Mala Beads

Strings of beads used d16769247522_b6453d6070_zuring prayer or meditation are an ancient and international tradition. In fact, the word “bead” actually means “prayer” in Middle English. Catholicism uses Rosary beads, Islam uses Subha and Tasbih beads, and Buddhism and Hinduism use Mala beads. In Yoga’s meditative practices, we also use strings of Mala beads.

Mala beads originated somewhere between the 8th and 10th centuries. Used for keeping count during mantra chanting, Mala beads traditionally have 108 small round beads (usually between 7-10mm in diameter each) and one larger bead called the Guru bead. The guru bead is also called the Sumeru, Bindu, or Stupa. Beads are small so they allow easy finger manipulation, even when eyes are closed. Beads can be made of any material, but traditionally they are made of Rudraksha, lotus seeds, yak bone, Bodhi seeds, or wood. Gemstones are also used, harnessing their healing properties. Likewise, glass beads are often used for color therapy. In my kids’ classes, we sometimes make Knotta Malas by tying knots in string.

The practice of chanting a mantra or affirmation is called Japa, and it can be tricky. Keeping count of how many repetitions you make can easily lead you off 9201742317_f856d3f360_zyour meditative path. That’s why Mala beads are so useful. To use the Mala beads, choose a mantra or affirmation that you’d like to focus on. Find a comfortable seated position, close your eyes and settle into your breath. Hang the first bead on your middle or ring finger of one hand. Place your thumb on the guru bead (the largest one) and begin reciting your mantra, either out-loud or in your mind. When you finish the mantra, push the bead away with your thumb and move onto the next bead for the next repetition of your mantra. It’s important to note that you never use your index finger when manipulating the Mala beads. Your pointer finger represents the ego, and your ego is one of the biggest impediments to meditation and peace. If you make it all the way around your Mala beads, it will be 108 mantra repetitions.

Mala beads, when not being used in meditation can be worn around the neck or wrapped around the wrist as jewelry. The idea is that every time you use your beads for meditation, they fill with the positive energy and when you wear them, you are reminded of your practice and the calm of meditation throughout the day. Use them in your free time in line at the grocery store, stopped at traffic lights, or as you settle into bed. Classroom teachers can pass them out before tests to calm nerves or to settle activity after lunch. Plus, they are really pretty!

14565469800_8dd1c7b60a_zMala beads make a wonderful tactile tool to teach children about meditation and mindfulness. In the kids’ Yoga classes I teach, I always bring a bag full of Mardi Gras beads – you know the ones you can buy at the Dollar Store. No, they don’t have 108 beads. Nor do they have a Guru bead, but they do have the same kinesthetic properties traditional Mala beads have – they are like Mala training wheels! Pass them out and have kids try out a mantra practice. We like to use the mantra “Peace begins with me”. You could also just have your kids do one full breath per bead. Or, make up your own mantra specific to your class’ age and goals.

Using those Mardi Gras/Mala beads, you can play games, too. Have each child make a loop on the floor with her beads and try to blow pompoms into the circle (good pranayama practice). Or, working cooperatively, kids spread their bead strings along the floor to make a mandala. If you have a regular group of Yogis, they could be in charge of their own beads, so they could do “homework” and practice their mantras at home, remembering to bring their beads back to class the next time (be sure to have spares – you KNOW someone will forget their beads).

11453495624_b5e1d25d8c_zIt’s also fun, and quite meaningful to the children, to make their own Mala beads. There are lots of tutorials online, but basically it is just string, beads, and nimble fingers to tie knots around each bead. You can make these beads as traditional or crazy as you’d like (Pink glittery beads? Sure! Basketball colored beads? You bet!). Strings of Mala beads also make a lovely homemade gift kids can give their parents for holidays or siblings/teachers/friends for birthdays or thank you’s.

