Have the Courage to Stop

This weekend was one of my training weekends for my 200hr teaching qualification.  So yesterday I spent the majority of the day talking (or listening to be more precise) yoga philosophy with James Boag.  It was a wonderful experience as James is inspirational yet practical, informative and interesting, plus very knowledgeable.  He said something (actually he said many things, but this one in particular has been running around my head ever since) that resonated with me, “Have the courage to pause, to stop”.

It sounds so simple to take a break, but the reality can be so much harder.  There is always so much Stuff That Has To Be Done.  It never ends.  My partner tells me to take a break, but how can I take a break when I still need to do all of the things on my to do list? When there are shoes on the floor and crayons ascreen-shot-2016-11-27-at-20-10-11ll over the table?  I never stop.  This is why I need yoga, yoga is my pause, and yet I’ve begun to feel that this is not enough.  So tonight I am sitting here, I am not looking at my to do list, I am not looking at my emails, I am not looking at facebook.  I am going to write this and then I am going to stop.  I am going to sit and do nothing for ten minutes, and then I am going to read my book.  And do you know what, I am going to really enjoy it.

Are these endless lists of ours really important?  Will the world end if we don’t complete the tasks on them?  Off the top of my head, there are about 5 things on my to do list for today.  One of them is to plan my Christmas party, one of them is to look for a new desk.  Do I need to do these things today?  Of course not.  I already have a plan for the party in my head, so what I really mean by writing ‘plan Christmas party’ is make another ten or so to do lists to stress about.  I don’t actually have the room where my desk will be painted yet, so even if I did find one that I like, I wouldn’t be able to buy this yet.  I’m beginning to think that when my partner tells me that I give myself so much extra work to do, he might be right (but shhh, don’t tell him!).  How much of your life do you spend doing things so you can relax later?  So you can be happy later?  So you have more time later?  I know that I spend a lot of time thinking like this.  But does it ever happen?  Future happiness is a myth, really there is only one place we can be happy and that is now.  Have the courage to stop.

And it does take courage.  It takes a lot to step back and say no, I’m not going to keep rushing forwards, I’m going to take a moment to pause, to reflect, to consider whether I actually want to be rushing forwards righscreen-shot-2016-11-27-at-20-11-25t now.  Maybe I don’t, maybe once I’ve had time to think about it I really want to move sideways instead, or round in a circle, there are always different paths we can take.  But sometimes it’s hard to see them.  We can’t always hear the directions, there is so much noise in the world around us.  If we take a chance, if we stop, we might find some stillness, some quietness, and in this quietness we might find our way.

Here’s a scene from my life.  It’s late afternoon, I’m tired, my girls are tired, and it’s still hours till bedtime.  Everyone is grumpy, someone starts to get upset, someone starts to shout, I try to distract them with an activity and fail, I try to distract them with a snack, this works for a moment but not for long.  I try a book, a toy, a different book, a different toy… each one may provide a few moments of distraction but it doesn’t solve the problem.  And yet I keep going, getting more and more fraught as I offer more and more distractions.  What might happen if I tried something different?  If, in the midst of this chaos, I paused, sat down, closed my eyes, started to breathe?  Well I’m pretty certain that the initial reaction from my yoga babies would be to shout at me for ignoring them, but I’m also pretty certain that after a couple of minutes a couple of things would probably start to happen.  One, I would start to feel calmer and more able to dscreen-shot-2016-11-27-at-20-11-53eal with the situation in front of me, I might even get a bright idea for how to get through the rest of the day with all of us in one piece!  Two, my girls would feel my calmness, they might even join in with my breathing, they would definitely have to stop and think (“What is mummy doing?  Why is she doing that?  When is she going to stop and read more stories?”).  And this would be good for everyone.

So I’m going to set myself a challenge.  This week, I’m going to take time everyday to stop.  Each morning I’m going to set myself an achievable set of tasks for the day and each evening, I am going to stop.  I am going to enjoy the life I am living now, not the life I may be living next week, next month or next year.  Each day, when I’m feeling overwhelmed, torn or unsure about what to do, I am going to stop.  I am going to pause until I know where to go next.  And if I never work out where to go next?  Well I suppose I will just keep pausing, I will listen for my little light inside, and maybe one day I will hear it.  For now though, it’s enough to simply pause every now and again, to find that stillness, that quietness.  Stop.14590394_1118954984886607_3808364250058686992_n

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Breathe baby, breathe

In my classes we start working with our breath at a very young age.  With older babies and young toddlers this is very simple, we blow scarves and smell flowers.  These activities are just about becoming aware of the breath.  Props like scarv13508868_1037180563064050_8077440552040229882_nes work well as they allow children to actually see their breath.  As children grow we start to think about how we can change our breath, breathing more or less deeply, more quickly or more slowly.  At this stage we might blow pom poms across the mats, racing each other to the other side of the room, or work with a partner to keep a feather in the air for as long as possible.  We can place a soft toy or a scarf on our tummies and watch them rise and fall with our breath, we can see how high we can make them lift and move them slowly or quickly.  Soon we can move away from props and start becoming more abstract, introducing techniques to slow the breath and breathe more deeply such as finger breathing or fairy breath.  But why?  why is the breath so important?

