How to Teach Yoga in the Classroom
Yoga is an incredible tool for teachers to make use of. All teachers know that there are points the in day when everyone (including adults) needs to reset. High energy kids and tired students alike can hugely benefit from a "brain break". In my experience, students come back from just 20 minutes of yoga feeling calm, focused, and perhaps most exciting to teachers, quiet! I find that they are excited to try new poses and embrace the invitation to practice deep breathing and mindfulness. I've met lots of teachers who practice yoga themselves but feel inadequate when it comes to teaching yoga to their classes. So, I've put together some helpful tips to make yoga a manageable and stress free addition to your classroom routine.
I recently started a new job as an assistant teacher in a Montessori School. I'm in a classroom with 1st to 3rd grade students, a wonderful age to introduce yoga. I was so fortunate to have a lead teacher who was open to the idea of letting me fit yoga into the schedule once a week. We've both been so pleased with the result, and the class has been incredibly receptive. Each day we ask the students to share their "roses and thorns". Last week, at least half the class said that yoga was their rose! Let this be your incentive if you don't think that your class will like yoga. When presented in a fun, age-appropriate way, kids love to practice yoga.
Make Yoga a Class Subject
If it's possible in your school, put yoga on your weekly schedule, just like you would for PE or Music class. If all you can manage is five minutes in the morning for a breathing exercise, do that. If you can put aside 30 minutes a week, amazing! Whatever it is, make yoga a routine. Have a place in the room where you set up a space for yoga. If you don't have mats, move desks and assign students a personal zone. I've found that letting kids stand anywhere leads to a lot of personal space issues. Put tape on the floor if it helps to set boundaries, but make it clear that each student needs their own space and shouldn't enter another's.
Make Yoga Fun
As adults we tend to take ourselves very seriously, and by extension those of us who practice yoga can often do the same with our practice. The most important piece of advice I can offer to those wanting to share yoga with kids is to forget everything you know about going to yoga class. This is not going to be a silent class. There is going to be talking, giggling, poking, falling, and probably at least one kid who just refuses to try. Thats ok. Leave your ego at the door and any expectations about a totally focused and zen group of kids. Instead, think of ways that you can make this 30 minute period fun. I always have an incentive for students to try their hardest and stay focused in class. I tell them at the beginning of class that I will be picking a leader for a game at the end. I continue to remind them of this as we move through a series of poses when I see people getting distracted or loosing focus.
Make Yoga Poses Come Alive
When it comes to teaching the poses, I follow a simple rule: use poses with fun names. The best poses to teach kids are the ones named after animals or things in nature. For example, we practice Cat and Cow, Tree Pose, Down Dog, Puppy Pose, Rock (Child's Pose), Butterfly, Turtle, Sun Salutations and Mountain Pose, to name a few. I start with just a handful of poses the first week and gradually add more variety and difficulty. I try to make each pose dynamic and fun by adding little twists. For Cat and Cow we "moo" and "hiss" as we move the spine up and down. In rock pose, we are solid and still, in mountain pose, we are strong and proud. Really connect with each pose and think about what it embodies. Explore these poses in a way that helps students see why we are asking them to take part. Each poses is a lesson to be learned about themselves, help them see this. If you are unfamiliar with poses, there are TONS of resources out there to help out. I love the card deck called Yoga Pretzels. I also made my own deck that you can download and use in your classroom!
Make Yoga More than Poses
My yoga sessions always follow the same structure. We start with a breathing exercise, ( I use these mindfulness cards for inspiration or check out these mindfulness activities), go through a short series of basic poses, play a game, and end with a guided relaxation. Keeping each portion short will help to manage the shorter attention spans of young students. Of course this will vary depending on the age of the students. Here is a sample lesson plan of the of the first class I teach:
Breathing exercise: Have each student lay on his or her back with a bean bag (or anything with a little weight to it) on their belly. Ask them to notice the breath, talk about the importance of slowing down when we feel mad, sad, jealous or overwhelmed. Watch the bean bag rise on the inhales and fall on exhales. Demonstrate deep belly breathing. Check out more breathing exercises here.
Game: Choose the student who was the most quiet and focused during the first portion of class. Have them come to the front of the space with their bean bag. Then, talk the students through the poses again. Ask the leader to find the person trying their hardest in the first pose. Then, have them balance the bean bag somewhere on that person's body. The second child is then challenged to move to the next pose without letting the bean bag fall. Students, take turns this way with the person balancing the bean bag becoming the leader. Continue until you've finished the sequence.
Relaxation: Have all students lay on their back with eyes closed. Ask them to breathe deeply and think of a place that is very special to them. Tell them to imagine what it smells like, sounds like, feels like etc. End by letting them spend a minute or two in their special place.
It's as simple as that! Get creative in your classes. Think of ways to use games your students are already playing to incorporate in your yoga sessions. When I started teaching yoga to kids, I spent hours trying to research and concrete plans for my class. What I discovered is that I have so much creativity and knowledge already, and I only need to channel that into this area. Now, I have moments of inspiration every day when I think "that would work as a yoga game!" One week, we played "red light, green light", another week we pretended to be penguins balancing an egg (ball) on our feet while walking. There is no right or wrong way to get your class to practice yoga, and the best part is, they wouldn't realize if you did do something wrong! Stay tuned for more ideas for games, class themes, and teaching advice, and please feel free to send any questions my way! Good luck!!