No one wants to hear the words “he put a pendant in his eye” when it comes to someone you love, especially if the pendant-on-the-eye recipient is your 1-year-old child.
Two years ago I was in the kitchen preparing breakfast. I assumed my partner had an eye (pun intended) on our fledgling toddler. We didn’t have childcare then, so every day was like a relay race. We would go back and forth between watching the baby, working, doing household chores, and short bits of self-care. As such, I often combined my spiritual practices with everyday tasks, such as breastfeeding during my Savasana, or on this day, using my time alone washing dishes as an opportunity to meditate.
“Sarah!” My husband’s alarmed voice tore me away from my deep focus on the foam. My mind quickly filled every space I had just carved out with the worst fears: Did a pipe burst? Is there a fire? Did the dog bite the baby? No. “He” – meaning our baby – “put a pendant in his eye.”
I ran to the back of the house. Luckily my husband had already removed the pendant so I didn’t have to see that part, but our son was crying bloody tears from his right eye. I held him against me and was overwhelmed by how aware I was of everything all of a sudden. The room felt enlarged, like a fish-eye lens. The colors were exceptionally bright. My heart was beating so fast it felt like it was in my throat. In addition to my concern for my son’s well-being, I felt a raging rage (hello, fight or flight response). I was ready to attack my husband for not being more vigilant.
Apparently he felt the same way, and after going back and forth blaming, I decided to close my eyes and take a deep breath. Almost immediately everything started to shift.
My heart went from feeling like it could burst out of my chest to a manageable clatter. My thoughts, which had been moving at high speed, began to slow down. I could feel my limbs again and actually noticed that I was hungry. I even managed to say the words, ‘It’s nobody’s fault. Let’s see what we have to do.”
Somehow, in my heightened state of panic, fear, and anger, I was able to harness the power of my breath. But this wasn’t magic. I had been practicing for over two decades for this moment. Every time I had ever come to my yoga mat and taken a deep breath or moved consciously, I had planted powerful seeds of resilience and calmness. And at a time when I wanted nothing more than to be adorned with anger and reactivity, those seeds quickly blossomed into a foundation that helped me stay grounded and present.
My breathing didn’t just calm me down. I felt my son settle into my arms a bit more, and my husband also softened and shifted from the blame game to Googling the nearest emergency room. It was remarkable to see the effect a single breath had on such a fraught situation. It was as if that one long exhale blew out any potential spark of reactivity that could have ignited a fire in an already heated situation.
Instead, we came together as a team and breathed together and made a plan. The rest of the day consisted of going to the hospital and finding a pediatric ophthalmologist. We faced every stressor as a unit and ended up enjoying all the extra time we had together that day.
I often feel guilty that my yoga practice keeps me away from my family, but I can say without a doubt that it helped us all that morning. That day reminded us in real time that caring for others must begin with caring for ourselves.
Here are four evidence-based ways a yoga practice can better prepare parents for stressful situations.
Teaching Mindful Breathing
Pranayama, or breath control, is a huge aspect of yoga. These mindful breathing techniques have regularly been shown to reduce anxiety. A 2018 study specifically found that diaphragmatic breathing and slow nasal breathing are effective in reducing involuntary stress responses.
Yoga has been repeatedly proven to improve neurocognitive skills such as concentration. One of the reasons I was drawn to the practice is that it helped me manage the stress of my high-intensity job at the time. It was easy to get overwhelmed with the amount of responsibilities I had, but doing yoga regularly taught me how to stay present at every task at hand — which is also crucial when parenting.
Chronic stress has a number of adverse effects, including decreased immunity, insomnia, fatigue, and mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. Cortisol is our body’s main stress hormone and is inextricably linked to our immunity and inflammatory responses, as well as our metabolism. A 2017 study found that yoga significantly lowers cortisol levels in young women. The coolest part? It didn’t matter if the participant took a slow stretch-focused class or did fast-moving power yoga.
Yoga can also help people notice when they are stressed. Interoception is the ability to sense the body’s more autonomic responses, such as heart rate or breathing rhythm. While more research is needed, a 2020 study involving brain images of yoga practitioners found that the practice improves the functioning of the brain regions responsible for interoception.
Parents often feel they are being selfish when they go away from their families to do their spiritual practices. We should try to remember that it is those very spiritual practices that allow us to connect more deeply with our family. The more we can be with ourselves, the more we will be with the family later on. And while a pendant on the eye is an uncommon emergency for children, parents know that we have plenty of chances to get stressed every day. Yoga can help you stay grounded, which will ultimately help keep your family connected.
Sarah Ezrin is the author of The yoga of parenting: 10 yoga-based practices to help you stay grounded, connect with your kids, and be kind to yourself out June 6.
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