The couple of years I spent teaching yoga in schools in São Paulo, Brazil showed me firsthand how strung out and stressed children are, even those of a young age. I was really surprised! I thought I was going to go in there and help kids explore a new healthy hobby, to have fun with meditation and centering their bouncy monkey minds, interacting with each other socially, learning balance, building strength, learning proprioception (the sense of where their bodies are positioned spatially and internally) and mostly having some fun in class!
What I found instead was children who rushed from class to class, who had a great deal of pressure to perform piled up on them, deadlines, performance targets, expectations to exceed. It sounds like a high powered office job, not a day-in-the-life of a 5 year old! Some of them could barely touch their toes, hardly any of them could sit still for a moment, some of them were so shy they could barely interact with the other kids.
So the kids came in and let off some steam, we bumble bee buzzed around a beautiful imaginary garden, we unfurled our petals of a big flower, we were boats going under bridges, we were lions roaring, we jumped around as jumping trees, we were twisting dragons, we did forward rolls, handstands up the wall and we smiled at the sun, making it shine brighter in our sun dance.
We had some quiet moments where we worked with our breath and did some calming, centering visualisations and I believe that each of the children walked away with each with something different. The kids would go home and show their parents what they did in class, getting their parents to do the postures with them. Every now and again the parents would give some feedback and one of the fathers’, who was also practicing yoga with me, gave me this testimonial, which really touched my heart.
“My daughter does not wake up easily in the morning, but Wednesday mornings at 7:00 are made a little easier when I get to whisper the magic words, “You have yoga class today” in her ear. She regards yoga as a special time and, more than any other physical activity, she is very proud of the success she’s achieved in class. She can’t wait to show us a new pose or game every Wednesday night. Moreover, for a seven year-old who experiences an uncommon amount of anxiety, she has made great strides in learning how to calm herself down. She even told her mom and me that we needed to start practicing yoga again so we could relax a little!”
Imagine if every child could practice yoga and mindfulness in schools? Helping them build confidence and self-esteem, improving social skills, burning of energy and learning to calm down. They would keep their young muscles in good condition and be able to touch their toes! Helping their cognitive focus and patience, they would be better equipped to cope with the schooling system and learn skills to support them throughout their lives.
At a different spectrum I also ran classes for teenagers, it was so rewarding to watch these girls, some of whom didn’t respond well to competitive team sports, find a physical practice that worked for them. My goodness sometimes they didn’t stop talking, all through class and it was like pulling teeth, but when they sat up from final relaxation with big smiles on their faces, their eyes shining even brighter, a sense of calm descended and everything fell into place. It’s been 3 years now since I left Brazil and stopped teaching them but several girls have kept in touch and are keeping up their yoga practice, growing up to be beautiful, conscientious, balanced young women.
I was really impressed by the approach of the deputy head master of the high school at the American School of São Paulo in wanting to be inclusive with physical-education and offer something for the girls who weren’t into track and field or team sports. When I rolled this class out to St Paul’s, the British school in São Paulo, some of the girls shared with me that they ordinarily cut PE class but came to yoga every week, begging to stay on the following course when it should have rotated to another group. Some of these girls were naturally introverted, shy, body conscious, not naturally athletic or just quite calm. Offering yoga in schools gave them a physical practice that also helped them to calm their minds and perform better at school, leaving them feeling refreshed and revived instead of drained and tired.
Imagine if that was combined with mindfulness meditation at the start of the school day and before exams. We would be giving the minds of the future tools to help them balance their bodies, minds and emotions instead of perpetuating the stress of over achievement. Why do we have to push & force them so hard instead of letting them unfold organically?
This Forbes article explores a yoga and meditation course ‘Transformative life skills’ used to improve school retention, reducing high-school dropouts and the number of youths ending up in Prison, which has been “extremely helpful in helping kids reduce levels of negative thinking, negative affect, revenge motivation, depression, emotional arousal, physical arousal, rumination, perceived-stress, attitudes toward violence; and it’s been associated with greater levels of self-control, tolerance for distress, and school engagement.”
There’s heaps and heaps of research out there and lots of people teaching children in schools mindfulness meditation, yoga, even massage skills. Those of you who are healers, parents, even students, demand that your school offers these positive, affirming skills to children, rather than giving them performance anxiety and a pre-disposition to stress.