Hibernation Hatha

The darker days and colder temperatures of winter make us all want to hibernate, right? Well, maybe. Sometimes when kids have less outdoor time during the winter months, they get restless! One way to deal with this is to let them get their energy out so they are ready for their Secret Garden (which we can call our Hibernation Haven/Cave/Station). Another way is to create a relaxing ambience since kids often respond so well to their environment: set the lights low or bring in artificial candles, nightlights, paper lanterns, or glow-in-the dark star stickers to light up the room.

But wait! If they aren’t quite ready to plop down and unwind, a little pre-hibernation prep is in order. Explain to your yogis that some animals fatten up by eating a lot before winter comes. Then play a version of Toe-ga with pom-poms  or some other small objects to represent nuts. Put on music and, using only your toes, see who brings the most nuts back to their cave (yoga mat). A variation on this activity can be done with kids walking around in downward dog and picking up the ‘nuts’ with one hand or toes. It makes for an even more challenging game!

Are they still bouncing off the walls? Ask them if they know what some animals do instead of hibernate. If you live in a place where there are particular animals that leave or nest there for the winter, you can use this as a clue. If they don’t know the word migrate, this is a great opportunity to teach it. Let them move across the floor in groups as birds, butterflies, whales, or some other animal that migrates; use traditional yoga poses or make up poses or moves for each animal. Dance teacher Kate Kuper has created a sweet little song for kids to practice ‘flying’ across the floor as birds. It’s a great way to teach spatial awareness and turn-taking. She doesn’t mention migration in it, but you can adapt it to the theme.

Are we ready to relax in our hibernation stations yet? Or are there some wiggles left in your yogis? The next idea you can spring on them is this: what are some ways to deal with the cold (besides fattening up, as mentioned above)? Move around to warm up! Curl up, seek shelter, blow into your hands. Maybe start with a dynamic song to help them get their body heat up. Some Kidding Around Yoga favorites of mine are: Every Little Cell, Here Comes a Little Yogi, and Yoga Slide, but any song that fits the mood should be good, even if you just do a game of Freeze Dance. Tell them that some animals adapt to winter rather than hibernate or migrate. Many adapt by growing thicker fur, seek shelter, or stay active; humans are animals too! They can use physical activity to stay warm in cold weather, too.

Next, a little hand-warming pranayama helps to wind down the mood. It’s simple: deep breath in followed by a slow exhale into cupped palms. Repeat a few times, then prepare for a short huddle. Do your yogis know about how penguins huddle together for heat? Do a group huddle, perhaps with each kid in a standing pose to add a little challenge and focus. Emphasize respect and gentle contact to prevent kids from crashing against one another or knocking others down. In light of that, it might not be the best activity for very young kids – use your judgement on that.

Finally, when all are ready to enter their Hibernation Haven (or cave, or station), have them lie down and imagine their warm, cozy lair where they can rest from the bright chaos of their day. Make it your own as you talk them through it…or rather, let them make it their own as they imagine what is most relaxing and restful for themselves. When they come out of hibernation, it might be nice to add Bear Breath; I use the guidance for this pranayama from Yoga Pretzels (cards) by Tara Guber and Leah Kalish.

If you’re able to, supplement the class with a book on hibernation and winter. I know that I love to curl up with a book on dark, cold winter days. And of course, as a yoga teacher, please remember to give yourself a moment to ‘hibernate’ on your own, even if it’s just a moment to rest, close your eyes, and let go of all effort from your body and mind. You deserve it – teaching kids yoga takes a lot of attention and vivacity!

A Sense of Belonging

A few years ago, I participated in a course called “The Happiness Program.” One of the activities we did was to go to every member of the group, look them in the eyes and say, “I belong to you.” The whole situation brought out awkwardness, shy smiles, and some giggles. After all, what does that really mean to ‘belong’ to everyone? At first it might sound like surrendering your power to other people, but as the course progressed, it became more clear that it was about acknowledging how profound power can be shared and activated in a communal way.

In a kids’ yoga class, I find it best to rephrase this idea.  In the age of smartphones, I thought it would be appropriate to take the word ‘selfie’ and recast it as the acronym S.E.L.F.I.E. and break it down to some facets of sangha: Sharing, Energy, Learning, Feelings, Inspiration, and Entertainment. How does this define a sense of belonging? All these aspects of sangha reflect how the yoga class is not just for isolated individuals, but for a group of kids that ‘belong’ to that class each time they come together.

Depending on your class and your own yoga practice, you might find your own creative ways to break down the concepts of S.E.L.F.I.E. Feel free to modify some of the ideas I mention here. All the ideas support one another. For instance, Sharing involves using your Energy perhaps to Inspire or Entertain. Sharing can also be about helping others in their own Learning. Working with Feelings can release stuck Energy or even Inspire someone to take action to Learn or Share something with a friend.

