Yoga Begins at 8 Years

Dr. Swami Karmananda Saraswati, MB, BS (Syd)

In India, children traditionally receive their initial yoga instructions at the time of upayanvidhi (thread ceremony) in the 8th year. In the ancient culture, boys and girls alike were initiated into surya namaskara, nadi shodhana pranayama and gayatri mantra at this magical age which represents 'childhood's end'. Now, the significance of this age is becoming apparent to modern scientists, who recognize that the 8th year of life represents a crucial milestone in the physiological and psychological development of each individual, marking the beginning of the transition of awareness from childhood into adult life. Amongst other findings:

  1. The number of minute alveoli (air sacs) in the lungs goes on increasing in number up till the 8th year. After this age the alveoli increase in size only. No further reduplication of alveoli occurs. Doctors note that this is the ideal age for the introduction of pranayama into the daily routine. In this way the cardiovascular and respiratory mechanisms will be trained systematically, ensuring vitality and high levels of resistance and endurance right throughout the different stages of life.
  2. The development and programming of the immune surveillance system which proliferates rapidly during intra-uterine life, infancy and early childhood, ceases at this age, when the lymphoid tissues of the thymus gland, lying wrapped around the base of the heart and the roots of the lungs, begin to wither and atrophy. The nature and sensitivity of the immune responses mounted by the individual later in life are thus virtually determined by the 8th year. The psychological and physiological process of differentiation between 'self and 'other', which in spiritual life manifests as the formidable yet illusory barrier of the 'ego', is also responsible at a cellular level for immune deficiency diseases such as asthma, allergic reactions, arthritis, tumours and cancers. Yogic practices of surya namaskara and nadi shodhana ensure the continual and ongoing development of the immune responses throughout life so that the yogi is able to mount continually appropriate responses to each new situation and set of circumstances in life. This ensures that he will always respond in a healthy adaptive way to all sets of conditions rather than responding according to the fixed 'cellular' record encoded up to the 8th year when development of the immune memory ceases in the average person. This inability to integrate later life circumstances and situations with the pre-existing cellular memory is one cause of the immune deficiency and hypersensitivity diseases which are so rampant in modern societies.
  3. The pineal gland, which has a controlling influence over the pituitary and the whole endocrine system, begins to decay in the 8th year. This tiny structure in the centre of the brain is responsible for maintenance of the child's expanded state of awareness, devoid of sexual consciousness and role. After 8 years, the powerful pituitary reproductive hormones are gradually unleashed, and the onset of puberty results as pineal decay continues. Children who commence yoga practices in the 8th year experience a delay in pubescence, maintaining the childlike state for several more years. The awakening of adult emotional and sexual impulses and passions is thus postponed until the individual is ready to cope with the emotional, psychological and physiological revolution which heralds the adoption of a male or female social and sexual identity. Children in whom puberty and menarche occur later have been found to be generally more intuitive, intelligent and sensitive adults than early maturers who are forced to confront the conflicts and emotional turmoils of adult life before they are capable of managing and understanding what is occurring within their bodies and minds.
  4. According to psychologists, the child's cognitive capacities- the ability to understand concepts and ideas which forms the basis of ongoing technical and moral education, begins from the age of 8 years. This is the time when a child can be considered ready to learn and to concentrate seriously. Before 8 years, play and fantasy constitute the child's world, but after this turning point, discipline and concentration should be gradually introduced to the child. Children who practise yoga from this age are destined to expand and develop their natural attributes, capacities and talents to the fullest extent, leading successful, useful and liberating lives.
  5. From 8 years, children should be educated 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 along the lines of karma yoga is the best way of inculcating spiritual experiences and spiritual samskaras.