Tuesday, March 23, 2010

How can we help our children, and ourselves to live happily, peacefully and spiritually?

This is for all parents and all women. Yogis believe that all women are mothers, whether of their own biological offspring, other children in their lives, people in their community, or any other earthly creations. I am afraid this has become less of a blog post and more of a very long article with loads of ideas!

Many mothers have asked me recently how they can help their children calm down during or after a tantrum, how they can deal effectively with unreasonable behaviour, how they can allow children to express anger without hurting themselves or others, and how we as mothers can remain calm and avoid losing our tempers during these very stressful and upsetting episodes. As a mother of two young girls, a yoga teacher and a healing arts practitioner, I am always contemplating these same questions myself. And for me, the answers to many of them lie in how easily we and our children are in touch with and led by our spirit. Because I have experienced that when we speak and act from that place deep inside ourselves, life flows more easily and happily.

So I would like thank those who have approached me as you have inspired me to write and share some of the ideas and methods I have been using over the last few years with my own children and within yoga sessions, both for children and for adults. There are so many more ideas out there, these are just a few that I use most. Some of these I have learned from others and some I have made up myself and some are a mixture of the two. I hope they can bring a sense of peace and grace into your lives as they have into mine, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts and your own ideas for awakening and soothing our children and our souls.
Meditation and visualisation
Early this morning as I was sitting peacefully in front of the window with the sun pouring in, quietly and breathing before starting my yoga, feeling blissfully alone, I suddenly found myself - hmm, how can I put this positively? - embraced by my two-year-old daughter Bella AND our significantly older, larger and heavier dog, Brecon. They appeared to be competing, though quite good naturedly, for the best place on my lap. In the end Bella conceded and hugged me from behind while Brecon curled up in my lap, quite like a baby, only several stone heavier.

I had to laugh (a yogi must never lose their sense of humour). I have always told my students that animals and children love yoga. I have been visited by cats, dogs, frogs, even geckos before, but this is the first time I have had an enormous great hulk of a dog, (lab/collie/who knows but definitely with a bit of bull terrier thrown in) actually nestle his way into my arms. Brecon proceeded to spread out on my mat beneath my triangle (downward dog) and snuggle into my outspread arms like a lover when I was relaxing on my back an eventful hour later. I wished James had been there with his camera. It would have been wonderful to show this photo to illustrate what I strongly believe: that, as parents, and in particular mothers, we are the spiritual guides of the household. When we shine, our families bask in our light.

The best way for us to teach our children to live from their heart – not the organ but the home of their spirit – is by example. Telling a small child to sit still and breathe or to stay in a yoga position as long as possible is likely to suppress their natural energy and instinct, let alone their enthusiasm for yoga. I have seen this happen with Jemima in the past, and just yesterday in my kid’s class when I mistakenly tried to help five year olds perfect their dog poses, instead of letting them get it in their own time as I normally do.

When a child sees you enjoying some minutes of quiet breathing, or a particular yoga pose, s/he will be inspired to join you. The peaceful energy you will usually radiate will at some stage become irresistible for your child, and they will be curious to know why you want to do what you are doing. Your flow may be interrupted but if you are able to open your heart, let go of your attachment to the previous plan you had for your yoga and wrap your loving arms around your child (or pet!), you are likely to get twice as much benefit from your meditation.

I know this is true from my own experience. I have had times when I have got annoyed and begged to be left alone and ended up raising my voice with my own children, leaving me feeling guilty and all of us miserable. This is hardly the desired result from meditation, and is a sure way to make children believe that meditation will be of absolutely no benefit to them! Now I try to let go every time and go with the flow, cherishing those sacred moments of holding and connecting with my children and listening to the silence around and within us. Usually they will then wander off and play before long and I can continue with my yoga. When they do not I just have to resolve to wake a little earlier the next day so I can have some solitude before our yoga cuddles begin.

