Friday, February 26, 2010

Redefining Yoga Practice for the 21st Century Mother

American moms are busy. They are masters of multi-tasking and conflict management - think communicating with a tantrum throwing toddler (or two) while trying to finish a work related phone call or trying to pick up your dry cleaning or pay bills? (ouch, I'm having flashbacks).

Further, women are having children at older ages and they are frequently shouldered with caring for aging parents - while raising younger children. This is a unique multi-generational issue that no other generation of women has faced in history. Add to that - most women are keeping their careers and having children too - they are trying their (our) best to 'have it all.'

...Now after that packed introductory paragraph, let's take a collective exhale - just writing about American moms wears me out.

But moms listen up! You, more than anyone else, need yoga. However - you need more than "status quo" yoga. Now you might ask, what does that mean?

Let me give you a background first:

In yoga, there are 8 limbs of practice.
  • The first 2 limbs lay out guidelines for good communication with each other, the planet, and ourselves (think "The Golden Rule").
  • The next 2 limbs, the breath and postures, are what Americans mistakenly consider as "yoga."
  • The remaining 4 limbs nurture personal freedom from the material world through practicing non-attachment, concentration, and meditation - finally reaching super-consciousness. This last limb of consciousness - called samadhi (pronounced sah-mah-dee) - is the pinnacle of aspiration in yoga - to have self awareness, self-restraint, wisdom, humility and compassion.
  • We all could stand to benefit from the 8 limbed practice, no matter what our spiritual belief system. The world needs more patience and compassion, and less ego.
Self awareness and wisdom sound great. But... do 21st century mothers get "super-consciousness" through an ancient practice that has been resided over and passed down through the ages by, let's face it, mostly men?

A redefinition of yoga practice for modern mothers (and women) - is long overdue.
I am a mother. My sons are 20 months apart and the oldest has just turned 4. During this time I have started and grown a business, kept my local clinical practice, written 6 continuing education courses in medical yoga therapy, and have managed to keep my sons out of full time daycare (a personal mission for my husband and I). I have also had to contend with serious family illnesses, 3 family deaths, my own emergency surgery, and coping and helping my son through major surgery for birth defects and therapy for developmental delays. But don't get me wrong. I have no right to bragging rights here.

Like most American men and women - I simply try to do my best in raising the next responsible generation, be a good citizen of planet earth, and love my family. My children are among the approximately 42 million born annually in America who will lead our country (and help pay for everyone's social security). As a side note - Anyone without children should respect the contribution that American families with children are making to raise up the future of this country.

But rather than boost my own ego (which is of no value), my own story is simply a testament to the challenges that a 5 year journey can bring in the life of any mother (or father). Now we get to the real substance - my life challenges are exactly what has put my personal practice of yoga to a real test.

Greek philosopher Plato said, "necessity is the mother of invention." My life challenges, and similar stories from fellow mothers, have allowed me to help create solutions for the real and immediate needs mothers have in the 21st century. One of them, through this blog and my work as an author and educator, is helping women find solutions for being fit and fearless.

Gender Biased Yoga

Too many times, women are required to take on the shape and ethic of a gender driven society. Men have typically (and according to recent research, still do) hold most intellectual heavyweight positions in this world. In fact, men have even dominated the practice of women's health care for a century. Thankfully, this is rapidly changing as more women take (back) the practice of caring for women in many fields - such as medicine, pregnancy, and birth.

However, the realization begs to ask - how much of yoga was meant for or created by men? Historically, women were not allowed to read, write, create music or art, hold office, vote, or even work outside the home or have legal custody of their children. For certain, they did not have time, nor the luxury or right, to be involved with the creation of yoga philosophy.

The reality is, women have and still are the primary caregiver in families. Author Ann Crittenden wrote in her 2001 best seller that women, even if they worked full time outside the home, were still doing 75% of household management and were the primary caregiver for their children. Women have a unique biological position of influence, but our fight for equality has not yet achieved its goal - we are still functioning under a patriarchal system - where women can be equals (almost) but only if they play by the workplace rules set by men. Women are expected to function in a gender biased society - one created for men's biological position.

