5 Daily Practices for Mindful Parenting

June 22, 2016    BY Elizabeth Sullivan

As a mom of four young boys 11 and under, I have struggled to keep my cool when the demands of parenthood ramp up. Before I began studying yoga and ayurveda, I was familiar with the wisdom of pausing to “take a deep breath.” But I noticed during high-stress times—dinner times, bedtimes, and when I was overly tired—that my unconscious reactions surfaced more quickly than my deep breathing. No matter how much I tried to breathe, to pause, and to think, my old unwanted habitual actions seemed to rear their ugly heads when stress was high.

Since I started studying yoga and ayurveda, I’ve begun a conscious effort to make even the more intense moments of raising young kids more stable, steady, and easy. By adopting a regular daily routine (dinacharya), I’ve learned great tools for handling the challenges of being a mom. The ayurvedic self-care regimes I incorporate into daily life allow me to be more aware and more present, rather than reactive and judgmental.

It’s taken me a long time, but eventually I realized that the best way for me to handle stress is to learn from it when I’m not experiencing it. Ayurvedic routines give me the opportunity to practice the “parent pause”—stop, pause, observe, and respond—in lower-intensity situations, such as when I wake up in the morning or when I’m on my yoga mat. This makes the pause more easily available to me when I need to use it with my kids. By sharing what I am learning, I hope to support other parents’ ability to take a parent pause, rather than getting “hooked” by a stressful moment and immediately reacting. We all can use the wisdom of these living teachings to parent with less frustration and more joy.

Here are my top five daily go-to practices to help develop the parent pause.

1. Conscious Transitions 

Practice making your transitions—such as waking, rising, and leaving for school—conscious ones. Don’t let a potentially late departure propel you into old patterns of worry, stress, or shame. Be in the moment. You will waste less time and energy. To begin undoing an ingrained pattern during a high stress moment, practice making smaller, conscious transitions.

When you awaken, notice which nostril is dominant (which means the one with more air flowing through it). Step onto the floor first with the foot that reflects the dominant nostril. This is a concrete but subtle practice of noting your breath, and then choosing how you act as you rise from bed and step into your day. If you have a yoga practice, your mat can be an ideal environment for practicing conscious transitions as you move from one asana to another. As my teacher, Indu Arora, would say: "Minimal effort and energy, and maximum ease."

Become aware of your “high stress transitions.” When are they likely to happen? At my house, a high stress transition is getting out the door for school. I know that how we leave our houses in the morning can inform the rest of the day. I became acutely aware of this a month ago, as I looked out a school window at the procession of parents dropping off their kids before classes began. I saw that the parents who arrived calm and happy had calm and happy kids. Those parents who were hunkered down, worried, or scowling had kids reflecting the same tone; some of the kids had shoulders sunken inward as they tried to match the hurried pace of their parents.

I recognized myself in both examples because I have been both kinds of parent on different mornings. Currently, I am practicing being late gracefully. Once it is obvious we are running late, I make a conscious decision not to rush so that I avoid adding extra stress to the situation. Then, for my kids and for me, the practice is to remain calm and enter school gracefully, with minimal disruption. This is a skill that will also serve them later in life. (Ideally, of course, we are on time, but that isn’t always how life happens.)

2. Rise Before the Sun for a Self-Care Practice

Through my ayurveda studies with Kathryn Templeton and Indu Arora, I’ve learned that the time before sunrise is when the mind is most clear and tranquil, reflecting the calm of predawn. Waking in this calm state starts the day on a positive note. I notice a great difference when I rise early because I then have time to myself before I must care for others. (If getting up before sunrise seems daunting, try moving toward it gradually. Awaken just five minutes earlier for a moment to yourself as your day begins.)

I also practice gratitude upon rising. This can mean stating something as simple as “Thank you for this day,” or asking to be aligned with the Universe's intention and the flow of the day before me. It sets my day in motion with gratitude and intention—i.e., consciousness.

3. Tongue Scraping and Warm or Room Temperature Water in the Morning 

Over the night, ama gathers on your tongue. This is the coating you can see upon rising, often in the form of a white or yellow residue. While it can have significance regarding your digestion, etc., we will focus here on its removal. Scrape or gently “pet” your tongue with a tongue scraper, which you can purchase at most drug stores. Then, drink a glass of warm or room temperature water to “turn on” your digestion and aid in the elimination of waste (from your other end!). By getting rid of the buildup of waste first thing in the morning, our bodies have more energy to be fully present and handle the daily requirements of parenting.

