Teaching yoga to children was my early passion as a yoga instructor. I began as a volunteer in 2007 at my kids’ elementary school. The PTA was in need of a teacher to take over one of the classes for its “Sixth Grade Electives” program which was a parent-run (and possibly exclusive to our school) endeavor. The concept was simple: give the 6th graders a choice of what to do with 50 minutes of one day a week for eight weeks in the second semester of their final year in elementary school.
The more memorable choices ranged from “journalism” where they would work on stories of interest, to “cake decorating.” Other classes included “fashion design” and “personal finance.” These classes are taught by actual people with businesses, degrees and certifications in the offerings. Yoga was offered after a couple kids aged out of the school and so did their parents and the PTA president at the time knew I was a practitioner with several years’ experience and that I had kids of my own, so natch, I was a fit.
I hemmed and hawed. I wasn’t sure. I was terrified.
Comedian John Mulaney has a great line about why 13-year-olds still terrify him, mostly because they will be able to make fun of you and be extremely accurate. So, that was me; I wasn’t terribly ready to face up to ten 12-year olds.
But my friend the PTA president persisted and I stepped up.
Fast forward several years, more encouragement from my PTA president friend, more volunteering, more experience and here I am: a certified yoga instructor with a bonus specialization in teaching kids.
I’ve been at it, as a paid professional, for almost three years now, and recently got picked up by the local parks department to teach two after-school classes at two different schools.
While I don’t have a degree in education, or teaching certificate, I am a communications professional and I make clear communication — regardless of the age of the participants — an absolute foundation of everything in which I engage.
Other than the absolute requirement that you have a sense of humor and the ability to be mentally flexible, here’s a list of what I’ve gleaned from teaching yoga to kids as a kid’s yoga teacher. It’s meant to help parents and teachers engage with all yoga kids:
- Truth. Active children will always be active children; putting them in a yoga class will not impel them to be less active, it will teach them (hopefully, if they are developmentally ready) to learn how to recognize what they are doing. So it’s all a matter of drawing attention to what isn’t “known.” I have adults in my classes who tell me, “I hear you in my head now, ‘belly button gently pulled toward the spine, shoulders back and reaching down toward the hips… release the jaw…’ and I never knew I wasn’t doing that until I heard you tell me to do it…”
- Habits. With particularly active kids, it will take time, consistency and patience to have the children understand how to recognize their urges to move, their inability to sit still, and their tendency to act on impulse. One 8-week session of yoga will not do it.
- Expectations. Don’t expect yoga to turn your kiddo into a Tibetan Monk. Just as you have your ups and downs, your good days and bad days, so do kids. Sometimes we as parents don’t really see our kids for who they really are. Sometimes we are the stressed-out ones, and they are just being … kids. Remember children are supposed to be active and curious and lively and spontaneous. Maybe it’s the parent who needs the yoga, to look inward and give himself or herself some mindful breathing and relaxation, maybe the child is just being his or her normal. It’s all relative.
