A smiling woman came up to me the other night with her hand outstretched. “I’m Debbie Colbert, Hailey’s mum. And I just have to tell you something,” she said with a hearty handshake. “A couple of days ago I was cooking dinner. Moving too quickly. Trying to get it all on the table in time. The bowl of salad slipped from my hands and covered the floor, dressing and all. Next thing I know I’m beating myself up for dropping our dinner all over the floor. Hailey had just come home from school, fresh from your yoga class. She looked me in the eyes, smiling. ‘Don’t worry mum. Take a couple of deep breaths and let yourself relax. We can handle this,’ she said. The breathing slowed me down, and we picked up the salad together. So keep doing what you’re doing with these kids. It’s working, and not just for them!”
So began Parent’s Night at the Montessori School where I teach yoga to preschoolers and primary school children. Debbie Colbert is one of many who have had stories to tell over my twenty years of teaching children’s yoga. Stories of parental amazement at seeing their 5-year old exert the self-discipline it takes to sit in motionless meditation. Stories of parents and children creating a peaceful bedtime yoga routine that improves the quality of their relationship as well as their sleep. Stories of tired teachers relieved to see me at their door, especially on the third rainy day in a row. They know the children will get some good physical exercise to move all that kinetic, sometimes frenetic, energy into something workable, centered, and even heartful. At the end of the class the children will lie down on the floor for the finishing touch; a deep relaxation that smoothes and quiets the mind and body. It may include an imaginative trip to the ocean to be touched by the seagulls. Or perhaps each child’s private cloud will transport her higher and higher, through a rainbow to be bathed in red… orange… now yellow… green… blue… and glorious purple.
It is the day after Parent’s Night, and I am teaching in the school. One child catches my attention. He’s one that requires a lot of energy in order to stay focused. This child cannot concentrate for more than a few seconds, his eyes wandering toward every distraction. We are lying down for the Air Walk exercise. It helps to coordinate the opposite sides of the body and brain simultaneously. He lifts one arm and the opposite leg at the same time, breathing in rhythm with the motion. Up, down, up, down. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. I notice there is a subtle change in his ability to focus and stay steady. At least for now. I wonder what kind of improvement there would be if he did yoga everyday.
The power of yoga to improve the quality of life for our children is an untapped resource. Although yoga has enjoyed popularity with adults for many years, it is only recently that we have come to understand how helpful it can be for children in their formative years, increasing their self-awareness, building their self-esteem, and strengthening their bodies-truly a welcomed oasis in a culture that offers little in the way of mindful yet active play. The key word is play-children care mostly about having fun, as I’ve discovered through my years of teaching. Adult yoga can be as serious as a person makes it, but children’s yoga has got to be fun!
Children can learn better in school because yoga helps coordinate the brain functions. They can play sports better because it helps physical coordination. The mental alertness that doing yoga brings helps both at school and at play. Parents will appreciate how a regular yoga practice enhances self-discipline in their children in much the same way that martial arts do. There’s a good chance that adding yoga to your child’s life will add relief to yours when, for example, it’s time for getting them to do what they need to and not do what they shouldn’t!
For those of us who use yoga as a tool of transformation in our own lives, there is a new awareness. The dawning idea is this: “If it works for me, it works for my children. If it works for my children, it automatically works for me!”
CREATE A SPECIAL TIME AND SPACE
Doing yoga together creates a meaningful ritual. Some families like to do it first thing in the morning for the best possible start on their day. As we get up in the morning, many of us experience the clouds of subconscious dreams that hang over us as we get our showers and brush our teeth. Instead of reaching for that cup of coffee to dispel the mental fog, sit down and reach for your ankles. Loosen your spine by stretching it forward and back in the Camel Ride exercise. Then move on to more of your favorite yoga exercises. By focusing on the inhale and exhale in rhythm with the movement of each exercise, both adults and children can experience the refreshing awareness of just plain being alive.
Follow a 15-20 minute routine in the morning, and you will be surprised at how efficiently yoga grants alertness, gives a sharp, decisive mental attitude, all without the harmful effects of caffeine! On the contrary, most people who practice yoga daily feel calm, relaxed, and mentally alert.
Some families find that the evening is the best time for yoga together. Sitting in the soft light of a candle, the breath slows down and becomes conscious. Both parent and child drop the busy day in the remembrance of what is really important in their lives. Everyone slows down and feels more sensitive to each other. Good-night hugs and kisses are more special than ever.
Many sleep issues such as insomnia, nighttime fears, and nightmares lessen and can completely disappear after beginning a routine of evening yoga. Exercises such as the Cat and Cow loosen the spine and relax it for restful sleep. Be sure to include the Cobra Snake, which helps to release tension from the muscles. And always relax after each exercise with some deep and slow breaths.
WHEN TO BEGIN?
At what age can children begin yoga? I started my son as an infant! His tiny legs were gently bicycled, his arms moved up, down, and cross