Through no choice of our own, we are all being called to pull inward, to the comfort of the hearth fire. To our homes. At night I dream of old homes and new. Of fireplaces in rooms they have never been before. Reality is teased into new forms and one wonders what is real.
No doubt I am not the only one who is losing track of dates and even minutes. Each day feels like a Saturday, wrapped inside of itself like the planet in the distant sky. There is comfort to staying within. Avoidance, though, does not always equal protection.
The further we retreat inside, the more we are beckoned by what resides within the shadows. As we walk the familiar hallways of our “homes,” the eye is pulled to see what it has easily overlooked due to the hustle of distraction.
Never before, in my lifetime, have I felt the collective pull into the present moment. Each breath feels like a gift. Each inhale an opportunity to receive or let go. As I healer, I have come to know the feel of fear and how it likes to wrap the chest like armor. I will protect you, it whispers promise.
Fear lies. The promise of protection becomes a trap when it is held for too long. The breath shortens and becomes shallow. Instead of coursing on the wave of life throughout the body, it pounds for freedom off the walls of the chest.
I cannot help but think often of the breath during these days that feel like one endless cycle of rebirth. Within the endless minute I notice how long my body holds air before it lets go. How much life it is willing to take inside, and how much it is willing to let go.
We may cling to the belief that there is little we can now control, but this too is a false whisper belonging to fear. Never before, perhaps, have most of us been given a greater opportunity to take hold of the reins and ride into wild freedom, or pull tightly into restraint.
By freedom, I do not intend to imply a reckless abandonment of judgement. True freedom is a personal ride to find one’s own natural rhythm among the outer rhythm of life. When the outer slows down its hustle, the opportunity to find the cadence within is opened, its dance tantalizingly electric.
The outer eyes collapse into the inner and life is explored in new ways. Dormant seeds begin to find the light you bring to them, and new growth starts to take hold and even flourish. When the outer world as we knows it collapses into a new fold, so too must we.
Even though the dance may at first feel awkward, Joy’s hand is always there ready to be grasped. My own inner journey during this long stretch of Saturdays, has found me exploring virtual yoga. Instead of grasping the familiar of avoidance, I found it was time to let go resistance and find a new home teaching remotely, through a screen.
This new gift of collapsing space to find connection through a screen brought some frustration until I acknowledged the vice of Fear attempt to trap. And there was Joy on the other side. Waiting for to laugh we me at the missteps. Waiting to take my hand and waltz into this new land. Joy never promises the dance will be easy, but it always lead with the light of truth.
Although I’m married to a physician, I’m not what you’d call a model patient. Last week I had my second ever mammogram. I’m 46. I also got a pap smear. My last one was five years ago. Both appear to have yielded normal results, so for now the cards seem to be stacked in my favor.
I’m up-to-date on my vaccinations, and I get the one for flu each year. Aside from going to the lab to have my TSH checked semi-regularly to ensure I’m on the proper dose of thyroid medication, I’m not a frequent visitor at the doctor’s office. My approach to wellness, you could say, is part conventional and part unconventional.
In this time of hyper-fear over the latest virus to spread across the land, I thought I’d share some of the ways I have found to stay as healthy and balanced as possible. I believe there’s a no one-size-fits all approach, but if something here rings your bell, perhaps it means it was worthwhile to write this.
Supplementing with Inner Wisdom
Please know this is not something I recommend everyone adopt instead of following the advice of their medical provider. That said, there’s an innate truth to the wisdom you hold inside of you. Although my husband has urged me, in the past, to take a multivitamin, I found that my body rejects a formulated blend intended for daily intake by women. Within five minutes of taking the multivitamin, my body attempts to vomit it out of its system. Clearly there is something in there that my chemistry does not align with. We’re all unique.
Instead of the multivitamin, I have found my body likes to have enough vitamin D (many of us in northern climates especially do not get enough), which I take in capsule form. When I feel vulnerable to viruses and other pathogens, I find myself drawn to natural sources of vitamin C , as well as a wider than usual variety of fresh fruits and veggies in my diet each day. Organic and free of pesticides, if possible (I use Misfits Market for an affordable source).
