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.

Beanie Baby Yoga

9204994532_7fecca2116_zRemember the Beanie Baby craze in the early 90s? Chances are that yes, you not only remember the craze, but you are still holding onto your favorite Beanie – or two- or three. Is you Prance the Cat collecting dust on a shelf? Or is Seaweed the Otter stuck in a box somewhere? Well, dust them off and free them from the attic and let’s go to Yoga class!  Well, maybe not YOUR Yoga class – you may get a few strange looks if your Bongo the Monkey is in tow during your hot Yoga session – but Beanie Babies are more than welcome in a kids’ Yoga class! Because of their size and ability to stay put, they are the perfect prop for several different children’s Yoga activities.

Balance and Mindfulness:

  • Place a yoga strap along a mat. The kids place a Beanie on their heads and walk across the strap, or “balance beam’, while keeping the Beanie in place.
  • Choose a few balance asana Yoga cards (dancer, tree, boat, etc.), and place one at the top of each mat. Use a Tibetan bowl, Tingsha bells, or another type of chime to start them off.  Kids place a BB on their head and do the balance pose that’s pictured. When the chime sounds again, the kids, still wearing their Beanie on their heads, walk to the next mat to do that pose. Keep going until each child has had a chance to do every pose. This can facilitate an nice discussion about mindfulness and not rushing through poses.
  • Drishti Beanie – A drishti is a focal point, something to look at that doesn’t move. Use a Beanie as a focal point for balance poses. Place a Beanie in an area of the room where each child can clearly see it, about eye level. Explain the concept of drishti, and tell kids to look into the Beanie’s eyes as they come into their balance pose.9202172331_d8f9988e2f_z

Pranayama (breathing practices):

  • Beanie Belly Breaths: Have the kids lie down on their mats. Place a Beanie on each of their bellies. When they breathe in (through their noses) the BB rises, and when they breathe out, the BB goes back down. This is a great way to teach belly breathing – the visual of the Beanie rising and falling with their breath will stay with them, even when they’re not using their Beanie.

Games and Stories:

  • Hot Potato/Beanie: Stand in a circle. Kids pass the Beanie around when the music starts. When the music is paused, whoever has the BB does a Yoga pose of their choice, and then everyone tries that pose. No one is “out” in this version of the game.
  • Make up a silly story. Come with a bag full of Beanies and let each kids have a chance to pull one out, making a story up as you go – the sillier the better!


  • For the littler ones who can have trouble relaxing at the end of yoga class, let them cuddle with their Beanie. Have them show their Beanie how we relax and lie still.13093362565_2af7e67d39_z

Asanas (poses and postures):

  • Try to come up with ways to incorporate Beanies into some poses. Place Beanie on the TABLE, have a BB sit in your CHAIR or BOAT, take turns having your Beanie go under someone’s BRIDGE.
  • Use Beanies as visuals for animal poses. Line a few Beanies up for a brief flow of  poses. Have each child make up a pose that represents their Beanie.

Beanies can also be used to ease children’s anxiety. If a child is new to Yoga class,and maybe a little nervous or unsure, a BB can provide them with a little comfort. If you see someone struggling, tell them that your Beanie is a little nervous and needs a friend to do Yoga with, and ask them if they’ll take care of your Beanie during class.

See – all those Beanie Babies can serve a great purpose! Now aren’t you glad you have so many?

P.S. If you don’t have hundreds of Beanies stashed somewhere, check local thrift shops and Amazon – or ask your friends to dig some up for you!






Savasana – Floating on a Cloud

13093362565_2af7e67d39_zAt the end of each of my Yoga classes (both kids and adults), I invite my students to tune out the noise from the rest of the world, to pull the energy they’ve scattered to everyone else back to themselves, find a comfortable lying position, and just rest. This sacred time, usually only 8-10 minutes is called Savasana (translated from Sanskrit, “corpse pose”) and it is the most important part of a Yoga practice. After a good Yoga session, one with strengthening, stretching, breathing, and being fully aware and appreciative of our bodies, our physical body is ready to be still. And once the body is still, the mind gets to enjoy stillness as well.

