The Fine Art of Teaching Yogic Breathing to Young People: Part Three

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.

For more detailed instruction on breathing techniques for teens, check out the BREATHING ROOM in our DVD, Yoga Skills for Youth Peacemakers, available here.

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.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.