Planting Seeds for Compassion, Teaching Children Yoga

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May 10, 2017 by kamishep

When my daughter began kindergarten in 2012, like many parents, I hoped her school experience would encourage her curiosity to learn, provide opportunities for kindhearted friends, and gift me with five blessed hours of alone time. In the first few months of school she would confide in me over lunch, the joys, the sorrows and the frustrations of navigating her new social and education reality. I delighted in hearing that her new best friend was kind and helpful, and that her teacher devoted time and energy to each child’s particular learning needs. One day she asked me what a particular swear word meant. When I asked where she had encountered it, she explained a classmate had taken to calling her that and stepping on her hands or kicking her when saying it.

I went to the teacher immediately to ask what could be done to stop the violent words and behaviour. The teacher explained that the particular child was receiving a lot of support from the school and came from adverse circumstances. After hearing the child’s story, I altered my approach from asking for intervention, to offering my presence in the classroom as another avenue for providing an expanded positive vocabulary, and developing tools for self awareness, through gentle yoga classes.
My theory, was that a greater focus on positive self talk might encourage a wider and kinder vocabulary in students, as well as fostering a more gentle interaction in group dynamic, while balancing all of the major glands in the body though the postures, and might effect a more gentle physical shared experience.

“Yoga makes me feel calm” (kindergarten, grade 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) *from a pool of just under 400 students

“Yoga makes me feel like I love everyone” (grade 1 student)

I taught that particular kindergarten class a series of four classes, stipulating that so long as children respected the personal space of one another, and stayed on their own matts, they could follow along in a way that felt right for their own bodies and self. Children delighted in being shown through their ‘island’ that their personal space was entirely their own for exploring their bodies and feelings. I was quietly amazed as the majority of the class followed every body shape and breathing technique. Children would learn from one class to the next how to navigate and distinguish between opposite sides of their bodies, balance in stillness on one foot, building strength and confidence in powerful shapes, and relax with their fertile imaginations unleashed at the end of the class. Their brains were flushed with freshly oxygenated blood through their first few movements, and the room would still to near silence. The child who had been bullying mine, carefully stayed on their own ‘island’ (matt) hugging their knees and rocking back and forth for the first year.

Soon after I was welcomed into that classroom, other teachers in the school asked if I would teach in their classrooms. I felt delighted to be sharing simple tools with children for self regulation, awareness and wellness. We practised breathing techniques that balance the pituitary and pineal glands, and shapes that revitalize our immune systems. Children learned how twisting can balance their insulin levels, or regulate the adrenal glands, helping us each to feel a deeper sense of safety and ease. That first year I taught in five different classrooms, with a span of kindergarten to grade 7, mostly in a volunteer capacity, happily sharing a positive dialogue and watching the children’s receptivity to perceiving themselves, one another and their learning environment in a new way. When working alongside that first group of Grade 7’s, the majority wrote of their experience, that yoga had significantly decreased their sense of anxiety and stress while in school. I quietly marvelled at the ways in which that hormone rich age group respectfully approached themselves and one another when asked to be squished so close together around their desks, upside down, twisted and exposed in unfamiliar experience.

“The best thing I learned about myself in yoga is how calm I can be.” (grade 5-7)

“The best thing I learned about myself in yoga is to be calm, to listen to my body.” (grade 3)

“My favourite shape in yoga is mountain because it helps me be strong and not afraid.”
(grade 2)
“My favourite shape in yoga is tree and mountain, it was peaceful to me.” (grade 3)

In those 20 – 40 minute long classes, I often felt as though I was watching small and large miracles. During the second year of practice the child who had bullied mine in kindergarten wrote of their yoga experience “Yoga makes me feel calm, and to calm down when I am upset before it.” (grade 1) During the second year the same child began to participate in over half the shapes (asanas). In the third year, the child is an exemplary leader, participating in every shape, often at the front of the class.

