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

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

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.

At the start of yoga class, I make it a point to check in with each student to see how they are feeling. Here’s a typical conversation:

Teacher: How are you today, Hiro?

Hiro: Tired.

Teacher: How did you sleep last night?

Hiro: Oh, okay.

Teacher: Did you get to bed late?

Hiro: Yeah, pretty late. And I had to get up at 5:30am to catch the bus to get here.

One of the most common complaints among teens is being overtired, which leads to whole host of other issues including lack of focus, inhibited learning and just plain grumpiness. One reason teens miss out on a good nights sleep is the shift in circadian rhythms they undergo during puberty. By nature, teens want to stay up later in the night and sleep later into the day based on the changing hormonal situation in their bodies and brains. Their biological clocks literally slow down. Some schools have even tried responding to this teen tendency by re-scheduling the high school day from 11am-6pm, or just starting the day slightly later.

Fortunately, yoga practice offers an effective way to restore energy: Savasana (Sanskrit), or as it’s commonly known in the West, Corpse Pose. Savasana can be a wonderful tool that teens will gravitate to once they buy into it. At first, there may be resistance to the idea of “just laying there,” as the pose appears to suggest from the outside. Other students might have the tendency to fall asleep during the practice. The following five tips are meant to help teens develop the practice of Savasana as a skill they can carry with them through their lifetime.

1.  Savasana Appetizer

In most yogic traditions practiced in America, Savasana is dessert; a well deserved rest to savor after an hour plus of hard work. However, there are some schools, like Sivananda Vedanta, that offer Savasana first and throughout the practice. This technique works very well with teens. Give them 5 minutes of rest to begin class and enjoy a much more refreshed group of young people practicing yoga. Short Savasana “palate cleansers” can also be offered between poses to bring teens back to balance as well. For instance, between standing poses and floor poses, give a 2 minute rest. This will also help to avoid distractions during transitions.

2.  Play Music They Love

Music can be an effective way to calm the mind for Savasana. However, teens may not respond well initially to the same music that is commonly heard in adult classes. If the instruments and tones are unfamiliar, the music can actually be distracting and have the opposite of the intended effect. Rather than playing music teens hear as “weird,” ask them what they want to hear. Have a conversation inquiring about music that helps them feel calm. This does not mean you will play raucous metal music or inappropriate tunes. But, many teens find popular love songs relaxing.  Playing a song they like to get Savasana started is meeting them half way. Then, once the song is over, students are more likely to follow suit with a few minutes of silent relaxation.

3. Enhance the Environment

Darken the lights, spray the room with aromatherapy mist and light a candle. Better yet, assign theses tasks to students, with the exception of the candle. Flameless candles work fine in schools that do not allow the real thing. There are also many products on the market for infant nurseries that project stars and other patterns on the ceiling. These can also help to set a relaxing mood for teens. (More later on the parallels between adolescence and early childhood!)

4. Guided Relaxation

Give clear verbal cues on relaxing the physical body. For teens, cues like “let everything go” may be too vague to begin. Start with the toes and work up to the crown of the head, relaxing each specific part of the body. Once this technique is established, guided visualizations can wok very well and teens love them. Try to always give atleast one minute of silent time for relaxing even when using guided techniques. Slowly build on these minutes until teens can rest in silence for 5-8 minutes.

5. Try an Alternative Pose

For some youth, Savasana feels too vulnerable in the beginning. Try other postures to start. A few options here:

~Laying on the belly making a pillow with the hands. (Turn head to other side half way through.)

~On back with knees bent, arms draped across chest. (Known as Constructive Rest Pose. See our DVD for full instructions.)

~Legs up wall or feet on chairs.

Once students have a deeply relaxing experience and trust the process of Savasana, they will be more likely to practice the traditional posture with less special effects. In fact, I’ve heard from many experienced teachers that teens come in to class requesting Savasana, which is a wonderful indication that they are learning to listen to their bodies needs. There is an attitude among some adults that teens are lazy and just need to get with the program. I couldn’t disagree more. Teens bodies and minds are working overtime to keep up with the incredible changes they are experiencing. They need rest as much as any of us, perhaps even more so.

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.