If you prefer not to mention smartphones in class, just use a few of the concepts and create your own acronym! Your yogis might be too young to have or care about smartphones; on the other hand, if they are older kids (and especially if they are teens), they probably know a lot about smartphones and selfies.  However you combine these concepts and put them into context, they are all about yoga as a communal, rather than a solitary practice. Here I’ll share just a few ways to combine these ideas in pairs.

Sharing and Learning: What better way for yogis to learn than by sharing what they know? Let them work in pairs or small groups so they can take turns leading one another in their own unique version of Sun Salutations. If they’re fairly new to yoga, wait a few classes until they are comfortable with the elements of a sun salutation. Otherwise, give them some time for free practice so they can create their own sequence, then allow enough time afterwards for each person in the pairs or groups to lead their fellow yogis.

For younger yogis, I find that partner poses work best to explore the concept of learning through sharing; this way, they can focus on one or a few poses, rather than a complicated sequence. If the kids are familiar with some kid-friendly partner poses, I let them choose. Otherwise, I usually use yoga cards that illustrate partner poses; pair the kids up and either show the entire class one card so everyone can do the pose at the same time, or pick out 3-5 cards to circulate around the class so that each pair has a chance to try each one.

Energy and Feelings:  A lot of people think of yoga as a tool for relaxation, but it can also be a tool to energize a tired body and mind. Yoga can also be a way to navigate the spectrum of human emotion as it affects a person’s energy. Kids know that when you’re sad, you’re usually tired and when you’re angry or excited, you seem to have more energy. The challenge is to help them identify these feelings or energetic states, then manage them in a constructive way.

Some of my favorite ways to help young yogis work with their emotions and energy are by adding these elements to the practice: sun salutations, pranayama, and laughing yoga. Sun salutations are not only a great warm up to use at the beginning of class, but also a great way to lift up tired yogis. Younger yogis especially love going a little faster with each round of sun salutation! The activity above also energizes a class as yogis talk and guide each other their own unique salutation.

Pranayama practiced can be included during the sun salutation if the kids know how to use ujjayi breath. Otherwise, there are so many creative ways to bring pranayama into the class. What does pranayama mean? And what does it have to do with emotions, energy, and sangha? You might know that the breath is linked to the mind and emotions; we can manage emotions and energy by changing our breathing and this can help kids relate to one another with clear minds and calm attitudes. A simple example: imagine a time when you were angry. Was it a time that it would have been easy to be friendly or to make a good decision? Probably not! The next time you find yourself in a similar situation, try some of these breathing techniques so that your anger or frustration don’t make you forget to be kind and gentle with others.

Inspiration and Entertainment: When I myself was just a teen, I found myself in a yoga class where the teacher led us into Scorpion pose (Vrishchikasana). My knees began to bend as I lowered my feet towards my head. The teacher came over and slowly guided my feet toward my head until soles rested on crown. What a feeling! When I was steady, he looked up at the others who stood watching and said in a half-joking tone, “Come on, let’s all work on it. Yoga is not a spectator sport!”

While some might be inspired by another student achieving a difficult pose, another might feel intimidated or discouraged. If you have the time and the means, allow for a yoga photo day so that your yogis get some time to take photos of each other doing favorite poses. If no cameras or phones are available to do this, allow them to draw the poses by hand or let them find images of yoga poses online or in magazines.  It could be a posture that they simply enjoy, or one that they have worked on and are proud to be able to do; they could also choose poses they want to do but struggle with, or even poses that they dislike but want to try anyway. Find a way to display the photos, on a wall if they are printed or online if they are digital. Then go around the circle at the end of class and let students mention a pose that inspires them. Keep the photos on display for weeks or months if you can and refer back to them from time to time to help the kids reflect on whether or not their ‘pose of inspiration’ changes over time.

A more appropriate activity for young yogis involves sharing stories. Young children need inspiration from their peers as well as their mentors, role models and teachers; they also thrive on entertainment to keep that inspiration alive. Just as kids’ yoga has been on the rise, kids’ yoga literature has been riding that same wave. There are now many inspiring and entertaining yoga books for young people. If you have access to some, allow for time in class for yogis to form small groups and read the books to one another. At the end of class, each one can share something from the book that inspired them. Alternatively, reserve some class time for each yogi to create their own BLISS, a short yoga story that they tell with postures to accompany.

