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.

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

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.

Tiny Yogi’s Playlist

June 15, 2011

One of my greatest joys these days is rocking my 9 month old son to sleep in his room while listening to music. I’ve been using the playlists I’ve made over the years teaching yoga at pre-schools. Recently, one of my old favorites came on and a flood of beautiful memories filled my heart. I thought I’d share these musical gems with the community. These songs were chosen especially for young children, but can be enjoyed by all. All of these songs have been collected from special sources including my teachers, friends and musicians I’ve met along the way. Hopefully you’ll find something new and off the beaten path to enliven your teaching and/or practice.

For Yoga Play

Balinese Fantasy by Zakir Hussain

Maracatu  by Kodo

Daidi 4-4  by Solace

Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488 – I. Allegro

For Calm Yoga

Satie_ Gymnopedie #1 For Solo Harp  by  Sjur Bjerke, Ellen Sejersted Bodtker

Rag Pahadi  by Shivkumar Sharma, Brijbushan Kabra, Hariprasad Chaurasia

For Resting in Sea Star (Savasana)

White Sandy Beach Of Hawai’i by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole

Peaceful Valley  by Peter Kater & Nawang Khechog

Type of Pose: Standing

Level: Blueprint

Appropriate for Ages: All

Mountain Pose is known as a “blueprint” pose. The alignment and physiological dynamics of this pose are found in many other postures. Some yoga teachers say that once Mountain Pose is mastered, other poses will come more easily. While from the outside, someone in Mountain Pose may appear to be “just standing there,” from inside the pose, one can feel a strong sense of grounding, as well as extension. Far from being an easy pose, Mountain requires great mental skill and physical endurance.


For Youth

Create context with a discussion about what it means to “stand for” something. Talk about the causes and people that students are willing to stand up for.  Make a list of qualities that are required to make a strong stance including clarity, commitment, stability, perseverance and courage.

1. Stand tall with feet hips distance apart. Place feet parallel. Spread toes and press centers of heels into Earth. Take time to cultivate the connection of the feet to floor. Lift arches.

2. Firm leg muscles, pressing tops of thighs back.

3. Extend tailbone toward heels, lengthening lower back. Firm abdominal muscles.

4. Stretch sides of body, lifting back ribs away from hips.

5. Spread across collarbones, drawing upper armbones back and shoulderblades onto upper back.  Reach down through fingertips. Lift top of chest.

6. Lengthen back of neck, keeping throat open and relaxed.

7. Extend upward through crown of head.

Be a mountain. Remember what you stand for and feel your connection to the Earth and Sky.

For Young Children

See previous post: Jellyfish-Mountain Game

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.

Type of Pose: Seated Hip Opener

Level: Beginner-Intermediate

Appropriate for: All

The literal translation of Baddha Konasana is Bound Angle Pose, sometimes referred to as Cobbler’s Pose. When teaching this pose the kids and youth, I like to use a more playful and familiar moniker; Butterfly Pose.

For Youth

1. Sit on floor or mat with soles of feet together. Hold ankles or feet. Draw knees apart.

2. Press sitting bones into floor while lifting chest to sky.

3. Draw shoulder blades onto back while spreading across collarbones.

4. Continue to open hips and allow knees to descend towards floor without pushing. Stay in the pose and breath for 1-3 minutes.

5. Once the hips feel open and spine is fully extended, a slow forward fold can be added. Maintain the spinal extension while folding. Keep sitting bones connected to floor at all times.

Benefits:

  • Increases flexibility in hips, legs and back.
  • Builds strength in back muscles.
  • Teaches spinal extension.

For Young Children

See previous post: What Color is Your Butterfly?