Several years ago, I had the pleasure of leading a Yoga Ed training for teachers involved in  The Wellness Initiative in Colorado. I asked one of the teachers, Allyson Levine, to guest write a blog to let our readers know about this wonderful organization making a positive impact on the lives of youth. I really recommend watching the video. It is so refreshing to hear the voices of healthy, empowered youth! Shanti Generation will donate copies of our teen yoga DVD, Yoga Skills for Youth Peacemakers, for their upcoming fundraiser. Here’s Allyson:

For the past five years I have been teaching yoga with The Wellness Initiative, a Colorado nonprofit, to students in low-income schools. Each year I take great pleasure in seeing how the yoga practice supports and inspires the students. It is particularly rewarding to see how the practice seeps out of the classroom as the students, teachers, and administrators take their yoga practice off the mat and into their lives. The mission of The Wellness Initiative is to improve the physical health, social and emotional development, and academic performance of low-income youth through yoga-based wellness programs. This year alone we will reach more than 2,000 students in 25 schools.

At Colfax elementary, each K–5 grade student has yoga once a week all school year. Toward the end of one semester I learned that some of the classroom teachers were having disciplinary issues. Before having a formal discussion to address these issues, several teachers and the principal gathered the students to collectively practice a few minutes of yoga visualizations and breathing. It was incredible to watch Principal Martinez use yoga to address behavior issues. The impact of these exercises can be accurately summarized by one first-grade student, who commented that yoga was his favorite class “because you really get the chance to be quiet with your thoughts and connect to the inner parts of yourself.”

Last year I also taught a biweekly yoga elective at Welby New Technology High School. In addition to the physical exercise of yoga, the 24 students (14 to 18 years) also researched elements of the practice and presented their findings to the class; they created food logs to develop a greater awareness of their relationship with food; and they discussed yogic philosophy and the way it related to their lives. Below are some of the things these students shared about the relevance of their yoga practice in their lives:

“During this class, I learned how to manage my stress much better. I also learned how to get in tune with my body and see where I need to pay more attention. I practice it at home with my brothers.” —Chloe, 10th grade

“I think that when you study yourself in yoga, you start to understand yourself. You find out what makes you happy, what scares you, what excites you, what makes you feel amazing. One day I realized that when I ate very little, I got cranky. By paying attention, I realized I was hurting me, and I did everything I could to change the way I was.” —Claudia, 12th grade

“Yoga has really taught me how to relax. If your day isn’t going right, yoga can always help make you feel a little better. It has also taught me it takes quite a bit of strength to get into the poses…. I was really proud when I learned to do a handstand, and I feel like doing them has made me much stronger…. I also liked how everyone was so close and pushed one another to do poses.” —Sam, 12th grade

To hear firsthand more ways that yoga helps our students, please watch a short video at wellnessinitiative.org/video.html

In order to keep this program running, we rely on donations and support from people who understand the value of our work. This year we are planning our second annual Yogathon to help with our fundraising efforts. The event will be in Boulder, Colorado, on May 14. Please go to http://www.wellnessinitiative.org for more information on the event or to make a donation. There are many ways to get involved and help our cause. Contact us at 303.865.3976 or info@wellnessinitiative.org to learn more.

NAMASTE

Allyson Levine

Instructor & Coach, The Wellness Initiative

Allyson Levine found yoga in 2000, when she entered her first Anusara class. Throughout her journeys abroad, as an experiential educator in Central America and the South Pacific, she found a natural inclination to teach others about the practice. She has completed a 200hr Vinyasa teacher training, prenatal certification, holds the Anusara-Inspired teacher status, and continues to work toward an Anusara certification.   Allyson is committed to introducing yoga to children. She is a certified Yoga Ed instructor, who teaches for The Wellness Initiative in low-income schools throughout Colorado. .

Please visit her website, www.yogadulce.com for more information

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People often ask me for a list of the potential benefits of yoga practice for children and teens. Here I’ve provided a starting place for creating a comprehensive list. Please fill in with any additional benefits. I will compile them all into one list and repost for communal use. Please invite friends to participate!

Physical

  • Overall muscular strength and tone are increased
  • Increased muscular strength contributes to joint health
  • Aids in digestion and elimination
  • Boosts metabolism and weight loss
  • Improves flexibility
  • Strengthens immune system
  • Builds balance and coordination
  • Improves overall body awareness

Mental

  • Develops concentration and focus
  • Teaches students how to work with their minds
  • Releases tension
  • Improves quality of attention
  • Develops mind/body connection

Emotional

  • Promotes emotional awareness and ability to manage emotions
  • Encourages calmness
  • Teaches students to respond, rather than react
  • Promotes self control

Social

  • Boosts confidence
  • Teaches self respect and respect of others
  • Encourages altruism
  • Develops empathy

Spiritual

  • Encourages connection to inner self and innate wisdom
  • Enhances understanding and experience of interconnectedness

Academic

  • Enhances learning readiness
  • Encourages self-discipline

Teach kids about the health benefits of practicing yoga. Kids are more likely to be dedicated to their practice when they understand the immediate and lasting positive effects of yoga.

