Mudras: How and Why?

Mudras, the elaborate hand and finger gestures used in many Yoga and Yoga in the ClassroomAyurvedic traditions, are effective and simple tools to employ for self-soothing, energizing, settling emotions, and focusing. Like little Yoga poses for your hands, mudras make use of the energy, the prana, flowing through your body.

Your fingers are like electric circuits, connecting and redirecting prana. Scientifically, it is known there are concentrations of free electrons surrounding each fingertip. Through mudras, energy is directed through the body’s channels (the nadis), the central nerve locations (chakras along the spinal cord), and the brain. By connecting and rerouting energy through the fingers, you can balance and heal the body. In Sanskrit, mudra translates to “sealing in the energy”. In mudra practice, each finger represents an element: thumb=fire, index=air, middle=space/ether, ring=earth, pinky=water.

You can easily teach children how to use mudras to feel better, calm down, and even energize. Here are six mudra practices suitable for all ages:

Finger Squeeze: Because each finger is connected separately to the energy channels of the body, by squeezing a finger with the opposite hand, you can affect your mental state. For each of these, hold the finger one at a time for three to five minutes. You may do only one hand, but if you have time, do both.
• Thumb: worry, digestive issues, headaches
• Index finger: fear, back pain, toothaches
• Middle finger: anger, mental fatigue, eye strain
• Ring finger: grief, breathing problems, dry cough
• Pinky: sore throat

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Jnana Mudra: The most common mudra in Yoga, the Jnana mudra helps you engage and focus. Place your hands on your knees, palms up and open your hands like a starfish. Bring your index fingers in to touch the tips of the thumbs (each hand should look like it is making the “OK” gesture). This gesture represents you and the universe connecting as one. Jnana mudra is commonly practiced while meditating and/or chanting “Om”. If you keep your palms up, you are sending the healing vibrations into the world. If you need a little extra help with something you are going through, try the mudra with your palms down.

Ganesh Mudra: Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god, is the remover of obstacles and solver of problems. To do this mudra, place the back of your left hand in front of your heart with fingers crooked. Place your right hand in front of your left, palm facing your heart, and slot its crooked fingers into your left hand. Exhale and try to pull your hands apart, working your chest and arms. Inhale and release the tension, but keep fingers hooked. Repeat six times, pulling apart on exhale and relaxing on the inhale. Rest and feel the power, resolve, and inner strength in your body. Swap hands and repeat.

Hridaya Mudra: Also called Heart Mudra, this gesture is used to calm emotions. Sit tall and rest the back of your hands on your thighs. Bring the middle and ring fingers to the thumbs, keeping the pinky and index fingers outstretched. Focus on your breathing and in your heart area.

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Pushan Mudra: This mudra fill you with energy and opens you to give and receive joy. To do it, bring your index and middle fingers to your thumb on your right hand. On your left hand, bring your middle and ring fingers to your thumb. Hold the mudras and breathe for five minutes.

Pushpaputa Mudra: In Sanskrit, pushpaputa means “handful of flower”, so this mudra is supposed to bring inner spaciousness and abundance. Sit on your knees (hero pose) and bring the backs of the hands onto the thighs or knees, fingers pointed diagonally toward each other. Each palm should form a cup. Close your eyes and fill your cup with whatever it is you may need: patience, love, health, joy, wisdom, etc.

There are many, many more mudras to explore, each with its own symbolism and power.

Daily Gratitude

best childrens yoga teacher training programsI have always been interested in Ayurveda, which is the sister science to yoga. Ayurveda is the world’s oldest healing system.  It was developed thousands of years ago in India and based on the belief that health and wellness depend on a delicate balance between the mind, body and spirit.

One of the important components of Ayurveda is developing a Dinacharya–or daily routine.  We can teach our youngest yogis about developing a daily routine early on.  The development of this daily routine will help bring balance into their lives.  There several parts to the daily routine: gratitude, early-to-bed and early-to-rise, clean the face, mouth and eyes, evacuation, clean the teeth, oil the ears, bathing, healing scents, hydration, tongue scraping, gargling, nasal drops, self -massage, exercise, pranayama and meditation.

