Yoga and Mindful Parenting

childrenimitateNot long ago, I was in a parking garage walking to my car, and I saw a young mom, struggling with her daughter who was wailing. “I miss Daddy!” Her mom was yelling back, “It’s not a daddy day, you’ll see him this weekend!” My heart hurt. I felt badly for both of them. I went back and forth as a kid, three nights at my mom’s, four at my dad’s, switching that fourth night every other week. When I was at my mom’s I’d miss my dad. When I was at my dad’s, I’d miss my mom. I wanted to go over to the mom and say, “Hey, it’s so normal. She loves you, you’re her mom, but she misses her dad. Maybe a phone call to him would do the trick?” But I have found most people are not very receptive to suggestions when they’re in a heightened emotional state. So, I sent them love, and felt grateful, for maybe the millionth time, that when I had my kids, I’d already been practicing yoga and seated meditation for fifteen years. It helps so much in those moments when you want to pull your hair out, are feeling vulnerable, tired, or tested, or just aren’t sure what you should do. Parenthood asks us to be our best selves in every moment, twenty-four hours a day, but of course, that isn’t going to happen! For me, my practice has given me the tools to show up with the best of myself for the greatest percentage of time I can manage. If I’d had my kids before I had a long-standing practice, I have no doubt I’d have been screaming at them in parking garages.

I think there are plenty of articles out there that are shaming and judgmental when it comes to parenting. This won’t be another one. Maybe you only let your kid play with organic wooden blocks, and maybe you let your kid watch tv, and maybe you eat only avocados and maybe you let your kid have sugar sometimes. You won’t hear any gasping from me. There’s no formula for perfect parenting, you just do the very best you can with the tools you have. If you love your kids to the moon and back, and they know it, you’re doing pretty well! Here are some tools I’m grateful to have as a result of yoga and meditation practice, and I hope they’ll be helpful to you and your littles, too.

1. The ABC’s of Non-Reactivity

Sometimes WE need a timeout, so we can tune in! One of the greatest parental superpowers you can work on on your yoga mat is the ability to breathe deeply and stay calm when you feel challenged. Maybe you’re exhausted and your kid just asked you his ten millionth “why” question of the day. Maybe your teenager just tried to walk out the door in shorts so short her butt is hanging out, and when you said no, she told you all the reasons you know nothing about life. Perhaps your infant will not settle no matter what you do. Whatever stage you’re at, parenting is no easy gig! When you learn how to hold a lunge for twelve deep breaths even though your quadriceps are on fire, that power will be there for you when you walk through the fire in other areas of your life. So much of the physical practice is about being aware of physical sensation, and exploring it with curiosity. Eventually, this shows up for you when you’re feeling intense sensation that is a result of intense emotion. That ability to breathe deeply and stay calm is the difference between lashing out and saying something you’ll regret, making threats you don’t intend to keep, or thinking about your kid’s point of view, or whether there’s been a misunderstanding, or not!

2. Starve your loud inner critic

You might say to your kids, “Do as I say, not as I do”, but the truth is, our children integrate and internalize what they see day in, and day out. If you’re very hard on yourself, they’re not going to miss that. And if you’re hard on yourself, you’re likely to be hard on them, too, and then they’ll be hard on themselves. Author and inspirational speaker Peggy O’Mara has a quote, “The way you speak to your children becomes their inner voice.” Quite the responsibility, right?! When we live with a harsh inner dialogue, it’s only natural that it slips out sometimes. Whatever we’re filled with is naturally what we spread. If you work on being more forgiving toward yourself, you’ll find that ability is strengthened when it comes to other people, too, especially your children. When you make a mistake and you have an inner cheerleader instead of an inner witch, that cheerleader will be there when your kids spill their smoothies down the front of their shirt, or come home with a “needs improvement” in some subject or another. When we feel safe to make mistakes, the foundation of trust is built, and the knowledge that we are loved for who we are, and not for what we accomplish, is driven home.

