No one wants to hear the words “he stuck a hanger in his eye” when it comes to anyone you love, especially when the hanger-to-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 newly walking toddler. We did not have any child care at the time, so every day was like a relay race. We would go back and forth between watching the baby, working, tending to domestic responsibilities and squeezing in short stretches of self-care. As such, I would often combine my spiritual practices with everyday tasks, like nursing during my Savasana, or on this day, using my alone time dishwashing as an opportunity to meditate.
“Sarah!” My husband’s alarmed voice yanked me away from my deep focus on the suds. My mind quickly filled any space I had just carved out with its worst fears: Did a pipe burst? Is there a fire? Did the dog bite the baby? Nope. "He" — meaning our baby — "stuck a hanger in his eye.”
I ran to the back of the house. Luckily, my husband had already removed the hanger, so I didn’t have to see that part, but our son was crying bloody tears out of his right eye. I held him against me and was overwhelmed by how aware I suddenly was of everything. The room felt expanded, like a fish eye lens. The colors were extraordinarily 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 seething rage (hello, fight or flight response). I was ready to pounce on my husband for not being more vigilant.
Apparently he felt similarly, and after going back and forth trying to assign blame, I decided to close my eyes and take a deep breath. Almost immediately, everything began to shift.
My heart went from feeling as though it could burst out of my chest to a manageable pitter-patter. My thoughts, which had been moving at rapid-fire speed, started to slow down. I could feel my limbs again and actually noticed that I was hungry. I even managed to utter the words, “It’s no one’s fault. Let’s just figure out what to do.”
Somehow in my elevated state of panic, fear and anger, I was able to harness the power of my breath. But this was not magic. I had been practicing for this very moment for over two decades. Every time that I had ever come to my yoga mat and breathed deeply, or moved consciously, I had been planting powerful seeds of resilience and calm. And in a moment where I wanted nothing more than to become emblazoned with anger and reactivity, those seeds quickly blossomed into a foundation that helped keep me grounded and present.
My breathing didn’t only calm me down. I felt my son settle down in my arms a bit more, and my husband softened, too, shifting from the blame game to Googling the nearest emergency room. It was remarkable to see the effect that a single breath had on such a charged situation. It was as though that one long exhale blew out any potential spark of reactivity that could have lit fire to 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 eye doctor. We faced each stressor as a unit, and actually ended up enjoying all the extra time we got together that day.
I often feel guilty that my yoga practice takes me away from my family, but I can say without a doubt that my it helped us all that morning. That day was a real time reminder that taking care of others must start with taking care of ourselves.
Here are four science-backed 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 been regularly shown to reduce anxiety. A 2018 study specifically found diaphragmatic breath and slow nostril breathing to be effective in reducing involuntary stress responses.
Yoga has been repeatedly proven to improve neurocognitive skills like 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 by the amount of responsibilities I had, but doing yoga regularly taught me how to stay present with each task at hand — which is also crucial when parenting.
Chronic stress has a number of adverse effects, including reduced immunity, insomnia, fatigue and mood disorders like anxiety and depression. Cortisol is our body’s main stress hormone, and is intricately linked to our immunity and inflammatory responses, as well as our metabolism. A 2017 study found yoga to significantly reduce 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 out. Interoception is the ability to perceive the body's more autonomic responses, such as heart rate or breathing cadence. Though more research is called for, a 2020 study that involved brain imaging of yoga practitioners found the practice to improve functioning of the areas of the brain responsible for interoception.
Parents often feel like they are being selfish when they step away from their families to do their spiritual practices. We must try to remember that it is those very spiritual practices that enable us to connect more deeply with our family. The more present we can be with ourselves, the more present we will later be with the family. And while a hanger to the eye is an unusual kid emergency, parents know that we have plenty of opportunities to be stressed out every day. Yoga can help keep you grounded, which will ultimately help your family stay 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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