To Journey (or not) into the Joy of Darkness

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Photo Credit: Pixabay

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.

Mala bracelets for kids

Debunking the Rules of Meditation in Part 2 of Mindfulness with Children

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…

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Some tumbled rose quartz similar to what I gave to the children. Rose quartz is a calming, heart chakra stone.

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.”

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Some of the Mini Malas I made for the classroom.

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.

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Children love feathers. I usually let them choose one from a bag, using their intuition to select their own special feather that they can take home with them.

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.

Simple Mindfulness Techniques for Kids in the Classroom or at Home: Part 1: The Bubble of Joy #mindfulness

This post will be part 1 in a series designed to help cultivate mindfulness practices in the classroom and at home. It’s based on techniques I use in my mindfulness workshops and yoga classes for kids. We’ll begin with the “Bubble of Joy.”

The Bubble of Joy

Ideally mindfulness is a way life, and cultivating it as a daily practice becomes easier to do if you start and end your day with a mindful activity with your child or children. I begin almost all of my yoga classes for kids with an exercise that I call the “Bubble of Joy.” The Bubble of Joy uses the technique of pranayama (breathing), combined with visualization to generate a sense of calm and strength. It is also a form of empathic shielding, which is especially important for children who tend to unconsciously exchange and absorb energy from their surroundings. It is beneficial to children and adults alike, and is a great way to share a mindful exercise to begin your days together. If you are in a classroom setting, you can either have your children sit in a chair or on the floor in a circle.

Steps to Creating a Bubble of Joy

  • Sit in a comfortable seated position. For children, I ask them to do “criss-cross applesauce” legs.
  • Close your eyes and rest your hands on your lap, one hand on your belly and one hand on your heart, or use Namaste hands in prayer position at your heart center.
  • Visualize in front of you a beautiful rainbow. Spend some time seeing in your mind’s eye all of its beautiful colors.
  • Keeping your eyes closed, take a deep inhale from your belly all the way up to your heart and breath in all the colors of the rainbow.
  • Imagine those colors filling your heart and your whole body with joy.
  • Exhale as you bring your arms up and around you and imagine the rainbow now wrapping you in a Rainbow Bubble of Joy.
  • Repeat two more times. Inhale the hands down to the heart, bringing inside the colors of the rainbow. Exhale arms up and around to wrap the rainbow bubble of joy around you.
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Simple Steps for Creating a Rainbow Bubble of Joy

Through this simple exercise, you and your child have created a beautiful shielding energy inside and around you that will help ward off negative feelings and instill a sense of joy and wellbeing. It can be repeated throughout the day, and is also a good practice to use before falling to sleep. The arm movements can be omitted, especially for a bedtime practice.

 

 

“Who are you?” #YogaForKids

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Image Credit: Pixabay

The little girl peered up at me with teddy bear eyes as she asked her question. She was just a few years older than my daughter was when see used to boldly inquire, “Who are you?” while gazing her deep blue eyes into mine.

The question from the little girl this morning made me smile. Wide and free. “I’m the yoga teacher,” I told her.

“Am I taking yoga? I hope I am.”

“I want to take yoga,” the boy beside her chimed in.

“What’s your name?” Another child joined in the conversation.

I resisted the impulse to gather the group of preschoolers ready to go outside for their recess, turn on some Kira Willey, and lead their eager bodies in an impromptu yoga class. Their faces were irresistibly sunny as though they had no idea it was raining just outside the windows. Instead, I gathered the registration forms together out of the envelope I had hung on the bulletin board just last week, and smiled my way home.

It was my third errand of the morning. Before collecting the registration forms from the two Montessori schools, I had dropped off a bag at the high school. A post-it labeled it for the writing teacher, but it was for one of her students. A girl very different from those three exuberant young children in the preschool classroom. What a difference a dozen  years can make in a life.

She had never said a word, not even in introduction. Perhaps the teacher had overlooked her on purpose because she was shy. But I had seen the shrug of her shoulders and the head bowed a little further towards the table. The head that never looked up in participation for the hour-and-half I was there.

“I see you,” I wanted to whisper in her ear. Not in the tone of a creepy stalker, but with the words of understanding. “I’ve sat in that seat too. Many a time,” I wanted to tell her, but didn’t.

I didn’t because it was not my classroom, and I did not know her story. Sensitive to the fragility of the teenage mind, I kept quiet, like her. But I couldn’t forget about her. Although she was the only one in the classroom that never said a word, to me she was just as important the eager participants who sat around her. Even though she looked like a forgotten island. Or, an island that wanted to be forgotten.

She reminded me of me, but also someone who wasn’t me. I may never know her story. Why she chooses to wrap into herself. But, I ache for what she has lost, already. Perhaps she was once like that little girl with the happy brown eyes who thought nothing of asking a stranger who she was. I’d like to think so, but this also makes me sad.

I don’t know if she’ll read the book I offered her in return for not acknowledging her presence, and for not knowing how to bridge her island for fear of further harm. She may not read even the first word, and that’s okay. I hope she reads the card, though. I think she will. I hope she realizes that someone saw her when she thought she wasn’t seen. Not by the eyes of judgement, but the eyes of understanding. And, I hope that one day she’ll realize she has a beautiful light inside of her that is waiting to be seen.