BOOK REVIEW: Sitting Still Like a Frog by Eline Snel

Sitting Still Like a Frog: Mindfulness Exercises for Kids (and Their Parents)Sitting Still Like a Frog: Mindfulness Exercises for Kids by Eline Snel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

Anyone who’s ever taught children mindfulness, concentration, or relaxation knows that one can’t use the same tried and tired approach one does with adults. One must recognize the strengths and weaknesses that children’s level of cognitive development brings. [That said, I’ve found myself in front of a room full of kids who sat with the unflinching stillness of bronze Buddha statues, but that’s because regular practice was part of their school experience.] This is the twin premise of Snel’s book: that one needs to tailor one’s approach to teaching children to be mindful, and that their practice needs to be integrated into their life on the whole.

It should be pointed out that the book isn’t just a collection of exercise for children. It’s also a book for parents to help them align their approach to parenting to the mindfulness that the child is developing. It’s also a book of application. That is, it’s not about practicing mindfulness meditation in the abstract; it’s about using the understanding that arises from that practice to improve behavior and emotional coping.

Chapter 1 introduces the topic of mindfulness and sets up the book’s approach as well as explaining the use of the audio exercise that go along with the book. The second chapter explains a mindful approach to parenting by which parents can adopt a calmer and less emotionally charged approach to interacting with their child. Chapter 3 explains how and why breath is used as the basic anchor point to life in the here and now. Chapter 4 suggests how attention can be improved, and mindful eating is used as a tool to advance this objective. The next chapter explores how mindfulness can be practiced using the body as a means to anchor one’s awareness while simultaneously being more aware of what’s going on with one physically. There is discussion of mindful walking, but most of the chapter is about teaching children to be more cognizant of what they feel as a precursor to being more emotionally aware.

The next several chapters cover emotional awareness and how to improve response to emotional situations (both for the child and for the parent.) Chapter 6 uses the analogy of a weather report as a means for children to evaluate their emotional state. Chapter 7 expands on the topic by considering how one can manage one’s response to emotions. The crucial topic of witnessing the changing nature of emotional states is the subject of Chapter 8.

The last two chapters examine how to cultivated desirable character traits in children. The penultimate chapter describes how kindness can be fostered as a skill in children. The last chapter is entitled “Patience, Trust, and Letting Go” and that probably adequately describes the gist of the topics covered. The concept of an “inner movie theater” is discussed as a tool to facilitate building the desired characteristics.

There’s a single page bibliography and a table of audio exercises at the end. As far as graphics are concerned, they are mostly whimsical drawings of frogs.

I found this book to be concise, informative, and designed to appeal to the child’s need for concrete–as opposed to abstract—conceptualization of this, otherwise cerebral, topic.

I’d recommend this book for parents, teachers, and others who interact with children.

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POEM: Trans-Temporal Vase–Possibly a Vaaz of Ming Origin

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Mama said, “Don’t touch that!

“That’s a Ming vase.”

[pronouncing it “vaaz”]

It probably wasn’t.

Mama calls things pricier things—e.g. Timex = Rolex.

Her gist is she can’t afford a broken one.

I’ll admit I’m no stranger to breaking stuff,

and not just flimsy stuff– cast iron, granite, you name it.

You could say breaking things is my superpower.

Anyhow, the vase is Chinese and looks old.

But my hand was already on it.

You’d think it would be cool and smooth.

But, it was tingly and, well, not solid.

My fingers seemed to sink into it–

like a hologram or a ghost.

So I nudged it a bit.

Turns out it was solid; it tipped.

I moved to catch it,

but it just hung there, tilted on air.

Well, I had to know how long it would stay tipped.

I stared, wondering if mama would snap a pic with her camera.

As I had this thought, the vase tumbled off its stand.

I grabbed for it, touching it with my fingertips

just as its lip—it was upside-down—crashed into the floor.

***

Time oozed; cracks spread through the vase and the world.

It shattered in slow motion.

A crackly light—blue and white—crinkled through the room.

Silence.

No breaking noise, nor the expected holler from mama.

Just white and blue arcs of light, becoming blinding.

***

Then I was squatting and reaching in another room.

I toppled face-first onto brown floor boards.

The vase was upright, whole, and sitting by the wall,

seeming like a person watching me fall in quite amusement.

The vase’s glistening white and blue stood out in the dark brown room.

Dust or tarps covered everything else.

It was a storehouse packed with fancy junk.

It couldn’t be confused with the temple I’d been touring with my mom.

That was bright and neat, red and gold, and had ornamental dragons.

The door flew open.

I gasped, expecting a whooping, or at least a stern talking to.

