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?

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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.)

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

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.

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.