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.


photo credit: Lissy Elle copyright 2009

Today is the Vernal Equinox. The day and night are in balance. Spring has sprung! Nature is celebrating the return of the light with a glorious array of colors, sounds and smells.

This morning my husband and I planted a small pepper plant and seeds of dill, lovage, shiso, cilantro and basil to bless our herb garden. While pressing the tiny seeds into the Earth, I felt their potential to become flourishing, flavorful foods for our family. I thought about the imagery I sometimes use when teaching Child’s Pose to children.

Being in Child’s Pose is like being a seed planted in fertile soil. I remind students to be still and slowly breath in oxygen to awaken their energy within. In this pose, we can imagine soaking in the nutrients and minerals from the rich Earth surrounding us. While we are still, our potential awakens, tensions fall away and we often feel the urge to sprout!

As we sprout, the Sun bathes us in life giving light, inspiring our ongoing journey.

To practice Child’s Pose, start with a soft surface like a rug, blanket or mat. For sensitive knees have an extra padded surface. Sit on the feet with the big toes touching. Make space between the knees. Fold forward placing the forehead to the Earth. Let the arms rest comfortably out in front of the head or beside the body. If the forehead does not reach the floor, stack the fists in a tower or place a dense pillow beneath the forehead.

Keep the hips pressing down onto the feet and allow the heels to splay open. Adjust the spacing between the knees until favorable. If practicing with a friend or family member, take turns gently pressing the lower back and side hips down towards the floor.

Find the breath and watch the inhale and exhale. Just as the day and night are equal on the Equinox, balance the length of the inhale and exhale. Feel your connection to Earth and surrender any worry.

For a few minutes, remain in the pose and visualize yourself growing into whatever plant or tree symbolizes your path for this Spring. See yourself sprout, grow and become the vibrant, life affirming part of nature that you are.

***For kids yoga classes, students can plant a whole garden! Have them make rows of seeds and sprout one at a time into their chosen plants and trees. Talk about growing into healthy foods that heal our bodies.

The final installment in a series of 5 posts on teaching mindfulness to youth. These techniques are geared especially for youth ages 11-15 years.

So far, we have:

  • created a reference point for mindfulness by transforming a mundane activity into one that requires focus. (Part 1)
  • invited students to notice and label the sounds around the room. (Part 2)
  • guided students to pay attention to the sensations with their bodies. (Part 3)
  • directed students to follow and count the cycle of breath. (Part 4)

Now it’s time to bring it all together! Once students have a little experience with each piece of the puzzle, the full activity will be much more successful. Take your time leading your students through the first four phases. When your students give you the indication that they are ready to bring all of the steps together, move on to the full technique. Here are some indications to look for:

  • Increased and prolonged focus evidenced by less fidgeting and more stillness. It is not necessary that students stay perfectly still, but look for students to cease extraneous movements.
  • Students ability to keep attention within own “space.” As students become more adept, they will be able to maintain a more steady gaze, or keep eyes closed, rather than looking around at classmates.

The culmination of these steps are found in the following mindful awareness exercise written as a script for you to read.

Please sit on the floor or in a chair. If you are seated on the floor, please cross your legs and find an easy, steady position for your body. If you are in a chair, place both feet on the floor if possible.

Place your hands gently on your thighs with your palms turned down.  For the next few moments, pay attention to your body. Allow your body to settle into this position. Feel the soles of your feet, relax them. Let your legs be heavy. Feel your sitting bones grounded on the floor or in the chair. Feel that you have a steady, stable seat in this position.

Now, please bring your awareness to your center. Let your belly move with your breath. Allow your belly to be soft and relaxed, yet still supportive of your back. Find your tailbone rooting into the Earth and begin to draw length up through your entire spinal column. Gently draw your shoulder blades onto your back, so your chest is uplifted. Feel the crown of your head  quietly reaching toward the sky.

Now, relax your face. If it feels right to you, close your eyes or gaze softly at one spot.

Relax your jaw. Allow your shoulders to soften a bit. Feel the energy in the palms of your hands.

Now, please listen to the sounds around you. If you are inside, listen for the sounds coming from outside of the room. If you are outside, listen to the sounds around you.

When you hear a sound, notice what that sound is, then listen for other sounds.

Now, listen for sounds happening closer to you… in the room, or right around you.

Notice the sounds you hear, then listen for other sounds.

Now, listen to any sounds happening in your body.

Begin to notice any sensations in your body. When you notice a feeling, be aware of what the feeling is and then move your awareness to other feelings in your body.

Now, bring your attention to your breathing. Let’s count 5 breaths together.

Inhale- Exhale 1

Inhale- Exhale 2

Inhale- Exhale 3

Inhale- Exhale  4

Inhale- Exhale  5

Now count your own breath. Start with the number one. When you notice that you have lost count, simply start over again at number one. With practice, you’ll be able to stay with your breath for longer. Begin counting now. (pause for 1-2 min).

Notice what number you are on now.

Bring your awareness back to your body.

Listen for any sounds around you.

And, slowly open your eyes and bring your attention back to the space around you.

You can use the breath counting meditation anytime you need to connect to yourself and your life.

