By Stephanie Renfrow Hamilton
Somewhere between the lullabies and your child's first driving lesson, parenting becomes your spiritual practice.
It's tempting to wax romantic when I think of my earliest days practicing yoga in the verdant hills of St. Croix. But the fact is, I would have done anything just to get out of the house.
My husband and I were living in the U.S. Virgin Islands and I had just given birth to our second child in two years. Tulani was a peaceful baby girl, serene with a mischievous streak (she'd nip me while nursing, then giggle impishly). But she arrived so soon after Malcolm, a sweet, active boy who, when he was just three days old and snuggled at my shoulder, placed his fingers on my neck and pulled me in. This is what it's all about, I remember thinking. An infant's arm around a mother's neck completes the circle. In time, though, a daunting feeling overtook me, and it wasn't so soft around the edges; it was the fear of botching things, the nagging suspicion that I was not equal to the task of parenting. And so another impulse crept in: Run, head for the hills. That running away meant taking outdoor hatha yoga classes on a hilltop in the Caribbean.
As fate would have it, I did what a lot of new parents who haven't quite settled into their roles do: I renewed my interest in spiritual pursuits. My efforts were piecemeal, to be sure, and they were more solitary (yoga and meditation) than congregational (church of any kind was a seasonal event). But over time, I did become more conscious of the ways in which yoga might carry over at home. And I began to wonder how other parents were putting yogic principles to good use in their homes.
Across the country, I spoke to a range of mothers and fathers practicing yoga or meditation or both, who expressed various levels of commitment to their practice. Some have trekked to ashrams here and in India, kids in tow; others have embarked on their inner journeys without ever leaving home. Although many have experienced deep states of meditation, they vary in their success at bringing such peaceful states to their childrearing. None of them ever pushed the practice on their children, but rather let it influence them by example and by discussion.
Not all of these parents could point to proof that their practice had transformed their lives. But many spoke of the increased energy levels they enjoyed, the heightened awareness of the moment-to-moment experiences of daily life, and the greater empathy they felt for their children. It was as if these moms and dads were saying to their young, the divinity in me salutes the divinity in you. Namaste in action.
Many spoke of coming to terms with the constant juggling of doing both their yoga and the dishes with reasonable regularity, placing neither their practice nor their children first, but recognizing that, somewhere along their spiritual paths, their parenting had become their practice. The same mindfulness that goes into preparing the body for meditation through yoga, for instance, can be brought to bear when cooking dinner, tucking in bed sheets, or changing diapers.
These were decent, earnest stories these parents were offering, at turns, gritty and inspiring. So heartening were their lessons, in fact, that my usual tendency to bemoan my own lack of progress seemed pointless. For, in listening to their struggles, their humor, their stark reflections, in sensing their capacity for generosity and growth, I somehow sensed my own.
The trick is to stay in that recognition of mutual divinity, to stay in namaste during all our dealings, especially those involving our children. For, in our impatience with our kids, we sometimes forget our shared connection to the infinite. And in our fear of losing our children—to independence, peer pressure, death, disorder, or despair—we may hold onto them too tightly. At times the childrearing path seems impossibly narrow. That is, until we actually walk it and experience just how vast it is.
Ritual & Routine
It's no mystery that practicing some form of yoga or meditation with some regularity can nurture a sense of security and order in kids' lives. Haji and Jasmin Shearer are a young, soft-spoken couple living in Dorchester, Massachusetts, raising a son, Patanjali, age 8, and a daughter, Sakeena, age 5. Both have had some success getting their practices down to a routine, dedicating either mornings or evenings to sitting meditation. Fitting in time for yoga—both of them have practiced hatha yoga since 1985—takes a bit more maneuvering. Sometimes it doesn't happen at all, save for the occasional Savasana before bedtime or Tadasana while waiting in line.
As a couple, they speak often of peace. Sometimes it's direct, like when Haji, speaking for the four of them, says, "All of us have this ideal that peace is possible." Or when you can't catch them home and their voice mail kicks in: "If you think about it, every moment is a miracle. Thanks for participating in ours. We'll call you back. Peace." And sometimes it's indirect, as when Jasmin talks about the family singing nightly bhajans (Sanskrit songs of devotion) before tucking in the kids. Her account of these bedtime rituals takes you right back into childhood, under the covers, listening in wide-eyed awe to ancient melodies rendered that much sweeter by the voices of people you love. "The children take turns picking the songs, and it's a good way to pull our energies together," she says. "It feels so relaxing it's hard to leave them and go do what I have to do for the evening."