Of course there are some wonderful meditations to do with very young children, which they will love to. All children love to sing mantras. They do not have to be in English - in my classes the children often chant mantras from Sanskrit or Gurumukh – but you can make up any of your own mantras to suit the moment. Some examples are:

I am happy, I am good.
I am brave, I am bold, my own spirit I can hold.
I feel my peace, I feel my light, I feel my love.
I am strong, I am well.
I sleep peacefully.
I am beautiful. I am thankful… and so on.

Jemima has climbed up many hills with the mantra “I’m not tired, I feel strong!” after melting down into protests before hand. I know, poor child! Reassuringly, she has often resisted this technique, letting her own resilient spirit shine through, firmly grounded on her bottom at the foot of the hill. But she has also embraced it and sung it at the top of her voice and called out: “It works Mummy!”

As children get older, around six or seven, although they can continue to enjoy the above ideas, they can also be encouraged to sit quietly for a few minutes of listening to their breath, visualising drawing light in their body, or any other ideas you like to use. Start with one minute and slowly increase the time as your child gets older or more used to it. I feel it is important that we should always be sensitive to how long they seem focused and try to end it before they lose interest so that they feel good about what they have done rather than being left with the feeling that they could have done better. Always emphasise the point that this is supposed to feel nice, help them care for themselves and their body and if there is any challenge, it should be a healthy, happy, fun personal challenge only (e.g let’s add 30 seconds on to our quiet time today shall we?), rather than a competition with anyone else. Remember that laughing is ok, as children get the giggles when asked to meditate for the first time. You might also remind them gently to relax their face as I have noticed children sometimes screw up their faces with great tension when they are concentrating. If they just can’t sit still, let it go and try again another time.

You can help your child sit for longer by adding visualisations. These are easy to find on line or in books and I also make up a whole host of different visualisations that suit the moment or that follow a yoga story we have done. Examples are: lying gazing at the stars picking out their special star that is watching over them and breathing deeply and imagining they become that star and are shining so brightly they can guide others and lift them in their light; thinking of a word/image that makes them feel good (give examples for words, e.g. happy, peaceful, loving, loved etc, but normally left alone they will choose an image on their own that means a lot to them – jewels, butterflies, rainbow sparkly fairies and strong men/lions seem to come up quite frequently) and breathing in the word/image so that they become that word/image and when others come near they feel that way and breath it and become it too; imagining they are on a beach and their breath is a gentle safe wave washing over them calming and soothing them… and so many more. Children love to be given something to hold during meditation or relaxation, a soft scarf or a cuddly toy and they love to be told that the animal is drawn to be near to them because it feels so safe and good to be close to them. They love to take care of their animal and be responsible for its well-being.

At night Jemima often falls asleep with a rainbow visualisation where she floats on a cloud through all the colours of the rainbow and each colour washes over her so that she can feel the quality of each colour – I do it with the chakra colours and qualities. Jemima always gets to start the story so she is often a rabbit or a puppy and she often has lots of friends around her who also have to feel the colours … arrghh! It can get quite complicated and exasperating at times when I have to remember a whole load of different made up names and the five minute sleepy meditation becomes an hour long saga! Perhaps you could start with more boundaries than I did!

There are so many different ideas for this sort of meditation and the lovely part about it is that as adults we can become creative and activate our childlike imaginations again. One day I will write down all my stories and ideas but this is getting long enough already! I will just say that in class, when I wake children from their relaxation I do it with a puppet who whispers something different and relevant and affirming it each child, something I have noticed about them in class, or something I feel about their presence. Obviously, this is always something positive, and might be different each week. Healthy children are like sponges when you tell them something lovely and true about them, and those who finder it harder to believe will benefit all the more from this positive affirmation.

After an argument/tantrum
Let’s hope that some of the above will help our children become less frustrated and angry, and more able to deal with the pain they experience in moments of trauma. And I really do mean trauma. Have you ever heard your child cry out in their sleep during what appears to be a terrible nightmare? This is a great indicator for truly understanding how small a child’s world is, and just how huge and important, tiny inconsequential things can appear. Bella is often tormented by having to share her grapes or have the pink bowl according to her sleep talking. It makes me laugh at the time but it also reminds me never to say: “It doesn’t matter” to her, because quite clearly, in her world it does matter an awful lot.

