March 2018 Newsletter from Srivatsa Ramaswami--Children Yoga
During February 2019, I taught a 100 hour 15 day Vinyasakrama yoga program at Yoga Vahini, Chennai. 30+ dedicated and talented participants coming from different parts of the world attended the program.
I am teaching a core vinyasakrama program from March 10 to 14th at Om Yoga in New Delhi. I am scheduled to do the 100 hr program at One Yoga in Victoria Canada in June/ July with Yoga Yagnyavalkya and the same 100 hr program with Yoga Sutras at Loyola Marymaount University in Los Angeles, USA in July/August. For more details here is the link
Asked about when one may start teaching yoga to a child, Sri Krishnaacharya is believed to have said that one may teach a child when the baby knows to ask the mother food when hungry. Usually in olden days children used to do asanas for fun looking at the way the elders used to do asanas. In several schools in the olden days there used to be one or two teachers who would informally teach yoga to school children. I remember that I used to do padmasana, sarvangasana, dhanurasana and a few others even when I was 7 years old. My father used to practice some asanas every day, he used a book called "Valivum Vanappum (strength and beauty)" written by a Bangalore Yogi called Sundaram and I used to look at the pictures containing a few asanas-- some very difficult I thought at that time. Thereafter my father used to go to a few other teachers like Kumarasawamy who used to write about Yoga in a popular Tamil weekly Kalki. Just like different games like cricket or maybe athletics used to excite youngsters at that time there were quite a few boys and girls who would love to do yogasanas. In fact the Krishnamcharya system of Yoga meant for children and teenagers would be called vridhi krama or yoga method for those growing up, children and teenagers. That is also known as vinyasa krama. Vinyasa would mean art and yoga when practised as an art may be characterized as Vinyasakrama. In Sri Krishnamacharya's system there are hundreds of beautiful vinyasa movements built around scores of classical asanas. Children like variety and challenges too as quite a few of the vinyasas could be challenging. I have taught in middle schools and also undergraduate level college students for almost two decades. I have found that many youngsters love to do yogasanas with a variety of vinyasa movements. My younger sister was just 8 years old when she learnt many asanas and many more vinyasas from Sri Krishnamacharya. Many youngsters studied yoga with Krishnamacharya. Children if they are taught asanas with a variety of vinyasas will love the comprehensive nature of the asnana system and practice this very useful health giving system during the growing years.
The ancient books also contain stories about a few outstanding Balayogis or young yogis. Dhruva is said to have stood in a one legged posture and did tapas or penance for the vision of Lord Narayana. Prahalada is another example of a born Bhakti yogi who had the siddhi of not being affected by any aspect of prakriti or forces of Nature. In the olden days children were not only practising asanas but also others aspects of yoga like pranayama and meditation.
If we look a little deeper into the system of education (vedic education) of yesteryears we could find that the elders had developed obligatory rituals based on sound yoga principles. There are cases where children at the age of 5 or 7 used to be initiated into the serious study of vedas. Right from the day of initiation, they were required to perform a daily oblation called sandhya vandana which they would do at daw, midday and dusk. This Sandhya procedures contains two important procedures. pranayama done with mantra or samantraka pranayama and then japa which may be related to dharana practice as enunciated by Patanjali Maharshi as the first step of antarangasadhana or meditation. It may be said therefore that young children were required to and were practising pranayama and early aspect of meditation, thus laying the foundation to lead a life consistent with yogic principles. Since the Sandhya routine were performed all through life asana pranayama and meditation three important aspects of yoga practiced lifelong were introduced early in life. According to Manusmriti, pranayama should be done with the pranayama mantra consisting of the seven vyahritis, the gayatri and the siras portion while holding the breath in pranayama.
So veda initiated children were doing pranayama with mantras, but in practice since many of the parents and teachers were not practicing yoga , many would merely mutter the mantra without the actual pranayama. But according to Manu and several other sages pranayama should be done with the mantra made of three parts, the vyahritis, the gayatri and the siras.
सव्याहृतिं सप्रणवां गायत्रीं शिरसा सह
त्रिः पठेत् आयतः प्राणः प्राणायामस्स उच्यते |
savyāhṛtiṁ sapraṇavāṁ gāyatrīṁ śirasā sahatriḥ paṭhet āyataḥ prāṇaḥ prāṇāyāmassa ucyate
So children would be doing mantra pranayama. The mantra should be mentally recited while holding the breath in antah kumbhaka (ayatah). It takes about 20 seconds to chant the pranayama mantra silently and so the children should have the capacity of breath holding for 20 seconds. It may appear a tall order but with some practice most children would be able to do that. The only precaution the teachers should take is to tell the children not to hold the breath beyond the time needed to chant the mantra and that possibly is the limit of breath holding prescribed by the use of the mantra.
According to Vyasa Patanjali's commentator, there are 5 states of the chitta called chitta bhumi. Broken mind (kshipta), infatuated mind (mudha), distracted mind (vikshipta), focussed mind(ekagrata) and finally a transcendental mind or nirodha mind. Our normal day to day life encourages a mind to be in the third vikshipta stage, multi tasking and easily distracted with a relatively short span of attention. If one allows the mind to be in the vikshipta or distracted stage for a long period of time, the mind develops only the distracted habit of functioning called vikshipta samskaras. So over a period of time the ability to remain focussed or ekagra comes down and it becomes almost impossible to concentrate because of the vikshipta habits. The attention span of most people-- children and adults-- is quite low, there are exceptions though. So the elders of yesteryears thought of introducing a practice to remain with one object or thought for a decent amount of time so daily that the understanding the object of contemplation would be more complete and incidentally develop or not lose the ekagrata habit or samskaras. One of the reasons of introducing japa even at the early age is to see that children do not lose the ability to remain focussed. In Sandhyavandana one part, the gayatri japa, is to repeat the gayatri manta a number of times say about 108 times. The japa sadhaka brings the mind to the same mantra for say about 15 minutes the time that may be needed for this japa This japa is akin to the dharana practice enunciated by Patanjali in Yoga darshans where by definition dharana is the practice of bringing the mind back to the same object again and again for the duration of dharana practice. So by spending some time in pranayama and some more time in japa dharana the sandhya practice helps the child to practice two important aspects of yoga practice, pranayama and meditation. Additionally if the children would be taught yoga asanas including the artistic vinyasas, we have a good absorbing program of yoga for children and that could sustain all through life with the necessary modifications.