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August 16, 2011
Turning teens on to the power of conscious breathing is quite possibly one of the most valuable tools we can offer for coping with stress. Adolescent youth are naturally looking for skills to deal with the multitudes of physical, mental, social and emotional issues associated with the passage from child to adult. The more we acknowledge and respect the particulars of being a teen, the more effective our approach to breathing will be. Here are a few thoughts to keep in mind.
1. Breath is Power: It’s common for teens to struggle with issues of control and power. On one hand, they are given more responsibilities and choices. On the other hand, they still must function in a regulated environment wherein parents and teachers set the boundaries. I like to remind teens that no matter what, they are the only ones that have the power to change their own breathing patterns. Our breathing can be in our control. When it is, we have the power to change the way we feel physically and mentally. So, even in a situation where teens are told exactly what they must do, they have the power to choose how to be, and the breath is a real ally to enacting the desired state of being.
2. Breath is Life: Teens often point out that we are always breathing, so what’s the big deal of thinking about the breath in yoga? I’ve found it helpful to take a grounded, scientific approach to this question. Using overhead transparencies or worksheets, I explain to teens how the breath works. It’s surprising how little many teens (and adults) know about the mechanics of inhales and exhales. I’ve seen other teachers create models of the lungs using common items like balloons, rubber bands and cups. These illustrations help to bring home the point that there is a lot to learn and know about the breath, beyond the involuntary function.
3. Breath Moves Energy: Beyond the all important function of keeping us alive, breathing can transform the energy of the body from stress to relaxation. Most teens can relate to the feeling of stress and value finding ways of de-stressing. Simply sitting or laying down and focusing on smoothing out the inhales and exhales can have a transformative effect on the body and mind.
So, whether or not we engage in classic pranayam with teens is dependent on our own practices and skill sets. But, any teacher or parent can create a situation to encourage teens to take a breather. Five minutes of calm, guided focus on the breath is a powerful way for teens to prepare for the school day, a performance, a test or an interview.
The great news is, breathing with our students or teenage children gives us a chance to just be with them with less expectation, which is good for all relationships. The emotional tone of “let’s just be here together and breathe” is a helpful way to dissolve some of the barriers that are typical in teen-adult relationships.
When I let a teen know that I care about how they are breathing, I am saying: “I respect you. I want you to know you are powerful, alive and able to relax.” From what I’ve experienced, that feels good to a teenager.
August 10, 2011
Breathing exercises for young children focus on building awareness rather than actually manipulating or regulating the breath to the degree adult yoga may teach. Here a few ideas and pointers to make yoga breathing safe, fun and calming for little yogi’s.
- Little Lungs: Remember that little folk have a much shorter lung capacity than adults. When modeling breathing techniques for young children, modify the length of your inhales and exhales to account for this.
- Hiss, Hum, Buzz: Make breathing a fun activity by offering a playful way for children to interact with their own breath. Invite them to inhale deeply, then hiss like a snake on the exhale. End your hissing sound sharply to cue the children to stop. Then start again with a fresh inhale. Repeat, using a humming sound for the exhale and then a buzzing sound. Encourage children to feel the vibrations in their lips and cheeks. Always check to be sure children are inhaling between the sounds and stop the exhale in an appropriate amount of time.
- Feeling Breath Move: A wonderful way to introduce young children to the wonders of breathing is to let them feel the movement of breath in a partner’s back. Be sure to instruct them to use the lightest, most gentle touch, like they would use for a baby. Let them lay hands on the back of a friend in child’s pose and feel how the breath expands in the back of the body. Instruct the friends in child’s pose to breathe into the place they feel hands touching. Play soft music, perhaps harp or piano, to encourage slow calm, slow breathing.
Remind children often to use their breathing to relax in situations where they may feel angry or scared. I’ve had countless parents share adorable stories of their children using their “yoga breath” in all sorts of situations to cope with stress. Make breathing fun now, so children can utilize their awareness for a lifetime.
