By Annie Smit, freelance journalist
I met Annie, a beautiful yogi at a yoga retreat that I recently went to and she was telling me about an article she had just finished writing about Children's Yoga. As a mother of Twin boys, a fitness enthusiast & yoga lover I was intreged & asked if I could read it. Annie's article resonated with me and I felt that it had some wonderful concepts, valid points and evidence based statistics. I wanted to share this beautiful piece with you all (with Annie's blessing of course).
Here is what she wrote:
There is a school hall in Melbourne where young children lie quietly; a circle of tiny bodies, messy hair, bare feet. The hall is no different from most—wooden floors, plastic folding chairs stacked against the back wall, a slightly dusty piano in the corner. Yet the space occupied by the kids seems different; more serene than staid.
Today the children have been trees balancing in the wind, puppies crawling through dog tunnels, warriors brandishing their swords. Now they lie down; the teacher’s voice gentle as she sets the scene. In the children’s minds, they are resting in a forest garden filled with the earthy fragrance of autumn leaves, beside a clear stream singing over pearly pebbles. Golden butterflies land on their toes, knees and nose, sharing soft kisses. They see, hear and feel only these things. They will remember this when they go to sleep tonight. For now, yoga is their world; far away from the lure of laptops, TVs and the I-world.
In another classroom, an IPad is being confiscated.
In a suburban home, a toddler is throwing a tantrum over the TV being turned off.
The way we live and interact has changed dramatically over the last decades. Electronic devices have become a go-to distraction for parents too busy to give their children enough attention. Daily experiences are frequently connected to strong visual stimuli—images in crystal clarity on mobile devices; impossible pictures of perfection on Instagram and Facebook. Junk food is shamelessly spruiked through strong sexual imagery. Young people are thrilled with hyper-real and thoroughly vicious animated games.
For children with learning or psychological limitations such as ADHD, coping with continual digital stimuli is particularly debilitating. Could meditation be more effective than medication in helping these children? Meditation is defined as the deliberate act of focusing attention on our thoughts, emotions, sensations, a mantra, or on stimuli outside of ourselves (such as music or an object). It requires paying attention to one thing, and when our attention wanders, to bring it back to the point of focus. According to a 2003 study by researchers from universities in Australia and the UK, yoga meditation resulted in improvements in children’s ADHD behaviour, self-esteem and relationship quality. Children described sleeping better, being able to concentrate more at school and experiencing less conflict; parents felt less stressed and more capable of managing their child’s behaviour.
More recently, in a 2014 paper, Contemplative Education: A Systematic, Evidence-Based Review of the effect of Meditation Interventions in Schools, the researchers asked the question: “What is the effectiveness of meditation for school students?” They reviewed evidence from 15 peer-reviewed studies of school meditation programmes in the US, Australia, Canada, Taiwan, India and the UK. The combined sample size of these studies was 1797 students across primary, middle and secondary schools. The study found that, in 61% of cases, school-based meditation programmes had a significant effect on wellbeing and social competence.
Perhaps it is time to recognise the importance of wellness education in coping with information overload, conflicting messages in social media and the impact on individual emotions; time to work on the connection between physical activities, mental performance and emotional wellbeing. Edith Ackerman, Honorary Professor of Developmental Psychology, writes “What we’ve got so far is a generation of learners spending much of their time online, perpetually connected and out of touch, while others … are caught hostage in antiquated classrooms, listening to talking heads.”
There are schools that think beyond the “talking heads.” In Bellingen, New South Wales, a public school employs an Occupational Therapist to engage teachers in sessions aimed at explaining the benefits of their Tools for Learning program. Rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach, children are given the opportunity to select from a number of activities that they enjoy—be it taking a yoga pose on a mat or making a number of attempts to jump as high as they can from a mini trampoline to “catch stars.”
Kylee, a Melbourne-based primary school teacher and owner of a kids’ yoga business, relates a story about a first-grade boy named Jamie*. He told her one morning that, after a fight with a friend in the playground, “I was so angry, but I just stood there in mountain pose.” When he told his parents, Jamie’s* father said it was “stupid.” But was it? Rather, the boy learned a valuable life skill: you can control your anger by simply being still and solid. Kylee comments, “He saw it as an opportunity to respond to a situation positively, rather than react. I use the example of a mountain in my relaxations and guided visualisations at the end of my lessons. For example, no matter how rainy, windy or stormy it gets, the mountain—you—will always be grounded, steady and unmoving when life throws you challenges.”
Can yoga training be seamlessly integrated into our schooling system? The diversity of cultures and religions in our country means parents and carers will object to any teaching that does not align with their beliefs and values. As Kylee notes, “It’s very important to emphasise that for us to come into their schools, we will not try and indoctrinate their students with a philosophy that is at odds with their own.” Terms such as “Salute the Sun” would offend some, as it conjures up ideas of sun worship—as noted by a mother in a 2013 legal case in California, US. The case was overturned, with Reuters reporting the Californian judge rejected parents' claims that the classes were an unconstitutional promotion of Eastern religions. He noted that the school district had developed its own version of yoga that was not religious.
