Friday, February 7, 2014
Why Children should Meditate
Introducing children to yoga, meditation, and spirituality is one of the greatest gifts we can give them. It can set their future on a nourishing and creative course. As teachers, we need to know how to present this knowledge so that children of different ages will receive the most benefit from it.
By Swami Shankardev Saraswati, Ph.D.
When we teach meditation to children, we need to choose age-appropriate techniques that foster their total growth and development. The word "meditation" is an English term for a wide range of practices and techniques. Meditations for children cannot be the same as those taught to middle-aged business people or spiritual aspirants seeking higher knowledge. Rather, in this context, meditation is a process that supports the growth of the body-mind of the child, fosters the development of each child's own unique personality, and supports creativity and expression.
Meditation techniques for children can help them relax and focus better during school, so that they can concentrate and memorize more effectively. From the spiritual perspective, good meditation techniques teach children self-awareness, encourage them to be themselves, and help them face life with greater belief in their potential.
There are three broad age groups that we need to consider when teaching yoga to children: those below the age of eight years, children between the age of eight and puberty, and post-pubertal teens.
Meditation for Children Below Eight Years
From the point of view of yogic physiology, children below age eight do not need much formal meditation training. It is more important for these children that their parents learn yoga and meditation and carry yogic principles into their homes. Children absorb the energy of the environment. If their parents practice some form of self-development, their children will grow up in a healthier, more relaxed and aware environment.
Parents need to practice meditation techniques that increase their own capacity for awareness in the midst of their busy lives, so that they can be more present and available to their children. The child needs to know that a parent is really interested in them, is really listening to and attending to them. At the same time, parents need to learn how to allow children to be themselves and to foster each child's own unique being and abilities.
One meditation technique can be used with children in this age group, however. A modified practice of yoga nidra is a deep relaxation practice in the Corpse Pose (Savasana). In this practice we cannot ask the children to feel individual parts of the body, but rather we work with awareness of larger parts. For example, we may playfully instruct the child in body awareness by saying, "Feel that you are a statute until I count to 10. Now bend your elbows and now straighten your arms." We give similar instructions with the legs and may ask them to wiggle their toes, and so on. This takes their awareness through the body.
Once children have developed a little body awareness, we can teach them to listen to and follow outside sounds, or to visualize imaginary realms, or we can read stories that stimulate their imaginations.
Meditation for Children From Eight to Puberty
By the age of eight, a child's fundamental personality has formed and his or her body begins a process of preparing for puberty. Changes begin to occur in children's brains around the age of eight, and these changes reach a peak during puberty. When we teach meditation to this age group, our main aim is to support balanced physical and mental development. This helps the child be better mentally prepared for the onslaught of feelings, desires, and urges that arise during puberty. It also supports the child's ability to take in knowledge at school, and to develop a relaxed focus and good memory.
Eight-year-olds in India learn three practices to foster total physical, mental, and spiritual development. These are Sun Salutation for the body, alternate nostril breathing for the brain and mind, and mantras for the deeper mind and spirit. These practices can slow the onset of puberty and balance its effects by acting on the subtle channels that flow in the spine. Mental development then has time to catch up to physical changes.
Yogic physiology explains how this occurs. A child's physical changes during puberty are under the control of pingala nadi, the spinal channel that carries prana, the life force. Mental development occurs under the control of ida nadi, the spinal channel that carries psychological force. Excessive stimulation of the physical channel alone, as tends to occur in the normal social environment, causes imbalanced development and can make puberty a rough process. The yogic practices taught children at this time stimulate both channels equally, to stimulate physical and mental growth at the same time.
The practice of Sun Salutation balances the life force, prana, preventing it from becoming jammed up in the sexual centers (swadhisthana chakra). One note of caution is to teach children only asanas that are playful and that do not put too much pressure on the endocrine system. Never hold the major poses for extended periods, as they will overstimulate the physical systems and can cause imbalanced development.
Alternate nostril breathing is a pre-meditative practice that balances the flow of energy in both ida and pingala. This pranayama directly affects the physical and mental systems by balancing both sides of the brain. Do not teach breath retention to children. Simply get them to observe the flow of the breath in on one side and out on the other, alternating sides. This will calm and balance them.
Mantras are the main meditative practices taught to this age group, as they powerfully affect the brain and its development. The main mantra taught is the Gayatri mantra. This mantra has 24 syllables, each of which stimulates a different part of the brain. Gayatri is the mantra to stimulate our intelligence.
All of the practices listed above, including yoga nidra as detailed for younger children, will support a child's ability to learn, to take in and digest information at school, and to develop individual interests.
Our students in the post-pubertal stage of adolescence can engage in more classical forms of meditation. We can teach them techniques that further support their mental development, for example, so that they can stay relaxed and able to concentrate during these most important learning years.
Again, one of the best practices to teach is yoga nidra. This time we can use the adult form, rotating the awareness through the body parts and then taking awareness deeper into the breath and mind.
Visualization techniques are wonderful for this age group, and techniques that develop memory and mental power are particularly useful. For example, we can ask a child to visualize an imaginary blackboard and ask them to see themselves writing the letters of the alphabet on this board in colored chalk. Or in this day and age, to visualize a computer screen and see themselves creating their own computer game, following their hero through any story they want to create.
Breath meditations are useful for helping students who are at home studying. It is important for students to remain relaxed and receptive, and to take regular productive and relaxing breaks from study. They can, if they wish, use that time to mentally review their work.
Dr. Swami Shankardev is a yogacharya, medical doctor, psychotherapist, author, and lecturer. He lived and studied with his guru, Swami Satyananda, for ten years in India (1974-1985). He lectures all over the world.