Have you ever driven down the street, lost in your thoughts, and realize you’ve passed right by your turn? In yoga, we call this mindlessness. As adults, we are often victims of mindless behavior, caught in the whirr and whirl of work, errands, commitments and the never-ending “to do” list. Children are no different.
As a parent, I long ago realized that mindfulness is one of the more challenging skills I teach my children. Raising a son with ADD has reminded me over and over again of the difficulty of quieting a wandering mind. I remember singing our way through spelling words – a trick that sometimes helped to keep his mind on his word list. Even so, getting through just one word often required many refrains before the entire word was eventually spelled (H-O-U, H-O, H-O, H-O-U-S, H-O, H-O-U, H-O-U-S-E). A list of twenty words might well take over an hour – longer, including the breaks. Oh the frustration. But that was long ago, and I’m happy to say my now 16-year-old is fully independent with his homework. Chores on the other hand . . .
As a children’s yoga teacher, in particular as a teacher of middle schoolers, I’ve tried many activities to teach mindfulness. Even for those without ADD, this is a difficult skill to master – and one that’s entirely necessary. Imagine, as an adult, not being able to focus on the task at hand. Our western culture, which measures success according to our productivity, has little tolerance for an unfocused mind – and yet, the entertainment that consumes children’s time and attention does little to cultivate focus. Yoga, of course, is less interested in productivity than it is in the act of being present. And, as a teacher, one of my hopes is to offer children skills to allow them to mindfully and intentionally connect with themselves and the world around them – to be fully present in their own lives.
With this in mind, I decided to introduce the idea of a cooperative mandala to my middle schoolers. It’s not an original idea, and I owe much to Daniela Kulikand Heather Warr, both Childlight Yogatrained instructors, in creating the approach. Daniela has shared a variety of approaches to mandalas for children through workshops at Blue Moon Yogain Exeter, NH, and it’s her work that inspired this activity.
The beauty of mandalas is their wonderful versatility. While I chose to present a mandala using materials from nature, you could just as easily build one using colorful household items – ribbons, buttons, scraps of colorful paper or fabric, scarves, etc. If you have time, you could incorporate the activity into a nature hike, having the children gather materials for the mandala as they walk. On a snowy day, have the children walk inside the circle, allowing their footprints to provide the form and design. The possibilities are endless.
Using our mats, the children formed a large circle in the center of the room. This became the sacred space where our mandala would be created. Around the outer perimeter of the circle I placed bowls, each containing sea shells, pine cones, feathers, sea glass, small sticks and a variety of stones (some smooth and some rough, along with a variety of quartz and other crystals). After a brief guided relaxation, I invited the children to move into the circle, taking one item at a time and placing it within our sacred space. There were only a few requirements: that they move slowly and intentionally, that they continue to place just one item at a time (working within a roughly circular shape) and that they remain as quiet as possible. This was not to be a planned design; this was a free-form evolution.
The activity took quite some time, with each child pausing to consider which item to choose and where to place it. Quiet music played in the background to help them remain focused. After about 15 minutes, a beautiful and free design began to emerge on the floor around us. About 5 minutes more, and the building slowly ceased. The children had silently and mutually agreed that the design was complete.
All mandalas celebrate nonattachment and the changing nature of the world by their temporary existence. Ours was no different. Taking a moment to enjoy their creation, they then began to disassemble the mandala in the same intentional way: slowly, silently, one item at a time. The design gradually faded away, evaporating into nothing.
Once finished, I invited the children to share their experience. One boy commented how much he enjoyed the free-form nature of the activity. He noted that group activities often incite debate – even argument – as everyone volleys to have his or her ideas considered. Here, there was no argument. Just the freedom of letting something be whatever it is, without expectation. As a teacher, there’s nothing better than have a student hand you a great message.
Another student simply remarked, “It’s beautiful.” Ah. Simple appreciation of the moment.
After a brief savasana, we ended class with namaste, and the children quietly – and mindfully – went off into their day.
Lisa Burk-McCoy holds a 200 hour teaching certificate in Classical Yoga from the YogaLife Institute, a prenatal yoga certification, and children's yoga certifications from ChildLight Yoga and Itsy Bitsy Yoga. When not practicing yoga, she dabbles as a musician, playing flute in a local contradance band and teaching classical flute lessons to children and adults. She is blessed with a wonderful family–a husband, son and daughter, and a menagerie of pets. They make their home in Exeter, NH