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

Imagine this scene:

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.

Apple pie, baseball, yoga?

The foundations and core values of Yoga are about as American as you can get. Let’s look at 3 states Yoga and the  roots of American ideology  have in common.

1. Unity- The commonly accepted translation of the word “yoga” (Sanskrit) is “union.” More precisely, but not exact, is that “yoga” comes from the root, “yuj,” meaning “to yoke,” or “to join.” Further, just like in American philosophy, yoga doesn’t say that unity means we are the same. No indeed. It’s our diversity that brings carries the beauty. A common theme  in many yogic traditions is unity in diversity. (been to a House of Blues lately?)

2. Indivisibility- As a school girl learning The Pledge, I imagined “indivisibility” to mean “you can get invisible.” This made all the sense in the world to me. If America was all about justice and equality, no one could become invisible. Everyone would have a voice. Of course, my life and times have shown me this is not the case and that indivisibility means something similar to interconnected. Yoga teaches that apparent separations are actually just illusions. We may seem to have great chasms between us, yet something (or no– thing) connects us. The pursuit of that connection, that unifying factor, is tantamount to the journey of yoga.

3. Freedom- The goal of yoga is kaivalya (Sanskrit), meaning “freedom.” I won’t forget this one because I got it wrong on one of my teacher’s training tests. I not-so-cleverly answered the question something like: “everyone’s goals in yoga are different and there are no real goals.” Wrong. The classical system of yoga posits that the practice can release the practitioner from the illusory attachments that cause suffering.

In the beginning of this piece, I purposely referred to the founding concepts of America as an “ideology.” This is because, like Yoga, the philosophy of America is an alive practice. The sustenance of values requires constant dedication. In yoga, a practitioner can reach a certain stage of mastery in, say, backbends. Should that practitioner cease to practice backbends for even several months (or an entire maternity leave;) she will have to recondition her body and mind to reach that same level of mastery again. Likewise with Americans.

Freedom is not guaranteed by paper documents. Freedom is a democratic practice that requires ALL OF US  to engage. No wonder 30 million+ Americans are embracing the practice!

How do you engage youth in  these core American and yogic values?