Yoga for Children

By Valerie Faneco  (in CHI medical clinic newsletter)

Why is yoga good for children?

Yoga has long been hailed as one of India’s most precious gifts to the world. In ancient India yoga lessons would begin in childhood, and there are many reasons for this. It set the foundation for a lifetime of good habits in personal hygiene, self-care and discipline. To initiate children from a young age would strengthen them physically, emotionally, and mentally, which in turn would help them face the challenges of life ahead.

Yoga is more than three thousand years old yet surprisingly few activities are more relevant to the needs of our children today. This is mainly because it works on developing concentration as well as other qualities on several levels. While through a typical school day there is a rapid succession of study, activity, information and images, the essential quality cultivated in yoga is the ability to shift the attention to a single object of focus and maintain it on this object for a period of time without being distracted.

Many kids overflow with energy. Yoga teaches them to release this energy in a channelled, controlled manner. Physical benefits include developing strength and improved flexibility in muscles and joints. It stimulates growth and promotes a healthy digestive function. Poor posture can be improved; cases of structural misalignments such as scoliosis have also improved with regular yoga practice. There are good results with yoga therapy in the management of behavioural disorders and psychomotor conditions.

As they grow children need to develop qualities such as strength and flexibility, confidence and balance. Physical activity is certainly important for the body, but it is equally important to become strong and supple on the mental and emotional levels; this is where yoga can help, thanks to its holistic approach.

“To go where we haven’t gone before”

One of the several definitions of yoga is: “to be able to do what one was not able to do before”.
Children can feel a sense of achievement in attaining an objective. Here is an example: a nine-year-old girl was very confident and outgoing and had been practising yoga for three years. She could do many difficult postures and was very flexible. Yet she was afraid of doing a headstand, which several other kids could do, even those less experienced and less flexible than her. She really wanted to learn but in her own words was “afraid of being upside down”. Slowly, over time, using other inverted postures in preparation, she was assisted into a supported headstand, and eventually she was able to do it safely on her own. The satisfaction of doing the posture was nothing compared to the joy and confidence she felt from overcoming her fear.

There is a healthy lesson for children to learn from yoga practice. In reaching for something we may have to do some effort, but we must also make sure that our efforts are done in the right way and yield encouraging results along the way. Should this not be the case, a change of plan is necessary. And what better way to learn this than from experience?

How do children classes compare with adult classes?

Children’s classes are conducted quite differently from adult lessons. First of all, children are taught in groups, unlike adults who in the Indian tradition are taught individually. The teacher should always have specific training in teaching kids. Ideally (this is also the classic Indian model) an older child or a teenager with experience should take the lead with younger ones. But this is not always possible!

Typically, children’s classes are shorter than adult classes (half an hour or forty-five minutes). The focus is mainly on the body, therefore a great variety of postures are used, sometimes in sequences (vinyasa-krama), or repeated several times (the sun salutation for example); new postures in various positions are regularly introduced to help sustain the children’s attention. The younger the children, the less important it is to insist on perfection in yoga postures: there is no point in asking a four-year old to keep her feet together or her arms straight! However, the older the children, the more refined the postural practice becomes, with the aim of attaining perfection in form (≤îkÒana) during the teenage years if they are still healthy and if their practice has been regular since childhood.

While breathing techniques are not formally taught to young children, sounds or songs are used to make them work on their breath in an indirect manner. Fortunately many yoga postures have colourful or intriguing names, giving opportunities for story telling during class. Many yoga postures are also named after animals and most young kids find it endlessly amusing to hiss like a snake or bark like a dog.

At times the class will be built around a central theme such as “birds” or “farm animals”. Most themes are related to nature. In classes with age variations the older ones can help the younger ones, thus instilling a sense of responsibility and camaraderie.

There is usually a quiet period at the end of class and parents are at times surprised when they hear that their usually bouncy 5 year old is able to lie down in the “corpse” position for two minutes.

It is often asked how old a child should be to start yoga. The late Professor T. Krishnamacharya, arguably the most respected yoga teacher of modern times, used to say: “if a child can get dressed by himself, he is ready”.