Childbirth and the Mind Body Connection
It is not surprising that yoga and childbirth have a lot in common…gentlemen stay with me! Max Strom, yoga teacher and author of “A Life Worth Breathing,” states that, “the only people in this country, on a wide scale, that are taught how to breathe are woman about to give birth,” (and yogis of course). Although sensations during birth are much more intense than sensations in a yoga posture, both practices help to develop tools to establish a sense of calm amongst internal chaos. Due to the fact that I have an interest in both of these astounding practices, I stuck my nose in “Guide to Childbirth,” written by one of North America’s top midwives, Ina May Gaskin. In her book she not only shares her client’s birth stories, but also shares her personal birthing tips and tricks. One observation that Ina has made over the years is how powerful the mind/body connection is. This relationship between the body and mind is what I’d like to focus on, because miraculously it is a relationship that is strengthened through yoga as well.
Most of us brought up in Western cultures are taught that thoughts and feelings don’t matter when it comes to the functioning of your body. Ina states, “When something goes wrong with the body, our culture teaches that pharmaceutical medicines or surgery will be necessary.” In the early stages of her career she quickly learned that we cannot afford to overlook the mind/body connection in labor and delivery. Here is an example of how strong the bond can be.
In many cases, a woman’s cervix will dilate at a steady rate to about seven centimeters, but then can became locked there for several hours. When this occurs, Ina begins an open dialogue with the soon to be mother to try and get to the bottom of her physical hold up. She discovered that in all cases, the delay was due to an emotional blockage that needed to be released before the cervix could relax.
One woman was riddled with fear of dying in childbirth. As soon as she confided in Ina, her baby was born within two hours. Ina reflects, “I was quite impressed to know that an unspoken terrible thought could so powerfully alter a woman’s body’s ability to perform a normal physiological function.”
Talk about reestablishing trust in your intuition and feelings: Ina said that if someone walked into the room who wasn’t intimate with the laboring mother, labor would often come to a halt. If that person then left the room, only then would the birthing process return to its natural pace and intensity.
In another case, the power of mantra (a sound, word, or group of words that is capable of “creating transformation”) was used to progress the physical body in labor. This woman experienced her cervix opening just after her husband whispered in her ear, “You’re marvelous.” The couple continued to use positive affirmation to ease their baby into the world free of medication, mechanical intervention, or surgery.
Mantra, as well as meditation, pranayama and asana, is an important part of yoga that helps enhance mind/body coordination. “These techniques help to awaken poise, grace, strength, and the development of centered awareness, even in the midst of chaos and turmoil, ” shares physician and spiritual guide, Deepak Chopra. It’s quite impressive to watch the muscles, nervous system, the breath, and heartbeat become affected by what is happening in the mind. For example, if you hit meditation after a whirlwind of a day, you can calm yourself quite quickly and efficiently by focusing the mind on a relaxing image or word.
Lately, I’ve been experimenting with mantra, to try to decipher if it makes an impact on my practice or not. What pose did I choose to be my guinea pig? Obviously handstand, as there is so much mental and emotional turmoil around this popular little bugger! Upon hopping into it, I silently recited one word in my head to see if my body would respond. Overzealous mantras, caused me to flip past centre, cartwheeling to one side. A softer word, or even no word at all, seemed to have kept my hips far behind my shoulders; I was still far from making the cover of Yoga Journal! Finally, I discovered that it was a mantra between the two extremes that helped click me into that sweet spot. I hopped to the word, “ strong” or “ stick it” and literally hung out with my handstand for a few breaths. To help nail handstand, sometimes I’ll trick my body with my imagination. Call me crazy, but yesterday I put a pretend pit of snakes behind me and I didn’t fall out of it once!
Another way to deepen your understanding of the body/mind connection is to periodically check in with your overall experience in a pose. For example, if I observe my body struggling I’ll go upstairs and scan over my thoughts. Almost 90% of the time I’ll discover that my mind is either dark, negative, distracted or unsupportive. If the body is being challenged by an advance posture, eventually you can ease your experience by softening the edges around reactive thoughts. Change your habitual thinking patterns to therefore change the overall bhava, or mood, of the pose.
Chopra affirms that, “the activity in your mind is communicated to every cell in your body. When your mind is turbulent your messenger molecules communicate turbulence to your cells, tissues and organs. If you can quiet your mind, you can send messages of peace and harmony to every cell in your body.”
Your body is listening, so never forget that thoughts become things!