These kinds of nesting rituals are your "family practice," says Bo Lozoff, who along with his wife, Sita, launched the renowned Prison Ashram Project near Durham, North Carolina. He is currently working on a book about everyday spirituality called A Meaningful Life: It Just Takes Practice, so his memories of morning family sessions with their now-grown son, Josh, are not far from the surface. From the time Josh was 4, Bo would pull up his recliner and read to him from the Ramayana or the Mahabharata. He'd start the day in this way at a leisurely pace, allowing time for the stories to be understood at a deep level.
Even watching television was a mindful act in the Lozoff household. After Josh turned 5, the Lozoffs agreed to turn on the television only as long as they watched shows all three of them liked. "Viewing was a conscious choice for us," says Bo, "not something we did because we were bored. When there is a child in your home who loves watching these programs, it just becomes a part of your practice."
Bedtime had a sense of purpose as well. Bo remembers singing to Josh from his cache of personal favorites, folk and pop songs like "Mr. Bojangles," "Sweet Baby James," and Bob Dylan's "Forever Young." The point, he says, was to begin and end each day with a tender, sacred moment so that it turned full circle into one seamless event. He adds, "There is no way to replace such times with things that don't take as much time."
Being Here Now—Even During Chores
Last summer, Marcia Miller, who teaches Integral yoga in downtown Columbus, Ohio, made an announcement to her students in one of her quarterly newsletters. She had to cut back on some of her classes so that she could have more time to do the laundry, she wrote. This chore was a metaphor for all the little things we do that we think are "less important," she explained.
Her point was a logical extension of her karma yoga teachings, suggesting that everything we do is worthy of our full attention. "If, when you're folding clothes, you're really there for the task, you're creating harmony and a sense of order in the home," she tells me by phone. "There's a huge difference in the emotional life of your family if you can find your underwear in the morning."
Marcia says she's received more positive feedback about those few paragraphs in her newsletter than anything she'd ever written. "When I am home with my children, I assure you that they do not care if I can do 10 deep backbends in a row. They do care that I am present both physically and emotionally to create a safe place where their needs get met," she reflects. Those needs include enjoying a mom who is calm and loving, who can organize the household decently and sing them their lullabies at night. The loving calmness that her boys value so much, she points out, gets cultivated during her morning asanas. "In essence, daily life is a mixture of the simple (laundry) and the sublime (bedtime kisses and songs), and the practice of yoga can help with both."
For some parents, the struggle has less to do with interweaving the simple with the sublime than with finding time to juggle the parenting and the practice. Is this a true dilemma or is it more likely the agitated worries of a divided mind? Even moms and dads quite far along in their spiritual development have different ways of answering that. But many paths lead to this simple truth: As long as we carry on our child-rearing with love, respect, and our full attention, our needs to be good parents and our needs to practice are being met. Marcia, for instance, recalls the time when one of her students, a mother with two young children, told her that she would have to drop class for a semester because she didn't want to miss her kids' bedtimes too many times a week.
What a perfect karma yoga posture, Marcia remembers thinking. "She was doing absolutely perfect yoga by not coming to class. I told her, 'It's more important to put your kids to bed than it is to do headstands.'"
Bo Lozoff offers a similar point of view. "When you have children, there is no more important spiritual practice than being a parent." The notion that our practice is something that we only do with other adults needs rethinking. It's a false distinction, he says, adding: "Only a paranoid culture would make us keep such a ledger or speak about having to give to our kids and take for ourselves separately."
When little ones see their parents practicing asanas or hear them speak about niyamas and yamas (the do's and don'ts of living offered by the Yoga Sutra) as they do in the Shearer household, chances are that solid, simple, nonviolent messages become part of a trove of tools for living. I asked Haji and Jasmin on separate occasions how their yoga practice affects their disciplining the children, especially in a world where spanking is the norm. Taking away privileges and "treasured items" and time-outs are definitely part of the package, says Haji.
But hatha yoga or focused breathing also gets harnessed into their family life. "When I get upset, I just sit down and breathe and repeat a mantra to myself," says Jasmin. Similarly, when the kids "start getting off balance," she says, "I'll tell them 'come into yourself' and I might have them go sit down and breathe." Jasmin admits that the kids' responses vary, but she believes they are "getting" her centering tactics on some level: She's overheard both Patanjali and Sakeena tell their friends, "Sit down and breathe."
