Growing Up in Yoga

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

When we discuss the effects of yoga on the growth of children, we must remember that there are many facets to growth. These facets are physical, emotional, mental, psychic and spiritual, and undoubtedly, yoga has a beneficial effect on all of them.

Early childhood

In the early years children do not need to practise yoga, but by about seven years they can start asana and pranayama. Young children have a strong link with their energy, their inner being, and the universe. When a child is born, it has no ego, no sense of individuality. During the first five years or so, the child becomes aware of the outside world, realising its separateness, and starts developing an individual personality. By the age of five or six, this process is more or less completed.

At the age of eight, another change starts taking place within the brain. The pineal gland, in the centre of the brain, begins to degenerate slowly, over a period of years, so that by the age of twelve or thirteen, sexual development can commence. The pineal is a kind of lock that stops the secretion of sexual hormones and once it is opened, these hormones are released.

Up to the age of eight or nine, children live in a world relatively free from neurosis and anxiety, a world rich with colour, imagination and fantasy. This is due to the fact that the pineal gland enables them to communicate and interact with the world around them at a very subtle level. When the pineal gland begins to degenerate, however, they gradually lose touch with this capacity and their inner development is shifted towards a more externalised phase of life. In order to delay this process, children in India were traditionally introduced to yoga by the family guru around the age of seven. Before this age yogasanas are not considered necessary, because the body of the child is very flexible. Meditation is also not needed as the child is too young to cope with this process.

Before puberty

The fact that yoga is no longer practised in later childhood is one of the greatest tragedies of modern times. We are facing an era when puberty, the development of our emotional and sexual characteristics, is occurring in the physical body at an earlier and earlier age. When puberty occurs early, the immature mind is not capable of understanding or dealing with the physical and emotional changes, the sensations and feelings accompanying the release of our sexual hormones. Therefore, an imbalance forms between ida and pingala (mind and body; parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems). Pingala nadi goes ahead of ida and the result is that we lose our capacity for handling emotions.

Because of imbalance, by the age of twelve or thirteen, we may start to suffer from various emotional disturbances. Many diseases are linked with this change, for example, often epilepsy starts at the age of eleven or twelve years and many girls develop menstrual problems. Certain forms of psychosis also seem to be linked to this period. Children who were previously calm and placid, may suddenly become restless and aggressive. On the other hand, mischievous and hyperactive children may become very docile. There is a very definite and powerful change in the personality at this time.

The emotional problems that most of us face have come about because we did not enter into the changes of puberty in a balanced state.

When yoga is started at the age of eight, it should consist of surya namaskara, nadi shodhana pranayama, shambhavi mudra done in simhasana, and Gayatri mantra. This is the formula for the correct development of the child. When we practise these techniques we stimulate ajna chakra, slow down pineal degeneration, and therefore delay puberty until we become emotionally and mentally mature enough to handle it. Feelings that would previously have been too much for us become more easily manageable. When we live in a spiritual environment, a yogic environment, one which is free from excessive stimulation and which is balanced, then development is very smooth and the entrance into puberty is very gradual. In fact, you don't even feel that anything has really changed. You just grow and it is a very smooth process, not bumpy.

Many of the swamis at our ashram came as young children. They have grown up through puberty here, and have had very few emotional traumas. They have developed into mature and balanced adults, capable of taking on large responsibilities. They have keen minds, free from complexes and neuroses. So. the benefits of growing up in a yogic environment are fantastic.

Growing into old age

The whole concept of growth has to be re-examined because as adults we may have missed out on yoga from a young age. But that does not mean it is too late for us because life is a gradual development or evolution Growth does not cease when the body reaches a certain height. Remember, growth involves the body, emotions, mind, psyche and spirit.

In ancient times, life was systematised. You started off in the brahmacharya ashrama, so that your physical and emotional growth could be maximised. Then you entered into the grihastha or family life. After that, you went into retirement or vanaprastha ashrama, and then into sannyasa or spiritual life. This ordering of lifestyle was designed scientifically in order to maximise the potential growth and harmony of the body. Life was designed so that the physical and mental changes in our lives, the major changes taking place at the age of 13 years (puberty), at the age of 19 or 20 years (the period when physical growth stops), at the age of 40 (menopause), and so on, would be unhindered. Menopause is not just limited to females; men also undergo changes of life. At the age of 60, another change occurs.

When our physical body stops growing, our mental growth keeps going. Our ability to learn and to grow does not stop at that level. For example, when we reach the age of 30 to 35, certain less obvious changes take place and certain nadis and psychic centres open up. We begin to have new experiences and a different understanding of life. As an example of this, we know that when women have their menstrual period they are more psychically open because their hormones stop secreting and the physical distractions slow down. A woman who has been practising yoga up until menopause will enter into a wonderful phase of growth at the age of 40. There is nothing to fear. The moment you start to apply yoga in your life, you start to facilitate this growth process. However, without some form of growth-enhancing process such as yoga most people cannot handle hormonal changes and tend to degenerate.

I firmly believe that without yoga it is very difficult to grow properly. Most of us become lazy, we stop learning and think, 'Why should I study? Why should I do these things?' It's much easier to just sit and have tea, and gossip, go to the cinema, and so on. We do not realise that we are still growing at every age. If we apply yoga in our lives, say at the age of twenty, then by the age of thirty five when the change takes place, we will have a very beautiful experience.

If we do not use yoga by the age of thirty five, then that transformation becomes traumatic. For some reason a disease may appear in your body or you may suddenly develop mental tensions. At a certain point you were very happy, you had no troubles and your health was good, and then something blocks and you are faced with a dilemma, a disease or some form of suffering. That occurs when growth is somehow blocked or complicated by tensions, by improper lifestyle, going to sleep late and getting up late, too much food, incorrect attitude towards oneself and towards life, and so many things. All these can create ill-health.

Therefore, when we are talking about yoga and growth, if we use yoga to keep our body clean, if we purify our body through asanas and pranayama and hatha yoga; if we maintain a relaxed mind through meditation and relaxation practices; if we develop ourselves, then our growth will be maximal. Our evolution will be maximal. We will fulfil our life to the maximum of our own individual capacity. And for that, we can't just put food into our mouths and sleep the whole day. Growth requires stimulation and hard work.

Evolution of the mind and of the individual requires mental problems to make us think because, if we did not have problems, we would sit like animals and eat and drink and sleep. Therefore, yoga demands certain sacrifices within one's lifestyle. Why is this? Is it because yogis are a bit eccentric and strange, or is it because they have a science that maximises the growth and the potentiality, the evolution of our being?

Never too late

At the age of forty years psychic development really starts, and the age of sixty is the time for spiritual development. So, now is the time we must start to practise yoga and prepare ourselves for a higher life, because we are all children at a certain level. Maybe not physically or mentally, but emotionally and spiritually we are still children.

If we start yoga at an early age, and if we continue our practices, then, as the changes take place, as menopause takes place, as the various changes in hormones take place, we do not have to degenerate. We do not have to become old, retarded and senile. We can grow into wiser beings, we can grow into fully capable people. Age does not necessarily mean degeneration if we use yogic practices, and this is the main point.