In his first State of the Union address last night, President Obama proudly announced his wife Michelle’s intention to champion the cause of combating childhood obesity. This is great news for the children of our nation whose physical education programs continue to be cut and who suffer from lack of access to nutritious food in their schools and often in their communities. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that as many as 18% of adolescents are overweight or obese.

The causes of childhood obesity are well-known and complex. Lack of physical exercise and poor nutrition are the leading culprits. Here’s how yoga can help children and teens release excess weight and transform their thinking about food.

1. Yoga is non-competitive. Children and teens suffering with obesity are often discouraged from competitive sports that require speed and agility. Yoga offers an alternative in a non-competitive, compassionate format. Yoga will increase heart-rate and provide much needed cardiovascular support without asking youth to compare themselves to others. In yoga, everyone wins. For youth facing obesity, this is key. If a child knows he does not have the skills to win, what will motivate him to participate in competitive games? The last thing a child facing obesity needs is to be labeled a “loser.”

2. Yoga encourages youth to discover their own motivation for being physically fit. By it’s nature, yoga practice brings us into closer connection with our innate drive for health. Rather than being motivated by making a certain grade or being on a winning team, yoga practice reveals the personal benefits of increased strength and flexibility, balance, and the ability to focus. Life-long health depends on one’s own motivation towards self-care. The ability to care for oneself begins with awareness of self and body. Yoga builds self awareness by asking children and teens to pay attention to their bodies.

3. Yoga practice works with the mind as well as the body. As a mind-body fitness practice, yoga classes for children and teens address the choices we make for our mind-body systems. Youth learn how their nutrition choices effect how they feel physically. With regular yoga practice, we feel better. When we feel better, we are more likely to make wise choices about what we eat.

Yoga practice works to expand consciousness of overall health and well being. Over the years, I have worked with many  children and teens dealing with obesity who find a safe place in yoga to cultivate a positive sense of self that contributes to confidence. Children have expressed to me time and again how much yoga practice helps them feel more able to participate in other physical activities.

Yoga alone cannot fix the problem of childhood and teen obesity. We need to address the issue of access to nutritious foods. Companies like Revolution Foods are doing just that by providing healthy lunches to participating schools. Yoga does offer multitudes of benefits that can be part of the solution. In closing, consider how stressful it must be in this image driven media age to be an overweight or obese child or teen. The well documented stress reduction factors of yoga practice are a powerful start to transforming health for youth suffering with the debilitating disease of obesity.

Inspire a child or teen to get up off the couch and practice some yoga!

http://www.shantigeneration.com

Part Two of a series of 5 posts on teaching mindfulness to youth. These techniques are geared especially for youth ages 11-15 years.

“The obstacle is the path.”  ~ Zen proverb

This well known old Zen riddle becomes sparklingly clear when teaching mindfulness to youth. Ask young people to sit still and pay attention to what is happening and they will tell you all kinds of reasons why their minds get distracted. “I was thinking about homework.” Or, “I could not pay attention because of the kids yelling outside.” In this case, what seem like distractions are exactly what we are looking for! What is your attention on? What is your mind engaged in? By simply noticing, we build our awareness. We become mindful of our own mental processes.

There are common misconceptions that meditation is about “shutting out” the world and “turning off” the mind. While it is true that dedicated practice can reveal a certain spaciousness and emptiness of mind, the beginning phases of meditation are all about becoming aware of what is happening in the mind, without interfering. One of my teachers, Ven. Tsoknyi Rinpoche III, instructs us to use distractions as a buffer for the mind. We can let our mind “bounce” off the distractions and come back to center. So, for instance, the sounds we hear while meditating can actually help us stay aware.

The following simple technique utilizes “distractions” to  help youth learn to be mindful.

1. Find a comfortable position. Lying down or sitting cross-legged works fine. If lying down, find a symmetrical position on the back. Sitting against a wall works well, too. In the beginning, strive to be comfortable. A more formal sitting posture can be adopted as the practice develops.

2. Close the eyes or gaze forward with soft eyes. If practicing with open eyes, the gaze is mellow, not a tight focus on one object, but looking in a general direction without staring. Let the eyes settle without being too rigid. If the eyes tend to wander a lot, choose a smaller scope of view. Bring the gaze in closer, on the floor about a foot in front of the body.