When unfathomable events occur, like the horrific tragedies in Norway, many of us look for ways to cope with our feelings of anger, sadness and helplessness. We need to find a way of thinking that helps to make sense of the senseless. Teens and children naturally feel especially vulnerable when terror strikes in their domain.
Here are a few guiding thoughts to support those of us who work with youth.
~Offer Grounding Practices: When the world seems to turn upside down, it is helpful to focus on poses and practices that bring stability. Supported seated poses like Hero Pose (Virasana) with blocks or Easy Pose (Sukhasana) using the wall as a support can help bring a sense of place. Simple breathing techniques that foster full body awareness are helpful.
Sitting upright, hearts open, breathing in: feel the feet. Breathing out: release tailbone into Earth.
Breathing in: fill the belly. Breathing out: sitting bones press into floor.
Breathing in: fill the middle back. Breathing out: release front ribcage.
Breathing in: fill the chest. Breathing out: soften shoulders.
Breathing in: lengthen through crown. Breathing out: relax facial muscles.
~Look at the Big Picture, Rather than the Details: Mass media news sources will report on every detail possible about the events and participants. Rather than getting into the life situation of the perpetrator, focus on the big issues of racism, fear and confusion. I once asked a master meditation teacher, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, how to cope with feelings of anger toward people who commit horrific acts. His advice was so wise. “Don’t focus on the individual,” he said. “Focus on the overall confusion.” Rinpoche said it’s the cloud of confusion hanging over us all that leads people to act violently. The overall confusion of racism is something we can each actually have an impact on. As we each become more clear, the cloud diminishes a little bit.
Finding compassion for a mass murderer may be an extremely difficult concept for youth. Yet, the generational confusion of fear and racism is something we all have direct experience with, whether we are cognizant of it or not. So we can “meditate on the confusion” in a sense.
See all of the fear and hatred that mankind has as a cloud of confusion.
See that beyond the cloud, there is a possibility for clarity; clear blue skies on the horizon.
Sitting peacefully, let your mind be clear. Let the confusion dissolve. Being clear, the world becomes more clear.
~Provide Opportunities for Expression: As teachers, we do not need to know the answers to the impossible question, “why?” Just giving students a chance to write, journal or dialogue about their feelings can be healing. Engaging in grounding exercises before and after expression can help to soften anger and prevent feeling out of control.
How do you feel when you think about the tragic events?
What would you want to say or share with the families of the victims, or even the victims themselves?
What do people need in order to feel safe enough that we do not need to threaten others?
Can I commit to creating more peace in myself and my family?
How do these tragedies remind me of the preciousness of human life?
My heart weeps continually for the youth whose lives were taken. In their name, my commitment to youth health is strengthened. All blessings of peace to each and every one.
This four part series of posts will address the in and outs of teaching pranayam (yogic breathing) to young children, teens and their teachers.
In a workshop at Yoga Works nearly 12 years ago, the brilliant professor of Indian Studies from Loyola Marymount University, Dr. Chris Chapple, said, “Yoga starts with the negative, with what ‘not’ to do.” This idea struck a nerve with me. It’s true that the first limb of Patanjali’s system is a series of restraints.
In that light, let’s start this exploration by looking at “what not to do” when teaching breathing techniques to youth. This will not be an exhaustive list, but will cover three important basics.
1. No Breath Retention: Many yogic breathing techniques involve holding the breath in or out. To be on the safe side, I suggest not to use this technique almost ever. In rare cases, applied with intelligence and skill, there are exceptions. But, in general, breath retention is not appropriate for kids. Yes, kids hold their breath when swimming and there is no problem with that. However, teaching breath retention outside of the water has been known to cause anxiety in kids who may not be in a fully integrated place physiologically, which you may not be aware of unless you know the child very well. Also, kids can become competitive and/or obsessed with how long they are able to hold the breath. Holding the breath can cause dizziness and euphoric feelings. Outside of yoga, some teens abuse breath retention as a way to alter their state. Educating teens on the power of breath retention, and the dangers, may be necessary if you know they are engaging already. We will cover more on that in Part Three.
