I am often asked the question: “Am I teaching my kids yoga?” My typical response is: “they are teaching me yoga.” Tongue in cheek it may be but nevertheless much truth lies within that response. At the same time, stepping back in to the parental shoes, what should I be teaching them and where does yoga fit in? Is it merely introducing them to the asanas and telling them to breathe?
Anyone who has the good opportunity to raise a few kids knows that it is the seventh series. It does require sacrifice and tests your patience and inner abilities to control yourself just so you can be a normal human being, and not this ogre screaming over minor things in the course of life that have all accumulated here today and burst out in one mass of frustration (whew!) Not that that ever happened to me but you can read about it on parenting blogs everywhere. Shocking stuff really. As Chekhov once said, “any fool can handle a crisis, it’s the day-to-day stuff that wears you down.”
So when I consider what yoga means to me it is an opportunity for willing self-reflection, a building of character, an effort to be nice, ultimately working on myself. It’s obviously all the things I am doing in life. And much of that has, and should be, spent and shared with my adorable children (eh, sometimes, no, of course, most of the time:). The time taken to practice is the training time in working on myself, refining the nervous system. I am happy to report that over the years of practice I have seen a positive change. I have seen myself transform in terms of handling and being with the children. In that case it was not the practice alone but being given the precious situation with the children to temper it, to mould it. In other words, the practices without corresponding life situations would be close to impotent.
The big lesson here is that my response to whatever it is coming up with the children, while being primed so to speak, is actually the teaching I give them, the yoga I pass on. Especially in their formative years. In years to come will they remember their daddy’s asana practice or ones I showed them or will the memory of being together, sharing, having fun, bonding, be embedded in them? A thoughtless reaction borne from frustration, not properly channeled, sticks much stronger in a child’s memory. I have witnessed a particular stimulus bring up a frustration in me and from there I have observed the pre-existing pattern of how I could act. Fortunately, I feel from awareness practice over the years, I have the wherewithal to see the two options inside and am able to channel that force, energy to respond in a more constructive manner with them, which may include a stern rebuke or a patient response to further explain. And may I say, this is a work in progress, by no means perfected. But that is exactly what I mean by the interaction with the children being the yoga lesson.
As a first principle then I value love, care and time shared together as the primary yoga with children. Next to that is the set of values I have worked on in my life that I aim to share with them. In terms of a yogi it is easy to hone in the values from the yamas and niyamas. I am grateful to my kids (and wife) that I am able to look at these everyday, inculcate them, live them. Believing in ahimsa, I will promise them that I will not hurt them. I have to look at that on all levels: physical responses to mind games and emotional care. Am I living a life based on truth, honestly, or is it just when it’s convenient? Though these and the other values are often considered obvious they can easily be forgotten in the course of a day. To live with these values of being kind, honest, respectful, loyal and faithful, and knowing what is enough is to share them with your children. They will naturally have the opportunity to form their own values over time and have their own personalities but these are universal and essential. I prefer to see signs of caring coming from my boys than them being the “best”. This may again seem obvious, especially to one not involved, but be clear, time and opportunity all too easily slip by. You have to make a clear inner resolve to “be” it at all times. I see this as one of the true values of what yoga has taught me and also what I have learned during my time with my parents. My wife and I have not forced any formal religion on them as they are exposed to many through our life and the community but already they know certain Sanskrit mantras as we’ll do them together at night when giving thanks.
Finally then we come to the techniques of yoga, the practices of asana and more. I know that constructive skills learned at an early age can be invaluable throughout life. At the same time it is important for anyone, including my children, to come to a practice of yoga by their own volition. But my wife and I do have both the duty and opportunity to introduce these elements. Already the kids have played with yoga poses and are quite adept at using it as a term to get rid of me, “papa, go do yoga”, if they don’t want me around (which of course is very rare:). I also see they are a little young to properly engage in it yet. That is a popular question: what age should they start? Some say 8, others 12 or as long as the child can take care of themselves (through dressing, feeding and teeth brushing). So that leaves it a bit open. In my opinion it comes down to a certain amount of maturity to want to do something. At this stage soccer is much more valuable for them than yoga. It’s their primary choice and it really gets them moving. Of course in time they’ll find this ‘stuff’ their parents can help their football playing.
As my specialty lies in the breath I am always aware of how I or others breathe. I have noticed the rapid breathing of my children as infants to a more normal one, still quick, as young children. When they have been upset I have put my hand on their upper abdomen and tried to get them to be free there and breathe. I have tried but it is difficult because the emotion at that age overrides the rationality and a reactive state takes over. It’s almost an inevitable part of human growth. And at this young age to keep an awareness on the breath is almost impossible. It requires maturity. Yet if I can introduce an awareness on the breath early on I feel I have done some good for these growing boys.
In a sense I could breakdown the sharing of yoga with my children into different ages and phases. Early on it is all about the care and love. These should dominate throughout life but naturally change color and shape. The sharing of clear, strong values is imperative to their growth and maturing, something that becomes more relevant as they get into later childhood and adolescence. Then finally, the practices themselves, that are initially play but later, really post-puberty, constructive and formational. From their mid-teens on it’s really up to them. I myself only began yoga at 23. I had many other things to experience and pass through. All things being equal it would have been great to have been exposed earlier but that cannot even be considered as life had its path of experiences to share with me regardless of what I think I could have done. So it’s all about what I do with it now. I hope to share yoga in all its ways with my children: through love, kindness and caring; with strong, clear values that carry them through life with integrity so they develop in to adults that are of value to society and all beings everywhere; to the practices themselves, full of their own inherent wisdom and refinement that can help transform their nervous systems and enrich the children’s growing years into adult life.
Paul is a senior teacher of Pranayama, Asana and the meditative art and science of Yoga. He has been a dedicated student for over a decade of both Sri O.P.Tiwari, one of the few remaining classical yogis and masters of Pranayama, and the late Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in ashtanga vinyasa. Both of these great teachers have personallycertified Paul in these practices, a unique position as the only one to receive this double honor. One of his main gifts is to be able to relate the teachings in a very down-to-earth way for the modern seeker. He does not take life or yoga too seriously and as a result the discussions and philosophical sessions are lively and humorous, helping to explain the meaning behind the practices and philosophy. For more please see his full bio. Paul is the founder and director of Samahita Yoga Thailand, a premier retreat center in Asia, and Centered Yoga, a leading yoga training school since 1999.
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