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