2. No “Wrong” Breathing: I always hope that sharing my mistakes from my early years of teaching will help save another teacher and student the trouble. In my first year of teaching yoga to kids, I had a situation where I noticed a student to be a paradoxical breather. Simply put, this means that instead of the lungs and belly expanding on the inhale, they were actually contracting. This particular child had a host of behavioral issues, so I found this discovery fascinating. I casually told the student about my observation and entered a segment of teaching on how the breath normally works in the body. Hearing that she was breathing differently caused the student to become afraid and visibly stressed. As she attempted to “switch” the movements of the belly, she panicked and began to cry. We quickly shifted to a restorative pose as I helped the student relax.
I had a conversation with the student and her mother after class which helped to relax the child. Over time, she learned to expand her belly when inhaling. I learned to approach this kind of situation slowly over time and to always explain breathing in terms of “optimum,” rather that “right and wrong.”
3. No Competitions: Another case of my mistakes hopefully benefiting others! Please, especially in a group of young children, do not utter the words, “Let’s see how long we can exhale!” Once during a particularly wild class with 3 and 4 year olds, I had a not so brilliant idea to try and bring focus by prompting students to hum (on an exhale) as long as they could. This did anything but calm the little guys, who became completely drawn into a competitive mode and were willing to turn blue to win. Luckily, another idea struck: “Let’s see how soft we can hum.” Works much better.
Have you experienced other situations in teaching breathing to kids or teens that may be helpful to others? Please share here;)
Next week: Part Two; Pranayama for Early Childhood Yoga
July 12, 2011
Skilled, well-intentioned yoga teacher enters classroom full of wily, stressed out teens. She proceeds to put in CD of new age music and asks students to take their seats. It’s the first day of yoga. Let’s start with an “Om,” she says. She inhales deeply, closes her eyes and “Ooooohhhmmmmm.” Then, a classroom full of teens burst into laughter sending the teacher into a flustered state of confusion.
The most challenging part of guiding teens toward yoga may be the introduction. Once they experience the benefits, yoga practice can be a welcomed asset to stressed-out teens. Teens need to know from the beginning how yoga fits into their lives and what the practice can do for them.
1. Teens First
Developmental educators know that teens really are the center of the Universe! The whole world really is their stage and everyone is watching. Some teens embrace this aspect of adolescence while others shy away from it. For yoga teachers, or teachers of any subject for that matter, one approach to engaging teens from the get, is to utilize their natural egocentricity. Start the journey with a question. Let each student introduce themselves and share why they are in class. Or ask them to share one activity they truly enjoy in their lives.
2. Make It Relevant
Use every bit of information you discover from the introductions as catalysts for the yoga journey. If your students are interested in volleyball, create metaphors that speak to that. Basketball players in the class? Find examples of players and teams that practice yoga as part of their regimen. In the beginning, teens might not be ready to take in the Sutras of Patanjali. If you can get them on board with a current public figures help, though, you just may be on the way to a deeper exploration.
3. Why Does This Matter?
Why in the world would a teen want to suffer through the hard work of a Warrior Pose? They want to know that their investment will yield strength for their games and focus for their grades. Find out why Warrior Pose matters to each student and constantly remind them.
4. Pick Up the Pace
Teens don’t want to hang out in Triangle Pose for 5 minutes hearing about every single musculoskeletal nuance. Get in there, cover the basic safety mechanisms and move on. Build in the details over time. Keep the focus on safety and fluid breathing so they feel the benefits. Then, you can spend an hour on Mountain Pose in an awesome group project. (Coming Soon!)
5. Let Them Teach
New teen yoga students will likely not be ready to teach poses, but they possess a great deal of wisdom in regards to the lifestyle of yoga. Asking guiding questions like “How do you cope with a situation in which you feel insecure?” could yield wisdom as rich as Patanjali’s. It’s all in how you ask. Respect and trust their experience and they will reward you by sharing the depths of their understanding.