In Indian Philosophy there is a story explaining the importance of the breath.  It tells of how one day the eyes looked at a waterfall and said “I am the most important part of the body for without me you would not be able to see this waterfall”.  This led to a quarrel as the various parts of the body claimed their own importance, all the while the breath stayed quiet.  The mind decided to settle the quarrel with a test, the body would have to see how it coped without each part for a year.  One by one, each part left and the body found it hard to cope but it managed.  Eventually the mind left and with it all thoughts left the body, the body was unable to do anything, but it still lived.  “There you have it,” said the mind, “I am the most important”, but everyone had forgotten the breath, which still remained quiet.  So the breath decided it was her turn and slowly began to leave the body, the other parts of the body noticed very quickly and begged the breath to return.  They all agreed that the breath was most important and from that day on the body had great respect for the breath and the extremely important role that she has.

14332977_1100027873445985_3539264322955670727_nBreathing is unique, it is the only physiological process that can be either voluntary or involuntary, and it therefore can be seen as key to understanding the link between mind and body.  The connection and interactions between mind and body have been studied and questioned for many years.  In the West our emphasis on Science has caused a difficulty with such studies as we are dealing with things that we cannot see, touch or examine.  In Eastern philosophies a different view of mind and body is held.  Yoga teaches that there is a level between mind and body, an intermediate layer of functioning so that the mind and body do not directly interact.  This intermediate level has to do primarily with energy (prana).  The mind alters the flow of the energy to affect the body and vice versa, and our breath is the vehicle for prana.  In this way we can see the breath as key to our energies, our life force, it can give indications of our physical and mental states.  And just as watching the breath can provide information about our physical and mental states, altering the breath can have a significant impact on our physical and mental states. 

We’re often told to take a deep breath if we’re feeling stressed.  Breathing deeply can reduce the heart rate, help us to relax, and decrease our anxiety levels, but why is that?

14524364_1112506542198118_6775020587960548732_oInfants and young children naturally breathe into their diaphragm.  As we grow up, may of us start to breathe more shallowly, taking air only into the top of our lungs and using chest breathing rather than the deeper diaphragmatic breathing.  Women in particular tend to shy away from breathing too deeply, especially after having children as we are constantly conscious of holding in our stomachs.  Breathing deeply may make your tummy stick out, but I promise you it is worth it!

Shallow chest breathing stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and can mean that we are functioning on a fight or flight response the majority of the time.  When this system is governing the body your brain becomes flooded with stress hormones such as cortisol.  Cortisol can be extremely useful (it means we can react quickly when we see our toddler precariously balanced on the edge of the kitchen worktop for example), however too much can be harmful.  Elevated cortisol levels for prolonged periods of time can result in depression and heart disease, and can impact learning, memory and the immune system among others.

1554569_10152581580409389_1906362475942889489_nOn the contrary, when we breathe from our diaphragm we activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which tells the body to relax, rest and calm down.  Studies have shown that levels of cortisol are much lower in people who practice slow breathing, suggesting that this breathing technique chemically reduces feelings of stress.  This helps our ability to deal with everyday pressures and stresses, calms the mind, reduces anxiety and helps us to stay balanced.

This is why, when yoga baby number one practices her finger breathing at night it helps her to relax and drift closer to sleep.  This is why, when I take time each day to practice my breathing, I am able to cope better with whatever the day brings, and I am a better mummy.  So take a moment, take a breath, feel the air filling your lungs, take time each day to breathe.      14590394_1118954984886607_3808364250058686992_n

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The more we do our yoga…

13244102_10153709563834389_5999364668214265497_o“The more we do our yoga, our yoga, our yoga, the more we do our yoga the healthier we’ll be.  We’re bendy and stretchy and peaceful and happy.  The more we do our yoga, the healthier we’ll be.”  I sing this song regularly in my Yoga Babies classes, but the more I teach and the more I practice the more I realize just how amazing yoga truly is.

