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Yoga: an imagination-activating, dynamic pastime for children

Sahar al-Khatib helps her student during a yoga class for children at the NOK Yoga Shala center in Beirut, Monday, July 15, 2013. (The Daily Star/Mahmoud Kheir )

BEIRUT: “Children naturally do yoga,” instructor Sahar al-Khatib says, explaining that among the asanas, or yoga postures, are a number of “child poses” named thus after the positions youngsters manipulate their bodies into without direction.

Yet, although kids, flexible and energetic as they are, possess a natural aptitude for yoga, instructing them in the practice as you would an adult is impossible.

Stressed adults flock to yoga classes in pursuit of relaxation, but Khatib, who teaches a weekly class for children aged 4 to 10 at Nok Yoga Shala in Saifi village, is clear: “Yoga for kids is not about relaxing the child.”

“Most parents put their kids in yoga thinking, ‘We’re going to send them there and they’re going to relax finally,’” Khatib says, but explains that this view is inaccurate. While yoga classes for children are energetic and dynamic, they are not designed to relax the muscles and bring to mind one’s breathing in the same way they are for adults, she explains.

“With children we don’t teach anything with breathing or anything of that sort,” Khatib says. Rather, yoga for children is “an extracurricular activity for them to help release excess energy and to help bring balance, focus and some kind of discipline.”

“It can be a sport for children, it’s very dynamic,” she adds, explaining that in her kids’ sessions she tries to keep the group functioning together rather than isolating each child on their own as happens in adult classes.

Alice Mattalia has developed a similar approach in her classes at the center for children aged 3 to 6. Using her background in dance therapy and primitive expression, Mattalia works traditional yoga asanas into a creative routine punctuated with live percussion.

“For me the focus is not really that the kids learn the asanas or the techniques,” Mattalia says, “but it’s more [the creation of] an educative space where the kids can explore the parts of the body.”

Animal asanas are central to Mattalia’s routine. Some of them, such as the cat asana, are well-known yoga postures, but others the instructor develops and creates on her own.

During her classes, children embody a variety of animals, including the snake, the chameleon, the tortoise, the frog, kuala, cat, camel and eagle.

“Sometimes really they enter into one animal and they feel themselves [to be] this animal,” Mattalia says, describing how effective her classes are in activating the imagination, something she believes contemporary children, plugged into a virtual world of computers and video games from an early age, don’t use enough.

Children today “are a bit far from the body,” she says, adding “I feel it’s useful for them to just have nothing and to create with the imagination, and the postures of yoga [allow them] enter this imaginative world.”

As far as breathing techniques are concerned, Mattalia just asks her students to use their breath a bit more by vocalizing the sounds the animals they are creating make. It also helps the animals they are embodying become more real, she adds.

While Khatib describes her children’s classes as “fast, fun and full of activities,” she notes that some children attending the center have actually started to go to adult classes.

“They have acquired it [yoga techniques] at a young age to the point where they can now actually enter an adult class,” Khatib says, but she is quick to add that, just as is the case with any extracurricular activity, yoga isn’t guaranteed to be every child’s cup of tea.

“There are different types of children, so there are the ones that just don’t want to do it, and there are the ones that can do it [and] are willing to do it,” she says, explaining that she does not condone forcing children to attend yoga classes if they are not enjoying them.

“So I always try to tell the parents, ‘You know if they really say more than once they don’t want to be in this class, please I don’t want to instruct them at this age because they are not willing,’” Khatib explains.

Indeed, she adds, forcing a child to take yoga before he or she is ready may turn them off the activity for life.

But those children who actually enjoy the classes are liable to become active promoters of the discipline. “Can I bring my grandma next week?” one 5-year-old student asked as she bounded into the shala, eager to begin her session.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 18, 2013, on page 2.

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