- Breath. Metaphors and visualization are CRITICAL to helping children understand the concept of mindful breath, which is the root of yoga. Always with the palms touching (that joins the two halves of the brain from a sensorial / neural standpoint) we begin our conscious breathing. Getting them to close their eyes is NOT important. They are children, remember. Their eyes are part of their experience. They are all about data collection. It’s good — as long as they’re still and aware, it’s all good. For some kids, closing their eyes means they press them together super hard and that creates tension in the face, then the jaw, then the neck… They look so uncomfortable. that’s NOT what we’re going for. I give all the little hints, “lightly touch the tip of your tongue behind your front teeth” but if I told you, an adult to do that, can you be reasonably assured you’re “doing it right”? So much bliss gets lost in details and our need to “do it right.” For kids, I’d rather have them look around or at a fixed spot on the floor and do their breaths than “struggle to meditate.” For some kids, sitting composed, as if about to levitate, and silently in “criss-cross applesauce with namaste hands” comes super naturally. For those kids in my yoga classes, I use “Smell the flowers” (not “sniff,” because sniffs are short, like bunny breaths) and say “blow the bubbles” (the kinds of bubbles from a bubble wand, not “motor boat” bubbles in a pool). Before we begin, I remind them by asking, “What happens if we blow too hard through the bubble wand?” Invariably, the kids say, “THEY WILL BURST!” and they’re right. So we go with that. As they are blowing their bubbles, as repetitions increase, I ask them to count the number of bubbles forming from the wand… And then I ask them to blow out just one more bubble. … Maybe two more bubbles? Watch them float away as you smell the flowers to blow more bubbles. I’ve begun with a couple new ones too, “smell the warm cookie fresh from the oven … … cool the warm cookie fresh from the oven…” Either way, we’ve got lots of brain activity going on. After about the fifth round of “yoga breaths” I talk about “that floaty, dreamy feeling in the body… Do you feel like a feather drifting in the air? Like a bubble? Do you feel like you’re safe and so calm?” That’s the feeling we are going for, that’s the bliss I’m trying to impart to them. “And by doing your yoga breaths, no matter where you are — if you’re afraid or sad or surprised or mad or even super happy, mindfully using your yoga breaths will help you feel floaty like a feather…” I say this a lot, during class, but most of all during “savasana” which is our “yoga rest” time. Using that word that we see so much of these days: “mindfully,” is critical in helping all of us make the link between a sensation (state of mind) and breath (the body doing something it does anyway but now doing it consciously). Getting any of us to slow down our breathing and notice that floaty feeling is the magic of yoga and mindfulness.
- Boundaries. Lots of kids in all my classes talk about their stresses. STRESS? FOR A KID?! Man, as adults in this world, we have got to get our stuff together. No child should even KNOW that the word “STRESS” exists. Are we foisting our stuff on to them? We need to save our stories about being backstabbed by a friend, or tales of woe from the office, or the latest headlines for our peer groups. We would all do better to be more mindful of keeping the flow of information from the kids up to us. Goodness knows we don’t want to know everything President Obama knows, do we? No. Say no to that. So let the kids be kids. Answer their questions in a simple way. I have a band-aid on my face from recent Mohs surgery to remove a basal cell from my cheek. All the kids asked about it, and I said as simply as I could: “I have a cut on my face that a doctor gave me to take a boo-boo off my face. So the doctor fixed everything and I’m ok.” Inevitably the next question was, “How did you get the boo-boo?” So I said, “I believe I got it because I didn’t wear sunscreen. So when your Mommy or Daddy wants you to wear sunscreen, you need to let them put it on you.” And then lots of conversations started about sunscreen, relatives who are doctors, going to the pool, swimsuits, beach towels, which beach they love, seeing dolphins, then then I steered that into doing dolphin pose and we were somehow back on plan.
- Sharing. One day after playing a particularly arduous game of “rainbow tunnel” I asked the kids to sit on a line in the gym and slow down their breathing by counting the bubbles we were blowing. When they were calm, I asked if anyone had any questions. One asked, “Why do we do yoga?” And I was about to answer, but I paused and let a kiddo answer. It was amazing. The responder said, “because it’s good for us, to learn about ourselves.” Yeah. I couldn’t have answered it that way. I would’ve said “for flexibility” or “for balance” (which were amongst some of the children’s answers) but I was really not at all prepared for that answer. So sharing time in the yoga circle is really important because it builds empathy, peer recognition and mirroring. One of them answered, “for stress” and then the sharing really began. Some kids talk about: their bigger siblings heading off to college; hearing parents talking about money; parents traveling and the kids feeling like they are having too much put upon them by the babysitter when the parents do travel. (One actually said, “I get scared too when my parents leave, I want the babysitter to take care of me, not just ask me to help out.” I encouraged that child to talk to his parents before they travel.) Some speak about their siblings’ lack of boundaries and physical altercations with their siblings or school mates and how doing their “yoga breaths”(flowers and bubbles) helps them so much. Other kids talk about classmates, even in the yoga classes, who are domineering, interruptive, and make them feel small. Other kids talk about going up to their rooms and doing yoga breathing when their baby sibling is throwing a tantrum.
