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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.

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?

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.)