Yoga helps those with all kinds of needs


It is estimated more than 15,000,000 people in the United States now practice yoga every day.

This number is reported to be greater than on the subcontinent of India where the practice originated thousands of years ago. In fact, there are said to be more yoga centers in New York City than Starbucks.

This ancient practice is complex and has many dimensions. Hatha yoga (ha meaning sun and tha meaning moon in Sanskrit) is the basis of all postures — or asanas — emphasizing focus, developing skill and having psychological, physiological and overall health benefits.

The advantages of yoga have not been lost on local schools and colleges: many institutions have or are planning to integrate yoga practice into their physical education programs. Pediatricians also are known to recommend yoga for children with special needs for whom the practice can be tailored and therapeutically designed.

Yoga is said to be beneficial for children with attention deficits and learning disabilities as well as for the young athlete. Muscles that are strengthened and more flexible have physical and psychological benefits that often result in a more positive self-image.

A consistent yoga practice also can be an antidote to our multi-tasking universe in which quality time downtime has been regulated to a back burner. How nice it is to put aside the cellphone, IPod and BlackBerry and take time for oneself.

The benefits of yoga include self-awareness, focus and strength in which the postures continually evolve and/or can be refined. The repetitive patterns of movement even can help to organize the brain, a boon to individuals with organizational problems.

The popularity of yoga has grown slowly since Swami Vivekananda introduced it to this country more than 100 years ago in 1893 though it is Paramhansa Yogananda, who arrived in the United States in 1920, who was most closely tied to education for his work with children.

One of his earliest projects was founding a school for boys in India that combined yoga training with modern educational methods.

Yogananda joked in his autobiography, "Having renounced family life, he had become father to more boys than he would otherwise have had."

Upon visiting his school, Mahatma Gandhi wrote, "This institution has deeply impressed my mind."

The educational ideals of the school spread throughout India and led to the founding of many other likeminded institutions.

The social and intellectual elite spread the word about yoga in the United States. They came from the diverse worlds of science, industry and the arts. Among early practitioners were George Eastman, inventor of the Kodak camera, authors Christopher Isherwood and Aldous Huxley and Leopold Stokowski, a world-renowned conductor. The classical violinist Yehudi Menhuin also was closely tied to the yoga master Iyengar and an important figure to spreading the word in Europe.

Even President Calvin Coolidge showed interest in yoga by inviting Swami Prabhavananda, the founder of the Vedanta Society of Southern California, to the White House.

In 1924 a yoga teacher by the name of Indra Devi opened a studio in Hollywood: "Her three popular books had housewives from New Jersey to Texas standing on their heads in their bedrooms" (www.yogajournal.com/wisdom/467.cfm).

The further popularity of yoga began, as with many movements, during the 1960s when the Beatles and other celebrities returned with a practice from sojourns to India. Two decades later, yoga began to show up as classes in dedicated studios and at heath clubs. Articles appeared that featured music icons Madonna and Sting in complex yogic positions. Magazines on the subject grew to have mass readership and served as a venue for advertising.

In a word, yoga was a growth industry, albeit, if practiced correctly, a healthy one.

As yoga entered the mainstream, scientists and educators conducted research and wrote articles about how specific populations, including children, might benefit from the practice.

Shakta Kaur Khalsa has been a highly regarded yoga teacher for 25 years and a Montessori teacher for longer. She often provides teacher-training workshops throughout the country.

Describing a class for preschoolers, she reports the delight of the children as they go in and out of cat and cow postures while hissing and mooing. The little ones balance and go into poses with ease that would challenge most adults. Her active asana practice is followed by a quiet downtime and beginning meditation.

"The inner experience of yoga gave these children a gift they can never lose because it is within them all the time" (www.childrensyoga.com/).

Children that are either frustrated with competitive sports or are not so inclined may gravitate towards yoga. These children feel better competing against themselves rather than another person.

This is not to say the more competitive athletic child will not benefit. These children often neglect to stretch, ultimately incurring lifelong injuries. It is sad to see 16-year-olds have knee replacements that may have been avoided if they had learned how to stretch and align properly.

A word of caution: Yoga is not a cure-all, and before enrolling in a class, it is essential to find a qualified practitioner as an instructor. This instructor should have a background in education as well as yoga certification.

When seeking therapeutic intervention, additional training is required. Instructors who work with children, seniors, special needs populations and therapeutics should have extensive additional training and certifications.

Select your yoga teacher as carefully as one would a physician or tutor. Some exercises are not appropriate for certain ages, such as headstands or handstands for children under the age of 8. These little ones do not have the bodily strength or discipline to understand how to execute the pose.

Additionally, they may practice it on their own in conditions that are less than optimal, incurring injury.

The certification process to become a yoga teacher can be comprehensive over a period of years under the guidance of a highly experienced teacher. Interestingly, the estimated number of years to become a master yoga teacher is 12, the same number of years it took to receive my doctorate.

This is understandable, considering the instructor will be working with many individuals who will have specific physiological needs.

Be careful of teachers whose certifications have been completed in one fast weekend. Information about the experience and where the instructor was trained should be posted at individual studios.

When choosing a class for a child, do not hesitate to observe a session before enrolling your child and/or ask for teacher references. Teaching children always requires patience and knowledge of progressive child development.

Thus, the very best programs will have instructors who are doubly certified in education and highly trained in teaching yoga. One would not want the many benefits that can be gained from yoga to result in sustained injuries.