Article for autumn issue 2007 of "Kneipp News" of the German Kneipp Association by Thomas Bannenberg
"Yoga does children good"
It is not really necessary to write much more about yoga in the magazine of the Kneipp Association. Yoga has not only arrived here, but it has also become a "normal" topic in the well-known mass media. For about ten years now yoga has no longer been a trend in Central Europe, but rather is established. The varied effects and the effectiveness of yoga are no longer seriously in doubt. On the contrary, we encounter yoga in ever new fields of activity. In healthcare, of course, but also as a therapeutic accompaniment for all kinds of indications, as anti-stress training, as a wellness offer and as an alternative to performance-based fitness and sport.
Yoga is now more generally perceived. Where it was for a long time deemed an additional "means of relaxation", yoga is now regarded as a discipline that leads to one's own personal success through regular practice, but without ambition. And this is not only restricted to the body and its mobility and suppleness. Especially the silence exercises, the calm felt during breathing awareness, contemplation and meditation are also part of it and are highly regarded by practitioners. Thus, yoga has also established itself as a means of personal development here in Europe.
In this context, one target group has almost "naturally" become a focus for yoga, that is human beings who are as such especially perceived to be in a state of development, namely children. Yoga for children has actually already existed for a relatively long time in Central Europe. Gerhild Euler and others already started with it in the early seventies and ensured that it was included in "normal yoga teacher training". In the mid eighties, the author also started teaching children's yoga and by the end of the nineties, we already had approximately 1,000 trained children's yoga teachers in Germany.
What effect does yoga have on children?
The effects of yoga on the people practising it are diverse; within the scope of this article I simply assume that everyone knows this. All known and described effects apply to people and also children for the most part. However, there are a few relevant differences which I would like to describe below.
Yoga in the practising form of Hatha Yoga combines physical movement with breathing control and awareness. This means attention should be focused completely on what the practitioner is doing right now - and nothing else. This is often a big challenge for us adults, as every single day we have to think about a lot of things, keep the information in our heads and process it. In this case, children up to just before the onset of puberty have an easier time of it. Moving around is perfectly natural and normal for them and part of their everyday routine; assuming children are allowed to move around freely. But that is another subject, which I would like to touch on briefly below. Children like to move around a lot, with boys tending to be a bit "wilder" and girls taking a more structured and coordinating approach. Children find it easy to concentrate on something. Have you ever played Memory with a five-year-old? And ever won? You didn't win. You see, that's what I mean. Children are not easily distracted. They are curious and quickly imitate something. This allows them to grasp the world around them better, and I mean that literally. Through movement children enter into an active dialogue with their environment, process their social contacts and anchor what they have learnt.
Therefore, it is easy for them to accept the Asanas. What fantastic ideas for movement they find in yoga: stand over here and be a tree. What does a lion do? Like a cat? And like a crocodile? When implementing these postures children experience the effect directly, as they are not actually "practising". Up until approximately the age of ten, children can actually not really think in the abstract, so that they always act completely in the moment. Therefore, they are not "practising" being a cat, they are "a cat". And, taking a cat as an example, it meows, purrs and hisses. And this is what cats do in yoga too, at least if children are yoga cats. The effect of postures is therefore deeper to a certain extent. It is not only the physical aspect that "affects" children, but also the mental one. Yoga also opens up completely new realisations for us adults when we practise it. It is not only about the correct anatomical/physiological execution of an Asana, but precisely also about the aspect of "imitation", if we take the example of a cat. What does a cat actually feel like inside when it elongates and stretches? How do you feel "as cats" when practising the Marjariasana?
As children "grasp" things via movement, i.e. directly via practising Asanas, they also pick up the exercise instructions and rules very naturally. Thus, children do not have to be particularly motivated to practise. They do it of their own accord. Supplementary to the regular course, they "invent" their own postures at home and present them at the next session either shyly or proudly, depending on their character. Very frequently, I then see well-known traditional Asanas which the children have discovered themselves.