When I first came to yoga during University I was attracted mainly by the physical aspect.  I had danced throughout my childhood and found the flowing vinyasa style yoga gave me that same happiness I had felt whilst dancing.  I loved finding the connection to my body again, loved moving and stretching with a rhythm all my own.  Surprisingly though I also came to love the mental aspects of my yoga class.  By bringing my awareness to my breath and my natural rhythms through the class I was able to tune out some of the stresses of University life.  In savasana at the end of each class I could actually manage to quieten my mind for a few minutes, when normally I was constantly thinking about everything that I needed to do, everything I needed to remember.  My head was rarely quiet, except for those few minutes at the end of my yoga practice.  Once I started practicing yoga I felt stronger, fitter, more flexible, but most importantly I felt more at peace with myself.

I continued going to yoga classes weekly until my first daughter arrived in 2011, by this point yoga was a part of my life and I was keen to get back on the mat.  After the one local mummy and baby yoga class was cancelled I found Tara Lee’s DVD, Yoga for You and Your Baby and started to explore the wonders of baby yoga.  I had thought doing yoga with my baby might be a gentle way to reconnect with my body, start to regain strength and stability, find some balance.  What I actually found once again was so much more.  Yoga with your baby is the most amazing bonding experience.  It is time without distractions, without expectations, where the only thing that matters is enjoying the time with your baby.  Whenever we got to that time in the afternoon when we were both exhausted, but it was not yet time for bath and bed, I would put on the DVD and it would take us both from stressed and grumpy to giggling, happy and relaxed.  I did start to feel fitter and stronger again, but more importantly I accepted where my body was then and there, and appreciated the changes and the little person who had made those changes.  My daughter became flexible, stronger, more coordinated but more importantly she felt safe and secure.

_MG_8134I trained with Birthlight in 2013 to teach baby yoga, and then continued my training to include toddler and preschooler yoga, and then children’s and family yoga through Rainbow Kids Yoga in 2014.  During my training we talked about the many benefits of yoga for all the different ages.  There are so many physical benefits, it would encompass a whole other post.  Baby yoga is fantastic for helping the digestive system, and encourages brain development.  Toddler yoga improves balance and helps develop fine and gross motor skills.  Children’s yoga promotes flexibility and body awareness.  But yoga is about so much more.

When we practice yoga together, especially in classes with our children and with our families, we are building communities.  We find ways to connect with each other through touch, through play, through songs and movement.  In my classes I get some amazing opportunities.  I watch new mothers develop confidence as they start to realize that they have all the tools that they need to keep their baby happy and healthy.  I see parents with toddlers who are testing boundaries reconnect with one another as they cuddle, laugh and play.  I see groups of children working together, smiling together, bonding as a group.  I see families share their thoughts and dreams, see them lie together and relax.  I am privileged to be able to see the special smiles, the eye contact, the little touches, the hand holding, the hugs and kisses, the whispered words.  So yes, most of my little yogis can touch their toes, they can even touch their toes to their nose, (so can many of my yoga parents!) but that’s not the most amazing thing.  Yoga is helping them to feel secure, to feel safe and loved.  Yoga is building a community for new parents where they can share their experiences with others in similar situations.  Yoga is giving families tools to have fun together and to connect with one another.  And that is truly amazing._MG_6930

On a mission to explore, rescue and protect

My weekly family class are always involved with choosing our themes and adventures for their yoga classes.  It’s pushed me to try new things and be creative with my lesson plans, and so far requests have included Star Wars yoga, How to Train your Dragon yoga and My Little Pony yoga!  So when I mentioned an under the sea adventure they requested the Octonauts.  Luckily yoga babies 1 and 2 have developed a bit of an Octonauts obsession recently after borrowing a DVD from the local library, so I didn’t have to do too much research.

Our adventure started in the Octopod, where Kwazii and Peso were just waking up.  So we did some wake up stretches and yawns, a great way to get children to take big deep breaths.  Then we followed our Octonauts to the games room, where they played a game of football… Now I don’t know whether you’ve ever tried to play football like a penguin, but I can assure you it is not easy.  It is lots of fun though!  Suddenly we heard the Octoalert and all the Octonauts were summoned to the control bay.

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Octonauts character cards

I’d printed and laminated some cards with pictures of the different main characters so we used these, picking one character at a time and learning a yoga pose based in that animal.  Some of these were very easy to think of (downward dog for Dashi dog), others took a little more imagination (I eventually decided on happy baby pose for Shellington the sea otter).  It was great to see how the kids responded to the familiar characters, everyone was trying the different poses and the youngest children were so excited to be meeting their favourite adventurers.

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Yoga Baby number 1 working on her bunny hops for Tweak bunny

We talked about how the Octonauts have a mission to explore, rescue and protect, so we have to be brave as we explore and we have to be kind and careful to make sure all the sea life is looked after.  Then we started our mission.