For a two year old, not being allowed to take open the car door themselves when we are in a hurry, or having to share a toy, can cause such toxic levels of the stress hormone cortisone to rush to their brain that it can kill off brain cells. They are experiencing pain and if we are able to put ourselves in their tiny shoes and their tiny world (our own yoga will help us be able to do this!) we will be calmer ourselves and more help to them. Such emotional pain can also be experienced by a five-year-old whose mother cannot find the right shade of grey tights for school that match her best friend’s tights. Yes, that was this morning. Click here for more info and ideas for understanding and dealing with different kinds of tantrums.

While we often feel helpless during a tantrum there are ways we can make things better afterwards and for the next time. When Jemima and I have an argument or she flips out over something we play this game: We pretend to take off all our angry clothes, flinging them to the side with great energy. I have to do this with her to encourage her and we really get into it. If we are at the school gates we do it very subtly or we play the marshmallow game instead (below). Once we have left all our angry clothes (you can do this for tired/sad/shy etc as well) we do some very freeing swinging twists from side to side with our arms out (not at the school gate) to wash away all the black and make everything sunny again, and then we pretend to get dressed again in lovely warm, happy, cosy and comfy clothes. It is a wonderful fun way to heal and to learn how to take care of ourselves and it can be done in one minute so can easily be done before saying goodbye, rather than leaving each other in a state of stress and regret. I also try to get Jemima to drink water - I tell her to imagine a wilted tired stressed out flower that is dehydrated and when we give it water it grows tall, blossoms and is bright and colourful and happy again. (Our bodies are 77% water so dehydration is an extremely common cause of bad temper and irritability for all of us).

Another very healing and affirming act to do after any outburst or release of emotion is to press our hands one over the other firmly on our heart centre in the middle of our chest. We can say a mantra to ourselves as we do this and children love it.

Oh, the marshmallow game. This is a bit like the sack of sand game, where you imagine you are a hard very full sack of sand and the end opens and all the sand flows out and you become very soft and floppy and relaxed. Jemima loves to pretend to be a marshmallow melting on top of hot chocolate getting softer and softer as all the tension and anger melts away. I know some parents also encourage their children to go and sit in their happy, peaceful corner and calm down.

Of course all of the above has an emphasis on preventing and healing but we also need to teach our children that anger is ok to feel and to express, as long as they do not hurt themselves or anyone else. A cross corner where they are allowed to tear paper, throw a ball against a wall or paint with lots of black paint, dress up in costumes like lions or pirates or whatever they associate with not being lovely and good for a change, is a great way to help children find outlets for their feelings. Our children are mostly expected to produce pretty pictures with nice colours and wear pretty clothes with nice colours and to feel happy. When we can find ways to show them that it is ok not to feel happy and not to feel bright we are setting them free to be themselves, whatever their mood. This usually helps them feel better simply by the pure act of being accepted just as they are. For let’s face it, if there is one thing a parent can and should do for his/her child, no matter how hard this can be at times, it must surely be to set the child free from all of our own neuroses, standards and expectations, so that his/her own true and pure spirit can shine. And what a beautiful, healing thing this is for parents to do: to let go of the reins for a change, and allow ourselves to be uplifted and led by our child’s spirit and light.

For more posts with ideas for children and yoga try
http://motherland1.blogspot.com/2007/11/expecting-too-much-from-my-toddler.html or here or here


maddy said...

Wow, George, so many great ideas. Thank you! When I have had the chance to put some into practice, I will let you know how we get on. I must make a conscious effort to make time as it's too easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of day-to-day living xxx

Tara said...

Lovely - well written and well done. I love the idea of removing angry clothes .... still don't like the naughty step or time out ideas and have never used them BUT having an angry corner to go and shout or get rid of frustration is a good one - and we could do with one in our house perhaps ;-)