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…

rose quartz for meditation
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.”

Mala bracelets for kids
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.

feathers for meditation
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.