I also drink (organic) tea. Sometimes three cups (usually not all the same kind) a day in the winter months. I tend to accumulate a variety of tea boxes in my pantry, and at the moment my go-to is Dandelion Root. My body craves it, so I give it a cup almost every day, with a swirl of raw, organic honey (as local as possible). Note: raw honey is not recommended for infants.
Balance, though, is not always easy to achieve everyday. There are days when I eat more sugar than I probably should and scoop ice cream instead of quinoa into my bowl. But there’s something to be said about eating love instead of fear, but more on that later. Instead of worrying too much about the occasional over-indulgence, I have found that my body will eventually tell me what it does or does not need. Often-times that wisdom will appear in my dreams.
When I dream of food, I pay attention. Dreams are tricky creatures and they like to speak in allegory and metaphor. Becoming attuned to the language of your dream-self can be incredibly valuable, and if you don’t know the answers you seek, your dreams will often reveal them to you in some form. Sometimes the answers are subtle, and sometimes they shout results without a shred of doubt as to their intended meaning. When my body was lacking calcium and magnesium, my dream-self brought through the message loud and clear one night, “you need more calcium and magnesium.” Okay. Roger that. If you are just beginning to explore the wisdom of your dreams, there are lots of resources out there. Denise Linn has a wonderful book about dreams, which helped to guide my own journey into dreamland.
Taking Care of the Subtle Energies
Science is just starting to prove the existence of the “subtle” energy centers in the body, popularly referred to as the chakras, but our far-distant ancestors never doubted their power to heal and transform the mind and body. Acupuncture, which targets the meridians that run through the chakras and the various organs of the body, is widely used in both the eastern and western sides of the globe.
Whenever I feel “off,” a half-hour or so of my time devoted to the practice of yoga will inevitably make me feel better. The physical practice of Yoga moves the subtle flows of energy in the body. It clears the channels that are blocked and aligns and balances the body’s energy systems. Whereas yoga works for me, another form of subtle-energy-focused exercise may resonate more for you, such as Tai Chi or Qigong. All work with the “Chi,” or “Qui,” the life force energy that moves through the body.
This life force that resides within the breath. There is, perhaps, nothing more important than the breath that moves through us. It carries our life force. A shallow breath impedes the flow of chi, and the held breath in fear can create density. Multiple studies have shown that mindful breathing calms the nervous system. Taking time to focus on inhaling and exhaling slowly and fully (please google mindful breathing if you don’t know how to) will be a gift to your body’s overall wellbeing.
Integrated into almost every yoga practice I teach, and in my home self-care regime, I like to incorporate some version of Donna Eden’s Daily Energy Routine . My yoga students love it and can attest to how it makes them feel better. It takes just five minutes (or less, I don’t always do all parts, but follow what I feel I need). Donna’s routine works directly with the body’s meridians and chakras, using tapping, gentle, targeted pressure, and the body’s breath.
Nourishing with Words
I am fortunate to have the means to support a healthy diet by purchasing mostly organically grown sources of food. Not everyone does. Perhaps equally important as the foods we consume, though, are the emotions, or words, we consume. We all know how awful negative words can feel when they are directed at us. The same rule applies to our own thoughts and self-directed words. What we say to ourselves matters. Which means what we say to ourselves while we eat matters too. Changing the chemistry of our words can change the chemistry of your body.
Sometimes, when people I encounter seem to be wrapped up in the fear, in particular over food, I like to share the story of my grandmother (who, by the way, is still living). Although my grandmother is not, by any means, positive with all the words she speaks to herself and others, she eats every bite of food with gratitude. Most of the good she eats is not organic, or even fresh. She grew up knowing starvation, and as a child who suffered the effects of the Great Depression, she also learned the power of gratitude on the body. Every bite of food, and every drink of water, is a gift she brings into her body.
What we say to our bodies matters. Nourishing them with love can go a long way to improving our state of wellbeing. Be easy on yourself. Forgive, love, and express gratitude for your body and what goes into it.
Attune with Nature
There are so many benefits to being out in nature, and there is probably no need to list them all here. But, sometimes we can forget how powerful the natural world’s effects on our individual wellbeing are. I can think of no greater healing balm than that of the embrace of Mother Nature. For myself, I have found that walking outside, each day, with my two dogs is something I have come to depend upon. My senses attune to the frequency of nature’s rhythms, calming the troubles that might be weighing down my mind. The scattered mind and body ground through my walks, especially when they are on nature’s paths and not pavement. The energy of the trees lend specific wisdom and healing, as do the animal and insect visitors I encounter along my journeys. As within the world of dreams, I find that realm of the natural world is always ready to gift me with the answers and healing I might be seeking. I just need to open up to receive it.