I choose a few sea animals and for each animal we learnt the corresponding pose and then had to do something to help that animal.  For the dolphin we learnt dolphin pose, and then had to sit very still and quiet so as not to interfere with his sonar.  Our shark had toothache, so we looked for a little fish that could come and clean his teeth for him.

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Dolphin pose
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Shark pose

After helping 3 or 4 animals out our Octonauts saw something strange swimming past, it looked a little bit like a girl and a little bit like a fish.  It turned out to be a mermaid, who took us down to the very bottom of the sea, where we found a shipwreck (boat pose) that Kwazii was sure would contain hidden treasure.  In the shipwreck we found a treasure chest (butterfly pose), but it was closed tight.  We had to close our eyes and concentrate very hard on the work ‘open’… and it worked!  Our treasure chest sprang open to reveal a magical lotus flower that gave us one wish.  We held our hands in lotus mudra whilst making a wish before throwing our wishes out to the universe.

Finally we began our journey home.  Waving goodbye to the Octonauts we floated slowly up to the surface of the water, coming out into the warm sunshine.  We lay back on the surface of the water, floating on the gentle waves under the sunshine, closed our eyes and let our bodies relax.  When the children opened their eyes they were thrilled to find that the mermaid had left them each their own magical lotus flower to take away home with them as a reminder of their magical journey.

Now they’ve requested a Ninjago yoga lesson…. I need to put my thinking cap on for that one!

Why I teach Yoga to toddlers

One of the comments I most often receive is in response to telling people I teach toddler yoga, and usually runs along the lines of “Oh, my little one wouldn’t do yoga, he won’t stay still long enough”.  The fact is that teaching yoga to toddlers is challenging, I have found the most difficult age group to plan for and to work with is those little people aged from around 10 months to 20 months.  But it is possible.

You have to revisit your ideas of what yoga is, and how a yoga class will look.  Yoga with toddlers will not involve much stillness, or much quietness (although there is time for both of those in every lesson).  We 12439000_944317335683707_1128689266894615687_nmay not do very many poses that you would recognise from a traditional yoga class.  We will not be talking about alignments or thinking too much about how to do the poses correctly (although we will check that everyone is doing their poses safely).  What we will be doing is moving (lots), singing, laughing, cuddling, massaging, and having fun.

Toddlers will not always join in with everything in a yoga class (or anywhere else).  They are busy learning about how to be independent, and part of that involves them starting to assert their own opinions on things.  A toddler has a mission to explore the world around them, learning so much from their explorations, so we will see them moving around the room seeking things of interest.  A hole in the wall may need a long and thorough investigation, a curtain will provide hours of entertainment, a particular mark on the floor can be stared at for ages.  But wherever they are and whatever they are doing, these children are aware of everything around them.  They are constantly learning and absorbing, and even when it can feel that they are not involved with the class at all, they will suddenly surprise you later by doing a pose, or singing a song from that class.WHY_013

WHY_043When teaching this age, you have to be flexible.  I always plan my lessons, I plan our theme, our adventure, our songs and our poses.  But I can teach the ‘same’ lesson 4 times a week, and every time it will be different.  I try to watch the children, see their cues, judge their moods, work out whether the next activity will work just now or if we need to move about first.  Can we start doing some individual poses or do the children need a minute to connect with their parent first.  Is everyone full or energy, or are they actually getting tired and need to quieten down.  I don’t always get things right, but I am always learning, and the more I work with this age group the easier it gets.

It will never be easy though.  Toddlers like to keep you on your toes.  One week they will suddenly decide that they no longer like the cat and mouse game that has been a favourite for months.  Going upside down will always change the mood and result in giggles except for one particular afternoon, when itWHY_039 just doesn’t work.  There will be days when they just want to sit, days when they just want to cuddle, days when they just want to scream.  But even on these days when it seems that nothing is going right, children will take comfort from the familiar routine and activities.  I always use the same hello song, the same structure for class, the same activities to signal relaxation, the same goodbye song.  Young children feel secure when they know what is coming next.

And what about the days when I finish a class, exhausted, and wondering whether I have actually achieved anything?  Well then I take a breath, I look at my own children, I look at the children I teach.  I see how happy they are, how secure they are, what a loving relationship they share with their parents.  I see the child who was racing around the room 5 minutes previously now lying still next to his mum.  I see the little one (who has spent the last 20 minutes hiding under a table) crawl over to her mum who’s lying in savasana and rest her head briefly on her chest.  I see the parent who arrived hassled and rushed lying down, completely relaxed, eyes closed and a smile on her face.  And I know that it’s worth it. _MG_8134