Practising Yoga with Children -Who Teaches Whom?

Swami Vedantananda Saraswati (UK)

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 little children who have to be spiritualised.

-Swami Satyananda Saraswati

Children take to yoga like a duck takes to water and practising yoga with children is one of the most delightful experiences. Children are naturally spontaneous, open and full of imagination. Yoga practices keep these innocent qualities alive in the child. Yoga provides the tools for children to develop into focused, well-balanced, positive and creative adults. It gives them ways to manage their lives and life situations in a constructive way.

Much has already been spoken and written regarding the benefits of yoga for children. If you have experienced yoga for yourself, there will be no doubt in your mind or heart of its potential when used with children. Yoga recognises the interdependence of body, mind, emotions and spirit, and the need for health and balance in all these layers of our being.

Through the practice of asanas children learn about their bodies, how to sustain a healthy body and keep it flexible and youthful. They learn co-ordination, although it has been said that this is not fully developed until all the milk teeth are lost. Co-ordination leads to a certain grace and poise, which is carried over into other areas of their life and personality.

Through pranayama practices children learn to bring about a balanced emotional state. They learn to manage stress, to become aware of agitation and how to deal with it, and to channel their energy creatively. All of this helps to increase their self-confidence and inner stability.

The practices of pratyahara and dharana give relaxation and disciplines which develop clarity, improve concentration, attention, and memory.

Now we will focus on the practicalities of practising yoga with children. I have been inspired by Swami Satyananda and Swami Niranjanananda and the work that has been done by RYE (Research on Yoga in Education) in France with Swami Yogabhakti. The children themselves have been my greatest teachers, and also I have learned a great deal from yoga teachers who have participated with me in a five-day training module called Teaching Yoga to Children.

The following ideas come from my experience in the West. Some of the material may not be appropriate or relevant to other cultures or situations.

Setting up a yoga class for children

Looking for a venue: When looking for a space to teach yoga to adults, we look for a place where there will be the minimum amount of disturbance to the class. This is not necessarily the case when looking for a place for children to practise yoga. We need to consider that we will not be disturbing others, as children can be quite noisy. The space needs to be clean and clear, free of furniture and other objects. It is helpful if the floor is non-slippery - wooden floors are good. Know where the fire exits, toilets and telephones are.

Finding the children: Decide which age group you wish to teach. It is better to group the children 5-7 years, 7-9 years, 9-11 years and so on, as they respond in different ways to the practices, and the teacher's language needs to change according to the age of the class. Going into schools to offer yoga classes after school time is a good starting point; alternatively, advertising in libraries, health food shops, doctors' surgeries etc. brings good results.

Length of class: For small children, 45 minutes is a good amount of time for a class. Allow time for them to change, take off their shoes and socks, etc. For older children the classes can be longer, one hour to an hour and a half.

Creating a sacred space: The 'classroom' can be decorated with posters relating to the theme or topic of the class. Incense and a candle (where appropriate) will increase a sense of being special. It is a good idea to ensure that the children have mats to practise on, and this may mean taking them yourself. With all of this and any other props you might need for the class, a helper is a useful asset. A helper or assistant is also useful for giving children individual attention, such as helping them with asanas, or taking them to the toilet.

What to teach

Asana: Children love asanas, especially animal asanas where they can make noises and also learn about the qualities of that animal and thus a little more about the world around them. The important thing in asana is not to expect perfection, for as the child's awareness increases the practices will perfect themselves. Yoga with children should be FUN. The eastern way of teaching does not take away the joy of discovery from the student, and this is very applicable as children learn yoga. It should be remembered that a child's body is still growing until the age of about 17 years, therefore it is not a good idea to hold postures. Inverted postures (i.e. headstand) should also be avoided.

Pranayama practices that are simple and which do not involve retention of the breath are suitable for children. There is a wealth of children's yoga books on the market, some geared to teachers and some more appealing to children themselves.

Yoga nidra is a favourite for children. It should be kept short as they can relax deeply and quickly because they tend to be less tense than adults are. However, children do experience stress from home situations, peer group pressure, exam worries - even world events can worry them, so they definitely need to be able to relax.

