I first discovered yoga through a friend in 1998 and it has been a beloved companion in my life since then. From participation in various studio classes and retreats, solo practice in Japan and Hong Kong, and most profoundly through gentle breathwork and mindful practice throughout my pregnancy and entrance into motherhood, my relationship to yoga has changed and grown along with me. I share some of my yoga insights as part of my free Stress Relief Resource Bundle for busy parents. But one thing is certain – I’ve learned from some excellent yoga teachers along my path and I’m so excited to introduce you to one of them!
I’ve invited Dorothy Price, an experienced yoga instructor and parent, to share some of her insights about yoga, wellbeing and parenthood for the Global Wise Parenting community. My husband and I were fortunate enough to enjoy a fabulous yoga retreat led by Dorothy a few years ago on Salt Spring Island in Canada and we hope to join her again in the future. If you haven’t yet encountered yoga for yourself, Dorothy offers some thoughts for busy parents to consider.
Q: “Wellbeing” is a huge concept and many people are searching for it. How can yoga support parents in their quest for a sense of wellbeing?
A: “Wellbeing” to me means being holistically healthy. Meaning, addressing all aspects of health including physical health, mental and emotional health, as well as finding or strengthening spiritual connection. Yoga is a holistic practice which addresses all of these concerns in one package! Even if you start doing yoga simply as a way to keep the physical body stretched, strong and healthy you will notice that, even after your first class, it calms your mind and emotions and turns you inward to meet your “inner-self”. Often you will feel a sense of serenity flooding the mind and body. Fear and anxiety fall away and a sense of well-being prevails. No doubt, raising a family can take you to your highest highs but coping with exhaustion and the challenges that children create can also take you to your lowest lows. Yoga helps bring balance and equanimity to this roller coaster effect.
Q: What tips would you suggest to busy new parents who would like to find a way to benefit from yoga within a busy family schedule?
A: First you have to choose to make yoga a part of your life. A certain amount of discipline is required but as parents, especially of small children, flexibility is important. Figuring out how much time you can realistically devote to it is crucial to success. I think one of the biggest mistakes people make is thinking they have to devote a lot of time to the yoga practice. Yes, the more you do the more benefits you will receive but even minimal amounts can make very positive differences. Don’t under-estimate the value of just one yoga class a week or even 5-10 minutes of practice per day. If you try to do too much it is likely you will not be able to keep it up and will stop doing the practice. The key is regular practice. When, and if, more time becomes available then slowly increase your practice time or add another class.
Setting a regular time for practice is helpful but be flexible when needed. Also, if you have decided to practice for 10 minutes then only practice for 10 minutes. The reason is that you will stay more focused for that 10 minutes knowing that you cannot add more time and also because it is better to keep it short and sweet and regular.
Q: What are some ways that a yoga practice can help parents feel more energized as they navigate the complexity of parenthood?
A: Yoga keeps us fit but yoga is much more than just a physical practice. We can do breath work (pranayama) and meditation as well. Deep steady breathing not only increases the flow of oxygen to the body but also increases the intake of “prana”, an energy considered to be the “life force’ energy of the universe. This energy is the same as “chi” in the Chinese culture. When we cultivate this pranic energy within it makes us more energized and vibrant.
Yoga calms the nervous system so it is likely that it will help improve your sleep thus helping with energy levels. When your children are very young there are times when we are exhausted due to lack of sleep. Taking naps might not be possible to help recoup some of that lost sleep but sitting and doing breath work can help greatly and can be done even while the children are around. Plus, the children will benefit from seeing you take care of yourself. See breath-work suggestions below.
One of my principal teachers, Baba Hari Dass, wisely told me that when our children are very young, they are our yoga, or spiritual, practice. Sometimes it is not possible to do a formal yoga practice. Young children require selfless service and challenge us on many levels. Know that the love and energy devoted to take care of your family members is a type of yoga practice unto itself (Karma Yoga). Relax about it and enjoy this short period of time.
Q: How can yoga complement, rather than compete or conflict with, any spiritual practices established within families?
A: Yoga is used in some religions such as Hinduism but yoga is not a religion. Yoga is a practice unto itself.
I like the words of Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati for clarification of this. ”Yoga means union ~ To say that the word Yoga itself is a religion makes as much sense as saying that the words Union or Holistic are themselves religions.”
Yoga is a way of quieting the mind so you can turn inward and feel union with God/Spirit/Pure Consciousness/Inner Self etc. It is not meant to challenge your beliefs but rather support you on your spiritual or religious path.
Yoga is an umbrella practice. It honours that all ways of thinking about God or spirituality are valid. It does not say there is only one way to think about religion or spirituality. In yoga we say that there are many paths that lead to the same place. If you find a teacher that uses terminology that makes you feel uncomfortable then switch to another teacher.
Q: What resources, tips and strategies would you suggest to parents as a starting point for beginning a yoga practice either alone, or with their children?
A: Be realistic. Figure out how much time you can manage and sustain to do your practice. Can you fit in one yoga class a week (at a studio or on a video)? Or perhaps, 5-10 minutes of practice each morning or sometime later in the day.
