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!