The class is humming with 28 big and little people, plus yoga props, baby blankets, diaper bags, and toys. Some of the babies are quiet, some are cooing, some are fussing, some are loudly exploring the new sounds they can make. At one point crying spreads and, as nearly all the babies start to commiserate, it rises to a crescendo. The mommies move into Garudasana (Eagle Pose), a balance pose that draws them into a deeper state of concentration and centering. Within seconds, the babies are calm again.
What happened here? When baby is in the womb, we may be quite aware that our state affects her. However, it is easy to forget this once baby is out of the womb and apparently separate from us. But babies and young children are still strongly connected to us, exquisitely sensitive to the energy we exude, positive or negative. It makes sense, then, that we develop a heightened awareness of self and of baby, as well as the inner resources to guide us back to our center.
Yoga with baby can serve as a microcosm of our parenting as we experiment with how to be with our babies, read their cues, let go of our agendas, and respond to challenging moments in a safe, loving space. This experience cultivates a mindfulness that enhances our parenting both on and off the mat.
In the Here and Now with Our Babies
Yoga practice offers a rare respite in today's culture of rushed, stressful living without reflection. It draws us back to listen to what is within, the inner voice that is easily drowned out by the noise of daily living. Over and over we hear a teacher guide us, "If your mind begins to wander, gently guide it back to focus on the present moment, on each breath." At some wonderful point in the development of our yoga practice, we begin to notice that the unencumbered state of awareness and well-being that we progressively experience on the mat has become more accessible to us in our daily lives. The benefits can shape our relationships with our children, helping us respond to them from a place of greater clarity and inner wisdom. This does not make us perfect parents, but it does liberate us to more frequently be who we wish to be with our children, and to soften or even let go of expectations about our lives with our babies.
Being in the present is natural for babies. Learning to meet them there enables us to connect with them authentically. "Yoga really heightens the awareness and calm you need to be able to look at your baby in a new light every time," says Mimi Greisman, a mother of three who directs the popular early childhood education program at Sherith Israel in San Francisco. "Establishing trust and a real sense of presence in the moment for your children is the best thing you can give them."
According to pediatrician and herbalist Stacia Lansman, M. D., founder of Pediatric Alternatives in Mill Valley and mother of two, a parent's ability to be present with baby in a calm and centered manner can directly impact a baby's health. "Being present is how we connect with our babies and help them feel that the world is a safe place. I have seen many colicky babies who, I believe, are reacting to stress or uncertainty in the parent."
Cassandra Vieten, Ph.D., a psychologist, researcher, and mother, conducts studies at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco to determine how teaching mindfulness and yoga to pregnant women and new moms might reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. She states, "A lot of suffering is, paradoxically, caused by all of the ways we attempt to get away from distress. By increasing our capacity to be present and aware, without moving away or reacting, moms will likely be more able to deal with all those situations that can't be changed—the crying, the body changes, the lack of sleep—while still being right there. This is a lot of what good parenting is: being able to stay present even in painful moments, and not pulling away or reacting habitually."
Optimal Health and Hygiene for the Mind
Our babies observe and imitate us from their earliest moments of life. Sharing a meditation state with baby through yoga allows baby to experience that state and have it as a reference point. Angelika Nugent, a San Francisco-based licensed and certified professional midwife and mother of five, sees mother and baby being in the present moment together as "mental hygiene for both, a way to clean the mind. People clean their bodies, but they don't clean their minds. Paying attention and having quiet time to cleanse the mind needs to be a practice. If our children see us honor this, they will honor it also."
The expansion in awareness we can experience in yoga and meditation teaches us that we are inherently free from the fear and anxiety so characteristic of our modern age. Robert Newman, author of Calm Birth: New Method for Conscious Childbirth (North Atlantic Books, 2006), says that within and outside the womb, "a child inseparably, in sympathetic resonance with her mother, experiences the health-enhancing return to free awareness." Newman says a mother continually trains her child energetically. "If the woman practices awareness-enhancing disciplines like yoga and meditation, the child will be entrained to a higher order of function and will tend to more completely access her potential."
Letting Go of Control and Expectations
New parents often struggle with the loss of control and enormous life transformation that comes with having a baby. Many women are having babies in their late 30s and early 40s, when they have an established lifestyle, career, identity, and sense of control over their lives that may all feel completely derailed by a new baby. In addition, women have internalized a societal pressure to "do it all." The result may be tremendous stress and physical and emotional depletion.
That's where yoga comes in, according to Jessica Weiss, director of the Yogamoms program for Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland, and a mother of two. "In postnatal yoga class, mothers can shed the cloak of perfection and really talk about what's going on in their lives, moving from isolation to connection." Weiss guides women to change their pace and come into sync with their babies.
Some days a baby may need to be fed, held, soothed, and diaper-changed through an entire yoga class. Rather than feel frustrated, the mom can take the opportunity to focus completely on being together, breathing, calming the body and the mind, and appreciating the sweet, sacred, and fleeting nature of this time. This is a beautiful practice of yoga, worthy of honoring (even without the many poses one can do while caring for baby, if she chooses).
Ping Moscovici, who is expecting her third child, says, "Doing yoga helps me notice whether I am taking care of myself or not, even while attending to my children's needs." Gabrielle Chernis, elementary school teacher and mother of a 10-month old, says, "It's hard to dodge mainstream attitudes and perceptions about parenting. Yoga gets us back on track when we feel derailed—it guides us to find our own track and respond to our babies intuitively and consciously."
Alison Lufkin, interior designer and mother of a five-year-old and nine-month-old twins, took up yoga after her first child was born. She practiced regularly through her second pregnancy and has continued both on her own and with her babies. "I was in a constant state of panic with my first child. Yoga has helped me be a more calm, grounded, and centered parent now, even with twins, and has really deepened my connection with my babies. I've noticed an incredible difference in how I deal with day-to-day life."
A Lifelong Practice
Parenting mindfully is not about mastering a skill and being done with the learning. It's a lifelong practice. Knowing how to maintain center, or return to it when thrown off, is essential. In their book Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting (Hyperion, 1997), Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., and Myla Kabat-Zinn, R.N., write that as children grow, "They seem to challenge every place that we might be holding an expectation, a fixed opinion, a cherished belief…. If we are able to look at our children with openness and receptivity, and see the purity of life expressing itself through them, at any age, it can wake us up at any moment to their true nature and to our own…. [Mindful parenting] is a deep and abiding inner work, a spiritual training all its own."
As parents, we will likely continue to judge and to lose our balance at times. But if we practice self-care, reflection, and centering, we will be modeling these practices for our children, and helping ourselves meet the moment in a manner more aligned with our deepest intentions. Our children—and we ourselves—can only thrive.
Kari Marble teaches prenatal and postnatal yoga classes in San Francisco. She is a certified yoga teacher, massage therapist, instructor of infant massage communication, and educator with a passionate specialization in the childbearing year and healthy family living. The smitten mama of Kaya (5) and Jaiden (2), Kari can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mom is wearing top in watermelon by Prana and pant by She Beest, available at See Jane Run, 24th street, San francisco; Baby in earthtone and brown striped pants by www.malinas.com. Mom is wearing cropped pant in cocoa from Lululemon Athletica and green tank from Gaiam Organix; Baby in earthtone pants from www.malinas.com