By Larissa W, BScN
In Sanskrit, Akhanda means indivisible, complete, undivided, or whole. This is one of the very messages that tweens crave to hear the most. This paper explores the benefits of sharing the holistic philosophy and teaching style of Akhanda Yoga with tweens.
What Are Tweens?
Beloved author J. R. R. Tolkien coined the term “tween” in The Fellowship of the Ring in 1954, but he was intending to mean the irrational Hobbit age between the twenties and thirties. Since then the term has come to describe a much different demographic.
The phrase is often said “Too old for toys, too young for boys.” This is the precious time between ages eight and twelve when kids are in between childhood and the teenage years. They are going through rapid changes in physiological, social, and emotional development where they are seeking to define themselves and their place in the world.
Physiological, Social, and Emotional Development
Tweens are found in the ages between little kids and teenagers. They are still very much like children in that they still tend to conform to accepted behavior or established practices. They have not yet learned how to fully think in the abstract; they are still primarily concrete thinkers. However, they are very much unlike smaller children in that they are no longer preoccupied with play and are becoming more interested in their physical appearance and relationships.
Tween bodies are going through puberty, and many physical, hormonal and emotional changes are taking place in a constant cascade of adaptation and growth. Their bodies are morphing in size, shape, functioning, and composition. Their bones are growing quickly, but their muscles tend to stay a little tighter, making flexibility tough to maintain.
The tween years are a time of developing unique social needs and desires, and open up specific hopes and dreams. They start to develop future expectations. This stage of development brings the beginnings of identifying their own interests, developing their own sense of self, and seeking out information from parents, peers, teachers, or media that will help them further define themselves. They begin to seek methods of self expression as their interests emerge, such as in sports, music, or art.
The most fragile of all these things, especially for girls, is the development of self-esteem. Tweens are profoundly affected by the pressures of peers, and often face stressful situations where they are challenged to meet social expectations of how they will fit in and interact with others. There is often a sense of being incomplete or deficient. Tweens can be unmercifully cruel to each other and commonly isolate members of their group.
Yoga as a Helpful Tool
Yoga can help tweens maintain a healthy body and a develop a greater sense of self-esteem. Practicing yoga helps tweens develop the body-mind connection known to improve body image, promote better posture and alignment, and alleviate stress. Yoga provides tools to help tweens deal with social pressures and the anxieties of transitioning from childhood to teen. When tweens learn techniques for self-health, relaxation, and inner fulfillment, they can embrace life’s challenges with a sense of wholeness. Yoga at an early age encourages self-esteem and body awareness with a physical activity that’s based in noncompetitive compassion.
Yoga gives tweens a form of physical exercise and teaches them to connect more deeply with the inner self and with nature. Physically, it enhances their flexibility, strength, coordination, and body awareness. Tight muscles are a real issue for tweens, leading to headaches and other general body aches and pains. Yoga can alleviate some of these health issues by increasing flexibility, which also helps in preventing play-related or sport-related injuries.
Yoga basics like engaging the navel lock (drawing the navel to the spine) and cuing students to lift their hearts promotes better posture. Tweens are beginning to spend lots of time hunched over carrying backpacks or sitting in front of computers, so promoting proper posture is a great way to counter poor posture with alignment of the spine. Strength building is also a wonderful benefit of yoga, and especially for tweens, as it gives them an opportunity to experience what their bodies can do, and builds confidence and steadiness. It gives tweens space to get in touch with their bodies as perfectly imperfect, whole, and strong.
Concentration, balance, a sense of calmness, and overall relaxation also improves from doing yoga. The big thing here is stress relief through pranayamic breathing. It may seem foreign to think of tweens going through stress, but daily stressors such as being excluded at lunch, doing poorly on a test or even being late for school can take a toll on their bodies and minds. Yoga helps tweens see that there are no barriers, that we are all one, that they are connected to everything and everyone. The yogic breathing centres them, gives them a coping mechanism, and helps them find a general overall feeling of well-being.
The rhythmic, slow ujjai breathing practised in yoga is an age old technique that tells the mind to let go, and activates the PNS (parasympathetic nervous system) which slows the heart and lowers blood pressure. It promotes a good sleep and calms the nerves. Sun salutations or kaphalabhati breath both activate the SNS (sympathetic nervous system) and bring more energy, blood, and oxygen to the large muscles of the arms and legs. A balanced, holistic yoga practice activates both the SNS and the PNS to bring harmony and balance to the precious inner light inside everyone, especially precious tweens who are seeking to find their place in the world.
Taking this approach of tool-providing one step further, consider the benefits of centring a yoga class for tweens around the holistic Akhanda Yoga philosophy. It would encourage tweens to connect deeply within themselves and still feel equally connected outwardly. The joyful, compassionate style of Ahkanda Yoga organically creates an environment for tweens to feel nurtured, loved, supported, and safe. Since Ahkanda Yoga is so diverse in its teachings and techniques, tweens would need an age-appropriate taste of the rich and diverse different styles and techniques that encompass a holistic understanding of yoga.
Developing an Akhanda Yoga class for Tween Girls
The ultimate goal of an Akhanda Yoga class made for tweens would embrace and teach the same holistic principles found in any Akhanda class, only modified into an age appropriate approach for girls between the ages of eight and twelve.
The class would balance the alignment of the spine through flexion (forward bending), extension (back bending), lateral flexion (side bending), rotation (spinal twisting), and grounding and levitating movements (lengthening from tail to crown in opposite directions).
There are so many beautiful, heart opening, balancing, centring, challenging, nurturing, uplifting, and fun postures to be found in yoga that deliver spinal alignment simply through gentle, mindful practice. All the stations of standing, crouching, sitting, laying on the belly, laying on the back, arm balances, and inversions would need to be included in an Akhanda Yoga class for tweens.
The balance between yang and yin, stirum and sukum, and steadiness and ease would be explored. Various styles of asana, pranayama, mantra, visualization, relaxation, and meditation would be introduced and practiced. Animal-themed fun asanas are still useful in a tween class, just as in a preschool or early elementary school aged class, as long as they are also mixed with poses that develop inner exploration. For example, tweens might still like to playfully “moo” in Cow pose, but will also love the quiet stillness and balance of Tree. Tweens are inherently creative and imaginative, so asking them to visualize a bright white light shining down the crown of their heads and warming their entire bodies is a good visualization technique. Asking the class to participate in a group discussion that centres on the chosen theme of the class afterwards is also a good way to tie it all together.
The use of concrete themes such as “Love Yourself”, “Do Not Harm Yourself or Others”, and “You are Whole” throughout the practice as a thread to guide the sequencing and dialogue of the class would be helpful, keeping in mind that tweens are not yet completely able to reflect on abstract themes like santosha (contentment) or ahimsa (non-harming). Based on the overall energy and abilities of the students, however, more abstract concepts could be slowly introduced.
Tweens have very limited body awareness. They generally have no idea what they look like, or what their bodies are doing during a pose. As pubescent bodies grow and change, there is a greater risk for pulled muscles and sprains if pushed to the limit. Tweens will need safe checkpoint cueing, balanced with the freedom to wiggle and explore the asanas and even their own subtle prana. Here is where the magic of inner inquiry, inner experience, and playfulness within the postures can start to create a lifelong love and appreciation of their own blissful, holistic yoga journey.
Larissa is a recent graduate of Yoga Teacher Training at Prana Yoga Studio in Edmonton and is a BScN nurse. She also runs the Tween Girl Yoga program at Moon Fire Yoga in St. Albert.