Teaching Ahimsa

The first time your child rolls out her mat in a Yoga class, she is exposed to many new words, which shouldn’t be surprising, really. The practice of Yoga is from ancient times, 9201914481_c1e11a2e60_zfrom a foreign culture, and utilizes a relatively obscure language (Sanskrit). And while kids can have a beautiful, effective practice without exposure to the vocabulary of Yoga, I believe having a basic understanding of Yogic terms and philosophy can take your child’s practice to whole new level. One of the first words I expose my Yoga kids to is ahimsa, or non-violence.

About 400 CE, Patanjali compiled 196 aphorisms about Yoga from older traditions, added his own explanations and wrote it all in the Yoga Sutras. In it, he described the eight limbs of Yoga (interestingly, none of these “rules” involve the physical practice of Yoga postures). The Yamas and Niyamas constitute a set of principles for ancient Yogis to live by for an enriching, joyful life. And the very first Yama is ahimsa.

Ahimsa requires a compassion for all living things: the self, other people, animals, and all of nature. To me, it is a guiding principle for my life, and one I continually share with my own children and Yoga students.

One way to demonstrate the meaning of ahimsa is through books. The Recess Queen is a picture book about a bully that is eventually shown compassion and learns how to be a friend. This energetic book leads naturally to discussions about fairness and inclusion. After reading it to your stu12446672144_5714ee087b_zdents, I encourage you to brainstorm some Yoga games that would include everyone, and then play it! For example, a game of Orange You Grateful is perfect. Players sit in a circle and pass an orange (or a ball) using only their feet. When a player has the orange in their feet, they share something they’re grateful for by saying, “Orange you grateful for _____?”.
The Great Kapok Tree is a beautiful introduction to caring for our natural environment. In the tale, jungle animals take turns explaining why the great kapok tree should be saved. As you read the book aloud, act out the story using Yoga poses. Of course, not every animal in the story has a corresponding pose. That’s when you get to be creative and silly, making up your own poses. Finish up with a round of Jogging Through the Jungle to keep with the rainforest theme.

The idea of nonviolence toward yourself and others can also be taught through partner poses. When doing Yoga (or anything!) you don’t want to hurt yourself or your friends. So, you practice ahimsa! Remind kids to move slowly and listen to their bodies, and their partner’s voice and breathing. Some of my favorite partner and group poses are:
Double Boat: sitting feet-to-feet, children hold hands, press their feet together and sit up, each in a ‘V’ shape
Dog House – One child does downward facing dog while the other crawls underneath to rest in the doghouse. Switch roles.18285395899_c52aeeb977_z
Bunk Bed – One child comes into reverse table. The next child (usually a smaller one) does the same pose on top of the first child, with their feet on the bottom one’s knees and their hands on the bottom’s shoulders. This can go three high, too!
Meditation is another way to teach ahimsa. “Peace Begins With Me” (or PBWM) is a simple meditation. Begin seated and bring both index fingers to the thumb pads (like the OK sign). Say “Peace”. Then bring the middle fingers to the thumbs and say, “begins”. The ring fingers are next saying, “with”. And the pinkies finish with “me”. Repeat the words and gestures several times out loud, and then become quieter, and quieter, until you are whispering. Eventually, the words are only spoken in your head, but your fingers still move. I would also suggest introducing the Loving-Kindess meditation. (There is an article about the meditation and how to teach it here.)
Lastly, I encourage you to teach ahimsa through song. A favorite song among Yogis is May the Longtime Sun. It is a simple, lovely song to wish yourself and others wellness and joy.

Mantra Magic

Mantras are the kids’ yoga abracadabra—pure magic. They are sounds, words and phrases that we repeat over and over, and their magic power is that they have a cleansing effect on the mind and the soul; and that’s why it’s a powerful tool in stress management for kids. The mantras are not just random words and sounds as singing a mantra doesn’t have the same effect that singing the word banana over and over; these words and sounds have specific effects, acting through vibrations to stimulate brain activity. Breathing, concentration, and meditation are all components of mantra chanting, making mantras such a complete and effective exercise in relaxation for children.

