I’m teaching a first grade yoga class. The kids are upbeat and focused, which is a contrast to the last time I met with them two weeks ago. Then, they were in full meltdown mode, complete with temper tantrums and crying jags. But their moods change like the weather, and today they are glad to be here. We have sung our welcome song, followed a bell tone with our focused attention, completed a few rounds of deep breathing, and done our Sun Dance warmup.
Now we are selecting new poses to learn. I invite Perseus to pick a yoga pose card from the colorful Kids Yoga Stories deck. After careful consideration, he draws Squat Pose.
Squat Pose is a powerful pose for the hips, legs, and feet. To get into it, you step into a wide stance and lower your buttocks between your ankles. You can wrap your arms around your knees or brace your arms against your inner thighs to help you maintain the pose. This pose tends to be much easier for children than for adults, who are prone to tight hip flexors and hip joints, in addition to weaker gluteal muscles. That said, it is a great pose to help tone muscles in the lower body and maintain flexibility as we grow older. But these first graders have no qualms. They immediately plop into the pose, knees wide, bottoms hovering just above the floor, hands folded in front of their chests like the boy in the picture.
And then…..they stay there. Bodies settle in. The room grows quiet and noticeably calmer. Normally I will introduce a pose with perhaps a couple of variations, have the kids practice breathing and noticing the sensations in our bodies, and then move on to the next pose. With young children, maintaining a steady pace is key to keeping them engaged. Now, however, without any direction from me, these kids have spontaneously found a moment of centered calm, and I follow their lead and hold the space for them to continue. And continue they do.
Then I hear humming emanating from somewhere on my left. Many kids have seen stereotyped images of yogis practicing on television and other media. They like pretending to “meditate” with the classic “Om” sound, except they hear it as “Hum”, so that’s what comes out. When taught in public schools, yoga is presented in a strictly secular manner without any religious associations, and toning is one of many mindfulness practices that we use. It calms the nervous system and puts the kids in touch with their bodily sensations. Soon, the whole room is humming. I have them put their fingers on their throats to feel the vibrations and encourage them to take deep breaths in between rounds. This goes on for a while.
Gradually things wind down. I see a few restless movements around the circle that tell me that their legs are getting fatigued, and they’re ready to transition. They come out of the squat and go into Child’s Pose to give their bodies a rest. We are all refreshed.
I don’t pretend to know what these kids were experiencing or why the pose struck such a chord with them. Perhaps it was the novelty of the sensations combined with the strong stretch to their legs and hips, and the concentration that the pose demanded. Squat Pose, also called Malasana or Garland Pose, is one of a family of poses that are classified as hip openers. These poses play an important role in yoga practice, addressing symptoms such as back pain that are indicators of our sedentary habits. Any adult who sits at a computer terminal for a living will experience these issues. Some yoga teachers and bodyworkers cite a connection between tight gluteal muscles and emotional trauma. This is an important clue, for most of the children in this room have experienced homelessness and the family upheaval associated with it. The school is in a “transitional” neighborhood where development pressures have pushed out low-income housing in favor of expensive condos, and the community it serves has shrunk to the families who still live in nearby public housing as well as those who struggle with finding affordable places to live.
The impact of all this uncertainty and upheaval is severe for the students, and it is easy to see how it reflects in every aspect of their lives if you understand what you’re looking at. Trauma-informed teaching practices that directly address their needs meet them where they live, so to speak. They help to cut through the noise that makes it difficult for stressed and anxious children to learn and thrive. Something as simple as momentarily letting go of a lesson plan and allowing children to claim a moment of calm and rest in the midst of a busy school day can have profound results, and reminds educators that kids are often more in touch with their own needs than we give them credit for.