By Laura Harper, CSW
If you have ever watched a four-month old reach for her toes or stretch on her belly, or a three-year old running across the grass and falling in ecstatic giggling, or a seven-year old jumping on the trampoline for an hour trying to land a back flip, you know that it is the natural state of childhood to be in tune with our bodies and to enjoy free and joyful physical expression. As the years pass and we enter the self-conscious adolescent years, the developing child can become more inhibited, often self-critical, disconnecting from their physical self. Traumatic experiences as well as social conditioning can also contribute to the experiencing of a separation between mind and body. We start to live in our heads, ignoring, coercing or engaging in battle with our physical self. The body is perceived as a burden or a possession, and no longer the incredible gift we felt it to be as a child. And the feelings of the pure joy of being alive diminish.
A friend once admitted to me that when she was growing up the word body was considered shameful. Her mother had her own issues with her body and would only whisper the word to her children. This instilled in her young mind confusion about her relationship with her developing body. Instead of delight and respect and gratitude, she developed fear and mistrust of her body’s incredible powers, even to the point that her breathing became shallow and inefficient. She was afraid to breathe in the fullness of life.
As we grow disconnected from and uncomfortable with being in our bodies, we suffer. Learning to ignore the body signals for rest and nutrition, we get in the habit of pushing ourselves to exhaustion, working too long, forgetting to hydrate, making food choices that do not fill our bodies needs, until the body begins to break down under chronic stress conditions. Out of touch with our emotions, which we experience as sensations within our bodies, we may become threatened or overwhelmed by the raw feelings of sadness, anger, uncertainty, and develop patterns of trying to avoid rather than face and work with these feelings within ourselves. Instead of developing skills of emotional and physical respect and self-care, we develop habits of neglect and avoidance.
Our children are watching us to learn and follow our step. As adults it is a necessary and powerful journey to make our way back to loving and respecting our bodies, and understanding the integral connection between our thoughts, our feelings and our physical self. It is important to learn for ourselves and model for our children how to feel safe and powerful in our bodies.
Yoga is a wonderful way to learn to be present in the body. The word yoga means to unite, referring on one level to the union of the mind and the body. The practice of yoga encourages one to slow down, to pay attention, to go within and listen to the body’s messages, and to respond in gentle and nurturing ways. We are never too young or too old to learn how to love and take care of ourselves in this way.
Yoga also teaches how to take advantage of the power of the breath. Breathing is a basic requirement for life, often taken for granted, and yet as we learn to tune into the breath for the purposes of calming emotion, quieting and centering the mind, as well as for energizing the body, we quickly discover the potential we have for self-regulation within us at any moment as we use the breath well.
Children are natural yogis and respond immediately to the delight of stretching their limbs, and creating poses with their bodies in the shapes of animals and natural forms. The child’s natural flexibility, curiosity and lack of inhibition lends itself to creative and fluid physical expression. Holding poses for a period of time, strengthening muscles, and developing balance all contribute to growing feelings of confidence and physical power, without the competitive environment of traditional sports.
Children also benefit from learning to breathe. The long, deep inhale is a natural way to improve focus and to prepare the mind and body for a challenge. Focusing on the long, slow exhale is a great way to release any built up tension and find deep peace in the body. These and other simple yogic breathing techniques create a feeling of calm and serve as tools children may use in their every day life for coping with the stresses and demands in their world.
At the same time, children are learning to turn their attention inwards. Standing on one foot to lift their arms into a balancing pose, they learn to work with uncertainty and fear, and how to face it. As they hold a strenuous pose for a minute, they learn focus, steadiness and discipline. Moving through a thirty-minute sequence of yoga and then lying quietly at the end for five minutes with eyes closed facilitates access to their true essence of strength, stability and creativity.
With the guidance of a nurturing teacher, the child who practices yoga can be validated in her naturally positive self-concept and develop a profound trust in her physical self. The child learns to feel safe and powerful in her body, and takes this essential connection into her adolescent and adult years.