The Cat, the Cow, and the Camel: Yoga for Healthy, Happy Children
By Shakta Kaur Khalsa
Issue 99, March/April 2000
At a recent Parent's Night, a smiling woman came up to me with her hand outstretched. "I'm Debbie Colbert, Hailey's mom. And I just have to tell you something," she said with a hearty handshake. "A couple of days ago I was cooking dinner. I was moving too quickly, trying to get it all on the table in time. The bowl of salad slipped from my hands. The next thing I know, I'm berating myself for dropping our dinner all over the floor. Hailey had just come home from school, fresh from yoga class. She looked me in the eyes, smiling. 'Don't worry mom. Take a couple of deep breaths and let yourself relax. We can handle this,' she said. The breathing slowed me down, and we picked up the salad together. So keep doing what you're doing with these kids. It's working, and not just for them!"
Debbie Colbert is one of many parents who have had stories to tell over my 20 years of teaching children's yoga. She joins others who have watched with amazement as their five year olds sat in motionless meditation; families whose bedtime yoga routine has brought them closer together; tired teachers, relieved to see me at their door.
What does a child experience in one of my classes? Good physical exercise that directs their kinetic--sometimes frenetic--energy into something more centered, and at times, joyful. Take, for instance, the exceptionally boisterous student I had one day. Concentration eluded him; every few seconds his eyes wandered to the next distraction. We were lying down for the Air Walk exercise (see left, top), which helps to coordinate the opposite sides of the body and brain. He lifted one arm and the opposite leg simultaneously, breathing in rhythm with the motion. Up, down. Inhale, exhale. At the end of the exercise, I noticed a subtle shift--he was more focused. As the class came to a close, he was able to enjoy our final treat: a deeply relaxing guided visualization. After our imaginative journey to the ocean, everyone felt more peaceful. This is yoga's best reward!
Roots of Yoga
What is yoga, exactly? The word yoga comes from the ancient Indian language Sanskrit, and it means union. You can think of it as a yoke, binding together the body, mind, and spirit. Yoga has its origins in the East, though in recent decades it has become a household word in the West, too. Although it can be practiced religiously, it is not a religion, but rather an ancient science. The postures, coupled with conscious breathing techniques (using the breath in a certain pattern and depth), stimulate specific areas of the body, which, in turn, affects the brain. The body and mind respond by releasing tension and, on a deeper level, learned patterns of fear. The result: a greater feeling of relaxation, wholeness, and inner strength. After starting a regular yoga practice, many people experience a more positive "I can handle it!" attitude.
Children and Yoga
Although yoga has enjoyed popularity with adults for many years, it's only recently that we have understood how helpful it can be for children, increasing their self-awareness, building self-esteem, and strengthening their bodies. It's truly a welcome oasis of mindful, yet active, play. And, by the way, the key word is play. What children care most about is having fun. While adult yoga can be as serious as a person makes it, children's yoga has got to be a blast!
Besides having a good time, children who practice yoga experience numerous benefits--increased learning capacity and mental alertness, better coordination, and improved self-discipline, to name a few. A child's yoga practice can also benefit the adult, since a happy child makes a happy parent.
Creating a Special Time and Space
If you have a yoga routine, you can begin to teach your child some simple postures. And if you don't have a practice, consider beginning one as a kind of family ritual. In the morning, call in your kids and do a few asanas (poses) together. Preschool children can usually hold a posture about 20 to 30 seconds, while elementary school kids can go up to a minute. For invigoration, try the Camel or the Beautiful Bird. Inhaling and exhaling in rhythm with the movements will bring refreshing awareness to all.
Some families find that evening is the best time for yoga. Many sleep difficulties, such as insomnia, nighttime fears, and nightmares, lessen--even completely disappear--after an evening routine is established. In addition, yoga's calming effects can strengthen family relationships by easing stress that has built up during the day. Try postures such as the Cat and Cow (page 51) to loosen the spine, or the Cobra to release general muscular tension (page 52). Deep, slow breaths after each exercise can create even deeper relaxation for restful sleep.
When to Begin
At what age can children learn yoga? I started my son as an infant! A cozy time was set aside each day for his yoga. I gently bicycled his tiny legs, moved his arms up, down, and across his chest. Then I bundled him up in a blanket and rolled him from back to front. As he became an independent toddler, he learned to grab his own ankles and stretch his tummy up to the sky. As a chattering preschooler, he closed his mouth (occasionally!) and became aware of his breath coming in and out. With his eyes shut, he felt himself from the inside out. It's now a way of life for him, as natural as breathing.
My son loves yoga, and so do the children I teach. Yoga taps into children's perfectly natural delight in moving their bodies. And when it is tailored to be a fun, imaginative, and slightly challenging practice, they blossom. It's never too early to begin with your child, and it's never too late to begin yourself. Just remember to have fun!
For additional information about yoga for kids, see the following articles in past issues of Mothering: "Bear Claw Mama," no. 91 and "Yoga for Children," no. 26.
Shakta Kaur Khalsa has been practicing and teaching kundalini yoga for 24 years, and has been a Montessori teacher for almost as long. She is the author of Fly Like a Butterfly: Yoga for Children and The Five-Fingered Family. She is currently working on a kundalini yoga book for adults. Shakta lives in Herndon, Virginia, with her husband, Kartar, and their eight-year-old son, Ram Das Singh.