In their own words, elementary school students say that:

“Yoga makes me feel happy.” (kindergarten)

“Yoga makes me feel good.” (grade 2)

“Yoga makes me feel relaxed” (grade 3)

“Yoga makes me feel more healthy” (grade 2)

“Yoga makes me feel strong and brave” (grade 2)

After three years in an elementary school, in which children grades kindergarten to grade 3 received up to 16 instructional yoga classes each for a school year, I have had the good fortune to expand and teach in other learning environments.

“Yoga makes me feel relaxed free and confident” (grade 3)

Another elementary school, kindergarten to Grade 7 had an introductory 4 week session. The older children, in their first class looked around at one another with uncertainty, giggles, insecurity and embarrassment. I explained that our yoga classes were a time for them each to remember ways in which they were capable and powerful in learning to understand what feels good for their bodies, and to respect one another as each individual learned, breathed, bent and twisted in ways that were safe and comfortable. I also explained that yoga was time for developing an internal gaze, to explore our mental, emotional, physical and intuitive selves. During those four classes, the children’s eyes softened, no longer seeking nonverbal approval from one another, but closing their eyes to tune in more fully to their own experience. The embarrassment level shifted, and each child participated, focused on their own body and breath for a 40 minute class in relative silence.

“Yoga makes me feel good about myself” (grade 5-7)

“My favourite shape in yoga is stretching my legs because it makes me feel capable to do more things in life that make me feel good.” (grade 5-7)

What a remarkable shift I witnessed during an age in which hormones and peer acceptance can wreak such havoc.

“Yoga makes me feel amazing, I felt free.” (grade 5-7)

“The best thing I learned about myself during yoga is I’m actually better at things than I thought.” (grade5-7)

I have recently had the good fortune to be welcomed into two preschools where I spend a weekly session with 3yrs and 4yrs old. They are so focused, one could hear a pin drop. Their eyes are huge and round as they listen to instructions and seek to make new shapes with their bodies while using their imaginations for things such as ‘gathering handfuls of sunshine’ (during pranayama/breath) or ‘uncurling like leaves and flowers opening in spring’ (during asana/body shapes). I am also blessed with a few classes a year where kindergarten children and seniors in an assisted living home, practice chair yoga together. The elders watch the children, so focused and free in their imagining, and I see the elders light up in the shared imagining, oxygen saturation and gentle movement. Circulation benefits physical and mental health in all ways. When we have simple body movement, combined with conscious breathing, we are often offered gifts in elevated mood, and hopefulness for ourselves and this world.

When I spend time watching the children, noticing the way they respond to deepening their breath, and holding a shape in stillness, I continue to feel that I am witnessing small miracles.

“The best thing I learned about myself in yoga is that I am unique.” (grade 2)

“The best thing I learned about myself in yoga is that I am brave.” (grade 2)

A parent approached me in my second year and related a story of witnessing her daughter fall and hurt herself. The child sat up, shifted her posture and began to follow the deep belly breath she had recently learned in kindergarten. She was mitigating her experience of pain instinctively, seeking calm. The parent voiced amazement in watching the self analysis and transformation in her 6yr old.

“Yoga makes me feel relaxed and calm.” (kindergarten)

“Yoga makes me feel rainbows happy” (kindergarten).
I have had several parents relate instances where their children are incorporating movement and breath from school, into their daily lives. Some want to teach the rest of their family, everything they have learned that day. Others want to share in deep belly breathing at bedtime. When I drop off my child at school it is often to a chorus of children asking me “When do we have yoga next? Is it today?” Many of them are children such as the one who inspired my volunteering the first year, kids that struggle with focus or kindness, but are learning to the best of their current abilities, to assimilate self awareness, compassion and calm. These same children will mirror learning challenges in the classroom, such as a challenge to focus, through their body shapes in yoga. Through balancing on one leg for example, often children who have difficulty focusing in class, will be the first to fall over. Yet through the course of a year, those children will grow from holding a balancing posture, with focus from a single breath to 4-6 breaths in a row, an incredible shift in their mental and physical regulation.

