It seems so appropriate that, according to yogic philosophy, ha is the sound of the heart chakra. I like to think of ha as the sound of an exhale plus voice; it is also the sound of laughter!
You can use variations of ha, he, hee, ho, hu. This is basically a way to practice vowel sounds while playing with laughing yoga-I call them vowel chuckles. Create a gesture for each of the five vowel chuckles, have the kids sit in a circle and choose a leader. The leader cycles through all the vowel chuckles, going in any order they choose and all others must pay attention and follow. Change leaders and continue until everyone has had a chance to lead. Of course, this is just one laughing yoga activity. There are so many more, too many to include here. Be creative, experiment, and keep bringing it back to the theme of opening the heart.
Laughing yoga is just one way for kids to experience the connection between breath, emotion, and the heart. Poses are also important in opening this area of the body. In teaching heart openers it is important to have a holistic approach and help kids to connect to what the rest of the body is doing, too. For instance, when teaching BRIDGE pose, ask the kids to press down into the ground with their arms and hands and lift their bellies up to the sky. These little actions help the opening of the chest. When teaching CROCODILE pose (a.k.a FLYING pose), focus on lengthening forward through the top of the head and back through the toes so that they stretch the front of the body and leave more room for an open chest. In other words, we teach kids to create length and openness by stretching their body in opposite directions. It helps to use imagery, such as imagining roots coming out of the part of their bodies touching the ground while imagining branches growing up out of the parts stretching up toward the sky. Another way to add imagination to rooting downward is to imagine that they are boats dropping an anchor; of course, this works particularly well with BOAT pose, which is best done with a broad, open heart area, even though it isn’t always considered a heart opener.
Another important part of heart opening is knowing (and noticing) the opening of the heart is not only on the front of the body, but also on the back. In CAT pose, kids push down into the ground with flat, open hands and this action helps the upper back (‘back’ of the heart, the space between the shoulder blades) to open up. A similar principle works in PLANK pose to keep the space between the shoulder blades open. To connect this to the breath, ask the kids to say ha on each exhale so that they really release all the air from their lungs; this breathing pattern can be used in the poses in the previous paragraph as well and it is a great way to calm the system, open the lungs, and relax the jaws and shoulders which in turn help the heart area to open up.
Let’s say you have a class of seasoned little yogis. They already know some heart openers, or maybe you are revisiting the theme of heart openers. I love to use yoga cards to review poses and give kids a chance to teach each other. One favorite deck of mine is called The Kids’ Yoga Deck: 50 Poses and Games. The yellow cards in the deck provide a series of partner poses that are excellent heart openers that work on both the chest and the upper back. Kids can work with a partner, or one kid can teach and lead the whole class. My other favorite deck is Yoga Pretzels: 50 Fun Yoga Activities for Kids and Grownups. This deck provides a similar set of partner poses with step-by-step instructions, which is good for older kids who can be somewhat more autonomous in learning the poses.
One particular card from the Yoga Pretzels deck provides an activity called Community Circle that is a good way to bring the group together in a collaborative, reflective way. Since the hands are an extension of the heart and all that it signifies-giving, receiving, and embracing-it is a variation of a game I used to play as a kid we called Electricity. The kids sit in a circle, holding hands. One is designated to begin and they squeeze the hand of the person next to them and that person squeezes the person’s hand next to them until the squeeze goes all the way around the circle. It can go in either direction, but specify in the beginning so they don’t get confused. If you want to add more emphasis to qualities of the heart, such as love, kindness, or caring, ask the kids to each say one word that makes them think of the heart as they pass the squeeze. If they seems stumped, provide some suggestions, or let others provide them first.
One classic game that can be modified to fit the theme of opening the heart and practicing trust is Pin the Heart on the Dancer. Bring a blindfold and something shaped like a heart. It can differ from Pin the Tail on the Donkey in that all kids can participate at the same time. Secretly assign each kid a pose; one of them must do DANCER pose and that is the one that the heart must be “pinned” on (use tape of course, not a pin!). The others wait until the kid with the heart puts the blindfold on. Then you say “go,” and all the other kids get into their pose and the blindfolded kid (BK) walks around. The other kids can say “warm” if the BK gets close to the dancer or “cold” if the BK is far. When they think they are near the dancer, the BK sticks the heart on the dancer. To keep the game from going on too long, you can set a time limit. When there is ten seconds left, begin counting down to zero. Save time for everyone to have a turn. This works best with smaller classes.
Finally, at the very end of the class, you can teach ‘hug-asana:’ Each kid gives themselves a hug, opening up the back of their heart area as they do in poses such as CAT and PLANK. This is a perfect time to add a four-word affirmation we often use, such as peace begins with me, yoga helps me relax, or any other one you want to create! Then they can go around and shake hands or high-five three other students as a hands-on way of saying ‘Namaste!’