Parents: you’re doing an amazing job (Elmo’s dad agrees!)

Parents: you’re doing an amazing job (Elmo’s dad agrees!)

I’m sitting down to write this in the midst of a coronavirus lockdown that’s not only affecting me here in Belgium, but also families around the world.

Even the Muppet parents are affected! Elmo’s dad, Louie, recently shared some words of wisdom for parents everywhere. If this guy can stay at home with Elmo all day (can you imagine all the singing? All the questions?!) we can all get through this with our little ones!

About the author

Emily Gold is a yoga therapist and teacher, doula, and public health specialist. She is currently living abroad, in Brussels, Belgium.

Much like Elmo’s dad, I too am finding comfort in the power of a good deep breath, and taking a minute just for myself. Like you, I’m working hard to model calm in the face of stress while at home with my son in a very scary time.

As parents, we’re all looking for ways to manage our feelings and reactions, to help our families feel okay despite an out-of-control world, and to model this behaviour for our kids.

These simple yoga techniques may help you and your children release tension and anxiety. The silver lining in this experience: these skills will benefit our children far beyond lockdown.

It’s natural to feel stressed right now

Stress is a normal and healthy reaction to fear. And while we think of stress as something that happens in our minds, it is truly a mind AND body process. Our bodies have adapted a stress response around ancient fears and our bodies react accordingly.

When stressed, our bodies react as if we’re facing a large predator. We move to a “fight or flight” response. While not everyone experiences the same exact response when stressed, our bodies react as if we are preparing to deal with an angry lion.

Heart rates get faster. Breath gets more rapid. We’re preparing to run. Shoulders tense up, preparing to fight. Necks get tight, holding the head high to stay on the lookout. Inside the body, blood is moving away from the digestive and reproductive systems towards the skin and respiratory system.

This is an ideal response if we really were preparing to deal with a lion. Unfortunately, most modern-day stresses, from the ordinary—an angry boss, a traffic jam, or a misbehaving child—to the extraordinary—this pandemic—aren’t short term.

Related read: A beginner’s guide to meditation for calming the mind and emotions

Use movement to release tension

If we really were facing a lion, all that tension would be released when we fight or flee. Yet in our modern world, we often don’t get that release. We move right from one stress to the other, without a chance to let our bodies and minds relax. After a while it doesn’t even matter what the stress is, or if there even is one. Our bodies remain in this state of high alert.

At the moment many of us may be feeling this even more acutely, but chances are the feelings of tight shoulders, racing heart, and tightened neck aren’t new. Accompanying them are often feelings of anger, fatigue, and overwhelm. As a parent this can often translate to shortness with our children, inability to focus, and overall anxiety.

Our children can notice these things and when they do, they will mirror them. Children model our responses to stress and take on our reactions and methods as their own. For our own well-being, and that of our kids, learning to manage stress is essential. Fortunately, there are a number of methods you can use to break this cycle, moving the body and the mind out of the stress response.

Four ways to relieve stress with yoga

You can learn to use your body and awareness of your body to manage stress—and teach your children to do the same.

Here are four yoga-inspired techniques you can use to manage stress right now:

1. Move around

One misconception people have about doing yoga when they’re stressed is that they have to be still. But for a person dealing with acute stress or anxiety (like, I don’t know, lockdown during a global pandemic!), being still can feel like torture.

Movement is actually key. Our children know this intuitively—they get cranky and testy when they don’t have activity. Adults are no different.

When we move into fight or flight, our body prepares for movement. Moving our body constructively allows for that release, giving the body permission to let go of vigilance.

When it comes to movement, getting your heart rate up is great. I love sun salutations or a bit of flow yoga. You can also move with your kids. Playing a rapid game of “yogi says” (basically Simon Says but with yoga poses) can get you moving.

After you move, follow with stillness. A minute or two of lying down or curling up in a child’s pose gives your body the opportunity to move back, to “rest and digest.” This is also teaching your body and mind to move from a time of stress (the fast heart rate and movement) to ease. Your body will remember this later, which can help you rebound from stressful experiences in your daily life.

2. Learn to listen to your body

Once you start noticing how physical of an experience stress is, you can better learn to manage these feelings and reduce stress sensations and responses.

If you’re reading this during a time of prolonged stress, you may have stopped noticing your body’s response to stress. Take a moment now and be still. Check in with yourself. Is there a place in your body that feels uncomfortable? Stressed?

Many people feel stress in a tingle in the belly, tight neck and shoulders, or rapid heartbeat. Wherever it is, just notice it. Try to send your breath towards that place. Do this for a few moments. This is a great activity to practice with children over age five. With younger children, you can ask them to try to send their breath towards places in their body.

3. Breathe deeply and slowly

Exhaling is a key component of stress management because exhaling stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (think of it as your “rest and digest” system). When we go into fight or flight mode, we start to breathe fast, to prepare to run or fight. Conversely, when it is time to relax, we would slow down those inhales and lengthen the exhales.

Luckily, you can control your breathing. With practice, you can learn to take longer exhales. One of the easiest ways to do this is a yoga technique called 1:2 breathing.

Here’s how you do 1:2 breathing: 

  1. Sit on the floor or in a chair, in a comfortable way, with a long spine. If you like you can place your hands on your belly, so you can feel it move when you breathe.
  2. Inhale, breathing to your belly so it expands, for a count of one.
  3. Exhale, from your belly, for a count of two.

Try this a few times. If these breaths feel too short, lengthen them, keeping the exhale twice as long as the inhale. Practice this for at least a minute, up to 10 minutes, whenever you need a break.

4. Turn inward

Yoga, in general, is great for stress, but certain poses are especially good for finding relief. One of the best ways to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system is with forward-folding. You can do this standing up or sitting down, with legs long or feet together in a butterfly shape. You can fold forward from your hips keeping your spine long. You can also come into a child’s pose. With small children, you can ask them to sit on your lower back, and lay down facing forward or back. This is a nice time for stillness and a bit of comfort.

Remember: self-care helps us care for others

This is a time of high stress and anxiety for all of us. For parents around the world, this stress is compounded by the need to care for and maintain some sense of normalcy for our kids. Yoga and mindfulness are powerful tools to care for yourself and your children.

Doing yoga or meditation with your kids in an age-appropriate way is a great way to enhance these skills. For more ideas and tips to practice yoga at home, alone or with your kids, check out the Facebook group I created to support parents at this time.

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