How to Teach Kids Yoga
Children are overwhelmed. More than ever in my 15 years as an educator I observe our children being affected by anxiety, depression, and a host of other issues that impact learning and the ability to develop skills such as self-regulation. Yoga is an evidence-based tool to provide children with the skills to self-regulate. I see it working everyday in a variety of settings. In teaching kids yoga, I have found there are 3 vital elements needed to teach yoga to kids: a teaching philosophy, my own yoga practice, and the understanding of child development.
Genshai: Help Kids See Their Greatness
In Aspire by Kevin Hall, I fell in love with the word Genshai. It’s an ancient Hindi word meaning “never to treat others, or yourself, in a way to make them feel small.” It’s more than that, though, it’s helping people see their greatness. How does this philosophy apply to leading children’s yoga?
Amy Defillipi, a psychotherapist and yoga teacher, suggests that five positive impacts have the same affect as one negative experience on the brain. So let’s imagine a child’s day. He rides the school bus with a friend. He does well on a spelling test. He plays at recess with others. He gets called on to share in circle time. All of these events can be easily forgotten if on the bus home, no one wants to sit with him. How can we prepare the child to savor the positive experiences and allow them to sink in? How can we aim to develop children’s positive self-talk? To help the children recognize their greatness, we need to see good in ourselves.
Mind Your Self-Talk
I believe it’s a teacher’s responsibility to be kind to him/herself when working with children. Below the age of seven, children mimic what we say and do. That being the case, a teacher’s behaviors ought to be model behavior. We all make mistakes, and we all struggle. But with increased negative thoughts and words come increased instances of depression and anxiety. Is it possible for us to become so mindful of our self-talk that it would be consistent with seeing our greatness?
Challenge: Practice Genshai Toward Yourself
- Practice saying, “I love you just as you are,” as you look yourself in the mirror every day
- When something unexpected happens, pause to notice the quality of your thoughts and words. What are your thoughts and words? Once you take a deep breath or two, invite yourself to try again. Kindly respond to yourself the way you would to your childhood self. What changes?
- Write down of all the accomplishments you manage throughout the day such as exercising, making it to work, and being kind. Then when something unexpected happens, you can more easily see the big picture of all that you accomplish. Phew! Tailspin averted
- Compliment yourself for your accomplishments. If you start to talk down about yourself, stop! Refer back to number 2
It’s important to see all people as whole beings right now. Seeing children as flawed does not honor their greatness. Children should feel safe to make mistakes and exhibit a wide range of behaviors in your presence without our judgment or belittlement. In a kids yoga setting, participation will look different for all children. Be prepared to welcome a range of participation and behavior. Here are a few tips that I offer in my teacher training.
Challenge: Practice Genshai With Children
Create Clear Behavior Expectations
Small children need to know how you want them to behave. Knowing allows them to feel confident and increases the likelihood of participation. To set expectations; try simply repeating the same statements as you start class each time. If you make a practice of reminding kids that, “In yoga, we sit criss-cross apple sauce on our yoga mats”, and during class a child gets off his or her mat, you can simply ask, “where do our bodies belong during yoga class?” Question asking jogs the memory and helps bring the child back with kind inquiry. He or she will think, “Oh yea, we sit on our yoga mats,” and not, “I am bad because I left my mat.” The latter of the two thoughts can be the unintended result of a teacher getting mad when children make normal mistakes. Remember that children are dealing with constant distractors such as bodily sensations, sounds from inside or outside the classroom, seeing toys, etcetera, and therefore distraction is to be expected. Children should not be reprimanded for their mind (or body) wandering, but kindly redirected to the proper behaviors that have been clearly set. The goal of yoga and mindfulness after all, isn’t to never become distracted; it’s to return from distraction to attention with kind curiosity.
Accept Different Forms of Participation
Some children observe and listen rather than “do” yoga, especially toddlers. Some children won’t be confident or comfortable enough to practice yoga in front of other people. Forcing participation is damaging to children. Instead, verbally accept other forms of participation. For example, “some of our friends are working hard watching and listening while others are trying out the poses. Thanks for participating in your own way.” It can be tempting to emphasize ‘good yoga poses.’ Try to refrain from focusing on the physical form, but the energy and effort involved.
If a Child is Not Participating Physically, Check-In
You may hear, “Yoga is weird.” Or “Yoga is just for girls.” Acknowledge that child’s trepidations. “I thought yoga seemed weird a first, too. Now I find breathing and yoga poses calming and empowering. Do you ever want to feel more powerful?” I have seen relating to kids on this level help them relax more into learning.
