Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Family Fun

What is that saying in the film and television industry about children and animals? Never work with children or animals?

So, imagine what it would be like to teach a yoga class with children and animals.

I have taught and attended classes where children participated or quietly played under the supervision of their parents but the classes have still been focused on the adults. One of the classes I attend is popular with mothers of toddlers so it is not unusual to have toddlers wandering around or the teacher comforting an unsettled child while instructing us. Sometimes, depending on the students, the teacher's dog might be in the room so you find yourself manoeuvring around a dog resting on your mat. We might work hard in the class but the atmosphere is informal and welcoming.

Unless you count Tequila, our chihuahua-terrier cross, Hubby and I have no kids and my experience with young children is limited to nieces and nephews, and children of friends and students. The number of times I've looked after young kids on my own can be counted on one hand. So, I was a little apprehensive when I received an enquiry to run private classes for two adults and three children (one teenager and two kids under 10).

Children have different needs to adults. A quiet, settling period at the start of the class might be just what adults need to collect themselves and focus but, it can turn into a fidgety period for restless children. Younger children tend to have shorter attention spans and become bored with a pose more quickly than adults. Articles on the web suggested vocalisations (for example, meowing like a cat), games and stories, but I was unsure how the adults and teenager would feel about this and I felt uncomfortable planning and teaching such a class. I needed to find a balance of ‘fun’ and ‘serious’ elements that reflected me as a person and as a teacher. So, I opted for my usual class format without an initial settling period.

I started with something that most people would not expect in a yoga class—a Dru Yoga-style warmup to the strains of a Jazz clarinet piece. I then planned a mix of asana to let me gauge capabilities and needs, natural breath awareness as the pranayama practice, and finally a moving meditation. The dynamic elements of the class were designed to release excess energy and to develop focus by synchronising movements with the breath. Balances helped to develop strength and focus, and rest positions allowed time to be still. And this approach ended up working well!

I arrived to a chaotic household with visitors who were about to leave, a dog running around, a cat nonchalantly watching the mayhem, and an unprepared Mum starting to move furniture to make space for the mats. The other Mum and her teenage daughter were not able to attend, so the class was reduced to three. Miss Seven was bouncing around, ready to go, telling me all about her experience with yoga at school. Mum disappeared to drag a reluctant Master Eight away from his computer. With the dog locked outside, and a cat (who decided one of my yoga mats made a good scratching post) shooed away, we were ready to start.

Miss Seven and Master Eight chatted throughout most of the class. Mum said they were both quite vocal and just to keep talking to them. Visualisation became important. Shaking our arms and legs to warm up became more vigorous when we were imagining we were removing gum (or something worse) off the bottom of our shoes, or getting rid of cockroaches off our arms. We became mountains (tadasana) and trees including palm trees swaying in the wind (tiryaka tadasana). We were ‘little boy’ dogs (fire hydrant) and classic cats moving through ‘cat bow’ (push ups) and balancing cat.

Before starting pranayama, Master Eight had to rush off and check that he had not been logged off his game (so important if you're in the middle of a big score), and then everyone settled in shavasana. For relaxation, I chose the Waves of Peace relaxation, perfect for those with monkey minds. The feet, hands and head are moved in time with the breath, letting the mind focus and relax before settling into a couple of minutes of stillness. Miss Seven did not participate, deciding instead to turn over on her side and curl up under the covering towel. As I guided the relaxation, I had to divert a hungry cat away from the mats. Master Eight seemed a bit startled at the sound of the singing bowl signalling the end of the relaxation but all arose for the final stretch and chant “Aum shanti”.

Everyone (including the kids) were calmer and quieter—exactly the result Mum was hoping for.

I suspect that teaching yoga to families depends on the family dynamics and personalities. In this class, Mum was great. She brought a no-nonsense approach to the class, gently prodding and encouraging the kids, re-interpreting my instructions and demonstrating practices.

My focus ended up mainly on the kids; I consciously simplified my instructions and made the language more personal. Simultaneously, I tried to cue Mum on alignment and ensure everyone practised safely. I also had to add practices because we took less time to move through asana than I had planned.

From this class, I found that:

  • Mum was key to the success of the class, gently redirecting the kids' focus back to the class.
  • Choosing a Dru Yoga-style warmup worked well. It was unexpected and fun. I might just have to try the Hokey Pokey next time.
  • Using visualisations helped provide alignment cues for the kids and the asana names are such a great source to build those visualisations.
  • Including some challenging poses such as balancing cat and the cat bow helped with focus and provided something to work on
  • Planning more asana is better than too little. Personally, I find it easier to remove practices if needed.
  • Being flexible is important. Add or remove practices as required. Do not worry too much about perfect alignment; as long as people are not hurting themselves then let things be. And be ready to work around that inquisitive cat or dog!

I was so nervous about the class but in the end, although it was a challenging experience, it was also fun and exhilarating!

“As you move outside of your comfort zone, what was once the unknown and frightening becomes your new normal.”
~ Robin S. Sharma

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