I am standing as steady as a mountain

by Thomas Bannenberg

The philosophy of yoga is already a few thousand years old. In its physically-oriented form, which has caught on worldwide as Hatha Yoga, the aim of the practice is to keep the body agile and free from tension or to restore it to such a state.
However, any physical posture is always also an expression of a person's inner state.
Conversely, selectively applied external postures have a positive effect on our mood and our feelings - and also on our thoughts if repeated regularly.
Therefore, the goal that Hatha Yoga is meant to achieve through its various exercises can be summarised as: creating a free spirit in an agile body.
The emphasis is expressly not on separating mind, body or "soul", but on unity.
"Yoga" is a word from Sanskrit (ancient Indian dialect) and means "to unite".
In addition to a large number of very different physical postures, which start with simple stretching exercises and sometimes lead to very complex postures for advanced students, breathing in particular plays a large part when practising yoga.
The basis for all exercises is the principle of alternating tension and relaxation.
Children like practising yoga because it offers their natural urge to be active new possibilities for physical self-awareness.
Children can also already practise yoga with appropriate instruction at pre-school age, from approximately three years upwards. In my groups and at the kindergartens where I teach, there are mostly children with problems such as sleep disorders, poor concentration, stuttering, sensorimotor deficits and behavioural difficulties as well as children with asthma, mucoviscidosis or migraines in addition to so-called "normal" children.
I always build up a yoga unit in such a way that I initially offer the children movement games to loosen up and also to "let off steam".
This is followed by the actual yoga postures, which are concluded with exercises for breathing awareness and relaxation.
The end of a unit forms a brief session of meditation, with a candle in the middle of our circle, for example, or a fairy tale or an imaginary journey.

But what effect do the yoga postures have on children with so-called problems or learning difficulties?
In many cases, these problems are caused by an inner state of tension within the children, which is rooted in their character and also their social environment.
As pre-school children move, elongate and stretch their entire bodies in the course of a yoga unit over about 30 minutes, their inner tensions are released "virtually of their own accord" through the external (= physical) exercises.
I make sure that the children do not hold their breath, whenever it gets too strenuous for them, but instead experience with great pleasure and delight how their mood improves when they can snort and pant really heavily.
A very large number of emotional tensions can already be released and eliminated by breathing out intensively.
This occurs in a playful way, for example, by letting a strong wind whistle over the mountains while we are practising.
First we straddle our legs slightly, stretch our arms up to the ceiling and try to feel like a "mountain".
We feel our connection to the earth and stand "tall and lofty like the Alps".
Then we let the wind come, breath in through our noses and produce the wind sound by breathing out on a drawn-out whistle.
This stimulates diaphragm activity and the children automatically breathe in and out deeply.
Once the wind has blown away the clouds, the sun shines again, which we represent through a large stretching movement of the arms, moving in a circle from inside to outside.
At the same time, the sun also radiates from our faces, i.e. we have our eyes wide open and laugh at each other.
Somewhat below the mountain tops stretches the mountain forest. The children pretend to be trees, feel how they are connected with the earth again and allow the branches (= arms) to sway softly in the breeze.
The "traditional" tree posture of Hatha Yoga, where we stand on one leg, would be too hard for the children still.
Therefore, this "one-legged position" is more like a "stork" that lies in wait for a frog with a raised leg or teeters through the grass.
If the "stork" has discovered a frog, it reaches forward right down to the ground and grabs it with its long beak (= arms) and stretches itself back up again, so that the frog can slide down its long neck. Of course, the frogs do not simply let themselves be eaten, and so all the "frogs" hop as quickly and as best they can into safety.

A good hiding place is the reed at the edge of a stretch of water. We stand up straight and push our hands upwards slowly with our palms pressed together, as the reed is now producing blossom.
When the wind sweeps through in late summer (with a slight "hu", which also stimulates the action of breathing out and intensifies breathing generally), the seeds fly through the air. We imitate this movement with our fingers and slowly crouch down until the fingers/seeds touch the floor.
Now we make ourselves really small, as now we are the seeds in the earth and wait until winter is over.
Then we build ourselves up again slowly, i.e. we grow like the new reed in spring until we make ourselves really tall again and stretch up to the ceiling.
Hatha Yoga developed in India from observing nature, plants and animals.
Thus, we find a large number of exercises with names that stimulate imagination, like lion, mountain, crocodile, cow face and tortoise.

The origin of Hatha Yoga is therefore very close and similar to children's perception, as children also want to imitate what they see around them.
Through conscious action, they can therefore experience themselves totally differently.
A weak child actually feels like a strong lion when he or she is practising and a frail child is a majestic mountain.
Inner tensions are eliminated through breathing exercises and as we in yoga do not introduce something completely new in every unit, but rather repeat familiar exercises and supplement what is familiar with other exercises, children with learning difficulties recognise their ability and (perhaps) also their way of learning, in the way that comes easiest to all of us because we already did it as babies: through touching things, in order to thus experience our environment and ourselves in it.
The perception of children helps them to intensively and directly experience the "essence" of Hatha Yoga, its philosophy as the spiritual background to the exercises.
In contrast to classes for adults, the focus is not on the cognitive, but rather on the directly emotional/spiritual side; which means that with the children we are perhaps even closer to the roots of yoga.
Not only motor skills and physical awareness are stimulated through the varied movements and postures of Hatha Yoga, but also concentration and learning behaviour.

On a deeper level children receive help on their path of incarnation into this life, because children do not practise yoga, they experience it.

by Thomas Bannenberg
Appeared as an article in the magazine "DAO" in 1997

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