Although it sounds easy enough to just kick back and take a break, our minds often have difficulty shutting down. There is always chatter going on in there – what is called the “monkey mind” – and it can be challenging to just settle. We often think we know what “silence” is. Even when it is quiet all around you, no noises or interruptions, that is not true silence. The silence of Savasana is a silence that comes from the inside – it doesn’t mean there isn’t noise around you, it means your mind isn’t creating the internal racket of to-do lists, song lyrics, grocery lists, worries, and so on. True silence means you are able to just be, mind quiet and body still.image

This is a tough idea for adults to understand, and even tougher to do! Kids are the same. They have worries and wishes, multiplication tables, friend problems, and a long long list of other thoughts parading around their minds all the time, too. This is exactly why Savasana is so very important to learn. I have found that for all ages, using guided imagery to encourage all the noise to quiet down is most effective. The following is a basic script I use to help my students settle into a safe, quiet space (both externally on their mats and internally in their minds). I call it “Floating on a Cloud” and I begin when everyone has found their perfect Savasana resting posture (usually on their backs). In a slow, soothing voice, read the following, adding pauses and other descriptions that you feel would assist your students in settling into stillness:

Concentrate on your breathing. Feel the cool air on the tip of your nose as you breathe in and follow that cool sensation behind your eyes, down your throat, and all the way into your belly. Now feel the warm on your upper lip as you breathe out. Each inhale makes your belly round, your tummy moving up. Each exhale your tummy moves down. Just feel your breath. In and out. Tummy up and down.

Now imagine that the Yoga mat you are resting on has become a perfectly fluffy white cloud. It cushions your body. It is so soft. It is a cloud made just for you. Can you feel how soft it is underneath you? Let you whole body sink into the white fluffy cloud.

Your legs let go of any wiggles as they relax and rest in the cloud. Your cloud just drifts across the calm sky. Let you neck and head relax and sink into your soft cloud pillow. Can you feel the warm breeze in your hair or on your face? Just rest on your cloud, drifting lazily in the sky. Softly breathing. There is nowhere else to be. You have nothing to do except feel your whole body sink into the soft, white cloud. Perfectly still. Perfectly safe. Peacefully resting.

Allow the class to remain in silent Savasana for at least 5-8 minimageutes. When it is time to come out of meditation, gently ask them to bring their awareness back to their breathing. Feel the cool on the inhale and the warmth on the exhale, but remain still. As their breath grows, energy builds in their body and they can begin wiggling their fingers and toes, opening their jaw wide for a yawn, and then slowly adding any movements that just sound yummy. Pretend to be a bear waking up from a long hibernation! But, even as they begin moving, remind them that their clouds are always there waiting for them, and they can visit their clouds whenever they need to, even in line at the grocery store or in bed if they are having trouble sleeping. They just need to feel themselves soften into their cloud, notice their breathing, and float.

Building Relationships Through Yoga Stories

I recently started teaching at in a pre-K program and was asked to lead the yoga before their naptime. The lights were dimmed and the cots were out with each child next to his/her cot with personal space; it was the perfect setting for yoga!25353026890_aca506369d_z

I decided to tell a yoga story with the characters being all the children in the class. I unintentionally arrived at the best method of building relationships with these new young students of mine. With the children scattered around the classroom, I simply let my eyes travel around the circle introducing a new student at a time into the story.

The most enjoyable stories are usually the ones created on the spot. So, my method is to look at a child and allow for my mind to simply choose a pose for this child. Sometimes my mind traces back to the child telling me about a favorite animal. Sometimes the child’s demeanor or appearance reminds me of a yoga pose. And at other times, I choose the pose based on what I think the child could use more of (such as strength or calmness).

Telling stories like this with new-to-me classes and students is so enjoyable and successful for me because I get to reveal myself as silly and knowledgeable at the same time. The children get to be IN the story, too, and so, by doing this, I invite them into the world I will be creating with them over the class session. Telling stories like this also reveals to me a lot about each student. I get to hear and see which poses the children enjoy and the ones they don’t.