If Your Teenager Won’t Hug You, Hug Your Pet(s)
In all seriousness, I have found my furry companions to be invaluable to my wellbeing. It’s true, I have two teenagers who don’t think hugging their parents is cool, so my dogs and cats get the bulk of my affection most days. Anyone with a beloved pet knows how valuable they are to our health and wellbeing, and there’s science to support this. Animals are highly tuned into our emotions, and I have found proof of this in my yoga classes. Without fail, Zelda-the-faithful-yoga-dog or Millie-the-sometimes-yoga-assistant-cat will make an appearance beside the mat of the person in most need of their love. Nothing quite compares to the love of an animal companion who is unconditionally present in our times of need.
What About You?
I’d love to hear what you do to stay balanced and maintain wellness, especially during times of increased stress. Please share your tips in the comments.
I think sometimes parents and teachers are surprised when they pop in at the end of my classes and don’t see a group of children engaged in yoga postures such as “Downward Dog” and ” Warrior.” Instead, we’re often gathered on the mat looking at colors settling in a jar, rocks or feathers. Sometimes our hands are taking turns tapping mallets to metal bowls or rods as we listen for the final sound. Today, we were coloring. Valentines. Six bodies sitting around a floor table the size of a large book focused on a task together.
Yoga, by definition means “to yoke,” or “bring together.” It is, in essence, union. Union of the body, mind, and spirit. It is a union of all the senses present in the moment. And, as was exhibited in the later portion of today’s class, it is union with others.
There were a few polite questions, “Did you do yoga today?” And a few surprised smiles. We did yoga, and we were still doing yoga at the end of the class, even though were were not actively stretching our bodies into asanas. Instead we were creating Valentine’s for our loved ones. Together.
Earlier, we also gathered together and read a story about a sloth teaching his friends how to slow down. And we talked about how that was yoga too. Later, when I took out paper cut into hearts and we gathered around a small table no bigger than a book, everyone was happy to slow down. No one pushed or shoved. No one stole the one color everyone wanted. No one threw their papers or gave up on their masterpieces. It was union. It was yoga. It was a harmony that rarely can be achieved with six young bodies that want to run, bump, wrestle and and be silly during the active part of yoga that we often think is the only form of yoga.
So, I didn’t worry that it might look strange to have five students and their teacher sitting in a very cozy circle around a tiny table, sharing stories, markers, and stickers while creating symbols of love for brothers, sisters, and parents. Our small space was permeated with palpable peace and joy. We were practicing yoga. Together. Long past the end of our half hour of class time.
Due to low enrollment this session, preK and elementary classes have been combined into one on Mondays, which means I could leave a half-hour earlier than I used to. Instead of rushing out the door, I have found there are benefits not to linger. To allowing the children to teach me what they need from the afternoon. Today, it was creating hearts of love instead of joining their other classmates for recess. “I don’t have boots today.” “I don’t have boots either.” Sometimes it’s okay to stretch the truth a little. To find an excuse not to go run around and to just be still in union with others. Creating some love to share. And, so, we lingered together. Surprised teachers popped in to make sure that we were okay. “You sure you want to stay?” They asked. How could I not?
This was yoga.
Perhaps it a bit confusing for those who observe small moments of our classes to see that we are practicing yoga together, but I think the kids understand. They know that yoga is not just about jumping into silly forms and balancing on one foot. They know that yoga is sharing and observing. It is movement but it is also stillness. It is laughter, but also silence. And, most of all, yoga is union in its many forms.
Since the writing of my last post, my thoughts have turned often towards empathy. And, specifically, how our world seems to be starving for lack of it. It is not that it is gone entirely. But it has become endangered, and more so in certain areas of the globe than others. I live in one of those areas.
