Three years ago I incorporated yoga into our Lower and Upper School physical education curriculum for Kindergarten, 3rd and 9th grade. Having practiced for some time now, I have found yoga to be mentally and physically challenging, immediately restorative, and extremely gratifying. I wanted my students to experience this for themselves.
As we embarked on this new journey together, students were asked, “What does yoga mean?” A few replied, “it means exercise,” “being flexible,” “feeling peaceful.” Some students, uncertain of how to verbalize their thoughts, quickly assumed a seated, criss-cross leg position, placing the back of their hands on each knee and made a connection with their thumb and index finger, as is common when demonstrating a meditative posture, eyes closed, exclaimed, “This is yoga!” I was not surprised to hear what they had to say.
In one way or another they were all right. And after all, yoga has taken the Western states by storm over the last 10 years. Like technology, our children are growing up with this phenomenon. Yoga studios and classes can be found just about anywhere from fitness facilities, to corporate fitness, to one-on-one training and can even be performed at home with a video. Having said that, I would also like to caution you, as with anything else, you must know your facts and do your homework. It is important to find a trained instructor who understands what is developmentally appropriate for children and how to engage them strategically to accomplish the goals set forth for the program.
It has been very rewarding for me to bring yoga to our children at Randolph. They enjoy learning new poses, especially poses they can do with a partner. These postures are challenging and imaginative, requiring them to think differently about using their mind, body, and breath as well as be attentive to their partner. Working together in this way furthers open-mindedness, support, and responsibility to each others' success.
The benefits of yoga for children are abundant. From birth, children are naturally more pliable, and flexible, not to mention, creative and curious. Yoga combines functional strength and functional flexibility, sometimes referred to as dynamic tension, with conscious deep breathing to cultivate an awareness of one’s physical, mental, and emotional states by focusing on the present moment. Yoga creates a framework for total body movement concepts through games, storytelling, and songs. Students can make connections with the visual energy of the poses. Increased strength, agility, balance and concentration are all positive by-products of practicing. The beauty of yoga is that is holistic and promotes healthy and balanced living; it encourages self-confidence and self-worth, very empowering at any age.
Children learn breath is the heart and soul of yoga. Even though we do not have to think about breathing, we do not always breathe the way we should. During tense, anxious, or stressful situations it is even more difficulty to breathe appropriately. Deep breathing practice improves nerve function and strengthens the central nervous system through oxygenating the blood more completely. And though young children may not fully comprehend what is happening internally, they can learn to differentiate between feelings of calm and control versus apprehension and uneasiness. There is freedom to explore without fear, competition, or expectation. Carrying out this mindful behavior, consistently, can not only bring about positive change somatically but also intellectually and from the heart.
Kristin Henningsen, M.S., Adjunct Professor, for Kaplan University School of Health Sciences, gives mention to research which has shown that school curricula incorporating stress management programs see improved academic performance, self-esteem, classroom behaviors, concentration, and emotional balance. In addition, there is a decrease in helplessness, aggression, and behavioral problems of students. A perfect example of this came in the summer of 2010. I had the good fortune to volunteer with Randolph’s Lowe Academy, a summer enrichment program for students from the Boys and Girls Clubs and Girls Inc. Lowe students were immersed in three-weeks of academics, art, yoga, and much more. During their time in yoga, I watched these children transform from having a competitive, survivalist mindset to one that was much more relaxed and non-judgmental. For that one hour, these children were able to let go and just be.
I have been training for the last two years with YogaFit, the largest yoga fitness education school in the world. On a weeklong YogaEd. workshop in Pittsburgh in 2010, I really became a believer in yoga and the affects yoga could have on everyone. During this week, not only did I see and feel my body transform but also my mind. This past March, through the support of Randolph, I had the opportunity to continue my quest in attaining my 200-hour registered yoga teacher certification in Boston, four days of intensive, in-depth, and hands-on training. I could not wait to return and immediately implement new ideas and skills with my students.
For many, yoga in its truest form is very radical. It is one of the most misunderstood practices in modern times. Philosophically, and by definition, yoga means to “unite” the mind, body, and breath in such a way that it results in contentment, temperance, and charity for oneself and others. Can it be spiritual for some? Sure, it can. But yoga is not a religion. It is a lifestyle practice in physical, emotional, and mental wellness. The yoga classroom is one that is fun and safe. It is a place for self-discovery, creative expression and giving gratitude. We use a variety of modalities to explore all of who we are. So don’t imagine a classroom with just mats and dim lights. There is loud music, soft music, laughter, quietness, and celebration. We use blocks, mats, and straps. We even use the walls and others in the class to accomplish a particular task.
Kindergarten students in Mrs. Nance’s class had this to say:
“Yoga is fun because you get to bend.” - Joshua
“I like yoga because we get to lie down and take a rest and listen to music.” - Megan
“My favorite pose is Figure 4 because it looks cool like a ninja.” - Grayson
Mrs. Cox’s 3rd graders are using their experiences with yoga as material for writing a classroom blog. Brittany ’22 says, “Yoga is calming brain training and I love yoga so much.”
Here is a 10-minute sequence you can try with your child:
And here is a full-length class for children: