I was asked by my ten year old daughter this week what type of yoga I teach. ‘Can you teach Llama yoga?' she asked me. Apart from her obsession with Llamas this was not an entirely random question. With the growing saturation of yoga teaching in major cities, many teachers are looking to specialise and offer something that sets them apart, hence new trends such as SUP and even yoga on llama farms or with baby goats. My answer was not as exciting for a ten year old however, ‘I teach children’s and family yoga’. I have been teaching yoga in schools for six years, and in the last 12 months interest from schools and yoga teachers in yoga and mindfulness for children has sky rocketed.
Is this just a new fad in the yoga world or is something else going on here?
Children’s yoga isn’t just the latest new thing. As the Department of Education raises achievement targets for schools and places more emphasis on reading, writing and maths, the pressure on school teachers has risen and that filters down to children. Stressed teachers have less time to encourage creativity and self-confidence in their students and children struggle with information overload as the school day becomes all about achieving targets.
The result is that teachers and parents are calling out for something that will help their children feel confident, calm and emotionally resilient to the ups and down of daily life at school. Something non-competitive, non target-driven, that allows children to simply feel good in their own skin…yoga perhaps?
‘If every 8 year old in the world is taught meditation we will eliminate violence from the world in one generation.’ Dalai Lama
Yoga is the perfect antidote to this intensification of learning at school and even the DfES is recognising this with its recent recommendations for introducing mindfulness into the classroom. At the same time, many adults are realising that there are forces at work in the world over which we have little power. Protest is important, but real change will come with the future generation. A generation that has grown up with yoga will have skills for life in patience, compassion, empathy, tolerance and working together towards a greater good.
While opportunities are beginning to open up for children’s yoga teachers, there is a greater need to recognise the enormous value of teaching yoga to children instead of seeing it as an add on to the more serious business of teaching adults. As opportunities for newly qualified adult yoga teachers are being stretched to their limit and students spend months following their gurus around the word to gain experience, it is difficult for newbies to make a living.
But teaching children isn’t an easy way to find a niche in a crowded market, it is a vocation and one that constantly challenges. I also teach Vinyasa Flow to adults and in every class I think how wonderful that I don’t have to ask my students to stop chatting or running round the room or doing cartwheels. But when a 6 year old girl tells me she has been teaching yoga to her little brother or a 10 year old tells me he meditates every night before bed or how savasana makes him feel like he is in a film, I know I would not exchange my job for anyone else’s.
Working with children was my very first professional ambition after a series of dull work experience jobs at secondary school led me to a nursery where a 3 year old attached herself to my leg, then refused to let go each time I came to the end of my shift. As a teenager, it was the first time I had ever done anything where I felt important and valued. Decades later after a brief and disastrous job as an untrained residential social worker and fifteen years reluctantly attached to a chair in a marketing job in the voluntary sector, I finally found my way into yoga teaching and later trained as a children’s yoga teacher with the Special Yoga Centre. Since then I have worked with hundreds of children and for each child I teach I know that a seed has been planted that they can come back to at any point in the rest of their lives. For many of them it is a seed that I can watch grow term after term into a something strong and beautiful.
‘Only children believe they are capable of everything,’ Paulo Coelho
One common misunderstanding among yoga teachers is that yoga for children is all about play. I think there is an element of wishful thinking here. The adult yoga world is rediscovering the lost art of play and adult teachers often work hard to make their students smile, laugh and connect with each other. This comes naturally to children; it is learning to concentrate, balance, find stillness and the discipline of learning a sun salutation or warrior sequence that needs to be taught. Yoga is inherently creative and fun as it teaches you how to feel good in your body and that you are capable of anything. There could not be a more important lesson for children to learn.
The art of teaching yoga to children is to channel their inexhaustible love of play into something which helps them learn from each other and find their place in the wider world, through trust exercises, partner balances, nature poses or creating their own shapes and sequences. As I change the music in one of my reception classes I often turn back to see several 5 year old boys rolling around on the floor play fighting. Give them the opportunity to balance together in a partner boat or make a washing machine circle with their hands on each other shoulders and the energy of the room instantly changes from chaos into something magical.
From the age of 4 years children are taught to sit still on chairs in large, brightly lit, noisy classrooms, listen to the teacher and learn difficult things like reading words and adding numbers. When these same children come out of the classroom into a yoga club they are mentally tired and desperately need to move their bodies. We talk about understanding energy in yoga but in Children’s Yoga it is essential, holding the space confidently and responding instantly and intuitively to the energy of the room can make or break a class. It is the difference between inspiring children to learn and struggling to hold their attention. While our education system seems to be travelling down the road of turning schools into training grounds for office workers, we need a passionate army of skilled yoga teachers to go into schools and give children the chance to discover their uniquely creative selves.
Teacher trainings for Children’s Yoga need to be every bit as challenging and comprehensive as adult yoga foundation courses. Understanding what yoga philosophy means to children is essential to help them navigate their difficult emotional world - giving children the structure and confidence to self-regulate and make wise choices. Children want to understand their own bodies and teachers need to have a thorough grounding in anatomy and child development. While the world is waking up to the importance of yoga in changing the way we relate to our minds and bodies we need to value how life changing this can also be for children. There is a great responsibility on yoga teachers to get it right for children, to manage their enthusiasm and boundless energy and channel it in a positive way for the future of us all.
Emma Charvet founded Children’s Yoga Tree with Siobhan Power to bring a high standard of yoga teaching into primary and secondary schools and help families from all backgrounds discover the benefits of yoga. For more information about their CPD training courses, Family Yoga workshops and accredited Teacher Trainings in Children’s Yoga for 2018 visit www.childrensyogatree.com
This article has been taken from the 3rd issue of Amrita Yoga Magazine released in 2017.