I’m going to focus on the first one: Gratitude. This would seem to be a simple practice to bring into your daily routine, but how many times during the day do we focus on gratitude? It is easy to get caught up in the negative energy of complaining.  We need to gently remind ourselves what we actually are grateful for.  Here are some simple exercises that we can adapt in our yoga classes for children (but even if you teach an adult yoga class, you can think about incorporating a gratitude time into that practice as well):   21964882533_51eccae459_z

  • Draw what the children are grateful for and sharing the pictures with the class. This activity assists the children with their creativity, writing, sequencing and speaking skills.  Even the youngest child is capable of drawing a picture. You can give an easy direction like “draw what makes you happy or are thankful for.”
  • Play a round of “Orange You Grateful”. Pass an orange (or a ball, stuffed animal, or beanbag) using only your feet around a circle while saying what you are thankful for. Encourage the children to think wider than the usual answers like, “mom and dad”. Yes, we should be grateful for our parents but encourage the children to focus outside, and even inward. Being grateful for themselves, each other, our minds, and opportunities to learn. Taking it another level, what is the group grateful for? Make a list in class and discuss each one.
  • If you have older students, have the children write in gratitude journals. Children bring in a notebook to label and decorate. When children make something or design it for themselves, they are more likely to continue this practice. Have the children keep it with their yoga mat and bring it to class, sharing in each class something from their journal. The children can also cut out pictures or draw in the journal making the journal age-appropriate for all levels. 
  • Affirmations are powerful spoken moments of gratitude. You can repeat this each morning before stepping out of bed. Some examples are (you may substitute “Universe” or “God” or any other appropriate word for “Divine”):

Divine, you are inside me, you are all around me, you are with me.

Thank you to the Divine spirit for this beautiful day before me.

May joy, peace and love be a part of my day.

yoga for children online trainingBringing your hands together in prayer pose, touching your heart center with your thumbs, closing your eyes and tilting the chin to the chest may you know love, may you feel love and may you be love. Namaste. (I always end my yoga class for adults and children with these words.)

So, what are you grateful for today? How will you incorporate gratitude into life on and off the mat? What can we do daily to express gratitude to those around us? A hug? A kind word? Opening a door? A thank you?

The Inner Smile

13093876054_0d42b308fe_zAn Ayurvedic teacher once said, “An illness is a function of the loss of the inner smile.” What is the inner smile? Where is it, exactly? And, if it is so important to health, how do we do it? How do we maintain our inner smile, even when our outside world may not be such a nice place?

According to the Yoga master Aadil Palkhivala, the inner smile lies deep in your Heart Center and only emerges when you truly feel connected with all things. Your inner smile is your bliss; your calm inner state, formed by your knowledge of connectedness. It is the feeling of true love, but not in the passionate or sentimental sense. No one and no event can bring you bliss, just as no one and no event can take away your inner smile. Your inner smile is a choice – do you choose to connect to your heart and soul, or do you choose to let your circumstances push you around?

One way to choose bliss is to practice Smiling Breath. Your breath is physically the closest you can get to your inner world. To develop Smiling Breath, smile from within on your inhales. In other words, smile with your eyes and heart (and lips) as you breathe in all that is good. Feel light and full. Then, on the exhale, calm your mind, focusing only on the 15484091621_831c0ee1b8_zfeeling of breath on your upper lip. Repeat several times, smiling on the inhale and focusing on the exhale. In this way, you program your subconscious to link the sensation of breath with bliss. So even in the busy-ness of daily life, each of your breaths will remind you of your inner smile. With each breath, you choose bliss.

