I feel like I live each day steeped in yoga and meditation. I am writer for an international kids’ yoga company. I teach children and families regularly and even lead workshops teaching educators, counselors, parents, coaches, and therapists how to share yoga with children. I’ve been teaching yoga, breathing, and meditation to adults for over a decade. Yoga is my bread-and-butter, so to speak. So you’d think that I practice what I teach.
Well…I’d like to think that, too. But just like we may tell our children that they can’t have a slice of cake for a snack, to have a nice healthy apple instead and then we sneak off and eat that last slice by ourselves in the bathroom (What? That’s just me?), we don’t always make good role models. As adults, we often live by the “do as I say, not as I do” philosophy. We know what we should do, but in the heat of the moment, it’s easy to revert to our lazy, more comfortable ways.
This became crystal clear to me last week as my teen son and I were on a hiking trip in North Carolina. He has a very strong adventure and adrenaline gene that he definitely did not get from me. He didn’t want to just walk to the base of the waterfalls. He wanted to go frog-hopping from boulder to boulder to get close enough to feel the mist and maybe even jump into the natural pool. Me? I would have been quite content to just sit in a shady place and soak in the view. Maybe dip my toes into the creek. But I try to let my kids explore in ways they feel comfortable, so I (reluctantly) took his shoes and let him wander.
As I sat there, my eyebrows were creasing together, my jaw was squeezed tight, and my fists were clenching. I was definitely feeling anxious about my son’s safety. And it wasn’t that he was being dangerous or risky. I just wasn’t in control of the situation and my primal brain kicked in. My amygdala hijacked my rational mind and was taking over my physical body. I knew what was happening, but I just couldn’t seem to think my way out of the worry spiral. Mentally I leaped forward to my son being carried off in a stretcher with a broken bone (or two) while at the same time I was recalling all the times I encouraged his adventurous side and cursing myself for my irresponsible parenting. I wanted to yell out to him, “Be careful! If you come back we’ll go get ice cream! Or a puppy? Wouldn’t you love a puppy?” but I knew that the roaring sound of the waterfall would drown out my voice (and I really didn’t want another dog).
I’m sitting there in this beautiful forest, surrounded by glorious trees, a babbling stream, birds overhead, and a magnificent waterfall in front of me and I don’t see any of it. Not a thing. I’m caught up in my own head, in my own made-up story, worried about what could happen. And I didn’t even realize it, until an older woman walked along the path near me, watched my son for a while with a wistful smile, and said, “Isn’t it wonderful to watch your children blossom?” Boom. I saw him with different eyes. His strong legs. His outstretched arms. His glowing smile. And I begin to breathe. This wise woman took me out of my story and reminded me that nothing is truly in my control. That I need to be present, to be mindful so I don’t miss this moment. That’s when I remembered my yoga and meditation practices. I took a deep breath in, from my belly all the way to my scalp and then exhaled it slowly through my nose while letting my body become soft again. My shoulders dropped and my jaw relaxed. My fists unclenched and my eyebrows stopped squeezing a little. I stood up and ventured into the cool water, too.
The last day of our trip, we went waterfall rappelling (my son’s request). We were hooked onto a rope that was tied to a tree at the top of a waterfall and then “walked” down the waterfall, sometimes nearly perpendicularly to the ground. Let me be clear: I don’t like heights. I’m not a fan of cold water. I have no need for adrenaline rushes. And did I mention I don’t like heights? But! When it was my turn to step off the edge, I practiced what I teach. I took a “mindful moment” to soften, to breathe, to be aware of the awesomeness of the moment. And then I stepped off the ledge. Every few feet I repeated the ritual – stop, breathe, soften, observe. It was fantastic (terrifying, but fantastic). I was even present enough to look down and see a tiny little salamander peaking out from under a crevice as I inched past.
I can only hope my students, young and old, are able to take what they’ve learned from their yoga and meditation classes and apply it in the real world. Yoga is easy to do on the mat. The real work is to practice it in moments of fear, anxiety, or chaos.