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.

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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.

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.

Use Your Library Voice

June 28, 2011

Across the nation, yoga teachers are harnessing kids quiet associations with the library as a catalyst for yoga programs. I subscribe to several news alerts that feed my inbox daily good news about all things youth yoga. It’s becoming normal to see several new library yoga classes cropping up every week. Librarians from cities large and small have contacted me about using our teen yoga DVD to offer yoga amongst the stacks.

I’ve had the opportunity to teach yoga at dozens of schools across Los Angeles and beyond. I’ve taught in many different areas of very diverse campuses including computer rooms, dance studios, gyms and fields. By far the most appropriate setting I’ve found is the library.

It’s not such a stretch. Libraries are the center of learning. Kids tend to respect the space as a place for new discovery. Most importantly, kids are accustomed to being quiet and contemplative in the library. Perfect for yoga. In contrast, yoga classes under the hoops, while absolutely possible, can elicit the competitive spirit  usually present in the paint.

If your school is fortunate enough to still have a library (writing that makes me want to cry) give it a try! Or find a local public branch willing to move a few desks for a little yoga to happen. Librarians are some of the most helpful people on Earth. Get one excited about your program and success is a sure thing.

Know any library yoga programs in your area? Leave details in the comment section and we’ll promote them in our social networks.

More kids doing yoga = a planet that feels more peaceful. Like a library.

The first day of summer, the longest day of the year; a perfect day to charge our batteries with appreciation and contemplate how we shine our lights.

1. Charge Your Batteries~ Right in the center of your torso, above the belly button and below the ribs, lives your very own Sun, called the Solar Plexus. When charged and vital, this part of your body feels strong, confident and able. When your batteries get low, you may start to feel tired and/or insecure.

Take the time to charge up for summer today with an easy Yoga exercise. Lay on your back (outside under the sun if possible). Enjoy 10 deep breaths into your Solar Plexus. Breathing in, imagine golden light filling your center. Breathing out, firm your belly.

Slide your hands under your hips to protect your lower back. Gently press your shoulders and the back of your head into the Earth. On an inhale, lift your legs off the floor such that the soles of your feet face the sky. As you exhale, lower your legs until your heels almost touch the Earth. Don’t strain during the leg raises. Bend your knees if you need to. After 10 -15 repetitions, rest for a few minutes. Repeat as you wish. Feel your center strengthening and glowing with vitality!

2. Practice Appreciation~ Spend a few minutes sitting still today, quietly acknowledging the many gifts of life the Sun gives every single day. Feel the blessings of light, warmth, food. Imagine the planet in relationship with the Sun. See the interconnection. Feel your place in the great mysterious whole!

3. Shine Your Light~ Consider all of the people in your life you wish to share your light with. Think about anyone in your life that may need a little extra light for healing right now. Imagine the powerful, shining golden light from your own Sun can radiate all the way to the people you are thinking about. See them light up as they receive your light.

Put it all together now. Sit still for a few minutes and Be the Sun! As you inhale, feel the gifts of light. As you exhale, share your light.

****Remember to always charge your own batteries first before sharing with others. Sometimes, if we give more energy than we receive, we can start to feel depleted. Also, choose wisely who you will share your light with.

(Please share this meditation with teens in your life.)

Walking meditation was not the first yogic technique that came to mind when developing curricula for teen yoga classes. Yet, it’s that practice which helped my students find a deeper connection not only to yoga, but to the planet and their place on it.

Read article here on elephantjournal.com

And please recommend it if you like it.

Featured here is a journal entry written by Jesus Barajas, one of my teen yoga students. I asked for his permission to  publish this entry on his vision of peace because my heart was struck by the clarity and compassion put forth in his writing. Jesus is an exceptional yoga student. He dedicates himself to transferring his learning into daily life. I am happy to celebrate Jesus and share his vision with you!

Vision

By Jesus Barajas, 15 yrs old

I think my personal vision for peace would be for the youth. I want to change the ways kids grow up in less fortunate communities. I want to transform their neighborhood into a safe and fun environment. Our youth are the future. I was looking at the yogaforyouth.org page and I saw a video that expresses how I feel. I want to take peace and offer it to kids who don’t have the best education, community, etc. I don’t want kids to grow up with the impression that they don’t matter in society. Because that’s what happens. A kid grows up without the love and attention they need and end up joining a gang. Another thing I would change is gang violence. I hate, or rather dislike, how people will kill other people for not wearing the right color or what not. But, if we prevent those kids from feeling alone then we can stop gang violence. Because the kids are the ones growing up and if they grow up with the teachings of yoga, then they don’t grow up joining gangs. They grow up making peace between one another. This is my personal vision for peace in  my life.

In this new feature on our blog, we will feature the voices of youth who’ve either participated in a Shanti Generation program or have sent us feedback on their experience with our teen yoga DVD, Yoga Skills for Youth Peacemakers. If you work with youth interested in voicing their experience with yoga practice, contact us and utilize this platform.