When I was tasked with teaching yoga to children in a homeless shelter deep in Queens, NY in 2017, I was dizzyingly excited to share my knowledge with a group of people who likely were not familiar with a practice that provides a practical guide to creating a mind/body connection. Residents of a shelter have not had their basic needs met (housing), which creates intense stress. This was an opportunity for me to assist their shift in perspective during a traumatic time by giving them additional coping skills. I was also nervous, given I did not have experience working with kids, and their energy is generally giddy and intense.
A New Experience
The locations I generally teach in are thoughtfully styled with tranquility in mind. The items are always symbolically placed in order to create a soothing environment healing ambiance, a home to return to, to yearn for and retreat to. I do the same in my own home. A shelter doesn’t have this luxury, neither in its design nor in use – I taught in a sparse, multipurpose cafeteria that was loud and open. Yoga so frequently asks students to create a practice ritual in a home-like environment. A shelter is a transitional space, not a home to settle in to.
Those I met were doing their best in what was likely the one of the hardest time in their lives. I realized during this experience that those with means have the luxury of hiding their worst days behind closed doors. Those without means are both without solace and have no choice than to show their burden publicly.
As with any situation that is new, the kids (aged 5-12) laughed, rolled their eyes, verbalized uncomfortable feelings and either retreated or emboldened their attitude according to their predilections. They all wanted to do fancy poses they saw on social media. As a Yoga Tune Up® teacher, my classes focus on becoming acquainted with our own unique bodies – where do we overuse, underuse and misuse our selves (both knowingly and unknowingly). To meet the children where they were, I came prepared with a stimulating sequence designed to burn off excess energy, full of warrior poses, tree pose variations and a child-friendly take on crow pose (a basic arm balance that the kids were already doing on their own during their downtime). I also prepped games where the kids came up with their own poses that represented their favorite animal (and invited them to make a sound their animal utters while demoing the pose for the group).
A Different Approach
While these sequences/games were fun, they were fleeting and the kids soon became unwieldy. I adopted a “tough love” mentality – I was tough on the kids during class – forcing attention, and creating a rather adversarial relationship. While I was encouraging learning by talking about the effects of a regular yoga practice, the children didn’t feel stress reduced after class, which diminished the experience.
However, during the third class, having mismanaged my time, I put the children in savasana (“resting pose”), and decided to try a modified pranayama, focusing on deep belly breathing while asking them to focus on their bodies at the same time.
Surprisingly, each child took to the breathwork. I learned that although they wanted to play, they really needed quiet, space, solace. Each class thereafter, they craved savasana. Once the kids determined that I provided them a controlled space to rest, they would beg for “rest pose.” The core group (not everyone attended every week since it was voluntary and some children were assigned homes during the program) would shush any child who dared speak during their quiet time.
The staff was floored, I was as well. Who knew this worked! Every week the staff looked on in delight when it was quiet. As I led them through the practice, some of the kids actually slept, some pretended to, but they all rested. In that space, they didn’t need to protect themselves or engage with others, they were able to feel sedated, a feeling they craved.
Taking a Breather
Breath control (or pranayama) is frequently used in yoga to hijack the nervous system (an autonomic system) to move from a sympathetic state (alertness) to a parasympathetic state (sedation). Breathing well and deeply in to the belly feels like a natural relaxant, which is why the children enjoyed the practice. In order to ensure belly breath, I employed tactile feedback by instructing them to put their hands on their bellies and feel the rise and fall of their abdomen, which triggers parasympathetic dominance. In order to keep their minds focused inward, I had them visualize different parts of their bodies during each breath.
After class, the kids spent a short period of time relaxed and would verbalize their struggles, be it unable to sleep, fighting at school or other general chaos. I reminded them when they shared these stories with me that rest pose is a tool they can use on their own.
I learned from this process that instead of giving the children what I thought they wanted, I could only succeed if I gave them what they actually needed, which in this case was conscious relaxation. Physical movement is important, but yoga starts with the breath. Yoga Tune Up® classes foster a supportive environment that helps each student feel their needs are addressed and met. I had to include physical movement to engage the children in the activity of yoga, but emphasizing the feeling of breathing well changed their focus and was the best tool I could give them to take with them after I left the program and the experience.
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Beau témoignage et surtout une belle expansion du yoga que de l’offrir a des enfants qui vivent dans un tourbillon de sentiments. Votre “erreur “a été le plus beau cadeau que vous avez pu leur enseigner : prendre le temps de respirer pour s’apaiser et s’observer. Vous avez su trouver l’étincelle qui allait leur apporter un temps calme et surement leur permettre de ressentir la sérénité durant un instant donné.
Wow. This is eye opening. On so many levels. Thanks for sharing. I am going to process this and know that I will end up doing something with this. When I quit my corporate career, I went through Foster Care training and became a Foster Mother for a highly troubled 13 year old girl who was already sexually active, smoking, doing alcohol and drugs. This would have been a tool for me to be a better Foster Mom, in retrospect, but I had not started my yoga teacher training yet.
What a great gift to give these kids the ability to tap into their breathing and allow them to have a bit of control in a situation so not in their control otherwise. Hopefully it will be something they will take with them wherever they go.
This hits close to home for me. I also taught at a shelter, but for theater. Being a yoga teacher, I decided to do centering work and created pranayama as part of our daily routine. I don’t think we can appreciate how much the trauma of being uprooted from your home can cause to our nervous systems. What these children most certainly needed were tools to regulate their nervous systems. I’m so glad to hear you were there for the children you worked with.
