When Ryan and I made it to George Town, Bahamas, we found a community of sailing families living on their boats. Over 300 boats had dropped anchors and they enjoy daily and evening activities together. After subbing a morning yoga class, I was asked by local homeschooling (well, boatschooling) parents to teach the philosophy of yoga to children ages 6-14.
At 2:00 in the afternoon, the kids and I gathered together under the shade of the trees to learn about Pantanjali's 8 limbs of yoga.
In life, we all have the option and power to choose where our energy is going. We want our energy to flow into work, into people and into emotions that uplift us and affirm our life, instead of work, people or emotions that drain us. Yamas include lessons such as non-violence and truthfulness.
Activity for the kids: Each child received a cup of 10 small seashells. We asked them to identify, as a group, 4 life actions, decisions or emotions that make them feel good, and 4 life actions, decisions or emotions that make them feel gloomy or sad. In this particular class, they chose: 1) Reading a book, 2) Eating food 3) Dancing 4) Sailing. Their negatives were: 1) Fighting with a sibling or parent, 2) Lying 3) Cheating 4) Stealing. We created a cup for each, leaving us with 8 empty cups.
“Now, you each have 10 shells,” I explained. “I want you to put a shell in each cup that you have experienced or done - good or bad.”
Soon, each cup was full of shells. I went through each cup.
“Our cup of fighting with our siblings or parents is pretty full,” I said. “Does that make us feel good?” The kids shook their heads no.
“But I see our dancing cup is pretty full too,” I said. “Does that make us feel good?” The kids faces lit up with smiles as they shook their heads yes.
“Now, when we’re trying to understand YAMA, we have to understand that we have the power to direct our energy into the good, life-giving things or the sad, life-draining things. Where do we want to put our seashells?”
The kids quickly moved the shells from the 4 life-draining cups to the 4 life-giving cups.
“Add a little extra to the eating food cup,” one kid said, and we all laughed.
Lessons: Choose the life-giving people, actions, emotions. This will affirm your life instead of slowly leading to the depletion of you.
NIYAMA [fixed observance]
The easiest way to understand NIYAMA, is to intimately understand ritual, self-discipline or routine. It is the process of trusting the process.
Activity for the kids: On a piece of paper, we wrote down a goal we are hoping to achieve. Some of them wrote down: “I want to learn how to do a back flip,” “I want to learn how to surf,” and “I want to drive the dinghy.”
After we had our hopes and dreams out on paper, we wrote down who we would need to become and a routine we would need to adopt in order to achieve that goal.
“For example,” I explained, “If you want to learn how to do a back flip, you may need to strengthen your arms, increase flexibility in your back, seek out a teacher who can teach you about momentum, and then practice your exercises every day.”
Understanding NIYAMA leads to understanding yourself more: what you have inside of you, the grit it takes to focus your mind, attention and body on a ritual or routine that leads to your eventual freedom.
This is the limb most recognized as yoga. It is the limb of physical postures, usually called “stretches” when discussed colloquially. But ASANAS are so much more than that. We made sure to discuss that each ASANA has a purpose, a deeper meaning, and a series of steps to increasing the challenge.
Activity for kids: Have them find a place at their mat. Leading them through asanas, explain the body benefits of the posture and explain the different options of increasing the challenge.
“Now, you have to listen to your body before accepting the challenge,” I explain. “If you feel ready to try, and take on a ‘I-can-do’ attitude, then slowly, you can try to increase the intensity and take on the challenge.”
ASANAS reveals to students their ability to decide for their own bodies and their ability to listen to their bodies.
PRANAYAMA [breath of life]
One of the most challenging of the limbs, pranayama is almost one of the most life-giving limbs. Prana means “life force” or “breath sustaining the body” and ayama means “to extend or draw out.” Extending or drawing out your life force is possible through your breath.
Activity for kids: We stuck our arms straight outward from our body, in the shape of a T. We made tiny, fast circles with the arms forward and then backward - increasing the rate of the heart. Then we stopped!