The medical field has consistently identified self awareness as a hallmark of life long health. The growing Social and Emotional Learning movement has also touted the benefits of clarifying awareness of states of being as a first step toward cultivating higher emotional intelligence.

Try this simple exercise, either in the home or classroom, to boost self awareness and contribute to a healthy day of learning!

1. Take a moment with your child or students to “check in.” How are you feeling this morning? How is your body feeling? How about your self? Describe the feeling as best you can.

2. Now that you are aware of your feelings, decide if this is how you want to feel today. If so, enjoy 5 deep breaths into your feelings, helping them grow and spread throughout your whole being.

3. If you decide that you want to feel a different way today, then enjoy 5 breaths while thinking about the way you do want to feel. Send that feeling  to every corner of your body and fill yourself up with fresh breath and fresh feelings.

This is a simple and quick way to raise emotional awareness and begin to self care. Try this over a few weeks to increase effectiveness and build a healthy pattern of checking in.

A Bowl Full of Yoga

May 5, 2010

This article is reprinted from the Kids on the Mat section May 2006 issue of  Yogi Times. Over the next week, I’ll be posting additional columns I wrote for the magazine.

A Bowl Full of Yoga

Sometimes when sharing with people that I teach yoga to kids, the response is: “That’s cool. Can kids really ‘do’ yoga?” With a deep breath and steady eyes, I reply that kids can not only ‘do’ yoga, they can BE yoga and, in fact, they ARE yoga. We all are!  We’re just all at different phases in the process of recognizing that beauty.

Investigation into the art of teaching kids yoga reveals that there are multitudes of ways to engage kids authentically in yoga practice.  In Deborah Rozman’s book, Meditating With Children, she offers the idea that imagination is the part of our being which lives closest to the soul. Most children still have direct access to their imaginative faculties, a gift that so many of us let weaken over time. To keep that channel alive and open is an important element of unification within our being.

Of course, there are challenges to sharing yoga with kids. For instance, encouraging kids to remain supine during savasana can be very interesting.   In search of creative ways to successfully facilitate this essential portion of the practice, the instinct emerged to imaginatively engage student’s minds during the process of letting go of the physical body. Hence the bowl full of yoga was born.

The next time you feel inspired to share a bit of calm, relaxing time with your young ones, I invite you to read the following meditation aloud slowly, pausing for a few seconds between sentences. Start sitting on the floor and have a blanket handy.

Cup your hands as if you are holding a special bowl. This is your yoga bowl and right now it is full of yoga.

Slowly lie down on your back and place the imaginary bowl on your belly. Be careful not to spill the yoga. Make your body comfortable while you take deep, smooth breaths. Feel the bowl moving gently as you breath in and out.  Rest peacefully and still while you picture in your mind what your bowl looks like.  Remember, if you wiggle around the yoga could spill out one drop at a time. If you are very still, you will have a bowl full of yoga when we are finished.  Visualize what the bowl looks like and what it is made of.  Imagine what size it is and how it feels.  Notice its’ color and any designs, patterns and textures.  Look inside of the bowl to see what your yoga looks like.  Pretend that you are resting inside of the bowl now and experience what it feels like to be surrounded by yoga.  Now take a couple of deep, slow breaths. It’s good for the bowl to move with your breath, in fact that makes the bowl stronger and more able to hold yoga.  Imagine that you can offer this bowl full of goodness to someone who needs it. Who will you offer your bowl to? When you are ready, take the bowl into your hands and put it beside you. Roll to one side and use both hands to lift yourself up to sit.

Enjoy a few moments of sharing the visions of the bowl and have art supplies on hand to create a memory of the experience. Invite students to think about sharing their bowl of yoga with others.

Below the drawing one of my students made of her bowl of yoga, she wrote: “I gave it to the warrs. To talk out their problems and not get hurt. To stop shouting and killing.” Julia, 8

In recent weeks, I’ve received multiple requests for yoga games appropriate for middle school age youth. Year after year, the following game is a favorite of my students. This game helps youth develop strategies for coping with distracting and challenging situations.

*Disclaimer! This game works well with a group of students you know very well and trust to be kind to one another. Not recommended for a brand new group or a group experiencing unusual conflict. Students need to display enough maturity to understand the term “mean-spirited” and be able to show a strong degree of self control.

Step One: Ask students to name all of the different balance poses they know. Guide students to practice each  pose as they name them. List the poses on a poster or white board that is visible to all. As a pre-step, be sure to teach students a variety of balance poses in advance of playing this game. (i.e. Tree, Dancer, Half Moon, Crow, Eagle, Warrior 3)

Step Two: Ask for a few volunteers willing to try and keep their balance through a challenge. Explain that they are allowed to change poses and/or change feet, but that they are to be in balancing yoga poses through the whole challenge.

Step Three: Have the rest of the class develop a strategy to try and test “the balancers.” Be very clear that touching, screaming or any other act that could violate their classmates are completely off limits. Let them know the game will stop immediately if anyone behaves in a way that presents any danger at all, be it physical or emotional in nature.

