Mandala Magic

The art and therapy of mandalas has reached huge popularity.   But what exactly is the meaning and purpose of the beautiful, geometric images we find ourselves drawn to decorate with color?

Merriam-Webster provides these two definitions of mandala: 1. a Hindu or Buddhist graphic symbol of the universe; specifically: a circle enclosing a square with a deity on each side that is used chiefly as an aid to meditation 2. a graphic and often symbolic pattern usually in the form of a circle divided into four separate sections or bearing a multiple projection of an image.

Much meaning can be found in mandalas, historically speaking.  Its roots are Hindu and Buddhist.  The mandala is a spiritual symbol for the universe.  It is used for meditative purposes, as defined above.  It literally means “circle” in the Sanskrit language.  And mandalas exhibit radial balance.  We all know that balance is the core of yoga. 

As I read about the history and use of mandalas, I am struck by its purpose to provide a means to induce meditation.  In other words, the intricacy of mandala design with the circular and square lines is not without meaning.  We should get lost in the mandala, in a way that we can be found.  Or perhaps, answers may be found.  Or perhaps, calm can be found.

How do we then share this ethereal ideal with children?  We introduce softly, as art.  Questions may be asked.  We can answer of course.  It is not just the religions of Buddhism and Hinduism that embrace artistic and geometric art as a means of meditative state.  There are Christian mandala symbols as well.  So we say, without exclusion, and with full honesty, that mandalas offer us an opportunity to be entranced with art, religion, mindfulness, softness, quietness, in a way that also speaks to our individuality.  I can’t imagine two mandalas coming out the same, at the hands of two different children.  We’ve come full circle then, no pun intended, when we see that this form of meditative expression brings about creative difference.  Isn’t that the essence of our universe?  Isn’t it? Being at odds with another is such a hard pill to swallow.  Who knew that the mandala could offer a lesson in diversity? 

For more information on mandalas and how to use them in your yoga classes, check out The Lure of Mandalas. And for free printable mandala coloring sheets, click here.

 

 

Little Notes of Love

My obsession with hiding little notes started when, as children, my sister and I would spend summers at my grandparents’ house in Florida. Spending lazy days walking the beach, reading, watching MTV (a luxury we didn’t have in my small hometown), and generally being spoiled by my grandparents were blessings I was able to recognize  even as a child. “How cool is this?” I’d whisper to my sister as my Grandma let us do her makeup and my (nearly bald) Grandpa let us “fix” his hair. And our parents had raised us right – we definitely said, “Thank you” when appropriate. But I wanted to do more, something really special that would make my grandparents smile the whole year, even when we went back home to Colorado.

So, my sister and I came up with the idea of hiding little notes all over their condo. Slips of paper with little tidbits of love written on them. Things like, “Someone in Colorado loves you” or “HUG” written in our finest penmanship filled dozens of little papers. Then, when our grandparents were in another room, we’d tuck the notes away in obvious and obscure places: between plates in the cupboard, in winter coat pockets, in the toes of dress shoes, inside medicine bottles, and inside books. We wanted to be sure that the notes wouldn’t be lost, but still wanted them to be discovered over the 10 months we were back home.

And it worked. It REALLY worked. Whenever my grandparents would find a note, they’d call us and tell us where they found it. We’d giggle and give them hints where they’d find more. In the days before email and texting, it was a very special event to get a quick written message from someone far away. And even better than digital writing, the slip of paper was something they could hold onto, could collect to revisit when lonely or sad.

I continued this when I left home to go to college. I left notes sprinkled around the house to say hi to my parents (or to long-distance tease my sister). And sometimes, my mom left notes for me, too, inside care packages and suitcases. When I found one, it was like a warm hug from my family. And now, whenever I stay at a friend’s house, I try to leave a few little notes here and there. I especially enjoy hiding them in places that aren’t usually fun (in the dryer sheet box, at the bottom of the kitchen towel drawer, under the toothbrush holder in the bathroom). And it works every time. People find the notes and call (or, these days, snap a pic and text me). And boom! Just like that, we know we are thinking of each other, that we are important to someone and someone is important to us. Powerful stuff.

