“Universal energy” is one of those concepts that has entered our modern life and culture under a foreign-sounding name: prana. When asked, “What is prana?”, an adult explanation might sound something like: “It is the energy that unites everything in the cosmos,” or, “It is the force that brings matter to life,” or even, “It is breath, or the life force.”
However, such explanations only go so far with little ones. Like true yogis, kids always learn best when they can experience something more directly. Since prana affects, and is affected by emotions, I find it useful to teach kids about prana through emotional explorations. In fact, managing emotions is one of the reasons many parents and teachers have begun turning to yoga to help kids with this important life skill! Think of emotions as having certain qualities; if you or your students know and like the movie Inside Out, you can use examples from it to help students think about the qualities of different emotions. Whether or not you use this film as a reference point, the activities that follow can be used with a wide range of ages.
To help kids access the different qualities of their emotions, we can engage them in their senses and creativity. Prana can be ‘invisible,’ but there can also be noticeable symbols for it. For instance, the color red might signify anger for many people; likewise, the color blue is often associated with sadness. Have a short discussion with your yogis about which emotions remind them of certain colors (work with 3 or 4 colors to keep it simple). This serves as preparation for an activity in emotional metaphors. Start by creating color stations around the room; I like using yoga dots in class, and in this case they can be a quick prop to use to set up the color stations. However, anything you have on hand that comes in different colors will also suffice. Use the stations to play a sort of freeze dance game. When the music is on, kids dance around the room; when the music is off, they find the nearest station and get into a pose that means happy, sad, angry, or afraid. You can designate specific poses that signify these emotions or students can improvise them on the spot, but they get to decide which emotion is connected to each color. It might help to think of emotions such as happiness and anger as high energy and other emotions such as sadness and fear as low energy. For example, high energy emotions can be expressed in expansive poses such as STAR, TRIANGLE, BOW, MOUNTAIN, and WARRIOR. Low energy emotions can be expressed in contracting poses like CHILD, BUTTERFLY (with the torso bending forward) or a SQUAT. These are my personal examples, but you can use your imagination to come up with poses that seem to connect to these emotions and make sure that they are poses your kids can do. Also, this might best be done with kids 6+ because younger kids might be flustered by having to remember an emotional association with both a color and a pose; modify the activity according to your students’ developmental stage.
To continue to experience prana through the senses, we can also help them to see how music and sound are essential tools for accessing the connection between body and emotions. Find music that conveys different emotions: one song or tune for sadness, one for happiness, one for anger, etc… Play each song for 15-20 seconds, allowing the kids to dance in a way that they think matches the music. If you don’t have a device to play music on, you can even get a pair of claves or some other hand-held percussion instrument and designate 3 or 4 simple rhythms that correlate to the emotions. As with many activities that call for kids to improvise, you might want to begin with some suggested dances or movements to accompany each song or rhythm. Then ask them where they felt each emotion in their bodies. This question is basically an exercise in mindfulness, specifically in how music affects our prana and emotions.
Along with the emotional explorations outlined above, a class about prana wouldn’t be complete without an exploration of prana through the breath. After all, in pranayama practice we regulate the prana through the breath. Many other teachers have already shared their favorite pranayama activities in this blog, and what I will share here are just a few of my own favorites. I find it most helpful to use slow breathing to calm, and fast or dynamic breathing to energize. In addition, since the breath is very subtle, I like to combine it with sound to add a point of focus for the kids. For a calming pranayama exercise, I like to use snake breath: guide the kids in a slow inhale (you can count out loud, 1, 2, 3, 4 so that they know how slowly to breathe), then on the exhale, everyone lets out a soft slow hissssss (soft and slow to avoid loud hisses with spit spraying everywhere!). For a dynamic, enlivening pranayama exercise, I like locomotive breath: a short breath in through the nose followed by a short breath out through teeth to make a shhhh sound. Slowly build up the speed until you reach a fast pace, then finish the activity with a loud “Choo-choo!” You can signal to the kids that you are about to do this by raising one hand up as if you are about honk your horn, then pull down twice to gesture the ‘choo-choo.’
These are just a handful of ideas that can be used to explain the varied nature of prana, or just in any class where you want to balance the mood and temperament of the students. Of course, as a teacher you will always be expanding your bag of tricks to calm a hyper group or liven up an apathetic one. But the best course of all is to help the students notice how they feel in each moment and use activities (like the ones mentioned here) to bring themselves to balance, both in class and throughout their days.