A friend of mine is a former library director.
Before she retired, she’d regularly run into people in the grocery store who would, almost before saying hello, redden with embarrassment and confess that they had an overdue book at home or a late fine worthy of a public flogging.
Another friend is a minister at a local church, and as such, elicits all kinds of impromptu confessions. “Oh, I’ve been meaning to come to church!” people tell her, flustered, at school events, at Dunkin Donuts, at the grocery store, sure that she keeps a naughty/nice attendance list. “Next week, for sure!”
I sometimes think of these two friends when I casually ask parents of the kids in my yoga classes, “Do you do yoga?”
I’m genuinely curious. Simply curious. Judgment is not on my agenda. Ask anyone who knows me – I love to think about yoga and talk about yoga. And since the parent and I are often in the midst of a conversation about how great yoga is for their child, it seems natural to ask, “Is it something you’ve tried yourself?”
“Oh, I used to. You know, before kids.”
“I’ve been meaning to. I really should, I know.”
“It’s so bad! I’m so bad! I know I should go – do you know of any studios? I think I need a class for people who can’t do yoga.”
“Oh, I’m not a yoga person. I’m not flexible/I’m out of shape/I can’t wear those pants/maybe if I was younger. Is that terrible? I probably should do it, shouldn’t I?”
The very, very, very last thing I intend when I ask, “Do you do yoga?” is to add another item to the sad and monumental list of “THINGS I SHOULD BE DOING BUT AM NOT, THEREFORE ADDING TO THE REASONS THAT I AM A SUBSTANDARD MOM/DAD/HUMAN BEING.”
And yet, one thing that has improved* my parenting experience more than any other has been a consistent yoga practice. There are physical benefits, sure, and when I’m feeling strong and healthy, I’m more likely to be in a good frame of mind, as well as more likely to enjoy running, biking, and backyard kickball with my kids.
But there’s something else that yoga gives me that makes my role as a parent a bit more comfortable and sane.
Showing up on my very own little 2×6′ island, whether at the studio for 90 minutes or on my bedroom floor for 5, recalibrates me emotionally. When my kids were very young, and their physical needs were great, just having my body all to myself for an hour peeled away layers of stress, reminded me that I need to breathe and move and feel the boundaries (and power) of my own physicality.
Now that my kids are teens, I also benefit from time being just me, standing on the soles of my own two feet, the only drama and criticism to contend with being the more or less manageable swirl of thoughts between my two ears. Just me. Just here. Just now.
I am a learner every time I step onto my mat, and this reminds me of what my children experience every day. Each class is different, each teacher has a different style and brings out different physical possibilities and emotional reactions. Kindness, clarity, encouragement, compassionate effort, and playfulness emerge as the most nutritious ingredients in human relationships, with oneself or another person, and I carry that off my mat.
No one has to do yoga, of course.
But I do think that parents benefit from participating in some activity that entices them to disengage from their daily responsibilities and come back into their own bodies and minds. A walk can do the trick, and so can tennis or biking or salsa dancing or even a long soak in a hot tub.
And when that activity is a practice, which is simply to say, when it is something that is done with some degree of regularity, a dash of comfort zone-pushing effort, and, most of all, curiosity rather than judgment, it becomes a reliable emotional and physical “home.” A place to rest and recharge.
I don’t normally teach adults, except in my family classes. Just as in my kids-only classes, everyone lays down for savasana (final relaxation) at the end. While bodies are relaxing and listening to peaceful music, I go around our little circle and offer everyone a shoulder press, a gentle movement in which their shoulders are guided away from their ears and toward the ground on a deep exhale. This ministration is totally optional, and I often have a kid or two in class who opts out.
It’s much more rare for a grownup to say no. Most say, “Yes, please,” and follow that up with a relaxed, “Thank you.” The room gets so peaceful (okay, there are occasionally a few squirming kids), that it seems almost cruel to ask everyone to roll up their mats and head home when our hour is up.
When I encourage parents to try yoga, it’s so that they can experience the peace that we’re all so thirsty for, not so that they can flash admirable arm muscles at the playground or look cuter in yoga pants during school pickup time or feel less guilty about not doing what all the ads exhort us to.
It’s because I believe that taking care of one’s self, taking time for one’s self, remembering that we all have bodies that feel and experience and need movement and rest and touch free of responsibility and worry, lays the groundwork for being truly present for other people, including (especially?!) the young people we are raising. And for ourselves too.
* Here the word “improvement” means:
1) Deeper enjoyment of the actual moments I spend with my kids.
2) Being less reactive, less prone to let stressful interactions lead to unproductive behavior (yelling!) that I later regret.
3) Being able to meet my kids right where they are and really listen to what they need in that moment without letting my anxiety about “how it will all play out” run the show.