Recently a friend asked me about teaching children’s’ yoga, and if I planned to continue in the upcoming years. I replied I was still passionate about teaching, and I believed learning to breathe and move for calm, strength, focus and power should be a basic human right. He cheered. I further explained that I often wondered “How powerful would we each feel as adults, if during times of heightened anxiety, stress, pain, frustration or anger, we naturally took a few deep breaths, finding a physical posture that helped us feel calm, or strong, or confident or focused, and then made our next choice, action or reply?” My daughter was riding her bike down a steep trail for the first time, and as she paused at the top of an unknown hill. I asked her if I could assist her.
“No Mama, I’m asking myself if I can do this.’ she replied, taking four deep belly breaths as we do at the beginning of each yoga class. At the end of the fourth breath I saw her smile. “My body says I can do this!” and she pushed off with confidence.

“The best thing I learned about myself in yoga is that I’m strong.” (grade 3)

“The best thing that I learned about myself in Yoga is that I am Powerful.” (grade 5-7)

“The best thing that I learned about myself in yoga is that yoga can calm me down” (grade 1)

“The best thing I learned about myself in yoga is that I could be peaceful.” (grade 2)

How could our professional and personal lives shift if we had learned at a young enough age, that it felt wholly natural, to balance our hormonal secretions, invigorate our organs and balance our circulatory, skeletal structure and the master glands of our miraculous bodies to the point that doing so was as familiar as reciting the ABC’s? Many of the children have assimilated their body movements and breathing to such a degree that I hear them whispering the instructions even before I voice them. They particularly focus on new shapes or breathing that teach them about their physical bodies such as compressing and detoxifying their lungs, or learning a sensory controlling posture, which inevitably brings absolute stillness and quiet into the classroom. One grade three student who often struggled with stillness and verbal quiet, asked to practice a particular sensory controlling pose every class, after learning it the first time. The student shifted to eagerly anticipating his yoga classes having experienced a way to self regulate with a powerful new tool.

“The best thing I learned about myself in yoga is I to find peace, and I never noticed so many things about myself before.” (grade 3)

“My favourite shape in yoga is downward dog because it stretches the back of my legs. Thank you so much for teaching this.” (grade 5-7)
“The best thing I learned about myself in yoga is how calm I can be.” (grade 5-7).

During a children’s yoga class I use vocabulary that focuses on the physical benefits, such as having their heads below their hearts and saturating their brains with fresh oxygenated blood which helps us feel calm, and better at problem solving. All language used respects the cultural differences, faiths and spiritual beliefs of our multicultural country. Some classes ask that I refrain from using the word ‘yoga’ I then explain we will be ‘stretching’ to help us all feel more ‘balanced’. I am happy to shift dialogue to be inclusive, just as I appreciate other educators doing so for my own child in alternate learning environments. Our classes have a predictable flow, with new shapes inserted that build on the foundations built in the previous classes. Children amaze me with balancing in stillness, in a core muscle building shape that also stimulates emotional confidence and using ones assertive voice. This shape is introduced in every class, the ‘boat’ posture, one I watch shift from two breaths in stillness to 6-8 breathes over the course of the year.

“The best thing I learned about myself in Yoga is that I am powerful and brave.”(grade 3)

There is also a focus on nature, and the ways in which our human self is connected to, and a mirror for the natural environment. At the end of each school year we brings our matts outside, where children are looking at mountains and trees as they make the same yoga shape with their bodies.

“Yoga makes me feel like I am in a field of flowers.” (grade 2)

In this way we foster a connection to our environment and a sense of belonging as well as fostering the confidence to be focused on the self even when the outside world provides distractions as everyday life passes the schools field in cars, on bikes, maintenance crews and dog walkers. Children train their internal gaze to allow that the outward environment can be erratic and unpredictable, yet through their breath and movement, they can complete tasks, invest in their personal health, and support one another’s individual experience by respecting time and space while others also focus and move with mindfulness.

“My favourite shape in yoga is tree because I feel tall and powerful.” (grade 5-7)

“My favourite shape in yoga is mountain because it makes me feel balanced.” (grade 3-4)

I’m not sure how many years I will have the joy of sharing yoga with children in a school setting. Like many things, it depends on the support of the teaching staff, the principal and the availability of funding. Yet for every year and every child I am able to teach, I feel a little more hopeful for our planet and species as a whole.

