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.

Lately, the “religion question” seems to be arising via blogs and social networks in a monthly wave. During the last fifteen or so years I’ve been involved in school yoga, the religion question  bobbed up to the surface only occasionally and typically came from a new teacher wondering what to say if the question ever arose.

Now that images of yoga are swimming throughout mainstream commercial media and yoga in schools is practically normal in some regions of the country, the religion question has surfaced in a whole new way and I don’t think it’s going to recede until its been thoroughly vetted.

It is a serious question: Is yoga a religion?

To answer this question, it is essential to define what we mean by “yoga.” There are dozens of yogic disciplines floating around the planet, commonly referred to as simply “yoga,” that entail all sorts of practices that have nothing to do with the type of yoga being taught in schools here in America.

Most  yoga programs in schools include:

*Movements and postures geared at integrating mind and body.

*Breathing techniques to relieve stress and sharpen focus.

*Mindfulness exercises aimed at improving attention.

Yes, these yogic practices come from systems that originated in India, but the practices are effective for all types of humans, not just Indians. And, you don’t have to be any particular religion, or even particularly religious for that matter, to enjoy the benefits.

It’s understandable that parents who perceive yoga as a religion would revolt against yoga programming in their child’s classroom. I would be furious if my child was required to take part in anything religious at school. It is easy to see why parents are concerned.  “Googling”  the word “yoga” results in multitudes of images of deities, foreign symbols and people in seemingly religious worship.

So why even call it “yoga?” Why not just scrap that moniker, skip the debate and rename the system?

Some teachers have done just that. Shed the name, rename and move on. But others say, “not so fast.” One of the aims of yoga is to reach a state of equal vision wherein all people are seen as equally valuable. We can look to modern India to see that  yogic systems as they have been practiced there for centuries have not worked to bring social justice, but the aim still exists in the practice. That said, the reasons against calling the practices “yoga” are shrouded in fear of the other. By addressing that fear and clearing up misunderstandings, we are working toward freeing our minds of deeply engrained confusion.

To practice non-violence, tell the truth, cultivate a sound body and mind; these are some of the contents of yoga. These practices are simply inherent to healthy lifestyles for humans. It’s dangerous to let religious leaders hijack kids rights to be healthy because they are afraid the exercises will open their minds too wide and cultivate too much critical thinking. If we give in to those who refuse to see intricacy and nuance, the potential is there that the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater. No more yoga in schools? Does that mean no more movement, mindfulness and focused breathing, too?

Honoring the origin of yoga does not require one to take on the cultural, traditional and/or religious ways of India. We can appreciate the origin of mathematics without having to worship Zeus in much the same way that we can benefit from yoga without praising Krishna. Yoga has universal applications that exceed any cultural or religious containers.

Saying “yoga” is like saying “skating.” It is a broad, general term that encompasses many variations. Does skating belong in schools? Good question. “What type of skating?” Answer could include skateboarding, ice skating, roller skating, and skating for Jesus. In the case of skateboarding, I’d say the risk of physical injury may be too high to condone in schools. Ice and roller skating require vast amounts of space and equipment that schools cannot afford. Of course, if the program involves worship of prophets its’ a no go.

Unlike skating, yoga carries a very low risk of injury (if practiced with a well qualified, experienced teacher), it requires little to no equipment and does not involve the worship of prophets, necessarily. There are sects of yoga practitioners all over the world conjoining Hindu rituals with yoga practice. For some people, yoga is intertwined with Buddhism and Jainism, but that is not necessary. There are also a growing number of people living a yogic lifestyle which include a variety of other religious practices, including explicit connections with Christianity. Meanwhile, there are many folks who utilize the yogic practices with no religious dedications whatsoever.

So, how do we answer our critics who say we are breaking important rules by advocating for yoga in schools? Well, there is no one way and to be certain, we’ll need to apply a little yoga! By listening and engaging in compassionate dialogue with folks who think differently, we can make  progress. Researchers and scientists are doing their part by proving the health and wellness benefits. But, I think it’s the one on one, human to human interaction that makes real headway. I do not think we’ll move forward if  we discount or ridicule the beliefs and understandings of others. It’s tempting to write off beliefs that stand in contrast to our own, but isn’t that exactly what the “no-yoga-schoolers” are doing?

It’s a long conversation that I don’t see effectively being had in sound bites and elevator speeches. Yoga has been resilient enough to survive many epochs and continues to move it’s way around the globe, seeping into our human condition and hopefully dissolving some of our confusion in the process. The brewing national debate over yoga in schools in America is just another way that yoga helps to reveal reality.

Yoga is not a static situation. It is incredibly broad, almost like eating. We are all food eaters. And within that commonality, there is vast diversity.

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.

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