Yoga for Children

Swami Satyananda Saraswati at the Convention of the European Union of National Federations of Yoga, Zinal, Switzerland, 1977

Could you tell us about teaching yoga to children?

In India children are traditionally introduced to the practice of yoga at the age of eight, nine or ten. The Hindus have a ceremony for children of this age, in which the child is taught surya namaskara, nadi shodhana pranayama and mantra. This tradition continues one way or another in India today, but it was also necessary to introduce yoga as part of the formal education. I was among the first to introduce the yoga curriculum for children in schools. Then I made a kind of survey of the problems of children.

Children have many unexplained and unexpressed problems. They cannot express their problems correctly because their powers of expression and their knowledge of their own psychology is not mature enough. Hence, problems which children have are usually expressed in their behaviour and unless a psychoanalyst analyzes the behaviour of children he will not get an accurate diagnosis. It becomes very difficult for most parents because they are not psychoanalysts, and they consider the problems of their children subjectively. For instance, if a child is arrogant and disobedient, the parents will brand him as 'disobedient' but will not go deeper into the cause of the disobedience. If the child does not want to stay at home but wants to be with his friends, good or bad, the parents will brand him a vagabond, a loafer. A psychoanalyst will try to analyze the cause, but most parents cannot do it. It is not because they don't know how to analyze, but just because they are the parents. They have a kind of prejudice; they are biased.

I find there is a kind of imbalance between certain tendencies in children from the ages of seven to twelve. Physical growth and psychological growth do not mature together. I am using the term 'physical growth' here in relation to the brain, nervous system and endocrine system. Sometimes the physical growth is much ahead of the mental growth and many times the mental growth is much ahead of the physical growth, which is the primary basis for problems in children.

We should not try to interpret the problems of children in the light of ethics and morality. For instance, if there is an excess of adrenal secretions, the child will be full of fears. He is not able to face difficult persons and if at school he has a very serious teacher, then he is always scared. He does not want to face that teacher and he does not like the subject either. In this case, the cause of the problem is not ethical and moral, it is not even social, it is absolutely psychological. All we need to do is balance the adrenal secretions and we can definitely change the character of the child. Those who are interested in working out the problems of children will have to study the emotional reactions of the hormones in the system. Problems are also caused by imbalance between the thyroid and the adrenal hormones.

At the age of seven or eight the pineal gland starts regressing and when this process has advanced a certain degree, the sex hormones start functioning in the body. Until this time, the pineal gland arrests the sexual consciousness in the child and also the associated rapid growth of the emotional and mental character. The moment the regression of the pineal gland is complete, the emotional growth becomes terribly rapid and the child finds it difficult to adjust himself. The problem of emotional adjustment is very important in the life of the child, and if we can delay emotional growth in relation to physical growth, the child's stability is enhanced greatly. To do this we have to maintain the health of the pineal gland, and for this the practice of shambhavi mudra - concentration of the eyes on the eyebrow centre - is very important.

As we can see, the pineal gland is very important. In yoga it is known as ajna chakra and it is situated in the brain at the top of the medulla oblongata. It is a very small gland and it acts like a lock. As long as the pineal gland is in good health, the anarchical sexual behaviour does not occur. Sex consciousness should develop when the child is able to balance its reaction in his mind. If the awareness of sexual fantasies develops before he is able to express them, it can hit him hard. He may sometimes have frightening, terrible, fantastic or confusing dreams. At the same time, in his day to day life, he tries to overcome this awareness by behaving in a way that people do not like. The early maturity of sexual awareness can thus almost break a child's mind. When sex hormones start secreting, in girls for instance, the mammary glands, the ovaries and uterus all start to function. Now if the pineal gland is out of the picture too early, the whole confusion starts at the wrong time. The child becomes restless because she is not physically ready to express this new development.

Hence it is beneficial for children to practice shambhavi mudra in order to influence ajna chakra inwardly and to delay sexual maturity until the correct time. To make this practice more interesting, we ask the child to practice visualization at the same time. Visualization in yoga is known as dharana. In this form of dharana we name about fifty items and let the child visualize them one by one. He keeps on moving his awareness, saying to himself and seeing: a pink rose, a flowing river, a snow-capped mountain, a moving car, an airplane in flight, a guava fruit, a church and so on. This practice not only helps the child to maintain psycho-emotional balance, it also helps his ability to visualize. Later on, when he is in school studying geography, history and mathematics, he will have a visualizing mind as well as a thinking mind. There are three ranges of objects to visualize. One is the range of objects which the child has seen, another is the range he has not seen and the third is the range of abstract concepts such as love-hatred. Although we don't have strong scientific evidence for this, I believe that the practice of yoga can also maintain the health of the pineal gland and can give years of life to it. This is why, in India, we have been teaching surya namaskara (a dynamic yoga exercise); nadi shodhana pranayama (for health and balance of the pineal gland); mantra (to challenge the child's distracted mind); shambhavi mudra with visualization (to maintain the pineal gland).

