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.

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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

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.

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.)

This past Saturday marked the completion of a 17-month pilot run of Shanti Gen’s Youth Peacemakers Training. Over the course of the training, 7 teens committed one Saturday per month to exploring a wide scope of inner and outer peacemaking topics including Non-Violent Communication, Ayurveda, Yoga, issues of power, documentary style film making and more. To culminate our experience, the circle of teens, teachers and family members gathered at Liberation Yoga in Los Angeles to witness the teens share their expressions of their learning experience.

Over the coming weeks, I am thrilled to share several of the teens video projects. Today, I’d like to share just a few very profound words from the teens themselves.

After each teens’ presentation, I asked the same question: “From your experience, what is one of the most critical and/or helpful qualities that you will need going forward as a peacemaker?” Here are some of their responses:

“Friends.” Brandon, 17 years

“Dedication.” Jesus, 16 years

“Perseverance.” Nate, 15 years

“Patience.” Kimmie, 15 years

“Friendliness.” Jonathan, 16 years

Such simple, straightforward ideas. Yet, so true. Today, I’m committed to practicing peacemaking as taught by my students.

Can I be friendly in the face of conflict?

Dedicated even when I feel tired?

Persevere through the obstacles?

Be patient when timeseems to run out?

Can I be friendly to myself when I notice my mind in judgement?

Peacemaking is an on going practice and it is a behavior. Gratitude to all of the teens, teachers and families who participated in this past years training. Looking forward to the next one.

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