I’ve left notes on the napkins of my kids’ lunches. For a while, they preferred for me to write a joke on the napkin that they could share at lunch (a great ice breaker for quiet kids). My kids leave notes for their grandparents and cousins when we visit. And even now, I’ve been known to tuck notes into my teen’s car, my husband’s wallet, and my son’s backpack. Nothing embarrassing, just a little note to say, “Hey! Have a great day!”. They don’t often tell me when they find my notes, but I know they see them. And that’s enough for me.

Polar Bear Yoga

They are cute, fluffy, and super wintry, although you may not want to try to cuddle one! What are they? Polar bears, of course.  Kids love learning about animals, especially these unique bears.  A polar bear themed yoga class is the perfect opportunity to blend academic learning and fun activities. 

  • Start the adventure by greeting students as they enter the frigid arctic! You could decorate the space with icicles, snow mounds, pictures of Arctic animals, and streamers of green, pink, purple, and blue to mimic the Northern Lights. Make sure you still include a meditation, like Peace Begins with Me!

 

  • For a fun pranayama, or breathing exercise, have the kids pretend they are cold and “warm up” their hands with their breath! This will give them a chance to really feel their breath, its temperature, and how their belly inflates and deflates as they inhale and exhale. 

 

  • Before the class, let students know that they are to bring one of their favorite stuffed toys or their treasured pals.  During the class, children become mama/papa bear.  Tell them how mama/papa bears are very protective over their baby bears and that it is their job to keep their little bears safe, warm, and protected.  Pretend to feed and cuddle the little bears and show them how to do poses with their “baby”. They should be mindful of where their baby is, if they are warm, and keep them safe.

 

  • One of the best elements about this class is the ability to teach some environmental aspects in a way that happens organically and is relatable.  One of the ways scientists know our Earth is too warm is by the behavior and habitats of polar bears. (These guys are actually used in a ton of research pertaining to this topic).  You could show a quick video with real polar bear footage or even have a zoologist come to talk to the class about the bears and the challenges they face.  A game to play that helps kids understand how the bears’ habitats are diminishing is to lay out a humongous sheet of white paper that represents ice. Or, just have them place their mats side-by-side, like a giant chunk of ice. Have everybody practice their yoga poses with music on the sheet/ice.  As the music progresses, roll up the paper/mats, making less space.  As space becomes limited, the students (i.e. the bears) have to move off the ice sheet until there are only 1-3 students left.  Of course, really young students probably will not understand this analogy, but six years and up will.  It brings awareness and helps them to empathize with the bears.

 

  • Cotton balls, cardstock, yarn, and googly eyes are all that is needed to make some cute, little polar bears.  Have the students cut the paper in the shape of a bear or a circle, glue the ruffled (by pulling it out) cotton balls and the eyes to the cardstock, and add a scarf with the yarn.  If you have younger students, you could always pre-cut the bear shape.

 

 

  • As you are settling down and preparing for savasana, ask your students what bears do for a really long time.  They will most likely know about hibernation, but if they don’t, now is a great time to introduce the concept! Let them know that in their Secret Garden, they and their baby bears are going to hibernate over the long winter.  You could even write a guided meditation about snowy river banks, alpine trees, cozy bear caves, etc. 

Have fun with this class by using your imagination!

Celebrate ALL of the Winter Holidays!

One of the best ways to teach compassion and to build more empathetic kids is to reframe the world in the perspective of the viewer. Children are naturally curious, open-minded, and flexible in regards to integrating new information and differences among people. They generally make less a fuss about how things are “supposed” to be because their expectations are not the same as an adult’s.  Honestly, this is one of my favorite reasons for working with children.  They are ready, willing, and enthusiastic about learning. 