3. Once the body position and focus are established, turn the attention to listening. Listen to the sounds happening outside of the room first. When you hear a sound, notice what it is and label the sound. If you hear the sound of a truck passing by, mentally note the sound as “truck.” Keep listening as the sound fades, then allow the mind to move to the next sound as it comes. Make mental notes of all the sounds you hear. Try this for 3-4 minutes.

4. Now, listen for sounds closer to you, in the room. If the ceiling creaks, mentally say “creak,” then allow the mind to hear other sounds. Listen in this way for about 3 minutes.

5. Finally, listen to the sounds within your own body. If you notice the sound of your stomach growling, mentally note “stomach” and then listen again. Listen to the whole body for a minute, then try listening to the breathe alone for a minute.

6. Now, come back to the sounds in the room. Enjoy 5 deep breathes as you bring your awareness back to the space around you.

Tips:

*Throughout this exercise, if you notice that your mind has wandered into thoughts, simply bring your mind back to listening. If you notice your mind has wandered, that is great! You are being mindful of your awareness. Each time you guide your mind back to listening, you are training your mind to be, well, mindful.

*Another great teacher I’ve had the good fortune to study with, Sharon Salzberg, instructs us to “let the sounds wash through the body like a wind or storm passing through.” We don’t have to hold on to the sounds, we can simply hear them.

After practicing the exercise, ask youth to name the sounds they heard outside of the room, inside of the room, and within the body. They’ll get a kick out of how many sounds they heard in common and also find it interesting how many sounds they may have missed.

Try this exercise as a way to focus the mind before a test or homework session.

Part one of a series of 5 posts on teaching mindfulness to youth. These techniques are geared especially for youth ages 11-15 years.

Mindfulness is described as “allowing things to be as they are, resting in awareness, and then, taking appropriate action when called for” (Jon Kabat Zinn). Introducing adolescents to the practice of mindfulness requires patience and creativity. Providing an experience of mindfulness in a playful way can help youth gain a reference point, or view, of how mindfulness practice works.

One way to create a mindful experience is to use the environment within which you are working. For example, my middle school yoga students have the daily task of moving chairs and tables in our multi-purpose room to make space for yoga practice. A couple of weeks into the start of a semester, I put small, colorful plastic bowls of water on each table. Students enjoy the “game” of moving the tables carefully without spilling the water. They must focus on their movements and work together to succeed. This routine task of moving furniture is generally a mundane time of mindlessness. Students tend to chat and socialize, barely paying any attention to what they are doing. Add the water bowls and the task transforms into a quiet, mindful activity.

Once the tables and chairs are put away, we continue the game by arranging our mats mindfully. To illustrate the difference, I first ask students to hurry up, make 3 rows and put their mats down quickly while talking to as many classmates as possible. They love the chaos of this part of the game! After the mats are haphazardly placed, we step back and take a look at the results. Everyone agrees that a messy room won’t help our yoga practice. So, I ask students to roll their mats and silently form 3 rows. They are guided to keep their mats folded until I ring a bell. Instead of guiding students to make neat, symmetrical rows, I allow them to use non-verbal communication to configure their rows. Once they have achieved a balanced formation, I ring the bell. The pay-off to all of this mindfulness is when they get to all flip their mats open all at once and the colorful banners blossom around the room. Then, we survey our results and celebrate our efforts.

Setting up our yoga room mindfully sets the tone for our whole practice. Now, I can easily ask students to apply these same techniques of watching and listening to their asana (posture) and pranayama (breathing) practices. Once this basic “view” of mindfulness is established, teaching mindfulness while in sitting posture comes much easier.

Think about the environment in which you teach and find a creative way to introduce the practice of being mindful within a task that students are already engaging in.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Sounds All Around which will focus on introducing youth to mindfulness while being still in once place.

A film crew from Australia, headed up by Kate Clere, came to New Roads Middle School today to film our yoga classes. They are making a documentary on women and yoga. Kate wanted to interview teen girls who practice yoga.

As always, I was impressed by my students who spoke so articulately about their yogic experiences.

