Parenting and Practicing Yoga: Featuring “My Children and Yoga” by Paul Dallaghan

Welcome to the first in a series of Guest Posts: “Parenting and Practicing Yoga”.

If you are interested in Guest Posting on this topic, don’t hesitate to leave a comment or contact me at nat(dot)devalia(at)gmail(dot)com.

I’m happy to have Paul’s permission and honoured to post his article on my blog. The article as published originally, as well as many more articles both by him and others, at the Centerd Yoga website – Resources section.

Paul is a senior Ashtanga yoga and Pranayama teacher, founder of Samahita Retreat Centre in Koh Samui, Thailand.

My Children and Yoga

I am often asked the question: “Am I teaching my kids yoga?” My typical response is: “They are teaching me yoga.” Tongue in cheek it may be but nevertheless much truth lies within that response. At the same time, stepping back in to the parental shoes, what should I be teaching them and where does yoga fit in? Is it merely introducing them to the asanas and telling them to breathe?

Anyone who has the good opportunity to raise a few kids knows that it is the seventh series. It does require sacrifice and tests your patience and inner abilities to control yourself just so you can be a normal human being, and not this ogre screaming over minor things in the course of life that have all accumulated here today and burst out in one mass of frustration (whew!) Not that that ever happened to me but you can read about it on parenting blogs everywhere. Shocking stuff really. As Chekhov once said, “Any fool can handle a crisis, it’s the day-to-day stuff that wears you down.”

So when I consider what yoga means to me it is an opportunity for willing self-reflection, a building of character, an effort to be nice, ultimately working on myself. It’s obviously all the things I am doing in life. And much of that has, and should be, spent and shared with my adorable children (eh, sometimes, no, of course, most of the time:)).

The time taken to practice is the training time in working on myself, refining the nervous system. I am happy to report that over the years of practice I have seen a positive change. I have seen myself transform in terms of handling and being with the children. In that case it was not the practice alone but being given the precious situation with the children to temper it, to mould it. In other words, the practices without corresponding life situations would be close to impotent.

The big lesson here is that my response to whatever it is coming up with the children, while being primed so to speak, is actually the teaching I give them, the yoga I pass on. Especially in their formative years. In years to come will they remember their daddy’s asana practice or ones I showed them or will the memory of being together, sharing, having fun, bonding, be embedded in them? A thoughtless reaction borne from frustration, not properly channeled, sticks much stronger in a child’s memory. I have witnessed a particular stimulus bring up a frustration in me and from there I have observed the pre-existing pattern of how I could act. Fortunately, I feel from awareness practice over the years, I have the wherewithal to see the two options inside and am able to channel that force, energy to respond in a more constructive manner with them, which may include a stern rebuke or a patient response to further explain. And may I say, this is a work in progress, by no means perfected. But that is exactly what I mean by the interaction with the children being the yoga lesson.

As a first principle then I value love, care and time shared together as the primary yoga with children. Next to that is the set of values I have worked on in my life that I aim to share with them. In terms of a yogi it is easy to hone in the values from the yamas and niyamas. I am grateful to my kids (and wife) that I am able to look at these everyday, inculcate them, live them. Believing in ahimsa, I will promise them that I will not hurt them. I have to look at that on all levels: physical responses to mind games and emotional care. Am I living a life based on truth, honestly, or is it just when it’s convenient?

Though these and the other values are often considered obvious they can easily be forgotten in the course of a day. To live with these values of being kind, honest, respectful, loyal and faithful, and knowing what is enough is to share them with your children. They will naturally have the opportunity to form their own values over time and have their own personalities but these are universal and essential. I prefer to see signs of caring coming from my boys than them being the “best”. This may again seem obvious, especially to one not involved, but be clear, time and opportunity all too easily slip by. You have to make a clear inner resolve to “be” it at all times. I see this as one of the true values of what yoga has taught me and also what I have learned during my time with my parents. My wife and I have not forced any formal religion on them as they are exposed to many through our life and the community but already they know certain Sanskrit mantras as we’ll do them together at night when giving thanks.

