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.
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 among the group.
“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 mats, 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. 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). The room would still to near silence. The child who had been bullying mine, carefully stayed on their own ‘island’ (mat) hugging their knees and rocking back and forth for the first year.
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.
In those 20 to 40-minute 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 rainbows happy” (kindergarten).
“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 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.”
“My favourite shape in yoga is tree and mountain, it was peaceful to me.” (grade 3)
Connection with the Environment
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.
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. We draw pictures of mountains and trees and make the same yoga shape with our bodies.
“Yoga makes me feel like I am in a field of flowers.” (grade 2)
“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)
The Power of Words
During each class, we say out loud one positive self-affirming statement. With their hands over their bellies they all roar statements such as “I AM BRAVE”. The children are given opportunity to say things such as:
“I AM WISE
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 grandma 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.
“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).
Less Approval Seeking
After three years in an elementary school, I have had the good fortune to expand and teach in other learning environments. 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.
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, 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. What a remarkable shift I witnessed during an age in which hormones and peer acceptance can wreak such havoc.
“The best thing I learned about myself in yoga is how calm I can be.” (grade 5-7)
“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)
“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 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?”
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)
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?” What if it felt wholly natural to the point that doing so was as familiar as reciting the ABC’s?
“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)
“The best thing I learned about myself in yoga is how calm I can be.” (grade 5-7).
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 bear witness over the years, as I have had the extreme good fortune to do this far.
“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!
By: Durga (Kamia Shepherd)
Akhanda YTT graduate 2006
Golden, British Columbia, Canada
*For a further expanded version of this article, visit www.compassionangelcardreading.com