Ever noticed what a contortionist your newborn is? Or how flexible your toddler and even three- year- old' s limbs are? Have you ever tried to put your toes in your mouth? Losing that inane elasticity of our muscles and joints as we grow older is the cause for many injuries and diseases. The solution is to maintain this elasticity...and start early, VERY early. Introducing a child to Yoga and its practices early on will ensure this physical perfection lasts a lifetime.
It starts right in the womb, your child's celebration of being given a human body. The unborn baby flexes its arms, kicks its legs, and swims around vigorously within the tiny space given to it. Then, after birth, here is a period of adjustment but very soon the urge to movement returns. Within a few months, turning, kicking on stimuli and every human movement is stronger than ever. We adults believe that a growing infant is actually immobile, but the fact is that the muscles are always in motion. They are constantly stretching, poised for growth. But at that stage, exercises are limited to some stretching and pulling massages that a mother may give. By the time the toddler learns to crawl, stand and then walk, the sky is the limit.
Teaching them simple exercises as a part of the fun and games will start healthy development of the muscles and organs, encourage circulation of blood and help growth of the bone structure. Starting the celebration of movement early, will help to inculcate in them a lifetime of appreciation for physical well-being and the urge to stay in touch with one's own body; something that goes a long way in giving them a happy, healthy life. Besides, the earliest impressions of parents themselves taking care of their own physical fitness also contribute to a child's ability to do it.
With your infant, encourage happy moments of moving together. Touch their toes, and their podgy soles, and watch them move their little legs about. Watch how happy they are at your touch, this invaluable bond will be the first stand of their social relationships. Hold their toes and gently stretch the legs over each other. The baby will love this; do the same with the arms. A little oil massage during this exercise will also help to relax the baby. A grandma's exercise during an oil massage is to bring all the little limbs together, pull the arms and legs over the tummy and with a clap and a smile, just leave them go... babies love the fuss, the noise and of course, the muscles will be adequately stretched too. These movements help the muscles to grow and strengthen.
Over the next two years, you will be the source of the child's exercise. By the age of two, they can start gentle stretching and simple exercises. These can help in their growth as well as mental and emotional relaxation ... the kids of today need that for all the stress they live with, school, pressure to perform, pressure to behave, pressure to compete and for all the after school activities. Hence, they need all the relaxation they can get.
Here are some simple ways to relax their minds as well as muscles:
Deep Relaxation - Pranayama encourages deep relaxation of the sense by creating awareness of the breathing process. This might get complicated for a child, so helping them concentrate on something pleasant may be a better idea. So, the child can lie down, on a mat or a carpet on her back, legs and arms straight and on the side. Ask her to breathe gently, eyes closed, and see in front of them, a warm sandy beach, waves lapping close by, a deep blue sky on top. Ask her to listen to the lapping of waves, the whisper of breeze and the cries of the seagulls; this could be done for a couple of minutes. The child will be adequately relaxed by then. (Alternately, ask the child to imagine herself on a swing on a warm, sunny afternoon ...back and forth, back and forth...)
Another meditation can be done sitting down, eyes closed, legs crossed, back straight and arms resting on the lap. Slightly older children could do this type of meditation. Take deep breaths counting in as one count and out as second count. In this manner count fifty or more counts. Finally, take a very deep breath in and then slowly leave it, open your eyes, stand up and stretch. The same meditation can be done while walking at an even pace, arms swinging comfortably.
After relaxation of the body and the mind, begin the simple physical exercises. To keep the kid interested, each of them can be identified with an animal or something about it. The first could be an impersonation of a camel ride - the child should sit cross-legged and hold the toes. Then, in this position, as she breathes in, she can stretch her body forward and as she breathes out, curve it inwards. The rolling movement is very interesting for the young one. The speed could be increased with the number of moves. This is a great exercise for keeping the back muscles strong and supple.
Another good exercise is what is called the Sarpasan , the position of the Snake. Deceptively simple, the child can lie on her stomach, flat on the ground, with her arms flexed at the elbow and hands by her shoulder. Slowly, ask her to breathe out, then lift her head and curve her back, so the head is bending towards the back. Then, with her breathing in, she can lift her feet, bent at the knees... ask her to bring her toes up, to touch her head. This is an excellent exercise for a supple back, strong abdominal muscles and a good digestion.
Trumpeting like their favorite beast, the elephant will be a very pleasurable activity for any kid. Ask her to stand straight, bend forward with arms hanging down, clasping the palms together. Now she can walk or run around the room, swinging the trunk in front. The end could be by lifting up the trunk and letting out a LOUD TRUMPET.
Becoming a fish is every kid's fantasy, ever since Nemo went around so relaxed and carefree in the depths of the ocean. Ask your child to be Nemo, sitting on her heels, then lying down on her back, the legs bent in the same manner. Let her arms keep lying on her side, and relax for a few minutes. This exercise is good for the muscles of the legs, calves and hamstring.
These are just a few ideas, but these and a number of other exercises serve to maintain a healthy lifestyle for the child, even into adulthood. Children have this inbuilt ability to be enthusiastic about everything they do, whether it is being their favorite animals, or doing something more on traditional lines, like breathing relaxation, holding their tubby little legs up in the classic Padmasana, stretching their entire body in a sarpasana, or even standing on their heads in a sheersh asana (of course, under adult supervision). Mixing fun with these gems of ancient wisdom can go a long way in helping the child develop a great body, supple limbs and flexible tendons and muscles, not to mention mastering the art of relaxation so critical for the changing world environment, that is getting successively more stressful. This is a gift that they can never lose, the basis for a happy, relaxed life.