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Teaching Yoga to Young Schoolchildren

by Lidia Flisek(more info)

listed in yoga, originally published in issue 70 - November 2001

"The finest present one can give to a child is to teach him/her to know him/herself." The Mother Sri Aurobindo Ashram

The magic of classical yoga is that it offers a combination of specific methods designed to develop every aspect of the individual: physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. Contained within it there is also a philosophy that includes morals and ethics of which self-study and non-violence to oneself and others are just two. All these aspects mean that yoga blends very well with the PHSE (personal, health and social education) module of the National Curriculum. Yoga with its philosophy has also been a useful tool to help children understand and own their own anger without inflicting it on others. Relaxation has brought them to peace and stillness. Movement co-ordinated with the breath, along with a postural and health awareness programme, has given them the opportunity to get to know themselves in more ways than one. Alfred, aged 9, admits: "Yoga helps me calm down because I get angry. " After just 21 weeks of regular yoga sessions, Alfred's teacher Rebecca noticed the difference and remarked that Alfred is now able to acknowledge and control his anger. Continuity is the key to success with yoga as the effects are cumulative, so in order for our future generation to benefit from this ancient system of 'life long learning 'we have to de-stigmatize yoga and encourage more yoga teachers to work within the education system. In this article I would like to present a case as to why yoga can play an important part in the physical, emotional and spiritual development of our children.

Teacher Annie Calverley: Contemplating anture and life cycles. Gospel Oak School, year 4

Teacher Annie Calverley: Contemplating anture and life cycles. Gospel Oak School, year 4


'Body Awareness' was set up after two years of my teaching yoga in a primary school, due to what I had observed in children physically and emotionally. Look around any primary school and you will see that, left to themselves, children slump. This causes internal compression, which also interferes with the action of the diaphragm, thereby impeding breathing. Continuous, restricted or shallow breathing causes a false physiological action. This means that children who are not breathing fully are likely to be pretty much in a state of anxiety and tension, as we breathe shallowly when faced with danger or stress. Restricted breathing and poor posture cannot be conducive to clarity and learning. Initially I observed children's postures in a classroom situation for two years whilst I was helping out in my son's class. The children then were six and seven years old. When my son was eight I had my first opportunity of teaching children within a school. The class was so popular that within two weeks I was teaching four other classes. I was so shocked by children's poor postures and inability to hold their trunks erect, along with restrictions in their ribcages and shoulder girdles, that I began inviting other professionals along to observe the classes. Osteopaths agreed that poor posture could affect children's ability to concentrate. Following this, I decided to document my findings and was fortunate to have a colleague to assist with classes as there were just too many children to 'keep an eye on' and ensure that they were working safely. Annie Calverley continues to work with me and is a committed member.

The Postural Awareness Programme

Our yoga programme is very basic and emphasis is placed on the children experiencing the difference between slumping and holding their bodies erect, whether sitting or standing. We also encourage feedback. An integral part of the programme is anatomy and physiology and understanding the possible long-term effects of poor posture. BackCare (The National Organization for Healthy Backs)1 reports that at least five million adults consult their GP annually concerning back pain. Studies across Europe also show that back pain is very common in children. Although poorly designed, outdated school furniture is likely to contribute to children's discomfort and poor postural habits, children seem to be leading a more sedentary life.

With this article is a picture of a child sitting in a posture known as Dandasana. This posture forms the basis of most seated postures, and should certainly be worked on in order to gain strength and to be able to perform the other postures correctly. On observing the photo you will notice that Jan is unable to perform it correctly. Out of 500 children we have worked with over the last six years, only one child was able to sit in Dandasana correctly. Laura, aged 9: "I like Dandasana position because it straightens up my spine, but if I sit like that for too long I get tired and slouch." Dandasana is only practised for a short time in the sessions but certainly gives children something to work towards. Competition is discouraged in class and children are also given time to work in pairs, observing each other's mobility and restrictions, and are encouraged to note the variations in body structure, etc., so that individuality can be respected and taken into consideration.


Yoga is holistic because co-ordinating movement with breath should lead us to the peaceful space within us all, thus uniting body, mind and spirit. It is because of this truth that most movements taught are movements which co-ordinate with the breath, for instance raising an arm while breathing in and lowering it on the out-breath. Movements are performed with and without music, but whichever method is chosen the result is often a focused calm. These methods are ancient in origin and are often used as a preliminary to meditation.


Laura, aged 9: "I like relaxation because my whole body calms down and every noise fades away."