*** An audio version is available on Shanti Generation’s Yoga Skills for Youth DVD.

copyright Gregory

Valentine’s Day reminds us of the importance and joy of reaching out to our loved ones and letting them know we care. Fortunately, there is a growing movement in education to extend this practice beyond the calendar holiday and into the daily lives of students in schools.

As my Valentine to you, I am excited to share a sampling of resources I have discovered in my research on the subject of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). For parents, teachers and community members who wish to make an impact on the climate in local schools, there is growing support. Here are a few places to start.

What is Social and Emotional Learning?

The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines SEL as:

A process for helping children and even adults develop the fundamental skills for life effectiveness. SEL teaches the skills we all need to handle ourselves, our relationships, and our work, effectively and ethically.

These skills include recognizing and managing our emotions, developing caring and concern for others, establishing positive relationships, making responsible decisions, and handling challenging situations constructively and ethically. They are the skills that allow children to calm themselves
when angry, make friends, resolve conflicts respectfully, and make ethical and safe choices.

How do we know SEL works?

The movement to implement SEL in schools is not based on speculation. To the contrary, scientists and education theorists have been hard at work over the past decade researching the far reaching benefits of SEL. For a powerful and inspiring primer on the extensive body of research, enjoy the following interview with psychologist, Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence.

What does SEL have to do with Yoga?

Practicing yoga deepens self awareness and enhances our ability to self care, both fundamental aspects of SEL.  In this month’s Yoga Journal, Trudie Styler (wife of Sting), says yoga practice ” is an exercise in listening…it teaches you to tune in to your relationships.”  The ability to  listen deeply is essential to developing empathy, another core component of SEL. While most dedicated practitioners of yoga will enjoy these benefits if studying with a qualified teacher, in my experience, these benefits are greatly enhanced in yoga classes for adolescents due to the nature of class experience. Time spent in dialogue, journaling and self-expression help youth discover ways to transfer their yoga education into daily life situations.

For folks interested in learning more about the connections between yoga and SEL, Shanti Generation’s Yoga Skills for Youth Facilitator’s Training offers a well spring of experiential learning on the topic. We have trainings coming up in Los Angeles and New Orleans.

The Trailblazers of Social and Emotional Learning

Here, I would like to honor a few of the individuals who have courageously carved the path toward Social and Emotional Learning in schools.

“Education is a social process. Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself.” ~John Dewey

“What will transform education is not another theory, another book, or another formula but educators who are willing to seek a transformed way of being in the world.” ~Parker Palmer

“We’re finally learning that it is not an either-or situation … Feelings and learning and emotion are all very integral to each other.” ~Linda Lantieri

“No one is born fully-formed: it is through self-experience in the world that we become what we are.” ~Paulo Freire

There are way too many incredible leaders in the field to mention here. In closing, I’d like to pay tribute to  one last trailblazer the movement lost this year, Rachel Kessler (1946-2010). Kessler’s The Soul of Education is an excellent book that is sure to upgrade anyone’s knowledge of SEL.

“Kessler celebrates the diversity of beliefs in our free country…But she wisely understands the spiritual emptiness of our times and knows that we ignore the souls of our children at their peril, and ours. Children need encouragement and guidance in struggling with the deeper meaning and purpose of life in a society that glorifies the material over the spiritual.” ~Marian Wright Edelman

A new era of care and compassion in the classroom is coming. I am heartened by the many ways that yoga can help teachers and parents achieve our goals for creating harmonious, loving environments for our youth.

Part Four in a series of 5 posts on teaching mindfulness to youth. These techniques are geared especially for youth ages 11-15 years.

The next step in teaching mindful awareness techniques to youth is perhaps the simplest, but most challenging for many young people. Before we discover why, let’s recap the previous three steps:

1. Create a “mindful experience” using the environment in which you teach. This gives youth a reference point for what mindfulness is.

2. Guide students to relax and sequentially listen to the sounds outside of the room, inside of the room and finally the breath. Ask students to label the sounds they hear. (ie….”bird,” “talking”)

3. Bringing the awareness closer to home, so to speak, have students pay attention the sensations within their bodies. Start with the skin and slowly move to the inner body. Again, label the sensations. (ie…”tickle,” “growl.”)

Now to step four, following the breath, which requires a more refined level of attention. First, establish a steady, comfortable seated or laying down posture. Remember, in these beginning stages, allowing students to be physically comfortable will allow them to work more readily with their attention. If laying down, create a symmetrical position with the body. If sitting, uplift the spine, without too much fuss. Sitting against a wall may help. Once the basic understanding of mindfulness is in place, a more aligned physical posture  can be assumed.

Begin to breathe in and out through the nose, if possible. Otherwise, breathe through the mouth. Follow each inhalation into the body. Be curious about where the breath travels in the body. Notice the end of the inhalation. Follow the exhalation out of the body. Notice the end of the exhalation. This is one cycle of breath.

Begin to count each cycle of breath. One inhale and one exhale equals one breath. It helps to count at the end of each breath cycle. Continue counting for the entire exercise. Let students know that if they realize they have lost count, no problem, simply start over again at one. This is not a contest, it is am experiment to see how long your mind can focus on the breath.

