With a nod to the great Aretha Franklin, we all need a little respect (“just a little bit”): respect for others, for the earth, for ourselves. As a children’s yoga teacher, I have found that teaching about respect in its various forms takes more than a quick discussion. It is a continuous lesson taught by example, by anecdote, and by direct practice.
A respectful attitude begins with self-respect. When you don’t feel worthy, you often work to make others feel unworthy, too. If you don’t respect yourself, you begin to crave respect from others, demanding people to pay attention to you like a whiny child. Start building self-respect by honoring your body. Encourage children to notice how it feels when they are angry (Are your fists clenched? What do your eyebrows feel like? How is your jaw and heartbeat?). Do these feelings make you feel strong or healthy? Then ask how they feel when they are happy. Which body-response is healthier? The same discussion could be had regarding healthy and unhealthy foods. By regulating their responses to negative stimuli, children learn to respect their bodies.
Additionally, when a child respects her body, she will not let others disrespect her body and space. I like to teach this with Warrior 2. Have children come into Warrior 2 pose and direct them to be brave enough to fill up their space. Imagine your legs tearing the mat in half, your arms trying to touch opposite walls at the same time, your chest filling with energy and light, and your crown reaching for the sky. Look past your fingers at any obstacle in your way. You are big. You are strong. You are deserving of all the good things coming your way. Once the children have felt their power on both sides, have them come into any sitting posture. They then close their eyes and imagine themselves in Warrior 2 again, taking up their space. You’ll see their little hearts rise up, their shoulders spread out, and their spines grow. This is a feeling they can take with them into the classroom, at home, on the soccer field, and when standing up to people or situations that may be intimidating.
Once children begin to value themselves, their compassion can extend to others. It’s like the Golden Rule: treat all things as if they were you. Aadil Palkhivala explains it like this: What is missing in the modern world is the realization that everything and everybody has value, that each atom in the universe has a place. We must treat all with care. Each vibrant human being, each wild jumping salmon, each warm blanket, each ticking clock, each trembling green leaf has its purpose in the cosmic scheme. Even the man who has forgotten his smile, the fish that is left to rot, the tattered blanket that offers no warmth, the clock whose tick is spent, they all serve a purpose. No less a scientist than Carl Sagan once said, ‘If you remove one atom from the universe, the entire universe will collapse.’ He meant it as a scientific fact. Everything has its place.
Kidding Around Yoga has a song I use to encourage children to show respect for each other, their teacher, and their class-space. The song asks children to roll up their mats and put them away mindfully. Likewise, at the beginning of class, I have children mindfully remove their shoes and place them on the ShMat (Shoe Mat – just an old yoga mat that I use to keep the shoes tidy and organized). We close class with the word, “Namaste” which traditionally means the light and Divine in me bows to the light and Divine in you. But for the children, I ask them to stretch their arms out wide and gather up all the good things about them, all the things they like about themselves (smart, fast, funny, strong, kind, etc.) and smoosh them into a ball that they hold in their hands at their heart. Now look around the room – everyone in here has special qualities about themselves that they love. So when we say “Namaste” to each other, all of our good sees all of their good. Respect!
And finally, I teach children to respect our planet. We recycle (play a game of picking up recyclable objects with your toes and sort them). We celebrate nature (there are innumerable yoga poses that use animals and plants as models). I encourage you to follow this link to find other ways to be respectful of our world, yoga-style.
Aadhil Palkhivala sums up respect like this: Respect works wonders. Respect makes humanity blossom. Indeed, respect makes the humanity in us blossom. Only respect can bring real peace to the world.