because if you want to learn yoga, try teaching it to kids. :)
-following from Daily OM
When we approach children with the awareness that they can teach us, we automatically become more present ourselves.
As grown-ups, we often approach children with ideas about what we can teach them about this life to which they have so recently arrived. It’s true that we have important information to convey, but children are here to teach us just as much as we are here to teach them. They are so new to the world and far less burdened with preconceived notions about the people, situations, and objects they encounter. They do not avoid people on the basis of appearance, nor do they regard shoes as having only one function. They can be fascinated for half an hour with a pot and a lid, and they are utterly unself-conscious in their emotional expressions. They live their lives fully immersed in the present moment, seeing everything with the open-mindedness born of unknowing. This enables them to inhabit a state of spontaneity, curiosity, and pure excitement about the world that we, as adults, have a hard time accessing. Yet almost every spiritual path calls us to rediscover this way of seeing. ! In this sense, children are truly our gurus.
When we approach children with the awareness that they are our teachers, we automatically become more present ourselves. We have to be more present when we follow, looking and listening, responding to their lead. We don’t lapse so easily into the role of the director of activities, surrendering instead to having no agenda at all. As we allow our children to determine the flow of play, they pull us deeper into the mystery of the present moment. In this magical place, we become innocent again, not knowing what will happen next and remembering how to let go and flow.
Since we must also embody the role of loving guide to our children, they teach us how to transition gracefully from following to leading and back again. In doing so, we learn to dance with our children in the present moment, shifting and adjusting as we direct the flow from pretending to be kittens wearing shoes on our heads to making sure everyone is fed and bathed.
"You can learn a lot from teachers, but you are going to have to learn a lot by yourself, sitting alone in a room."
(happy bday, Dr. Seuss :)
“To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.” ~Oscar Wilde
This Valentine’s Day, the theme for my 9th and 10th grade yoga class was “Be Your Own Valentine.” In America, Valentine’s Day has become a commercial idolization of romantic love, saturated with Hallmark cards, cheap chocolates and stuffed animals. I think we overestimate the value of romantic love and underestimate the value of self-love. We are very much a self-critical, self-deprecating culture, looking to our partners, friends, our iPhones and Facebook to make us feel special and worthy. I wonder what the world would be like if we each gave ourselves the attention, compassion, and care we are searching for? What if we became our own best friend, our biggest cheerleader and supporter?
Yoga teaches us to become a little more self reliant in our quest for love. While big businesses want us to look outside ourselves for acceptance and happiness, yoga teaches us to look inside ourselves to find true peace and contentment. We fill our own cup in yoga, and when we take the time and discipline to practice regularly, we reach a point when our cup overflows, and we have love to share with others as well. But it must begin with ourselves.
In class, I asked my students to think of three ways they can practice kindness towards themselves. There are so many simple ways to give ourselves the compassion and care we long for – breathing deeply, drinking lots of water, eating foods that nourish our bodies and reading books that nourish our minds, walking in nature, sharing laughter with friends, drinking hot tea, taking hot baths. There are infinite ways to show ourselves how beautiful we are. I encouraged my students to show their love to themselves through their actions, and to commit to doing one kind action for themselves each day.
At the end of the class, in our closing circle, I asked each student to share one thing they appreciate about themselves. Sadly, some students couldn’t think of anything to share. So I told them one thing I appreciated about them. Other students shared beautiful qualities: “I am optimistic.” “I am a hard worker.” “I care.” “I am open- minded.” “I am kind.” We each reflected our goodness and beauty to each other, and at the end of the class, I saw 35 bright lights sitting in a circle, though some were still unaware of what radiance lies inside them.
It is our duty as teachers to be mirrors of the beauty, light, and goodness within each of our students. It is our duty to help them learn to trust their inherent goodness, to love and respect and care for themselves as they would a best friend or loved one. Because many kids and teens can’t yet see their own light, we must model this seeing as teachers by fully connecting to our own wellspring of love – and share that with our students. We must be the sunshine for our students, and let them bathe in our own light, until they recognize that the sun also lives in their own hearts. And the more young people awaken to their light, the brighter this world will be.
So let us all practice being our own Valentine’s, each day of the year, each moment of our lives.
The hands are connected to the heart. This is a great project to do with kid yogis for V-day, to bring some heART into the practice! Namaste!
"When you hear the bell, stop look and listen!" said the teacher. The teacher may have been yours, back in your first grade class. The teacher might be you, now, leading a group of 7 year olds through a yoga practice. When I train teachers I always recommend establishing a cue for "stop look and listen" to help non-verbalize transitions, have a signal for bringing a group to a point of focus, a reminder of attention.
