December 5, 2011

Could Yoga Inspire a New Generation? ~ Christina Erl

This week both of my kids came with me to a Bikram class. Their faces were pink and purple but they survived – even with a smile on their faces! Dionne, our amazing teacher, told us how much Bikram loves having children in his class and they were excited to give it a go.

My son, William is 9 and my daughter, Sequoia is 8. They sat out several poses but managed to do what everyone is told is their soul purpose on their very first class – they stayed in the room the whole time. As a mother I felt proud and envious that they have the opportunity to discover this transformative practise at such a young age. Just to know it exists, even if this is the only time they ever do the class, is a gift. Many adults in the room were impressed and amused to see these two toppling over each other at times, who suffered and softly laughed; who, you could tell, found it hard to follow the constant dialogue but never, ever.. gave up.

However, since then, I have found it interesting to hear the surprise in people’s voices when they learn that the kids endured a Bikram class. I have received looks that were a distinct combination of amazement and disapproval…but why so concerned? The idea that children can’t be expected to follow strict rules or push themselves is absurd. I’m no militant mom but I cannot get over how incredibly spoiled our children are becoming. As soon as something gets hard – whether that is academically in school, or athletically – we too often make excuses for our kids so as “not to stress them out”. But, we must ask ourselves, is it always a good choice to avoid stress?

One mom I know has decided to home school her son because he doesn’t like to get up early (mornings don’t work with his natural rhythm )….ummmm, seriously? How ’bout we call it what it is …lazy… instead of making excuses for it? There are many terrific reasons for home-schooling, but I have to disagree with this one.

We forget that stress can be good for us. Under duress species evolve; under stress our muscles get stronger; during times of struggle we grow in character; and in hot yoga when we are pushed to endure heat, physical and mental fatigue, we inevitably develop a better understanding of ourselves and we grow stronger.

When our initial reaction might be to flee, the Bikram yoga practice teaches us how to control our breath and our thoughts so that we can manage the class and eventually thrive in it. The Bikram practice never gets easier. We get stronger and that is a beautiful and powerful process, for if we pay attention, what we learn on the mat can be transferred and used to our benefit off the mat throughout our lives.

I discovered that it is not hard to find a few articles on the web denouncing the idea of children practicing hot yoga. Many say that children’s sweat glands aren’t fully developed and therefore the stress of the heat is too much on their developing bodies. However, from an article published in ParentDish just this past February I found this: “We’ve always been taught that children don’t handle heat as well as adults,” Dr. Chris Koutures, a pediatrician and sports medicine doctor who sits on the executive committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council for Sports Medicine and Fitness, tells ParentDish. “To be honest, there’s new data that says, across the board, kids may handle heat, as well.”

I really believe that you have to take Bikram’s own advice and assess each child on a case by case basis. My kids wanted to come to class. They weren’t forced and they were respectful of the practise. And, perhaps most important, Dionne constantly checked in with them to ensure they were coping well.  After class, she had several questions for them. One of the most pertinent was, “did you sweat?” Since sweat is our bodies way of managing heat, it was important to know whether or not their bodies were responding well. 

Yoga develops a connection between mind and body and slowly but inevitably creates profound change in our lives. It teaches resolve, dedication, endurance, discipline, flexibility and, amongst still many other things, focus. For a generation entrenched in easy fixes, constant entertainment and instant gratification, learning how to push oneself and endure that which may be uncomfortable could help develop the kind of character that contributes to a happy and successful life.

My kids were proud of themselves and they should be. They are looking forward to going back because it is fun but also because they learned something about themselves; they are strong little people who can achieve whatever they set their minds to and that sometimes, it is only when push ourselves that we are able to discover the depth and breadth of what we are truly capable of achieving.

It takes me back to one of the oldest of adages I know – that when everything is going our way, it’s easy to be kind, sweet and tolerant; but when we are challenged or stressed it is not so easy and therefore, it is when people are suffering that we see their true nature. Will they lash out at others? Will they give up? Or, will they dig deep and resolve to follow through with dignity and grace? After all, our world could certainly benefit from a more tolerant generation…one with character and the ability to dig a little deep when it matters.

Caveat: Obviously my kids were free to leave the room and drink water at any time, and they were respectful, calm and quiet throughout the class, so it was neither a danger to them overheating nor a disturbance to the other yogis in the room… common sense was employed.

If you ask almost any Bikram Yoga Instructor or call the Headquarters, these are the formal Directives you will receive regarding Children practicing Bikram Yoga:

– According to Bikram, kids around the age of 9 or 10 can practice the full Bikram Yoga class – this doesn’t mean they need to do every posture. Kids should be told that they should take it easy and only do what they can even if that means doing one set of every posture.

– Kids under the age of 9 or 10 should only do a maximum of 45 minutes of the class and should come into the yoga room at the beginning of the floor series. Kids don’t need to do the standing series as they handle heat differently – it is possible that they overheat so start slow and allow them to work into their practice.

– Kids should be introduced to the practice gradually and should display their own interest and curiosity before attending.

– Bikram himself has three children and they all began practicing at a very young age.

– The Hatha Yoga Championships has a youth category which includes ages 11 to 17.

– Many studios offer free drop-ins for kids under 14 – a GREAT idea to help families with the cost and inspire young, new students.

Christina Erl is a writer, author of two books and syndicated columnist. Her writing is inspired by the subtext in life’s everyday conversations. You can reach Christina via email: [email protected].  

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