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What 3 Yoga Students Taught Me About Inclusive Parenting

What experiences in your life have shown you what matters most?

My inclusive parenting story began way before I became a parent. It started when I was a new yoga and meditation teacher. I’d like to share some of the stories that have impacted me the most in my ethical evolution.

I hope, as you read my story, that you will recall some defining moments in your own life which helped shape your values. Who influenced you in ways that you could never have anticipated at the time? After my story, I’ll share some simple yoga practices with you, and offer journal reflections which will culminate in a letter of gratitude.

Knowing my story and its impact has helped me shape the conclusion. My life now is devoted to advocating for inclusion.

Before he was born, I didn’t know that my son would be atypical.*

Below are three life experiences that led me to the point where I was ready to welcome and celebrate him, exactly as he is. None of these were close or ongoing relationships. They are snapshots that I carry around to guide me back to what matters most. These experiences helped shape my values and convictions.

These snapshots remind me that we never know how a passing comment, whether supportive or judgmental, will impact someone. We can’t see the vulnerabilities that others carry around.
Because of these three students (and of course countless other influences), I share my story, my wisdom, and my understanding with you. Names have been changed, and details smudged. It is the essence of what I learned that remains absolutely true.

Mary

My very first yoga student, who came to my living room back in 2002, was a dark-haired, powder-skinned pixie named Mary. When I completed teacher training, I made a flier and put it up in a health food store. I had just moved to a small town in Australia, so I didn’t know anyone. I don’t know how Mary found me because I didn’t advertise prenatal lessons. She came to my class for some reason, and kept coming. Often, she was the only one.

I moved the furniture, and we sat on the wall-to-wall carpet chanting in harmony with the hum of the fridge, which took up a corner of the room. Mary was pregnant with her third child, a daughter who was expected to have Down syndrome. She admitted to being anxious about the future and came to yoga for stress relief. She was consciously stepping into the unknown and was so excited to meet her baby.

We meditated and practiced the yoga postures, breathing, and movement I had learned are safe during pregnancy. We did meditations specifically to strengthen her nervous system to face the coming challenges of birth and parenting a child with differences. I taught her a meditation my teacher calls “There’s Love Enough For Everyone,” which I still often teach to pregnant parents. (See the end of this story for a description.)

Mary and I stayed in touch. She sent pictures with her beautiful daughter in her arms. They were both radiant and absolutely beaming. I was so grateful that Mary would confide in me, but I didn’t know what to do with the information, other than teach the tools I had learned. It turns out, that is the right thing to do. Students come for the practice, not advice. Mary was clear on her values and purpose. My job was to teach the yoga and meditation tools, listen non-judgmentally, and guide her back to her own wisdom.

Gail

The impact of that first student didn’t immediately make itself clear to me. Neither did meeting another student, Gail, years later. I was teaching a yoga class for 3–4-year-olds at the Y. This was often the first separation class for these little ones, and I was used to their shyness or silly antics. Parents sat in the hall just outside the door, hoping to catch a glimpse without being seen.

The preschoolers were all adorable, unique and spunky. One was especially so. Chubby cheeked, with blonde pigtails, her huge blue eyes were a blur as she ran around the room, unstoppable.
Her mom explained so clearly and confidently what Gail’s strengths and challenges were.
I was curious and asked follow-up questions. My questions were probably invasive and inappropriate. She described the process of noticing her firstborn’s developmental delays, being referred to early intervention, receiving therapies, and then Gail’s remarkable progress, without a hint of embarrassment. Her daughter was getting the help she needed and that was all that mattered.

By that time I had been teaching yoga to kids for years. I had never been given information about a child’s differences in such a clean and straightforward way before. Most parents told me nothing about their kids, leaving me to wonder and figure out what worked best for them. This parent was collaborating with me so her daughter’s class could be fun and successful. It was my first lesson in inclusive education.

I felt sympathy for this family then, in my ignorance. The impression that has lingered, though, is pure admiration. We figured out how Gail could participate in and enjoy the class. It turned out that all the kids loved looking at the elephant yoga poster and taking turns pointing to the posture they wanted to demonstrate. I didn’t know I was providing “visual supports” — I was simply listening to the parent who knew what her child needed. It wasn’t always smooth sailing. Life rarely is! Sometimes we would all end up running in circles around the room. We did it together. We made it work. Little did I know how many times I would think of Gail and her mom in the years to come.

Teaching kids yoga is so completely different from teaching adults. After those classes, I had to go home, put my legs up the wall and cover my eyes. When I finally got pregnant, I stopped teaching kids. It was exhausting. I wondered how I was going to handle being with a kid 24/7. I was assured it would be different with my own child. They were right about that!

