In September, I set a monumental goal. I decided to teach my Elementary yogis Ashtanga Yoga.
If you know anything about Ashtanga (or check out this infographic) , you know precisely why this is a crazy idea. You begin with 5 Sun Salutation As and 5 Sun Salutation Bs, then do a lengthy series of stationary poses, each held for 5-7 breaths. (Traditionally you do a Sun A between each pose.) Because of the intensity of the practice, this style of yoga is considered the hardest out there. You need strength, flexibility, and the ability to focus. And when the goin’ gets tough, you gotta keep going. You don’t move on to the next pose in the series until you pretty much master the one before. Often, Yogis will study for months in India to even begin to learn it. (Check out this article so you know what I am up against.)
So why Ashtanga with my young students? I personally have a great love for this practice. It is where my journey began 15 years ago and through out my career, I have spent bouts of time practicing it. I know it made me an incredibly strong person, both inside and out. But this goal doesn’t have anything to do with me. I believe that this practice is extremely well-rounded and the children will get many physical, mental, and philosophical benefits from studying it. Like the Montessori Method, it addresses the whole person (child, in this case).
When I decided to give this a whirl, I was well aware that kids don’t do this style of yoga. And that teachers don’t teach it to kids. (I mean, if adults can’t do it, surely kids can’t either.) But I knew my yogis could, though. I had witnessed them doing incredible things every day (things you’d never expect 7 – 12 yr-olds to do), so I just threw caution to the wind and decided to go for it.
And when my yogis asked me why other kids don’t do Ashtanga, I was real with them: Adults just don’t expect enough of kids. In little, unnoticed ways adults judge things as too hard for kids based on their own preconceived notions. In many cases, they may just go ahead and do the task for the child, trying to save him/her the struggle. The thing is, though, this becomes a hindrance to a child. This is why Maria Montessori recommended doing “just enough” to help the child do it themselves. It fosters confidence and independence.
While sometimes it is challenging to know where that “just enough” line is, I was determined not to project my personal feelings onto these children when it came to yoga. Just because Lotus or Wheel is hard for me, doesn’t mean I assume it’s hard for them and therefore not put it in class. Or just because they struggle with Chair Pose, I don’t feel like I shouldn’t expect them to do it, leaving it out of the class.
The good thing is that I taught this group last year, giving me an idea where to start. I also had to keep in mind that we had many new children move up from the Primary Class this year and we had a whole summer break in between school years. We had a lot of work to do before we even began Ashtanga!
So here’s what I determined we needed to focus on in the beginning:
a) How to conduct oneself in a yoga class.
After teaching yoga for so long in an adult environment, my assumption was children would just do what adults do: walk into the room quietly, unroll their mat and sit silently until the teacher begins. They would just “know,” like adults just “know.” Why I thought that I’m not sure, but you can imagine my surprise when many decided to shake open their yoga mat like a beach towel. Or roll themselves up in it like a burrito. Or sit up and look around during Savasana.
b) Upper body strength
While kids can run around on the playground for 45 min, they will struggle to do 1 Sun Salutation. If we were going to do 10, we needed to to gradually work up to that. AKA We can’t start Ashtanga on day 1. Or probably day 21 for that matter. Honestly, I was unsure if they would even be able to do 10 Sun Salutations at any point.
c) Knowing their Right from their Left
One thing I completely take for granted when teaching an adult yoga class is that when I say “step your right foot back,” everyone steps their right foot back. We are all on the same foot. Not so much in a Children’s class.
d) Having body awareness to see that they are facing the wrong direction.
As a kid’s teacher, you have to not let this distract you. You have to know when to go around fixing it or just let it go. You’d think that children would realize they, or other people, are facing the wrong direction and be distracted by it, but they don’t. ???
e) Seeing that they are not doing the pose you called.
I mean many really just can’t tell. And you can try to fix them, but they still may not be able to see it and correct themselves. So one day we will have every one doing Triangle on the Right side. One day.
f) Can an Elementary child learn Sanskrit? We needed to learn numbers for the Sun Salutations and the names of all the Poses. I wasn’t too sure about this one.
Adults don’t usually move around in Savasana, but children will be challenged with laying still for 3-5 minutes. Although focus and concentration is developed in the Montessori Primary classroom, we still need to work on being able to hold the poses for 5-7 breaths. And that’s a long time. Eons, practically.
So, looking at my list, you can see I had my work cut out for me. I also had absolutely no idea how this was going to go. Would it work or be an abominable failure??? But I was determined to not let that deter me.
And now it is April and I feel ready to write about this. Please join me in the next post of this series to find out how we got started and what we are doing now!
Also please let me know your kid’s yoga experiences in the comments section! And check out my collection of Montessori and kid’s yoga resources on Pinterest!