How Empathy Fosters Inclusion
More than ever before, this season of life has brought the duality of the physical world to light. As COVID-19 numbers and variant cases increase, so does the number of people getting vaccinated against it. While the pandemic has taken away so much of what society needs to function, it has brought opportunities to individuals they never had before. More recently, spring has arrived, and with it, the cool fresh air, the glamorous cherry blossoms, the blooming bulbs on front lawns and some long-awaited sunshine. It has a positive effect on me - I feel renewed, lighter, more awakened. At the same time, my heart is heavy from the recent spate of anti-Asian hate crimes. The atmosphere in our house and our diverse neighbourhood and community, are thick and muggy with fear, frustration, and anger.
I was raised in the Hindu tradition and currently work as a children’s yoga teacher. Yoga informs much of my life. Many practitioners believe that yoga is a path to accepting the Universe’s dualities and that regularly applying its concepts to one’s life helps transcend these incompatible opposites. It’s a lofty goal for certain, and one I cannot claim to have achieved. However, I can say that yoga has made me more aware of the constant presence of these seemingly opposing forces and how to be, if not at ease, then at least present in the face of these opposites.
Recently, I was getting ready to teach at my neighbourhood preschool in Vancouver - a local Montessori preschool filled with diverse families from all walks of life and deeply nurturing staff. The 40 or so preschoolers who attend the morning and afternoon classes are gifts to a children’s yoga teacher. I have learned so much from them. They constantly and tirelessly teach me how to practice yoga in its truest essence, not as a series of poses, but to embody its principles in everyday strivings and joys.
How to talk to kids about racism
In preparation for class, I was working on a spring-themed lesson. We were going to talk about a garden growing, review the life cycle of plants, and start with some Sun Salutations to represent the sunlight the plants needed. The kids would be little seeds (curled up in Balasana/child’s pose). I’d come around and place either a hand on their back to represent soil or gently tap my fingers (rain). They’d slowly rise to form growing plants, their favourite flowers or a tree (Vrksasana/tree pose) or little bees buzzing around the garden (Brahmari Pranayama/bee breath). Perhaps they’d be birds flying around (Virabhadrasana/Warrior III). We might try other life cycles, transforming from egg to tadpole to frog, or caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly, using poses to act out these journeys. It was all very lovely and cozy.
The only problem was – I wasn’t feeling lovely or cozy. I felt restless, consumed by a need to respond to all the anti-Asian ugliness around me. I was constantly worried for my East Asian brothers and sisters. As a woman of South Asian descent, I was unfortunately all too familiar with what they are going through. Here I was, going to see a group of little kids, many of whom were students of colour. How was I going to talk about daffodils and ladybugs with them without acknowledging any of the racial violence that was going on around us?
While there are plenty of resources that we can draw on to tell us how we can help and what we can do, but as a parent and teacher, I was drawn to those that taught me how to speak to children, and how children would process this news. In a recent article by Connie Chang in Parents Magazine (How to Talk to Kids About Anti-Asian Violence), the author suggests parents and caregivers can help kids navigate difficult conversations about racism not by shying away from these topics but by making sure that the language is developmentally appropriate. Dr. Christine Koh, a neuroscientist turned social academic, goes one step further. During her recent guest appearance on the popular podcast How to Talk to Kids About Anything, hosted by Dr. Robyn Silverman, Dr. Koh discusses how our kids can be allies and activists in today’s world. I had been using the available resources to soothe my soul, and now, fortified, I turned to these resources again to be of help to others. This is the power of listening and learning -- it patched up my broken heart and gave me a set of tools to go out and carry on this work and be an ally in action.
Yoga as a political tool
Many people are surprised to learn that yoga can be and often is political. When executed with good intention, yoga is a valuable tool in an activist’s arsenal. The many principles of yoga, which include ahimsa (non-violence), svadhyaya (self-inquiry), and seva (service), can all be deployed to great effect.
I filed my spring garden lesson plan away for another day and created a wholly different class that morning. I leaned into the dualities I was experiencing, both the overwhelming harm and the rebirth around me. I didn’t have access to a protest march, and I wasn’t a social media influencer, or a board member. What I did have, however, was yoga. I knew what had to be done, which was to keep practicing my yoga and be true to my purpose. Every day, on the mat, I practice how to align purpose with action, and this was no different.
I walked into class, greeted my little yogis, went through our warm-up routine and got down to business. “I’d like us to talk about something you might have heard recently,” I said. “Maybe you heard about it on the radio, or on TV, or you heard grown-ups were talking about it?” That got their attention and I dove in. “Recently, some very bad things have happened to Asian people. Words and actions have hurt them, and it's simply because of how they look”. They were hooked, or as hooked as preschoolers could be. One two-and-a-half-year-old shared that she was going to have chicken nuggets for lunch, but even she was listening.