Another way to strengthen your inner smile is to exercise your gratitude muscles. When joy comes knocking, embrace the moment with gratitude. Each day, make a list of at least three things, events, or people you are grateful for. This can be in a journal, a prayer, or part of a child’s bedtime routine. I used to say “Happies” with my kids while tucking them in at night. Thich Nhat Hanh’s seed allegory describes how this focus on gratitude keeps your inner smile glowing. He says that your mind is a field, an empty plot of land where every kind of seed can grow. Seeds of suffering, happiness, joy, sorrow, fear, anger, and gratitude can all be grown on your mind’s field. The quality of your life depends on the quality of seeds you plant. We must tend to and water only the most wholesome seeds whenever possible to help them grow stronger. For example, whenever we are aware of our blessings and feel gratitude toward the people and situations that made them possible, we are watering seeds of thankfulness and awareness. At the same time, seeds of greed and anxiety will not be watered and will start to wither. Your daily gratitude practice will keep those positive, healthy plants growing and there will be no room for the “weeds” of negativity to blossom.15486696292_6f2a180547_z

The real challenge to finding your inner smile comes during times of grief. Being connected to your Heart Center and knowing that bliss is a choice is a good start, but sometimes it takes more physical effort to smile (on the inside or the outside). One way to lift yourself out of anger or sadness is to actually lift your arms overhead. When you are upset, what does your body do? Clench up and pull inward – chest collapsing, fists squeezing, shallow breathing. Your body physically holds grief in your upper torso. So throw your arms up, open your armpits and chest. Do you notice that this posture looks a lot like someone celebrating? It’s not a coincidence! Lifting your arms has always been a joyous gesture. Back bends and twists also open the chest, giving your lungs more room to practice your Smiling Breath.

Lastly, exercise your laughing muscles! You always feel re-energized and refreshed after a 13093707765_6b8e9e8b8a_zgood, hearty laugh. So make funny faces (like in Lions’ Breath). Play Pass-A-Laugh (one person creates a funny laugh, the next person tries to imitate it and then passes a new funny laugh to the next person, continuing the silliness)! Dance and sing along to Kidding Around Yoga’s Laughter Yoga

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Your inner smile is always in there. Begin to notice it and practice finding it so you can enjoy your bliss, regardless of the circumstances and people surrounding you.

All Games Are Yoga Games

11453768633_504ccce035_zGames are something that all children, no matter what age, love! You can see children completely relax, and older children lose their inhibitions in a really good game. There are already many Yoga games that you can play with kids. However, if you want to find some new ones, you can always “Yoga-fy” a game you already love!
I’ve included three examples of games that have been Yoga-fied to get your creative juices flowing:

Ping Pong Shake
You will need:
A medium sized box (oblong tissue boxes work really well)
Lots of ping pong balls (or balls of a similar size)
A belt, or scarf to attach the box around your waist
Make enough boxes for the number of children you have in your group. It doesn’t need to be one each. However, if you have a lot of children playing, you might want to get more than one child shaking at once. Make a hole in the box, large enough to fit the balls through. Fill the box with balls, attach it via a belt or scarf around your waist. Put on some cool music (Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off or Shake My Sillies Out seem appropriate!) Then you have to shake all of your balls out of the box without using anything other than your shaking tushy!
Although this game doesn’t use any Yoga poses, it is all about the shaking! Did you know that by simply shaking you can stimulate the energy flowing around your body and awaken both the body and mind? In fact, Ayurveda, which is considered a sister science to Yoga, will often prescribe shaking your body when you don’t feel well as the first step in the treatment of sickness. Shaking can also increase your levels of Oxytocin, or the love hormone, in our bodies. When we increase Oxytocin, we feel a sense of happiness. We shake away our blues, which can also help with depression and anxiety. Most of all, shaking and this game is just so much fun, your kids will be in stitches watching the different styles of shakes and wiggles people have!