Seems simple, right? Well, if you have never tried, go ahead and give it a go. While the other parts of learning mindfulness techniques involve random factors such as unexpected sounds and sensations, following the breath is monotonous and fairly uneventful, at first. For adolescents, staying with the breath can be very challenging.

One tip to get started, borrowed from one of my dear teachers Sue Elkind, is to ask students to count their breath down from 10. This gives a clear beginning, middle and end to the process. Once this way is practiced several times, the counting from one upward may be more accessible.

Practice the counting for 3-5 minutes in the beginning. When time is up, ask students to notice the number they are on and bring them back to the room gradually. Have them notice the support of the floor beneath them and the air around them. Open the eyes if they were closed and look around.

Asking students to state their number of counted breathes out loud can give skewed results as students tend to want to be within the same realm as their peers. Have students write their name and number on a small post-it note and turn it in to you. This will give you some indication of your students process in this technique.

When moving into more refined mindfulness techniques such as this one, two factors are critical. Number one, only teach what you know. Take on this practice yourself, preferably with an experienced teacher. Number two, remember that this is a practice of training the mind’s attention. Most people lose focus easily in the beginning. What matters most is that one notices when the attention has strayed and starts back at one. Starting back at one is a good thing! It means you are becoming aware of your mind.

Part Three in a series of 5 posts on teaching mindfulness to youth. These techniques are geared especially for youth ages 11-15 years.

Adolescence is a time of constant, drastic physical changes. It is common for pubescent youth to feel overwhelmed and confused about  their  transforming bodies. Mindfulness practices offer youth the opportunity to relate with their bodies in ways that can increase awareness and promote positive body image.

The following technique asks youth to consciously observe and feel the sensations in their bodies.

Step One: Lay down in a comfortable, symmetrical position. Close the eyes gently or gaze at one spot. Spend a few minutes relaxing the body from toes to head. Become aware of the inhalation and exhalation, slowly deepening each breath.

Step Two: As the body and mind begin to settle, observe the sensations in the body. At first it may be difficult to focus the mind on the body. If the mind wander, gently guide it back to the body using the inhale. Notice the feelings on the surfaces of the body. As you notice a sensation, mentally note it. For example, if you feel an itch, note “itch” in your thoughts. Then, continue to scan the body and notice other sensations.

Step Three: Move your awareness to the internal body now. Sense the pulsation of the heartbeat. Continue to make mental notes of the sensation. Explore the sensations in the belly region, back and head. Observe and make mental notes for 4-6 minutes to start.

Step Four: Bring the attention back to the breath. Follow the inhale and exhale for 10 cycles. Feel the floor supporting the body and the space all around. Slowly open the eyes, bringing the attention into the surrounding room.

After this exercise, let students share their observations with a partner or journal about their experience. Remind students that it is not necessary to judge the sensations of the body, that simply being with the feelings is the goal.

*image by visionary artist and yogi, Alex Grey.)

Part one of a series of 5 posts on teaching mindfulness to youth. These techniques are geared especially for youth ages 11-15 years.

Mindfulness is described as “allowing things to be as they are, resting in awareness, and then, taking appropriate action when called for” (Jon Kabat Zinn). Introducing adolescents to the practice of mindfulness requires patience and creativity. Providing an experience of mindfulness in a playful way can help youth gain a reference point, or view, of how mindfulness practice works.

One way to create a mindful experience is to use the environment within which you are working. For example, my middle school yoga students have the daily task of moving chairs and tables in our multi-purpose room to make space for yoga practice. A couple of weeks into the start of a semester, I put small, colorful plastic bowls of water on each table. Students enjoy the “game” of moving the tables carefully without spilling the water. They must focus on their movements and work together to succeed. This routine task of moving furniture is generally a mundane time of mindlessness. Students tend to chat and socialize, barely paying any attention to what they are doing. Add the water bowls and the task transforms into a quiet, mindful activity.

Once the tables and chairs are put away, we continue the game by arranging our mats mindfully. To illustrate the difference, I first ask students to hurry up, make 3 rows and put their mats down quickly while talking to as many classmates as possible. They love the chaos of this part of the game! After the mats are haphazardly placed, we step back and take a look at the results. Everyone agrees that a messy room won’t help our yoga practice. So, I ask students to roll their mats and silently form 3 rows. They are guided to keep their mats folded until I ring a bell. Instead of guiding students to make neat, symmetrical rows, I allow them to use non-verbal communication to configure their rows. Once they have achieved a balanced formation, I ring the bell. The pay-off to all of this mindfulness is when they get to all flip their mats open all at once and the colorful banners blossom around the room. Then, we survey our results and celebrate our efforts.

Setting up our yoga room mindfully sets the tone for our whole practice. Now, I can easily ask students to apply these same techniques of watching and listening to their asana (posture) and pranayama (breathing) practices. Once this basic “view” of mindfulness is established, teaching mindfulness while in sitting posture comes much easier.

Think about the environment in which you teach and find a creative way to introduce the practice of being mindful within a task that students are already engaging in.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Sounds All Around which will focus on introducing youth to mindfulness while being still in once place.