Listening and allowing

The first day I met one of my yoga kids, she told me that she is part wild animal. Her friends, wide-eyed and earnest, corroborated, “Yes, it’s true, she really is!” I probably said something like, “Great, wild animals are cool! Let’s do some yoga!”

She’s an enthusiastic and cooperative participant for most of class, but this student never lays on her mat during savasana. While the other kids find some kind of comfy way to be prone and relaxed under dimmed lights, she is on all fours or squatting, or curled up, legs folded underneath her. She’s still for a minute or so, and then moves to a new position. She is quiet, and even moving, she is mostly calm, with a dash of vigilance in her beautiful brown eyes.

Not one of the other 11 kids in class ever says, “No fair! Why doesn’t she have to lay down?” I find this amazing.

We’ve been meeting for a few weeks now. Today, as the other kids rested on their mats, this particular girl did a slow series of bends and bows, similar to a sun salutation. Her face was calm but serious.

At the end of class, she came up to me and said, “Did you see the movements I was doing?

“In wild animal language, those were bows of respect. I was honoring you for being the teacher. I didn’t want you to think I wasn’t listening, because you were asking us to be still. But when I’m in my animal side, I CAN’T be still.”

“I know just what you mean,” I told her.

There are times when letting one kid “do her thing” can devolve into chaos and make it very hard to teach (or is it just control?) an entire group. There are contexts in which I might need to tell this child that her “human child” side needs to come to class, no wild animals allowed in the room.

But when it’s possible to avoid forcing conformity on child, when I can allow them to express something that seems so important to them, it always feels like a victory to me.

Balancing parent pose

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.

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. 

Who sings that song? Fall preschool edition!

Wondering about some of the music played in Friendly Yoga classes this fall?

I’ve listed a few favorites from the preschool classes below so that you can listen to them with your children at home. Play the yoga games we learn in class, lay down and relax for a song or too, or just sing your hearts out!

I’m full of gratitude for these wonderful artists whose music adds so much to Friendly Yoga classes.

Please support them by downloading favorite songs, and remember that most of them have CDs that make fantastic, meaningful, and beloved birthday and holiday gifts. And check out their websites to find out about touring dates so you can dance to their music live and in person!

You are my little birdMost of the music playing as you’ve arrived for class this fall is by Elizabeth Mitchell. Little Wing and If You Listen are from her album You Are My Little Bird, and Arm in Arm, I Wish You Well, and Circle of the Sun are on Blue Clouds (which was nominated for a Grammy).  You can find her duet with Alastair Moock (also a Grammy nominee), Take a Little Walk with Me, on Singing Our Way Through: Songs for the World’s Bravest Kids.

We’ve warmed up with Sometimes by Frances England (see this blog post from earlier this year) and played with Popcorn by  Barenaked Ladies (another post from this blog).

Dancing Bear by Bari Koral is from her album The Apple Tree and the Honey Bee. (Keep an eye out for Bari’s new kids’ show, Yogapalooza on Z Living this fall.)

I don’t think Laurie Berkner knew, when she wrote The Goldfish, that she had just penned the perfect beginning-yoga song. Kids of all ages love it (again! again! again!), and it’s a heart-pumping workout, with plenty of child’s pose resting in between bursts of activity. Laurie Berkner

And finally, the sweet song where your kids do yoga poses and then run over to give you a big hug at the end? That’s If I Were by Sammie Haynes and Lisa Flynn (of Childlight Yoga), and it’s from the album I Grow With Yoga.

We gear up for another session of Friendly Yoga in a few weeks, and I’m already gathering more good music to share during class, so stay tuned!



Little kids, big breaths

Last month I helped a group of tween/teenage kids plan and teach a preschool yoga class.

After the preschoolers went home, one of the older kids said, “The little kids didn’t really understand my sense of humor.”

He was right.

Preschoolers can be super silly, but some concepts that a middle schooler, or even a second grader, might be able to play with and joke about are lost on 3, 4, and 5-year-olds.

When I ask a group of 8-year-olds “Are you breathing?” they laugh and groan, “Of course we’re breathing, otherwise we’d be DEAD!”

But when I ask the same question of a group of 4-year-olds? They stop to check, and solemnly respond, often “NO,” because in the process of quieting down enough to notice, they’ve actually frozen into statues and stopped breathing for a few seconds.

Breathing is automatic. And that’s a good thing.

Breathing can also be controlled. And that can be a very good thing too.

Breathing slowly, deeply, and through the nose calms physiology and increases brain real estate that’s available for learning and problem solving.

Breathing helps with slowing down at naptime, with mitigating fearful reactions to new situations, with heading off impending temper tantrums and too-tired meltdowns.  A few deep breaths can help a child prepare their brain to find calm words to retrieve a “borrowed” toy from a playmate or to make a choice about what they want for lunch.  A parent/child duo breathing deeply together can reconnect in powerful ways.

When I’m teaching a breathing exercises to the littlest kids, my goals are simple, but developmentally right-on.

**Can they “find” their breath, and feel themselves breathing?

**Can they distinguish between breathing in and breathing out?

**Can they breathe in and out through their nose and through their mouth?

**Can they slow their breath down?

Here’s the first of a series of blog posts with ideas about teaching young kids to notice and control their breathing. Enjoy!