Something that will also be revealed is how much the children as a group and particular children want to be involved in the story creation process. Personally, I make the call if the story is open for children to co-create with me. This decision is impacted by a lot of factors such as allotted time, age of the students, size of the group, ability to hear the students sharing (say, we are outside or there is a loud basketball game going on beyond the curtain that’s separating you from said game… yep, that’s happened9204694422_f816632241_z several times to me), and also, frankly, my mood on that given day. If I’m not feeling like getting interrupted continuously on that specific day, I will share that this story is one that’s just going to come from me. That said, if a child happens to share something, I’m not opposed to integrating it. I’m not a rigid teacher by any means.

Don’t think you are able to tell a story on the fly? Don’t fret! Often the sillier the story the better! Remember, my students in this example are four years old. I’ve told stories with all ages. Laughing wins over rational sense.

Sometimes the story is A FLOP. The students don’t laugh at all. They don’t do the poses as I am showing them to do them. They keeping talking over me. Those are usually the ones I learn the most from, so it was a success in a different way. Students of any age don’t often remember stories like that anyways, so no harm done.

I’ve been teaching children’s yoga for a while so I now have a huge ‘tool box’ of known real yoga poses as well as a collection of made up yoga poses. I also love telling yoga stories, so I have a lot of practice with them, too. Seriously, the only way to become good at telling stories on the fly is practice, practice, practice! And a lot of laughing along the way.

A super cool reason for telling stories on the fly is you can go in any direction with your 22502472508_5266617f9e_zstory! If you notice that day that the students need to be a bit kinder to each other, make the story about that. If it’s someone’s birthday, make this someone the main character! If it’s your very first class, make it a fun way for introducing the students to your class rules. The possibilities are seriously endless.

Inspiration for Yoga Stories:

  • Storybooks, whether yoga-based or not
  • Your students’ stories (about their days or from their imaginations)
  • Yoga sequences (you could make up a story along with Sun Salutations)

A great part of yoga stories is that they are an incredible means for a number of ends, such as:

  • developing camaraderie
  • strengthening creativity muscle (yours and your students)
  • teaching new poses
  • understanding sequencing of poses
  • learning children’s names
  • taking yourself less seriously!

Enjoy your stories on the fly! And for more story-telling inspiration, check out The Science of Storytelling.

The Science of Storytelling in Yoga

Since cave drawings first made an appearance some 27,000 years ago, humans’ brainshuman-725651_1280 have developed around storytelling. Telling stories makes up to 65% of our conversations. We are built to hear, remember, and share stories.

According to Jon Thomas’ The Art of Storytelling, sharing stories has big effects on the audience, both physically and mentally:

  • Stories create emotional connections to the information being shared, as well as between audience members and the storyteller. Sharing the experience of a story brings people together for the duration of the story, and rebuilds that connection each time the story is re-shared.
  • 70% of what we learn is through storytelling. Think about explaining a new Yoga pose to a child. Rather than just list off the anatomical features of the pose and a step-by-step checklist of how to do the pose, we share the new pose with a story. For example, teach up-dog and down-dog by having a dog stretch and talking about how your own dog wags his tail will help your children remember the dog poses.
  • Stories give personal meaning to facts. This is like trying to explain how Yoga got started. We could just practice the poses, but instead, explain that the Yogis thousands of years ago became stiff and uncomfortable just sitting and meditating all day. So they began to look around them and notice the animals’ movements. They tried stretching like the cow and noticed it felt good. Then they tried slithering like a snake and felt even better.  Now, the children can relate to the information more personally and will therefore remember it longer.
  • Storytelling initiates more brain activity. Of course, when hearing a story, the 25353026890_aca506369d_zlanguage processing parts of the brain activate. But, other areas of the brain react as if the listener were experiencing the events of the story, too.  So, the sensory cortex reacts when talking about how smooth a pebble was. And the motor cortex gets excited when it hears about a person swinging a bat – it thinks you are actually swinging the bat yourself! The best example of this is when hearing about food. When someone describes a delicious meal, your own mouth starts watering, even though the meal is nowhere near you – you can’t physically smell it or taste it. But your brain doesn’t know that!
  • Storytelling is a way to subtly and deeply affect people’s thoughts and opinions. Uri Hasson from Princeton University says, “When she spoke…[the listeners] understood her story, and their brains synchronized. When she had activity in her insula, an emotional brain region, the listeners’ did, too. When her frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs. By simply telling a story, the woman could plant ideas, thoughts, and emotions into the listeners’ brains.” Powerful, isn’t it?

