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.