Relaxation is the most important part of the class. Children love relaxation as it gives them a chance to explore their inner world away from the ever- increasing demands of external stimuli. Relaxation helps children explore their inner life, get in touch with feelings and emotions and find that quiet space within us all. During part of the relaxation, children are given something to focus on, whether it is the breath, a story or visualization. On different occasions children cry but are fine again when they leave the class. Many have acknowledged their anger and are then able to verbalize it; other children in the class also seem more tolerant and understanding. It is very profound to observe a whole class of children experiencing stillness.


Jack, aged 10: "When I suffer with stress what happens to my feelings is I get all tensed up in my stomach. My head goes all funny and wipes out all the good stuff. My body goes all funny and makes me want to do anything. Yoga helps me with stress when I am just considering what I am doing. It helps me think of all the good stuff."

Children of today can relate to stress; they are surrounded by it.

Stress stems from pressures and demands imposed on us by society and ourselves. Many schoolteachers admit to leaving their profession due to ever-increasing demands imposed upon them.

The increasing speed of technology can easily draw us into the rapids of overdrafts, consumer goods and instant communication, making it increasingly difficult to sit back and ponder. Children are affected by environmental stress, but have their own to contend with as well. Natalie, aged 10: "When I am stressed at school and I'm doing my work sometimes I want to rip myself apart and when I am at home I get angry and just want to take it out on other people. Yoga helps me with stress when I relax and close my eyes." Relaxation is appreciated by the children, especially when their body awareness begins to develop, because they can instantly recognize the difference between a tense, stiff body compared with a soggy, glowing one! Body awareness is a useful means by which chronic tension can be recognized and hopefully avoided. Naturally, this is a very individual process as bodies hold tension as a self-defence mechanism in unacceptable situations at home or at school.

Sometimes these tensions can be held for many years. Nevertheless, just a moment of release can be very liberating and an experience that will never be forgotten. Stress seems to be one of the 'deadly millennium diseases', therefore introducing methods to deal with stress from an early age shows a practical, sensible approach to dealing with something that is obviously detrimental to the well-being of the individual, and works towards creating a healthier nation.

Jan, aged 9: "I think relaxation is the key to happiness to everyone in the world."


Laura, aged 9: "Imagining things makes me feel happy."

Imagination and creativity are gifts to be uncovered in each individual whether through art, music, cooking and so on. Creativity adds depth and sparkle to life. Guided visualizations help to develop creativity and imagination and contemplate life cycles and nature. Children love guided visualizations as the mind is occupied and is given a chance to express itself creatively. This is apparent from some of the beautiful pictures produced after a yoga session.


All yoga practices work towards achieving the state of concentration. Because people have different temperaments there is no single technique that will work for everyone. So thankfully there are many ways of achieving the same goal. Once an individual has a practice that works, repetition will create the desired effect even though there are bound to be difficulties on the way. Any exercise that develops concentration should be practised without force, so that there is relaxed effort. It is said that concentration without force leads to the state of meditation.


One of the methods that helps to develop relaxed concentration is Pratayahara. Pratayahara deals with the senses. The senses can create obstacles to concentration because they continually demand our external attention. Pratayahara means withdrawal of the senses. We can achieve this by first acknowledging the senses. Once the mind is satisfied, it can then withdraw its attention inwards or to the object of our concentration. Different methods to achieve concentration are used within the yoga class. Schoolteachers who work with the children on a day-to-day basis have noticed improvements in concentration and achievement in some academic subjects. In fact, it was also noted that one child was less able to concentrate since leaving the yoga class.

Case Studies

Case Study 1

Our questionnaire states that Mack suffered with ADD (attention deficit disorder). On our first meeting it was clear that Mack was not a happy child. He seemed ill at ease in his body, was very fidgety and it was obvious that he appreciated strong boundaries. For the first three weeks Mack was able to remain still in relaxation, but on the fourth and fifth weeks he became aware of pain and discomfort in his back and cried in relaxation. On mentioning this to the head teacher, she commented that with his hard exterior and self-image, it was something she would never have expected him to do. Following these emotional outbursts, Mack showed steady improvement and his concentration span was noticeably extended, even though the physical work was difficult at times and he was unable to participate in relaxation for a few weeks. Another change then became prevalent for a few weeks when Mack became disruptive and his behaviour deteriorated. Towards the end of the 21-week term, however, Mack changed again. His behaviour and ability to concentrate improved and he was able to return to relaxation and remain still throughout the practice.

Case Study 2

Christine was initially easily distracted and we were unaware that she had a behavioural problem. Structurally her posture was pretty bad, with her weight collapsing in towards the mid-line. She had a distended chest, seemed constantly tired and suffered with asthma.

