Empathy, and what a facial taught me about “I have love in my heart for you and also for me.”

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Photo Credit: Pixabay

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.”

 

 

A Return to Winter & a Child-Like Joy

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Photo Credit: Pixabay

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

What Should a Yoga Practice with Kids & Teens Be? #Yoga #KidsYoga #TeenYoga

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Image by Johannes Plenio from Pixabay

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.