A lot of people do not realize that learning happens beyond the classroom in other settings and within various experiences. Again, this is one of the best “pros” to teaching kids yoga.  There is such a wealth of material and time to introduce a multitude of concepts to these young people.  With the holidays approaching, it is a most opportune time to present information about the season and how it houses many diverse holidays for people around the world.  The advantage?  With yoga, this information can be presented in a fun, unique way that lights up their imaginations and helps them see the similarities between all people, thus building compassion. This creates kids who want to be friends, not people who are fearful of others.

Christmas– The holiday that many of your children will celebrate in December and one that the United States really amplifies is both Christian and secular (to some extent).  Most kids are familiar with St. Nick (aka Santa Claus), gift-giving, and decadent meals with family. Most people agree that the key feature of Christmas is the idea of giving. To inspire generosity in your students, play a game of Secret Santa wherein the children pull names from a hat and they MAKE a gift for their yoga peer. If your students do not know each other ahead of time, ask the students and their parents to please purchase a gift (of less than $5) for a wonderful charity such as Toys for Tots and you all go together to donate.   (Click here for more blogs about Christmas, yoga-style) It’s also fun to take a well-known story, song, or poem and put a yoga spin on it, like this one about family meditation based on ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas:

Twas the night before Christmas

When all through the house

Everyone was sitting

Even the mouse!

They sat by the fire

As it crackled and snapped,

Clearing their minds,

Not taking a nap.

The tree stood tall and

glowed in soft light,

the sky was inky

but stars shone bright.

Chests rose and fell

With each breath they took.

Their lungs expanding,

They had to look!

The room smelled of apples

And cinnamon, too.

All thoughts drifted

And a baby said “coo”.

Bodies were still.

Worry eased and sadness melt.

Minds were free!

They loved the way they felt!

Peace filled their hearts

And happiness the room.

They held hands

As they watched the moon.

The fire was in embers

Providing little light.

They looked at each other and said,

“Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!”

Chanukah– Also known as the “The Jewish Festival of Lights”, this Jewish holiday is celebrated over eight days and nights.  The Menorah is a staple and each candle is lit on one of the nights. On the final night, the center one is lit.  A fun game/song to play is Yoga Nagila as it is based on a Jewish folk song and encourages people to come together for friendship and fun.  Make sure to include a holiday table display with a menorah! For more kids’ yoga with a Jewish twist, check out Yoga Yeladim

Kwanzaa -A holiday beginning in 1966, was created to celebrate and honor persons of African descent.  The core message is of family, community, and culture.  As many persons of color’s voices have oft been left off the table, this holiday is way for many African-Americans to honor their collective traditions and values.  The holiday speaks of unity and working together.  Partner poses and a good reading about social justice and family would be in order here! Karen Katz’s My First Kwanzaa is an excellent read.

Diwali – The original “Festival of Lights”, Diwali is celebrated in many areas of Southeast Asia and India.  As yoga’s purpose is to reach Nirvana, this holiday celebrates an old sage who is said to have reached enlightenment and peace.  The name itself means “lamps in rows”. One of the biggest themes of the holiday is goodness and how goodness always triumphs over evil.  Now would be a good time to discuss Namaste and practice saying it with your students! Click here for ways to include Diwali and the meaning of Namaste in your classes.

            Include crafts such as paper wreath making, activities that encourage friendship and family relationships such “gathering” around the “table” to share a feast, play games, and have St. Nick/Jack Frost lead the children in their sun salutations.  Have fun and remember that our differences make us special while simultaneously connecting us this holiday season!

Light on Kids’ Sangha – Build a Community this Holiday Season

What is sangha? What is a sangha and how can we bring this element into kids’ yoga classes? Sangha is a community, specifically a spiritual community. The term began in the Buddhist tradition to refer to monastic communities and it is also used to refer to communities of yoga practitioners. Since kids classes are so social and interactive they are the perfect place to create a sangha. It’s easy to include kids from all cultural and religious backgrounds if you focus on the universal aspects of the holiday season.

         

Some things to consider: Swami Satchidananda taught that ‘Truth is one, paths are many.”  During the holiday season, we can explore the common ground of various traditions. For example, in the months of November and December, the theme of light prevails in holidays around the world.