Women's bodies undergo massive changes during their lifetime, especially if they decide to bear children. Yet, women are expected to take little to no break and are punished if they do not accept the work ethic of their male counterparts. America is one of the two last developed countries without a paid maternity leave policy. America ranks ranks dead last with other countries like Iraq, India, Sudan, and Zambia in their maternity leave policies. Even Afghanistan and Cuba have better maternity policies than the US. This poor maternity policy also affects fathers. Other countries have paternal leave policies - which allow both mothers and fathers to have paid time off. A paternal leave policy would certainly help strengthen the family unit and increase the number of parents returning to work after welcoming a new addition to the family, as many studies show in other countries with a paid paternal leave policy.

My point is not to berate men or country, but to emphasize the plight of mothers (and fathers) and the need for improvement in mother's rights. So how does this fit into the need to redefine yoga practice for mothers?

In an historically male dominated society, we cannot expect even something as benign as yoga to "fit" mothers. It must be tailored to women's specific biological and cultural needs. For example, rates of infertility are soaring - women are trying to ready their bodies for children but it is difficult when women are still trying to "fit" into men's biological roles. Women's bodies are not capable of doing that, just like they are not suited to "fit" into an historically male dominated system of yoga.

So how do mothers begin to redefine yoga practice for the 21st century?

During my own pregnancies, my background in fitness and yoga prescription for women's health came in handy. I knew that my physical body required change from my yoga practice. I embraced that biological fact, instead of fighting it. I documented my 5 year journey and am now currently working on the book which will help women stay fit through pregnancy and birth - download a free excerpt from my upcoming book, Fit & Fearless, via my last blog.

Step One.

  1. Recalibrate your Savasana.
You might say "huh?" if you are not already familiar with yoga. No sweat. You do not have to know the word "savasana" (pronounced sha-vah-suhn), or anything about it, to aspire toward super-consciousness, self-awareness, and compassionate living (that is, living your yoga).

About 2 weeks ago I asked my husband to take the boys for a walk so I could regain my sanity. He obliged, and so I do what I always do when I have a free 30 minutes or so - I seek out the comfort and transformative power of my yoga. It is there where I shed my ego and get perspective on my life. I have come to know my Self through the thousands of hours of meditation and devotion I have put into over 15 years of yoga practice. Mind you, for those of you with strong spiritual underpinnings - while yoga is NOT a religion, I find it works best when I combine it with my own spiritual roots - so yes, when I have that 30 minutes of free time - I combine my attempts to strive toward enlightenment and wisdom with my spiritual devotional time. Yoga should only bring you closer to your own spiritual path.

So as my kids clamored out the door in a fit of excitement and shouting while my husband ran to catch up with them - I also RAN, not walked, but instead to my yoga mat.

After about 25 minutes of practice, I looked up and realized I only had 5 minutes before the beautiful circus returned. Plus, I still had to take a shower and be at full and ready attention for the troops triumphant return.

I was sorely disappointed because I knew I did not have time to finish my practice with the traditional "savasana" or corpse pose, as it is called. Corpse pose is a traditionally taught as "The Mandatory Finishing Pose" for closing each yoga practice.

So, I tidied my yoga area, and swiftly sprinted up the stairs to get ready for their return. Just about any mother knows how to take a "sprint shower," - that is a super-quick, speed of light, quasi-clean up method of bathing that moms take when their kids are young and are either a) sleeping but you don't know for how long or b) old enough to be okay for 5 minutes alone (but not a second longer) and are within your earshot and/or eyesight. For many, it's the sprint shower or no shower. So I took it.