Develop and Maintain Your Practice
I recommend that teachers have a regular yoga practice so they are comfortable doing yoga. You will be a better teacher if you have your own experience and know how practices feel for you and how they shift your energy. For example, you may not know that forward folds are calming until you try them and your experience may differ. Create a regular home practice, which can be as simple as adding one pose or sequence and a breath to your morning routine. I challenge you to begin a regular yoga practice. Consider sun salutations before work, or belly breathing to calm down on the commute.
Differentiate Your Practice
I have seen many skilled yogis and yoga teachers flounder in a kids yoga setting. That’s because kids yoga is different than adult yoga. That is why it’s important to study with a kids yoga expert so you learn to sequence engaging age-appropriate classes. In my Flow and Grow Kids Yoga teacher training, we encourage graduates to shadow other teachers and co-teach when they are starting out. When preparing to teach, select a few activities and rehearse them to ensure you use simple and clear language. Rehearse a few activities per week and you will have built up a repertoire of curriculum.
Understand Early Childhood development
(Infancy to Seven) According to Flower Yoga founder Tara Rachel Jones, author of It’s Time for Yoga, in early childhood, children experience the world as a one big sense organ. That means their entire body receives input from the world around them like a porous sponge. Finger-play is a tool for toddlers and preschoolers to experience a mind-body connection. The use of the fingers, toes, and skin is important because they contain neural-receptors. Tara Rachel contends, “A Finger-play is a gateway for the developing child that interconnects Head, Heart and Hands. Head: through rhythmic and imaginative language; Heart and Hands: it creates a 3 dimensional gesture that guides the articulation of the hand as a gentle helper of the heart. Furthermore, from a yogic perspective, Finger-plays are wonderful and age-appropriate precursor to a future Mudra practice (meditative hand postures that relate to positive thinking).”
Speak slowly. Class should be 15-45 minutes. Create a familiar ritual such as ringing a chime. Include breathing activities. Be sure to ask the kids what they know about yoga and let them know what it means to you. Include a finger-play to start an imaginative journey that also includes rhythm, repetition, animals, nature, transportation, and emotions. End the yoga exploration by gradually slowing down. Ease each child into relaxation for one to three minutes. When wrapping up, ask what they enjoyed. Thank them for participating.
Yoga for Kids: Fun Finger Practice
A fun yoga practice for the kiddos to help stimulate learning. Practice this anywhere!
The Shy Turtle
Yoga Practice for Kids by Lara Hochieser
Do this finger-play several times slowly. It can be done facing one child, in a circle with a group, or with partners in a group. And remember to thank your partner or group when done!
- Say: “When turtle is feeling shy”
- Do: Hold the right fist at chest height with the turtlehead (thumb) pointing toward your center, slowly wiggling your thumb
- Say: “she/he hides in his/her shell”
- Do: Slowly open the fist one finger at a time, tuck the thumb in and close the fist the same way you opened it. Then put your hand in your lap
- Repeat the finger-play with your left hand and say “When I am feeling shy I hide in my shell”
- Say: “Come out turtle”
- Do: Bring the right fist back out with the turtle’s head out
- Repeat for the left hand
- Option to Connect deeper: Replace “turtle” with the children’s name, giving each person a turn
- Add turtle pose asana: After repeating the finger-play several times, consider adding turtle asana. Explain “Put your feet together. Wiggle your heart forward and put your head down.” While they do this, repeat, “When turtle’s feeling shy she hides in her shell.” “Come out turtle,” and sit up tall again
- Add breathing: While the children are “in their shells” ask them to take 3 slow deep breaths in and out the nose. You can count aloud for them or alternatively breathe audibly
- Memory: Ask the child what to say to help turtle come out of her shell
- Move: Turtle “walk” by scooting on the bum. Move forward and back doing turtle pose
- Imagine: Ask kids questions. At this age there is no understanding of rhetorical questions. So when you ask a question, they will shout out their answers!
- Optional questions: What color is the inside of turtle’s shell? How does turtle get to school in the morning?
- Create empathy: Ask questions to stimulate emotional literacy. Ask only one or two questions, as more can be overwhelming. “What are times it feels good to be in your shell? How do you know when to come out? Ask turtle to be your friend. What would you say?
My greatest sources of inspiration are the children and my teachers. The best teachers remain students. To learn kids yoga, will you sit in the seat of student?