Before I get into the details of how to incorporate this in class, it is essential to think of the demographics of your class.  In a diverse setting with kids from different backgrounds, kids can share some aspects of their own tradition with the group. In a setting where most or all of the kids have similar backgrounds, then it can either be a time of linking that common ground to yoga or of diving deeper into the shared link between their tradition and those of others. You might not know kids’ backgrounds, so you will have to ask the week before what kinds of holidays kids celebrate in December before using holidays and sangha as a topic.

 

Unity through diversity: As kids get to know each other through their similarities and differences, it is helpful to emphasize that sangha is inclusive and serves to expand both the individual mind and the community. In other words, it’s very possible for kids to first hear about sangha and think of some type of clique that only includes a certain type of person. Explain that a sangha is a group of people that practices yoga and agrees to support one another by finding a common ground, even when it seems there are more differences than similarities.

This brings us back to the theme of light: how can we use this idea to help kids realize that sameness is not necessarily better, and that variety can make for a stronger sangha? Here is where we can touch upon the true meaning of namaste and one of my favorite kids’ yoga songs, My Little Light by Kidding Around Yoga. Other songs you might include: This Little Light of Mine, The Light in You, or any other song that you feel will suit your group! Have a short chat about light and what it makes them think of or how it makes them feel. Depending on your group, this can bring up a lot of different ideas, so be open and don’t structure the conversation too much. After a bit, bring the discussion around to how light is related to yoga and the idea of namaste.

Light it up! Once the idea is introduced, here is crafty activity for showing things can look different even though the same light is illuminating them. Get ready to make paper lanterns for a yoga game! If class time is short, you can make them ahead of class for kids to choose and use. For older kids, origami lanterns are a fun, visual way to celebrate unity through diversity. An easier version of this is to make paper bag lanterns. You’ll need a single light to illuminate the lanterns. A flashlight is an easy light source to bring to class; other options include a lamp with the shade removed or an artificial candle. The light you choose should fit with the size of the lanterns you plan to use.

First, arrange the kids in a circle with the light source in the center if possible. If it’s easier to have the light source at the front of the room and the kids all lined up facing it, that’s also fine. Each kid has their lantern to place on the light. Here’s where it gets physical (I know, you probably were wondering, “But where are the postures? And all the fun games where kids can use their bodies and do yoga yoga?”).

Next, turn out the lights so the lanterns can really show up. Turn on some music that fits the theme, such as the songs mentioned above. As the music plays, designate one kid to go first. They start by getting into CRAB pose and putting their lantern on their belly as they crabwalk to the light. Then they place their lantern on the light for three seconds (they count silently, or the whole class counts to three. The latter is usually a more popular option!). Then they come back to the group and choose the next kid, and so on until everyone has had a turn.

Some variations:

  1. Instead of crab walking to the light, designate another way to get there such as walking in cat pose, a walking version of warrior 2, or hopping on one foot
  2. For larger classes, you can have them go in pairs
  3. Do the activity at the end of class during the closing circle and pass a flashlight around for kids to light up their lantern.

 

Keep the sangha alive I recently read an article about sanghas by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk. He mentions that he includes non-humans in a sangha (a meditation cushion, a tree, a rock). I love this idea as young kids are very imaginative and naturally give life to objects around them. This idea also paves the way for kids to find their sangha wherever they are and to practice at home.

The lanterns from the activity described here can become part of the sangha as they sit perched around the room or when kids bring them home. Remind kids that any objects that bring them peace or remind them of that common light in everyone can be part of their sangha. You can even bring this into the Secret Garden (guided meditation) portion of the class as you help them picture their garden and all the things about it that help them relax.

These are just some basic ideas to warm the kids up to the idea of sangha before they get more into how sangha helps them take actions and make choices in the group and in the community beyond yoga class (stay tuned for more)!

Kid Santa!