The effect of the sound vibrations in mantras have been studied by yogis for thousands of years. Rev. James Reho, Ph.D. for Psychology Today Magazine states, “This science, called nada yoga, comes from observing the psychological and physiological effects of certain sounds, particularly vowel sounds, on the human being;” and the results of some many years of researching results of the powerful mantras we chant today.

In my experience mantras are the hardest part of yoga to jump into because we don’t fully understand them at first, and often feel embarrassed when a yoga teacher invites us to sing them. Luckily in kids’ yoga it is so much easier. Kids love to sing and they really like it when I tell them about the “Yogic” language. Children are more aware of the little vibrations and sensations that mantras generate, and when I explain the meaning of the words they sing they are usually not surprised. The mantras sung in a kids’ yoga class usually incorporate concepts like peace, unity, love, and sharing their light with the world. In stress management for kids, mantra chanting is a key element for success because it is so easy to do, and is also something the kids can share with their families outside of class.

Mantra singing combines pranayama (breath control) and meditation, which means that it also combines the amazing effects of both pranayama and meditation! In a way singing and prayer are part of our heritage as humankind, they are liberating, and the best way to understand what mantra chanting really has to offer to a kids’ yoga class is to experience it yourself.

I have to admit I was personally quite reluctant to chant because I just didn’t get it. Everything changed one day during my yoga training when my teacher began singing mantras. After fifteen minutes of chanting “Om Namah Shivaya,” I felt renewed, my mind had never been that relaxed, and I felt peaceful and happy. This became a weekly practice for the entire yoga teacher training, and by the end of the year we had chanted Sanskrit mantras and chants from every religion in the world. I became a fan of mantras because my experience and resulting feelings were unexplainably life changing.

When I participated in my kids’ yoga teacher training I was curious to see how I could bring mantra singing to a kids’ yoga class. I was so happy to see that Kidding Around Yoga had so many beautiful songs to help include mantra chanting into the class: Om Namah Shivaya, May the Long Time Sun, Lokah Lullaby, and my personal favorite Om Shanti.

Chanting Om Shanti is how I end all of my kids’ yoga classes. The song explains everything you need to know to start to enjoy the world of mantra since it teaches the meaning of what you’ll sing and how to sing it. My students beg me to sing this song to them often, so I’m sure it is a great one to practice at home, in the car, or before class in some school settings.

For those who want to practice some Spanish and some Yoga, this is what I use in my kids’ yoga class down in Argentina:

Om Shanti Om shanti La Paz empieza en mi,

Om shanti Om shanti La Paz empieza en tí,

Om shanti Om shanti La Paz es de todos,

Om shanti Om shanti la clase de yoga acabó.

Om Shanti Om.

Now that you have everything you need to start including mantras in your life, it’s time to enjoy it!