Finally then we come to the techniques of yoga, the practices of asana and more. I know that constructive skills learned at an early age can be invaluable throughout life. At the same time it is important for anyone, including my children, to come to a practice of yoga by their own volition. But my wife and I do have both the duty and opportunity to introduce these elements. Already the kids have played with yoga poses and are quite adept at using it as a term to get rid of me, “papa, go do yoga”, if they don’t want me around (which of course is very rare:)). I also see they are a little young to properly engage in it yet. That is a popular question: what age should they start? Some say 8, others 12 or as long as the child can take care of themselves (through dressing, feeding and teeth brushing). So that leaves it a bit open. In my opinion it comes down to a certain amount of maturity to want to do something. At this stage soccer is much more valuable for them than yoga. It’s their primary choice and it really gets them moving. Of course in time they’ll find this ‘stuff’ their parents do can help their football playing.

As my specialty lies in the breath I am always aware of how I or others breathe. I have noticed the rapid breathing of my children as infants to a more normal one, still quick, as young children. When they have been upset I have put my hand on their upper abdomen and tried to get them to be free there and breathe. I have tried but it is difficult because the emotion at that age overrides the rationality and a reactive state takes over. It’s almost an inevitable part of human growth. And at this young age to keep an awareness on the breath is almost impossible. It requires maturity. Yet if I can introduce an awareness on the breath early on I feel I have done some good for these growing boys.

In a sense I could breakdown the sharing of yoga with my children into different ages and phases. Early on it is all about the care and love. These should dominate throughout life but naturally change color and shape. The sharing of clear, strong values is imperative to their growth and maturing, something that becomes more relevant as they get into later childhood and adolescence. Then finally, the practices themselves, that are initially play but later, really post-puberty, constructive and formational. From their mid-teens on it’s really up to them. I myself only began yoga at 23. I had many other things to experience and pass through. All things being equal it would have been great to have been exposed earlier but that cannot even be considered as life had its path of experiences to share with me regardless of what I think I could have done. So it’s all about what I do with it now. I hope to share yoga in all its ways with my children: through love, kindness and caring; with strong, clear values that carry them through life with integrity so they develop in to adults that are of value to society and all beings everywhere; to the practices themselves, full of their own inherent wisdom and refinement that can help transform their nervous systems and enrich the children’s growing years into adult life.

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In the Game

Early Sunday morning, I tell L and R that I’ll be out until lunch; that I’ll be teaching Pranayama (breath-work) workshops.

“Afu Pa-ya-ma-na,” Rahul pleads with outstretched arms. (Afu is what he calls himself.)

I pick him up; tell him that he can do some Pranayama with me, but that he’s got to stay with “ayi” (meaning aunt, aka nanny in this case) for the morning.

10 minutes later, he blocks me from entering the shower, “Mama Yoga. Mama Pa-ya-ma-na.”

———————

The response was overwhelming. My Yoga teacher friend Judy, who organized the 2 sessions, back-to-back at her lovely little home studio, and I, haven’t worked together since I got pregnant two and a half years ago. It’s not only the “together” bit though, I haven’t taught at all.

Of course I was nervous. All week. It’d been a while.

But, I am confident about Pranayama, especially after all the workshops I’ve attended over the years, and most importantly, from my own regular practice: the years of regularity, the continuity of it regardless of bed-rest during the pregnancy, the slip during the NICU phase and stressful first year, the irregularity of practice coming back to it, and the decision of, “that’s it – it’s got to be for real, or not at all.”

——————-

Maher attends the 9 O’clock session. L and R hang onto our sleeves, crying as we leave the apartment.
It does him good to have a refresher. It’s a nudge, to get him back into a regular practice.

“I need it,” he says to me, almost every day.

He’s sick more often than ever before. The children are always coughing. As soon as we’re in the street, I have sharp headaches. I catch myself turning around to see if there is someone smoking right behind me. All the time. We’re feeling the pollution. It’s worse than it’s been in the last 6 years. There are more buildings, more cars, and more people.

