Yoga for kids
Raising healthy, happy children is the goal of all parents. The path is unmapped and difficult to navigate. Parents face an overwhelming number of choices when it comes to their children’s activities, and the pressure most feel to choose just the right balance is enormous.
Many of us want our children to gain the benefits of the wonderful wealth of information that has come to us from the East. That there are now options such as kids’ yoga in schools, kindergartens and after-school-care centres shows just how deeply Eastern philosophies have been absorbed into our everyday lives in the West. The likelihood of children exploring them is more a question of time than opportunity.
There is, however, a great deal of misinformation about yoga in general, particularly about children’s yoga, which can provide so much of what parents are looking for in their offspring’s activities. Below are the five most common myths:
Myth 1: Kids’ yoga is an adult class taught to children
Children have very high energy levels, short attention spans and completely different learning styles compared with those of adults. Therefore, teaching yoga to children means the classes need to be specially designed to keep them interested and physically challenged, and to engage their imagination and creativity. Children are constantly in motion, so their yoga, too, should be dynamic.
Attention span is the biggest challenge, especially with young children, so it’s important to make yoga exciting. Teaching children an adult yoga class will work for about five minutes and then they will be bored stiff. The contemplative and focused approached to yoga that adults find enriching is precisely what makes children restless and bored. This is why at a kids’ yoga class you will see games, stories, music, singing, toys, books and any number of age-appropriate props integrated into the class to keep the children interested and further stimulate their insatiable minds.
Many traditional yoga poses imitate nature. Poses with names like downward dog, cobra, cat, mountain and tree make it easy to get children to explore yoga, as they imitate and embody each pose. Naturally, children will bark like dogs as they lift their puppy dog tails coming into downward dog. When coming into cobra pose, almost by instinct they will hiss like snakes. And, while flexing their spines in cat pose, they will meow and purr excitedly.
This doesn’t mean kids’ yoga is always wild and exciting or that the classes are unstructured. The dynamic moving activities will be balanced with stillness and silence, but always in a child-friendly way. This is easy to achieve with many of the traditional poses, too: coming into child’s pose (aka mouse pose), for example, children will hold the pose, all the while being “as quiet as a mouse”.
The classes begin and end just like any adult class, first moving through a series of poses and concluding with a relaxation practice. Many of the classes also include a breathing exercise whereby children discover the joy of taking a deep breath. They may blow on feathers or bubble blowers and have fun while exploring the breath.
Although taught playfully, the basic principles of yoga are still the same, but presented in a way children can relate to and understand, all within the context of having fun and being lighthearted.
Myth 2: Kids’ yoga is not for every child; they need to be flexible and athletic
It’s a commonly held belief that all children are flexible, but this is not so. We all come into the world with an enormous degree of bodily mobility and flexibility, but even children of preschool age show a markedly different range of flexibility and, by the time they begin and continue through school, the physical variation is vast. This is true also of their athleticism: some have a natural sporting ability and others don’t. However, this need not prevent them experiencing and enjoying yoga.
One of yoga’s greatest blessings is it can be practised by anybody, regardless of shape, size or physical ability. Yoga is one of the very few non-competitive physical activities. This allows opportunity for all body types and for the yoga to be tailored to each individual rather than the individual tailoring themselves to fit in or else miss out.
In yoga practice the child is never wrong. They are not ever trying to “perfect” a pose. The way one person does a pose is the perfect way for them. As there is no emphasis on perfection of performance, the children begin to see they are perfect just the way they are and are encouraged to explore and be themselves, which has a positive impact on their self esteem.
Children also feel a sense of accomplishment and pride as they learn new yoga poses or master challenging poses. A child may begin their first class reaching towards their toes coming into a forward bend but come nowhere near their toes. After a number of weeks, though, they may reach forward and suddenly realise they can now touch their toes. For them it’s a remarkable achievement but they are never pushed to work harder at it or told they need to touch their toes or compete with their peers. They are gently and gradually worked within their own limitations.
More often, shyness is the biggest hurdle in a class, but once the children realise this class is not competitive, with no winners and no losers, the barriers soon come down. It’s wonderful to see a young child really come out of their shell and engage fully in the activities. Partner and group work is especially helpful in getting shy children interacting with their peers.
Myth 3: Kids’ yoga does not cater for all age groups
Children are natural yogis. If you have ever seen a baby or small child sleeping, you don’t need to question how child’s pose got its name. Have you ever seen a child lie on their belly and push up, lifting their head and chest off the floor, assuming the traditional cobra pose?
Anyone can practise and benefit from yoga. Babies and infants can be gently moved into variations of simple poses and children as young as three can be taught to enjoy the benefits of yoga in structured classes. A child is ready to begin a yoga class when they can follow simple instructions and control their basic motor skills.
Yoga is tailored to each age group, taking into account their differing needs, which means a three-year-old and a 10-year-old will be just as engaged yet their classes will be quite different. Children are very curious about yoga, especially if they see their parents practising.
In younger children, the focus is on having a positive experience as they are guided through gentle but playful yoga routines. Yoga for such small children is a very sensory experience. Stimulation of all the senses is vital to their enjoyment and participation in yoga practice.
