In the course of my travels throughout Colombia (South America), I happened to spend some time at Satyananda Ashram in Medellin. There the yoga classes were given by a swami who had a boy of eight and a girl of ten staying there at the time. Those two children lived the ashram life through and through. They would get up at sunrise, clean the kitchen, and help to get the simple meals ready. They sang beautiful kirtans and enjoyed their work in a number of ways which can aptly be termed as 'gay karma yoga'. Brimming over with life, they showed a co-operation which did not in any way dampen their high spirits.
When students arrived for the evening classes, the young ones would lie down at the swami's feet and there practise a yoga nidra of their own, from which they would only recover the next morning at four a.m.! They certainly practised 'yoga for children' all through the day; it was hardly necessary that they should do any further exercises. They were immersed in the ashram atmosphere which was best suited to the development of their personalities.
Since children generally cannot all lead an ideal kind of life along ashram lines, it seems necessary that parents and educators should introduce yoga into their children's way of living, to help them find relaxation and to stimulate their energies. One of the best ways to introduce yoga to children is to present it as a game they will find easy to play.
The ancient rishis of India devised a number of asanas through their patient observations of nature.
Earth, ocean and sky, sun and space, and all that could be seen or heard through common experience were contemplated by the sages who had a wealth of knowledge about human life. It is not by chance that a whole jungle of animal postures is known in hatha yoga terminology. Each posture or pose, whether for the lion, camel, cat or peacock, has a meaning of its own.
And underlying all these is a warning from Mother Nature that we are born of her, and that no mastery is possible until the animal in us has been fully recognised and accepted. Then only can it be conquered- not by force, but through a process of maturation. We call it 'growth', and this is what the course of human life is showing us. It is natural for a child to live the first stage of his evolution with joy and gusto. Let him love the movements of animals, the sounds of the beasts and birds, and the rustling of the wind through the trees.
It is difficult for young children to stand on only one foot, since the mechanism for equilibrium is slow to develop. Why not train it in the best possible way? One of the asanas which can help develop balance is 'the pose of the tree'. Children from six to eleven will enjoy doing it in this way:
They should stand in a circle or in lines with enough space between them so that they will not touch each other when they raise their arms sideways with elbows bent. Then they should raise one foot in the way that suits them best. Don't insist on the correct arrangement of legs and feet as is taught in the yoga manuals. In time, they will learn. First make them learn how to manage their balance somehow, while moving their trunk and arms. Once they have understood and tried the process, you may tell them: 'Now lift your right leg and place your right foot on top of the left foot, or just a bit above the floor, as you like. Now slowly raise your arms sideways, as if they were big branches spreading under the sky. Your fingers are the smaller twigs and branches, and your hair is the leaves. Hear the leaves rustling in the gentle breeze as the wind is passing through... Now blow out loudly, in imitation of the wind. As the wind passes by, you are swayed to and fro. See if you can close your eyes. (Most will lose their balance in doing so; they've got to learn that too!) You are little trees growing in the forest. When you feel tired, you can change legs... Now the wind has stopped blowing, you are motionless, calm and happy. Gently bring down your foot and lower your arms.'
Children will imbibe a lot from this game, as firstly they will be made to feel how closely they are related to the world of plants. Man's kinship with trees has often been emphasised in various scriptures, and the pleasure that children derive from playing 'trees' proves this to be a deep instinct in the human race. It will also make them aware of their upright position in space and will develop their balance on the physical as well as the emotional plane. By observing their change of feeling when they close their eyes, older children will realise the importance of concentrating their gaze on one single point while doing this posture.
The children should sit on their knees and then bend forward in majariasana, 'the cat's pose', stretching their arms well and meowing somehow. Then they should silently relax sideways, as cats often do when basking in the sun, lying completely limp as if they were empty bundles of fur, but even then remaining fully aware of what is going on around them. Supposing a cat hears a meaningful noise, immediately it will spring onto its feet. So, while the children are relaxing fully on the floor, you keep on speaking to them: 'Now you are lying down as if you are asleep, but you are not. You are vigilant cats, even though you look like sleeping cats, and you are listening attentively to me. As soon as I say the word 'mouse' (or any other word, or sound, as you choose), you will spring into the stretching cat's pose again in a flash. For the moment you are doing nothing; feel your body lying on the floor and your breath going in and out of your nose...'
Keep on giving them instructions on how to relax in the right way until in the course of your talking, without any warning, you mention the word 'mouse' (or any other). This will immediately bring the children onto their knees again. This game is a favourite with children from five to twelve years. From such games the children will learn the meaning of awareness. They will be made to feel that relaxation can be allied with vigilance.
Yogic games can be followed by suitable stories adapted for children which enlarge upon the practices already learned. This is an excellent way to inculcate spiritual truths without boredom or disinterest arising.
Take, for example, the story of the wise cat.
The cat is a great guru indeed, as the following story will show. Long ago, in the times when the animals spoke, the cat was regarded as the wisest creature of all. Some cats even displayed such intelligence and capacities that their fellow animals came long distances to learn from them. Once there was a cat who was considered to be a great master, so much so that even fish would swim the oceans and rivers to his abode, and cows and monkeys would travel for months to be taught by him; even kingly eagles would leave their snow capped mountain peaks to ask his advice. The wise cat was living a simple life in the forest, and the animals who came to be his pupils served him with love and reverence.
A lion once happened to knock at the door of the cat's house and said: 'I have come from my native jungle to learn from you. Please, teach me, so that I can improve. I will listen to you in every way.' The cat accepted and taught him how to spring, to hunt and to roar loudly. He showed the lion how to fight with courage, sniff his prey from afar, run swiftly over hills and through valleys, and see in the dark on the moonless nights. The lion lived peacefully within the community and learned how to feed sparingly when there was not enough to eat, and to share with all in times of plenty.
So he thought he had become wise in his turn, but he had also developed great pride because he was the strongest and most fearless of animals. He said to himself: 'Now the cat has transmitted all his knowledge to me and I have come to know as much as he. I am also bigger and stronger than he. I am tired of listening to him; I will now take his place.' Once, as the cat was lying sleeping all by himself under a big oak tree, the lion pounced on him, to swallow him up. But the cat had sensed his presence, for he was not fully asleep, and was able to jump onto the highest branch of the tree. Although the lion tried to catch him, he couldn't climb the tree at all! He roared and jumped with rage, but it was no use.
The cat spoke to him from the top of the tree: 'Don't think that you have learned everything from me. I still know more. Now get away from here and be content to remain what you are.' And since that time the lion and the cat have parted ways, and man still admires the prowess of the lion and the wisdom of the cat.