Can you do a headstand? Wrap your leg behind your ear? Survive a sweaty hour of dynamic yoga in 40 degrees of heat? Sorry, I’m not impressed. For me, the ulltimate yoga challenge is when you become a parent.
If, through the blur of sleepless nights, depleted energy and sheer lack of time to even go to the toilet on your own, you can still manage to pull out your yoga mat on a regular basis, you have my greatest respect. I never managed it in the early days of my children’s lives so I’ve been talking to other yoga teachers to see how they fared.
When Nigel Gilderson‘s daughter was young and he couldn’t find time in the day for his personal asana practice, he used everyday tasks instead: reaching up to cupboards became side stretches; picking things up from the floor became squats.
“As soon as a child comes along, your practice has to become a malleable, spontaneous thing,” says Nigel, “the child crawling all over you in downward dog, for example, can be quite a vibrant exchange if you’re not so stuck in the idea of ‘the practice’ as being a special time alone on your mat.”
Tanja Mickwitz remembers returning to her yoga mat after giving birth: “Trying to practise and having no core, that was a big shock to the system.”
She learnt to adjust. A yoga practice didn’t have to be an hour and a half; a short practice could be useful and valid, “even if it was only ten minutes. It’s nice to have something that gives you your body back. Because when they’re little and you’re carrying them a lot, life is so physically demanding, having a yoga practice to help you centre, that’s important.”
Astanga teacher Seher Khan recalls: “Any kind of exercise when the kids were little was virtually impossible, apart from dragging them to the park. At one point I had three kids under the age of five. I’d always been quite fit, into martial arts and tai chi. That’s the point I felt physically the worst. I wasn’t confident enough to just put a mat down and do some yoga. That’s what I teach people now – especially parents. Just put a mat out and do 10 sun salutations while the kids are watching TV.”
Physiotherapist and regular yoga practitioner Rebecca Hopwood says she would have found the physical changes to her body after pregnancy and birth very hard had she not had a yoga practice.
“After having a baby, I had to cope with things I hadn’t had to worry about for 20 years, like what’s happened to my belly? But the difference between yoga and other forms of exercise is that although you’re strengthening, you’re also accepting. So in yoga you are practising acceptance of the way you are now, at the same time as growing.”
It can be very frustrating, however. “I never found that place where I was happy to practise with my daughter just mucking around,” says Cecilia Allon. “I could never quite get into the zone. I used to wait until she’d gone to bed.”
But in the depths of our frustration it is possible to break through with a shift in mindset. One of the most valuable lessons you can learn in the early years of parenthood is that yoga is more than a physical practice of postures.
Until she became a parent, Cecilia had thought a “proper” yoga pratice meant getting up at dawn to spend an hour or two on the yoga mat as preparation for the day. It was a discipline she’d always struggled with and once her daughter was born, she found it impossible to achieve. Eventually she was able to let go of her assumption of what yoga “should” be.
“It was a major breakthrough in my practice to say getting up in the morning for practice is not for me. It was when I let go of that, things changed in a positive way. Now I meditate 15-20 minutes most days when I can, sometimes morning, afternoon or evening and after that I’ll do some asana, ranging from six sun salutations to two hours of indulgent exploration. On days when I can’t seem to find time I’ll at least listen to a guided meditation on headphones on the train to work.”.
Once we let go of our image of yoga as something we only do in class, or something we do alone in a special, tranquil place, we can begin to see time with our child as part of our yoga practice.
Some of the elements of our yoga practice on the mat – such as being fully present in the sensation of the moment, of finding a balance between effort and ease, and of being mindfully aware of our thoughts and reactions as we move through different physical experiences and sensations – these can all be practised in our engagement with our child.
As children get older, they offer new challenges.; if you’re faced with a toddler who won’t eat her dinner or an older child’s arguments over homework, you’re practising yoga when you notice your thoughts and reactions to those challenges, stay fully present in the moment and chose to respond with compassion for your child and yourself – at least some of the time.
As Scaravelli-inspired teacher Ed Fellowes puts it, “For me yoga is learning to be flexible within different situations. It was never meant to be one hour of practice on a rubber mat.”
Every moment with your child can be seen as an opportunity to sharpen mindfulness, be in the moment and be receptive to what the moment offers.
“Recognise that your time with your child is as much a practice as your practice,” says Nigel Gilderson. “It will pass before you know it.”