Initially, she was unable to follow instructions well, but this changed quite rapidly and she was soon able to co-ordinate movement with breath and quickly noticed the affect this had on the way she felt: "When I started to breathe properly more air came in than out. I felt happy and felt like jumping up and doing something. Yoga helps my asthma." When the head teacher came to observe the class she was very impressed as Christine was renowned for having a poor attention span and was rarely 'on track'.

Case Study 3

Kola was another example of someone who could easily be distracted. Within a very short period she became focused and centred and began to develop a real understanding of yoga: "Yoga relaxes my mind. If I've been angry or upset before a class it helps to calm my mind."

Case Study 4

Terry started yoga three months after everyone else. We were aware of him suffering with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). His first class was impressive; he managed to stay on track throughout the session but was fidgety in relaxation. Subsequent classes were unpredictable. Terry tended to have uncontrollable urges for outbursts, which demonstrated themselves verbally and physically, either by rolling around on the floor or distracting others. A space was created to allow for this on the understanding that he didn't touch others.

Terry had a good posture and was able to achieve periods of concentration and stillness. We felt that continuity would increase the benefits and that sometimes it was Terry's self-doubt that was creating obstacles for him. This was verified by one particular encounter we had with him when he was having a bad day, and was brought along to the class by his helper. Terry was so disruptive in the session that we decided to remove him from the class; he was literally 'climbing the walls'. Whilst one of us was escorting him back to his class he ran off and climbed to the top of a jungle gym and refused to come down whilst proclaiming: "I can't control my movements." It was then made clear to him that he wouldn't be able to stand and balance at the top of a jungle gym if he couldn't control his movements, and I believe this was a revelation to him. The fact that he was able to climb and balance and maintain periods of stillness in relaxation certainly brings a ray of hope.

(All comments from the children were written down at random during moments of spontaneous feedback.)

Body Awareness

Body Awareness has nine committed members. Three of our members are fully qualified and insured Dharma yoga teachers, having completed a five-year teacher training course.

Our mission is to teach yoga techniques and principles that enable people of all ages to live and learn more fully. In particular we aim to help young children make the most of their learning and play, relate well to others and have the power to adapt to an ever-changing environment.

The Future

Body Awareness has been providing yoga in Gospel Oak School during curriculum time for the last six years. Last year we were about to embark on a pilot study with East London University to evaluate the effects of yoga on schoolchildren. We were unable to proceed due to lack of funding. Our work with the children has continued this year through our own fundraising efforts and some financial contribution from Gospel Oak School. The King's Fund is supporting our work and has provided us with a grant to develop our project further and in order for us to carry out the study. We would be interested in hearing from any other university interested in taking part or any other school that would like to host a project of this kind. We will be providing workshops for yoga teachers in the near future.

"Yoga is union, Yoga is universal. Just as the rays of the sun touch all beings so the Divine Light of all knowledge is there for all. Let us share in this Divine Universal knowledge, with Love".
Swami Dharmananda Saraswati[2]


1. BackCare (The National Association for Healthy Backs); tel: 020 8977 5474;
2. Saraswati Swami Dharmananda. In Friedeberger J ed. Dharma Yoga Centre Journal. Spring 1977. (Tel: 020 8858 7286.)

Further Reading

Saraswati Swami Dharmananda. Breath of Life: Breathing for Healthy Vitality and Meditation. Dharma Yoga Centre. 1996. (Contact Anne Needham on tel: 01206 303329.)

Further Information

The techniques taught to children are those that have been passed on to us through our teacher Swami Dharmananda Saraswati. Swami taught British Wheel teachers for 15 years and founded the Dharma Yoga Centre in 1981. Her book Breath of Life: Breathing for Health, Vitality and Meditation is available from Anne Needham, tel: 01206-303329; price £5.00.

The Dharma Yoga Centre for yoga, spiritual awareness and healing can be contacted c/o S Middleton, 1 Leigh Heights, Hadleigh, Essex SS7 2JN. Tel: 01702 557 389; e-mail:; website:


  1. Sue Stotsky said..

    Hi sue,
    This webpage looks interesting re: yoga and breathing

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About Lidia Flisek

Lila Devi is the developer and director of the Master's Flower Essences, the oldest essence range outside the U.K. Her new book, The Essential Flower Essence Handbook, also serves as the text for the Master's Correspondence Course, a tri-level home study course with frame-worthy certification for each level. Lila lectures and teaches internationally, and will be returning to the U.K. for a weekend workshop on January 25-26, and again in June, 1997.

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