~ awake in this moment, at home in the world ~

Schooltime Yoga

April 27, 2012
Kids need mindfulness, too! If we can help them find their way toward greater awareness and presence at an early age, we can help them be happier now and also save them from having to unlearn confused habits later.

One of my great pleasures is visiting schools and sharing what I know about yoga and mindfulness with kids. Their openness and enthusiasm is infectious. And the relief they feel as soon as I start talking about topics like happiness and stress tells me that they are eager to learn how to manage their emotional lives.

When I travel to schools, I do bring along my favorite kid-friendly yoga poses. Movement is an effective and accessible way to learn, and it is also what teachers usually expect when they ask me to come into their classes and teach yoga.

I don't stop with poses, though. I bring other tools and techniques along, too, since yoga is meant to be so much more than dancing dogs and wiggling warriors, even for kids.

Here are a few of my favorite tricks of the trade when it comes to introducing yoga in schools:

Yoga poses. I generally include a series of kid-friendly sun salutations (sometimes I call them sun dances), complete with barking, hissing, frog leaping and reaching for the sky. Once kids have the general sequence, we practice them quickly, then slowly, then silently (and sometimes noisily). Sometimes we freeze in the middle, add surprise animals, or develop our own homegrown sun dances. I look at this as an opportunity for kids to practice self-regulation, and important skill that helps promote happiness.

Older kids sometimes need a little "wow" to pull them in, so in upper classes I include challenging poses right off the bat. (I must admit, I have resorted to putting my foot behind my head just to get their attention.). Older kids love trying to make their way into crazy contortions, the more pretzel-y the better.

Discussion. I'm always surprised by how eager kids are to talk about their feelings, to share what "stresses us out," and learn about ways to relax, de-stress and be happy. (I have a feeling this eagerness results from the fact that most adults don't ask them very often.). We talk about what stress is, what it feels like in our bodies, how we know when we're stressed, and what we sometimes say or do when we're in that confused state of overwhelm. We consider ways to manage stress so that we can be happier, calmer, wiser, and I offer to show kids some of the strategies I've learned from yoga that help keep us calm and happy.

Breathing. My very favorite survival strategy is to exhale as fully and completely as possible. I often bring pinwheels, straws, bubbles or even penny whistles to help kids practice lengthening their exhalations. Chanting and singing also do the trick. I challenge kids to remember this "calming breath" in their daily life when they feel their life heating up.

Laughter yoga. Yes, it sounds a little silly, and it is. But I'm always amazed by how quickly the mood of a room can change with just a few minutes of hearty belly-laughing. Start out with a few "ha's" and a few "ho's" and then a few "ha ha ha's" until you can coax everyone into paroxysms of laughter. "I didn't even know what was so funny," they say, "but I just kept laughing."

Stillness. Toward the end of class I often introduce the concept of sitting still, or taking a "time-in." I sometimes demonstrate using a glitter ball to show how a befuddled, stressed-out brain can grow clear and calm just by growing still (an exploration I learned from Susan Kaiser Greenland, whose book The Mindful Child is an absolute gem). Sometimes I use a singing bowl as a focus, asking kids to hold up their hands for just as long as they can hear the sound of the bell (which lasts a long time when you're really paying attention).

Occasionally I'll ask kids to think of a happy moment from their lives and to let that feeling trickle through their bodies. I call this "happy kitty" pose, and invite the kids to even purr or sigh like a contented cat. Or I challenge the kids to sit perfectly still for a set period of time (20 seconds, 2 minutes or 5 minutes, depending on the group.).

Deep Relaxation. Just as with adults, I always try to leave room at the end of class with kids for quiet relaxation. I invite students to find a cozy spot in the room and curl up as if they were taking a nap. I challenge them to be so still and silent that anyone entering the room would think they were asleep. I sometimes ask them to snore peacefully, or perhaps to imagine they are having a happy dream and to smile in their sleep, to remember their happy memory, and then perhaps to imagine that in their dream they're floating on a cloud. And then we slowly re-emerge, smile, and listen to the singing bowl one last time.