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.

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In recent weeks, I’ve received multiple requests for yoga games appropriate for middle school age youth. Year after year, the following game is a favorite of my students. This game helps youth develop strategies for coping with distracting and challenging situations.

*Disclaimer! This game works well with a group of students you know very well and trust to be kind to one another. Not recommended for a brand new group or a group experiencing unusual conflict. Students need to display enough maturity to understand the term “mean-spirited” and be able to show a strong degree of self control.

Step One: Ask students to name all of the different balance poses they know. Guide students to practice each  pose as they name them. List the poses on a poster or white board that is visible to all. As a pre-step, be sure to teach students a variety of balance poses in advance of playing this game. (i.e. Tree, Dancer, Half Moon, Crow, Eagle, Warrior 3)

Step Two: Ask for a few volunteers willing to try and keep their balance through a challenge. Explain that they are allowed to change poses and/or change feet, but that they are to be in balancing yoga poses through the whole challenge.

Step Three: Have the rest of the class develop a strategy to try and test “the balancers.” Be very clear that touching, screaming or any other act that could violate their classmates are completely off limits. Let them know the game will stop immediately if anyone behaves in a way that presents any danger at all, be it physical or emotional in nature.

Encourage the class to develop subtle, nuanced strategies like whispering funny words as they walk through the room or clapping in unison. They can also “tip-toe” through the classroom, or make wild animal sounds. Let them develop strategies and make sure they get your approval before playing. Let them know that you will ring a bell when the game is done.

Step Four: Position “the balancers” in the center of the room and ask the rest of the class to apply their strategies for distraction.

Step Five: After a few minutes, ring the bell and have everyone settle. Now, the best part, allow each “balancer” to talk about how they held their balance through the challenge and write them on a white board or poster. Some replies I remember from the past include:

“Hopping and Hoping:” A student said he would hop on one foot for a moment and then hope he didn’t fall!

“Keeping My Eye on the Prize:” Focusing on one spot.

“Staying with My Breath”

“Being Invisible”

“Staying Rooted”

“Just Being Strong”

and, finally, one students reply when asked how she kept her balance through the challenge was, “I didn’t. I fell a bunch of times, but I just got back up and kept playing and tried not to worry about it too much.”

And so, through this lively and age-appropriate yoga game, students developed a short list of coping skills and strategies that apply to many situations “off the mat.” We briefly discussed some of those situations and then students were invited to journal about specific times in their lives they can use their skills.

Depending on the length of your class time, the game can either be repeated to give additional students the chance to “balance,” or it can be played again another day. Be forewarned, your students may request to play this game over and over again! It taps into their need to let go and be silly on one hand, and also harnesses and hones their ability to focus on the other.

If you try it out, let me know how it goes!

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.

Ahimsa Mandala by asiantees.blogspot.com

This past weekend marked the second workshop in our year long Youth Peacemakers Training at Yogaglo. February’s workshop focused on developing the meaning of peace and non-violence. To help us accomplish this task, I invited Dr. Christopher Key Chapple, Navin and Pratima Doshi Professor of Indic and Comparative Theology at Loyola Marymount University, to guide our teens in a workshop on the foundations of non-violence, ahimsa (Sanskrit).

Ahimsa, one of the Yamas (restraints) in the eight-fold system of yoga,  is sometimes referred to as the first step on the path of yoga. Dr. Chapple brought this essential aspect of yoga philosophy alive for our youth participants by providing an historical account of non-violent movements in America including those led by the Quakers and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Since all of the students were familiar with the abolishment of slavery and the civil rights movement, the information was immediately relevant. Then, Dr. Chapple traced back to the work of Ghandi in India before revealing the roots of ahimsa as developed by ancient Jain traditions.

Dr. Chapple, a celebrated and revered professor, modeled an effective system for teaching yoga philosophy to youth.

1. Create context. Before teaching the traditional meanings of particular aspects of yoga philosophy, present current or historical narratives that are relevant to the  knowledge base youth already possess.

2. Build a bridge. How do the ancient yogic practices relate to life today? Help students develop their own understanding of yogic philosophy by guiding them to make connections to their daily lives.

3. Reveal the Roots. Sharing the origins of yogic philosophy can be intriguing for youth once there is context and basic understanding. Many youth are inspired to learn that they are participating in an ancient practice.

To learn more about yogic philosophy, check out Loyola Marymount University’s Yoga Philosophy Program. You can also catch Dr. Chapple’s 1st Sunday talks on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras FREE on the Yogaglo site.

Great News: In the near future, Dr. Chapple’s presentation on ahimsa to youth will be available on Yogaglo as well! Stay tuned for details.

Check out Shanti Generation’s Yoga Skills for Youth Peacemakers DVD for examples of how to weave yoga philosophy into yoga practice in youth-friendly ways.

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.

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.)