Explaining the Yamas and Niyamas

15348945554_cd67a6d837_zAs a kids’ yoga teacher we can have the amazing responsibility to introduce children to the ideas in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. About 1600 years ago in India, Patanjali condensed two different traditions (Ashtanga Yoga and Karma Yoga) to compose the Yoga Sutras, the foundational text of Yoga. He divided Yoga into eight limbs. The idea of the Eight Limbs is to provide a structure for our lives so our poor habits will simply drop away from us. Two of the limbs I like to teach kids are the Yamas and Niyamas (the other limbs include postures, meditation, concentration, and breathing, as well as other practices). Yamas and Niyamas provide lists of behaviors to encourage and sustain for a fruitful, happy life. Far from being strictly religious practices, when explained and practiced within a kids’ Yoga class, the Yamas and Niyamas are basically rules, like the Golden Rule, to be present, mindful, and whole:
YAMAS– Restraints
Ahimsa- In thought word and deed, act with non – violence15630662808_3d149ee634_z
Satya- Be honest, truthfulness
Asteya- Be generous, do not steal
Brachmacharya – Be moderate in all areas of your life
Aparigraha –Have gratitude, be un-attached to expectations.
NIYAMAS– Observances
Saucha – Cleanliness of mind and body
Samtosha- Find contentment, trust in the bigger picture
Tapas- Acceptance of uncomfortable parts of life
Svadhyaya-Study and learn about yourself and the world around you
Ishvara Pranidhana- Trust the source in yourself and surrender to the will of the universe
There are countless interpretations and commentaries on the Yoga Sutras available. My favorite interpretation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is The Secret Power of Yoga written by Nichala Joy Devi. This is a woman’s guide to the heart and spirit of the Yoga Sutras. I have found it helpful to spend a little time each day reading and thinking about the Sutras and have found this book helpful. I also encourage you to find a Satsang, or a group, to discuss the Sutras and how to implement them into our daily lives.
As a Sunday school teacher I enjoy teaching svadhyaya (study and learn about yourself and the world around you) by acting out Bible stories and incorporating Yoga postures. I also find teaching in schools or libraries that by using books and poems about nature, we can invite nature’s presence into our own lives. The recent gem I found in my local library is a book called The Happiest Tree by Uma Krishnaswami. This book is chock-full of Yogic wisdom for adults and children building a road to self-confidence.
To use this book in your Yoga class, find a spot to read this book under the shade of a tree. Ask the kids to sit in padmasana (lotus pose) pretending to grow roots into the earth, while they listen to the story. While18941373351_ea46a22d1b_z reading the story, or when the story is finished, spend some time practicing the poses in the story.
Cat – Marjaryasana helps massage the belly and spine. This pose warms the abdomen and stretches the back as well as the torso.
Cobra – Bhujangasana strengthens spine. It firms the buttocks, stretches the chest, lungs, shoulders and abdomen. Cobra can Relieve sciatica and be therapeutic for asthma.
Frog – Mandukasana stretches the inner thighs, groin and hips. By allowing chest and shoulders to expand, it relieves stress, anxiety and depression. Offer the kids the idea that their Yoga mat is a lily pad.
Tree – Vrksasana increases balance, focus, memory and concentration. Tree also strengthens ankles and knees. When practicing tree it is fun to ask the kids to circle up and practice standing as a forest of trees. Allow the branches to rest gently on the neighboring tree and close their eyes. Make sure to do the tree on both sides!14752128015_56c0f0a520_z
Lotus– Padmasana increases mobility and releases tension. A common meditation pose, it steadies the body so the mind will follow.
Finish your class by asking the kids to share what their favorite part of the story was. I like to do this while enjoying a healthy snack. The following recipe is one of my favorites. It is nut-free, dairy-free, and fun to make because there is no need to bake!
Sunflower Sassies
2c GF whole rolled oats pulsed in food processor until fine
½ c coconut flour
1 c GF rice crisp cereal
½ c chia and flax blend
½ tsp salt
In a mixer with the paddle stir the first 4 ingredients, for about one minute.
½ c maple syrup
½ cup molasses( this is why they are sassy)
1 tsp vanilla
½ Tbsp. coconut oil
½ c sunflower seed butter
½ c chocolate chips
Add the 6 remaining ingredients. Stir until the mixture becomes crumbly and press into a 7×11 wax paper lined pan. Chill for ½ hour in the freezer. You can cut and individually wrap with yarn or serve family style.

Teaching Gratitude Through Yoga

All of us are bombarded with advertisements, pressured to always gather more, and rarely satisfied by simply being. This is especially true for our children, as they may not yet have the ability to filter through the materialistic messages; instead, their “need” for the newest, fastest, coolest products is intensified and often rewarded.

As a Yoga teacher, classroom teacher, and mom, I feel particularly responsible for raising grateful children. Aparigraha is a Sanskrit term meaning “greedlessness” or “gratitude”, and it is one of the basic teachings of Yoga. This doesn’t mean simply saying “Thank you”, although manners are very important. My goal for my kids it to encourage and inspire genuine gratitude to the people and situations that allow them to be who they are and enjoy what they have. To that end, here are a few of my favorite Yoga activities that promote gratitude.

