People often ask me to suggest ways they can introduce their infants and toddlers to yoga. I think the best way parents and caregivers can bring
yoga into the lives of their children is by committing to their own practice – especially the yamas and niyamas – and working on being really present with their children with a sense of openness, curiosity, and non-judgment so that they can truly connect to their children. If adults cultivate their own practice, they’ll find more patience, understanding, and less reactivity in the face of the challenges as children grow and learn. I have observed that when adults are practicing their yoga on and off the mat, they are better able to support children’s social and emotional development. They become better models: When adults can maintain their patience and sense of serenity when things go awry, children are more likely to return to that state, too.
Sharing yoga with infants can be as simple as taking time to enjoy breathing together, eye-gazing, smiling at one another, singing inspiring songs (perhaps mantra), and being fully present even in seemingly mundane or routine interactions, like changing diapers.
I find that very young children are always “doing” yoga. They breathe deeply. They experience their emotions fully. They are present in this moment. And, they naturally will use “yoga poses” during different developmental periods to stretch and build strength. For example, Happy Baby pose is inspired by infants. When children are building the back and upper body strength necessary to crawl, they often spend a lot of time in Sphinx or Cobra Pose. Downward Facing Dog is often a bridge point to standing (Mountain Pose). You might think of the Sun Salutation A as being inspired by the natural movements of children as they grow. What young children really need is encouragement and time for intuitive physical activity and room to move, something they often don’t get enough of, especially in urban settings.
One way to share yoga with your little ones as they grow is to do your practice in the same room with them. Several parents have shared with me that their children are “drawn to the mat,” so to speak, and will avidly watch what the parent is doing. As the children’s physical development allows, they may begin to mimic their parents actions. They also love to crawl under the parents in Down Dog, climb on them in different poses, and snuggle in supine poses. To be sure, this is a completely different style of practice for parents, one that includes interaction with and awareness of their child rather than an isolated, introspective practice. This is an engaging and effective way to introduce young children to the practice of yoga and for parents to expand their ideas of what yoga is and how to practice it.
Generally I start introducing what I call Yoga Play to children around the age of 3. You might look at different books for inspiration, such as Little Yoga: A Toddler’s First Book of Yoga by Rebecca Whitford or Shakta Kaur Khalsa’s Fly Like a Butterfly. I especially encourage children to find their own creative movements, by inviting them to make up their own yoga poses and have the children lead me. Anything can be a source of inspiration – story books, songs, animals, vehicles – anything the sparks the children’s interest and delight. You might be surprised how often their spontaneous movements are similar to well-known yoga poses. If you allow them to teach you yoga, children will also spontaneously create novel movements that are great for stretching and strengthening adult bodies. More importantly, by letting the children lead you through practice, you are respecting and honouring the wisdom that they have to offer. Children truly appreciate when adults listen and see them as equals in their own right.
Around the age of three is also when I introduce children to simple techniques for emotion regulation, such as placing the hands on the belly to feel it move as they naturally breathe in and out, or focusing on the sound of a bell to find a sense of calm. Integrating simple mudra (hand movements) with songs and stories can also be soothing (think Itsy Bitsy Spider). I like to end the practice with a short relaxation (savasana). Many children prefer to rest on their bellies or their sides in fetal position rather than lying on their backs, which can leave them feeling vulnerable and ungrounded as proprioception develops. Also children often find it more comfortable to rest with their eyes open. Including appropriate touch can help children feel grounded and relaxed. For example, you might place a weighted blanket over the child, give them a gentle squeeze of the hands or feet, or invite them to snuggle with dad or mom. A Yoga Play session for this age could be as short as 5 minutes and usually will last a maximum of 15 – 20 minutes.
Please be cautious, however, of introducing yoga to children with the intention of helping them “behave better,” an idea that is propagated by many books, articles, and Web sites. I take issue with the idea of using yoga as a vehicle to shape children’s behaviour so that they can better conform to the expectations of the adult world. Indeed, isn’t it the “adult world” that makes yoga so necessary for adults? More importantly, encouraging children to act like adults may actually hinder their development. Children need to move, wiggle, shake, turn, make sound, kick, roll, and laugh for healthy physical, emotional, and neurocognitive development. I believe that yoga time for young children should allow them the opportunity to stay connected to that intuitive state that guides them in their natural development. So please, let the children teach you! By playing yoga together, both adults and children may feel calmer, happier, and more balanced. Most importantly, they are likely to feel a deeper sense of connection to one another, which, in essence, is what yoga is all about!