kids yoga  

The practice of yoga is becoming more widespread as people are realising that it is not a religion, and therefore no threat to their religious or philosophical beliefs. Despite its roots in the Hindu culture of India, yoga is, in fact non-sectarian and maybe practised with full confidence by anyone.

how yoga began
In India, thousands of years ago, men called yogis would sometimes go to the jungle in order to meditate. During the time that they were meditating, they would carefully observe the birds and beasts that lived there. They would study the manner in which these creatures prepared for sleep and the way in which they awakened: slowly stretching their limbs and bodies without straining. They watched how they continually tuned up their muscles to help to keep them-selves alert, agile and strong. The yogis began to copy some of the postures and movements they sow and soon they were able to create hundreds of exercises of their own. They called them asanas, a word that means 'postures comfortably held'. They gave many of the exercises animal names: cobra, eagle, lion, etc.

When they practice these exercises regularly, the yogis found that they had plenty of energy and strength for their work, and they were able to think clearly, concentrate well and keep fit. They shared their knowledge with others, who passed it onto us by means of writing.
The ancient yogis were wise, and therefore designed these exercises to be done in a special way, so as to bring excellent health benefits. You do them slowly and attentively. You never strain. You breathe smoothly while you doing them, so as to bring a good supply of oxygen to the working muscles. Once a posture is complete, you hold it steady for a short while before going onto the next posture. Special breathing exercises help to keep your lungs- your whole body in fact healthy. They train you to remain calm when you are tense, anxious or frightened.

You will probably find the visualisation part of yoga particularly enjoyable. Visualisation means creating mental pictures. Mental images can be very powerful, as you will find out as you make progress in your yoga practice. You can use this 'mind power' to help you to build confidence in yourself, to do well in school and in after school activities and to stay healthy.
Now that you have an idea of how yoga began and what it can do for you, it is time to go on to the next chapter, which tells you how to prepare for the exercises themselves.

what parents and teachers should know prior to starting a yoga program for children
Working as a Montessori Teacher with children in a pre-school setting enabled me to see how children behave throughout the day, and to understand their needs for movement. Young children have a strong drive for movement, through which they refine their gross and fine motor skills. Children love to move their bodies all the time and they find it difficult to sit still for long periods. For this reason yoga for children must be dynamic, and the teacher needs to be adaptable, and sensitive to the children's energy levels.

The yoga teacher should always practise the yoga asanas with the children, thus demonstrating the correct posture, but should not insist that the children achieve perfect postures. It is more important that the children enjoy the experience and have fun, than that they achieve perfection.
Regular practice of yoga, early in life, fosters an awareness of what is happening internally as well as externally, which leads to many benefits which are described later.

consequences of a chair culture
Many children in the west are now spending hour upon hour sitting before TV sets and computer screens. They are being driven to and from school and after school activities, and they are walking far less than children did many years ago. Consequently, even if they engage in outdoor physical activities, they tend to loose their flexibility early and may therefore become more susceptible to injuries, aches and pains.

yoga benefits, aims of the asana and meditation practice

Regular yoga practice can help to prevent this and also enables children to become fitter and less tense and anxious. The slow-moving, leisurely stretching and strengthening exercise can be done even where the space is limited. They are ideal for maintaining firm muscles and flexible joints, and for promoting good postural habits.

Yoga gives a solid foundation for life. Educators believe that children must be of sound body in order to be sound of mind. It encourages attentiveness, thus developing and improving concentration, and promotes clear thinking thus facilitating learning. It fuels the imagination, thereby enhancing creativity, builds self-confidence, which helps to develop and maintain a positive self-image. Yoga promotes harmony between mind and body, which reduces health problems and helps children make appropriate responses to emotional stimuli.
These benefits occur over time, through the practice of techniques which include slow stretching movements, and with full attention. Many of the asanas ('dog',' tree', 'snake') offer an opportunity for the physical expression of mental imagery, with which children are usually very comfortable. They also provide a means whereby those who are shy, withdrawn, or in some way handicapped, can shed their inhibitions and experience a sense of liberty. This satisfies their need for expression - children do not as a rule possess the verbal resources which adults generally have. When they are given a chance to express themselves physically, they grow creatively. Yoga provides such channels, which are superb for cultivating a strong sense of self-assurance and independence.

Children usually tend to have a short attention span and sometimes, frequent changes of mood, coupled with a high level of activity. The balancing postures are especially effective in promoting concentration and calmness, and in improving co-ordination. The relaxation techniques help in effective stress management and are particularly beneficial prior to exams. They are also useful for combating insomnia and ensuring sound, refreshing sleep. Visualisation practices offer a safe, enjoyable opportunity for youngsters to give free rein to their imagination. They also maximise the mind's potential for envisioning relaxing images. Researchers have found that visualisation complements other relaxation techniques to facilitate learning and improve concentration, motivation and self-confidence, thereby fostering a positive self-image and reducing health problems.

biological growth and development
Body proportions gradually change throughout infancy to puberty when adolescence begins. During early development the bones of the cranium form by the fusion of separate centres of ossification. Although the suture generally disappears by age eight, as the bones fuse, the adult skull commonly retains traces of the suture line, which runs down the centre of the frontal skull. Baring this in mind, a parent, or a yoga teacher must not teach sirsasana (headstand) until the age of eight (some yoga experts think that this asana should be avoided until the age of fourteen).
The period of skeletal growth is shorter in girls than in boys. Girls grow most rapidly between ages ten and thirteen. Whereas boys grow most rapidly between ages twelve and fifteen.

