Years ago in November I was asked to add yoga to a large afterschool program already underway at a community center. Several hundred first through sixth graders were picked up on school days in yellow buses. They remained at the center until pickup time at 6 PM. After pausing for a snack, their time was organized into 45-minute sessions, much like the school day. Despite a full roster of existing activities, including homework help, swimming, dance, basketball, and crafts, parents had requested yoga.
I devised activities I thought would be engaging and fun: Blowing cotton balls through straws to extend their breath; Creating gardens, zoos and landscapes to practice the poses; Our own version of musical Yoga to cultivate balance.
Despite my best efforts, the yoga didn’t click as I thought it would. While engaging and bright, the kids were all over the map energetically. Some resisted stillness and even had a hard time lying on the floor resting in guided relaxation. Others didn’t want to move at all. One girl preferred to spend the sessions sitting under a table in the corner.
Watching a rambunctious group of 7- and 8-year-olds flit about the room doing their best to avoid my direction one day, I had an “aha” moment. Their day had started 10 or so hours ago. In the ensuing time, they had been limited in their ability to move around, choose their activities, or speak freely. They were neither ill mannered nor attention-challenged; they were simply exhausted, oversubscribed, and nearing the end of their tethers. Rather than one more activity thrown their way, what they really needed was a way to shut it all down. I now understood what their parents were looking for.
I gathered the group together and told them I needed their help in figuring something out. Intrigued, they sat down quietly. I asked if any of them had ever been in a situation where they wanted to be someplace else but couldn’t control the situation. Or whether they’d ever felt unhappy, angry, or tired and wished they had a quick way to make themselves feel better.
The response was immediate and effusive. Stories about mean kids, scary teachers, and lonely lunchtimes poured out. Even the bright and bubbly kids were full of examples. This made perfect sense. Who among us doesn’t experience daily moments of discomfort?
“I’m thinking we can create a special way to find comfort when you are all you’ve got. Will you help me?” I asked. They were in.
First I asked them to describe the things that made them quietly happy. Not things like riding a roller coaster or getting a new video game, but the things that made them feel secure and content. They gave many different answers, all of which pointed to the same place: Home. They related happy times surrounded by parents, grand parents, and siblings, reading stories, watching movies, playing board games, sharing holiday dinners. They told me about their favorite pjs, worn-out stuffed toys, and bits of frayed blankets to cling to in the dark.
From there, we captured some “feeling” words that might encapsulate and symbolize those experiences. In short, we collected the makings of a mantra. It didn’t take long:
Cozy, comfy, safe, happy.
As we recited our new mantra together, I applied a gesture: With the recitation of each word we touched the tip of one finger to the tip of their thumbs: Cozy–first finger to thumb; Comfy-second finger to thumb; Safe–third finger to thumb; Happy–pinky finger to thumb. Start again at Cozy.
We repeated our mantra together at top volume, making the gesture with both hands. Once they had it down, I motioned for them to become progressively quieter until only they could hear the words in their heads. I also invited them to make the gesture so small that only they knew about it. Instinctively a few closed their eyes. Within minutes, the room was silent. From that moment forward, this became a staple of all the yoga classes.
Time and time again, I’m reminded that the simplest practices net the most profound results. I did not tell the kids that sound, one of yoga’s most powerful practices, predates the physical poses by many years. Or that repeating words and gestures creates a meditative, single-pointed focus. I did not describe the transformational power of words repeated soundlessly. I just told them this might help. And it did.
Throughout the rest of the year, I received reports about how this simple practice had resuscitated an anxious, lonely, or angry kid. One girl, who’d confided earlier that she feared her parents would divorce, told me that it had sheltered her through a nasty argument between them. Heartbroken on her behalf, I was also profoundly gratified that she’d achieved self-comfort in what must have been a terrifying moment.
I have since shared that little practice with a number of clients. Some have used it to tame anxiety, others to self-comfort in bed during sleepless bouts. One brought it to his chemotherapy infusions.
How about you? Would a simple trick for shutting it all down come in handy sometime? Waiting in line at the DMV? Getting ready to make a presentation? Unexpected layover at the airport like my dear friend, Carolina? Give it a try. Use these words or choose some that resonate better within you.
If you do find it useful, I’d love to hear how!