Reading, Writing, and Yoga: Tips for Yoga Teachers Working with Children

by Jane Rosen

When people learn that I teach yoga to children, they react in one of two ways. Some think it’s cute—children are so adorable, and how precious it is to teach them yoga. Others shrink back in horror, certain that my young students are hyperactive and unmanageable, grateful that they don’t have to do what I do.

The truth is that my students vary enormously in their response to yoga. Every day, I use everything I’ve learned over four decades of classroom experience to plan and execute meaningful and productive yoga experiences for children.

What have I learned that helps me translate yoga into a child-friendly activity?

Talk less, move more. Even in your introductory remarks at the beginning of the first class, include some simple movements that prepare the body for more, and bring awareness to the breath. Focus on coordinating simple movements with the breath.

Circle or rows? I like to use a circle when the class is small enough. Young children often meet in a circle on the floor with their teacher. It creates a sense of community and children can learn from watching and listening to each other. With more than 20 children, the circle can quickly become unmanageable, so rows are better. When yoga class takes place in the classroom, the children use their own chairs, desks, and the spaces around them as a base of operations, without having to move any furniture.

Have a theme or story line for the class. This is especially important for young children, up to about third grade. The story line helps them maintain interest and attention. I often ask each child to contribute an idea related to the theme—for example, for an underwater class, I’ll ask each child to name something that lives in the water or goes in the water.

Overplan. It’s difficult to judge how long it will take to progress through the sequence of a lesson plan. Always plan more than you need, and prioritize. Know in advance what to leave out, if necessary, so that you can leave time for a period of relaxation at the end.

Teach a repertoire of starting positions. When children are familiar with a small group of poses such as Child, Mountain, Table, Easy pose, Staff pose, and Diamond pose (sitting on your heels), you can use these as entry points to other poses. Starting positions can also be stopping positions. If the excitement level gets too high, you can direct the students back to a starting position to regroup before moving on.

Simplify. Teach one or two simple postures at a time, and flow between them. Inhale into Cow, exhale into Cat.  Exhale into Downward Dog, inhale into Upward Dog. Inhale into Waterfall, exhale into Rag Doll. In time, as the children build their vocabulary of postures, flows can become longer and more complex.

Make your language child-friendly. In school-based yoga programs, I eliminate all Sanskrit names of poses. I substitute names that are familiar to children, and appropriate for the activity we’re doing. Many of the names reference animals, nature, or familiar toys. For example, I use several different names for Balasana, depending on the context—Child, or Rock, or Seed, or Popcorn, or Seashell. Ustrasana (Camel) becomes Storm Cloud in acting out a story about a rainstorm. Dhanurasana (Upward Bow) becomes Rocking Horse.

Incorporate sound into your flow. Yoga instructors who teach adults may be accustomed to silent classes in which students listen raptly and instantly do as they’re directed. Children automatically vocalize when they move. Learning to move in silence is a process. I always plan times when students are invited to vocalize, either in words, animal sounds, vowel sounds, or other sound effects. For example, when the children begin to learn Cow, I invite them to moo as they move into Cow. Once they’re familiar with the movement, I ask them to drop the animal sound and focus on their breathing instead. Using the voice in structured ways helps to build awareness and control. Instead of asking the students to be quiet, I ask them to close their lips to keep the breath inside and develop the power of their breath. Breathing in and out through the nose is a good habit for children to learn early, and helps to keep the nasal passages clear.

Keep it short. Some children’s classes are quite brief, as short as 25 minutes. Focus on a small number of poses, or one target pose, starting with other movements to prepare for the target. When I taught a 70-minute class after school, I thought of it as seven 10-minute classes, each with a beginning and an end, with its own focus or goal. Transitioning to a different activity frequently helps to maintain attention. Try alternating active work with quieter activities. In longer classes, you can incorporate artwork, a food experience, musical instruments, or other elements related to the theme of the class.

Save time for relaxation. Relaxation looks like doing nothing. In truth, it requires a valuable set of skills that can be practiced and mastered. Parents and teachers admonish children to calm down, even though children lack the strategies to do so. Practicing relaxation systematically can help to build a child’s ability to manage his own energy. With short classes, it’s especially challenging to make time for relaxation at the end of class, but it’s important to take even a few minutes of relaxation for integrating the practice. When there’s no space available for relaxing on the floor, practice relaxation as a seated meditation. Close your eyes or lower your gaze. Pause, listen, breathe.

Learn the children’s names. This may be the one most important classroom-management strategy you can employ. Calling the children by their names shows that you care about them as individuals and that you want to get to know them. Incorporate name games into the yoga-based activities so that you can learn, review, and practice using their names.

Make shoes optional. In some schools, health policies forbid the removal of shoes, and some children are shy about removing their shoes. Removing shoes can be a deal breaker for some teachers who want to do yoga with their students, but don’t want to take the extra five to 10 minutes it takes to remove and replace, untie and retie a an entire class’s shoes.

Teach with or without equipment. Young yoga students can benefit from using yoga mats, blocks, bolsters, straps, blankets, chimes, singing bowls, and eye pillows. They can also have satisfactory yoga experiences with little or no equipment. I like to use 12-inch yoga mat squares that I make from cutting up old mats. The small squares help to define each child’s personal space. They’re easy for the children to manage, and can easily be stacked and stored, or carried around in a bag.

Build community. Practicing yoga together builds community. Consciously plan experiences in which children can share ideas, feelings, and new poses they’ve created; exchange energy; and practice partner yoga. The strength of their yoga community will sustain them in the daily challenges of group living and learning.

Detach from outcome. Even if you practice all of the above suggestions, you’ll have some days when a class is so difficult that you’ll wonder what you were thinking when you got into this line of work. You’ll have other days when your teaching is so brilliant that you believe you can singlehandedly change the world. In yoga, we learn to do our best, and then detach from the outcome. Don’t become too discouraged by a difficult experience; enjoy the elation of a successful class while knowing it may be totally different next time. Simply stay with it: Continue to practice yoga and to share your practice with the next generation.

Jane Rosen, a 500-hour Kripalu Yoga teacher, holds a PhD in educational psychology, and retired in 2001 after 36 years as an elementary classroom teacher and principal. Jane holds additional training from YogaKids, Yoga Ed, Radiant Child Yoga, Ageless Grace for KIDZ, and Kripalu Yoga in the Schools.

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