All of this scientific evidence of storytelling’s power can be easily utilized in a child’s Yoga class. I have used several storytelling activities with my own classes of all ages. Here are my three favorites:

Harold and the Purple Crayon is a classic little book about a boy and his magic crayon. Whatever he draws comes to life. After reading it to my class, we try to make up our own story. If I’m inside, I bring paper (rolls of butcher paper or package wrap work great) and crayons. If we are outside, sidewalk chalk is perfect to use. Before class, I make up index cards of Yoga poses, writing the word and a stick drawing of the pose. For example, mountain, flower, tree, happy baby, etc. make great nouns for stories. Then, one by one, the kids come up, choose a card, draw the object on the paper or sidewalk, and everyone does the pose. The second tells the story from the beginning, choosing a card and then adding her pose to the list. By the tenth child, the story is pretty long, but the drawing helps them remember the order of events.

22698676857_dd0e6447ef_zGoing on a Camping Trip is an old roadtrip game. The first player says, “I’m going on a camping trip and I’m bringing a ____”. They fill in the blank with either a pose that starts with an ‘A’ (then ‘B’, ‘C’, etc) or with a pose that matches the first letter of their name. Everyone then does the pose. The next player repeats the line, “I’m going on a camping trip and I’m bringing a ______ (repeating the first player) and a ______ (their own pose)”. Again, everyone does the pose. This can get quite silly – which makes it more memorable. You’ll probably get a few new, creative poses out of it, too!

Finally, make a Tell Me A Story set. Using smooth river pebbles, paint pictures of things that have corresponding poses (like tree, boat, etc.) Place the pebbles in a bag, and as each person has a turn, they pull out a pebble, look at the word, add to the story, and stack the pebble. The story is as long as the pebbles can be stacked. You could do this with a Jenga game, too, writing the poses on the blocks and stacking them as you tell the story.



shamrockYAY! It’s finally March and one of my family’s favorite holidays is fast approaching—St. Patrick’s Day. Even if you’re not Irish, as my Dadai’ (DAH dee in Gaelic), or Da for short, always said, “Everyone’s a little bit Irish on St. Patrick’s Day!” And he’s right—just look around on St. Patrick’s Day and it seems almost everyone you see is wearing green. And, even better, everyone is extra happy! My family history is heavily steeped in Irish tradition, but even if yours is not it’s always fun to be ‘Irish’ for this one special day. Parades, parties, Irish dance and music—it’s a festive day to celebrate the patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick.

The Irish are great storytellers, and the stories (or tall tales) about St. Patrick have also been greatly embellished over the years. Much of the history of St. Patrick’s life has been focused around when he “drove the snakes out of Ireland”. Though, in truth, there were never any native snakes in Ireland, it has more to do with the cool climate and geography of Ireland than the story of Patrick’s missionary work in Ireland. But, the Irish love their stories and their traditions, and so do I! What better way to explain the absence of snakes in Ireland, than the extraordinary tale of St. Patrick? I invite you to share the story of St. Patrick with your family (or class) through this fun Yoga story:

