“Surrender yourself and act without attachment, renouncing all the fruits of your actions.” Bhagavad Gita, chapter 12, sloka 11. Translation by Sharon Gannon, Jivamukti Yoga.
“My children provide me with a reality check. They have no tact and have always shown me the truth, even if they haven’t always told it,” says Jaki Cairelli, a mother of three and yoga teacher in Sydney. Cairelli feels that being a mother is a little like sequencing a yoga practice. “There is the warm-up, pregnancy, followed by the dynamic phases, as well as the need for restoration and nurturing,” she says. There’s always the need to respond to what is actually happening rather than some preconceived idea of what we would like to be happening.
If we reference the yoga scriptures, we see that the Bhagavad Gita outlines the period in life known as Grihastha ashram (phase of family life), where the spiritual aspirant is encouraged to settle down and be of service to one’s husband or wife and children. These traditional teachings of yoga might initially seem limiting for the modern parent. The model is archaic, the parents are, of course, married and the wife serves the husband and children on every level in the role of a cook, cleaner, psychologist and servant. This very traditionalist first impression has lead me as both a mother of two young children and a yoga teacher to question: does yogic wisdom have anything to offer modern parents or is it an area in which the teachings are rather old-fashioned and therefore somewhat irrelevant? If Cairelli’s insights are anything to go by, with a broader lens yoga has much to offer parents both in terms of support to ourselves and for our children.
The Flow of Parenting
Many popular forms of yoga include the idea of vinyasa, or flow. Strictly speaking, vinyasa is the linking of yoga asanas as a way in which to train the mind. The idea is that the yogi practises the art of completing a series of “perfect” actions (in this case asanas) in sequential order. In other words, through the practice we work with the introduction of stress or a challenge (asana) in a controlled way. This stress is regulated with the breath as we train ourselves to move to more and more advanced stresses (asana) moment by moment. As Cairelli suggests, this is the perfect metaphor for parenting. Both asana practice and parenting teach a valuable lesson: that being in the moment is the only sane approach because the journey is the process. There is a profound lack of completion in the process of both asana practice and parenting.
Sarah Napthali, a mother of two and author of Buddhism for Mothers (Allen & Unwin, 2003) and Buddhism for Mothers of Young Children (Allen & Unwin, 2009), believes that being physically in the moment will help mothers remain calm and compassionate. “I have found one of the most common culprits for irritability when interacting with my children is that my body has become tense,” she says.
“When I stop, scan my body and loosen up, my communication becomes kinder.” Napthali reminds us that being present is not just about physically being there, you need to be emotionally engaged, too. “Several times a day get down to your child’s level and look in his eyes. Really stare at your child’s face and give 100 per cent of your attention.” In doing this Napthali suggests we can connect to the many things about our children that are to be celebrated—rather than being on autopilot and allowing our conditioning and habits to be the place that we parent from.
As a parent, we are constantly asked to make decisions on behalf of our young children. From what they eat to where and how they live, we decide so much on their behalf. Being in the moment as a parent requires an ability to be selective and intelligent in this constant process of decision-making.
The Italian physician and educator, Maria Montessori, pioneered the concept of “freedom within boundaries”, which can be viewed as a yogic model of education and parenting. This model enables children by believing they are capable and intelligent, and seeks to entrust and uplift the child by offering responsibility within appropriate framework. A simple example, instead of offering your young child food in plastic bowls and plates so breakages cannot occur, offer the child food in beautiful china and teach him or her to admire and love it while learning to be mindful and skilful in using it. At its foundation, the Montessori ideas suggest that as parents and teachers we should constantly be looking for the very best in our children and in yogic terms this means seeing the enlightenment potential in them. Explaining the idea of seeing the innate goodness of children, Montessori said we should “be constantly looking for a child who is not there yet.”
However, it’s equally wise to not hold unrealistic expectations of what children can and cannot understand for their age, and to set some boundaries accordingly. Aleta Lafferty, a Sydney-based Kundalini yoga teacher and mother of three-year-old son Sebastian, does this in the way she structures her yoga practice around Sebastian’s sleeps. “Kids at that age can feel when you want to disconnect with them. I’ve found it better to wait until they are asleep to practise alone, otherwise it just confuses them—they don’t understand separateness,” says Lafferty. It’s another lesson in being fully present for our children and making this a practice in and of itself. Of course, sometimes we have to compromise. “I have learned to do my morning pranayama in front of cartoons,” says Lafferty. “Thankfully, it is just for now. We won’t always be at this stage, so I am just going with it!”
Many of us want to control our children and feel disappointed when they show free will. I include myself in this; I would like my children to be picture-perfect models of good manners and reflect myself and my parenting positively at all times. But this does not always happen and when it doesn’t I feel disappointed. As parents, some control is essential, but we also need to trust and support our children. Perhaps we can celebrate that this generation is one of the most liberated in history in its ability to do that. We no longer rule by corporal punishment but rather parent by listening to our children; this can only be a good thing, challenges and all.