The bell reminds me of the clap of wood on wood in the zendo, reminding us to wake up, stop-look-listen, to this moment, now.
The other day, after an especially stressful adult-type day of running errands, paying bills, and general ‘taking care of business’ in one of the most amazing but over-stimulating cities in the world, New York City, I arrived home to my apartment feeling in desperate need of some yoga. Some breath work, some Stop Look and Listen. And I realized how profound this childhood teaching is, to Stop Look and Listen at random moments during life and, most especially, during times when you might be a little off track, overstimulated, overtired, over-something.
Often when I ring my bell in kid yoga class to “stop look and listen” I’ll get a few disappointed “aw’s!” Most likely the students were involved in some fun activity, like crawling through a down-dog tunnel, practicing crow pose with a friend, or creating a new pose that combines balance, strength and/or flexibility. Maybe the energy was getting a little over-active in the room, or maybe it was time for quiet practice or a new activity. But it can be hard to switch gears. Its often easier to keep going with the momentum of an activity, even if its loud or less productive than it was when it began.
When I get the call in my life or in my body to Stop Look and Listen, it’s often met with resistance within myself….an inner “Aw!” In general for my life and my personality, it is easier to keep going. Even with less productive things like worry, there is a momentum that is seductive and hard to stop. Who wants to Stop Look and Listen when there is so much worrying to do? Or so much planning? Or so much fun? Or so much New York outside the window, beckoning me to come explore?
But the body doesn’t lie. It might be a cold, some aches and pains, or it might be a subtle intuitive twinge that the time is now to Stop Look and Listen in your day, or in your life. You might need to stop for five minutes to breathe, observe and listen to what is. You might need an afternoon off to do the same. Or you might need a more significant break in your life to Stop Look and Listen….not knowing what is to come next. But not knowing what’s to come next is an exclamation point ! after the heavy comma of a pause. It is exciting to make space, to listen, to see what the teacher will say is coming next.
And here I’m talking about the teacher within. As yogi Dharma Mittra reminds us, “The True Guru, the greatest teacher, is already within you in the center of the chest.” When your inner teacher rings a bell, no matter how it comes through or how it sounds to Stop Look and Listen, that inner teacher might have something new and very important to impart.
It’s worth it to Stop-Look-Listen. Grow Still. Observe. Grow Receptive.
This is a lesson from childhood that I’m still practicing and learning today.
We’re studying the solar system in my class, so last week, I took my second graders on a trip to the moon.
We had prepared for everything an astronaut would need: First we centered ourselves on the mission and focused on the waxing and waning moon phases in our minds. Then, we started off doing basic training by practicing our warrior poses. We put on our (imaginary) spacesuits and brought our (imaginary) moon buggies for exploration. We entered our space rockets, dialed up our compasses, looked out the window at a perfect half-moon, at the stars, and waved hello to the Sun. We took our moon buggies out to explore the craters, and bumped around a bit along the way. And oh, how we enjoyed getting back into our space ships, watching the clouds go by and floating closer to Earth!
My students were elated with the perfect combination of jumping jacks, strong standing poses, visualization and balancing poses. While they were putting their shoes back on, I heard comments like, “That was awesome!" , "It was so relaxing floating back to Earth!" and my favorite, "I feel so happy now!"
Then why was I so frustrated?
I “live” in a small classroom space, and even though there are only 12 children in my class, there’s tables and chairs, bookshelves, and easels to move about. We practiced together in a semi-circle— no mats— in a 10x10 area, with half the children on carpet and the other half slipping, not stepping, on linoleum floors. Any pose that involved arm or leg extension, such as star pose or half-moon became reason for complaining that someone was stepping on them or “poking out their eyes.” My moon songs, (preselected on Spotify) were interrupted by commercial messages. To top it off, I was doing yoga in our reading section. Wouldn’t their favorite books and their lovely learning games be a distraction? I taught the entire class with all my heart, with a fear of failure lingering in that visceral space below; a notion that if it wasn’t perfect, it wouldn’t be at all beneficial.
And then I heard one little girl say, “I feel so happy now!”
I was so concerned that I couldn’t offer them a new setting, something to switch off the daily routines and light up their imagination, that I forgot that Yoga alone was bringing them into a new kind of space. Their breath and physical flow was guiding them through their imagination and likewise their imagination was freeing up their daily physical space, creating a new world, According to John Friend, the father of Anusara yoga, “[One of] the most fundamental ways to measure the efficacy of yoga teaching is to gauge how students feel about themselves at the end of a class…”
No matter how young or old, no matter how much structure they like, a student’s day can be stressful, rigid, and maybe even a little boring! (Hard to believe we would be boring teachers, right?) When we get locked into the same routines and same spaces, we lock our students into them too.