3. Being present is the best gift you can give

We are all crazy-busy, and trying to find that elusive work-life balance can be challenging. Personally, I am not sure that really exists, I think it might be an urban legend. What I think it comes down to is priorities. One of the things we work on during the physical yoga practice is focal points. Each pose has one, and when you train your mind to focus on one thing at a time, that’s the same skill you use when you decide to put down your device and focus on your child. It’s the same skill you use when you’re in a crowded restaurant, but really want to hear about your kid’s day, or whatever is on her mind. Our attention, affection, love and presence are really the things our kids long for and thrive upon. Having the skills to be there fully means you’re not going to miss the moments, and your kids are not going to miss the love you feel for them.

There are so many things we work on in the yoga practice that make us better people for ourselves, and all those we love, and the world at large. Ultimately, it’s a breathing and listening practice. We breathe and become present, we listen to the body and respond with compassion, acknowledgment, respect, acceptance, patience and understanding. If you strengthen your ability to do those things for yourself on your mat, if you fill your tank with love, that’s naturally the same stuff you’ll have to offer your children, and that is gorgeous!

Sending you, and your littles, so much love,

Ally Hamilton

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Does Yoga Teach You How to Trust Yourself and Others? YES!

trustMy parents divorced when I was four. The broad strokes about my childhood experience after that are as follows–my dad liked women a lot, and my mom liked Chardonnay a lot. There was more to it than that, of course, but I spent a lot of time feeling bewildered and concerned about both of them.

Working Through the Confusion

I spent most of my growing-up years care-taking and peacemaking, and trying to be perfect so everyone would be happy. There wasn’t a lot of time or room to think about how I felt about anything, or to value my feelings. By the time I reached young adulthood, I had no clue how I felt about anything. I didn’t know what made me happy, scared, or inspired. I didn’t know what my gifts were, or how I should go about sharing them. I knew I didn’t want to be abandoned. I knew how to make myself indispensable to romantic partners. I knew how to be the good girlfriend, best friend, sister, daughter, student, but I had no clear sense of who I was, not really.

Dealing with the Pain

Needless to say, I found myself broken-hearted and pretty lost in my twenties. I was depressed a lot of the time, or anxious. I had frequent, debilitating migraines. I’d be in the kind of pain that makes you crawl around on the floor, vomiting, unable to see. I had a doctor give me a prescription for Percocet at seventeen and tell me to take it whenever I felt any pain coming on. It became hard to figure out the difference between an impending migraine, and normal stress, tension, or any uncomfortable feeling, so I took Percocet a lot. Basically, I was in a lot of pain.

Learning to Trust Myself Again With the Help of Yoga

When I started practicing yoga during my senior year at Columbia University, I was recovering from a horrendous relationship that had stirred the pot of all my childhood wounds. I had played out a lot of my history, looking to rewrite it, and find my happy ending, only to crash into a brick wall. On my mat, I started focusing on my breath. I was amazed at how that quieted the racket in my head. I started to pay attention to how I felt, and to figure out when my body was saying, yes, and when it was saying no. It took time and dedication, but I decided to place importance on the messages I was receiving from my body, and to reignite a conversation between my body and my mind that I’d been ignoring for years.

The reality is the body is full of wisdom and information about who we are, how we feel, and what we need to be at peace. The mind, while interesting, is full of ideas and opinions about how we should feel, or what we should need or want to be at peace. Some of those ideas are not even ours. A lot of the time we’re so used to being what other people want us to be, we’ve forgotten how to be who we are. And how can you possibly trust yourself if you don’t know yourself? Time and again, I’d put myself in reckless situations. I wanted to be happy, I wanted to be loved, but I did not treat myself kindly. I did not protect myself from people or situations, even when my intuition was saying “RUN!!!” I let my mind override my gut feelings for years, because I didn’t trust my gut, I’d been taught to doubt myself. At a certain point, that isn’t on anybody else, including your parents. At a certain point, that’s on you.

Growing Trust for Yourself & Others

The key to growing in trust for yourself and trust for others has to do with listening closely, and responding with compassion, honesty and kindness. These are things you can start to practice on your mat, as I did. If you’re in a pose and your body is saying. “That’s too much”, you back off, you find a place where it’s manageable, where you can breathe. Instead of striving and forcing your way into difficult poses, you give your body time, you work with it, you develop a bond there. You place more importance on the relationship you’re having with yourself than any pose. The more you loosen your grip, the less you get intense about having to “nail” a pose, the more your body opens. You’re not likely to find balance right-side-up or upside-down if there’s no foundation of trusting yourself. If you build that first, you’ll be surprised about where your body will go and what it will do for you, and you’ll also realize that getting your ankle behind your head is not the key to your happiness. Trusting yourself is, though.