When I first started doing yoga all I did was Tree Pose every morning. I focused on slow, deep, steady breathing for 5-10 breaths while in the pose. It settled my mind and set me up for a great day! That was all I could manage and I was able to maintain the practice. On days I felt I had a bit more time I added Warrior II and Sphinx. This still only took a few minutes of my time.
When it comes to picking classes, shop around. There are many types of yoga classes and many teachers with their own individual style. Picking the right class and teacher is important. I know many people who have thought that yoga wasn’t for them because they went to a class that didn’t match their body’s needs. If you are a beginner or haven’t kept up your yoga practice it is a good idea to go to beginners classes so you receive important alignment cues while doing the poses. Often the basic alignment principles are not reinforced in the more advanced classes.
While doing the postures try to stay “present” and focused on steady, rhythmic breathing. You will get many extra benefits this way, similar to those benefits gained from doing pranayama and meditation. Being “present” means focusing on the present moment (what you are doing now) rather than planning dinner or rehashing a conversation with someone. When you focus on your breath and your body while in the yoga postures you calm the mind because you have given the mind something else to do (rather than thinking). Thinking can produce stress and often negativity in the mind. When you focus on calm steady breathing it calms the mind and nervous system. It is a simple method but remembering to use it can be the challenge. Calm steady breathing can be done throughout the day, not just in class.
Practicing yoga at home for short periods while the children around can have positive effects and set a good example for your children. Children can be very distracting though so try to have some time by yourself or go to a class. Toddlers and small children will naturally copy what they see mom/dad doing. They will try to put their bodies into the same shape you are. If you notice your older (over the age of six) children taking an interest in your yoga practice you can offer to take them to a class for children. Classes for children should be all about fun not discipline. Some places offer classes for teenagers. Remember the interest has to be there or they will not enjoy it and possibly associate with it negatively. If they see you do yoga they may be inspired to do it sometime in their life, when they are ready.
Don’t be disappointed if your children, or your partner, don’t take an interest in yoga. Remember it is a personal journey. The main reason you should do yoga is for your own benefit. When you take care of yourself, your children, friends and family will notice your calmer demeanor and your insightfulness. You will influence your family in a positive way and that will encourage them to take care of themselves.
Q: What final hints and suggestions can you share with parents who are interested in delving deeper into yoga as a pathway to personal self-care?
A: You might start out with yoga classes and then find you want to go deeper. You might add a short morning or afternoon pranayama practice (5-10 minutes) can help make your nerves calm and steady for the day. Helping you to cope with whatever comes your way!
Perhaps you will want to explore meditation as well. Meditation has a profound effect. Again even devoting 5-10 minutes a day can make a world of difference. Meditation is not complicated. The challenge lies in returning to the present moment rather than thinking. Your thoughts may seem a lot more exciting to the mind than the present moment so it is hard to keep the mind from wandering. That is why we often give the mind something to focus on such as the breath or a mantra.
A simple meditation would be to sit comfortably and upright with eyes closed or lowered. Let your mind empty and observe your subtle breathing. Keep coming back to your subtle breath every time you realize you are thinking. So simple but so challenging! Know that it is a challenge for everyone, even seasoned yogis and meditators, to calm that crazy mind! Never be harsh with yourself.
It is best to learn breathing techniques from a teacher but here are three simple breathing techniques that you can do on your own. You could do 5 or 10 of these breaths, or do them for 5 or 10 minutes. You could do them lying down, sitting or standing…just do them!
• Inhaling to the count of 4 and exhaling to the count of 4
• Inhaling to the count of 4 and softly exhaling out through the mouth to the count of 8
• While inhaling, reinforce a characteristic that you would like to increase such as “I am calm” or “I am patient”; then exhale slowly.
Try not to ‘rush’ through the practice. When we breathe with a calm, steady pace and especially when we extend the exhale breath, the body’s parasympathetic nervous system kicks in (AKA the “relaxation response”). When this happens, your heart rate slows, your blood pressure drops and your whole nervous system calms down. Once you experience the benefits you will want to do these practices regularly. It is important to realize that these practices do not have to be complicated to have great benefits. The truth is, these practices work. The hard part is, you have to do them!
To deepen your yoga practice and gain a fuller understanding of the yoga practices and yoga philosophy, here are a few very highly regarded books on yoga:
• The Heart of Yoga by T.K.V. Desikachar
• Any books by B.K.S. Iyengar such as Light on Yoga or for postures Iyengar Yoga for Beginners
• For postures Ashtanga Yoga – The Practice Manual by David Swenson
Dorothy Price (mother of 3 grown children) is a Canadian yoga teacher living on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia. Dorothy founded Santosha Yoga Retreats in 2004 and has been teaching yoga retreats worldwide ever since. In addition to hosting retreats in Mexico and on her beautiful island in Canada, this September Dorothy is hosting two week-long retreats in Tuscany and Provence. Dorothy teaches Hatha/Hatha Flow with a focus on breathwork and alignment principles, making sure that everyone has a meaningful experience no matter what their level of yoga experience. Pranayama and meditation are taught at all retreats. Her retreats are suitable for all levels of practice. Join her in one of her beautiful locations. See website for details and photos or contact Dorothy at email@example.com