I’m still thinking of ways to create a better yoga space for that class. My battle is not yet over, but in the meantime, I’ve learned not to deprive my students of a trip on a tiny, but magical yoga carpet ~and bring them to a happy BIGGER space.
Six years ago, I began teaching teens in the public schools of New York City through Integral Yoga’s Yoga at School program. My own yoga journey began at age fourteen, and my personal transformation as an adolescent inspired me to share the practice with youth. Initially, I was intimidated to work with teens, but the moment I began teaching, something magical was born.
Most of the students came into the yoga class like any other teenager: angry, anxious, depressed, reactive, and insecure. Slowly, though, I began to see changes over the course of the semester. They weren’t as reactive. They weren’t as fidgety. The tension in their bodies started to soften. They smiled more. They sat up a little straighter, and their voices became stronger. Kind words replace expletives. Windows opened where there were once walls. And by the end of the semester, the 20 students I sent off into the world were not the 20 students who sulked into the door the first day. What an incredible gift to share with young people—a gift they can carry with them the rest of their lives. After witnessing the transformative power of yoga in my students, my life’s work has been devoted to making this ancient practice accessible to modern teens.
At the end of the semester when I ask students how they benefited from the program, they say things like “It has helped me grow into a stronger and more peaceful version of myself.” “Yoga has helped me to heal myself and forgive others.” “I learned how to breathe to control my anger.” “I am finally able to just be myself around others.” “My relationship with my mother is better.” “I am more kind.”
Yoga not only has an immediate effect on teens, but also makes an indelible imprint in their lives, long after the semester long course is over. One student, after having taken a semester of yoga her senior year in high school, decided to go to a holistic health college instead of culinary school. She is now about to complete her yoga teaching certification. Other students stay connected to the Integral Yoga Institute after their yoga course is completed and take classes and do karma yoga there. Others bring yoga to their own communities, teaching their friends and siblings, and even inviting their parents to start taking yoga classes. Teens living their yoga in their daily lives and sharing it with their communities is one of the greatest fruits of their practice. After all, the world ultimately needs them to be ambassadors of peace in the chaotic world we live in today.
I teach yoga to teens because I believe that if we can open the hearts and minds of our youth, we can open the heart of the world. It is my hope that more and more yoga teachers will be inspired to bring this practice to a population that so desperately needs it. Investing in the hearts and minds of teens is also an investment in the future of our planet. Yoga is one of the greatest gifts we can give to the next generation.
I’ve been avoiding meditation. Not entirely, since I do count the breath-based mantras I practice sporadically throughout the day as meditation, but when it comes to a sitting practice, I’ve had a definite aversion. And since what you resist persists, it had been months since I sat down and simply existed with myself.
But I reached a turning point the other day, when I became willing to accept my unwillingness, and instead of condemning it—What kind of yogi won’t even try and meditate?—I allowed the circumstances to be as they were. For whatever reason, I wasn’t into the idea, and that was okay.
Of course as soon as I gave myself full permission to not meditate, I picked up the latest copy of Yoga Journal and one of the cover stories was “What’s the right meditation style for you?” The article reminded me that I have a lot of tools at my disposal, and I read a suggestion I hadn’t heard before: Visualize what you want to feel.
As Nikki Costello, a yoga and mediation teacher based in New York, says in the article, “If you want your mind to be more clear, visualize a cloudless sky. If you want to feel grounded, visualize a mountain.” She says that “visualization can guide you out of a narrow thought pattern to something more expansive and free.”
The next morning I set aside five minutes to try the vizualizing technique, and I was amazed with what my mind showed me. I couldn’t decide where I wanted to “be”—on the beach at the ocean. No, near a mountain. No, wait, on the sandy shore of a lake overlooking a mountain. Oh, but, I’ve always felt snug and secure near trees….
Before I knew it, I was scooting back from the shoreline and nestling up to a tree trunk at the edge of a forest, at which point a branch curled around me and lifted me up, up, up, till I was high above the ground, peering across a great body of sparkling water and in awe of a massive mountain range.
I didn’t consciously invent an ergonomic tree limb/chair lift…my mind did that all on its own. How surreal! I’d forgotten, if I ever knew, that my brain can concoct pleasing, full-sensory experiences if only I give it the time and opportunity. Meditation can come in many forms, and the imagination is an incredible aid.
A day or so later, I came across a beautiful meditative video that begins with a young girl’s explanation of why she prefers her mind to television. I knew exactly what she meant.
Wishing everyone buckets of Love, Light and Yoga in the New Year!! It’s looking UP!