We did a quick review of Asia (they had learned about the continents). I asked them to raise their hand for every country they had heard of. It came as no surprise this diverse crew knew almost all the countries that made up East Asia. I mentioned that some of these Asian people who live in North America and around the world are being bullied because of how they look, and asked them what they thought of that. Their responses varied from complete indignation to surprise and confusion. But they all agreed on one thing, which was that it was completely ridiculous to make such an arbitrary distinction and hurt people based on that. Imagine that – kids as young as three to five years of age recognize this as a universal truth.
I asked them how our Asian friends might be feeling. The outpouring of responses both warmed and chilled my heart - another example of duality in action. It was amazing to see that these kids could empathize so easily. However, many of the responses that came from the Asian students were hard to hear. They were already exposed to these experiences at such a tender age. “Sad,” said one little girl, her eyes downcast. “Angry!” shouted one little boy. Feeling scared, alone and confused were the top responses. Some adults practice yoga for many years to achieve this level of empathy.
Then I asked them what we could do, how we could help. These are the best questions to ask little kids because their generosity of heart always shines through. “Hugs and kisses!” shouted one kid, who was clearly ready for social distancing to end. “Hanging out with them,” said another, a usually quiet boy in the back. “Sharing my toys,” “Being nice to them.” These kids get it. In learning spaces, teachers understand that moments of empathy and opportunities to relate to an experience helps kids further develop their inclusive lens.
Using Diversity in Stories to Develop Empathy
I thanked the children for sharing their wisdom. We took an exercise break by doing a few rounds of Sun Salutations to thank the Sun for shining on us and helping things grow (I got a bit of my spring class in, after all). Then we settled back down to read a book that I hoped would convey a whole lot of big ideas: Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao.
As a children’s yoga teacher, kid’s books are a not-so-secret weapon. They check many boxes for an effective class by providing a theme and offering lots of opportunities to perform asana by acting out various pictures. And, of course, kids love being read to. Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao written by Kat Zhang and illustrated by Charlene Chua, is an award-winning book which offered all that and so much more. Little Amy Wu loves her family tradition of making bao - a steamed bread-like dumpling with filling - almost as much as eating them. In the story, Little Amy Wu gets frustrated when her bao doesn’t turn out as perfectly as her parents. Still, she perseveres, problem-solves and winds up not only making perfect Amy-sized bao but also recognizing that the imperfect bao is delicious as well.
This book presents, in an understated manner, an issue that kids can relate to in an inclusive way. We’ve all read books where Billy struggles to learn to ride a bike or Mary is trying to figure out how to build a robot. Through perseverance, support and calm, the kids eventually reach a breakthrough, which is often defining success for themselves. All these stories have the same arc so why not read about how Amy struggles to make the perfect bao? It’s rare to find a children’s book that inserts cultural details nonchalantly while exploring a universal theme. Often, in an attempt to center non-white stories, kid’s books tend to exoticize that culture, inadvertently reinforcing the troublesome concept of Other-ness. Racism, at its core, is the fear of the Other. By including books that feature diverse characters doing the same things the reader does, it accomplishes a number of goals.
- The concept of the Other starts to become diluted.
- Readers of colour see themselves and their traditions being represented
- All readers learn that many experiences are universal and common.
Kindness is more easily achieved when we can see the human connection.
Setting mindful Intentions with meditation
Now that we’d covered empathy and human connection, I ended class by inviting students to a final opportunity of yogic activism – metta meditation (loving-kindness meditation is the more popular but sometimes groan-inducing name). A traditionally Buddhist practice, metta meditation has been around for thousands of years. Although different traditions approach the practice differently, all forms share the common goal of developing benevolence and goodwill towards oneself and others. Typically, it involves mentally sending love, kindness, and warmth towards others by silently repeating a series of phrases.
Class ended on a quiet note with a little art activity. I gave the students a sheet with an outline of a heart and invited them to draw whatever was in their hearts after this meditation—the preschool version of journaling.
I hope my little friends felt educated and empowered that day. We listened, learned and shared. We practiced what we could do to be better, to do better. I left the class with the sun shining, birds chirping, and cherry blossom petals swirling every time the spring wind blew. As I turned my phone back on, I got a news alert about another assault on an Asian woman who was out for a walk. Was I going to tune it out, or crumple in despair? The answer was neither. My just-finished yoga practice with my preschoolers reminded me that what I needed to do most was to hold space and be present to the reality around me in the face of duality. Sometimes, being present is the most radical thing we can do.