We recently asked our teacher members what it’s like teaching yoga to children. Korinna Pilafidis-Williams is a Junior Intermediate Level 3 teacher based in London, talks about how she has developed her classes for children and the benefits it brings them:
“I have often asked myself why I teach yoga for children especially when I am in front of 15 kids who are either very active and close to hanging themselves off the ropes or yawning and totally despondent. I could just stay at home and look at my own children who would challenge me in similar ways. Also why are there so few yoga teachers teaching kids? The answer to the last question is relatively easy. It is not just the sheer physical effort that goes into such a class, but it is the constant strain to keep the class controlled which is generally not such an issue with an adult class. But most importantly is the fear of injury to a child. You have to have eyes everywhere and be certain that they follow your instruction, for you just have to look away for a second and they fall or topple over in their effort to please. If a severe injury occurs we do not just have to deal with the child, but with the parents and the threat of being sued.
Despite this very genuine fear, my answer to why I teach children is simple. Both yoga and kids have something in common that I treasure most: honesty. Like the asanas they are clear and truthful, so I know immediately whether they are bored or enjoying themselves.
Over the years I have developed my classes so that they include a mixture of discipline, fun and real learning – often without them even noticing that they are learning.
At the beginning of a term I explain to them that they are not only doing yoga but that they will learn a new language (Sanskrit) and will also find out about their body. One of my 10-year-old pupils has been with me for almost 3 years and knows most of the Sanskrit names for the poses that he has learned just by listening to them.
As for the body we have a constant member in our group, Bob-Bone, the skeleton. A previous class named him when Bob the Builder was featuring large. He is always with us and we have a few minutes at the beginning of the class when we look at the different bones and learn the English as well as their scientific names in Latin or Greek. At the end of term we usually have a quiz where I test their knowledge. One of their favourite aides memoir is for the Latin name for the kneecap – a chocolate spread but with a p at the beginning. Or for the thigh bone a F(emale) animal with a bushy tail which lives in the trees of Madagascar.
More fun in the class comes in the shape of imaginative stories, which the kids write, using yoga poses. After small adjustments to the stories, which sometimes are too fantastical to perform, we invite the parents to come and watch.
But it is not all fun and games. The main part of learning comes through discipline. I can tell very quickly how the individual child behaves at school. On the whole they respond well to it, sometimes without even noticing. They have their mats aligned, learn how to roll a mat or carry it into the equipment room. I will never start until all stand in Tadasana, which is often very difficult because their feet are really very far away from their brain.
Through all this I try to sow a seed, even if they stop after a term, and hope that they will come back to yoga later in life when they feel the need for it. It is almost like learning a language that you learn when you are young and then forget, but when you pick it up again it is there ready to be released and grow. I often hear from parents how their children have learnt to sleep better and relax with the help of Savasana. It is indeed the most challenging pose, but mastered amazingly well already after a few weeks. For me it is a real joy to look at these active, sometimes-rebellious kids lying there quietly and serenely.
As to the honesty mentioned at the beginning, I would like to finish with a conversation I had with one of my pupils who told me that he does Garudasana in the middle of the playground at school. When I asked him what the others thought of him he replied with a very serious voice: “They think I am mad!” Honest(l)y.
In Iyengar yoga we only encourage children from the age of six to take classes. A six-year-old child is usually at school and is used to some sort of discipline and is able to watch and listen when a pose is demonstrated. More importantly, most of them have learnt the difference between their left and right sides. The physiological reason behind the age limit is however more significant. Under the age of six most children’s heads are bigger in proportion to their body, especially their arms, so they should not attempt to do Sirsasana or Sarvangasana because the arms would not be able to support the head, neck and body. Apart from that, some of the bones of the skull have not properly fused. Pressure on the head in Sirsasana could lead to nerve damage if the pose is performed wrongly. Furthermore the big muscles in the body, which help stability, have not developed.”
Korinna Pilafidis-Williams has been practising Iyengar Yoga for 34 years and has been teaching youngsters for almost 10 years. The class at the Iyengar Yoga Institute Maida Vale is one of the oldest and most established children’s classes in the country. Korinna and her students have appeared on children’s BBC programmes including Blue Peter and Xchange. They also performed in front of Geeta Iyengar at Crystal Palace during the Iyengar Yoga Jubilee in 2002. Korinna has also led children’s workshops at the Yoga Show at Olympia.