(At first you might notice that, for some kids,  attention to breathing seems to do the opposite of relaxing children’s bodies; their faces can get squinched or wide-eyed  in concentration, eyebrows and shoulders might rise with tension. Don’t worry – – they’ll figure it out!)

Quite a handful: a meditation especially for parents

We’ve all heard it.

What our kids need more than anything is our presence.  For us to really be there with them.

And so many of us try so hard to be present. We listen and respond, nodding, really hearing. We ask questions, and we listen some more to the answers. We put down the magazine, the iPhone, the potato peeler. We draw and read. We get on the ground and we play with trains and little plastic animals. We eat tons and tons of fake food.

At its best, presence is not a requirement, but a joy that builds on itself.

Sweet-smelling child in lap with a beloved book, commenting on pictures, sibling nestled up, perfectly content to lean head on your arm and wait for her turn to flip the next page. A walk on one of those first days of fall, when we’re re-mesmerized by the colors of the fallen maples leaves, by puffy clouds in a blue sky, and happy to take 15 minutes going one block. One of those in-the-car conversations with a teen when you drive an extra few miles out of your way, just so that the beautiful talking doesn’t stop.

But let’s face it, sometimes we want to run away. To tune out.

Sometimes the idea of another repetitive, semi-nonsensical conversation about trains or princesses or ponies or construction trucks or, when our children get older, sixth grade social dynamics or video game intricacies, can numb the skull and all the material within. Sometimes we gaze with longing at the book we’ve been reading for the past three weeks or the undone work on our laptop or even our cool, empty pillow while pretending to nom nom yet another slice of pretend birthday cake. We. Can. Be. So. Bored.  So tired. Or on our last nerve.

Because sometimes we’re angry at our child (gasp). Or worried about him. Or worried about ourselves or our parents or our marriages. Sometimes we’re distracted or just in a sour mood. Sometimes being really present in a room with another person is the hardest thing imaginable.

However, the reason that presence is so powerful, the reason that the experts advise that we offer more of it to our children is that we feel safe and connected when another person is truly (physically, attentionally, emotionally) with us. We feel seen and understood and felt, and when those conditions are in place, our mind is at its emotional best. More ready to learn and create. Less reactive and volatile and more receptive. Presence is an optimistic investment in a child, for the next 10 minutes and the next 10, 20, 60, 90 years.

No one is demanding that you be present 100% of the time, turned up to 11. Children need to learn to play and rest and just be on their own and parents are at their best when they  nourish themselves as adults.

Simply being near your child and holding them in your appreciative attention can start a powerful feedback loop.

I’ve found the following on-the-spot meditation to be a helpful tool for unobtrusively but powerfully reconnecting with a child, as both a parent and a teacher.

It’s so simple.

Take 2 or 3 deep breaths and feel whichever part of your body is in contact with the floor or your chair.

Then just choose one of your child’s hands and watch, in as much detail as possible, exactly what that hand does.

Watch the whole entire hand. What is it touching or holding? What shape is it making? Is it tense or relaxed, are its movements big or little?

You can stop there and just watch, or you can generate some inner appreciation for that little (or big) starfish of a hand. Amazement  at its dexterity. At its very existence, this hand that a decade ago didn’t exist, and can now wave in the air or make a fist or clap or drop cheerios onto the floor or assemble legos or swipe and tap at a screen.

Watch the thumb. Move on to the other fingers, and watch them one by one. And then watch the hand as a whole.

Oh yeah, and breathe. Slowly and deeply. Breathing is 50% of the magic in this one.

There are certain child wrangling “moves” that I categorize as Jedi mind tricks, and this is one of them. Maybe someday scientists will be able to explain exactly why this happens, but I notice that if I can focus on a child’s hand movements like this for even two or three minutes, the reset button is magically pressed. You and your child move a few pips away from from fractious, from worked up. If you’ve been breathing deeply, slowly, you might notice that your child’s breathing has also slowed down. And the positive feedback loop has begun.

Extra credit: Echo your child’s hand movements with movements of your own.

Update: As I was editing this post, one of my 13-year-old sons came into the room and asked for a hug. Which I gladly gave. He then sat very close next to me, and started reading the post aloud, in a smarmy voiceover tone. Every time he read the word “presence,” he exclaimed, “PRESENTS!? I LOVE presents!”

Cute, yes. But annoying!  Distracting.

My son didn’t come into the room to bother me. He came in looking for connection. Which, as a 13-year-old, he still needs very much.

But he *was* bothering me. Very much. I really wanted to tell him to go away. I really wanted to finish this post so I could get a bunch of other stuff done. More deeply, however, I really want to honor and savor the rarer and rarer moments when he wants to be close.

So I listened to my own typed words as he read them aloud,  took a deep breath and started to look at his hand. His giant hand, with the picked at fingernails. His giant, expressive, always moving, hand. Green marker on one of the knuckles. And it took a few breaths, but I started to relax out of my frustration with him. When I reached out for his hand, he squeezed mine, and said, “Nice Jedi moves, Mom.”

True story.