Article in Issue 8/9 of "yoga aktuell" by Thomas Bannenberg
The natural masters of yoga
The various physical and mental exercises of yoga have developed over the course of many generations. Gurus and masters have passed them on and perfected them. Yoga has always been intended for people that's obvious, but, for a long time this meant that practitioners could only embark on the path to yoga if they had achieved a certain physical and, above all, mental maturity. Thus, there is no special mention of yoga for children in the ancient writings. Even in the second half of the last century a whole load of adult yoga teachers still believed that yoga, of whatever tradition, was not suitable for children to practise. At the same time, all yoga traditions combine physical exercises with those of the mind in an ideal form. The key to the positive effects that provenly characterise yoga therefore lies in the variety of the combinations. People do not differ on account of their age in their need for physical and mental training and development. And if they do, the unmotivated ones tend to be adults. Children at any rate are always seeking challenges, are curious and want to gather experiences. They want to learn, be challenged and be active. Yoga literally offers them natural and unique possibilities for doing this. And, in the meantime, neither doctors, educationalists, yoga teachers nor those who work with it on a therapeutic basis doubt that children can practise yoga.
What is the difference between yoga for adults and yoga for children
(and vice versa) and what is the connection?
The exercises and their sequence in the various traditions of yoga can also be found in children's yoga. There are only very few contra-indicated postures on account of children's anatomy. In short, one can say that beginners' programmes for adults are also well suited to children. Only the Pranayama exercises are mainly restricted to breathing awareness until the onset of puberty. Breathing control is only performed on a rudimentary basis in order to stimulate abdominal breathing, if applicable. Nadi Shodana, alternate nasal breathing, is helpful for children from school age, as it can produce the same positive effects for children as for adults. Sitali, "tongue hissing", should already be practised with very young children, as the earlier children can see and imitate "tongue hissing", the easier it will be for them later. However, initially we leave out the breathing associated with Sitali when dealing with children. This is because, like in the case of virtually all the other Pranayama exercises, a child's system is still developing and breathing techniques can trigger very far-reaching or profound effects sometimes.
Probably the most distinct difference between yoga for adults and yoga for children lies in the didactics, which I would like to go into further below. This becomes evident in the duration of the exercises and the holding time. Whilst we mostly stress the holding impulse when adults practise Asana, it's the movement impulse that is stressed in children's yoga. This means that exercises are repeated several times, but the final position is only held for a very short time. Instead of an average holding time of approximately 45-60 seconds in the case of adults, for example in a variation of the triangle posture (Trikonasana), we only hold the final position for approximately 2030 seconds with children. To compensate, holding as such is repeated several times.
This emphasis on the movement impulse satisfies a child's need to be active, which as we know from brain research is especially strongly pronounced between the ages of six and eleven/twelve. However, movement is also the key to changing thinking structures at any other age (even with adults). Anyone who has already practised yoga for a long time will know this. First the practise of individual postures becomes easier and more flowing, the body becomes softer and more flexible and then one's own taste might change and one's inner attitude becomes 'softer' and the mind calmer, etc.
For some postures, especially balance exercises, such as variations on the tree posture (Vrksasana), a different structure is required in children's yoga, as the sense of balance is still developing and has to be constantly re"adjusted" due to the child's growing body. However, children love these challenges and look for opportunities to balance. Therefore, we find postures in children's yoga that are somewhat untypical in adults' yoga. The monkey, for example, who stands on one leg and "grips" in the air with its second foot and a hand, in order to reach for fruit with its free hand. Or, instead of the static "eagle" (Garudasana) we encounter the griffin, who stands on one leg with its arms stretched out (like wings) "hovering". Or the stork, who stands on one leg and lifts up the other leg whilst "clicking" with its arms like with its beak. Through these "lively" postures children's balancing organ can balance more easily and the children do not tense up like in a static posture that might still be too difficult for them. Nevertheless, one can observe in healthy children that they can already reliably stay in the traditional balance postures after they have practised a few times.
What can children achieve by practising yoga?
