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.

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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.

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

Breath and Relax

Consider Your Self and Your Life

Where would you like to feel more Balance?

Teen Yoga RitualHow will your life feel when you create that Balance?

Name an attribute that will aid you in achieving Balance.

Under the Full Moon, on the Eve before the Equinox,

And in the Sunshine of the Day,

Be the Balance.

As the Spring Equinox grows near, the moon is waxing into fullness and the light of day shines in brilliance as a reminder that now is the time to plant our seeds. Now is the time to focus on what we want to create in our lives. For some teens, this can be a challenging concept. The adolescent mind can become mired in what the individual wants to destroy or escape from, including peer,familial and global stressors. The coming full moon and equinox provide an opening to shed light on what is desired; an opportunity to turn the mind from what isn’t working to what is.

Yoga practice offers multitudes of ways to shift from deficit thinking to thoughts of abundance. Allowing the ebb and flow of the natural world to guide the practice is in alignment with the initial creation of the yogic systems. There are times for letting go as in the waning of the moon and the coming of winter. And NOW is the time of building, becoming and bringing into being!

To help teens discover what it is they want to create in their lives, give them some time and space to contemplate their inner being. Bring them into a comfortable pose either laying down or seated. Ask them to breath and relax, quieting the mind. Then, guide them to consider parts of their lives where they’d like to create more balance. Explain that the coming Vernal Equinox is a time when the Earth’s axis is balanced right in between it’s usual tilts toward or away from the Sun. Once they identify the aspect of their lives where change is desired, ask them to reflect on how it will look and feel different when balance is achieved. Give them time to name an attribute that will contribute to that balance. In other words, what ways of being will be allies on the path.

Give examples along the way to help foster understanding. For instance, if a student wants to create balance in peer relationships, they may choose an attribute such as patience, loyalty or courage. Or, if a student wants to balance out their academic life, they might choose discipline, clarity or wisdom. Many teen girls seek balance physically which may be about confidence, health or acceptance.

Once an attribute has been chosen, provide a piece of cardstock the size of a business card. Let the teens write their word on the card and ask them to “plant” this seed in a special place where they will be reminded of their commitment to balance in their lives. Some teens might tape the card to a mirror or place it in a drawer. Others might paste  it inside of a folder or tuck it away in an iPod case.

If desired by the group, allow students to share their attribute aloud. Let the group suggest yoga poses and practices that embody each attribute. Create a yoga sequence integrating their ideas. At the end of the sequence, during rest time, ask students to choose one pose or practice from the sequence that really speaks to them and reminds them of their attribute. Suggest that they take a moment under the Full Moon during the Spring Equinox to do that practice with their attributes in the hearts and minds knowing that at that moment, they have become the change they have wished to see!

As an added bonus gift, nature has given a special moon this Equinox: a SuperMoon! The Moon is as close to Earth as it’s been in 18 years. So, for teens, the Moon will be  as close as it’s ever been n their lives! What better time to step outside and make communion with the Earth’s celestial partner? The Moon, Sun and Earth all support us in different ways. We can really feel that support in our yoga practice as we naturally connect to the ground using the forces of gravity and step into gratitude for the light that warms us.

Extra Credit Exercise: Working in small groups or with a partner, students create a physical metaphor for the Equinox using yoga poses.

SuperMoon: March 19, 2011

Vernal Equinox: March 20, 2011

For fascinating information on the celestial events abound, visit Cosmic Navigator.

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.

People often ask me for a list of the potential benefits of yoga practice for children and teens. Here I’ve provided a starting place for creating a comprehensive list. Please fill in with any additional benefits. I will compile them all into one list and repost for communal use. Please invite friends to participate!

Physical

  • Overall muscular strength and tone are increased
  • Increased muscular strength contributes to joint health
  • Aids in digestion and elimination
  • Boosts metabolism and weight loss
  • Improves flexibility
  • Strengthens immune system
  • Builds balance and coordination
  • Improves overall body awareness

Mental

  • Develops concentration and focus
  • Teaches students how to work with their minds
  • Releases tension
  • Improves quality of attention
  • Develops mind/body connection

Emotional

  • Promotes emotional awareness and ability to manage emotions
  • Encourages calmness
  • Teaches students to respond, rather than react
  • Promotes self control

Social

  • Boosts confidence
  • Teaches self respect and respect of others
  • Encourages altruism
  • Develops empathy

Spiritual

  • Encourages connection to inner self and innate wisdom
  • Enhances understanding and experience of interconnectedness

Academic

  • Enhances learning readiness
  • Encourages self-discipline

Teach kids about the health benefits of practicing yoga. Kids are more likely to be dedicated to their practice when they understand the immediate and lasting positive effects of yoga.