Our children live in a hurry-up world of busy parents, school pressures, incessant lessons, video games, malls, and competitive sports. We usually don't think of these influences as stressful for our kids, but often they are. The bustling pace of our children's lives can have a profound effect on their innate joy—and usually not for the better.
I have found that yoga can help counter these pressures. When children learn techniques for self-health, relaxation, and inner fulfillment, they can navigate life's challenges with a little more ease. Yoga at an early age encourages self-esteem and body awareness with a physical activity that's noncompetitive. Fostering cooperation and compassion—instead of opposition—is a great gift to give our children.
Children derive enormous benefits from yoga. Physically, it enhances their flexibility, strength, coordination, and body awareness. In addition, their concentration and sense of calmness and relaxation improves. Doing yoga, children exercise, play, connect more deeply with the inner self, and develop an intimate relationship with the natural world that surrounds them. Yoga brings that marvelous inner light that all children have to the surface.
When yogis developed the asanas many thousands of years ago, they still lived close to the natural world and used animals and plants for inspiration—the sting of a scorpion, the grace of a swan, the grounded stature of a tree. When children imitate the movements and sounds of nature, they have a chance to get inside another being and imagine taking on its qualities. When they assume the pose of the lion (Simhasana) for example, they experience not only the power and behavior of the lion, but also their own sense of power: when to be aggressive, when to retreat. The physical movements introduce kids to yoga's true meaning: union, expression, and honor for oneself and one's part in the delicate web of life.
Yoga with children offers many possibilities to exchange wisdom, share good times, and lay the foundation for a lifelong practice that will continue to deepen. All that's needed is a little flexibility on the adult's part because, as I quickly found out when I first started teaching the practice to preschoolers, yoga for children is quite different than yoga for adults.
Six years ago, I had my first experience teaching yoga to kids at a local Montessori school. I looked forward to the opportunity with confidence—after all, I'd been teaching yoga to adults for quite a while, had two young children of my own, and had taught creative writing for several years in various Los Angeles schools. But after two classes with a group of 3 to 6-year-olds, I had to seriously reevaluate my approach. I needed to learn to let go (the very practice I had been preaching for years) of my agenda and my expectations of what yoga is and is not.
When I began to honor the children's innate intelligence and tune in to how they were instructing me to instruct them, we began to co-create our classes. We used the yoga asanas as a springboard for exploration of many other areas—animal adaptations and behavior, music and playing instruments, storytelling, drawing—and our time together became a truly interdisciplinary approach to learning. Together we wove stories with our bodies and minds in a flow that could only happen in child's play.
The kids began to call me Mrs. Yoga, and I called them Yoga Kids. We continued to work and play together until our creations bloomed into a program called YogaKids. The program combines yogic techniques designed especially for children using Dr. Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences. Gardner, an author and professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, describes eight intelligences innate in all of us—linguistic, logical, visual, musical, kinesthetic, naturalistic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal—and emphasizes that children should be given the opportunity to develop and embody as many of these as possible.
In keeping with this theory, YogaKids integrates storytelling, games, music, language, and other arts into a complete curriculum that engages the "whole child." We employ ecology, anatomy, nutrition, and life lessons that echo yogic principles of interdependence, oneness, and fun. Most of all, our program engages the entire mind, body, and spirit in a way that honors all the ways children learn.
If you're planning to teach yoga to kids, there are a few general things to know that will enhance your experience. The greatest challenge with children is to hold their attention long enough to teach them the benefits of yoga: stillness, balance, flexibility, focus, peace, grace, connection, health, and well-being. Luckily, most children love to talk, and they love to move—both of which can happen in yoga. Children will jump at the chance to assume the role of animals, trees, flowers, warriors. Your role is to step back and allow them to bark in the Dog Pose, hiss in the cobra, and meow in cat stretch. They can also recite the ABCs or 123s as they are holding poses. Sound is a great release for children and adds an auditory dimension to the physical experience of yoga.
Children need to discover the world on their own. Telling them to think harder, do it better, or be a certain way because it's good for them is not the optimal way. Instead, provide a loving, responsive, creative environment for them to uncover their own truths. As they perform the various animal and nature asanas, engage their minds to deepen their awareness. When they're snakes (Bhujangasana), invite them to really imagine that they're just a long spine with no arms and legs. Could you still run or climb a tree? In Tree Pose (Vrksasana), ask them to imagine being a giant oak, with roots growing out of the bottoms of their feet. Could you stay in the same position for 100 years? If you were to be chopped down, would that be OK? Would it hurt?
When they stretch like a dog, balance like a flamingo, breathe like a bunny, or stand strong and tall like a tree, they are making a connection between the macrocosm of their environment and the microcosm of their bodies. The importance of reverence for all life and the principle of interdependence becomes apparent. Children begin to understand that we are all made of the same "stuff." We're just in different forms.
Think of yourself as a facilitator rather than a teacher. Guide your children while simultaneously opening your heart and letting them guide you. They'll no doubt invite you into a boundless world of wonder and exploration. If you choose to join them, the teaching/learning process will be continually reciprocal and provide an opportunity for everyone to create, express themselves, and grow together.