I crab-walk scurried when I saw the man who charged in.

He wore an armor that looked like rows of little roof tiles.

And he had a straight sword stuck into his belt.

I feared he’d draw the sword and poke me in my tender bits,

but he didn’t seem to see me—hard to miss as I was.

Calmed by my invisibility, my attention went to soldier’s hand.

In it I spied the spitting image of the vase I’d knocked over.

I thought the soldier would notice the resemblance,

but he didn’t notice the vase on the floor–

even though it was clean and shiny like nothing else in the room.

He put his vase on a shelf with some cobwebby bric-a-brac.

Then he spun, moving back toward the door.

He didn’t get outside before a woman barged in.

She had a lot of hair parked up on top of her head.

She was pretty, except that her skirt went from her armpits to the floor.

She was shouting in Chinese.

I don’t know exactly what she was saying,

but she was angry and her gist was that she wanted the vase.

And it didn’t seem like she just needed to hold some flowers.

Well, the soldier shoved her roughly.

She fell square on her caboose.

He drew the sword, and started shouting back.

His gist was that the vase wasn’t hers anymore.

He pointed the tip of the sword right at her face.

I shouted, but he didn’t hear me any better than he saw me–

my voice like one of those whistles that dogs hear, but people can’t.

I was going to shove him,

but shoving an angry man with a pointy object seemed like a bad idea.

Anyhow, she stood, sobbed, talking less angry and more pleading.

He backed her out the door at sword point.

The door closed to wailing sobs and rattling chains.

It occurred to me then that I was locked in a storehouse for confiscated fancy junk.

I searched my musty new cell up and down.

There were stairs to a loft, and I climbed them.

It was more storage,

but there was a door to bring things up by a pulley that dangled from the ceiling.

But it wasn’t a door, more of a piece of wood cut to cover the opening.

I unlatched it.

It fell smack down onto the head of a green, glassy doggish-liony statue.

The dog-lion’s head broke right off at the neck.

[Establishing that my knack for breaking stuff extends to worlds in which I can’t be seen or heard.]

Anyhow, I looked out to see if I was clear to escape—

forgetting that no one seemed to be able to see me.

There was just the woman—once angry, now sad.

She was kneeling in the mud in her fancy up-to-the-armpits skirt.

She sure was broken up about that vase.

You’d think it was her dog or her granddaddy.

I couldn’t see why she was so upset,

but it only seemed right to give the vase back to her.

So I went and got the vase that the soldier put on the shelf.

[Right then, my plan was to put the vase that came with me in its place, but more on that…]

I couldn’t very well chuck the vase down to her, her all teary-eyed.

So I snagged a small tarp, folded it, and put the vase into the tarp.

Taking the tarp upstairs, I called to the lady.

But she couldn’t hear me—maybe she was just too sobby.

So I took a shard of the lionish-dog’s neck, and winged it in her direction.

The green piece bounced, spattering some mud onto her skirt.

She looked over.

She scurried toward the storehouse, wiping her eyes, when she saw me lowering the vase.

Wouldn’t you know it, that slippery vase shifted in the tarp, falling out the end.

I gasped again, remembering that my superpower worked here,

but the woman caught it, hugging it to her chest.

I dropped her the tarp, and she swaddled the vase in it.

She cradled the vase like a baby,

looking up in my direction, seemingly happy and grateful.

I had to work my nerve up to jump out of that loft,

but figured I should put the other vase in place of the one I’d given away.

I was sick with sad and lonely.

I was stuck in a place where I knew no one and couldn’t speak the language.

Even if I had spoken Chinese, no one could see or hear me.

But an idea formed.

I picked the vase up, and, instead of putting it on the shelf,

I smashed it against the floor.

***

[blue and white crackly light]

And there I was once again, a tourist in a temple in a far away land,

my fingers barely touching the vase.

I yanked my hand back like that vase was a scalding pot.

Mama said she had something called “temple fatigue.”

So we went for ice cream.

Ice cream is safe.

Ice cream never banished anyone to ancient lands or to an alternate dimension.

At least, I’d like to think that…

DAILY PHOTO: Flag Runners, Wagah Crossing

Taken in April of 2016 at the Wagah border crossing

Taken in April of 2016 at the Wagah border crossing

Taken at the Wagah (Attari) Border Crossing Retreat Ceremony. Kids running with the Indian flag toward the border with Pakistan. These were some of the more skilled flag wavers, which–oddly enough–meant they did less “waving” of the flag. Those who waved the flag tended to wrap it around the pole. These kids had technique, just hold on tight and run like the dickens.

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POEM: To BE… Or Not

Copy of IMG_1580“What do you want to BE when you grow up?”