One of the best ways to teach kids kindness and to encourage a grateful spirit during the winter holidays is to let them give. Encourage your kids to share! Or better yet, invite them to play Santa for kids who may otherwise not get a visit from the jolly old man.

Trust your kid

Trust that your kid knows how to think like a kid and knows what other kids would want. Let them choose what to get, within budget of course. If it doesn’t seem like something that makes a good gift, get them thinking by asking the following questions:

  • What does this gift do? How can it make the recipient’s life better?
  • How do you think they will feel when they open this gift?
  • Why did you choose this gift?

Research places together that welcome gifts from Santa

There are wonderful organizations who take unopened gifts, such as the USMC’s Toys for Tots. There are other organizations who work directly with children in the community. Not only is this a good exercise in learning about your local demographics, it’s an opportunity for your child to see how he/she can help in a way that feels tangible. It also is a reminder that suffering isn’t something that happens from afar-it happens close.

Play Secret Santa

Get everybody in your playgroup, neighborhood, or school together to play Secret Santa. Rather than purchasing gifts though, encourage the kids to make something or write a letter. Then, meet together for food and fun to exchange the gifts. Each kid essentially gets to play Santa. Oh what fun! Gifts don’t have to be super fancy or cost any money. After all, the point is to learn how to think about others, share, and give from the heart.

Drop off essentials

Play Santa almost for real, by dressing up and creating care baskets. In the baskets, make sure to include essential items such as toiletries, snacks/food (preferably non-allergenic), socks, and something special, like a gift card to a store. Drop off these care packages to nursing homes, apartment complexes, daycares, children’s homes, or anywhere people might not always get gifts or visitors. Maybe even have your child write a letter or draw a picture that would lift up others.

Think of all the ways that your child could recreate the magic that is Santa, or rather, the spirit of Santa in their ability to give and share kindness. Watch as your child comes up with unique ideas and as their heart, and your heart, just swells in kindness and compassion. Both are worthy gifts year round!

Yoga and the Bad Day

I picked up a children’s book before I even had children called Alicia Has a Bad Day by Lisa Jahn-Clough. I bought it because my sister’s name is Alicia. And she had many a bad day when we were growing up. It’s one of those times in life, where you look up to see if there’s a camera on you. How did someone know?

It’s a cute book. Goodreads gives it a 3.46, but friends, it’s absolutely adorable. I’ve read it to my kids, and my three-year-old especially got real hung up on the name of Alicia’s dog, Neptune. It became a game for us, and a discussion point.

When you think about using this book to form a class outline for kids’ yoga, I believe the book offers a couple of really good options.

The heart of the story is the word ‘lugubrious’. It’s my favorite part of the book: the idea of teaching a young mind a big word for a rather normal, universal, every day feeling. Lugubrious sounds amazing and dark and BIG. Yoga and words most definitely go together so this little book offers a lovely starting point for a discussion of words and emotions, and labeling our feelings appropriately so that we can communicate with each other effectively. Tie in a creative mini story with yoga poses paired to certain words for emotions, and BAM, your littles yoga class has a framework. An example of pairing an emotion to a yoga pose could be the lion with anger. Or forward fold with being tired, happy baby with feelings of excitement.

Pranayama instruction and practice fits in as well. Nothing works better to diffuse a bad mood like the art of breath.

I also see the conversation about how Alicia deals with her bad day and bad feelings as an important one. It’s definitely an opening for a guided meditation. What decisions can we make when we know we are in a bad mood? Where can we go for help? Does quiet help a bad mood, or loud noises and lots of chaos? The meditation time can offer words of positivity when we have negative thoughts and feelings. Seriously, I use this every day in my own life, and I believe wholeheartedly that a large portion of developing a balanced yoga practice is the language we use inside of our minds. Self-worth, hope, perseverance, love, choice. These words should be tied into the end of class savasana.

Have you heard of mood meters? This would be a very appropriate craft to offer at the end. You could even have them pick a spot on the mood meter where lugubrious would fit, and add the word onto their meter!

Get the book, and be inspired. The class will come together.