I’ve been teaching kids’ yoga for about eight years now and at first I was surprised by how naturally children embraced and practiced yogic principles. If given the opportunity, kids organically stretch and challenge their bodies. Babies breathe with their entire torsos. Toddlers definitely live in the moment, loudly throwing a fit about a missing toy and then immediately bursting into giggles if redirected. Young children can rest at the drop of a hat (falling asleep in the dinner plate sometimes) and run around at full steam at other times.
It seems that the older we get, the more we grow out of our natural yogic tendencies. We start following conventions instead. We mute our natural rhythms in favor of following a clock. We learn to sit still even if our bodies are crying out for movement. We rarely allow ourselves the opportunity to rest and be still. So my goal as a yoga teacher, for the children AND adults I teach, is to encourage them to listen to their bodies’ wisdom. I offer them guidance and confidence to tap into the little yogis that live inside all of us and that whisper what our minds, bodies and spirit need to be our most healthy, happy and productive self.
For example, when explaining the origins of yoga to children, I tell them a story about the ancient yogis. They sat in complete stillness, hour upon hour, meditating. This sitting made their backs stiff, their knees ache and their necks tired. So they looked around them and noticed how graceful and comfortable animals seemed. So they stretched their backs like a cat (and I lead the class into cat/cow pose) and they wagged their tails like dogs (downward facing dog). They puffed up their chests like pigeons (pigeon pose) and lifted their hearts like camels (camel pose). Once their bodies were stretched and moved, they could sit in stillness. When they sat in stillness, their minds were able to be still, too. The lesson of this story is that our bodies KNOW what we need (look at how easily animals listen to their bodies and move accordingly) and our job as yogis is to listen to our bodies and respect its suggestions.
Another way children naturally practice yoga without any formal instruction is through sound. Have you ever seen a child willfully ignore what you are saying by plugging their ears, closing their eyes and chanting (usually saying something like, “nah nah nah nah. I can’t hear you.”)? Or have you seen a crying baby settle down almost immediately when being held close and hearing a solid, monotone sound (like “shhhh” or “hummmm”)? Sound is powerful and children innately know how to utilize it for soothing. To demonstrate this, have children practice Bhramari Breath (or bumblebee breath). Plug your ears with your thumbs, place your index fingers on your closed eyelids, your middle fingers just below your eyes, your ring fingers on your nose, and your pinkies on or below your lips. Inhale deeply and exhale an OM sound. Notice how the sound fills your entire skull, blocking out all other incoming stimuli. Repeat three times. How do you feel after this practice?
Finally, children naturally love to meditate. They may not recognize what they are doing as meditation, but with some guidance, their innate tendencies toward meditation can be honed and encouraged. I like to encourage meditation through guided imagery, especially at bedtime. Have your child get really comfortable in bed, with PJs on, blankets tucked in and their favorite stuffed animals, ready to say goodnight. Dim the lights and take them on an auditory journey to a Secret Garden. Start by describing how their bed has lifted into the sky and they are floating with the clouds and stars. Use details for each sense to make it an immersive experience. Their bed comes to land in their Secret Garden, which can be anywhere – Grandma’s backyard, the North Pole, underwater or on another planet. While they are resting perfectly still in bed, you are guiding them through an exploration of this garden, what it sounds like, what it smells like, who is there with them. After a couple minutes, tell your child that you are going to let them explore their Garden for a bit, decorating it and looking around. Then be silent for a minute (more or less, depending on the child’s age and temperament). Then direct them to fly back to their bedroom, back into their warm safe bed. Ask if they can remember their Garden and remind them that they can visit there anytime they want. Now your child will drift off to dreamland with a positive ending to the day.
Encourage your little yogis’ natural affinity for yoga and meditation. You can learn a thing or two from them!