This past summer I had the opportunity to teach sixty pre-teen girls and boys Yoga two hours a day for one week. Camp is held on a university campus and so we met in the huge gym for a shoes-on, no mats adventure. The first day was full of establishing norms, the kids getting to know me, and me getting to know them. Fortunately, I knew about fifteen of the kids already and I quickly picked up on which of the children were really excited and open to learning. Multiple times I shared with the group that there were going to be many ways of stepping up and being a helper and a leader during our time together.
The following day I brought four extra yoga mats with me and arranged them on both sides of my “X” (two mats in the center of the huge circle so that I could change orientations so all students could see my poses). The curious ones asked me why the extra mats, all the while knowing why! They were in for a treat. After our beginning of ShalOM’ing in (this is a Jewish Community Center camp!) we talked about how crazy our thoughts can get (I call it Koo Koo Head) and practiced a meditation to settle into our Yoga practice. We were then ready for a fun variation on Sun Salutations called Sargent Salutations. Almost everyone (which is sometimes what you get with pre-teens….!) stood in attention in Mountain Pose.
One of my many tricks for getting kids’ attention is “Show me your best Mountain Pose!” It’s straight-forward enough for every single child to come into it quickly and it’s great to offer simple feedback such as “feet together,” “relax your shoulders,” “look out above the horizon.” And, of course, Mountain Pose reminds and teaches the body, mind, and heart of grounding, stability, and strength, which everyone needs!
While in their best Mountain Poses, I invited four of the kids with their eyes looking at and their ears listening to me to the four extra mats in the middle. Many in the circle started to get what was happening. I was choosing specific children based not just on how they were executing the pose, but also how they were respecting me and each other. We then practiced Sargent Salutations all together, with the four leaders in the middle of the circle guiding the way. From there on out, I asked for their best Mountain Poses and chose more children to enter into the middle of the circle to practice their leadership.
Things got exciting when one of the children I asked to come into the center of the circle started making fun of another child and his experience with yoga. I say “exciting” because these are the best teachable moments to really hit a lesson home!
I allowed the group to take a short water and bathroom break and I asked the pre-teen (Jacob*) who was made fun of and the one who I had chosen as a leader (Clara*) to stay back. I asked Clara if she thought she was ready to be in the center of the circle and lead the other children. “What do you mean?” she asked. “Well, how do good leaders treat the people who are following?”I guided.
“They are nice, listen, and share with everyone. They help and care about the people,” she responded.
“Yes, you got it. So are you ready to be in the center of the circle?” I asked again.
“I didn’t mean to be mean. But sorry for saying that. I know you haven’t been doing yoga as long as me.” She said to Jacob with a genuineness of a great young yogini.
“Do I not get a turn in the middle?” she asked me with tears starting to well up.
I said, “You definitely get to be in the middle leading now! All leaders make mistakes. The best leaders admit their mistakes, learn from them, and then become even better leaders.”
“But you never make mistakes,” she retorted with a bit of a smirk. She got me, or so she thought.
“Oh, I have made plenty of mistakes and will keep making more. But I do my best to apologize, learn from the mistakes and not make the same ones twice,” I honestly replied.
“Leaders make mistakes and learn from them.” Clara shouted back. “That’s what makes them better at yoga and being a leader,” Jacob added.
Jacob had been listening to the conversation just as much as Clara had. Yeah, his yoga practice wasn’t “as good” as Clara’s because he hadn’t practiced as long. He didn’t have a mom like Clara’s who practiced Yoga at home with her. But Jacob saw his path for growing as a young yogi: trying something new, taking a risk, and maybe making a mistake or two would all help him with his Yoga practice. Clara’s teasing didn’t deter him. If anything, since Clara did make fun, he was brought into an important dialogue to learn what it means to be a leader and that we all make mistakes. It’s whether we learn from them or not that makes all the difference.
*Clara and Jacob are not the real names of the two pre-teens involved in this dialogue.