The theme for today’s class was non-violence, or ahimsa (Sanskrit). We used a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to start our discussion: “At the center of non-violence stands the principle of love.” Students reflected on the quote and we entered a lively discussion on peace, acceptance, respect, equality and the connections between yoga and social justice.

Students proposed that violence denotes separation while love brings us together. I am constantly amazed at how readily young people understand the true meaning of yoga as unification.

Hopefully Kate’s documentary will inspire many schools to include yoga in their curriculum. Yoga provides an invaluable framework for youth to make sense of the world and their human experience.

The Sound of Peace

January 16, 2010

To build context and develop the meaning of peace, I often use inquiries to prompt discussions with students. I’ve used the simple question, “What does peace sound like to you?’ for years in yoga classes with children and youth. Here are a few of my favorite answers:

~ “The garbage truck.” Diego, 4

~ “My mommy’s voice.” Sasha, 5

~ “The dismissal bell.” Paul, 13

~ “Sound of fat baby feet on a wood floor.” Teacher

~ “Ooh la la.” Catherine, 4

I love that we can all find peace in many different ways. This diversity of experience brings beauty to even the mundane.

What does peace sound like to you?

On September 11, 2001, I was set to teach a yoga class to young children ages 3-6. Horrified by the mornings events, I called the studio, Yoga Works, to find out if we were still having classes. I had hoped the answer would be ‘no’ because I was not sure how to approach the days lesson. The response from the studio was that we would maintain our regular schedule because the community needed the serenity of yoga that day more than ever.

Driving to class that afternoon, I kept the song “Across the Universe,” covered by Fiona Apple, on repeat. The song helped me cope with my own feelings of sadness, fear and confusion. By the time I got to class, I was centered and ready to be present with the students.

Because the students were so young, some did not know the specifics of what had happened that morning, but everyone could feel the tangible loss and worry. To begin class, I asked the children to share a pose that helped them feel safe and healthy. One by one, the dozen or so children shared their poses and the rest of the class joined in.

Next, I asked the children to sit back to back, supporting each other and feeling the movement of breath in each other’s backs. Then, we practiced a few partner poses including “Lizard on a Rock,” in which one person is in Child’s Pose (Rock) while the partner rests gently on the “rock’s” back like a “lizard.”

Finally, we spent the rest of our class passing around a chime and making wishes for people who needed them. We started by making wished for ourselves, then our families, and eventually people around the world who needed extra love and caring that day. To end class, we dedicated our resting time to all of the children in the world who needed a good rest.

Overall, the experience of providing children a safe place to be on a tragic day was a true honor to me. What a privilege it is to serve children in this way. I remember these easy steps as I enter the classroom tomorrow and take the role of guiding middle schoolers through the process of coping with news of the disaster in Haiti.

1. Take care of yourself first. Get centered and calm.

2. Check in with students and allow them to express their thoughts and feelings. Ask them to share something that makes them feel safe, as well.

3. Try engaging students in partner work so they feel supported and in community.

4. Take the time to send wishes and loving kindness to each other and those in need.

5. Dedicate the practice to those in need.

(Artwork above by Emeka! Okoro    www.peacepeas.com/ blog/tag/imagekind/ )

Our moods effect our movements and likewise. Think about how your body moves when you are tired. Maybe your feet drag and your shoulders droop a bit. Now, remember how your body felt the last time you were excited about seeing someone you love and had not seen for a while. Remember the spring in your step and energy bouncing through your body.

Through yoga practice, we learn that conscious, clear movement can help us feel more calm, centered and present. The following activity is fun to play with children and teens of all ages to illustrate how our emotions and movements are in relationship.

1. Learn Tree Pose and teach it to the youth you are working with. (For an instructional video demonstration, visit: http://www.shantigeneration.com/Media.html

2. Practice Tree Pose as though a strong wind is blowing through a forrest and you must put great effort into staying balanced. Find your roots.

3. Now practice Tree Pose as though the ground is shaking beneath your feet. Find balance in your center.

4. Practice Tree Pose again, this time pretend that the ground and the wind are both still.

5. Ask participants to name different emotions they feel throughout the day. Practice Tree Pose applying each emotion. How does an angry tree feel? Try a confident tree.

6. Finally, ask youth to decide how they really want to feel and guide them to move in that way, not only in yoga poses, but all through the day.