Yoga in the Montessori Classroom
“…The true purpose of movement is far higher than to produce an appetite or strengthen the lungs; it is to serve the ends of existence, the universal and spiritual economies of nature.” Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind
Not only was Maria Montessori an educator and a psychologist, she was also a yogi, albeit an Italian one. The word “yoga” means “union”, and this union refers to body, mind, and spirit. In her book The Absorbent Mind, Montessori tells us, “…movement has great importance in mental development itself, provided that the action which occurs is connected with the mental activity going on. Both mental and spiritual growth are fostered by this…” For students of any age, yoga reveals a path to our innermost selves. At the same time, it helps us create our own special place in the world around us. Yoga, like Montessori education, is a process of discovery.
Purposeful movement is an integral part of the Montessori curriculum. For the past six years, the Houston Montessori Center has offered yoga as the movement curriculum for the early childhood teacher training. Interns learn how to incorporate nature themes into a basic routine that includes movements in all directions. Children enjoy imitating the animals while learning how their bodies feel in the different poses (“asanas”). Yoga for Children, a book by Mary Stewart and Kathy Phillips, is an excellent resource for teachers or parents exploring yoga for the early childhood classroom or for the home.
Post Oak School’s Mirani Smith includes yoga as part of the individual work in her primary classroom. Materials include Imaginazium’s Yoga Kit for Kids and a designated rug or mat. “Basically, the children have permission to use the yoga cards anytime throughout the day, and what seems to be happening now is whenever they come to a point during their work when they need to take the initiative to move on, they are coming to me and saying, ‘Maybe I need to use yoga to get started with something else, or to have more energy to work, or to calm my body.’ ” Mirani notes that the children have internalized yoga and are using it in ways that work for them as individuals. “It’s amazing that the children who really need it are the ones who are doing it.”
Yoga cards are chosen three or four times a day. Mirani, who had knee surgery awhile back, adds, “Since I can’t do most of it, I’ll tell them, ‘Show me how!’ “
Another way to use yoga in the classroom is to incorporate poses into the actual lessons so that children use their bodies as kinesthetic learning tools. For example, a lesson on forests might include appropriate asanas such as tree or mouse. A shapes lesson might include triangle pose or making circles with the arms. Many letters of the alphabet can also be created with the body.
As children reach elementary age, their bodies grow firmer and it becomes more important for them to work with a trained yoga teacher or an experienced practitioner who can observe body alignment and make corrections if necessary. “If it hurts, don’t do it!” is an important rule for yogis of all ages who learn to accept responsibility for their own bodies. Because yoga is not competitive, it offers a healthy alternative to organized sports. At the same time, it provides a complementary form of training for young athletes desiring to enhance their performance.
Elementary children can also deepen their understanding of how the poses benefit the body/mind. One exuberant yet rather wobbly six-year-old discovered focus while practicing tree pose, a one-legged position. As this child concentrated on her pose, her standing leg stabilized and her eyes grew rounder and rounder… Perhaps she found other ways to apply that lesson!
By adolescence, students can work more abstractly with yoga. Many young people need to work with particular areas in the body as a result of sports or other activities. Gender differences also become more apparent at this age. Young women are generally more flexible and may wish to develop strength; young men often prefer to stretch. Therefore, it is sometimes helpful to teach them separately. Yet almost all students benefit from relaxation practices, which can ease the stresses of adolescence.
A thoughtfully designed yoga curriculum works well as part of a high school P.E. program and encourages growth at every level: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. Montessori teens can participate more fully in creating goals for themselves as individuals and for the class as a whole. More advanced practices such as breathing, meditation, and philosophy can be introduced to these young adults. High school students often face intense pressures and can benefit greatly from regular meditation and relaxation practices. One young woman even credited yoga with saving lives because it helped her cope with her road rage.
The philosophy and practices of yoga are very compatible with Montessori principles. As a system of lifelong learning and evolution, yoga invites us to keep discovering. And besides all that, IT’S FUN! Surely Maria Montessori would approve.