Interaction: If there’s one thing that I both enjoy and lament about yoga for adults is that it can be so solitary that it is often isolating. People show up to class, roll out their mats, silently follow the teacher’s guidance, then pack up and leave, often without saying much or making eye contact with anyone else. Sometimes that’s what I look forward to, while other times it feels lonely. Teaching kids yoga has inspired me to reflect on how sangha can be spontaneous, fun, and creative! I owe so many teaching ideas to kids I’ve taught–they aren’t just my yoga students, but I also belong to them as their teacher!

 

 

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.

 

 

Sound: More Than Meets the Ear

When you hear a bell ringing, you are listening to energy making a journey. -Sarah Schain

Sound is an important part of the human experience. Just think about how music makes you feel! Songs, their melodies and rhythm, their patterns and harmonies can make us get up and dance joyfully or sit quietly and feel pain.

An article by Sarah Schain describes sound like this: “Everything that exists in the universe is energy.  We are all forms of energy. Sound is created by “sound energy” or additionally thought of as “mechanical energy”.  The thoughts and feelings we have vibrate at specific frequencies.  Frequencies can best be thought of in terms of musical notes. So, simply speaking; we are each individual energy forms vibrating at various and uniquely personalized frequencies.  Imagine that the feeling of happiness vibrates at a higher frequency than the feeling of sadness.  Envision each note on a piano scale correlating with a different feeling…..  You could answer the question “How are you feeling?” with a musical tune instead of a word! ”

As far back as the 17th century, scientists noticed that objects tend to begin synchronistic movements based on sound. Two pendulums placed next to each other eventually start swinging at the same tempo. Don’t believe me? Check out this video of 32 pendulums syncing up all on their own. Amazing, right?

So obviously sound waves have power. And water is an ideal carrier of sound vibrations. When you strike a chime or a gong, the air surrounding the chime also vibrates. The vibrations  spread quickly through our bodies, which are more than 80% water and this results in a very delicate massage of internal organs and even cells. Your body is literally bathed in the sound waves.

Harness that power, that universal energy, and use it to create an experience that will resonate with your kids long after the sound disappears.

  • Tibetan singing bowls are said to recreate the universal original harmonic frequency and stimulate the body to rediscover its own organic vibration. When exposed to the powerful vibrations of a singing bowl, the body is able to retune itself to its original, healthy frequency. This makes us feel more settled and calm. Tibetan singing bowls are easily purchased online and come in a variety of sizes and corresponding tones. You can also purchase singing bowl songs to use in class. Invite children to listen for the sound that seems furthest away and follow that tone until it disappears. When their chosen sound is gone, they choose another tone to follow. This keeps them focused, with their thoughts filtered out by the sound. Play the bowls (or the recorded bowl sounds) fairly loudly to recreate the strong vibrations. You can even place the bowls and the children’s bellies when you play them for an immediate recognition of the vibrations.
  • If you have access to a gong, your kids are in for a beautiful, relaxing treat. There’s something magical about a gong’s vibrations that just wash over and through your body. Have children come into Corpse Pose (simply lying flat on their backs, eyes closed) and begin to gently play the gong. At first, the sound may be overwhelming or strange to them. But eventually, the vibrations help the children calm down and even drift to sleep. If you don’t have a gong, you can find gong sounds on YouTube. Like the Tibetan singing bowls, you’ll want the volume to be fairly loud to create strong sound waves.
  • Try a walking meditation with little jingle bells! Give each child a jingle bell (or 2 if you have enough) to hold with their “monkey toes”. Then, very slowly, begin to walk. You want to be so careful, so mindful and smooth, that you don’t hear any jingles at all. I like to tell my kids to pretend they are walking in slow-motion on the moon. Make it a partner activity by having one child walk silently with a bell to their partner across the room. When they arrive, they jingle the bell and pass it to their partner to walk back without noise.
  • A great way to practice mindful listening is to use tingsha bells18402888735_434c64bd9a_z. Tingsha bells are like tiny cymbals joined by a leather strap that, when struck, produce a lovely lingering tone. Have children sit up tall on the floor (or in their chairs if practicing at school), eyes closed, palms up on their laps. Tell them their palms are going to act as extra ears, sensitive to sound waves (a science lesson, too!). Ring the tingsha once and as long as they hear the sound, their palms remain up. When they no longer hear the tone, they turn their palms down. Try this a couple of times. Then, you can use it to quiet the kids throughout the school day. When they hear the chime, they turn on their super-sensitive ears and listen for the end of the chime. Don’t have a tingsha bell? Any chime or bell can work.

What Kind of Garden Do You Want to Grow?

When I go into my kid’s yoga class, I tell them meditating is the most important thing they will ever learn in their whole life.  Yoga makes our bodies strong and also our minds.  We work on the muscles through the poses and I ask them to show me their muscles.