Trataka is also another useful practice for developing concentration, memory, and for quieting the mind. Trataka can be done in a variety of ways, including using mandalas that they may have previously coloured, and simple yantras - squares, triangles, etc.

Games are always successful in a yoga class, either as ice-breakers, for induction purposes, or as a technique for developing memory and awareness. An example is 'Kim's Game' where you present the children with a tray of objects which they look at for a few minutes, then the tray is covered and they have to write down everything they can remember.

A game I learnt from one of my adult students is the 'Emotions' game. A pack of cards is made with different words on each: "I feel happy when . . .", "I feel sad when . . . ", "I feel frustrated when ..." etc. The children choose a card (if they are not happy with it they can choose another) and go on to describe an event or situation that evokes that feeling in them. It is an excellent way for children to understand and express different emotional states. Stories also go down well, and I have found some of the Indian comic books telling stories of saints, kings, gods and goddesses, the Ramayana and Mahabharata have always been well received.

Themes and topics are a good tool to plan yoga classes around - they give a focus to you and the children and can be repeated for several weeks if a success. (The golden rule in yoga with children is, "If it isn't working, drop it immediately!") These themes can range from a walk in the jungle, a visit to the zoo, the seasons, the elements, festivals like Diwali and so on. Themes can also synchronise with topics being covered in school. Equally, one can introduce yamas and niyamas and, even some of the 'ities' or SWAN theory. This will introduce children to the philosophy of yoga and may help in situations like bullying, which is common in schools.

Children learn by example; they are like sponges and if we set them good examples of behaviour they will imbibe these positive qualities and maybe bring a positive change to our societies.

Discipline

Swami Satyananda has said that discipline comes from within; if we enforce it too strongly on children, it will not work. In a yoga class, for reasons of safety and effectiveness, the teacher needs to be in control. So a simple way to achieve this is to follow the guidelines of Rules, Praise, Ignore. You as the teacher set the rules, i.e. this is your mat and you stay on it unless I ask you to move. Praise the good behaviour and as much as possible ignore the bad. This I learnt from another of my adult students.

Generally speaking you have to do the practices with the students, and young ones especially are too impatient to watch a demonstration - they want to get on with it. I have found that arranging the children in a circle, of which you are a part, is most helpful as no one can hide at the back and children are very good at monitoring each other. Disruptive children or those seeking attention can be usefully used as demonstrators, where they are kept busy and have all the attention they need.

It is also worth remembering that children do not necessarily want to be in the yoga class. Sometimes it is the wish of the parent, therefore I tend to offer the child the option of not joining in if they really don't want to. We have a 'time-out' corner for those occasions, a space apart from the others where a child can go to read a book, colour a mandala, or just be. If we want our children to learn respect, we have to show them respect, so the deal is that the teacher and the group respect the child's wish to not join in (for any reason). However, the child has to respect that the rest of us do want to practise, so they are to be quiet. It works!

Child protection

In the West at the moment, child protection is a big issue. If you are going to teach yoga to children, it is advisable to contact your national body, i.e. in the UK NSPCC, that deals with this subject to familiarise yourself with the issues. For instance, in the UK a teacher is not allowed to touch a child on any part of the body that is covered by a swimming costume. This would affect a yoga teacher if the habit were to adjust the hips in the practice of trikonasana, for example. Generally speaking, within Satyananda Yoga we tend not to use this 'hands on ' method of teaching. Make sure you are familiar with safe practice, know any contra-indications or precautions that might be appropriate for children. Make sure they are given BEFORE the practice begins. It is advisable to have an up-to-date first aid certificate. Always check you have contact details for the parents or caretakers of each child.

If you feel ready to take up the challenge of practising yoga with children, go and do it - even if you have no experience of teaching children. Your first class will teach you plenty. Go into a local school and offer yoga classes, do it as seva, get feedback and keep notes from teachers, parents, and the children themselves. This could be really useful for future research projects.