In many Scandinavians countries such as Denmark teaching empathy in the classroom has become a normalized part of the curriculum. The results are obvious: less bullying and more compassion. Happier students and teachers. It simply makes sense. Although we consider ourselves a progressive country here in the US, we are often slow to follow progressive-minded methods of educating our children. We are a country founded upon colonialism. I live in a place of stolen land build upon the backbones of slaves. Children are taught to strive to their highest ideals, without too much regard for the child that may be struggling beside them. Here, we still cling to the notion that the more successful you are in life, the happier you will be. Yet, our standard of success is still measured in the highest GPA, the number of goals scored, and the most money earned with the highest educational degree. I know plenty of people who are not happy and can click off all of these boxes.
So what is missing? We can look to places like Denmark, or we can simply look inside and around us. We need not travel across the globe to realize what is lacking. We are a nation of souls starving for love. Not just for ourselves, but for each other. And many of us, I suspect, do not even know how much we hunger for it.
Yesterday, I treated myself to a facial. It was the first one I have had in my 46 and a half years on Earth. Not because I cannot afford it financially, but because I never before allowed myself this gift. Last year, like this year, my husband and children gifted me a certificate for a Spa. Last year, I gave my certificate to my daughter.
I rationalized the reasons why. She was struggling with acne, and I knew how hard that struggle could be for a teen. I told myself I didn’t really need any of the services the spa offered, and if I could gift my daughter with one of them, I would. You might say I responded to my gift, in part, with empathy, but at the cost of the self. Maternal guilt had replaced self-love. I struggle with giving my children what I never had, as many parents do. Perhaps you will understand why when I take you with me to yesterday.
Despite this, I have been working on a personal vow this year. There is a mantra that plays from the muffled speakers inside of my mind. Sometimes it is loud. Sometimes it is soft. Its words are, “I am worthy.”
Yesterday, I entered the doors of the spa alone. For the past year, I had visited several times, with my daughter and/or my son. But never just me. It was my turn, and no guilt followed me inside the room where I was met with the promise of an indulgence that had been gifted to me.
I was nervous at first. I wasn’t sure what to do with the wrap, and got it all wrong. No big deal. It was soon in its rightful place around my shoulders. A pillow was slipped under my knees and I lay back upon a bed that felt like heaven. Blankets nestled around me as an almost hot and moistened towel wrapped my face.
I began to sink into bliss. Soft hands lathered with warmed oils moved rhythmically down the sides of my neck and onto my shoulders where they found my knots of tension, pressing gently into surrender. Although the hands that touched me barely knew me, they felt like love, and I was over-whelmed momentarily with the impulse to weep. I thought of my mother. I thought of my children. I thought of all that my body longed for, and what I never wanted my children to miss. This body that still remembered the last embrace of her mother, years ago. A mother who had pulled tight with a desperation for my love. My body still remembered who she had chosen, long ago, to give her love to. Not to herself, or me, but my stepfather. Long before she decided never to hug me again because she wanted to believe I had written her a hate story instead of a love story. Yet, I was being reminded, in that moment on the massage bed, that I was still worthy of receiving love.
It is not easy to give when we are not used to receiving. And as I lay there on the table, feeling the foreign hands of love, I realized what a gift I had been given. The woman who had been scheduled for my facial held an innate ability to heal and give. Her nature was compassionate and maternal, and I had no doubt she had both an empathic and empathetic soul. She didn’t know my history. She didn’t need to. She simply read my body’s needs.
And as I lay there, receiving, I thought of my children. No wonder, I thought, they both love coming here. Even though they are teens, and no longer run to me for hugs, their bodies still hunger for the touch of love. They need it, as we all do. And sometimes we need an excuse to receive it. With a twinge of remorse mixed with guilt I made a vow to hug each of them more. Adolescent indifference would no longer be an excuse. Their bodies need the regular touch of love. As all bodies do.
When I began to teach yoga to young children, I worried about how to respond to their touches. Children, by nature, are tactile beings. They use touch to figure out the world, and themselves. They also use touch to express love, and I didn’t want to shy away from their expression of it even though I live in a culture that is riddled with fear around touching a child in any way that can be deemed inappropriate. Hugs can be forbidden. Yet, I knew there is more damage that can occur if a child hugs you and you don’t hug her back. They learn through our actions, and I am discovering that I want them to know that they are loved above all else. That it is okay to give me a hug and I will return it with as much love as they gave to me.