When you know that you’re placing importance on how you feel, when you trust that your feelings have an impact on your actions, choices and the direction of your life, you can relax. My mind is full of interesting ideas, and sometimes I enjoy them a lot. Other times, I laugh at the absurdity. As far as choices about where I want to be, how I want to spend my time and with whom, what it is I’m trying to offer up, whether a situation or relationship feels right, or not so much, I always listen to my gut feelings now. I still get migraines occasionally, but the frequency and intensity have lessened so profoundly, they aren’t a meaningful problem for me at this point, and I don’t have any desire to numb out. I want to be awake for my life, and open to all my feelings as they arise, even the ones that are challenging; I don’t want to blur the edges or be in a fog. I changed the way I eat, I make sure I get enough sleep, and when I need to rest mentally or physically, I rest. Having an open and ongoing conversation with your body makes life so much easier. Life is mysterious enough, you really don’t want to be a mystery to yourself!

Sending you love,

Ally Hamilton

Want to start opening that conversation between your gut feelings and your loud mind? Try this class. It’s called Follow Your Intuition or Get Burned! Preview it here.


 

Or, try a full course…

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Breathing Through Sensation

thichcloudsEmotions create sensations. When we say we’re enraged, we’re describing the feelings that are flooding through our bodies—maybe our blood pressure is rising (thus we’re “hot-headed”), or the breath is shallow, or the jaw is clenching or the shoulders are up around our ears. When we say we’re depressed, we’re describing the weight of being listless and hopeless, of having no energy to get out of bed, or take a shower or “start the day”; we’re describing that ache that’s settled into everything. When we say we’re in love, we’re talking about the endorphin rush that’s coursing through the system, making us feel giddy and excited and “drunk” on someone else. If we’re feeling jealous, we’re really talking about that burning deep in the belly, that primal instinct that tells us we’re threatened.

The next time you’re having an intense emotion, observe what’s happening in your body. Get quiet if you can, sit up tall, close your eyes, and see if you can just breathe in and breathe out, witnessing your experience. For so many people, when uncomfortable feelings arise, the tendency is to run, or numb, or deny, to “push” the feelings away, or sit on them, but no feeling is forever and when we race from how we feel, we lose an opportunity to know ourselves, to figure out where we are, what we need, and why we’re feeling what we’re feeling. Why are we enraged? Are we feeling disrespected, unseen, unheard, or invisible? Is that an old, familiar feeling, and if so, when did it first arise? When we understand what’s happening within us, it’s a gift we give to ourselves, and all the people in our lives; it’s a relief. Things that felt skewed and uncomfortable suddenly fit, even if we’re left with a feeling of grief, rawness, and deeper understanding of where we still have healing to do. Now we can be accountable for the actions we’re taking, the things we’re saying, and the energy we’re spreading.

Conversely, racing to numb a feeling robs us of all this very valuable information. This is the source of all addiction, this idea that we “can’t take it”, that we have to do something, that the feeling is going to do us in unless we act. When I say addiction, people jump to drugs and alcohol, and of course those are big ones, but plenty of people are addicted to shopping, or the internet, or exercise, to eating or not eating, to throwing themselves into relationships or turning to sex to make the painful feelings go away.

If we want to be at peace, we have to come to an understanding about who we are and what we need. Not knowing yourself is the loneliest feeling there is, and it’s also a sure way to flail around through life. Happiness will be short-lived and accidental, something you just fall into by chance. One of the biggest gifts of a consistent yoga practice is the ability to breathe through intense sensation. Sometimes the quadriceps are on fire, or there’s a “fire in the belly”, and we breathe and observe. Then in life, when painful or pleasurable sensations arise that threaten to throw us off our centers or rob us of our peace, we breathe and observe. I think when we say we want to be happy, we really mean we want to feel that inner steadiness. We want to feel we’re living in alignment with what’s true for us. We want to be able to identify what’s blocking us, or inspiring us, or terrifying us, so we can work with that stuff. When we come up against some pain, some jagged, raw place within us that still needs our kind attention, we want to be responsible with our feelings. We want to show up for ourselves and other people in a way that feels good. We want to believe in our ability to have a positive impact on the world around us. There’s no way to do any of that if we run every time a difficult feeling arises.