What a great experience for you as a teacher, as well as for the kids. I hope they felt the power of having control of their own breath even when–first as children, and then even more as children in unstable housing situations–so much in their lives may be out of their control. Your observation about the importance of helping kids get what they need more than what they want reminds me of something one of my 8th graders said to me when I taught middle school and did breathing exercises with the kids at the beginning of each history class: “Weird as this may sound, I didn’t want to feel relaxed; I wanted to go back to being angry, but the breathing exercise helped so much that I just couldn’t.”
This is awesome, Sierra! Thanks for sharing your own learning process. I love that your discovery came out of making a “mistake” in managing your time. It’s a good reminder that sometimes things resonate best when we let go of our agenda and respond to things as they unfold.
I totally understand your joy and excitement after realizing the potential of belly breath for the kids living in the shelters! In the book “The Body Keeps the Score”, the author extensively explains how the brain and body react to trauma and details techniques that can be help cope and even overcome some aspects of the trauma. Yoga is one of them, because it allows traumatized people to befriend their sensations, find a sense of security in their own body and explore the calming effect of breath exercices. The great thing about belly breath is that it’s so simple to explain and the effect is almost instanteneous! Thanks for helping those kids through yoga and good luck with your own exploration 🙂
It is so wonderful that these kids had the chance to discover yoga and its benefits from you! I imagine the stress of living without basic needs creates a more prescient need for permission to relax and be still. Your story also reminds of the importance, in any classroom context, of adapting, interpreting, studying the students’ need, regardless of the lesson plan.
What an amazing experience. I am excited to do the Breath and Bliss training to learn more about breathwork. It must have felt amazing to send all those kids home with a new pose they can use to calm themselves down.
I like your openness to trying different ways. This is a great reminder for me to ask what others may need instead of thinking I know what they need.
I’ll remember your post and pranayama when our grandchildren are wired for action before bedtime.
Hallo Sierra, thank you so much for your story! What a fine way to prove how we simply forget about things in frond of our noses and how important they are do me much more use from your life.
I was recently invited to teach at a shelter for women and have been agonizing over my approach for a few weeks. I wanted to show up with exactly what I thought they needed and have been thinking about “root chakra” and the perfect postural patterning to put them at ease without bringing them into a place of stress. This was the perfect reminder that what most of us really need in tough times is a little more “breathing room.”
Wow, what a powerful story Sierra! This brought tears to my eyes. For a very long time, I would treat chaos or stress in my life with more chaos…hard workouts that kept my body in a heightened state. I finally learned that when I am in that sympathetic nervous system state of being up regulated, especially for a period of time, the last thing I need is to maintain that state. Focusing on breathing, slowing down, being in nature, and other things that balanced out that frazzled state I was in really started making a difference. It is so difficult to slow down to 20 when you are going 100mph. It was very uncomfortable for me to do that. I was finally learning how to down regulate in doing so though, which made all the difference in my stress, sleep, etc. This is a great illustration of that need for balance. Thank you for sharing!
Yes, it always comes back to the breath, doesn’t it? I also find myself sometimes wanting to ‘overteach’, because perhaps I’m uncomfortable and it’s such a good reminder to just really see what the student/s in front of you needs in the moment. And it’s usually something really simple like some quiet and a safe space. Thanks, this was a really lovely post.
Thank-you for sharing Sierra! In this face paced world everyone is affected, even our children, and we all need a place/space to unwind and let go. What a wonderful experience you have given these kids! You have given them a tool for life. =:0)
You were super brave to volunteer to teach kids, especially if you hadn’t already had a lot of experience teaching them. I had heard that sometimes doing pranayama with a population that might be living with some trauma can lead to some unintended reactions but it sound like this group found it soothing more than creating any unexpected anxiety. I’m so happy for both them and you.
This was amazing to read, to take the time a really see what a person needs verses what we think they want or need. This was a great insight. Thank You so much. The more i read more stories like this the more i feel my self turning in a direction in life i never saw before. A world or healing, never really understanding the depths we have to people in front of us.
Wow! What an amazing realization you had! This is such a special experience and I really appreciate you sharing it. Keep on doing the good work!
I love this post, and that they would “shush” any child who dared speak during their quiet time. How great to learn so young tools to fill your need for quiet, space and solace. As a yoga teacher I have not taught children, yet lately every time I turn around I hear stories of how children these days are so worried and stressed out. Good work on you.
Yoga sometimes feels exclusive, esp. in LA. It feels that it only belongs in fancy studios with fancy lululemon outfits. I really appreciate that the author went beyond her comfort zone and perhaps something that she’s not completely familiar, because these are the underserved population. I agree with giving them what they need rather than what they want and I think the delivery has to be right in order for them to receive these tools. Thank you for sharing this!
Very inspiring Sierra! I feel that sometimes our Yoga path takes us in directions that we would not necessarily choose on our own. This is an example of meeting the needs of a group of children by remaining present and allowing the experience to evolve.
Sierra, this is amazing! I was an elementary school teacher in a previous life before yoga and when asked to do kids yoga I immediately say “NO”. I think things may have been different if I had the techniques of yoga and Yoga Tune Up®️, but I also think it takes a special kind of person to facilitate this work to children. I’m so glad that people like you exist because children would really benefit, but I now know I am not one of those people. Thank you for what you do and sharing YTU and breath work eliciting calm to those who really need it!