Lori

Fast forward a few more years. My son was a baby. While it was clear to me that he needed some help, it wasn’t yet clear what his needs were going to be like. As a family, we were in denial. I wasn’t yet talking openly about our struggles, since I didn’t yet understand them myself.

Lori was sitting in my prenatal yoga class one day, distracted and annoyed by her varicose veins.
Directly after class, she went to a doctor’s appointment and found out there were serious complications with the baby. Lori was devastated and terrified. The irony of being upset about superficial varicose veins wasn’t lost on her.

She never came back to class after that, so for years, I didn’t know what had happened. She says she felt that it would be too painful to be around people having “normal” pregnancies and “typical” babies. She isolated herself. We never know another person’s story, unless they can tell us. Telling our stories, without judgment, can begin a process of emotional healing. Can we allow ourselves to both grieve and celebrate together?

I ran into Lori a few years later in a play space for kids with disabilities, and she told me her story. I immediately felt regret. What if she had known my story back then? If she had reached out, through her fear, maybe I could have been a support for her. There may have been others in that very room that day in class, going through their own inner conflict, their own brand of suffering, who could have been supportive.

Did Lori need to go through her grief in isolation? Do other parents, as they become aware of their child’s differences? The truth is that all beings suffer. We are never alone in our suffering, as much as it might seem that way. The Instagram image of a happy, uncomplicated life is a farce. Perspective is lost when all we see is a two-dimensional square. In the end, Lori’s child survived, and by the time I met him, he was thriving.

I had learned from Mary the power of simply teaching yoga and meditation, listening, and allowing students to discover their own wisdom. Beyond that, I wasn’t ready to support Lori in her grief and confusion. I would have offered comfort and compassion, given the opportunity. Understanding is what leads to empathy, and I didn’t understand. Not yet. It would take years of learning from my own son how to be truly empathetic, present, and inclusive. Only he could teach me that.

The primary lesson I learned from Lori, Gail and Mary is this: my story, like theirs, when told honestly, vulnerably, and compassionately, can be of service. That lesson is the foundation on which my education in inclusive parenting was founded. I don’t know who will read it, but I know someone needs to hear the stories of my family, told from my unique perspective.

Below are some practices you can use to excavate your own story for the seeds of your ethical evolution. Someone needs to know your stories, too.

Yawn

Yawning is universal and so simple. When you try it, you will see that it is also profound. Get your whole body involved in the yawn. When we’re under threat, we don’t yawn. It signals to your body that you are safe enough to relax. You might set off a chain reaction, which is not a problem. We are socialized to think there’s something impolite about yawning. Your nervous system deserves a good yawn.

There’s Love Enough for Everyone

Try this active meditation to remind yourself of your boundlessness. An alternative to this practice is to visualize yourself doing the movement while breathing rhythmically and staying still. Do only what you can without pain or injury.

  • Sit or stand with your arms in front of you, palms facing each other a few inches apart.
  • Breathing in, spread your arms wide, still parallel to the floor.
  • Breathing out, return to the starting position.
  • Repeat for 1–3 minutes rhythmically. If something hurts, stop.
  • You can choose eyes softly gazing, or eyelids closed and your gaze turned towards the space between your eyebrows.
  • You may begin to sense the warmth between your hands.
  • Don’t be surprised if your mind gets bored or cranky, simply take it one breath at a time and treat yourself with care.
  • When it is time to end, place your palms on the center of your chest. Be still.
  • Afterward, you may want to rub your shoulders and neck a bit before picking up your pen.

Journal Reflection:

Please reflect on your own ethical evolution with the prompts below. Write from your heart. No one else needs to see it.

  • What experiences in your life have shown you what matters most?
  • Who has impacted your life in ways you could never have anticipated
  • Write them a letter of gratitude from your perspective now.

I had no idea what was in store for me in my parenting journey when I met each of these students. I didn’t know where they were taking me. Neither did they.

Most of us are unprepared for the challenges of parenting kids whose neurology is different from our own. Before he was born, I didn’t know that my child would be atypical. A unique set of experiences as a new yoga teacher helped me begin to feel ready to welcome him in his wholeness.
Mary taught me to be conscious and teach yoga. Gail’s mom taught me to collaborate. Lori taught me the importance of acceptance, perspective, community and telling my story.

My heartfelt gratitude to the parents who inspired me towards my mission of inclusion, and those who continue to inspire me, every day. You know who you are. Thank you.

*My son decided on the word atypical, and I’m honoring his choice. He’s proud of his amazing brain.

Image Credits: Kate Lynch

Photo by Levi Guzman on Unsplash.