Motherhood isn’t easy, and I’m always looking for inspiration from other mothers. I recently read the book enLIGHTened: How I Lost 40 Pounds with a Yoga Mat, Fresh Pineapples, and a Beagle-Pointer by Jessica Berger Gross. I really appreciated Jessica’s honest, compassionate writing about her experiences, and I was thrilled when she agreed to be interviewed for Kveller.
I loved this book. There aren’t many moms out there who talk about weight struggles so authentically. Your book is about how yoga changed your life, and it was really inspirational to me. Can you talk more about how you came to yoga, and the role it has played in your life?
First of all, it makes me so happy to hear you had this response to my book. I have to admit I was reluctant at first to write about my struggles with weight. It’s not exactly something we want to shout about from the rooftops. The truth is that my weight was a symptom of much deeper problems and getting to the root of them was a life changer. It’s not about conforming to a certain beauty ideal, but rather about how to get clear-headed and healthy. Making this change helped change so much else in my life.
I got serious about yoga when I was about 26. It was a hard time in my life, and I was pretty much a mess and certainly depressed. When I was in yoga class I felt calm and peaceful. There were many ups and downs, as I chronicle in enLIGHTened, but eventually my yoga practice, and even more the philosophy behind the practice, helped me to quit smoking and drinking and completely overhaul my eating and exercise habits. I lost 40 pounds and kept them off (aside from my pregnancy, of course!), overcame depression, and made some major changes in my relationships. All these years later (I’m now 41), I still rely on my yoga practice to keep me sane and healthy.
You mentioned the philosophy behind yoga practice as being central to the changes you made in your life. What did you mean by that?
The poses and the practice are health-promoting, but the real change comes from studying and applying the underlying philosophy of yoga to one’s life. Yoga helped me make my diet and lifestyle more wholesome and “clean.” I used discipline and willpower to change the way I moved my body; I treated myself with acceptance, and I came to understand myself better through therapy and meditation.
The more we can get ourselves healthy and conscious and clear-headed, the more loving, engaged, and discerning we will be as parents.
There are yogic lessons related to food and exercise that are great for parents, like the idea that after a meal you should be 1/2 full with food, 1/4 with water, and 1/4 left for air. My parents passed on their weight issues to me. This is very common, and certainly something we see in the Jewish community. My wish is that parents can work on having a healthier relationship with food and pass that on to their children instead. My yoga practice teaches me how important it is to move your body, especially as both my son and I could pretty happily spend our afternoons in the local library. It’s important to balance that out.
I like to remind myself and other mothers that when you have young children, it’s not about spending hours on the mat—who has the time? Motherhood does give us an incredible opportunity to live our yoga with our children. There are ways to incorporate yoga into family life: a family session in the living room; an evening when one parent stays home and the other goes to class.
You mentioned the issue of weight struggles in the Jewish community. Can you talk more generally about how your Jewish identity has come into play in your life as a yogi and a parent?
I spent much of my early life seeking and searching. I looked to both Judaism and eastern philosophies. I studied in Nepal and lived in Israel. There was a time when I wondered if it was a choice between the two (yoga or Judaism) but now I don’t see it that way. There’s really no conflict at all for me. Although I’m not observant I do feel that my Jewish identity is at the core of who I am, and I continually explore and question what sort of Jewish life makes sense for my family.
Can you share one skill that might help parents dealing with the daily challenges of life with little kids?
When something stressful comes up, stop and invite your child to get still and breathe with you—slow, deep belly breaths. Count them together; one is good, five is better. You don’t need to be in a quiet place or at home to do this. You can breathe in the car, the subway, the hallway of school, wherever you find yourself. You create the moment between you, and it can really help everyone calm down.
Are there books or websites that you would recommend for parents who might be interested in exploring yoga at home?
I love The Women’s Book of Yoga & Health by Linda Sparrowe and Patricia Walden. It’s wonderful for people who have been taking yoga classes and want to figure out how to begin a home practice. My son Lucien loves the children’s book Watch Me Do Yoga by Bobby Clennell.
Yogajournal.com is a great resource for finding sequences and learning more about yoga poses and yoga philosophy.
Jessica Berger Gross is the editor of the anthology About What Was Lost: 20 Writers on Miscarriage, Healing, and Hope (Plume). Her latest book is enLIGHTened: How I Lost 40 Pounds with a Yoga Mat, Fresh Pineapples, and a Beagle Pointer (Skyhorse). Jessica’s essays and articles have appeared in Salon, Yoga Journal, Yoga International, Babble, Lilith, The Globe and Mail, and more.