We know that the goal of yoga is meditation and discipline. How shall we teach the pupils in school, and must we insist that they sit in silence each day?

Discipline as well as indiscipline is an expression of the human brain. In every human being there are two shaktis. One is prana shakti, the vitality, and the other is manas shakti, the mind. These are physically equated with the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. If one of these systems is predominant and the other subjugated, then the predominant system expresses itself in behaviour also. Thus, balance has to be established between the prana and the mind.

Of course, by prana I do not mean just the breath, I mean life force; and by mind or manas I do not mean just thought, I mean the total consciousness.

In yoga these systems are called ida and pingala. It is the ida system which is responsible for the total control of the mental component. If ida predominates over prana shakti, the mind moves without any gears, resulting in frustration, indiscipline and terrorism. We get an undisciplined child and an undisciplined society. However, if a balance is established between the two, if the impulses of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are controlled at their very root in the brain, the external expressive behaviour of the child will be in accordance with what happens inside.

It has been noted that in meditation also, when the alpha activity of the brain maximizes then there is a natural equipoise that fills up the whole brain. It also influences the eyes, the respiration, the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine secretions.

Discipline should be an expression of experience, not an expression imposed by the law or society. What usually happens, however, is that parents want their child to behave in a particular way, so he lives a disciplined life. The government wants him to live in a particular way, so he becomes a disciplined citizen. Real discipline, however, is an expression of the internal peace attained through physical and mental harmony and balance.

For children we have two practices - mantra and nadi shodhana pranayama. These practices will initiate an order of behaviour in which the discipline arises from harmony within, rather than compulsion from without.

What do you think about static asanas being taught to children?

I believe that static asanas should be taught after maturity. Until puberty the body of the child - the bones, the nervous system, everything - is growing rapidly, so asanas should be given which involve the growth. After maturity, static asanas and static balancing asanas are very good for them. For children we teach dynamic exercises like surya namaskara and dynamic/static combined, such as paschimottanasana. Static postures like sirshasana can be taught after puberty.

What should we teach to children with asthma?

Daily they should practice the following: Kunjal and neti, shashankasana (also when the attack is imminent), vajrasana, pada hastasana, sarvangasana, and bhastrika pranayama.

What asanas should we avoid giving to children aged fourteen to fifteen years, especially girls?

For children of this age we should avoid all asanas which affect the thyroid gland, such as sarvangasana or halasana.

If a girl has amenorrhea (no menstruation) she should avoid chakrasana and virasana. If she has dysmenorrhea (painful periods), she should include chakrasana and virasana.

If the children are stooped, then forward bending postures must be avoided and backward bending postures must be frequently practiced.

If the child has congested glands (tonsils, ears) he should practice simhasana, the lions posture.

If children wet the bed, asanas like trikonasana and ardha matsyendrasana must be practiced.

How long should a children's asana session last?

About ten to twelve minutes.

Must we pay great attention to the perfection of synchronization between breathing and movement with children?

Not until maturity. Only when a child has normally grown to maturity should he be asked to maintain synchronization between physical movement and prana.

How can we best help children to develop their potential?

Everybody has potential, but the potential of the child is easy to express. If the child is given the opportunity to develop spiritually while he is receiving his education, he will do so much better than we grown-ups. This is because he has no conditioning. His mind has not been brainwashed and is like a fresh flower. His soul and personality can be mended if spiritual opportunities are provided during the days of schooling.

Children should receive their education in a culturally international atmosphere. It is not books, prayers, church or temple which should become the basis of their spiritual culture. The spiritual education of a child should begin with self-work. Whether he lives in an ashram, monastery, hostel or at home with his parents, he should be given the opportunity to participate in day to day work. Work is the best way of inculcating spiritual experiences, spiritual samskaras. The barriers which exist in the personality of the child can never be removed by religious admonition, but they can easily be removed by karma yoga.

The destiny of the whole world depends on the little children. If you want to see the silver lining on the horizon, it is not you and me but the children who have to be spiritualized.