4. Daily Oiling (Abhyanga) 

This practice was harder for me to begin than the others because I didn’t see how a skin care routine could support the giving and receiving that parenting requires. But I learned in ayurvedic training that the act of giving and receiving is directly connected to our hands, our skin, and our ability to touch and feel. I also didn’t think I had the time to oil my entire body every day, so I started small—with just my hands, face, and feet—and gradually I began to notice how this practice calmed my mind. Now my abhyanga practice includes my whole body.

The three classical ayurvedic texts—Charaka Samhita, Sushruta Samhita, and Astanga Hrdayam—note that abhyanga also has added benefits. It is said to increase longevity and minimize the effects of aging, help to establish and maintain healthy sleep patterns, strengthen the body’s resiliency, and increase circulation.

I find that oiling allows me to give myself the same gentle, loving touch I extend to my children. This kind of support to the body becomes crucial when trying to change stress patterns. Now I find that oiling myself from head to foot allows me to be more present in my body because I’m physically touching my body. My abhyanga routine has also helped me to soften as a person. It makes me feel that not only can I survive the stress of a fight-or-flight moment, but I can thrive in the midst of it.

5. Daily Meditation

Five years ago, when I was pregnant with my fourth child, I made a commitment to myself to sit for ten minutes of meditation each day. (If I get more than ten it’s a bonus.) In those early years I would wonder, Why am I meditating again? as I often had to sit amidst chaos, sometimes meditating on my kitchen floor while my kids played around me. But I now see the fruits of this practice. The ability to respond rather than react becomes more accessible with a daily meditation practice. The enhanced awareness that meditation practice has given me allows me to act as an "observer" when things get especially stressful. I can take a step back, assess what's going on, and take conscious, skillful action from there.

These ten minutes each day also help to reveal any unhelpful/negative thought patterns I may be unconsciously repeating, and remind me of my connection to something greater than myself. This time gives me an opportunity to reflect on my own “shadow”—those parts of me I have a harder time looking at—helping me create more harmony with all of myself. During these ten minutes, these shadows are illuminated, and the grip they have on me loosens so that I can parent from a calm, centered place.

I’ve also noticed that meditation has helped me become more resilient and adaptable, which is a huge help when the demands from my young boys are high. It creates the ability to withstand the impulse to react mindlessly, and instead to think more clearly about the best response to what life asks of me in this moment. It helps me offer a response that will make life cleaner and clearer, not messier.

At times I have needed help refreshing my commitment to meditation. This is when I return to some key resources from my teacher trainings: the Yamas and Niyamas by Deborah Adele, or Making a Change for Good by Cheri Huber. These books provide skills for developing the observer/witness within. Sometimes I find it nice to have someone else lead me in my meditation. When at times it feels particularly daunting, then I may use the Headspace app.

However you choose to meditate, it’s important to keep it simple. Commit to the practice without throwing in the towel when you miss a day; with meditation it is the return that matters. There are days when I manage to eke out my meditation practice just ten minutes before I go to bed!

When we practice self-care and smooth transitions and we grow our awareness during times of relaxation, when stress creeps in we can then access the parent pause with greater ease. We can continue to breathe calmly, moving toward stability, steadiness, and ease. We can also model this for our kids. As ayurvedic expert Dr. Vasant Lad states in his Textbook of Ayurveda, Volume I: “Mobility and stability go together in para ojas (our essence related to vitality and immunity)....There is freedom and freedom is love, freedom is awareness. Therefore awareness is love. Awareness is an all-inclusive state of consciousness” (pp. 211-212).

In ayurveda, it is said that the macro reflects the micro, and the micro reflects the macro. So then, our states of mind and our presence inform not only ourselves but also others around us—our partners, our children, our world. We can grow our awareness, our love, and our vitality, and notice the ripples of these practices both inward and outward.

The practices that build the parent pause aid us in our ability to self-realize, and to heal, love, and accept ourselves. They are also powerful tools for helping ourselves and our next generation to thrive together in harmony.

Elizabeth Sullivan
500 RYT Yoga North International SomaYoga Institute, Ayurveda Yoga Specialist, C(DONA), SomaYoga Therapy Teacher, and SourcePoint Therapy Practitioner, MA, MFA

Elizabeth has written for Outside Magazine, Saint Paul Almanac, Minnesota Yoga + Life, Yoga International, and other publications. Her study, teaching, and practice of Yoga, Ayurveda, and SourcePoint Therapy informs her writing, as well as, raising her four boys 11 and under with her husband and their puppy in Saint Paul, MN. Raising... Read more>>