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Up With Down Dog: How Yoga Can Make You a Better Dad

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Most of the guys who attend my men's yoga class for the first time come because someone — usually a spouse or partner — "forced" them to. Unnerved by images of yoga classes crammed with stretchy women in stretchy pants, they understandably feel that "it's not for me." That's too bad, because it's men — with their stiff muscles and general disdain for "self care" — who need yoga most. And I would argue that it is men with children at home — the very men for whom getting to yoga class is often most challenging — who can most benefit from embracing their inner down dog.

I took my first yoga class nearly 30 years ago, for a PE credit I needed to graduate from college. The teacher, Louis, was a compact version of the late TV painter Bob Ross — human Valium with a Jewfro, gliding from mat to mat with loose-limbed precision in airy white pants, making gentle adjustments to our minds and postures. Once, when I asked him about his weekend, his face lit up and he described the "Deepening Your Love" retreat he'd attended with his wife. I remember thinking, You could do worse than to end up like Louis.

And yet it would be another 10 years or so before I practiced yoga again, and then only in fits and starts. Eventually, I found myself married, with two young kids, and my wife and I both working full-time. Taking an hour for a yoga class felt like an impossible luxury until, when my kids were 5 and 3 years old, I just did it. I stuck with it, and in 2015, I became a certified yoga instructor.

My men's class has run consistently for more than four years. It's not everyone's "thing," and I'm OK with that. (No one could make me love running or golf.) But it might be your thing. And whether you're negotiating the physically grueling work of raising littles, or the psychological jiujitsu of the teen years, applying even a few lessons "from the mat" can help make you a better parent, partner and person.

"Suffering that has yet to manifest is to be avoided" warns the Yoga Stras of Patanjali, a guide to yoga practice written in India about 2,000 years ago. What does this mean for you, Dad? On a purely physical level, young kids are hell on your body. They require chasing, crawling and endless bending and lifting. Every time you push a tiny bike, pick a thrashing toddler off the ground, or retrieve a stray Lego from beneath the couch, you are taunting the gods of lower-back pain.

By making you mindful of your movements, yoga encourages habits — such as bending with your knees or alternating your kid-holding arm — that can prevent a lot of short-term agony. And with even a small arsenal of yoga postures, you can reverse the typical male descent into stiffness and slouching (hair loss, not so much). Stand tall in mountain pose — feet rooted in the earth, chest broad, shoulders relaxed, head reaching skyward. Loosen your back with cat-cow, and strengthen it with locust. Bust that gut pouch with boat pose. Unravel upper-back knots with garudasana, eagle pose. Whatever life with kids does to your body, yoga helps undo.

You're never balanced, only balancing. In life, as in yoga, balance isn't static, but a series of microcorrections. Perching on one foot in vrksasana, tree pose, you wobble and sway. You may even fall over. But you keep coming back. At home, there are days when you've got it all figured out — soundly sleeping children, reliable childcare, and perfect division of domestic duties. Notice how you feel in that moment, so that when it passes, you know what you want to get back to.

Don't compare. The human body comes in an array of shapes and sizes. That's why there's no perfect version of any yoga pose, but a best fit for a given body. By the same token, there is no single right way to be a parent or a family. If comparing Instagram vacations and "happy family" Face-brags is triggering FOMO, guilt and resentment, you can always shut it out, the same way you might close your eyes in trikonasana to focus on how it feels for you, instead of, "Why don't I look more like that?" Likewise, there's no point comparing your body to yesterday's, or last year's — any more than there is in wishing that your 10-year-old was still 5. With time, some things get better, other things get worse, and almost everything changes. Yoga philosophy tells us that suffering arises from clinging to an idea of how things should be. Relief comes from being grateful for what is.

Don't try so hard. The Yoga Sutras say surprisingly little about asana, the physical practice of yoga, offering just one suggestion: "Posture should be steady and comfortable ... attained by the relaxation of effort and by absorption in the infinite." While it may take considerable effort to get into a particular pose, it's the ability to ease off that makes it yoga. As parents, we may not always notice how, in trying to create pristine memories, we may also create a fair amount of tension for ourselves and our kids. Learning to recognize when you're overexerting allows you to dial back. (Try three deep breaths.) When you're relaxed, your kids will be, too.

Focus on the actions, not the fruits of the actions. Yoga class is not a performance that you will be judged on, and neither is parenting. Instead of focusing on a particular goal — like achieving a difficult posture, or getting your kid into a top-ranked college — yoga emphasizes cultivating the habits that underlie it, like focus, determination and resilience. If you are parenting in expectation of a medal, or even a heartfelt thank-you every time you deserve one, you will be bitter. Approaching parenting instead as a practice, a kind of spiritual weight-lifting that boosts your capacity for unconditional love, can be transformative.

Rest. Savasana, lying on your back for five minutes or so at the end of a yoga class, offers something that parents rarely get: permission to rest. Did I mention that raising kids is exhausting? By the power invested in me by my teachers and my teachers' teachers, I hereby grant you permission to practice savasana anytime, anywhere. Just find a floor, someplace warm, and lie on your back. Stretch out your legs, leaving some distance between them. Roll up a blanket beneath your knees. Prop up your head if your neck hurts. Let your arms rest a few inches from your sides, palms turned up. Close your eyes, and let your mind and body settle.

Be kind to yourself. Namaste.

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