They ask you when you’re just a little pup.

So, what part of what I must BE,

is different from the me you see?

Dad thought, “the part that they’ll pay you for.”

Like an allowance for finishing a chore?

“Yes, young man, but you can safely assume, 

no one else will pay you to clean your room.”

 

Kids don’t think of being gainfully employed.

 

Which seems to make grownups quite annoyed.

At five, I wanted to be a cowboy.

“Son, there’s no jobs in that line of employ.”

That’s OK, then I’ll be an Indian.

“You’d have to be born that way, my friend.”

I wasn’t born a doctor, but you said that’s OK.

“That’s not the same, son, what can I say?”

I know what then, Dad, I’ll be the Batman!

“Come on, son, that’s not a feasible plan.”

You’re thinking Superman, Batman has no powers.

“Bruce Wayne by day, Batman at night, where’s the sleeping hours.”

You have a point there, you’ve got me stumped.

Thinking myself prematurely defunct.

5 Lessons One Learns Teaching Kids Yoga

During the last half of April, I taught a kid’s camp at a1000 yoga‘s Kormangala studio. Below are some ideas about my experience.

Playful Scorpion

The Playful Scorpion

1.) Kids can’t down shift from 4th to 1st like adults. This was once a major point of frustration for me in teaching kids. When you ask kids to settle down after an activity they were really excited about, there’ll be a lag. There’s a temptation to see this unresponsiveness as a lack of respect, but it probably isn’t. (Which isn’t to say that the kiddies never attempt to test the waters.) The fact is that adults don’t get so amped up, and so it’s not so difficult for them settle down. Instead of getting frustrated with the kids, maybe one should feel sorry for the adults.

 

2.) Kids need a more advanced class, but not because they’re more advanced. Attention to detail isn’t a child’s strong suit. They have difficulty focusing on the finer points of alignment and breath–unless they’ve found a fun challenge in the pose. During the camp, we played with vrschikasana (scorpion pose) during the first few days. That’s not something I would do with adults. Kids get in the zone and, therefore, they don’t tense up and injure themselves so easily.

 

3.) Kids are natural flow hackers. If you don’t know what “flow” is, I’d recommend Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow, Steven Kotler’s The Rise of Superman, or Marer / Buzady / Vecsey’s Missing Link Discovered. (Depending upon your point of interest: psychology, athletics, or business, respectively.)  However, in a nutshell, flow is the state of mind in which we perform at our best because of a combination of concentration and the quieting of one’s inner critic. One of the keys to catching the flow is finding a challenge of the appropriate level. The challenge should be just beyond one’s current capability. If it’s too easy, one gets bored. If it’s too difficult, one gets frustrated. Children instinctively seek out the Goldilocks’s zone in challenges.

I noticed this when we were playing a game in which each kid had to cross the floor walking only on wooden yoga blocks. This helps with balance, which tends to be a weakness among kids. Every time all the kids have finished crossing, a block or two is removed. So, the game gets harder the longer it goes on. The position of the remaining blocks can be adjusted, and, after a while, the kids wanted to adjust the blocks themselves because I was making it too easy. In other words, they wanted to make gaps that they would have to stretch to their utmost to succeed.

 

4.) Don’t assume that kids experience fear the same way you do. I suspect there may be some readers who will say, “that guy had kids doing scorpion on their second day of yoga, he must be a complete lunatic.” But, adults superimpose their fears on children. Kids’ excitement more easily overcomes their anxieties. In my last post on yoga, I referred to a FaceBook meme that I saw recently that said, “A child who falls down 50 times learning to walk, never says, ‘I don’t think this is for me.'” Somewhere along the line, people become mortified of failure or the risk of a bruise, but it’s not in childhood.

Have you ever seen a child fall down and start to get up–everything apparently fine–until he or she sees the gasp from mom (or another adult,) and then the child bursts into tears? If you’re the adult in the aforementioned scenario, let me suggest that teaching kids physical activities isn’t yet for you–at least not until you can manage your own anxiety a bit better. That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with such people, but a teacher’s job is to show the child a world of possibilities and not to infect them with his or her own limitations.

 

5.) Finding the balance between inner child and outer adult can be a challenge, but is necessary. My working theory is that kids don’t trust an adult whose inner child doesn’t show through at least a little bit. Kid’s yoga is typically taught differently from the adult version. When teaching adults, one doesn’t practice alongside the students, but that’s the norm in teaching kids. (Kids can mimic better than they can follow complex verbal instructions.) The kids enjoy having the teacher participate, but one must also ensure that it remains clear who is the teacher. Otherwise, kids may be confused. When you’ve been participating in practice, playing games, and letting the children have some say in what they do (which is also a sound practice to some degree) they may gradually start to forget about your role as authority figure.

