Yoga for Children? Yes!
By Shakta Khalsa, Founder and Director of Radiant Child Yoga
Reprinted with permission
Why yoga for children? Twenty years ago, that question was most likely asked about martial arts. Now there are classes for children at martial arts studios around every corner. And, like martial arts, yoga develops many wonderful qualities in children. Beside the obvious benefits of exercising the physical body, yoga sharpens the child’s ability to calm down and focus. It cultivates confidence and self-discipline. Many find that yoga, when practiced regularly, helps children become more aware of their thoughts and feelings. From this awareness, changes and growth in new and positive directions can blossom.
More and more professionals who work with Sensory Integration dysfunction, such as autism, learning disabilities, and ADD/ADHD are being trained in children’s yoga with great results. There is a natural affinity between these children and yoga, since yoga addresses the whole child, including the brain/body connection. Yoga also works to strengthen and organize the nervous system, which is essential for special needs children.
In my thirty years of teaching children’s yoga, I never fail to delight anew in the self-discoveries that children make through yoga. Children are so fresh and creative in their approach to life. And yoga encourages their creativity to flow, their fears, anger and sadness to release, their trust in the inner self to shine, their minds and hearts to be in synch.
If there is one thing I learned in my years of experience as a Montessori teacher, it is this: Children are capable of much more than we think they are, and if given the right environment they will excel beyond our belief. In 1982, I started a small Montessori school in Baltimore. In my cozy little school I applied this same understanding to teaching children yoga. Their creative, innocent selves expressed such simple truth, that I realized I was learning as much from them as they were from me. The reality became this: I gave them the tools of awareness, and they expressed that awareness with such clarity and wisdom that within me was born a deep respect for them. Quite often they have shown themselves to be my teachers!
Recently I was teaching yoga to a group of children between the ages of four and seven. They flexed their spines in cat and cow, mooing and meowing enthusiastically, stretched into cobra, hissing all the while, balanced on their bottoms holding their legs up in lotus flower pose, and focused as fierce warriors in archer pose. The active yoga exercises are always followed by a deep relaxation, on their backs, arms and legs straight but relaxed. In this particular class, I guided the children into a visualization where they imagined they were lying on a warm, sandy beach. As they breathed in they imagined the waves of the ocean coming up to the shore. On the out breath, the waves returned to the sea. As I looked around the room at the various children, I noticed each of the children internalized these images in such a way that he or she relaxed more profoundly than in deep sleep. They were consciously relaxing, bringing their minds and bodies together to achieve a peaceful awareness of inner space. This is the basis of yoga and meditation. And it is the basis for a happy, peaceful life. The inner experience of yoga gave these children a gift they can never lose, because it is within them all the time.
After our relaxation, we sang a song together–me strumming my autoharp, and they singing with gusto. The song instructed: “You can make the sun shine any old time, Even when the clouds are there.” We sang for a while then I said, “ Does anybody have an idea what this song means?” One five year old girl answered immediately, “ It means that even when things are not so good, you still have the sunshine in your heart, and you can make things better!” Need I say more?
Tools for life…
TIPS FOR MAKING YOGA A PART OF YOUR FAMILY
Create a special time of the day for yoga. Take some time in the morning or evening, and follow it with a deep relaxation.
Make a special yoga space. Use a small table or cover a box with a cloth. Have your child decorate it with pictures and objects that have special meaning for him or her. Use a candle for focus during quiet meditative time.
Begin by closing your eyes, and taking a few deep breaths to center yourself. If you have a “yoga sound” that you use for yoga, chant it a few times to begin.
How long to do yoga? With preschoolers, ten to fifteen minutes is a good start. Each exercise lasts 30 seconds to 1 minute. You can increase the time as they progress, and develop the ability to stay focused. Elementary age children can easily practice yoga for twenty minutes. You may like to include a few minutes of deep relaxation at the end of the yoga time, and perhaps a meditation of a few minutes. Remember to start simply and build the practice slowly.
F-U-N, those three little letters that are so important! Entice your children with engaging exercises. For young children, make up yoga stories using animal poses. For older children, challenge them using a timer (“Let’s see how long we can hold this pose with deep breathing!”). Reach them using your creativity and light-hearted humor.
You might feel that you would like to have a teacher for you and your child. Many yoga centers are beginning to offer classes for children. You will find the techniques and styles of yoga differ greatly from one center to the next, so explore and ask questions. Good luck and get ready for lots of pleasant surprises, fun, and great blessings from yoga!
Originally written November 25, 2015 here.