It occurred to me this morning, as I was thinking about empathy and children and what the world seems to hunger for, that perhaps I had a new mantra to share. The word “Namaste,” used so often in yoga, is often translated, “I honor the light in you that is also in me.” This phrase is more easily understood by older minds, and I have not quite found the words to replace it. Until today. The simplicity of the solution, I realized, is not just in the replacing of the word “light” with “love,” which is what I have done before, but in the emphasis that this love is ever-present. And that it is for you, and also for me. And so, I think perhaps we will share these words upon greeting and parting:
“I have love in my heart for you and also for me.”
It’s been a strange couple of weeks, but then again, strange seems to be the new normal. Barely a minute goes by when the POTUS does not make some angry outcry or ignorant blunder. It’s so common, most of us barely bat an eye. Others rise up to toast hatred. Rage is infectious. For some strange reason, it’s now normal to be inhumane. Which begs the question, what are we striving for?
Last week, I posted a brief notice on Facebook in support of a teenager in town who is championing an environmental cause. She is seeking signatures to bring a petition to the legislature. And, like so many young and not-so-young environmental activists who are actively looking for ways to save our planet in crisis, her only M.O. is altruism. Imagine my surprise dismay when 9 out of 10 people who chose to comment, did so from a place of anger. When did altruism become a bad word?
Also last week: a senior in my children’s high school banged a teacher’s head against the cafeteria wall because he wasn’t happy with her, and three men armed with machine guns robbed a house in my town. My children are wondering if the world is going mad. They don’t know how lucky they are. Things like this aren’t normal around here. But, are they becoming normal?
A few weeks ago, school officials in neighboring towns came together for a common cause. Teachers are living in fear. Elementary school teachers. Children are acting out in anger and rage on a daily basis, and no one knows what to do. Yet, thousands of years ago, a group of people discovered that they could calm young and restless bodies and minds through the practice of yoga. The end result, peace. The answers are more ancient than time itself. Five minutes of silence everyday in inner city schools where crime and violence used to be the daily norm, have resulted in dramatic shifts towards harmony. Yet, many of us still resist the doorways within.
Two hours ago, I was wrapping up my walk with my dogs when I saw two of my neighbors across the street from my house. I thought I’d stop over to say “hello,” but on my way I followed their fingers to a stray dog hanging out in my front garden. After hurrying my agitated pets inside, I went back out to see what I could do.
The dog in question was a gentle spirit, and I was pretty sure I’d seen her on my walks before. As one neighbor pointed out, she had no identifying tags, so while she leaned into the other neighbor, I photographed her to post on FB. I was certain she’d soon be identified. She was a pure-bread, and someone had probably spent a pretty penny on her.
Seconds later, a car zoomed around the corner, and, suspecting the owner, we waved it over. Instead of relief and gratitude, we were confronted by an irate man filled with accusations and blame. Blame not for himself for losing his dog, but for the dog and its dog-nappers rescuers. Alter, my neighbor told me she was sure there was another dog in the car. I was certain there was also a child, in a carseat.
The entire scene played out in mere minutes, and all I could manage to do, as well as my neighbor (the other neighbor had gone home) was to try and help corral the dog as kindly as possible while her owner yelled and raged at it. It was distrubing at best. Yet, it also seems strangely like the new normal.
If you follow the POTUS and his army of supporters (which I try my best to avoid), all of the above will seem like mild day in the land of the good old USA. We are a nation gone mad. Or, were we always mad, but just did a better job hiding it?
Six or so years ago, I decided, or rather it was decided by some unseen muse, that I would write a book about six teens who would travel a labyrinth filled with darkness to bring back the light. Thinking they are on a mission to repair the light in Earth and heal the planet, each teen is faced with the discovery that the darkness inside the labyrinth in Earth is also inside of them.
The outer is a mirror of the inner. Always. We all know the saying, “peace begins within.” And, to get to that place of peace, we must travel the darkness within. We must face all of its ugly and fear-filled forms. We must confront it. Untangle it. And above all else, we must love it.
In one of my first yoga classes with preschoolers, there was a young girl who troubled me. She had blue eyes and stringy blond hair she’d often twist into knots with her fingers. She could be cute, but during my classes, she most often wore an ugly face twisted by inner turmoil. Some might say she looked possessed. And, in a way, she was. There was clearly something that was eating away at her happiness and ability to share joy with others in the class. And to find her own joy with the class. Sadly, she made it through one 6-week session, but never returned.