Without going into details of individual postures, it can be said that the well-known positive effects of Asana practice mostly occur directly and "quickly" in children. Their behaviour becomes more balanced and "calmer". A very lively child will (luckily) not become a stay-at-home type due to yoga, but he or she will find it easier to stop and take a break. Maybe he or she will experience quiet moments as another form of movement, namely a movement that changes something internally in the mind, so that the body can be calm. This is contemplation.
And the quiet, reserved child? He or she is stimulated by the Asanas and can perhaps, with the power of the lion (Simhasana) and other exercises, act a little bit more confidently in class or when playing. The practice of Hatha Yoga changes and influences us human beings in various ways. Neurophysiological findings from the last few years confirm this. We process new "structures" in our brain when practising Asana and the brain then also thinks more and more in terms of these new patterns or structures in everyday life. I bow down with humility before the old masters of yoga who already recognised this many centuries ago - without computer tomography and electronic brain scans.
How do children deal with yoga?
This has already become clear to some extent. Children experience things directly and so they also deal with yoga quite "casually". They tend to investigate yoga more for possibilities and offers, and are amply rewarded if they are taught appropriately.
This is assuming they encounter people who not only impart the physical postures of yoga, but also the mental posture. Those who carry the philosophy of yoga and its tradition not only in their heads, but above all in their hearts – and live this philosophy in their daily lives.
As a yoga teacher, I feel bound to the Ahimsa precept (no violence in deeds, words or thoughts). Therefore, I try to approach children with a non-judgemental perception. This can also be a real challenge for trained teachers. After all, we have assumed for decades that a child has to be "trained". Thus, we have been "prepared for life" with rules, instructions and educational measures. However, children learn above all in and through reliable relationships with others. And they very frequently display in their behaviour, like a mirror, the exemplary actions or shortcomings of the adults they relate to and take as an example (parents, teachers, neighbours, etc.). From a yoga point of view, it is possible to accept a child as an equal and to approach him or her simply as a person. If yoga teachers are curious about how children handle yoga, they can obtain a wonderful gift, as children are practically the "natural masters of yoga" due to their direct approach when practising it – see above. And therefore, I do not give yoga classes for children, but I practise yoga with children. The sincerity of the teachers and their roots in the yoga tradition give the children orientation and support. Thus, correspondingly trained yoga teachers can intensify their own practice and extend their own "world of yoga" together with the children entrusted to them.
Yoga in kindergartens and schools
The interest shown by institutions for yoga classes directly in kindergartens or schools has risen significantly over the last ten years. At some locations, the demand can not be satisfied even. And if yoga is far from being generally available in German kindergartens and schools, the reservations of the educators and teachers working at these institutions have disappeared. The potential that yoga can offer children within the scope of institutionalised learning is huge and the successes back this up. At many schools, social contact, marked by subliminal aggression through to open violence, and the often quoted lack of exercise, pose a big problem. It has now been proven by a large number of studies that children's mobility is directly related to their intellectual, cognitive and social abilities. The Asana practice of Hatha Yoga, taught to children by trained educationalists or yoga teachers, not only opens up the total diversity of movements to them – in the smallest space so to speak. Yoga can also create a good basis for dealing cooperatively and respectfully with others, namely fellow pupils and teachers, regardless of origin or religion.
How can yoga be brought to children in school?
In the course of the national extension of full-time schools, there are more and more possibilities for integrating yoga classes directly into morning lessons. And the demand from schools wanting yoga classes for childcare in the afternoons is growing.
Individual initiatives are still in demand here at present. However, there are also regional working groups where yoga teachers and educators meet to exchange ideas. You can find contact addresses for this at www.kinderyoga.de under "Working Groups".
Qualifications of children's yoga teachers
Expectations seem to be high when it comes to teaching children yoga, but well-trained yoga teachers who have undergone training in children's yoga in the last few decades report positive challenges, a new view on their own yoga practice and consider the children's dedication to be a huge emotional reward for their own commitment.
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