In general, one can say that the adequately researched positive effects of practising Hatha Yoga can also be achieved amongst children. As children are in the process of growing and especially need exercise to develop healthily, in addition to a reliable relationship, the traditions of yoga offer varied and above all holistic stimulation for this. Through conscious repetition in the same order specific channels in the brain are stimulated and stabilised. Not only the wide-ranging study conducted by the AOK, a German health insurance company, and a few sports associations on the mobility of our schoolchildren has shown a clear deficit in this field. Nowadays children receive much less encouragement to take exercise and play on the street than even their parents did. The proverbial "mum's taxi" that takes children from one appointment to the next not only creates stress amongst parents, but also children, as time pressure and a lack of exercise are well-known stress factors for human beings. And children are reliant on possibilities for having their own experiences due to their development and their inner and outer growth. They relax through exercise and playing freely if they are given the time and space.
Thus, it has been proven that yoga for children can strengthen their ability to concentrate, improve their feeling for their own body and train and hone perception. By combining it with the philosophy underlying the physical postures (especially yamas and niyamas), practising yoga also has a positive effect on (social) behaviour.
The therapeutic spectrum of yoga is as similarly large for children as for adults and ranges from use for chronic migraines and the eradication of learning blocks as well as speech and language impairments to use in children with special needs such as those who are chronically ill with mucoviscidosis, cerebral palsy (spastic-type), etc. However, in these latter cases, yoga classes for the child concerned should always be agreed with the doctors and therapists treating the child.
Age of children: from what age can children practise yoga and with
whom and where
Yoga can already be practised with very young children, which we then call "baby yoga". Babies, however, are moved more than they would do so actively. Course offers for babies can, for example, be found via midwives' practices and baby therapists. Children can practise yoga independently from about the age of three, i.e. when they reach so-called "kindergarten maturity". For children up to six years of age, yoga tends to be offered in kindergartens. Courses for this age bracket tend to be a rarity.
There is a varied range of courses for school children upwards of Year 1 (and then up to approximately eleven/twelve years), and not only in large cities (see also info box).
Yoga is also being offered in more and more schools as part of an additional range of activities to complement lessons. The number of schools who have included yoga in their profile where yoga is then a "perfectly normal" part of teaching during regular school hours is also growing.
When looking for a children's yoga teacher for your child, make sure the provider has sound training. Also ask about the size of the group, which should not be more than eight children in an open course. In school classes and in the case of other activities offered by schools the size of the group is frequently higher than this, but this should not pose a problem in this context. Courses are mostly offered during school hours and therefore frequently only consist of five to seven sessions. Of course, this is ideal to give your child a chance to try it out. If your child likes yoga, he or she will soon want to practise at home independently. Support your child, but do not expect any miracles from yoga. As we know, these do occur, but only when one is least expecting them
Furthermore, the prices for children's yoga courses are the same as for adults.
What are the didactics of children's yoga like?
Challenges posed by teaching children yoga which teachers have to face, how they should be construed within the meaning of yoga philosophy and what one can do.
I already mentioned above that different teaching didactics are required for children's yoga than for adults' yoga. This is undoubtedly the biggest challenge facing yoga teachers who want to start practising yoga with children, as, whilst adult course participants are mostly happy to follow our instructions and also willing to spend prolonged periods relaxing and being quiet, teaching children is somewhat different. Children are lively and direct. They want to comment on every exercise instruction and spontaneously think up their own variations of postures and want to present them. Relaxation does not need to last as long as for the "grown-ups", as a child's system has already "run down" and is totally relaxed after three to four minutes. If at first it seems like children's yoga is similar to the proverbial "herding cats", we can recognise on closer inspection and instinct that children rather get totally involved in the exercises. Children do not practise yoga in the actual literal sense. They are the exercise, get totally involved in the posture and feel like a tree, mountain, lion or dog. This is the biggest joy when practising yoga with children. They are the natural masters of yoga. They can allow us to participate in the magic of the moment, and they also challenge us teachers. They "force" us to be totally awake and attentive. The precept of ahimsa (non-violence) should be observed, that is one should appear before children without making a judgement. Accept them how they are. And be oneself totally rooted in yoga, as the directness of children precludes anything else. Thus, a totally different, holistic yoga can be experienced with children, namely bang in the middle of life in all its colour and intensity and totally focused.
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