In some ways, I felt like I had failed her. I was not able to give her the individual time she probably needed, and was instead often looking for ways to ensure she wasn’t pestering her fellow classmates. I shared concern with her parents and teachers, and it seemed to be understood.
Even though she is no longer attending my yoga classes, I still see her in passing most weeks. She stands in line when I arrive, waiting to head outside for recess while some of her peers wait for me on the rug. Each time I see her, I make a point of catching her eye, as I do with all children who are waiting. And each time she catches mine, I smile at her.
In the first few weeks, after our time together had ended, my former student would look at me with the eyes of distrust. As though I was perhaps mocking her, or in some way had an intention other than kindness. I continued to look for her eyes and smile. About two weeks ago, amidst all this recent chaos, I caught those two blue eyes looking at me and my smile was met with a smile. A smile of trust and friendship.
I can’t say what this little girl’s demons are, or why she was more tormented by her darkness than some little kids are, but I do know it exists inside all of us, in various forms. We carry the fears of our own lives, and the lives we lived before this one. We carry the fears encoded into our DNA passed down to us in our genes, and we absorb the fears around us. We are solitary beings intricately connected with all life. When one of us is in pain, we all are.
I know that man who collected his wandering dog was acting out of his own deep seated fears, even though it presented itself outwardly as hostility. Our POTUS is doing the same thing. As well as his devoted followers. What troubles me is not their fear, but their unwillingness to travel inside of it. To follow their own labyrinths of darkness to find the light. A light that is filled with the core of love that feeds joy. What troubles me is that so many seem to be okay with, and even embrace, a life fueled by self-righteous anger and hostility, rather than choosing the path of darkness in search of their own light. Granted, it’s not an easy path to take, but unlike with anger and fear, we don’t walk it alone. The POTUS and his followers, and the many others around the world who are choosing hatred as their M.O., may think they are united in a cause, but there is no union with fear. There is only destruction, of the self and the community.
I think perhaps that little blue eyed girl with blond hair who used to take my yoga classes has already discovered this. Yoga may not be her M.O., but kindness now appears to be. I’ve noticed she not only smiles at me, but holds the hands of her classmates eagerly on her way out to recess. I image the fresh air and being close to nature is a balm for her, as it is for all of us. I embrace her choice to find joy in her chosen way. And, more than anything else, I am happy in the knowing that she seems to know, in her five-year-old self, that joy is her birthright.
It snowed today. Soft flakes now spread over the evergreens and add white caps to the forest leaves turned brown. The return to winter’s cold brings a sense of calming peace with it. Like a big sigh has been released and we can settle back into normalcy for at least a little while. How long it will last is anyone’s guess.
Before lunch, I walked the roadways with the dogs and picked up other people’s garbage. The snow had not yet started to fall, but the sky was the gray of an impending storm. Ice replaced the puddled water at the end of my driveway. Frozen into cracked veins waiting for the next thaw. I found myself hoping it would be awhile before the water flowed again. Today, the birdsong is not so loud. Juncos gather droppings from the trees and blue jays rush overhead in their showy displays to be seen. And heard.
But the air is mostly quiet and still, and while I walked with my dogs the world around us appeared more balanced. Perhaps I saw what I wanted to see. The land cleared of artificial debris by my hands left a feeling a satisfaction inside of me. A small act, like dusting the sills of a window to make it clear again. It may not last long, but there is power inside deliberate moments.
After we arrived back home, I found myself pulled into the news while I ate a lunch of leftover dinner. Headlining the front page of the Sunday paper was a story about local teachers afraid of their students. I had to read it three times before it sank it. They were not talking about rebellious teenagers, but preschoolers and elementary age children. Young kids driven to violent acts of rage on a regular basis. Some fingers pointed to drug use by caregivers, others to unspeakable violence that must have been witnessed. While I read, I find myself wondering if we are all grasping at straws, unable to hold on to stability. There is the impulse to spiral into disbelief and despair when one reads such things.
