ON THE YOGA MAT WITH CHILDREN AND ELDERLY PEOPLE
By Eva Hager-Forstenlechner
Working with children
For some time now, my work with children
has been focussing on the mediation of yoga. After 20 years of practising yoga
and several years of teaching it, I began to be interested in how to create an
approach to yoga for children, especially since my own daughter showed an
increasing interest in yoga practice. When she was little I often noticed that
she spontaneously integrated yoga asanas
(body positions in yoga) in her movements – for her, they were part of her
natural movements. Often I simply observed how she moved for a long time:
another adventure from my “spiral dynamic” point of view. Natural movement
coordination. What are our anatomical parameters, how efficiently and
economically do we use them? Children are absolute specialists in this field.
There are no uneconomic movements.
you want to build a ship, then don’t round up men to get wood, assign tasks and
deal out work, but teach them the desire for the wide, endless sea.” (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
Now, then, mediation of yoga for children:
They have the positions down pat, but how do you get a group of children to
practise together at a previously determined hour?
The fascination: Their liveliness, their
creativity, their frustration and their unwillingness which they readily show
when they cannot stand a position because they simply find it stupid, boring,
ugly, or because they can’t do it or it pulls and pinches all around. Their
zeal develops from joy in the thing. The ridge between lust and frustration is
narrow – they give everything to attain a position, and if they can’t do it
then the position is “dumb”. So, how to make children aware of the fact that
some things develop slowly, that they need time? Where to fetch them without
curtailing their lust for life, without breaking the energy of their forward
Namasté. At the beginning of each lesson we all take a bow: I towards the
children, they towards me and each member of the group. Eye contact, “namasté”
– inclining one’s head as a sign of esteem: “I’m greeting the light in you.” Do
we still do that in our everyday life? Do we take a bow in front of our
competitors or co-players before we begin our day? Fair Play? What makes a team
unsympathetic? Fouls. Why? Because we’d actually like them to treat each other
fairly. Honest victory, earned victory, the better team … In yoga, namasté
means: I see you in your best way.
Kids love rituals – nothing new there. If
I’m not yet fully there at the beginning of a lesson, involved in daily
matters, detached, and whenever I forget to namasté, I can be sure that it’s
going to rain protests. No lesson without namasté!
Every child has its strengths and
weaknesses. Positions which are more easy to do and others which present more
of a challenge. Strength, stamina, flexibility, balance and centering,
quickness, concentration. I frequently let the children select what they want
to do in that lesson from a set of cards showing the asanas. They spontaneously
choose their favourite position or one that looks relaxing or intriguing,
that’s supposed to be difficult or where you “don’t have to do a thing”.
According to how they feel that day. A profile of the whole group develops in
that way, the programme is intuitive and adapted to the current energy of the
group. The only task that’s left for me is to determine a meaningful sequence.
This method has shown good results.
Learning to respect the wishes of others and to articulate one’s own. Training
in democracy, too. And sometimes I guide them through a lesson which I think
appropriate – quite authoritarian.
At the end of a lesson I mostly read them a
story. Stories from the life of Buddha, buddhistic tales, allegories one can
think about. After the story we sometimes have discussions about what it wants
to express. Here’s one of their favourite stories:
The death of a teacup
upon a time there was a great teacher of Zen philosophy. (Zen is a very
down-to-the-ground school of the teachings of Buddha which explains how things
really are in life.) This great teacher’s name was Ikkyu. Even when Ikkyu was
little he was very sharp and always knew how he could evade trouble. One day he
pushed a teacup off the table while playing. It fell to the ground and broke up
in a thousand pieces. Now this teacup belonged to his teacher who was very fond
of it because it was old and valuable. Ikkyu was very worried! And there he
already heard his teacher coming. Quickly he hid the shards of the teacup behind
his back. When the teacher entered the room, Ikkyu asked: “Why do people have
to die?” His teacher replied: “Oh, that’s perfectly normal! Every human being
and every thing has a certain life span, after which it must die.” And then
Ikkyu showed his teacher the shards of the broken teacup.
From: Sherab Chödzin et
al.: “Die Weisheit der Krähen. Buddhistische Märchen” (The wisdom of the
crows. Buddhist tales.)
We only skip the story when they want to do
an asana which has four lotus flowers – highest degree of difficulty – savasana, the posture of the dead: five
to ten minutes of lying in silence. For children that’s an eternity, but
sometimes they’re longing for just that silence.
As in the beginning, we take a bow to say
good-bye before we part. There is no yoga lesson where I’m not moved by their
tenderness, their courage, their power and the brilliance in their eyes. Namasté.
Working with elderly people
Work with elderly people takes on a
different shape. Their energy is calmer, pulsates more slowly. Zeal still plays
a role, but much less than with children. They have a history. Each one has
made decisions which have led them to the point in life where they are now: On
the yoga mat with me.
In the beginning, insecurity – can I still
do that at my age? Experience has shown that yoga is especially good for
elderly people. Nearly all of them have more or less restricted movement
abilities due to injuries, sickness, or simply stiffness. Yoga exercises are
soft, not very exhausting and yet invigorating. Mobility is kept up or
regained, the joints get unburdened, blood pressure regulated. Spiral dynamics
allows me to give understandable explanations of anatomic conditions in yoga
training by example of a skeleton model. Recognising logical connections in anatomic
structures through which the exercises take an effect on us gives the
participants security and spontanous insight.
Yoga tradition takes a different view of
life’s rhythm than the West: Life is divided in four phases, all of which have
a special meaning: The first one is that of learning, the second transfers
responsibility for home, work, familiy, the third is about self-realisation,
and the fourth one’s main object is the search for spiritual enlightenment.
Yoga adapts to the requirements of the respective period.
Our western view of getting older is not
very reassuring. It seems to be concerned with supply and disposal rather than
with recognising the wealth of knowledge and experience which a person has
gathered in the course of his or her life. The feeling of being a special
treasure, a wise man/woman, hardly ever arises in people who are old in our
current western society.
My appreach to yoga with elderly people is
marked by respect. As with children, As with children, it is important to feel
the “group energy” with elderly people. Each lesson stays spontaneous and
immediate, orientates on the abilities and requirements of the participants.
From a pool of experiences I select the focus points for a lesson. I mostly
start the lesson calmly – lying on the back on the floor, focussing on one’s
own breathing. Flowing. Prana, life energy, ist distributed throughout the
body. After that, we’re getting more lively. Standing positions which require
balance, strength and direction, sitting positions which mainly train mobility,
careful backwards bows which open the heart and strengthen the back, easy
reverse positions facilitating blood flow, relaxation lying down.
Every age has its own wisdom. This may
sound a bit illusory, kitschy, generalising – but let’s savour it and feel its
taste. After a good yoga hour with old people, it becomes a certainty.
(July 6, 2008)
Eva Hager-Forstenlechner presented at the website of ImPulsTanz