“Feel your heartbeat,” I said, out of breath myself. “Is it beating fast and speedy?” A few exasperated yeses came from the crowd.
“Now, let’s sit down.” They sat down on their mats, hands still on their hearts.
I led them through breath exercises (like square breathing): inhaling for 4 counts, holding for 4 counts, exhaling for 4 counts, holding for 4 counts.
After every breath exercises, we felt our hearts.
“Do you feel it slowing down? Our heart races sometimes - often when we’re angry or frustrated. But we can slow down our breath and calm our bodies and minds. Just like how you did right now! What’s the secret?”
“Your breath!” They answered.
We often try to do too much, but every now and then a withdrawal of overloading our senses is necessary. Pratyahara is oftentimes explained as a turtle withdrawing into his shell (with the turtles shell representing the mind, and the turtle’s limbs representing the senses).
In simple terms, pratyahara means withdrawing from foods that are wrong for you, impressions (sensations of sounds, touch, sight, taste and smell) that are wrong for you, and people or associations that are wrong for you. The idea of this withdrawal of what is wrong for you, you can find peace and you are not easily disrupted or disturbed by the environment around you.
Activity for kids: Each child placed both hands, palms down, on the table. Sitting up nice and straight, we asked for them to close their eyes and observe the world around them. What did they hear? Smell? Feel? Was there someone or something upsetting them? We asked them to imagine whatever was “offensive” to them as moving further and further away from them.
“Like a turtle pulling into his shell, imagine these things moving away from you and out of your current senses,” I said.
Then we talked about what foods, impressions or associations were not good for them right now. We had this discussion with the parents included.
In this world, we are encouraged to multitask. People are who are “good” at multitasking seem to be praised, sending a silent message that multitaskers are sought after and preferred.
But DHARANA shares with us a different tone: It invites us to focus our attention on NOT multitasking. It invites us to spend quiet, uninterrupted time for ourselves.
Activity for the kids: Each child was given a mandala drawing with markers and colored pencils.
“Now the challenge is that you cannot talk! If you need a different color, you have to find a way to exchange or retrieve the color without talking,” I explained. “We are only focused on our drawing. We aren’t worrying about words or communication or anyone else’s drawing right now. Just think about your piece of art.”
The children silently colored in their mandala drawings without saying a single word. They pleasantly shared, giving and taking, taking what they needed, passing what they didn’t. But, in complete silence, the children colored.
Life passes by pretty quickly without us even realizing it! Our children and our parents grow older, college is over too quickly, the calendar year speeds by. But we rarely stop to realize we’re alive; to watch the passage of time.
Activity for the kids: We grabbed a conch shell and filled it with sand. Then, we stuck a stick of incense (sandalwood) into the sand and lit it.
“The challenge here is to not move, not talk, not look away. Sit and recognize your life, your breath, the passage of time as it burns down,” I said.
The children sat in stillness and in silence watching as the incense burned down further and further. As they watched, I talked about awareness. The word dhyana comes from the Sanskrit word “dhyai” which means “to think of.” In this challenge, we did just that: sat there, watching, and thinking.
SAMADHI [wholeness, enlightenment]
This limb can be frustrating because it can feel unachievable. But, when explaining SAMADHI to children, we explained it as “fullness” or “feeling full.” Full of happy, full of contentment, full of love, full of food, full of joy, full of encouragement.
Activity for the kids: They took a permanent marker, and wrote down the name of something or someone they love on each one of the seashells and put them back into their cup.
“Write down something or someone who helps fill you up with happiness,” I said, as they wrote or drew pictures of all of the things or people who make them feel their fullest.
Mama. Dad. Brothers and sisters. Grandparents. Music. Sailing. Dancing. Pets. Waves. Beaches. Books.
Their seashells were filling up faster and faster, and their smiles got bigger and bigger. This is SAMADHI. Feeling enlightened. Feeling uplifted. Feeling full.
There, in the shade of giant trees on the sand with our bare feet, we explored the 8 limbs of yoga. At the end, we said, “Namaste” and shared a group hug.
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