“But what about this muscle that lives inside our head?”  I point to my head and ask, “What is this called?”

“OUR BRAIN!”  they shout out.

“Do you think this muscle that lives inside our heads is important?” 

“YES”

“Can your body live without your brain?” 

“No.”

“Can your brain live without your body?” 

“No, then you would just be a head” one kid said. “Wouldn’t that be weird?”  

“Do you know how we can make our brain muscle stronger? Our brain lifts weights through sitting still and being quiet.” 

They looked confused.  I put my hand on my forehead and say, “This part of our brain is…repeat after me…the PRE…Frontal…Cortex.”  They repeat it.  “This part of our brain is responsible for making us kind, more focused, this is where love comes from and being rational. Do you know what rational means?” 

They say “NO!” (of course) 

“Rational means the opposite of emotional.”

I go on to repeat things that I have heard my kids in Title One schools say that are emotional and the opposite of rational. They say things like, stop touching me, get your hands off of me, stop playing, don’t make me come over there.    (Now mind you, my Title One school kids live in the toughest neighborhoods in St Pete, FL.  There are fights constantly, gangs, drug dealers, etc. in their neighborhoods.)  This parroting of lines comes directly from their immediate surroundings.  They all laugh because they know they have all said these things.

I put my hand on the back of my head just above my neck and say, “The emotional part of our brain lives back here.”  I bring my hand back onto my forehead.  “This prefrontal cortex helps us to focus and stay calm and be kind and helps us make good choices.”  

I ask, “Do you make good choices when you are mad?”

“NO.”  

“So we make this part of our brain stronger through meditating.  It makes this part of your brain bigger and stronger so it beats out the emotional part of our brain and you can make better choices.  Ok so now I will teach you one way to meditate.”

We touch our fingers to our thumbs and repeat these words PEACE BEGINS WITH ME.  We say it a couple of times

Then I stop to ask everyone, “What do you get when you plant a strawberry seed?” 

“Strawberries!” 

“What do you get when you plant a blueberry seed?” 

“Blueberries!” 

“So if you say I hate myself, I am ugly, fat or stupid, what kind of seeds do you plant in your mind?” 

“Hateful.” 

“Ok so if you plant the seeds of repeating PEACE BEGINS WITH ME over and over again what kind of mind do you get?”

“PEACEFUL!”

“This is how we make our brains stronger! This is how we learn to make ourselves calm.  Do you think you make good choices when you’re calm?”

“YES!”

“Ok so let’s do it! Let’s learn how to make our minds calm.”

We repeat PEACE BEGINS WITH ME.  We say it all together out loud, then whisper and then silently in our minds.  I leave them to meditate as long as they can.  While they are still silent I ask them to listen to me while I ask them a few more questions.

“Now how does your mind feel?”

“Calm, peaceful, happy, sleepy.” 

“Is there any anger in there?” 

Most say “NO” (and if they say yes then I tell them they need to meditate longer! LOL.) 

“If you did this every day, how do you think your mind would feel?  What kind of garden do you want to grow in your mind?”

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!

Winter Obstacle Course

The Holiday Season is almost here! I previously did a Halloween obstacle course class that my classes adored! It was challenging, fun, and relevant to yoga. These are my favorite ideas for a Winter & Holiday themed obstacle course! Feel free to print them out, glue them onto cardboard paper, and laminate them for easier use!

Polar Bear Crawl: Walk in your Downward Dog like an Arctic polar bear!1

Snowflake Breathing: Practice snowflake breathing with pretend snowflakes. Try to breathe all the snowflakes into a bucket!

2

 Snow Angels: Spread your arms and legs out wide and make a snow angel with your body!

 

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 Balance Snowball: Put a white pom pom ball on a spoon. See if you can balance the snowball on the spoon from one end of a yoga strap to the other!

4

Ice Skating: Move and slide your feet across the floor like an ice skater on felt pieces. See if you can be strong and still in Dancer’s pose!

5

 Hot Chocolate Breathing: Holding a paper cup, pretend like you have steaming hot chocolate in it. Breathe in the nice chocolate smell and breathe out to cool your hot chocolate down.

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Ski Jump: The ski jumper makes turns around yoga blocks and lands in chair pose. 7

 Snowy Tree: Balance a foam snowflake on top of your head while balancing in tree pose.

 

 8

Holiday Lights Meditation: Focus on a tea light candle and practice deep breathing.9

 Sledding: Pretend to go sledding in your seated forward fold. Watch out for those bumps!

 

 10

Freezing Toega: Pick up the little snowballs with your toes and put them on a plate!11

 Penguin Waddle: Walk slowly and waddle across a yoga strap like a penguin!12

I hope you enjoy this obstacle course with your family and students!