noses or repeatedly checking disrespectful tones of voice (our kids' or our own), having the discipline to maintain a high level of active parenting reaps rewards not just in the area of behavior, but in health and happiness as well.

Be Present for the Unfolding

Yoga is a process, not a product. Instead of achieving a final goal (complete with medals and fanfare), we change and grow in our practice as much in our last year as we did in the first. The challenge lies in accepting the realities of the present moment and maintaining confidence that our practice will unfold as it should.

"I've been working on Lotus for years, but because of an injury to my knee, I can't do the variations," says Perron, mom to a 4-year-old. "I have to respect that and have patience." In the same way, she says, you can not rush growing up, snapping your fingers to finish up potty training or help a child remember times tables. "These things are all in process. They'll take the time they need to take, and you have to respect and be present for that."

Staton makes the comparison to yoga, where no matter how much you work at something, the body changes when it's ready and needs to. "You can judge it or hate it," she says, but ultimately the evolution happens on its own.

Larson likes to quote the bittersweet adage written about parenting and childhood both: "The days are long, but the years go fast." Parenting is beautiful; it's a whirlwind, a practice in its own right. We watch our kids go through so much, both painful and sublime. "Yoga is a lifetime practice too," explains Staton. "You adapt that practice to the changes in your body and your mind and your environment—and then you just keep on going."

Contributing Editor Jennifer Barrett is editor of The Herb Quarterly and lives in Connecticut.