the magic and madness of teaching yoga to kids

through the looking glass: part 1

Several years ago I took on the task of teaching yoga to the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at a public junior high school in San Francisco. It was at once a lot of fun, and a daunting challenge that caused me to grow and stretch myself further than any yoga posture could. Had I known then what I know now, perhaps I would never have done it ”¦ but the unknown has been the inspiration behind many a great adventure!

Oh, the drama of the junior high school years, with all of the confusion of the newly evolving self, the insecurities, embarrassments, the highs and lows! I suspect most of us were not at all sure we would survive. The early teen years are a time of so much internal growth and change. They are a time when social pressures are beginning to mount. Everyone from parents to teachers to coaches to peers have their own ideas about who teenagers should become.

The individual sense of self is still fragile at this age. The “self concept” has only just begun to form. Conflicting views of right and wrong often force teens to make unconscious decisions ”” decisions about whether to follow their hearts or succumb to the pressures around them. “Do I do what I want, or what people expect of me?” If these two possibilities are at odds, it is very difficult for teens, who are seeking acceptance and affirmation, to remain true to themselves.

As a result, this age is potentially a very fruitful time to introduce the practices of yoga and meditation. The purpose of these practices is to know oneself.  The path to knowing oneself includes cultivating greater self-sufficiency and a compassionate attitude toward the self, allowing us to be our own best friend. What better time to begin than when one’s sense of oneself is newly formed, still fragile and in need of reassurance?

I began my adventure by teaching 35 co-ed 8th-grade students in their gym class one day a week. As one might expect, the response was mixed. Naturally yoga isn’t for everyone. Some kids would definitely rather be playing basketball. After the first class, one of the 8th-grade teachers had the unsolicited idea to ask the kids to write down their feelings about the class. Talk about a lesson in detachment! This was the most delightfully raw and alive feedback I have ever received.

Their responses ranged from, “I hate yoga”, to, “It made me feel sleepy”, “Yoga was fun” and “It let my mind drift off into a deeper consciousness”. As I sifted through the papers, I began to split them into stacks of, “I hate yoga”, “I don’t care” and “I love yoga”. When I was done I had three almost exactly even stacks ”” 10 hated it, 11 didn’t care and nine loved it with seven weeks to go.

Years ago, back when I was in yoga teacher training, a recurring nightmare began. “What if they won’t do what I’m telling them to do?” This is probably rooted in my own rebellious nature because I was just the sort of kid who would NOT do what I was told. So it would naturally be my karmic repayment to have students who refused to cooperate. Once I began to teach, I realized that most adults are so eager to do what I ask that sometimes I wished they would THINK a little more about what I am asking them to do before they went ahead and did it.

With kids, it’s another story. My worst nightmare became reality. There were always a few who wouldn’t do it. Uh-oh. What happens now? Initially, I felt my mind and body grip at my need to control the situation. But then, an amazing thing happened. I began to relax. I took a deep breath. My body softened. This too was workable. I realized their inaction was not about me, but about them. It was an opportunity for them to assert themselves, to express their individual will through rebellion and defiance.

Gradually resourcefulness kicked in. I explored using my language, my tone of voice, my whole being to cajole, challenge, invite, require and playfully demand that they participate. It was terrifying, and very empowering. Having faced my worst teaching nightmare and surviving, I became more self-assured and a better teacher. I was less concerned with whether my students liked me, and more able to meet them. I became more fully alive, a more engaged participant in the dance of life.

Teaching teens was a constant mirror for my self-image. With kids, there is much less filter between their minds and their mouths. They usually say what they are thinking. As a result, we were able to have very honest conversations:
“We hate yoga.”

“Oh really? What do you hate about it?”

“Well, it’s not really that we hate yoga. And we don’t hate you. You’re okay, really. No offense intended. (How kind of them to reassure me!) We would just rather be playing soccer. So we hate yoga because it’s the reason we’re not playing soccer.” What could I say? I understood their point.

But there were also those who loved it, and their gratitude was apparent, often without words. They smiled. They were focused. They really tried to do the poses. The magic of yoga came through in such moments ”” the radiant heart connection of sharing something that is wordless, speechless, undefined and delightful.

“I can’t do that!”

How many times have I heard this statement? Kids these days are stiff. Most kids cannot easily bend over and touch their toes. The karmic consequences of being born into this culture with our chairs and tables include having bodies that do not easily bend at the middle. The challenge was working with the kids in a way that encouraged them to commit to doing the poses even though they found them difficult. When I began to hear a lot of voices saying this, I asked them to slow down. Breathe. I suggested they not push themselves so hard.

As I watched them do the poses, I realized that there was a threshold beyond which they could not do what I was asking. But at the same time, there was a place where they could do it. I knew this because I was seeing them do it right there in front of me, each in his or her own way. I pointed this out to them and encouraged them not to worry about what they could not do. This was the mind speaking. Don’t be confused or distracted by it. Instead, focus on what you CAN do, rather than what is difficult for you at this time. That is all that matters right now. This was a new idea to them. They settled down. Or perhaps they were merely shocked into silence.

Kids are like sponges during these years, absorbing an incomprehensible amount of information through their surroundings, their bodies and their relationships. As human beings, we learn through all our senses, all the time. Learning is completely intuitive and happens spontaneously. One of the delights of yoga is that it helps us to reintegrate our senses, bringing our awareness back into the body. We regain this innate ability to learn through every action when we practice yoga. The kids will pick up on this wordlessly.

When teaching yoga to kids, I’ve learned not to be surprised if their poses bear little resemblance to the idealized depictions in Yoga Journal. I avoid correcting them unless I think they really might harm themselves. I’ve learned to let them enjoy it and play with it rather than getting caught up in doing it right. Kids are naturally more connected to their bodies and thus are less likely to harm themselves. Over time as they repeat the poses they begin to come into better alignment.

Yoga is as much about unlearning as it is about learning. Yoga asks us to unlearn all of our deeply ingrained limiting habits and beliefs in order to open ourselves up to the vastness of who we really are. The yoga poses are just one step in that direction ”” a helpful and supportive step, but a step which should not be mistaken for the end result.

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