Dice Race (with a treat!)
You will need;
A large bar of refrigerated chocolate
Two medium sized Yoga dice – these can be blank dice to draw on, or even cardboard cubes
A knife and fork
Dressing up clothes, including some adult sized gloves!
This is a real treat game as it involves eating chocolate! What kid doesn’t enjoy chocolate right?! However, if you wanted to be healthier, perhaps you could find an alternative to chocolate (a frozen banana)? On your dice draw (or write) 6 different standing poses (eagle, dancer, warrio14749863601_7f45a45202_zr, chair, tree and triangle work well) putting the same 6 poses on each dice. Have the kid’s line up and take turns rolling the dice. When they get two poses that match, they run to the chocolate and put on all the dressing up clothes (a hat, scarf and gloves work well, but you can add more to make it harder). Then they start to eat the cold chocolate but only using the knife and fork! Everyone else waiting in the line is standing in the yoga pose that was rolled! They must stay in this pose and the person eating the chocolate continues to do so until another match is rolled! Sometimes, the children only get as far as putting the dressing up clothes on before this happens, sometimes they are munching away at the chocolate for a while!

I Went to my Yoga Class and…
The last game is a more relaxed than the others and can be used when you want to calm things down slightly, as it needs a lot of concentration and focus. It’s a twist on the classic game, “I went to the shops and I bought…” It’s been changed to (you guessed it), “I went to my Yoga class and I did…” You sit in a circle and each child repeats and acts out the poses that were before them and then adds one of their own. For example, I went to my Yoga class and did the cow pose.9201913499_962c85b729_z I went to my Yoga class and did the cow pose and the dolphin pose etc. This is a very simple game but quite effective in strengthening the memory and teaching lots and lots of Yoga poses!

Nighty Night, Little Yogi

imageJust like us, our children live in a very busy world.  From the moment they are born, kids are bombarded with ever-increasing pressures: innumerable lessons, academic expectations, competitive sports, socializing, and the business of just growing up! And we think adults are stressed? The white-knuckle pace of our children’s lives often leaves them too wound up to settle calmly into bed and drift to sleep.  My daughter has always had trouble shutting down her day and falling asleep.  Over the years, we’ve tried several methods to relax into sleep and, not surprisingly, a few “tricks” from yoga and Ayurveda have really helped her learn to surrender to rest.

First, we started doing “Happies” every night. Just as some families say prayers before bed, we list three things that made us happy during the day. For a while, my daughter listed “cookies” as her number one. But eventually, her list began growing to include family, friends, things she learned at school, and other big ideas. We found that the “Happies” helped her focus on positive feelings as she was tucked in, rather than worrying about the next day.

I also taught her a meditation practice suitable for her age (she was about 2 or 3, just having learned the alphabet). I gave her a topic to think about and she had to come up with something that matched the topic from each letter in the alphabet. So, for example, the topic may be animals. We would start the list together with Aardvark, Bear, Cat, Dog, etc. Then as I tucked her in, she would keep going. She knew if she got stuck to just skip that letter. This practice kept her mind focused on one topic, rather than racing around thinking about the details from the day and all the activities coming up tomorrow. She’s nearly 15 years old now, and still uses this technique! (Her favorite topic? Harry Potter).

imageLike many children (ok, adults too), my daughter enjoys a sweet after dinner.  For many years now, I have made Peaceful Sleep Spiced Milk. I was introduced to this through Denise O’Dunn of Balance & Bliss Ayurveda. The spices and milk proteins help settle the nervous system and build the Ojas  (Deepak Chopra defines ojas as “the pure and subtle substance that’s extracted from food…the vital nectar of life”).  The recipe is very flexible depending on your child’s taste (it’s great for adults who need to settle down, too):

  • 1 cup organic milk (cow, soy, almond, rice, cashew)
  • 1 spoonful Ghee (clarified butter) – you can make this yourself or buy it at some grocery stores
  • Maple syrup, to taste
  • A pinch or two of each spice, to taste:
  • Turmeric
  • Nutmeg
  • Cinnamon
  • Ground cloves

Warm ghee until it is melted. Add the milk and spices and heat. When warm, sip slowly.

There are also several yoga poses that promote sleep for your child. Perhaps making these practices part of your little one’s bedtime routine will help both of you get a better night’s sleep.