Yoga for children: not child's play

By Marcia Montenegro, March 2010

A children's section of the March 7, 2010 Washington Post ("The Mini Page"), called "Go Yoga," highlighted Yoga with stories, photos, and puzzles. The feature also offered New Age websites on Yoga for children, a list of books, and a Yoga puzzle with hidden words like "focus, asana, imagery, namaste, warrior, salutation, stress," and others (I can't help but wonder at the irony of presenting a fun puzzle for children that involves looking for the word "stress"). There was misleading information in regards to the true nature of Yoga, as well as some disturbing statements. This article is cited here as only one of many examples of the aggressive impetus to enroll children into Yoga programs.

Unsubstantiated claims

The article claims that Yoga "helps relieve stress and pain, improves circulation and digestion, and improves balance and concentration."

I do not think that any respected independent studies have verified these claims about circulation, digestion, and concentration. Consider the rigorous and thorough medical testing that would be needed to verify such an assertion about digestion, for example. The claims about pain have only been minimally shown, and pain reduction claims are iffy at best since they are self-reporting and subjective.

In fact, there are unproven declarations all over the Internet about the benefits of Yoga, but their ubiquity does not make them true. When medical benefits about circulation and digestion are claimed, then one should expect to see some medically verified independent studies cited and published in peer-reviewed medical journals. Most of these claims are made on New Age sites, sites sympathetic to the New Age, or sites belonging to groups that have bought into the claims of Yoga, which probably make up the majority of the health-related websites on the Internet (many of these sites are also supportive of medically unverified New Age healing modalities, including outright quackery).

One should never trust the term "studies show" unless specific independent medical studies done with a large number of people are cited and documented. Also, such studies need to be repeated several times to have any credibility.

Making kids feel bad about feeling sad

One section of the article, titled "Mind and body," states: "When we feel sad, we can be more likely to get sick." This is a pretty broad statement that certainly should not be made to children. Did anyone not think this one through? Such a statement will only scare children if they are sad, or make them feel guilty if they are sad or sick, or make them think that if they are sick, it is their fault. This is one example of how uncharitable Yoga-accompanying trendy New Age pseudo-psychology can be.

The remedy offered in the article for this is "If we can learn to release the tension in the body, the mind will relax, too." This section is for children and they talk about releasing tension? Are we going to start conditioning children to worry about tension? Isn't that just producing the very thing one is trying to avoid? Children have their own natural, God-given ways to release stress, usually through vigorous play, napping, daydreaming, listening to a story read by Mom or Dad, or some other childlike activity. They do not need an additional worry about releasing tension.

Guided Imagery

What is worse than this, however, is the advice on how to release tension -- through "guided imagery." This term is printed in Bold type and defined as a way:

to help our imagination change our emotions and our body. An instructor leads our thoughts so that we become relaxed and focused. Breathing connects the body to the mind and helps create calmness.

Guided imagery is nothing less than a form of hypnosis. A person is guided by another through a relaxation exercise that induces a light hypnotic state. During this state, the person leading the session suggests images and/or thoughts to the person being guided. It is during Guided Imagery that I was introduced to my "spiritual master" (spirit guide) and it is how many are introduced to such guides, sometimes even if this is not the goal of the exercise. Guided imagery has been and is still used in some schools to introduce children to a "special friend" in whom they are told to confide if they do not want to talk to parents or teachers. This "special friend," if it actually manifests, would be a spirit guide (see Craig Branch's article at http://www.watchman.org/na/naschcnt.htm). Guided Imagery, despite being offered now in many health centers, hospitals, and by health workers, should be conscientiously avoided.

Hypnosis is dangerous to adults and even more so to children (see website of former hypnotist at http://www.dangers-of-hypnosis.co.uk/). Hypnosis puts one in a state of mind in which the critical thinking skills and judgment are suspended. The person is effectively rendered defenseless against anything that is being said by another and made vulnerable to any influence attempting to enter the mind. This is why this particular state of mental disengagement is so fertile for the entry of spirit guides.

Aside from the hypnosis angle, to say that we use imagination to change our emotions and body is questionable at best and dangerous at worst. Exactly what is meant by this statement is not clarified. But if a child is trying to change his body or feelings with imagination and the change fails to occur, will the child not feel responsible and guilty?

Breath is more than breath

Moreover, the idea that breathing "connects the body to the mind" derives from New Age and Eastern philosophy about the breath, which is seen as much more than mere breath to sustain life. Prana, the term used for breath in Yoga, is believed to be part of a sacred universal life energy that permeates everything. The breathing techniques in Yoga, pranayama (meaning mastering the breath), are an esoteric practice thought to spiritually cleanse a person. As one yoga site states: "Hence pranayama is the art of mastering lifeforce within your being and body. Since a human being has many different levels and different natures / aspects of prana - we know many different pranayama techniques. Knowledge of pranayama may lead to mastering of lifeforce to control and guide the flow of prana into particular nadis - (channels) to achieve particular goals or actions. Mastering pranayama leads to 'siddhis' = divine powers" (http://www.kriyayoga.com/english/encyclopedia/pranayama.htm).

