April 22, 2011

Urban Teens, Earth Day & Yoga: Let the Planet Do the Teaching. ~ Abby Wills

On the Yoga Path With Teens.
An Urban Earth Day Teen Yoga Activity: Be an OG Yogi.

Walking meditation was not the first yogic technique that came to mind when developing curricula for teen yoga classes. Yet, it’s that practice which helped my students find a deeper connection not only to yoga, but to the planet and their place on it.

During my seven years teaching yoga to young teens at New Roads Middle School, we shared space with the Boys & Girls Club of Santa Monica. Several times per semester, the Clubs’ Board of Directors met during school hours in Chavez, the multi-purpose room  that housed our yoga classes. I took advantage of our displacement by taking our yoga practice on the road, or sidewalk, as it were.

The school was situated in a city environment, surrounded by roads, buildings and a constant flow of cars. Luckily, the sidewalks provided a safe pathway for our walking meditation practice to unfold. I taught students one easy step at a time. For the first trip around the block, the goal was to pay attention to the feeling of our feet walking on the Earth. The second round, we added a gentle focus on the breath. On the third and final cycle, I asked students to take note of their surroundings without forming opinions; just  see what you see.

Upon returning to campus, we sat in a circle and each student shared their experience. I was happily surprised at how engaged the teens were in the practice. I recall several students expressing how good it felt to be in the company of their peers without needing to talk. After such a successful maiden voyage, I decided to keep the tradition going and integrate walking meditation into our repertoire.

Recently. I invited a group of seven teen yoga students to practice at my home on a Saturday. It was a gorgeous day, the beauty heightened by previous days of gloomy rain. Sensing the teens could use some time in the fresh outdoors, we scrapped our journaling exercise in lieu of a walk to a nearby ravine. We engaged in our normal walking meditation practice until we reached a crossing that was not passable. The creek was swollen from the recent rains.

Stopped in our tracks, we broke our silence to discuss how to proceed. Everyone agreed that we should hang for a while in the crisp, moist forest near the rushing water. As we stood there breathing in the scene, I remarked that it would be fun to pretend we were living in an ancient time before the yogic systems were developed. I asked students to imagine they were “original yogis” and look to nature for teachings.

“Oh, you mean like OG yogis!” replied one of our participants. Yes, exactly. Well, maybe not exactly, but something like that. (OG is an urban term meaning “original gangsta’”.)

The first idea came from a 15-year-old male student. “Look, there’s a crow,” he said, “We can do crow pose.” I asked him to go deeper and think about what we could learn from the crow other than the pose. He looked at me like I was the crazy yoga lady (happens a lot). “Watch the crow.” I said with my best Mr. Miyagi impression . After observing the crow for a moment, the young man said, “He can land just about anywhere.” Yes. Wisdom transmits from nature to teen.

A 14 years old female student chose the stream as her teacher. She called it a river. For a native Los Angelino that makes sense. “Flow with change,” she said, “and leave your trash behind.” There were pockets of trash gathered around trees left behind by the higher waters. Once the trash was brought to everyone’s attention, another student aptly gathered a small bagful and continued to pick up more trash throughout the hike.

I noticed a tiny, tender fern growing right out of the rocky hillside. “I grow where I find myself” was the teaching from the fern.

After our OG yogi play, we resumed our meditative walk back to my home. Halfway back I stopped our group and offered the option of continuing the silence or finishing the walk in a more social way. As often happens, the teens looked around to see what others were voting for. Before the bandwagon could start rolling, I said, “Okay, you get to choose. Talkers go first, meditators hang back.”

We all started walking again and again I was happily surprised. Everyone chose to continue the meditative walk. Back at the house, we circled up to download our experience. One student explained that during the walk, he felt everything get really clear and then dissolve. The discussion brought us deeper than we had been before into the nature of mind and our interconnection with nature. And, we felt our connection to the long lineage of yogis, all the way back to the originals.

And I learned once again that my role as a teen yoga teacher is to create an environment, hold a space and witness the learning happen. Just get your teens out in the wild outdoors this Earth Day (or any day, because every day is Earth day) and let the planet do the teaching.

Earth Day Ritual for Teen Yoga Students

1.Take a walk.

2. Observe nature with the mind of an original yogi.

3. Choose a pose inspired by what you see.

4. Find the message and meaning of the pose by listening to the natural world.

5. Share your wisdom  in a conversation or journal your thoughts for future inspiration.

Abby Wills

Abby Wills has joyfully spent the past 13 or so years on the yoga and mindfulness playground with kids, teens and teachers at schools and centers across Los Angeles and beyond. She finally found her perfect guru in September 2010, her first son Falken. Abbys’ other baby is Shanti Generation, through which she created “Yoga Skills for Youth Peacemakers” DVD.

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