when and where to practice yoga

Encouraging the incorporation of yoga techniques into daily routines is one of the best things you can do to foster self-discipline and self-responsibility in children. Teaching them early in life to utilise their own natural inner resources, in order to be more independent, is one of the most precious gifts you can offer them.
You can practise yoga in many different places. You don't need special equipment although a mat and a blanket would be useful. You do need fresh air. Dim lights are better than bright ones, but you should be able to see clearly. The floor needs to be level and smooth.
Children age six and younger may practice yoga with a parent, grandparent, teacher or other adult. I suggest that all children be supervised when first trying the exercises until they understand clearly what to do. Working in a group is the best way to learn yoga principles.
Younger children, age two to three, benefit from ten minutes of yoga practice, three to six year olds, from approximately twenty minutes once or more times per week. Older children and teenagers will benefit from doing the exercises daily even if only for ten minutes. A weekly session should last as long as everyone is enjoying it, but 45 minutes including the relaxation period at the end, should be enough.
Do not practise asanas immediately after eating. Let two to four hours pass after eating a meal, and wait at least one hour after eating a snack. Try to do the asanas at about the same time every day or evening.Practising them in the evening helps to relax and sleep soundly. If you are ill or have to stop exercising for some other reason, start again in a gradual way, rather than trying to make up for lost time.

how to practice asanas
Always make your self comfortable before starting yoga practice. Go to the toilet and empty you bladder and bowels if possible. You may take a warm, shower or bath. Rinse your mouth or brush your teeth. You can also have a bath or shower about 15 minutes after exercising. Wear loose, comfortable clothing. Take off your shoes. Remove hair grips, jewellery, glasses and other objects that could hurt you while you are exercising. Have a light blanket handy to keep your body warm when resting at the end of your yoga session. Girls should not practise Sharvangasana (candle) and other inverted postures when having periods.

Practice yoga asanas slowly and smoothly. In general perform each posture once only. Pay careful attention to fully understand the movement. To start with, stay for several seconds in the posture while breathing smoothly. Breathe regularly through your nose unless specified differently. Breathing, as you exercise, brings oxygen to feed your working muscles and takes away waste from your body. Do not hold your breath during asana practice.

Very young children should hold a position for a very short time (about two breaths in and out). As they advance in their practice, they can stay in the posture longer. Warming up helps to prevent muscle tightness. Some warm-up exercises can be done during the day, at school or anywhere. They can even be done while you watch TV. You'll find them useful both as preparation for the yoga asanas and also for preventing the build up of tension, so that you do not become too anxious or afraid about things.

In everyday life, parents can make a game of practising warm-ups with small children to stop them from becoming bored and irritable. Teachers can stop a class if the children's attention strays and spend a few moments practising appropriate exercises together.

and at the end…

Yoga helps children find balance in their lives. Children today are under a lot of stress. Homework, pressure to compete with other children, endless after school activities, over - scheduling, it all adds up. Children who have experienced yoga say it is fun, and it helps them relax.

I have seen how yoga helps children develop better body awareness, self-control, flexibility and co-ordination. Yoga has also been shown to help hyperactive and attention deficit children. These children crave movement and sensory/motor stimulus. Yoga helps channel these impulses in a positive way. Yoga postures that seem to work especially well are the warrior postures and the tree pose. They help instil calmness, confidence and balance. The trick is to get beyond just 'doing' the posture. I try to get children to think about what the postures mean, to become like the postures: strong and confident like a warrior, for example.

When it comes to relaxation, some children have a difficult time closing their eyes while others can't get enough. One technique that encourages relaxation is visualisation. At first I may get them to focus on belly breathing. Then I may ask them to imagine that they are at the beach, playing their favourite sport, or doing some other activity that they like. At the end of the relaxation exercise, I encourage the children to share their own experiences.

Another approach is to create a guided visualisation or story with a calming theme of some kind: 'imagine floating on a cloud'. The idea is to instil a sense of peace and feeling of oneness with nature. In class I encourage input from the children, and incorporate their ideas and questions, to encourage their self expression as part of the learning experience. There is such a wealth of knowledge and experience we can offer our children through the practice of yoga.

yoga is fun,
it develops concentration, focus, self-discipline and self- discovery.

Yoga benefits the entire body and mind and it is a life long foundation for children's well being:
- it helps to develop strong, flexible and healthy bodies
- increases concentration, focus and attention
- builds self esteem and confidence
- opens up to peaceful, relaxed state of body and mind
- acquires personal tools for stress management
- helps to express creativity and imagination
- leads towards understanding of anatomy and health
- aids to learn environmental awareness
- fosters language development and social interaction
- explores reflection

Kids that maybe overly active have fun doing yoga for kids, while unconsciously disciplining themselves in area of balance, focus and concentration. In the beginning children wiggle, giggle, but given the serenity of the practising environment, they soon learn to calm their senses, visualise, incorporate their imagination and team the counting techniques of stilling the mind of the 'never ending' chapter. They learn the difference between inhalation and exhalation and when to incorporate 'the breath' during certain yoga postures. Over time these techniques become learned and consciously applied in everyday life at home, school and play.
Breathing techniques learned by the children help them to understand the importance of the air we breathe and the effect it has on their well being.
Games are incorporated into the class that 're-iterate' what has been learned. For example Simon says…focusing only on yoga postures, is a great game for the kids to implement memory skills, confidence, self-empowerment and achievement.