- Feelings. Let the kids talk about their feelings — so often we want the kids to “relax,””get over it,” and “move on.” As an adult, you take a pause for a second with me, breathe in, and relate: How annoyed and condescended to do YOU feel when someone tells you to move on or to get over it? Do you feel rushed, unheard, dismissed, insignificant? So might your kid. The point is, we all have feelings and feelings are just sensations. Sensations are fleeting. Sometimes we get stuck in a rut, but even those can pass. The sooner we can acknowledge and safely allow anyone’s feelings, the sooner we can process them. I’ve had situations in my classes where one child feels diminished or put-upon by another child. I stop things almost as soon as I can, I actually get down to their eye level and say “namaste” to the child and we talk about it. There is real healing going on during those moments: the perceived brusque child is NOT chastised, but rather has a moment to step back and explain herself and the offended child has a moment to hear and feel heard. Sometimes we just bump into each other during a rousing game of “musical mats” (The. Best. Game. Ever.). We always end a quick chat with a namaste to the group and go back to what we were doing. The namaste to me, is like the wave of thanks in traffic when someone lets you in a lane or you let someone in ahead of you. It’s just a kindness — a pause, a moment to simply acknowledge each other. Too much of that, our seeing of one another, is missing these days.
- Engage. Just like you like to be asked about your day and you like to hear about your kid’s day, asking about something specific, like yoga is no different. Ask open-ended questions and I get it that some parents might not know what to ask. So here are some ideas: Q: Did you play any games today? Q: Can you show me how to do “downward dog”? Q: How do you do a yoga breath? Q: What does “namaste” mean? (I tell the kids that it means “I am good and I see that you are good too.”) Q: Did you read a story in yoga? What was it about? If you have a kiddo in a class I teach, ask about: “Teddy Dog” or “musical mats” or “the cricket during yoga nap” or the “thumb piano” or “Jacob’s ladder” or the “balancing birds” or the “sneezing giraffe toy” or what about when we play “super kids” and the things we rescue when we put on our scarves. Ask them what we do during “cat” and “cow” pose (it’s not quiet). Have them show you how to sit in “namaste” or ask them to teach you how to “smell the flowers and blow the bubbles…”
- Presence. Give yourself a gift and really listen to him when he answers you. Give her your full attention, even if it’s for five minutes. Let him teach you. Let her show you. Do the pose with your child. If you want to meditate with your child or have her sit with you in a few minutes of quiet, I recommend you light a candle and have her focus on the flame with you. There’s something about the animation of the flame, the unpredictability of it all that keeps everyone entranced. I am not permitted to light a candle during my in-school classes for obvious reasons. I’m repeating because it’s worthy: So when you ask, make sure you’re really able to listen without interrupting; sometimes these concepts are hard for a child to impart to an adult.
- Affirm. Back to point number 1: You Must See Your Child Exactly As Your Child Is. If she really doesn’t like yoga, I’m not insulted. Put her in Tae Kwon Do, or dance. I know I’m bringing my A Game each time we meet. I’m naturally very observant, and as a mother, I know I have to be ready to shift gears in a microsecond. As a teacher, I do shift gears because all it takes is one kiddo to divert the “plan” of class: Say one kiddo is acting like a bumble bee and no one else is, but that one bee won’t stop buzzing. In a traditional classroom, that bee is neutralized, told to sit down and stop buzzing. Good luck with that. In yoga, that bee is “followed”: we will all start buzzing and it’s great. After a minute or two, when I see some kids slow down, we stop buzzing and put our hands on our hearts and feel our lungs eventually slow down from all their amazing work of making us busy bees. Affirming someone’s higher energy gets all the “willies” out and we have a great time. I’ve started classes with two minutes of full-on laughing or 30 “mountain climbers” (which are now being requested, so we’ve got some budding Cross-Fitters out there…) or being “washing machines” (seated in criss-cross applesauce with cactus arms up and twisting side to side very quickly with the breath) to wash our hoodies. If the kids are still active, we put the hoodies in the “dryer” and we tumble our arms as we bow up and down and then we check the dryer to put on our nice warm dry hoodie.
By no means is this an exhaustive list. It’s just my top 10; many other ways are helpful for creating presence with your little yogi. I love to teach kids, they are the best teachers: they show me that even a “grown” woman is a big kid at times… and that it’s nice to not have all the answers.
Thank you and namaste. Especially to that PTA president and those first kids (who are now sophomores in college!) all those years ago…