Exposure to harsh elements can damage a living being if improper nurturing does not occur. Are we wrapping our babes in our chosen world of violence? Turn on the TV and chances are you will find rage or horror in some form. Exposure to violent acts harms the mature heart. Now we are seeing the real effects of what it does to the tender young souls whose eyes are exposed to more than they should see. We shatter ourselves and those we love when we expose without heed to the harsh elements outside of us. And sometimes, when we linger too long with them, they become a part of our being.
Beside this article, was one piece on funding being stripped from schools. In my town, there are often complaints about how the bulk of our budget goes to the education. If we don’t invest in our future, what can we expect it to look like? If we don’t infuse the warmth of love into the hearts of our children, instead of constant exposure to hatred and violence, can we really call ourselves “caregivers?”
The snow began to fall while I read, bringing the solace that could not be found inside the news. For a moment I started to place blame, pulled into the world of accusations that filled the news before me. There was a momentary feeling of frustration when I read the words of the superintendent I had tried to work with for years to bring a mindfulness-based supplementary education to our schools. Perhaps I had given up too soon. Maybe his mind was now changed, but one grows tired from pushing through resistance.
Instead, I looked forward to the two groups of youngsters who were waiting for me at another school. I thought of their exuberant bodies and excited young minds. Sometimes wild, but always lovable. I thought about how it’s taken me a year to grow into the comfort of teaching the balance of yoga to within the realm of the unpredictability of young children, and that sometimes there are still moments of frustration. A temporary frustration that, I have found now easily melts into joy when I step inside the child-mind and find the wonder of joy.
Later, dancing and laughing without care of judgement I found this joy. Freedom is a natural state of the child-mind and I am grateful to have the excuse to let it run loose. When you become like a child, you give the child you are with permission to let their true self shine through. Together we danced into animal poses and stomped the floor as though it was Earth. A little too loudly, perhaps, as it brought a teacher up for a moment, but we didn’t really care. Nor did she. Instead, we muffled, ever-so-slightly, our footsteps and danced some more. When we rested into our makeshift circle, we talked about what we loved, like unicorns and pegasus, rainbow socks, and dragon slippers. All things magic that are real to a child’s eyes accepted as truth, because in the end all that matters is the joy wrapped inside love.
In part 1, of “Simple Mindfulness Techniques for Children,” I discussed how to create a “Bubble of Joy” with children as a way to instill a sense of wellbeing. Creating a rainbow bubble is also a great way to begin a meditation practice, which is the focus of this post.
I had a friend once tell me that there’s only way to meditate, at least by its truest definition. Her words rang in the tune of elitism, and I was a bit taken aback. Thankfully, I think fewer people now ascribe to this notion than perhaps they once did. Instead, there is the growing realization that we are all unique, and a one-size-fits-all approach to meditation will never work. Especially when it comes to children.
When I am in a classroom with young children, I am acutely aware of how different each child is. Children, for the most part, are unabashed about showing you who they are, and their emotional bodies spark with their unique light. It is both a joy and a challenge to try to teach yoga to their unique blueprints. It is even more of a challenge to get them all to conform to one type of meditation practice.
Children thrive when they have a bit of structure to support them. If you give them too much freedom, chaos will inevitably ensue. Too many rules will cause rigidity and the dimming of their sparks. During my first visit to a classroom to teach mindfulness and meditation to a group of 22 children covering grades 1-4, I quickly learned that even if I wanted to, I was not going to find success in a one-size-fits-all system. Instead, I allowed my own inner-child to take over as I explored perhaps more options than necessary to engage children in the practice of mindful meditation. Here are some of the things I have learned along the way:
Concentrate on Quieting the Mind and Not Conforming the Body
If you wish to bring meditation into a classroom with the rule of sitting quietly for a certain amount of time, good for you. There are numerous benefits to the simple act of sitting in silence for a short amount of time. For young age groups, start small and add minutes gradually. I found 2 minutes of quiet time was a good target for the younger age groups. I also found that it was futile and unnecessary to expect them to close their eyes. A child can sit quietly with her eyes open and still reap the benefit of stillness. We never know what is going on inside a child’s mind, and expecting her to close her eyes may illicit emotional discomfort.
Likewise, although you may want to set a rule, such as no lying down (I did because of space, believe me at least one child will ask to lie down), try not to be a stickler for how each child should sit and hold his hands. Instead, focus on the act of meditation itself and honor unique approaches to it. Discourage talking and giggling, but fidgeting is to be expected, especially when children are first learning how to sit in stillness.