Kylee recently took her teaching to a strictly religious Islamic school, where she followed the school’s instruction to use no Sanskrit language or spiritual music. She comments, “It looks as though the school will invite this company back, as the feedback was that the four teachers who went there (we all taught different sports) were respectful and sensitive to the needs of the school.” She noted that school teachers “feel it’s essential to teach wellbeing in a practical way, so that students can apply what they learn on the mat in their real-life situations.” Parkes-based psychologist Carly Jayet adds, “Proactive mental health and wellbeing skills, such as mindfulness in the classroom, is incredibly powerful in cultivating attention, focus and calm in children—with the secondary benefits of connectedness with peers.”
Carlos Salazar, a yoga expert and co-owner of online yoga teacher training school My Health Yoga, explains that he has had many discussions with people from different spiritual persuasions about the appropriateness of teaching yoga to children. He notes, “Sometimes people will have religious objections, but the way we teach children is not about religion. In fact, yoga is not a religion. The philosophies are about respect for yourself and every living thing.” He promotes tailoring activities for specific age groups, from pre-school to high school. “The little kids love the games; even the adults on our courses do,” he laughs.
In life we soon learn that one of the most elusive skills, and one of the most precious, is to breathe like a baby, still the mind and be present in the moment. Another natural human quality that people easily outgrow is to move joyfully, to playfully fill the space around them with their limbs. And there is another problem: opting for digital interaction over physical activity is causing a health crisis.
Millennials (born 1980 – 1999) and Generation Z (born from 2000 onward) could be the first generations in over a century to see their lifespan level off and even decline, with obesity becoming epidemic. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, the prevalence of obesity in America more than doubled among adults and more than tripled among children and adolescents from 1980 to 2008. In Australia, results from the 2011–12 Australian Bureau of Statistics Australian Health Survey show that one quarter (25%) of children aged 2–17 are overweight or obese, with 18% being overweight and 7% obese. Australia’s rate of obesity is fourth highest among 34 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, behind the United States (37%), Mexico (30%) and Hungary (29%). What can be done?
Traditionally, schools have offered sports and physical education to facilitated well-rounded education that goes beyond intellectual growth. While these activities are certainly effective in fighting obesity, and excellent in promoting fitness, teamwork and a myriad of other skills—they tend to favour the “sporty types.” Sports and athletics typically encourage competition. Often, the “nerds”, or those who don’t have natural athletic talent, get left behind, lose interest or are stigmatised. As the Janis Ian lyrics go, “…for those whose names were never called when choosing sides for basketball.” Yes, I am clearly not a millennial!
Another potentially adverse effect of competitive activities is that it can lead to early injury, as often occurs with young dancers and gymnasts. These injuries can cause problems much later in life. The (often unintentional) pressure from parents and coaches on young adults can lead them to reach beyond their limits, as I discovered in talking to Monica, a 23-year-old designer and former dancer from Brisbane. On a yoga retreat early in 2016, she relates pushing through dance routines despite a severely swollen, fluid-filled knee joint. Her first injury occurred at age twelve, after six years of dancing, and she was forced to stop performing professionally at age 20. Why?
Monica responds, “If you’ve put your whole life into something; your family’s put most of their life into it for you, and you have the capability… you have to follow through—especially because many people don’t get the opportunity to work professionally, even if they’ve trained just as much.” She believes that, whether you’re an athlete or not, everyone needs to be able to read their body. While competing is not a bad thing, when you’re not connected to your body, injury easily occurs. She adds, “I can just imagine how incredible it would be if the young children of these people, parents on this retreat with us, tapped into this resource. Growing hopefully with more knowledge of who they are and how to connect to themselves; not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually. And I can just imagine them growing into such grounded people. Because I feel like I really needed it to round myself out.”
Yoga does just that. It takes a different approach: there is no competition. The activities for little ones are about fun, and about changing attitudes; to be more accepting, to be able to be still and listen—to their own breath, to start with. The practice for teenagers takes this to the next level of developing awareness of individual physical limitations, accepting these and developing mental awareness.
The practices of breath, mindfulness and movement deserve attention while minds and bodies are growing. If children can cultivate and maintain these life skills, they might just secure for their future better mental and physical wellbeing.
Children need to be reminded to be children again. To be immersed movement, to thrill in the smells and sounds of life. Let’s take the kids back to the forest of tranquillity. The golden butterflies are waiting.
*Name is fictitious
Annie Smit is a Gold Coast-based freelance writer, editor, yoga teacher and fitness instructor. She lives with her partner, Billy, and her attack cat, also Billy, who came along first.
Daley, Monica Daley, Designer and former professional dancer
Jayet, C, Psychologist
Lennox, C, Parent
Mason, K, Primary school teacher and Yoga school director
Salazar, C, Yoga expert
Trebarthen, T, Yoga teacher
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DOI: 10.1007/s10648-014-9258-2, viewed 19 May 2016. See also: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EmPT_8GAJAc.
Waters, L, 2016, Imagine if we taught stillness in classrooms, Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne, viewed 19 May 2016, https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/imagine-if-we-taught-stillness-in-classrooms.
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