BOOK REVIEW: Yoga Education for Children, Vol. 1 by Swami Satyananda Saraswati, et. al.

Yoga Education for ChildrenYoga Education for Children by Swami Prakashanand Saraswati
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This is the first of a two-volume set on teaching children yoga, and was the textbook for the Registered Children’s Yoga Teacher (RCYT) training course that I completed earlier this year. The focus is on integrating yogic teachings as part of a child’s broader education. It’s not just about how one can squeeze some postures into the life of a busy student, but about what yogic education can provide that mainstream education is lacking and how mainstream and yogic education can work together to produce healthier and more well-balanced children.

The book consists of three parts. Part I is entitled “Yoga and Education” and it considers a range of topics at the intersect of yoga and education. Here we learn why formal yogic education begins at age eight, and what the differences between children and adults are as they pertain to learning yoga—and learning in general. This section presents the specific practices that have historically been a child’s introduction into yoga (surya namaskara, nadi shoudhana [alternate nostril breathing], and a specific chant known as the Gayatri mantra.) The tone of the book is scientific, although it does vastly oversimplify some topics—e.g. the deterioration of the pineal gland—over what is being reported by scientists.

The middle section considers yoga as a therapeutic tool for emotionally troubled children, disabled children, and those with juvenile diabetes. This is the shortest part by far. It’s just three chapters, each linked to a subject mentioned in the topic sentence. The chapters are short and general. It should be noted, that the first section also addresses the issue of behavioral problems in a more general and less clinical sense.

The final part of the book, and the largest by page count, is yogic practices for children. There’s a brief section on pre-school exercises. As mentioned, children are formally introduced to yoga around age seven or eight. Younger children’s yoga training best takes the form of play. Therefore, the practices for younger children are more game-like. There’s a section on yoga for the classroom. In other words, practices that one can complete at a desk–as opposed to needing the full mat space.

The bulk of part three is taken up by asana. The postures are laid out as they are in the “Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha” (APMB) book that is also put out by the Yoga Publications Trust of Bihar. For each posture there’s a line drawing, a description, and a list of benefits and contraindications. In some cases these posture listings look exactly the same as those in the APMB, but in many cases they are “marketed” differently. That is, a posture might be listed by its similarity of appearance to an animal or letter of the alphabet so that asana can be taught in conjunction with other topics—as well as be made more interesting for the young student. The grouping of asana is meant to assist in creating child-suitable lessons (as opposed to being grouped by type of posture–e.g. forward bends, back bends, twists, etc.)

The last part doesn’t deal only in asana, it also talks about pranayama practices suitable for children as well as other common practices like trataka (concentrating gaze) and yoga nidra (yogic sleep.) It’s important to note that not all pranayama practices are deemed suitable for children. Practices like yoga nidra have to be modified for children because they will not be able to sit still for extended periods, and so the yoga nidra practice must be abbreviated. Children may also have trouble following some of the instructions as used for adults.

I’d recommend this book for yoga teachers who are interested in teaching children. There are many unique features of teaching children that must be considered. This volume is under 300 pages, and the second volume is about the same thickness. I haven’t read volume two but it seems to take a similar approach, expanding on some items and focusing on a different set of practices. That volume also apparently reports on the findings of a couple studies on yoga in the educational environment.

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9 Lessons Learned During Children’s Yoga Teacher Training

I recently finished the course requirements for Registered Children’s Yoga Teacher (RCYT) training at a1000 Yoga in Bangalore. (As of this writing, I still have a kid-specific teaching requirement to meet before I can add this to my Yoga Alliance certification portfolio.)  When I did my seva (charitable teaching) requirement for RYT-200 at an orphanage, I discovered that teaching kids was a different monster. That’s what led me to take up this specialization, and I thought I’d share some of what I learned.


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1. Eight is [soon] enough:  The traditional age for introducing children to a practice of yoga is eight. This doesn’t mean that kids aren’t taught postures (asana) or other yogic techniques earlier, but for younger kids it’s typically done as play. Traditionally, surya namaskara (sun salutation), nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing), and Gayatri mantra (a particular chant) serve as the core of the child’s practice.

Why eight? It has to do with a number of physical and mental development factors including lung development, the state of the pineal gland, and the arrival of abstract reasoning capacity.

Kids_contortionism2.) There are no youth-related contraindicated postures: I expected to spend a fair amount of the course learning what postures one shouldn’t teach children and why. However, instead we were told that kids could be exposed to any Hatha yoga postures.