However, I approached my "sprint shower" differently on that day. I have pondered and pitied myself for several years now, that I could no longer take the luxurious 10 minute corpse poses that I used to in the "pre-kid" days. When my children were newborns, I could still practice this pose while nursing them - but as they quickly became more interactive - my yoga and corpse pose time were whittled away. Until I frequently and ultimately realized - just like this particular day - I had either had a) no time at all for it or b) to practice it while my kids were crawling over me or while listening to Elmo or Barney's voice sting the joyful silence from some toy or TV program.
So for all you mothers out there who practice or are new to yoga, I feel your pain. Yoga must be recalibrated to fit the 21st century mother.
Redefine Your Corpse/Relaxation Pose.

  • 5 minutes can be golden. I treated the 5 minutes I had as if they were going to be 15, so I decided that sitting in a bath instead of standing for my "sprint shower" would go the farthest to substitute for relaxation pose. Try anticipating the 5 minutes you DO have as luxuriously as you would an entire afternoon at the spa or at least - a yoga class with no kids in it. I know, its tough, but if I can do it - so can you.
  • Do not subscribe to any yoga practice "just because" a guru said you should. A yoga practice should fit you, as a woman or mother. Women should be helping women find the best yoga practice. The classic finishing pose of a yoga practice - does not have to be and sometimes cannot be - what the ancient yogis defined it to be.
  • Reaching super-consciousness can be found in many ways, and not just through a physical yoga practice or formal meditation.
  • Recalibrating yoga practice for the 21st century applies to more than just mothers. For anyone saddled with the beautiful burden of raising young children or caring for the elderly while simultaneously managing a household, a career, and life, count yourself blessed. Your life challenges can and will make you a better (not a bitter) person.
  • Adversity introduces a (wo)man to him/herself. Changing my finishing pose to meet my needs - on that day - and on many days for the last five years - has created a much needed attitude shift. Now I do truly approach adversity as opportunity.
  • Ditch the rigid schedule or practice. As a longtime "pre-kids" yogi, I kept a structured yoga practice. I never skipped a day, and I practiced the most rigorous form of yoga practice, Ashtanga Yoga, typically 1.5 hours a day. I also logged a cardiovascular practice of running/walking 25-35 miles a week. I also suffered from stress related illnesses and injuries, infertility, and weight issues during that time. I have now wisely learned that my season of life requires a different yoga practice, and a different savasana.
  • The path to "samadhi" or super-consciousness, should evolve - and can be found other ways than rigidly adhering to the formal finishing pose, or any rigid practice, of yoga. Each season of your life should bring a different yoga practice. Likewise, each season of the year should bring a different yoga practice. Find a yoga teacher or therapist who can help you achieve that and think "outside the yoga box." A 5 minute "sprint shower" bath, 5 minutes of deep abdominal breathing in your office chair at work, or seeking out or receiving the healing and amazingly transforming hugs of your children, are all ways to redefine your yoga practice - to fit you.

I challenge you, as a mother or caregiver, to shift the paradigm of your mind/body fitness and wellness routine - to fit your life and the needs of your family. If you don't have one, today is the perfect day to start. You can begin with deep abdominal breathing.

Sticking to a rigid, unforgiving regime or schedule may not be the best fit for the health of you or your family. Forgive yourself for missing a day of yoga or meditation, take a corpse pose in the bathtub instead of rigidly sticking to your yoga mat, and in doing so you open yourself up to receive the most amazing super-consciousness of all - the power of Love.

That day, my redefined "savasana for a working mommy of two toddlers," became my most transforming savasana yet. I felt enriched with wisdom to be a better spouse, mother and spiritual creature. I affirmed and strengthened my voice as a woman and human being. Lastly, I can share my story through this blog, and provide hope to you, as a therapist and healer. Starting or continuing your yoga practice as a mother or caregiver - does not have to fit any preset mold. Yoga should fit You.

*photo was taken 5 weeks after welcoming my second son into the world. A time when my yoga practice was needed more than ever, but required remarkable adaptation and redefinition.

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