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How Yoga Has Made Me a Better Parent

Jamie Sumner
Special needs mom, author and blogger
12/30/19  12:28 PM PST
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Why I Began Doing Yoga

Having recently decided to do something to strengthen my back, I’ve taken up yoga. The back thing isn’t new. It’s always been trouble—a traitorous set of muscles for as long as I can remember. The first time it gave out I was painting my grandmother’s living room in college. How’s that for a good deed gone wrong? Now though, I can’t afford for the thing that connects all the parts of me to quit because I’ve got a forty-eight pound first grader, Charlie, who has cerebral palsy and needs lifting in and out of the van, in and out of the wheelchair, in and out of the bed and the bath. I don’t have time to baby my back. Except that I know I need to. I need to treat it like I’d treat my own son—gently, lovingly, like it’s a crucial part of me, which it is. Hence, the yoga. It’s been three months and I dare say it’s working. I haven’t felt that familiar combination of tightness and weakness that signals an oncoming hurt. I’m getting stronger, which means I will be able to care for Charlie and myself better.

But yoga is early. 5:45 a.m. early. It’s a sacrifice of sleep for overall well-being or so I tell myself as I drive in the dark to the studio. It makes me more aware of my body and where my energies are going. I also happen to adore my yoga teacher. She’s older, loves puppies, and encourages everyone in class, even the two teenage boys who showed up once looking like they were there on a dare.

Yoga Wisdom

It was at the very end one of these 5:45 a.m. sessions as we are all lying on our mats, exhausted but also refreshed, that she dropped this piece of wisdom. It was an acronym from one of her twelve-step meetings:
She said, as we lay there with our eyes closed, breathing in our own sweat in the morning sunlight, “H.A.L.T asks you to notice when you are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, because those are the times you are most vulnerable. Those are the times when it’s hardest to be the person you’re meant to be and to love the world and yourself the way you should.”

How Yoga Has Made Me a Better Parent

Isn’t that the truth? Being a responsible, creative, nurturing parent is hard, whether you have a child with special needs or not. Every child has particular needs at particular times and it takes a fairly balanced and zen-like being to meet them all when they come hurtling at you. I am not that person. I struggle to stay calm, to keep my voice even, to stop being so reactionary to every conflict.

I think of the bedtime routine. In an attempt to cultivate some sense of intimacy, my husband and I try to eat dinner together a few times a week after the kids go to bed. This sometimes leaves us hungry and tired and yes, a little angry, at bedtime. It’s the trifecta of vulnerability and leads to the poorest of choices on all our parts. The kids are begging for ten more minutes. We are watching our food get cold as we wrestle them into their pajamas and turn on the two-minute flashing toothbrushes and then have a two-minute fight over the fact that they’re not done brushing.

I also think of the times when Charlie’s wheelchair malfunctions. A handle comes unscrewed at the park. A wheel gets stuck in the sand. A necessary Velcro strap has gone missing. In these times, I am angry, tired, and yes, often lonely. It’s a lonely thing to be stuck at the park with your child and his wheelchair without an extra pair of hands to help.

H.A.L.T. isn’t just a list of words…

As my yoga teacher explained, H.A.L.T. isn’t just a list of words, it’s a reminder to literally halt your thinking and behavior and recognize what you’re feeling. “Breathe in and acknowledge the feeling,” she said. “Then breathe out, and let it go.” It sounds so simple it couldn’t possibly work. And yet it does. Not every time. Sometimes the breathing in and out has often looked a good deal like hyperventilating. But it makes me stop long enough to gain a little perspective and a little perspective can get me to the next minute, and isn’t that what we’re all trying to do—get to the next minute and day as best we can?

Anything that can create a little distance from the emotional crisis feels like a win. For one thing, it reminds me that I’m in the throes of a situation that has extenuating circumstances. Simply acknowledging what I feel and why makes it a little less out of control. It’s a small shift in thinking, but it helps. Like yoga, it’s a practice that builds up your strength over time in almost imperceptible ways until eventually you realize you are stronger than you were before.

child with special needs

Jamie Sumner is a special needs mom and author.

Discover her new book, Roll with It.

Follow her on Facebook.

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