“Long ago, on the Emerald Isle, an island of tall MOUNTAINS and green, green valleys, a young man came over from England by BOAT to help the people of Ireland. Patrick was once a shepherd, watching over his master’s flock of SHEEP (CAT/COW). Now, during this time, the people of Ireland had a very bad problem with SNAKES. There were SNAKES living in the TREES, and SNAKES high up on the MOUNTAINS, and SNAKES hiding under ROCKS (CHILD’S POSE) and even under TABLES! They had yoga teacher training for childrentried everything to scare them away—loud, barking DOGS (DOWNWARD-FACING DOG), high-kicking DONKEYS (EXTENDED LEG OR HOPPING IN DOWNWARD DOG), and fast-flying EAGLES—but nothing worked. St. Patrick’s idea was to bring PEACEFUL (PEACE BEGINS WITH ME – touch thumbs to each finger, index through pinkie, saying one word per touch: “Peace” “Begins” “With” “Me”) thoughts to the Irish people. So, he met with the shoe COBBLERS, and the WOODCHOPPERS, and the WARRIORS, and the DANCERS (KING DANCER), and all of the people in Ireland and taught them to have PEACEFUL (PEACE BEGINS WITH ME) thoughts. Before long the SNAKES climbed down from the MOUNTAINS and out of the TREES and left Ireland forever because it was too, too QUIET (RELAXATION POSE).”

After the children are all warmed up from the story, introduce a fun yoga game focusing on their good listening skills and the ability to stay calm and quiet while waiting their turn.

Leprechaun, Leprechaun Where’s Your Shamrock? (similar to “Doggy, Doggy, Where’s Your Bone“)

  • Set the game up by cutting out about 10-15 small shamrocks (or purchase some shamrock paper decorations from the dollar store to save yourself some time), and place them in the center of the Yoga circle or room.
  • On the back of each shamrock write the name of a yoga pose that the children will know already, and have the first LEPRECHAUN choose a shamrock/yoga pose to teach to the other students.
  • Next, everyone will sit down on their mats and the LEPRECHAUN will go to the front of the room and sit with his/her back to the other children, with their eyes closed.
  • Teacher then chooses a student to be IT. The student must quietly leave their space, and sneak up behind the LEPRECHAUN to pick up the shamrock (the one 15300482768_d4a8c0f62e_zused to teach the pose), return to their space, and hold it between their hands in ANJALI (Namaste) MUDRA. All the other children must also place their hands into ANJALI (Namaste) MUDRA.
  • When everyone is ready, have the children call out: “Leprechaun, Leprechaun where’s your shamrock?” The LEPRECHAUN can then turn around and has 3 (or more, you decide!) guesses to find out who has the shamrock.
  • The child with the shamrock is the next LEPRECHAUN, who gets to choose a new shamrock/yoga pose to teach/demonstrate, until everyone has had a chance to be the LEPRECHAUN.

Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year 2016 ichildrens yoga certification coursess on Monday, February 8th. It is the Year of the Monkey this year. Traditionally, the celebration honors deities and ancestors. But in a kids’ Yoga class, we can celebrate the Chinese New Year with a story!

One day 12 animals were having an argument. It was going to be the lunar (crescent moon) new year and each one of them wanted the year to be named after them. The rat (child), the ox (cow), the tiger (lion),the rabbit (malasana), the dragon (cat) the snake (low cobra) the horse (camel) the goat (dolphin), the monkey (monkey), the rooster (eagle), the dog (downward dog), and the pig (pigeon) could not agree who should have the honor of the lunar (other side crescent) year being named after them. So they went to the King (warrior 2). The King decided they should have a race across the river (seated forward fold). Now the rat (child) was not the strongest (motion for strong) or fastest swimmer (swimming motion) but he was the cleverest. He looked aroun13093254373_38a41cdf03_zd and saw the ox(cow) was the strongest swimmer. So he attached himself to his tail and just as the ox was reaching the finish line, he leapt across his head and landed on the other side. The King (warrior) laughed and said, “Better luck next time Ox. You may be the fastest swimmer but rat (child) is the winner (star). So the first year in the lunar calendar was named The Year of the Rat. Ox was second, so the next year was named after him. And then the King (warrior) named a year after each animal in the order that they finished the race. This year, 2016, is the year of the monkey!