When I ask the children to imagine during their laying down restful time (savasana) and to think about the ways they have the power to build, connect, share, and create across this wondrous planet, as they lay quietly on their matts, relaxing at the end of the series, I cannot help but envision a future in which they take those words to heart, celebrating one another’s strengths and carrying just a little more acceptance into adulthood for the ways we all move, breathe and bend differently on all levels. During each class we say out load one positive self affirming statement, inspired by SO HUM (I am that, that is I). With their hands over their bellies they all roar statements such as “I AM BRAVE”, for it is brave to bend and shift, to giggle or fart with all your classmates baring witness. The children are given opportunity to say things such as
“I AM WISE
or KIND
or GENTLE
or POWERFUL
or CREATIVE
or STRONG.”
All of the attributes we carry as humans and choose whether or not to foster. Some of the children instruct one another on what the words mean, or share what they felt the word means when applied to themselves. When I asked children what the most powerful words were that had ever been spoken to them, I got answers such as ‘My dad told me I’m a kind boy, and I try hard at everything I do.’ or ‘My grandam told me she loved me.’ I then encouraged students to consider the power their words have on one another, before each student looked around the room and said “Thank you for being powerful friends.” It was an incredibly heart filling experience to see them looking at one another with the new understanding that they had the ability and the power to effect the way someone thought about themselves. Encouraging positive self esteem as the children grow older, will be such a huge part of the ways peers and individuals internalize feelings of being supported or criticized.
“Your weekly affirmations were beneficial to the children and helped them vocalize- and maybe even internalize-these important messages. This was my favourite part!”(kindergarten teacher).

After each class, the children go back to their regular learning schedules. They move back desks, and pick up bits of paper, they learn French and music and math, and all the many other systems our current schools incorporate. Yet, once a week or four times a year, during the first half of their day for 20 mins or half an hour, the rooms are mostly silent, the ocean of the floor punctuated by rainbow hued yoga matts, their islands that are just for them while breathing together, imagining, and taking note of all the ways we are each growing and changing every day. During this time, students are encouraged to be utterly themselves. To voice the colour of bird or magical creature their body shape represents, to feel welcome in expressing if they are fans of rainbow sparkles, kindness or courage. To build their warrior strength as both young women and men, and to see that every one of them is a superhero in their very own way. There are no tests, or expectations on my part as a yoga instructor. I ask them to give themselves the gift of doing the best that they are able on any given day, and if they ‘feel’ that they have invested in themselves, then I celebrate each of them. It is a small thing, this 20-40mins every two weeks, in the course of a life, but I witness small seeds of compassion and strength being planted during that time, that could blossom in unexpected and incredible ways as the children age. Perhaps a stronger connection to respecting their own bodies will influence the ways in which they are respectful of one another as adults in relationships both professionally and personally. Perhaps having felt what a balanced physiological system feels like, there may be slightly less of an inclination towards toxic substances that change the way their bodies and minds feel. I can only hope to bare witness over the years, as I have had the extreme good fortune to do this far, and have some of them become teachers in their own right in whatever field of study they choose to invest in as adults.

“The best thing I learned about myself in yoga is that it helps me to learn and try my best.” (grade 1)

“The best thing I learned about myself in yoga is that is makes me wake up so that I can learn.” (grade 1)

“The best thing I learned about myself in yoga is that I could get stronger.” (grade 1)

“The best thing that I learned in yoga is that it made me have a good day.” (grade 2)
For all of those yoga teachers out there who feel drawn to working alongside and empowering children, may you connect in a positive way in local studios, schools or private lessons with the students who can benefit most from the wisdom and wellness you carry.

With sincere thanks to each of the teachers and children who has thus far welcomed me into their classes, you all teach me every day!

with light,

Kamia (Durga)

*For related blogposts visit:

A Warrior’s Breath

Celebrating Highly Sensitive Children

Authentic Voice and Inner Calm

*Kamia Shepherd is the Author of “Soul Evolution” available for instant download and order worldwide through Amazon, iTunes, and FreisenPress:

Purchase Now ‘Soul Evolution’

 

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