Napthali offers some helpful advice in regard to our children’s “unenlightened” moments too, suggesting that in each situation we could ask ourselves to have an “intelligent” response rather than becoming frustrated or angry. “Sometimes you just need to break the deadlock of bad behaviour. You can have a joke or even a hug before then getting back to the business of discipline,” says Napthali.
Just when being a parent seems so hard, there is always the flip side—when things do go well. When my four-year-old stands at the supermarket check-out and helps me load items onto the conveyor belt patiently without asking for lollies, I feel a swell of pride. Contrast this to the child in the next aisle having a tantrum because his father has said “no” to chocolate. In my heart, I know the situation could easily be reversed—my kids have had plenty of tantrums in the supermarket. Which is why in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, he warns specifically against the swell of pride that the “it’s all going my way” moment can lead to, because it is pride that is based on “I look good while others appear to be failing”. Patanjali is clear: “Be happy for those who are happy and compassionate to those who are struggling.”
Compassion for Ourselves
How we parent is subject to deep cultural conditioning, and if we become conscious about wanting to do things a little differently this can present challenges. For Lafferty, following the yamas and niyamas (the ethical guidelines from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras) in daily life means she follows them in parenting as well. While personally rewarding, she can feel alienated from the majority of other mothers. “The only other mums I know really focusing on teaching ahimsa [non-harming] to their kids are yogis or vegetarians,” she says. Meagan Wilson, a yoga student, mother of two and author of eco-parenting blog ecoMILF, has met with strong resistance and judgement from other women about her parenting choices. “It’s sad to me that in just the past century, women have become so unsupportive of each other,” she says.
It is challenging to make a decision based on offering what is best for our children when others around us such as our parents, our friends and parenting “experts” disagree. And this all leads to every mother’s most dreaded (and perhaps familiar) emotional state—the very touchstone of modern parenting—guilt. It is fascinating to me that there is no word in Sanskrit for guilt. The concept simply does not exist in quite the same way that we have so wholeheartedly embraced in our current culture.
Napthali points out that mothers need to be kinder to themselves. “Love yourself as you love your child. Forgive yourself. This is another way to practise what the Buddha called ‘waking up’,” she says. Perhaps we could all make a practice of being kinder and less judgemental to other parents and thereby reap the karmic rewards of feeling less judged ourselves.
“Be happy for those who are happy and compassionate to those who are struggling.”
Mothers can cultivate this kinder environment through the yogic concept of satsang. The teachings of yoga explain satsang as keeping the company of like-minded people in order to inspire us and keep us on track. Yogini mothers have found their own ways of doing this. Lafferty teaches a mums’ and toddlers’ class, to which she takes her son as a way of “cultivating my own community” of other mothers with a similar perspective. Wilson draws her community together in cyberspace: through her blog she connects with other mothers who have shared her joys and challenges over the years she has been a mother herself. She has found this virtual community particularly useful, as she has relocated cities twice since her children were born.
Being a good parent to young children is a challenging task and one that requires great patience, reflection and proactive engaging. Children are precious, holy gifts to us and we need to cultivate the clarity of mind to see them as such. Meditation and “formal” spiritual practice can help with this, as can the cultivation of deep gratitude to our children. My little ones have taught me patience, mindfulness and thankfulness in a way I know I would never have experienced had I not had them in my life. Most of all they have taught me how to love fiercely and with every cell of my being, and it’s this love that is really the goal of yoga. Yoga teaches us to attempt to cultivate this love without sentimentality. That means to love without a set of conditions (like “I will love you if you love me back” or “I will love you if you do the things I want you to do”). To love even when you are frustrated and extremely tired. And most of all, to love without attachment to outcome.
Your Yoga Practice With Young Children
When I became a mother for the first time, I went from a without fail two-hour non-negotiable dynamic yoga asana practice six days a week to being lucky if I could find 20 minutes uninterrupted on the mat. This was a huge shock and change to my whole life. How do we find the practice within parenting instead of looking for it outside of our role as parents? Here are some ideas:
1. Practise within time spent with the kids. As I drive my eldest to pre-school in the morning, we listen to a CD and chant together. As I lie down with him at bedtime, I repeat japa mantras and use this as meditation time.
2. Cultivate the art of sadhana (conscious spiritual practice) in everyday activities. Cooking, cleaning and gardening, even with young children around, can be mindful and even joyful activities if you take time and approach them as such.
3. Play mindfully with your children. Practise being really present rather than multi-tasking.
4. Talk to your children about uplifting ideas and ideals. Take the time to smell a flower together or visit an elderly relative. View the very act of looking after your young children as an act of karma yoga (yoga of service) in and of itself.
5 If all else fails, put on a kids’ yoga DVD and do some yoga together. Try Shanti the Yogi—Mountain Adventure by Snatam Kaur (www.spiritvoyage.com)—both my son and I enjoy this!
Katie Manitsas is a mother of two and a yoga teacher. She is director of Jivamukti Yoga Sydney.