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Once Upon a Time – Jivamukti Yoga and Working with Children

Once upon a time, not very far away, there was a little boy named Archie. They say that a child with special needs will inspire you to be a special kind of person, and Archie was no exception. He was 5 years old and starting school in New York City with special needs, he had tutors and therapists to help him navigate the vast system we call kindergarten. It was a blessing that I got to be Archie’s occupational therapist in school that year. In addition to teaching Jivamukti Yoga at the New York City center, I am a pediatric occupational therapist. Occupational therapy (OT) is a profession that works with individuals who have different challenges, physical, mental or emotional. We aim to develop strategies and creative solutions so that everyone can thrive and live life to the fullest. Occupational therapy always strikes me as an ironic title if I’m honest, because it sounds as if we dive into “occupation” as “work”. In my 14 years as an OT, however, I find that this work merges seamlessly and magically with play …for children of all ages.

When I first met Archie, he was already so vibrant and full of life. He was strong, smart, friendly, and really good at coloring red Power Rangers! But one thing Archie did struggle with was listening. Listening to his teachers was not a strong point for this little guy and after just a few days, the school created an 8-point checklist to guide Archie into a space of listening. It was called “Whole Body Listening: Is My Body Ready to Listen”? This checklist asked different questions to encourage active listening and connected hearing. It started with simple, straightforward questions, but basically what it was asking was more expansive: Am I ready to be present? To sit with another and listen? Is my heart ready to connect with yours as we guide each other home?

As yogis, we know that listening is connecting. It’s caring. It’s what we do to speak from a place of compassion and integrity. Is my heart ready to connect with yours as we guide each other home?

As the school year started, Archie’s teacher asked me to teach him “self-regulation”, meaning she asked me to help him learn the art of listening. And so, little Archie and I went through his listening checklist day by day, working on becoming an A+ kindergarten listener. The first couple of points on the checklist were simple: Brain, body, feet, and hands. Is my brain ready to listen and think about what’s being said? (How often do we get caught in the mental chatter of repeating what we want to say instead of listening to what another is trying to tell us)? Is my body calm and grounded? (Think that post asana class feeling – sthira sukham – a steady, joyful grounding). Are my hands and feet quiet from fidgeting? Brain, body, hands, and feet… Now, when we first read this together, Archie was sitting in a desk kind of squirming in his char. Actually, he was almost laying down in his chair. His head was back looking at the ceiling, legs stretched out with his feet kicking the wall and then reaching across to kick me over and over…and over again. So, we determined that at this point, little Archie was not quite ready to listen. But we didn’t give up.

Am I ready to be present? To sit with another and listen? Is my heart ready to connect with yours as we guide each other home?

Continuing, the checklist went on to ask “Are my mouth, ears, and eyes, ready to listen”? Can I focus my gaze and really see the person speaking? Can I tune my ears to connect with your voice and what you have to say? Week after week, over play dough and red power rangers, Archie and I went through this checklist: Are my brain, body, feet, hands, mouth, eyes, and ears ready to listen? But week after week, we would find all of the signs indicating that Archie was not yet ready to listen. And then one day, the final point listed on Archie’s checklist made me stop in my tracks. It made me pause and re-evaluate my carefully lined up plan for Archie’s therapy. This final point asked, “Is my heart ready to listen?” As an OT who studies and teaches yoga I realized that I had to stop, to pause, and to lovingly and honestly ask myself: Am I ready to listen to Archie? What are his kicking, squirming legs telling me? Where is his gaze, what is it he is seeing and thinking about?

How many children, adults, animals, and other beings are speaking to us every day in their own ways, but we aren’t tuned in to listen? How much of what is said do we miss? The truth is, the whole world is calling out to us, singing to us in ways we need to tune in to hear. In that tuning in, we can begin to connect, to relate, and to respond with integrity and with intention. In that tuning in, we might begin to change the world.

And so, I asked myself: How can I meet little Archie halfway, bridging the gap between you and me and us and them simply by listening? In truth, Archie, age 5, may have taught me even more than I taught him that year because together we learned to ask:

Am I ready to be present? To sit with another and listen. And to speak from a place of connection as we guide each other home