As the children grow, their can be taken through a greater range of movement and their physical strength increases, so their yoga routines can become more robust and complex.
During each stage of childhood, yoga practice is constantly adapted so it can grow with them. As the children mature, the yoga play changes into something resembling a more traditional class, as they begin to take on more physically challenging poses while never losing the playfulness and lightness.
Yoga for children in all age groups is focused on the exploration of themselves and the world around them and is designed to sustain their curiosity about this ancient practice. No one is too young — or too old — to practise yoga.
Myth 4: Kids’ yoga is no different from any other form of exercise
Yoga means union — of mind, body and spirit. In yoga we are working with the whole body and trying to bring about a sense of balance, physically, mentally and spiritually. This, in effect, makes yoga different from any other physical activity a child is likely to practise.
On a physical level, yoga is different from other forms of exercise because it works at using all the muscles of the body, from the well-known muscles such as the quadriceps of the legs and the biceps of the arms to the barely noticed muscles for the toes and eyes. Not only does yoga work the muscles, it also massages the internal organs, particularly in twisting poses.
Yoga also takes care of the kidneys, stomach and thyroid and assists with a healthy digestive, circulatory and nervous system. When practising yoga, children are exercising and strengthening their muscles and joints, improving their posture and massaging, stretching and toning their internal organs.
Yoga kids also develop body awareness and learn to listen to their bodies and differentiate between what feels right and what feels wrong for them. They are never forced to go beyond their limits in a yoga class or to practise a pose that just does not feel right for them. This is an important skill to learn in avoiding injury.
Along with the health and fitness benefits, kids achieve concentration and mindfulness through yoga. It incorporates relaxation techniques and works with the breath, both of which are usually ignored by other forms of exercise. This improves a child’s ability to focus and increases their attention span, which they can then carry over to the classroom.
Another benefit is that children realise there are all different types of bodies in all shapes and sizes and that those bodies can all do different things. A smaller child might find a balancing pose easy while a larger child might be better at a pose requiring more strength. Thus they learn to respect themselves and each other for their differences.
Myth 5: Kids are not interested in being still or relaxed
Today’s children have very busy little lives between school, homework, after-school activities and weekend sport. They also may experience pressure from their parents, peers and the media. Kids can become stressed and overloaded, too — just like adults. A recent study showed that parents spend more time with their children in the family car than in the family home. Life in 2006 is on the move.
Many parents have never seen their children being still at home, so cannot imagine them sitting quietly, focusing on their breathing. The difference is at home we tell them to “sit down and be quiet!” (sometimes at the top of our voice). This doesn’t engage their imagination in any way and falls apart immediately. Relaxation exercises, on the other hand, focus on stillness, breathing and body awareness, not inactivity.
Many children really value and even crave time to rest and relax, to take time out from the frantic pace of their lives. They actually appreciate an opportunity to be still and silent. Often children’s favourite part of yoga is the relaxation at the end of class. They love to lie back and feel the sensations in their body, observing have their breath move in and out of them.
Guided visualisations are a favourite activity with children; they can make use of a vivid imagination and go on a magical journey to faraway places. They can create a sanctuary for themselves, become aware of the physical sensations of their body and have a great time doing it.
While children learn the wonderful art of relaxing their bodies and minds, they are also increasing their awareness of the power of the mind. One of the primary benefits of yoga is finding peace and equanimity. This carries through to daily life. Children can use these skills in everyday life; for example, if they feel nervous before sitting an exam they can take a few moments to relax their body and quiet their mind.
During relaxation practice, many children will drift off to sleep almost immediately, evidence perhaps that we are running them to adult schedules and that is too much for them to cope with at times.
Why yoga is good for kids
Yoga can improve a child’s strength, flexibility, balance, breathing and ability to learn. It can teach them how to relax and cope with everyday stressful situations. As they develop strong and limber bodies they also develop inner strength based on empowerment and self confidence. They are taught that exercise can be a joyful experience and games don’t need to have a winner.
Our parents never even imagined the opportunities for self exploration and knowledge that we now take for granted. It’s not uncommon for a young child to now have several role models within the family regularly practising yoga, meditation or relaxation exercises. What an incredible gift for them.
Why not capitalise on it by having them participate in these activities themselves in the home, at school or during after-school activities? Why not give children the earliest possible exposure to these practices as a foundation for a happy, healthy and balanced life? The tremendous benefits of yoga are well known and available to all who seek them, be they young or old.
While schools talk about self empowerment, the school environment is, in fact, competitive and largely focused on academic activities. Few tools are provided to children to allow them to become centred, serene and happy. Yoga is a set of tools that can be adapted to any environment at any stage of life, even as early as the preschool years.
If we are going to create a better world for our children it must start with the choices we make for them early in their lives. We owe it to our children to make those choices based on what we want for their health and happiness rather than on what we think we should be seen to be doing.
Kim McCormick is a children’s yoga teacher and the founder of Magic Monkey Yoga Kids, a children’s yoga school in Sydney. E: firstname.lastname@example.org, W: www.magicmonkey.com.au.
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