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Catholic Identity Teaching Children's Yoga

Updated: May 4

Here states another beginning and proposal for a union (often the definition of yoga is a union) or a club to support Catholic yoga education.


This summer exploring Catholic identity at the University of San Francisco in my doctoral studies for Catholic Educational Leadership, I was better able to connect the yoga I’ve been teaching in a Catholic preschool for about the last decade. I was able to formulate five essential ingredients of Catholic identity in addition to the dogmatic, traditional, official, seven sacraments of the Church, to further establish a mystical communion with the Church. The five inspirational ideas of Catholicism drew from Thomas Groome (2002), Vatican II (Paul VI, 1964; 1965a; 1965b), and Pope Francis (2015; 2020) and were: international, imagination, inculturation, inclusion, and incarnation. The following image is a template to visualize these five inspirational ideas of Catholic identity that I ask my yoga students and teachers to draw upon and color with their spirit.


The following paper focuses primarily on Catholic identity and teaching a kid’s yoga class. I have been developing a personal prayer with my faith and experiences. It is something that blends my Hindu, Buddhist, and other South Asian cultural ideologies with the Catholic prayers I’ve been learning the last six or so years since my Baptism and Confirmation. Being new to the Catholic faith, yet a U.S. citizen always surrounded by Christianity, is in many ways a translation process with the Eastern religious practices I have been surrounded by my whole life. The prayer goes something like this:

In the name of the North, South, East, and West. The Water, Air, Earth, and Fire. The Parent and the Children, the Teachers and the Students, the Administrators and the Schools, and our Divine Leadership. Aum and Amen. Let us recognize faith development as part of language and culture development. Let us understand how learning other languages fosters our mother language development too. Let us recognize Yoga as Sanskrit for union, the act of joining, and working together in cooperation. Let us see Catholic as universal, done by, for, and common to all people in the world.

 

Ingredients of a Kid’s Yoga Class for a Catholic School

The children’s yoga classes I’ve been teaching for nearly the last decade comprise five elements that may be repeated in a typical class lasting about half an hour. The first element is singing Aum and/or the Vowels or mantras as pranayama breathing and voice practice. The class then warms up with an upper-case set of standing postures to the ABCs as a way to spell out love for literacy and to find creativity with language. The Sun Dance fosters the idea that dance is another fundamental human language for self-expression. Incorporating stories and games into every class helps develop metacognitive skills. Every yoga class, child and adult, must include the pose of Savasana to experience the effortless gift of grace from our divine union.


This next table is a Catholic Character Chart built to visualize how the five inspirational ideas of Catholicism (international, imagination, inculturation, inclusion, and incarnation) can be related to the elements of the kid’s yoga classes I’ve been teaching. Additionally, Ignatian values, the yoga sutras, secular framing, and the actions of Roberto de Nobili, are briefly addressed with this table and will be further written about in my dissertation. Note: Roberto de Nobili was one of the first Western Jesuits that began to decipher the Sanskrit language and customs of India.

 

Being International by singing Aum and the Vowels

Class usually begins by singing the five vowels on one exhalation. The vowels symbolize Aum as the Sanskrit word for Amen in Latin. This singing is mindful, breathing practice, similar to pranayama exercises. Utilizing the voice is a wonderful way to inspire the children to practice breathing. When the practitioner, whether the adult teaching or the child as a student, recognizes breath, sound, and voice as universal human principles, the experience can be very enlightening. Simple prayers can be utilized as mantras for breathing and voice practice. On the preschool level, it is important to recognize how every human breathes and communicates in some way.


I always begin my children’s yoga classes in a Catholic preschool by singing the vowels A, E, I, O, and U in one exhalation, three times in a row, with the children ringing Tibetan bowls and other musical bells between each round. This practice was developed first when teaching yoga at a public school and separately at a private Jewish preschool as a secular way to teach the concept of Aum. At least one of the vowel sounds is in every word we say, and similarly, Aum is the sound of creation and the universe. Aum is our connecting vibration of equity and inclusion. Aum is Sanskrit for the Latin word Amen. I know I can and have explicitly taught Aum in a Catholic school, but the concept of the vowels as a unifying, literary force is very exciting and intriguing. This element relates to the Catholic identity characteristic of internationalism, as this part of the practice utilizing verbal capabilities to produce sound as a language requiring breathing is a universal human trait to exercise.

Questions to ask to build an understanding of this Catholic idea of “international” with a yoga class: Would you like to travel around the world? How many languages can you speak? What sounds can everybody make? Do you have to calmly breathe in order to calmly speak?



 

Building Imagination with the ABCs

In the children’s yoga classes at a Catholic preschool, we usually begin the class toward the beginning, as a physical warm-up, with a set of upper-case ABCs as a way to develop healthy habits. These upper-case postures are rather simple and coincide with the classic song that everyone sings along with. We usually do a slow, then fast, set of upper-case ABCs, particularly to incorporate movement with this kind of cognitive brain development. Toward the end of class, as a warm-down, we do a set of seated postures, again in song, but as the lower-case ABCs. Learning the basic rules and structures of language mirrors learning about civilization as the children begin to formulate such conceptions with these exercises. The goal of language and the objective in this imaginative practice is to communicate thoughts, feelings, and emotions in a safe, human way. Everybody has a special style of handwriting all their own and every student moves in a unique way.