———————

A month ago I did my first serious workshop since before I was pregnant. It was in Koh Samui with Paul – my teacher. He asked if I was Back in the Game. He meant everything – Asana, Pranayama. He has children of his own. He’s had many other first-time-mum students who needed the push to get off their butts and practice again. He’s dealt with the ones who disappear for a few years, and then return, for a nudge. He knows about my pregnancy and the early birth, the stresses.

I suppose that’s why he asked me if I was back. A few times over the 2 week course. My doubtful but positive response at the beginning of the workshop had a completely different meaning to my confident one at the end.

———————-

At the end of each session, Judy and I leave 5 minutes for questions.

“It’s doubtful that I will remember any of this. Can we have a follow-up class?” one of the students asks.

———————

I rush home after the second class. Maher, R, and L are having a good time. Laughing. Playing.

“They had a great morning; they didn’t cry a drop after you left,” ayi reports as she leaves.

———————

We’ve organized one follow-up session; possibly more over the next few weeks.

So am I Back in the Game?

A written declaration of it might make it more real.

The state of my yoga

I have heard that Pattabhi Jois and Sharath say taking care of a family is a yoga practice in itself. In the midst of the “Family yoga” I am trying to continue with my Asana and Pranayama practices. My back is weaker for having barely got on the mat in the last three weeks. The joints and muscles are sore and less flexible. The practice keeps me centered day in and day out as family activities and routines race by. It reminds me to go back to the breath when things get out of control.

A month ago Maher insisted that we go to Hangzhou for the weekend workshop with Paul, my teacher. He found out about the workshop and arranged the trip. We took our ayi with us. That was a first. Her first plane ride as well. Exciting! I did yoga all weekend while Maher and ayi took care of R and L. Another first. What a privilege to have someone arrange it all – flights, hotel, child care. I can’t thank him enough for letting me have the space and time to do my thing.

It was my first workshop in two years. It took me home How wonderful to practice in a studio with others and especially with Paul. The main realization though was that my rather regular, lite practice has become mechanical.

So how does one become more mindful? Simple advice – do less and slow down – both for Asana and Pranayama.

Now that we are back in Chengdu and almost back on schedule, it’s my chance to tone the practices down and be more present. The centering that can come out of one yoga practice floods over into others, and they even feed off each other. Now it’s time to get on the mat, breathe, and react appropriately when the children are pulling each other’s hair out!

Savasana confessions

Savasana aka corpse pose, final relaxation, or just “take rest” as Pattabhi Jois used to say, is usually practiced at the end of a yoga session. Lie on your back. Let your legs separate slightly and roll out. Keep your arms along your body with the palms facing up. Allow the floor to support your weight fully. Let the breath be natural. A nice little exercise to do for a few minutes is to watch your belly rise and fall as you breathe in and out; even to use the words as a mantra, “rise, fall, rise, fall…..” or whatever words work for you. Then let go of all that too.

Savasana was never really the focus or end goal of my practice. I definitely enjoyed being in it. Over time, after an hour and a half, sometimes longer of a full-on ashtanga session I certainly realised the need for it. With some guidance from experienced teachers, the deep, grounding calm from being fully in it became a necessary conclusion to a practice. As Paul Dallaghan, my principle teacher often says, his day is different, more agitated if for some reason savasana was rushed. I didn’t mind skipping a pose or two to have time for a long relaxation, the kind that allows the heart rate to slow down, the sweat to dry, the muscles to relax, and any nervous tension to settle. The stillness was rejuvenating.

Then during the first trimester of my twin pregnancy in 40C Indian heat, things changed a bit. My intense morning sickness meant that I only made it on my mat in the evenings once the sun had gone down. Fatigue rendered short and simple sessions. Savasanas had become fifteen minute to half an hour naps! The second and what lasted of the third trimester I spent in bed rest; so lots of savasana! I continued with a simple pranayama practice while lying down. This was great to ease sleepless nights. Again the savasana after that turned into much needed sleep.

