These are my speech notes from the 2018 Prairie Dinner Fundraiser: Connecting Vinyasa Yoga For Youth and Education
The Vinyasa Yoga for Youth organization is one that has been dear to my heart for the past couple of years. In the 10-year tenure of this organization, I am a recent addition to the team of teachers, champions, and advocates who work hard to bring yoga to youth. In addition to this level of involvement, I am also school teacher. Albeit, I am new to the career of teaching, I have been heavily involved with youth work since my first summer as a camp counsellor in the Upstate Mountains of New York. For me, the past decade has been a wonderful journey of work and travel abroad, then returning to my hometown of Saskatoon, getting more involved with Yoga, earning my Education Degree, and finally landing here and speaking to you tonight as a representative from both communities.
So I come to you to present an insight into the world of education and yoga, specifically to highlight how the work of Vinyasa Yoga for Youth supports and parallels the work that is already happening within the education community. I want to share with you tonight, three specific ways, from a list of many, of how Vinyasa Yoga for Youth works to provide tools and practices that aim to be catalysts for positivity in the lives of children.
It does not matter how good your “form” for Dancer’s Pose might be, but rather that you show up on your mat, be present, breathe, move, try Dancer’s Pose, and then remove any attachment about whether it was a “good” or “bad” day with that posture. In other words, it is all about intent. With youth, we show up on our yoga mats, to begin we often sit and find stillness, maybe do some breathing exercises, but then the work and the fun starts when we move and breathe together, intentionally. This is Vinyasa yoga, and it is happening for youth.
Before I get to the three examples of how this practice parallels the desired outcomes of education for youth, I want to explain the concept of “taking yoga off the mat”.
Taking yoga-off-the-mat is a response to an individual’s change due to the work that is happening when they are ON the mat, practicing yoga. A few of the principles or ideas that we highlight in a physical yoga class, can carry over to life outside the walls of a studio or community space. If you practice yoga, perhaps you have experienced a time when the reminder to move slowly or take a few deep breaths helped to de-escalate a moment of frustration or, perhaps, road rage. Now that is just one small example - and when working with kids, we dream big!
So here it is…
First, we most often set-up the yoga mats in a big circle. This is done to represent unity, and it is a symbol that “we are all one”. Even the teacher is part of the circle, humbling themselves to be part of the rhythm and flow that keeps the circle whole. There is a really beautiful balance exercise that challenges the student to stand on one leg in Tree Pose. Often kids are wobbly, unbalanced, and searching for an anchor to ground them. Now in this pose, we invite everyone to put up their hands, and give or take support from the person standing next to them. It’s truly amazing to see a wave of steadiness wash over the group where everyone is connected and pressing hands with each other for support. While balancing still, the teacher might say something about how “individual trees can be strong, but there is strength and power in a forest of trees – connected… equal… as one!” So what does this look like off the mat? Well in the classrooms there are many opportunities to work together, collaborate, to support others. Math groups, reading groups, science projects. Education is not like one person (or one tree!) standing in the middle of an island. No, it’s a union of support networks and young people learning from each other! Education has shifted away from the “Sage on the Stage”. Teachers are learning facilitators and that learning can happen from peers, from the environment, experiences, and books. The idea is that we are truly all equal, and we are all in this together. And when these students grow up and navigate the tricky and challenging waters of being teenagers and young adults, we hope they have experience leaning on others for support, knowing they are not alone in their struggles. There will be social issues, relational issues, mental health concerns, physical setbacks, workplace challenges, family dynamics and friend circles changing, and a multitude of other stressors, but if they have an understanding that they are supported, perhaps their world will be a little bit of a better place.
Second… we breathe together! We usually open and close a yoga practice with intentional ‘together’ breaths. I often teach that just like kicking a soccer ball or practicing piano, young people need to practice breathing, practice being steady, practice being calm, and practice slowing their internal processing systems. Off the yoga mat, this is a self- regulation technique that is widely used in schools, and it’s a wonderful practice that we echo on the yoga mat. After just a few seconds or cycles of these deep breaths, physiologically the body starts to change and shift away from feelings of anxiety or stress, and towards a place of neutrality, calmness, or relaxation. To say that teachers invite this sense of calmness and relaxation into their classroom environment would be an understatement. It is one of the first steps in the transition stage of prepping students to engage in active learning activities. Again, when these students grow up and navigate the tricky and challenging waters of being teenagers and young adults we hope they have the experience and tool of tapping into their breath in order to calm their nerves, self-regulate, and find peace in their body. An understanding of this will, perhaps, make their world a little bit of a better place.
Last, a yoga for youth class emphasizes the ideas of non-judgement and of non-comparison. Not judging how another body is able or unable to hold a posture, and not comparing our abilities or bodies to the people across the circle. Imagine sitting down, legs extended long, and being in a forward fold as you reach towards your shins or ankles. We welcome that lovely stretch in the back of our legs and spine, but the benefits are negated the moment we raise our head to look around and see who else can touch their toes, or not. We share that it does not matter what anyone else is doing because students should focus on what they can control and what is happening on their own mat. Non-comparison, non-judgement. Off the yoga mat, this is highlighted in the classroom environment when students are challenged to be responsible for their own learning. Focusing on their own studies for a math test or spelling quiz. Students are challenged to focus on the things that they can control, looking at factors that they can change, to alter the outcome of their situation. A focus on THEM and the SELF highlights to students that who they are, and what they do matters. They are loved, they are important, they are unique without comparison. When these students grow up and navigate the tricky and challenging waters of being teenagers and young adults, WE hope they grow to have a deep understanding that still who they are, and what they do matters. We want them to confidently become their true and authentic self. Tattoos & piercings, immigrant, refugee, gay, trans, light skin, dark skin, athletic, musical, artistic, peacemaker, feminist, activist… whomever they do, or do not become, may it be authentic and truthful for them. May they not be compared or judged for their being. Let them simply be loved and accepted for who they are. Non-judgement, non-comparison.
So that is what I have to share tonight, Thank you for being here, and thank you for listening to my insight on the parallels of this Yoga for Youth organization and our education system. Your support is sincerely appreciated, and an understanding of all of this will, certainly, make the world a whole lot of a better place.