If you've been "on the mat" for years, and have "down dog" down pat, you may wonder at some point, "Why can't I let my kids practice with me?" (If your child is like mine, she may have already invited herself onto the mat.) The answer is, "No reason at all," provided that you present yoga to your child in an age-appropriate manner.
Why do yoga for kids at all? For one thing, adults aren't the only ones who are stressed out these days. School, deadlines, team sports, fundraising activities, family incidents, not to mention friendships and self-confidence issues--all these things can create a tremendous amount of pressure on a kid of any age. Just as yoga gives grownups a little productive quiet time and space to "chill out" and center, it can help children create a safe space where the pressures of being a kid aren't quite so overwhelming--to say nothing of the substantial physical and mental benefits that flow from a healthy yoga practice.
So, how should you introduce yoga to a child? Here are some tips to help you both get the most out of your time together on the mat:
- Honor the child's nature. Don't expect yoga for kids to be the same as the yoga you practice in class. You have to take a different approach with children, and odds are, a kid who's new to yoga isn't going to demonstrate the same silent intensity of focus to which you may be accustomed. Don't think you're going to force a little one into a silent flow of poses for thirty minutes--you will simply end up frustrated and the child will wind up bored beyond tears (and likely, turned off of yoga for quite some time to come). Instead, let the child be a child.
- Use the poses as a foundation to explore other movement in creative ways. Children aged six to nine, especially, enjoy adding the appropriate sounds to poses named after animals. So much for quiet time! But go with it, and you'll get an added benefit, that might not be immediately apparent, by modeling flexibility; you'll help the child grow more flexible and adaptable himself.
- Encourage the use of sound in yoga for kids. Hissing like a snake in cobra pose, or roaring like the lion in lion pose aren't the only ways you can do this. Encourage the child to count while holding an asana, or recite the ABCs. This will enable the child to reap the benefits of maintaining the poses (thus increasing strength and balance) by using his innate love of his own voice.
- Explore the natural world with the child while performing the asanas. Kids are famous for their imaginations. Use and encourage the development of that creativity by urging them to go beyond what the pose appears to be. Ask questions such as "Can you imagine what it would feel like to be a snake with no arms or legs?" while the child is in cobra pose, or "What do you think the lion would do if another lion walked into his home?" in lion pose. Encourage the child to imagine what it would feel like to really be a mountain in Tadasana. Eventually, the child may start to realize the interconnectedness of life on this planet through these explorations--that we are, in fact, all the same, albeit in different forms.
- Let go of your agendas and expectations. Allow yourself to think of your role not so much as a teacher, but as a guide. Let the child tell you where he wants to go. It's then your job to get him there safely and empower him to experience the journey fully.
- Resist the urge to perfect the child's performance. Parents especially, with the best of motives, want their children to excel and improve. But this competitive spirit is at odds with yoga generally. Undoubtedly the child gets enough competition in his or her daily life. Let the time on the mat with you be different.
- Encourage the child to honor her body. If she's tired, suggest some "lying-down" poses, for instance. Reinforce the idea that, as long as the little yogi or yogini is moving and breathing, the yoga is already perfect.
- Finally, be aware of physical limitations. A child's flexibility is awe-inspiring, but little bodies have young bones, muscles, and cartilage, and should be treated accordingly. Don't push your child to go beyond his or her physical limits. Encourage the child to ease into more difficult poses. And teach by example: Don't force yourself into a balancing handstand if it's beyond your capabilities. Play at the edge, not beyond it.