Of course, this is predicated on: a.) the fact that one is dealing with a child eight and up; b.) one recognizes that the strengths and weaknesses of children will need to be taken into account and modifications or capacity building may be necessary in some cases. (For example, the flexibility of kids may allow them to achieve postures that few adults can, but at the same time their lack of strength and balance may be limiting factors for some postures.); c.) obviously, one needs to take into account that kids may have contraindicated conditions that aren’t age-related but are due to their particular physical condition.

It should also be noted that children are typically not taught breath retention (khumbaka) as part of their (breath exercise) practice. So it’s not true to say that there are no contraindicated practices.

3.) In stillness, your results may vary: One of the nice things about a yoga practice for kids is that it acknowledges that most kids, by nature, don’t want to be still. As opposed to mainstream education, which attempts to force stillness upon them, yoga offers a mixture of activity and stillness. However, it was interesting to see the range of abilities to remain motionless during yoganidra (“yoga sleep,” i.e. a hypnogogic state) practice. There is, of course, an age component to this. That is, young kids have a harder time staying still than older kids. However, that isn’t all there is to it. A few of the older kids couldn’t stay still in savasana (corpse pose) for five seconds, but a few of the young seemed able to be still for as long as required–not necessarily awake, but still.

the exception

the exception

4.) Balance isn’t in a child’s wheelhouse:  I knew that strength was ill-developed in prepubescent children, but I didn’t realize how challenging kids would find even simple balance postures. They’re a little like drunks in this regard.

Obviously, kids tend to be freakishly bendy, and so it’s not a surprise that most of them could learn to do chakrasana (wheel pose, i.e. a full back bridge) from a standing position in short order. In fact, the challenge for those who had one was more likely to be confidence with not falling on one’s head than with a lack of back-bending flexibility.

The moral of the story is that one must recognize that children are a little like senior citizens in this one domain. That is, consideration must be given to the risk that they will fall down during balancing poses. Unlike seniors, they don’t have too far to fall, and they’ll heal lickety-split if they do, but–still–they’ll fall like a drunken sailor.

5.) Teaching kids’ partner yoga requires a different approach:  The usual advice is that one should teach kids from “inside the circle.” That is, one shouldn’t set oneself off at the head of a class like one would usually do with an adult class. One sits with with the kids and does the class with them. (You probably won’t be doing 6 classes a day that way.)

I had the opportunity to teach a pairs yoga class and found that an entirely different approach was needed. First let me say that pairs (partner) yoga is a great approach for teaching kids. Many kids will enjoy the interaction, and they can learn about teamwork and (in some cases) take advantage of the stabilization of additional limbs / grounded surface area. However, because it requires so much attention to be focused on the partner, it’s best not to teach it from inside the circle. One won’t necessarily be able to see what one’s students are doing, and that can be dangerous.

6.) There’s a yoga for special needs children: Among our guest speakers, we had a yoga teacher from Prafull Oorja, which is an organization that teaches special needs children using yoga, dance, and various other methods. These approaches are used to increase bodily awareness, which is a common problem across many different afflictions. We learned about the range of challenges faced by such children and how the usual approach is varied to adapt to their needs.

 

The course included information about several non-yogic methods that could be used to complement yoga practice to achieve the objectives of a yoga course. I write this by way of explanation as to why the last few lessons seem to have little to do with yoga.

 

7.) Stories must be physical, animated, and repetitive for small kids:  These features serve to help adjust to the child’s limited vocabulary, while helping them to build vocabulary. We had a speaker from Kathalaya (House of Stories) who offered a great deal of insight into story-telling for kids.

Lest one think that story-telling is just filler in the yoga context, I’ve been learning a great deal about how our minds need stories, and am inclined to believe that one’s insight into the mind will be limited if one doesn’t understand story and why stories appeal to our minds. I recommend the book Wired for Story by Lisa Cron.

8.) Games used in theater can go hand-in-hand with yoga practice:  I was completely new to the idea of theater games before this course, but we had someone teach us a number of these games, and the logic behind building our own. Games which aren’t too cerebral can go help build some of the same skills that are sought in a course of yoga. Such games include practices that help develop one’s voice and physical expressiveness. These games can also help bring some kids out of their shells so that they are more ready to actively participate in a yoga class.

9.) We need mental hygiene as much as dental hygiene: This actually comes from a quote by Sir Bat Khalsa, a Harvard Neurologist who studies the effects of yoga. When I was doing research for my final presentation, I ran across said quote, which goes:

“There’s no preventive maintenance. We know how to prevent cavities. But we don’t teach children how to be resilient, how to cope with stress on a daily basis… We’ve done dental hygiene but not mental hygiene.”

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