Give Them Something to Hold
This can be a tricky one, as once again, there is no one-size-fits-all. I have found that calming stones, such as rose quartz (try to choose similar looking stones to avoid the impulse to “trade”) makes for a beautiful meditation assistant for children. Make sure the children you are giving them to are old enough to avoid the impulse to put the stones in their mouths or to throw them. There will often be at least one child who will, no matter what the age…
Which means that a stone may not be the right fit for that child. Instead, he might find more success with a meditation mala, or string of beads. Instead of sticking to the traditional 108 beaded malas per the yoga tradition, you can make mini malas (this can be a fun activity to do with the children). For the classroom, I made mini malas using 18 and 27 beads as fractions of 108 to keep with the sacred symbolism of the mala. I also used a different color bead as the 9th bead in each sequence, as 9 holds the symbolism of completion and “birth.” If you are using a mantra or affirmation with the meditation, this allows for the feeling of a complete cycle each time a child reaches the count of 9 beads. I also added rainbow tassels at the end to bring in the symbolism of the chakras and the “Rainbow Bubble of Joy.”
The Power of Words
Children enjoy stories, and when I gave them each their meditation beads, I told them a bit about the history of mala beads. It became a fun and engaging mindfulness practice as they examined their beads and asked questions such as, “Why did you use a different color bead,” for the 9th bead, and I asked, “Why do you think I chose the colors I did for the tassels?” Linking the Rainbow Bubble exercise to the malas allowed them to see that mediation is a mindful activity that can be infused with meaning and intention.
While we discussed the history of malas, I brought up the power of words (which will be covered in more depth in a later post) and told them a tiny bit about mantras. Since the class was not focused on the yoga tradition, instead of giving the children a mantra to use with their beads, we discussed the power of positive affirmations. It’s important to remember not to discourage children from sharing, or tell them that their answer is incorrect. Whatever feels right to the child is usually perfect for him or her. As we discussed different “I am” affirmations, some of the younger children took the phrase literally by adding their names at the end. While an older child could not resist the impulse to correct, I used the opportunity to gently remind her that there are no wrong answers, and that our names are, in fact, powerful affirmations of who we are. If a child is having trouble coming up with an affirmation, try suggesting a phrase such as, “I Am Peaceful,” or “I Am Love.”
By chanting a simple affirmation, or a series of affirmations, while moving beads through his fingers, a child can focus his mind and still a restless body. Although you and your children can make meditation beads out of anything you’d like, using wooden or stone beads can enhance their effect. If you are reserving a set of beads for an individual child’s use, you might discuss the energy of their words and thoughts. When mantras or affirmations are used with mediation beads, their energy is infused into the beads.
Engaging the Other Senses
Meditation with children need not be a transcendental goal, in fact, it’s probably better to leave that ambition out of it. Rather, encouraging a child to engage their senses in a focused manner will help them live more mindfully. Although I tend to lean toward no additional ambient sound during meditation time with children, a soothing track of nature sounds or classical music can help restless bodies to settle down. Alternatively, having children focus their ears first on the sounds around them, then bringing their awareness into their bodies to hear the sound of their own breath and even heartbeat can bring a deeper awareness of their being. I like to use a chime to end the meditation time, three soft dings can gently ease their transition back to the classroom setting.
I also tend to avoid engaging the sense of smell with children. This can get into uncomfortable topics, and it can also be a distraction. In addition, some children are sensitive to scents, so even diffusing an essential oil might trigger an allergic or averse reaction for some children.
At the beginning of the post I mentioned that some children may prefer to leave their eyes open during a meditation practice. Allowing a child to study an object with focused attention, such as a crystal, meditation beads, or a feather, can be a wonderful way to practice meditation time. I often bring feathers I’ve found during my walks into the classroom and they are always a delight for the children. There are so many ways to explore the senses through a feather and they remind children of the wonder of the natural world. It is a good idea to be aware of what feathers are allowed to be collected by law in your state or country, as well as having children wash their hands after holding them.
If you are considering adding a “meditation” practice in your classroom or at home with your children, I hope you find some helpful tips in this post. If you are already using one, I’d love to hear about your experiences. After our meditation time is up, I find it to be a fun practice to allow for the sharing of children’s observations.