Is yoga suitable for children?
The one word answer is yes. But that needs some qualification. Yoga can be adapted for anyone as long as you remember what its principle thrust is – that is a movement towards integration.
Where you begin your journey defines the nature of the first steps you take: on the journey to the top of a mountain one may start on the plains, the foothills or closer to the mountain top. Wherever one starts one’s journey, one will need to adopt a certain pace, psychological balance and a certain level of energy, which will alter during the different stages of the journey. Similarly, on a journey, seeing where one wants to go on a map without knowing where one is relative to it without knowing the destination is of no use at all. Finally, the journey will be a personal one.
One can see therefore that children will need a certain approach that may be different on the whole to adults, and younger children may need a different approach to older ones. Any good yoga teacher has to have a thorough and deep connection with yoga, a deep personal understanding and then that should relate to the psychological and physiological responses of the students as they move into their practice. The teacher needs to be like a conductor guiding the orchestra towards the over all destination of the piece as the conductor perceives it to be ideally played but working with the sound as it moves along creatively to do so. In practical terms, the teacher develops a fusion between his/her insights into yoga and the observation that he/she has of his/her class.
So it is obviously of no use to talk to small children of resistance, tuning in, or to discuss any of the more refined ideas in yoga explicitly but to teach them the essence or the feel for these things in language that relates to their environment. When talking about ahimsa or non-violence, for instance, it may give the idea more gravity for them if one discusses things in their lives that may embody that kind of softness – laying in bed with a clean sheet and cuddled up to your favourite bear after mum or dad has tucked you up. Generally, sensual images are useful in teaching yoga to all but particularly to children where security in the form of familiarity, pleasant foods and safe social environments are particularly important.
Many of us suffer from a huge difficulties with concentration and this is apparent in the postures where what we are being asked to focus on is subtle. We might find ourselves thinking that we are bored or that we do not like this pose or that we are not in the right mood but all of these excuses are the mind just simply finding it difficult to concentrate. Concentration is really a matter of integration or acknowledgement, acceptance and working with all the different selves that make up our character. Children also find concentration difficult, especially young children who may find that they are so stimulated by everything that their attention is drawn from this to that with some speed.
Anyone teaching yoga to children needs to think what might be of interest to them, what might draw them in, what might concentrate their minds and what might calm them so that they might develop some contentment (santosa). So in this way they might become more interested or realise that anywhere can be of interest when the mind is more settled. So the important thing is to get on their level.
For this reason, it is probably best to have yoga classes tailored for particular groups, right down to the point where it could be one to one. You might have groups from four and a half up to seven, from seven to 13, then 14 up to 20, and then right through until old age, say from 65+. Of course, all but the very youngest and very oldest would be fine in a normal drop-in class.
To conclude, then, yes, engage kids with practice but don’t make it heavy. The best case scenario is that yoga will help them feel more peaceful and relaxed and that concentration will not be an ordeal but an easy engagement they will have a positive association with yoga so that they might wish to carry it on and go deeper with it in their adult life.