Children can better understand the power of such centering devices when they can deploy them on adults too. "Sometimes when I'm disagreeing with Jasmin, Patanjali will tell me 'Dad, You need to be nicer to Mom,'" Haji says, "and I'll stop and realize that he's reminding me to hold fast to our principles."
To have an 8-year-old show you or tell you that you're wrong is great yoga training, Haji adds, with a hint of amusement. After all, good role modeling is not about being right all the time. "It's about asking who's going to go for the highest good—which one of us is willing to get up off of our ego," he says. "To think that we adults are the only teachers in the house or that we always have all the answers is the height of ageism."
Children as Gurus
Our children are perfectly capable of showing us who we should be—a fact Robin Gueth, who teaches at the Yoga Source in San Anselmo, California, has realized repeatedly since her daughter Katharina was born five years ago. Just recently, Katharina offered her mom a way to ease her own adult emotional pain. "We were visiting a friend of mine, when this friend and I had a tough argument. So I took Katharina and left. Driving back in the car, I burst into tears," Robin recalls. "Then I realized that Katharina had never seen her mother cry, and I started to worry how she would take it. But I'll never forget the way she looked up at me and said 'You know what, when I miss somebody, I howl like a coyote.'" It wasn't exactly a time-honored spiritual tradition, this canine hue and cry, but it resonated all the same. Says Robin, "We howled and howled like coyotes until it rattled all the way down to our hearts."
Loving without Attachment
When we meditate, we're taught to see our thoughts drift by, without judging or harboring. Certain thoughts, however, don't waft so well. For parents, in fact, no thought is quite as primal and terrifying as the fear of losing a child. I suspect many of us have fretted privately, with varying degrees of obsession, about losing our children to illness or death. But for Marcia Miller and her husband Roland, this fear was no mere mental exercise in terror. Six or seven years before their sons were born, Marcia gave birth to a daughter who lived only three days. A year later, another daughter was born; she lived three months. Both infants had heart defects. With each death, Marcia remembers, she felt herself "lose connection with that universal spirit." In time, that excruciating pain, that utter bafflement at life's random cruelty, passed, making way for what she says was a much deeper connection to spirit.
Both Marcia and her husband were practicing and teaching Integral yoga (which includes hatha, karma, and bhakti yoga), but coping with these deaths challenged everything they thought they knew about the world, including their experience with yoga.
"It was a huge lesson in attachment. It reoriented my relationship with yoga in a deeper, more realistic way," says Marcia. "Even though it's biologically and emotionally reasonable for us to be attached to our children, it's an attachment that creates pain. The Sutra says that anything we resist—like losing somebody—creates pain. We had to learn to experience love without attachment."
For Marcia and Roland, "watching [their] child's spirit leave the body" was the ultimate unselfish act. "It teaches you about the deepest kind of love," she says. "I'm embarrassed at how simplistic I was before I experienced that loss. I thought if people just did yoga everything would be all right. And that's true, but not outwardly—outwardly, the people we love are still going to die or disappoint us in some way. But inwardly, yoga gives us tools to help us live with the changes and pain that are an intrinsic part of life."
Some parents may find this particular kind of unconditional love an impossible stretch, like an asana that hurts too much to execute. Mercifully, many will never have to face what Marcia and Roland did. But if yoga and meditation teach us anything, it is that we must never underestimate our capacity to expand, to take on more, body, mind, and soul. This marvelous, enabling potential of yoga seems at the very heart of Marcia's point.
As parents, we'll always be faced with the dual task of nurturing and teaching our young even as we carry on our own inner work. If we're wise, we'll undertake these tasks simultaneously, letting both assignments inform who we are and who we'll become, without letting one take precedence over the other. After all, the goal in both instances—raising our children and raising ourselves—is to cultivate fully realized human beings.
With our loving guidance, our children will grow up ready and willing to do good works and to commit to some sort of body, mind, and soul work of their own. It helps, then, if we look at our parenting as something we'll be doing over the long haul. "We need to see our children as people we will want to be involved with all our lives," says Bo Lozoff. One of the great tragedies of our culture is that our kids go off and leave us when they grow up, he points out. And that's a shame, because being involved with your adult kids, he says, "can be just as important and rich and beautiful and juicy as being with them when they are small."
Stephanie Renfrow Hamilton, mother of three, has written and edited for Parenting, Essence, and McCall's.She is a coauthor of The Whole Parenting Guide (Broadway Books, 1999).