Sun Salutations: A staple in many Yoga classes, Sun Salutations are a physical way to say “Thank You” to our sun, the primary source of life. In the sequence, we literally bow to the sun, as well as open our hearts to its light. There are several variations to the Sun Salutation, but two of my favorites are the energetic Sargeant Salutations and the creative Animal Sound Salutations.



Dedicated Practice: Start the Yoga class with a dedication. Each child receives a piece of paper (Post-It notes work well) and a pencil or marker. Children choose a person they’d like to dedicate their practice to and write that person’s name on the paper. If “dedicate” is too confusing for your younger kids, direct them to choose somebody that they would like to do yoga with that can’t be her with them. Their practices can be dedicated to friends, a far away relative, even someone they saw at the store. Encourage the kids to choose someone that they’d like to thank for being special. Then, they hold the note in their hands, hold their hands at their heart, and take 3 long breaths, in and out. With each breath, children picture their person and send them peace and joy. Finally, they can either put the slip of paper on top of their mat as a visual reminder, or slip it underneath the mat to keep it private. Remind them during class to think about their special person and send them the good feelings they are getting from Yoga.

Orange You Grateful: This game requires an orange or an orange ball (or 2 if it is a large group) and some tummy muscles! The goal of the game is to pass the orange around the circle, only using y15483952031_74710694fd_zour feet. Everyone sits in a circle, in cobbler pose, about knee-to-knee. One person holds the orange in her feet and shares one thing she is grateful for: “Orange you grateful for ____?” Then, without allowing the orange to touch the ground and using only their feet, the orange is passed on to the next child. He then shares what he is thankful for and passes the orange. Kidding Around Yoga wrote a fun song to go along with the orange passing.

Gratitude Mandala: Every child needs a piece of paper and access to crayons or markers. Starting at the center of the paper, kids draw something they are grateful for about themselves (smart brain, kind heart, curly hair, fast legs, etc). This picture should be pretty small, because around that small picture, they draw something they are grateful for in their family (a home to live in, their pets, healthy food, kind parents and siblings, etc.). Around that picture, children draw something they are grateful for in their community, then their world around that. In this way, the children have created a mandala of gratitude. For older kids, they could list what they are grateful for as a spiral, starting small and getting larger toward the outer edges.


“The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”Mahatma Gandhi


Dollar Store Yoga Props

I’m going to let you guys in on a little secret. One that always shocks people.  Gathering yoga materials and props for classes can be done CHEAP. Yep, you don’t have to spend a fortune at all.  Dollar stores can be your very best friend when it comes to outfitting your “yoga box”. You can find and/or make just about anything to assist with poses, create a craft, and aid in yogic practices such as pranayama (breathing) and meditation.  Most things actually withstand what I like to call “maximum usage levels” and all travel really well. 

·       Washcloths, towels, and microfiber shammies.  You can use washcloths for cleaning of course, but they can also be used for cooling off when the weather is just towels-1511875_640too hot! Soak in some cool water, place on the neck, and voila, instant cool-down.  Towels can be used as makeshift bolsters/pillows. They work especially well for little ones.  Roll the towel into a cylindrical shape, place under the back or head, and rest more comfortably at the end of class.  Kids love the softness the towels provide while in savasana. Microfiber towels provide excellent traction when used as mat-toppers.  Many people, especially those who feel more “slippery” (the cutest description I’ve heard!), really prefer to have a dry mat when they practice. 

·       Flowers, vases, picture frames, and posters.  For people who practice in the same space routinely, you might like to dress it up.  It’s always nice to be able to walk into a designated space that motivates you and is aesthetically pleasing.  Sometimes, just our atmosphere can make a big difference in how we think and behave. Hey, it might even encourage you to practice more and meditate longer!

·       Buckets and baskets.  You cannot go wrong with more containers and organization when kids are involved! That said, dollar stores often have plastic baskets that make excellent “hoops” for balls, discs, and pom-poms. By having different sized baskets, you can tailor the activity and change up the rules to fun games!

