Yoga and yoga-based exercise for babies and toddlers
By Sam Petter, Tatty Bumpkin
It seems that you can’t open the paper these days without some reference to yoga jumping out of the pages. While it seems to be a victim of its own success, the regular misunderstanding of it often means that it fails to reach the people who it would be most beneficial to. There must be a reason why it is so popular! So let’s take a step back and take a look at what yoga is, how it can be adapted for children, and how it can have a positive effect on home life and the whole family.
What is yoga?
Yoga is not rocket science, nor is it some strange spiritual exclusive club (although it can be in some circles). Yoga is about breath awareness, with physical postures, which brings about a harmony and balance between the mind and the body. In addition, the Sivananda School of Yoga states that there are 5 main principles: Postures, breathing, relaxation, diet, and positive thinking/meditation. The body is made to do yoga; the postures create certain pressure to stimulate body and brain, helping the individual to become healthy, happy and whole as a person. You know this to be true – if your back is hurting for example, then your mind is totally taken up with this, and your whole outlook and demeanour reflects this.
Children’s yoga can have even deeper effects, as the baby / toddler’s body is a blank canvas. Specifically, I am referring to baby yoga and toddler yoga up to 5 – the principles remain the same, but the postures advance, with increased awareness after this age.
Children are born natural yogis, with good posture and excellent breathing – notice how a baby fully utilises their whole lung capacity with abdominal breathing. Scientific evidence shows that regular yoga practice can keep children healthy by boosting the immune system and keeping the rest of the body functioning at optimum levels.
Baby yoga can be done from birth, and works on the nervous, physiological, and digestive systems. One baby yoga session is the equivalent to a whole day’s normal exercise. The principles are the same – using movement, songs and breath we stimulate, stretch and relax the baby, and by the end of a 45 minute session, you would not believe how relaxed (often asleep) a baby is.
This relaxation is the core of baby yoga. Each stretch is balanced with relaxation; the baby learns that tension and relaxation are complementary. The baby will be able to experience deep relaxation actively – as an in-between state to sleeping and waking. Once they have mastered this, the better they are able to respond to tension associated with physical discomfort.
It all makes sense when you think about it; the baby is constricted in the car seat, the pram, the cot, and needs encouragement to develop its physical awareness. An added benefit is the enhanced communication between carer and baby (I say carer as often it is the father or nanny who comes to a class) and to see the heart opening effects of the songs, chants and rhymes on the adult and the child, is wonderful. As a new parent myself, I had forgotten not only the nursery songs I learnt as a child, but how to vocalise. Once you realise that the child is non-judgemental, and hears your voice as the most beautiful on the planet, it only serves to make you sing more and more loudly!
Francoise Freedman is the founder of the Birthlight Baby Yoga movement in the UK, and there is a list of qualified baby yoga teachers on the web site http://www.birthlight.com, and a wealth of resources. Myself, I did baby yoga with my son. I loved it from the beginning, going on to train as a Birthlight teacher, and now a teacher of teachers!
I teach 2 classes a week at the moment, and get as much pleasure from teaching it to new mums and babies as I did doing it myself. The quiet at the end of a session (generally), with the mums relaxing, and the babies contentedly yawning and snuffling amazes everybody concerned.
As the babies become more active, so the classes involve more swings and drops, developing the vestibular system (spatial awareness). At this stage it is even more important that they recognise the difference between wakefulness and sleep – so they can play / amuse themselves without external stimulation.
Once crawling, the type of stretches and moves develop and move on, and really can be done only in short bursts – the session must always be led by the baby, and so often their interest will wander over to a toy or old bit of fluff on the carpet. I found the best used of the songs and movements so carefully learnt, was to use as a distraction technique.
As the crawling baby, turns into a little toddler, the yoga once again comes into its own.
From birth, your child has stretched their limbs, twisted, and bent their bodies to create the full range of movement, establishing the flexibility of the major joints. Once this flexibility is established, toddlers go on to develop strength, mainly by lifting and carrying their increasing body weight. Unless they continue to experience a variety of movement, they will begin to lose innate flexibility. It is amazing how many young children cannot touch their toes for example.
Yoga not only helps to maintain this flexibility but impacts on all the child’s body systems, and equally as importantly; mental focus, imagination, self belief and a sense of fun. All of this serves to build a strong foundation for children to expand their confidence and become aware of their body, improving flexibility and co-ordination. Doing classes together with their friends / parent helps everyone to have fun and releases tension.
While I personally don’t disagree with competitive sports, yoga is non-competitive, and encourages the child to be in the present rather than to strive for a goal. In Tatty Bumpkin classes, we have worked on a structure in conjunction with paediatric physios and educationalists that incorporate the key skills and moves. However, none of this is visible during the imagination-lead story classes, where the child and carer go on adventures doing poses and breathing exercises without even realising it!
To encourage active participation, we use a Tatty Bumpkin yoga doll to demonstrate the moves and become an integral part of the story. Once at home, you will often find doll and child in some amazing embrace as they embark on their own yoga journey.
YOGA AT HOME
If you already practice yoga yourself, you will know how important it is in keeping you sane and grounded. The whole family benefits from a yoga practice, and you will be surprised at how far reaching the effects are. Positive outlook, positive affirmations, quiet time, visualisation and increased communication, are all ways that can help in the long term health and happiness of the family.
Watch whilst you all become, bendy, giggly, clever and strong.
Stand by the giggle tree and laugh out loud