Sending you love, and wishing you peace,

Ally Hamilton

Your Most Important Relationship

jimrohnIt might sound strange to some, but you are currently, and have always been, in a relationship with your own body. Like any relationship, you may have healthy and unhealthy patterns, but thinking in these terms is a very good way to get clear on whether your relationship could use some work.

Your body is full of information and wisdom. If things are going well between your body and your mind, then you’re in a fairly constant conversation, and you’re honoring each other, but for so many people, that’s not what’s happening. We aren’t taught to listen and respond to what we’re feeling. Sadness creates sensations in the body. So do fear and rage. Many of us grew up hearing things like, “Don’t be sad”, “Don’t be angry”, “Don’t be scared”…as if we could just turn the feelings off, make the sensations go away through sheer willpower, and we’re taught the same as far as feeding ourselves, too.

If you bought into the idea that you could just shut a feeling down, chances are you lost touch with your intuition long ago. Why should a child not be sad sometimes? Because it’s making the adults around him or her feel uncomfortable or inadequate? Sadness is a normal human emotion we will all experience. When we’re taught to edit out our emotions, we become lost to ourselves. Where a feeling ought to be, instead we find shame, self-loathing and confusion. Thus the desire to numb out.

The more you relax, the more your body opens. I say this in the context of a yoga class, but also in the context of your life. If you’re gripping and clinging and “white-knuckling” your way through life, it’s going to be hard to breathe. You’re probably going to observe tension in your body, because it takes effort to hold on so tightly. The more you release the idea that you’re in control, the more your body releases tension. This doesn’t mean we don’t work and try and put our effort in, it just means that we watch the quality we’re bringing to the effort we’re making. There’s a difference between working hard and killing yourself.

If your body is tired, are you listening and responding? For the sake of this exercise, think of your body and your personality as the two players involved. Is your body saying no, while your personality is saying, “hell, yes!”? Are you forcing your way through life? Discipline and determination are good; if you want to get things done, they’re essential, but so is compassion for yourself.

How are you feeding yourself? Are you eating stuff with seventeen syllables and wondering why you’re exhausted all the time? Your body talks to you when it’s hungry, but it never asks for aspartame or red dye #40. If you want your body to feel good, you have to treat it nicely, and give it fuel it can use. Try an organic fuji apple, they taste great. Or an avocado. Or a million other things that aren’t processed or bagged or shot full of chemicals. Give it a month and see how you feel. You’ll be amazed if this is new to you.

What kind of listener are you? When your body talks, do you take in the information, or think you have all the answers? Do you treat your body like it’s an object you own? Do you think it should bend to your will? Would you treat another person the way you treat your own body? Are you disgusted with it? Do you lament the way it looks and feel disappointed that this is the body you have? What if you expressed those feelings to another person? What if you told someone you hated the way they looked and that they were an enormous embarrassment to you? What if you called someone else names, or told them to stay up when they desperately needed to sleep? What if you told them they didn’t know anything and you had all the answers, and they should just be quiet? Wouldn’t that be a horrendous way to treat someone? If your body was your partner, would she or he want to break up with you? How are you treating yourself?

Your body is your home, it’s where you’re going to live for your whole life. You don’t want to terrorize it or abuse it. Like any relationship, the kinder you are the more trust there will be. The more you listen and respond, the more your body will pull through for you when you ask, but if you want to open and release, you can’t force that. You know that’s true if you’ve ever had anyone scream at you to relax. We respond to love and compassion. That’s the stuff that opens and strengthens us. When we feel safe, we blossom. If you don’t know how to be kind to yourself, or you’ve lost the ability to be in conversation with your body, your yoga mat is a great place to work this stuff out.

Wishing that for you, and sending you love,

Ally Hamilton