·       Crafting supplies (markers, glue, beads, pom-poms).  One of the best things art-supplies-957576_640about teaching/practicing kids’ yoga is that you can incorporate so many activities, games, stories, etc. into a class.  Yoga is everywhere and in everything we do.  Kids really get what it means to practice living a yogic life when we show them all the different facets of yoga.  Crafting brings out our creativity, helps us focus, and can be themed to help students reflect on each yoga class.  It is easy to find pretty much all your crafting needs at dollar stores.

·       Miscellaneous (flashlights, stickers, balls, gloves, scarves, cotton balls etc.).  I could go on and on, but then this blog would be like the “Song That Never Ends” or is it “The Neverending Story”?

There are so many products available at dollar stores that you can use as yoga tools; it’s unbelievable. It just takes a bit of creativity and ingenuity.  Being able to gather up supplies easily and affordably means that more kids get to do yoga- and who would object to that?!

The Lure of Mandalas

(Children already know how to calm themselves naturally with crayon and paper.  This article is for the adults that forgot this hidden gem.)

19164176013_2c9528bb7d_zMandalas seem to be everywhere nowadays.  I go into the local book store and they have a table dedicated to these intricate coloring books.  I go on Amazon and see them on the sidebar or under “often bought together.”  Even my Facebook feed will every now and then pop up with a mandala coloring book it thinks should be marketed to me.  I’m not sure how to take the “swear-word” one, but I totally get the Doctor Who one (I did try to get the latter but it was extremely backordered).  If you are in need of a special occasion version, just Google and you will be sure to find one.  Some places market these as “adult” coloring books, even though the first time I saw a mandala was from my sons’ yoga class. So with all the hype of mandalas, I decided a blog was in order to help understand the lure (and the hidden need).   

Mandalas, a Sanskrit word, are spiritual geometric symbols representing the universe.  Mandala can also mean “circle” or “world in harmony”. Practitioners of Buddhism and Hinduism sometimes use mandalas to meditate on one’s unity with a higher power and as a guide to an inner wisdom or inner purpose.  Tibetan Buddhist Monks spend weeks creating sand mandalas only to destroy their work of art upon completion as a reminder that nothing is permanent.  The history and meaning of mandalas get very, very deep. The mandala books we find in mainstream stores use the term mandala more as a generic term for a geometric pattern. 

Let’s get back to how we can use this ancient practice to maintain sanity in our daily lives. This recent fad is actually a really good one versus some others of the past (anyone remember the Fry Daddy?).  In a society where everything is rushed, over-scheduled and stressed, we need a simple activity to help us calm down.  Years ago I9322975574_1b65ff1bed_z had heard that coloring was a natural de-stressor and anti-depressant.  I was in the military and just moved overseas.  Moving to a strange country all on your own can be down-right scary.  I always considered myself an adventurous type but I may have called a family friend from JFK and completely lost it.  These feelings were foreign to me and it took a whole year to adjust.  One of the things that helped me was a box of crayons and a Winne the Pooh coloring book (not kidding).  At the time I didn’t understand why it was helping me, I just knew that it did.  I have since learned that the coloring of a mandala is a form of mindfulness meditation. 

In an article I recently read, it claimed that coloring could be the new alternative to meditation.  I maintain that coloring is a form of meditation.  The psychologist Carl Jung used mandalas in the early 20th century with his patients as a way of getting them to focus and to allow the subconscious mind to let go.  There is definitely the need for mindfulness to stay within the lines of coloring the intricate designs in some of the mandala books out there.  However, just focusing on the colors and letting the lines flow gets us out of busy minds and may stir up memories of a simpler time as a child.  Working with the mandalas circular shape (true mandalas have no beginning or end) helps the mind t25235706466_1cc4a6ed55_oo relax which can aid in balancing the body’s energies.  This can indeed help support healing the body and mind from the everyday stresses of adult lives.  Through focusing on coloring we move our mind away from focusing on our worries, to-do lists and negative thoughts. 

So the next time your child sits down to color, take their cue whether it’s with an intricate mandala book or Winnie the Pooh.