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.
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.
This week will mark the end of my first sessions of full-immersion into the world of teaching yoga to kids. What has felt like an initiation by fire, with five different classes of kids ages 3-17, has left me with more questions than answers. What is, I find myself wondering, the “correct” way to teach yoga to kids and teens? Or, is there one?
Each day is different. You can arrive with a lesson plan, sets of props, and a bag filled with yoga-themed goodies, and some days this will be grand. On other days, you may as well throw it all out the window. At least that’s how it was for me.
Humans are creatures driven by their emotions, which can be impacted by not only their own internal state of being, but by the emotions of those around them, and the energy pervading the planet. Children, in particular, are highly empathic beings, easily influenced by the inner and outer emotional body.
Some days, I would arrive to a yoga class and find the energy of peace and happiness pervading the classroom. Joy easily filled us, and our yoga practice would flow like a stream of clear water. On other days, the air would be thick with humid emotions. Restless bodies trapped in an airless room were all striving for release. Who could blame them? If I were five, I too would rather be outdoors running free. Heck, even at 45, my body prefers freedom when it feels trapped in a space of confinement.
So what does one do on these days? I don’t have all the answers.
Ideally, yoga would travel to meet us where we are, at any given time. We would take it outdoors when the weather calls us to plant our feet on the grass and align our pulse with Nature’s. But, sometimes we must make do with what we are given. Closed, airless rooms.
There are days when I pretty much gave up. Threw in the towel, you might say, and mostly observed and accepted, as best I could. Taking the few precious moments when they arrived to engage a wild child in a yoga asana or breath.
They became moments of self-observation too. I would notice my own emotions, tipping toward frustration, futility, and sometimes anger. Unruly children can be cruel and disrespectful, often without intention. I found myself searching for the rare moments when I could reign them in, and teach them that there is more to yoga than moving the body into animal-like postures to find the seed of goodness within and grow it.
Even the kindest child can turn into a monster when their peers are unruly. It is not fun to watch. It is, just the opposite. Yet, we learn and grow from these moments as best we can. Moments when I found myself resisting the urge to yell. To take a small body and shake it into awareness after it reached into a bowl to grab a helpless fish, or stuffed tissues up its nose while grinning wickedly in my face.
Oh yes, there were those days when anything and everything that felt like it could go wrong did, and I would wish for a miracle that never came. Although I don’t believe in corporal punishment of any form for children, I do believe children in the society I live in tend to be over-indulged and, for the most part, lack an understanding that there are consequences to actions, even though punishment of any form is not given. And herein, perhaps, lies the gift for me.
I have found, as much as I try, that although I love to make yoga fun in creative ways, I am not a yoga teacher who finds home in the make-believe. Elaborate stories filled with action, songs, and props are not my thing. When I create these types of classes, I find that the children easily get bored unless you change the scene and plot each week. To me, this takes too much effort and feels contrived. It feeds the over-stimulated mind I am working to calm.
This, to me, is not yoga. Yoga, for me, is finding the seed of each essence held inside those restless bodies and allowing it to bloom into being. In whatever small, or big way, it is willing to bloom. And, sometimes we simply need to take away what does not work, including the children who are not ready, or wiling to engage in the practice of yoga. In each class I taught, there were always at least two children who were not ready, or interested in yoga. At least not this stage in their lives. Or, with Miss Alethea. And, that is okay.
On those rare occasions when these children left the classroom, the energy transformed. Children who would normally follow the reckless leader(s) when present, were now engaged and attentive. Their sharp mind tuned to my soft words inviting them to find their own yoga dance as I gently guided them along.
Sometimes an entire group needed to leave. Last week, I found myself down to two students in the last fifteen minutes of one class. Two five-year-olds who could be as unruly as the rest, remained with me while their four peers left, one-by-one, to join their other classmates on the playground. They were fifteen magical minutes. Two bright minds focused on my voice as they danced from pose to pose. “Show me how you would go from Dog Pose into Cat Pose?” “From Warrior One, into Warrior Two?” I simply sat, watched, and gently asked as the magic unfolded through their bodies.
Sometimes, the ideal yoga class is two students. Sometimes it is only fifteen minutes. And that is okay. More than okay.
The same thing happened during my middle-school yoga class last week. More than half the students were not present, due to a sport’s commitment. A group of five girls, all friends, who would rather socialize and fool around with each other than practice yoga together were absent. Instead, I had four students, two boys and two girls, who were engaged for an entire class without interruption. It was a thing of beauty.
And so I find myself asking if it is unfair, or fair, to request true engagement in the form of commitment to yoga when the person is a child? I think, perhaps, it is. From what I have seen, even a three-year-old can be engaged. There is a reason I have not mentioned my two preschool classes in this post yet. They are my largest classes, but they are also my “best” in many ways. Yes, there are challenges. The wanting to hug the teacher, and sit next to her. The friends who need to sit apart least they wrestle the entire class….but, for the most part, they are perfect in their imperfections. The students young enough to listen to their teacher without resistance, still hold a desire to please and learn. It’s easy to release the inner child when there is joy dancing around you, and a half-hour passes quickly with these children.
And so, I find myself at that point of endings that calls me to assess and evaluate before I can determine the next path to take. Still, there are more questions than answers before me, but I know I want to keep walking the path of yoga with children.