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My children’s yoga classes always include the Upper Case ABCs and when the time and mood fit, the lower case ABCs toward the end. I was inspired by Bikram’s 26 poses to compose a simple 26 letter standing warm-up series of the upper-case alphabet and as a warm-down, the lower-case ABCs as seated and supine postures. Originally I was experimenting with Hebrew at the Jewish preschool as part of an interest in Kaballah and the power of language, doing poses called Alephbet yoga. Then I started getting into Bikram again and somehow the Upper and Lower Case ABC postures I teach were developed. Coinciding movements while singing the classic ABC song is a sure way to engage the preschool class. Allowing freedom of expression with making shapes of the letters allows handwriting development, phonemic awareness, and fosters Catholic imagination.

Questions to ask: Can you sing the ABCs and make the shapes of the letters at the same time? How do you write your name? What is your handwriting style? What story would you like to write?


 

Inculturation as the Sun Dance

The main reason I teach yoga is to teach the spirituality of dance. Catholic schools offer the opportunity to explore spirituality too. The utilization of Sanskrit and cultural artifacts of Hinduism may be freely referenced in Catholic schools unlike the common censorship in public schools. In the Catholic school context, I have felt safe enough to portray the Sun Dance as my way of utilizing personal strengths to inculturate my impressions of Surya Namaskar. Inculturation is a way of sharing timeless, internal wisdom with a contemporary, local, cultural medium and context. We can honor the sun with our dance as a way to honor the divine, creative gift of life. The objective of this exercise is to portray the human spirit in worship with what we have here and now, in our immediate context.


Autoethnography helps me find the bravery to tell my truth (Foucault, 2008) so that maybe I can shine as bright as my guru (Rupaul, 2018) even though I have repeatedly committed revolutionary suicide (Newton, 1973) just to be myself. As a trans person I have had to inculturate my life everywhere I’ve gone because I do not know of a dominant trans culture or a society that practices such. One realm where I have had to greatly utilize the Catholic principle of inculturation is athletics. Every time I have been told my body does not move the way it is supposed to I have built spiritual strength to express myself further. I teach the Sun Dance as a way to practice inculturation because, for people like me, inculturation is all we do. When every culture shuts out the queer, the queer has to make their own culture centered with the heart.

Questions to ask: What is your greatest wish? If you could do anything, what would it be? What is your greatest dream? How do you like to dance? How does the music make you move? What are your favorite songs, fashions, and styles?


 

Inclusion with Stories & Games

There are so many children’s stories and games about yoga it is difficult to choose from, and I will not take the time here to list them all. These games however build self-esteem with community engagement, so it is imperative to allow time for the children to explore the concept of yoga in other casual, relaxed ways that inspire social engagement. They can practice the game we call Mindful Minute, staying still for a whole minute. There are many Partner Poses that are always engaging. Children’s yoga literature for storytime is greatly expanding, along with many accompanying sets of flashcards and other manipulatives for the classroom. The main goal here is for safe, positive engagement. This time is to be more student-centered and may require the teacher to breathe more.


Nothing is more fitting than the Catholic characteristic of inclusion to highlight the time in a children’s yoga class where we honor the vast amounts of literature supporting the multitudinous, multifaceted definitions and practices of yoga. Literacy is the gateway to divinity. Every child can engage with yoga in one way or another. Allowing the child to experience a personal connection with the subject in a safe way, on their own mat, in their own way, on their own time is sure to impress spiritual development. As the child enacts various poses that connote different stories and concepts a connection with nature, history, and humanity is formed, not to mention an expansion of vocabulary.

Questions to ask: Who is part of your loving school family? How do we make friends with someone new and different? How are we all the same or are we all different? Are you safe and loved and ready to learn?


 

Incarnation with Savasana

Every great yoga class must include Savasana! Savasana is the perfect time to connect with a sense of divine leadership and experience incarnation just like Jesus and the Saints. Hopefully, the peace we find in our Savasana is something we can carry through the rest of the day and life in general. This is the time to find, trust, and follow the truth within even more. Savasana may be the most challenging posture for children or very challenging for teachers to inspire a large group of children to take Savasana. The ultimate goal, however, is to find stillness for at least a moment and to recognize how we are all children of God. In our Truest Selves, we can always find truth, beauty, love, and leadership within.


This is the famous part of yoga class when the pose of Savasana, also known as dead person’s pose, is practiced. This is also part of the practice I focus on the Catholic concept of incarnation. Incarnation is also a Hindu concept. Catholics believe God has been human once, whereas Hindus believe incarnation has actually happened seven or eight times. Regardless, as a trans person, I like to think of myself as an incarnation of Shiva because the Nataraja (the cosmic dance) is what my life is all about. When I am dancing my truest self, oftentimes I am reminded of Jesus when I encounter discrimination and harassment, but usually, it is Shiva that I connect with in my highest, ecstatic states. This is also the part of yoga class where my favorite definition of namasté is expressed as the divinity in me reflects the divinity in you.

Questions to ask: How are we extraordinary, exceptional, and one of a kind? Do you know what is beautiful? Do you know the truth? Do you love your family and friends? Do you love the plants, animals, oceans, and mountains on earth?


 

Considering yoga as a union, the act of joining, and working together in cooperation, along with the meaning of Catholic as universal, done by and common to all people in the world, “Catholic Yoga” can be seen as a universal union, the act of joining all people in the world. Catholic yoga has the potential to achieve the mission of the Holy Roman Catholic Church to unify and sanctify humanity (Himes, 2019; Paul VI, 1964). The unification of humanity allows the sacred process, the sanctity of humanization (liberation), to unfold. Out of many there is one: Et pluribus unum. This vision of the unity within the diversity is similar to Aloha, Namasté, Shalom, tranquilo, and zufriedenheit. May we all find a humanizing spirit, such as Catholic Yoga, to unite and sanctify us all. Aum/Amen.


Emmit Hancock is pursuing his PhD at the University of San Francisco. He is developing a workshop series surrounding this research.


 

References

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