Teaching Teens Victorious Breathing
I just began teaching a few yoga classes a week at my old high school for winter term. For my three classes I am specifically teaching these students Power Yoga, while for the other two days another colleague is teaching them Yin Yoga. I'm a week into it and it has been a ton of fun and is teaching me a lot. The school is utilizing a hybrid learning program at this stage of the pandemic, rotating several kids in person, spread out and wearing masks, with the rest of the class joining in on Zoom. There are a few of the students that have done yoga before, but the vast majority of them are new to the practice.
It has been a little bit since I have been in front of a class where the bulk of folks do not understand the basics and this has provided me a really great opportunity to break concepts down. Some of the concepts are so second nature to me at this point that I really have to step back and look at things from a beginner's perspective. It reminds me of when I am teaching someone a guitar song that I know really well, how it can be a challenge to slow down and show it step by step versus just letting muscle memory do its thing and crank through it at full tempo.
One of the concepts that I came to right away was of course Ujjayi Pranayama. For those of you who are not familiar, this is a breath control practice that is used in many types of yoga and is a nasal, diaphragmatic breath practiced the entire time that you are moving through the physical postures. In a regular studio yoga class I will explain this breath in about thirty seconds right at the beginning of class, through physical cues that guide the practitioner into the technique. I'll give continuous reminders, but will not stop the flow of the class to explain.
In this situation, with these kids that I am working with for an entire term, I decided to put some basic info up on a white board and began classes with some more in-depth discussion. In a nutshell ujjayi translates to victory, prana translates to life force, and yama translates to control or regulation. Thus we get "victorious breathing." I told them we would discuss the whole idea of what this breath has to do with victory later on and then rolled away the whiteboard and started getting them into the physical practice.
I worked through teaching the Sun Salutation A sequence, demonstrating the poses first and then having the students practice them, then finally linking it all together into a continuos experience. The last third of the class I led them through a cool down in the same way I would teach the end of a studio class: plenty of cues and instruction, but all within the flow of the practice.
I had them lying down on their backs relaxing in the final resting pose savasana and then began to wax philosophic. I explained that my connection to this breath of victory is not one of conquering. It is not a winner of looser concept that either leaves you elated or crushed. For me, it is the way in which we find victory through each inhale and through each exhale. The victory of consciously showing up in your life every day and being the best person that you can be. The victory of living through and experiencing all the many ups and downs that life throws at you, and choosing to courageously move forward; inviting in that next inhale and that next exhale.
At this point I had the realization that I was not only talking to the students in front of me, but was also directly addressing the determined, insecure, anxious teenage version of myself that had spent years walking the hallways of this building. I was looking that teenage James in the eyes and with the wisdom that a couple more decades of life can bring, was letting him know that he didn't need to worry, that all he needed to do was take a deep breath in, a slow exhale out and trust that it was all enough; trust that in that moment he was already victorious.