A Hindu based organization, the Simply Vedic Cultural society, states on their website:

The control of this force is what is aimed at by the Yogins by means of Pranayama. He who conquers this, is not only the conqueror of his own existence on the physical and mental plane, but the conqueror of the whole world. For the Prana is the very essence of cosmic life, that subtle principle which evolved the whole universe into its present form and which is pushing it towards its ultimate goal. To the Yogi the whole universe is his body. The matter which composes his body is the same that evolved the universe. The force which pulsates through his nerves is not different from the force which vibrates through the universe. The conquest over the body does, therefore, mean to him the conquest over the forces of nature." From http://virtualmandir.org/html/literature/library/prana-kundilini.html

This view of Prana is part of nondualistic Hinduism, a pantheism that all is one and all is Brahman (God). As the above site further states: "You will find in Vedanta Sutras: For the same reason, breath is Brahman.  Prana is the sum total of all energy that is manifest in the universe. It is the sum total of all the forces in nature. It is the sum total of all latent forces and powers which are hidden in men and which lie everywhere around us."

This Hindu view of prana is akin to many views in different cultures about a force or life force. We see this as chi, qi, or ki in Asia (which underlies the philosophy of Tai Chi, Reiki, Qi Gong, Aikido, and others), the "vital force" as part of New Thought, and mana in the South Pacific/Oceania areas. The breathing techniques of Yoga are not based on physical perspectives, but rather on spiritual ones.

Namaste

The article on Yoga ends with a blurb on Namaste. It describes the corpse pose (giving the Sanskrit rather than the English term) and tells the child to "pay attention to your breath going in and out. When you are ready to return to your day, roll onto your right side for a few breaths before you sit up." This reveals the meditative nature of Yoga positions, which can induce altered states when done repeatedly and over time. As stated above, the breathing is viewed in an esoteric manner.

Yoga has become very chic, and people may feel somewhat special and exotic folding their hands and bowing and saying "Namaste." However, let's look more closely at this term.  Namaste, often used in Yoga, is a Hindu mudra and greeting. A mudra is a hand position usually derived from Hindu deities and has spiritual significance. Here is the alleged origin of Namaste:

In a well-known episode it so transpired that the great lover god Krishna made away with the clothes of unmarried maidens, fourteen to seventeen years of age, bathing in the river Yamuna. Their fervent entreaties to him proved of no avail. It was only after they performed before him the eternal gesture of namaste was he satisfied, and agreed to hand back their garments so that they could recover their modesty."

Here is the meaning:

"The word nama is split into two, na and ma. Na signifies negation and ma represents mine. The meaning would then be 'not mine'. The import being that the individual soul belongs entirely to the Supreme soul, which is identified as residing in the individual towards whom the namaste is directed. Indeed there is nothing that the soul can claim as its own. Namaste is thus the necessary rejection of 'I' and the associated phenomena of egotism. It is said that 'ma' in nama means death (spiritual), and when this is negated (na-ma), it signifies immortality.

. . . Simply put, namaste intimates the following: 'The God in me greets the God in you,
The Spirit in me meets the same Spirit in you'
"
Above quotes from
http://www.exoticindiaart.com/article/namaste

A Hindu site states this:

While this greeting is physically spoken to a human being, it is actually directed towards God, who resides in all." From http://hinduexpressions.blogspot.com/2008/01/namaste-is-this-indian-greeting-still.html

So we see that Namaste expresses a philosophy that one is truly divine; this is a Hindu belief.

Removing the danger label

Remember that Hatha Yoga, which is being presented here, is only one of many Yogas and is designed to prepare one for the more advanced stages of Yoga, which take one deeper into the Hindu/New Age spirituality. Yoga was once an esoteric practice in India, done only by the few and always under the guidance of a guru. This is because Yoga was seen as a dangerous practice.

In fact, when I was reading about and practicing Yoga in the 1980s, there were many warnings about doing Yoga and related meditations unsupervised. Of course, the Hindu reasons for the danger differ from Christian reasons; nevertheless, Yoga can and does initiate processes, physical, mental, and spiritual, that one may not be able to control. In my view, one can initiate these processes on a spiritual level and be unaware of them because one becomes blinded by them as one becomes absorbed into Yoga. The West has sanitized Yoga to such an extent that many in the West are totally unaware of the true nature and purpose of Yoga.

It is interesting to note that this article does not exchange some of the Sanskrit Yoga terms for milder English terms. Because children are less conditioned against what is new or exotic, it seems that maybe in Yoga for children we will see the Eastern spirituality uncovered instead of disguised as it is in much of the Yoga for adults.

Moreover, the President of the American Yoga Association has stated that she does not think Yoga is good for children under age 16 because of the effects on "nervous and glandular systems" and that Yoga may interfere with natural growth (http://www.ourkidssake.org/upload/files/Children-and-Yoga.pdf). Referring to two of her teachers, she says, "Two of my great teachers, Rama and Lakshmanjoo, advised me of the dangers that Yoga asanas may pose for young children" (these remarks are also at http://americanyogaassociation.org/general.html#WhoCanPractice). She is okay with children doing some breathing techniques, but this website is clearly New Age and will not admit to the spiritual dangers. At least they advise against children doing Yoga for physical reasons.

To introduce children to Yoga is in my mind irresponsible and potentially dangerous at the very least. Even if this type of Yoga appears to have no outward effects, there can be hidden ones, and it certainly creates a bond that may pull the child deeper into its spirituality as he or she gets older before the child has knowingly been able to make such a choice.

 

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