April 14, 2015

4 Things My Yoga Practice has Taught me about Parenting.


Each person who practices yoga comes to it with his or her own experience and perspective.

What we seek may be unique to what we as individuals need at any given time. Similarly, what we will learn from practicing yoga will be exactly what we need to learn.

The lessons that a yoga practice can teach us, in some ways are universal. Those lessons gradually become available to us both on and off the mat. As this happens, we can apply what we learn through yoga to those situations that are unique to our individual stories.

Lately, I have been reflecting on what yoga has taught me about parenting and how my practice has influenced my work as a parent. I’m grateful to share those lessons here.

My story includes, among many chapters and plot-lines, parenting a pre-teen with autism. This experience has presented many challenges—understanding his behavior, dealing with meltdowns, seeking a diagnosis (and a correct one, at that!) and suspensions and expulsions from schools that were not willing to work with him.

As unusual as my parenting plot-line has been, I am not under the impression that parenting of any sort is easy. All parents have to learn as they go, facing hardships and balancing their needs with the needs of those who depend on them. No matter how many parenting books are published—and there is certainly no shortage of them—there is no manual for raising young people into independent and responsible members of the community.

These are some of the lessons I have learned through my yoga practice that have helped me survive the demands of parenting:

1. Breathe.

Simply said, sometimes our breath is all we have. Things do not always go as planned. Children do not always behave as we would want them to. This applies to young children, as well as older kids. Temper tantrums are no fun, and the questionable choices of pre-teens and teens can be downright scary. Breathe.

Sometimes circumstances arise that we could not have anticipated or planned. Sometimes our plans get seriously fouled up. Sometimes we don’t like the behavior of our spouses, partners, exes, extended family, teachers, coaches and others. Breathe.

Equanimity is a state of mental or emotional calm when facing pressure or difficulty. To paraphrase one of my favorite yoga teachers, “Whatever happens, even if it’s not what you expected, go with it. Let it unfold.” She was referring to a challenging asana (yoga pose), however this applies to so much of my daily life.

When parenting gets rough, the best possible thing I can do is to stay calm. Though this is often easier said than done, with practice it is not only possible, but preferable. And the best way to start down the path of equanimity is to remember to breathe. Calmly. Evenly. Sincerely.

2. Learn to Balance.

We are continuously seeking balance. Balance between work and life. Balance between family and whatever outside forces might be influencing us. All the recent talk of “leaning in” has not made this easier. If anything, it leads us to question our decisions when we put family before other priorities. Balance is something parents often find particularly challenging.

Yoga requires balance in a very literal sense. It teaches us that by focusing our intention, we can achieve a balance that we might have previously thought impossible. This practice of physical balance translates into the figurative balance that we seek in our daily lives.

Part of the balancing challenge for parents is self-care. I was terrible at caring for myself as a new parent. I heard all the advice, but I found it impossible to care for a small human and take good care of myself at the same time. It has taken me many years to learn this lesson, and my yoga practice is both a reminder to balance my needs with my family’s and a method for doing so.

There is a reason the airline flight attendants tell us to put our own masks on first, then help others. This is true in daily life as well. If we are depleted or tired, we will be less capable of patience, flexibility, generosity and the other critical elements for surviving parenting. By being sure to care for my own needs, I am choosing balance. Yoga reinforces this and reminds me not to feel selfish for taking care of myself.

3. Imperfection is OK.

Let’s be honest: some days are better than others. This is a simple truth, and never so clear to me as when I fail to be exactly the parent I think I ought to be. Some days, I throw equanimity out the window. I lose my patience, or my temper, or my pride. Imperfection is humbling—and it is part of being human.

Yoga has taught me to accept my imperfection. One of my favorite asanas is Natarajasana (dancer pose or “Lord of the Dance”). Some days, my dancer is graceful. The posture feels good, I feel strong and stable. On other days, I’m a wobbly mess. I can’t seem to balance and fully expressing the pose is simply not happening. Other times I attend a yoga class and the instructor leads us through a vinyasa (a flow or series of postures) that are, let’s be honest, not my favorite, and that I would never choose in my home practice.

This experience is a reminder, each time it happens, that I am far from perfect. It reminds me to accept where I am today without worrying about falling short. I am doing my best—whatever that means at this moment. I have learned to stop judging myself, and for that matter, not to judge others, which leads me to number four.

4. Don’t worry about what other people are doing.

I’ve heard about the “mommy wars,” and I have no interest in engaging. None. Every parent needs to do what is best for themselves and their families. This may mean something different at different times. Personal decisions are just that—personal. Deciding what is best for one’s family, given the circumstances, may involve gut-wrenching, heart-breaking tradeoffs. Who am I to judge others for the choices that they make?

When I attend a yoga class, it might be tempting to look around and pay attention to other people. I might be inclined to judge their bodies, what they are wearing, or whether they appear to be new to yoga or seasoned practitioners. This tendency is discouraged by good yoga teachers who remind their students to focus on their own practice. We are told not to compare ourselves, measure our flexibility or strength against another’s or judge what others are doing.

Applied to parenting, this lesson has been challenging yet essential. I could easily worry about whether I am as “good” of a parent as my child’s classmates. I might second-guess my career decisions, comparing the number of hours that someone else has to volunteer at the school, or beat myself up when I rely on childcare knowing that some parents are there to pick up their students the moment the bell rings. None of this helps. My parenting decisions are my own, and I will not worry about what other families have decided is right for them. I will focus on my own family and its unique circumstances.

Most importantly, I’ve learned that a practice is just that—a practice. I do not strive for perfection in yoga. Each asana, every vinyasa, is the fullest expression of my potential on any given day. My movements and breath work together, and the more I practice, the better it feels.

Parenting is a practice, too. The more I apply these lessons of yoga to parenting, the more readily available they become. I will never win any awards for parenting, and at some moments I’m about as far from equanimity as one could get. But I know that wherever I am, I am doing my best for today, and I will not look down on anyone else for their choices or where they are in their practice. Every day, I will keep practicing.



Yoga for Children with Autism


Author: Holly Whisman

Editor: Travis May

Photo: Flickr/Autumn


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Holly Whisman