Encourage the class to develop subtle, nuanced strategies like whispering funny words as they walk through the room or clapping in unison. They can also “tip-toe” through the classroom, or make wild animal sounds. Let them develop strategies and make sure they get your approval before playing. Let them know that you will ring a bell when the game is done.

Step Four: Position “the balancers” in the center of the room and ask the rest of the class to apply their strategies for distraction.

Step Five: After a few minutes, ring the bell and have everyone settle. Now, the best part, allow each “balancer” to talk about how they held their balance through the challenge and write them on a white board or poster. Some replies I remember from the past include:

“Hopping and Hoping:” A student said he would hop on one foot for a moment and then hope he didn’t fall!

“Keeping My Eye on the Prize:” Focusing on one spot.

“Staying with My Breath”

“Being Invisible”

“Staying Rooted”

“Just Being Strong”

and, finally, one students reply when asked how she kept her balance through the challenge was, “I didn’t. I fell a bunch of times, but I just got back up and kept playing and tried not to worry about it too much.”

And so, through this lively and age-appropriate yoga game, students developed a short list of coping skills and strategies that apply to many situations “off the mat.” We briefly discussed some of those situations and then students were invited to journal about specific times in their lives they can use their skills.

Depending on the length of your class time, the game can either be repeated to give additional students the chance to “balance,” or it can be played again another day. Be forewarned, your students may request to play this game over and over again! It taps into their need to let go and be silly on one hand, and also harnesses and hones their ability to focus on the other.

If you try it out, let me know how it goes!

copyright Gregory Beylerian.com

Valentine’s Day reminds us of the importance and joy of reaching out to our loved ones and letting them know we care. Fortunately, there is a growing movement in education to extend this practice beyond the calendar holiday and into the daily lives of students in schools.

As my Valentine to you, I am excited to share a sampling of resources I have discovered in my research on the subject of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). For parents, teachers and community members who wish to make an impact on the climate in local schools, there is growing support. Here are a few places to start.

What is Social and Emotional Learning?

The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines SEL as:

A process for helping children and even adults develop the fundamental skills for life effectiveness. SEL teaches the skills we all need to handle ourselves, our relationships, and our work, effectively and ethically.

These skills include recognizing and managing our emotions, developing caring and concern for others, establishing positive relationships, making responsible decisions, and handling challenging situations constructively and ethically. They are the skills that allow children to calm themselves
when angry, make friends, resolve conflicts respectfully, and make ethical and safe choices.

How do we know SEL works?

The movement to implement SEL in schools is not based on speculation. To the contrary, scientists and education theorists have been hard at work over the past decade researching the far reaching benefits of SEL. For a powerful and inspiring primer on the extensive body of research, enjoy the following interview with psychologist, Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence.

What does SEL have to do with Yoga?

Practicing yoga deepens self awareness and enhances our ability to self care, both fundamental aspects of SEL.  In this month’s Yoga Journal, Trudie Styler (wife of Sting), says yoga practice ” is an exercise in listening…it teaches you to tune in to your relationships.”  The ability to  listen deeply is essential to developing empathy, another core component of SEL. While most dedicated practitioners of yoga will enjoy these benefits if studying with a qualified teacher, in my experience, these benefits are greatly enhanced in yoga classes for adolescents due to the nature of class experience. Time spent in dialogue, journaling and self-expression help youth discover ways to transfer their yoga education into daily life situations.

For folks interested in learning more about the connections between yoga and SEL, Shanti Generation’s Yoga Skills for Youth Facilitator’s Training offers a well spring of experiential learning on the topic. We have trainings coming up in Los Angeles and New Orleans.

The Trailblazers of Social and Emotional Learning

Here, I would like to honor a few of the individuals who have courageously carved the path toward Social and Emotional Learning in schools.

“Education is a social process. Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself.” ~John Dewey

“What will transform education is not another theory, another book, or another formula but educators who are willing to seek a transformed way of being in the world.” ~Parker Palmer

“We’re finally learning that it is not an either-or situation … Feelings and learning and emotion are all very integral to each other.” ~Linda Lantieri

“No one is born fully-formed: it is through self-experience in the world that we become what we are.” ~Paulo Freire

There are way too many incredible leaders in the field to mention here. In closing, I’d like to pay tribute to  one last trailblazer the movement lost this year, Rachel Kessler (1946-2010). Kessler’s The Soul of Education is an excellent book that is sure to upgrade anyone’s knowledge of SEL.

“Kessler celebrates the diversity of beliefs in our free country…But she wisely understands the spiritual emptiness of our times and knows that we ignore the souls of our children at their peril, and ours. Children need encouragement and guidance in struggling with the deeper meaning and purpose of life in a society that glorifies the material over the spiritual.” ~Marian Wright Edelman

A new era of care and compassion in the classroom is coming. I am heartened by the many ways that yoga can help teachers and parents achieve our goals for creating harmonious, loving environments for our youth.