I gave birth at seven months gestation after spending a few weeks in hospital hooked up to an IV. The medication was supposed to control the contractions. After the emergency delivery Leila and Rahul were whisked away to the NICU before I even got to see them. They were tiny and needed support from machines to live. That’s when the stress and adrenaline in my system kicked in, and it had to in order for me to get through the next few months. It was necessary for me to spring back into the busy Hong Kong world of traffic, lights, sounds, long days at the NICU filled with schedules, spreadsheets, worry, fear, good days, bad days; nights expressing milk, washing. labeling, freezing many milk bottles. This was day in and out for six weeks. Savasana? No way.

I honestly don’t remember when I started my practice again; ashtanga lite of course. I think it was after both L and R came home. It was also the six-week safe marker to begin practice again after giving birth. With two babies to take care of practice happened once, maybe twice a week, mainly when Maher was in HK over the weekend and he managed to convince me to take the time for myself. A session was about half an hour-long, and if there was a savasana it was either a one minute forced and agitated experience, or a ten minute nap. Many times the practice was a ten minute “savasana” on the mat! This was only possible because I had my mum and mother-in-law helping out with R and L.

I finally understood what it was like for many of my students who dreaded, even feared savasana, the ones who twitched nervously and those who just rolled up their mats and left. When the babies were eleven months old, by which time we had already moved back to Chengdu, and there was no more real impending health worry, the four of us and a group of friends went to Koh Samui for a week-long holiday. I took a couple of classes at Yoga Thailand. The first morning I arrived late. I felt like everyone in the room could feel my nervous energy and hear my minds voices racing through whether Maher was able to handle the two crawling all over the hotel room on his own, whether they needed diaper changes, whether I had washed and sterilized enough milk bottles. How was he going to get them both to sleep? And what about him? When is he going to be able to eat, drink, run, or practice, and have a minute?” It’s not easy to handle the two babies at the same time. It was not about leaving the babies in someone elses care because I did that since they were born. This was supposed to be my time to relax and be “free” of that for a couple of hours. Everyone around me had been in retreat for more than a week already. They were calm, focused, in the moment. In this quiet space, my inner voices were screaming. If I was walking through the bustling streets of HK no one would even notice these inner jumpings of my mind.

I walked out of savasana. “The babies needed to nap. If they didn’t sleep they would be cranky all day.” I never walked out of a studio during savasana in my life, not in Beirut, Paris, Singapore, Shanghai….I did at YT. Was I out of my mind? Man was I glad Paul wasn’t there! When I rushed back to the room, L and R were sleeping in their cribs, Maher was practicing and listening to classical Indian music.

4 months later over Chinese New Year we went back in Koh Samui. This time I was generally more in control of my situation. L and R were already a year and two months old. I was confident that together we could handle the two babies on our own and Maher is one of few people who can singlehandedly take care of the two. One morning we went to Spa Samui for breakfast. There was the usual morning yoga class in the outdoor shala for their guests who are doing a detox/ fast. I was only walking past the class, but I felt my body tense up. My pace quickened. The thought of having to listen to a teacher calmly, and then actually follow through with the instructions scared me. I wanted to run. By extension, there was no way I could be teaching a class in such a state. Self practice is different entirely, especially if it is in my living room and I can go in and out of it as the need arises.

Other than that little episode it was a wonderful, much needed holiday, Back in Chengdu, I managed to let go a little. The stress of taking care of the children eased. More often than before, my head was above water. Around that time I read The world needs savasana, an article by a teacher at YT, Elonne Stockton. It made sense, and helped steer me back on track savasana wise. Things slowly seemed to be falling into place again. My 5 days a week practice has become a slightly more intensive version of ashtanga lite. Teaching will come when the time is right. Savasana is happening again. Something clicked and it’s wonderful. Other than me feeling more balanced after a good savasana, modeling this simple way of taking time out to relax and regroup to R and L is invaluable.